WENDEL'S LAST STRAW
You can probably imagine what my life was like in the weeks and months following my breakthrough Prime Ministerial press conference. I guess it would be fair to say my employers were ecstatic and then some. I spent more time in TV studios than out and about chasing down stories. Edward Montford had ensured I had become the favourite Scottish talking head on any panel discussing Johnny Tranter, the EFP and the hatred sweeping through the country. My weekly columns tended to be opinion pieces. At times I wondered if I would ever get the chance to get stuck into any actual hands on reporting.
Every now and then I would take my frustration to my editor. He would patiently put my most recent work on the screen and scroll down to the comments section. And there he would point out all the death threats which became more numerous with every article I wrote. I could see his point of course. Alf was a great minder but there was only so much personal security he could realistically offer. More and more my life was being governed by concerns for my safety. I couldn't walk anywhere. I had to run on the treadmill rather than the streets. When I made my way back to Hereford for the weekends, I could no longer risk the train.
Ironically enough Edward Montford also opened up the possibility of a return to Scotland. I had an agent by now: Sheila. More or less every day she would call me up whilst I was drinking my first coffee of the day to lay out yet another mouth-watering offer from one of the Scottish papers. Julie told me I had become something of a hero north of the border and she was well pissed off with me for not coming home more often. She had a theory we could go anywhere we like in Edinburgh and never have to buy a drink. By now Julie was receiving her own fair share of attention. Her dad had become Scotland's First Minister in late August following his predecessor's surprise decision to step down due to ill health.
Angus's promotion meant even more Brownie points for yours truly when Julie railroaded him into giving me a one to one exclusive. I told a disgruntled Alf his services wouldn't be required for my trip north. I had a different minder in tow: Wendel.
So it was we left a tense, brooding London and landed an hour later in a bouncing, vibrant Edinburgh. I took a deep breath and plunged into the whole introducing Wendel to my family thing. Thankfully it went without a hitch.
The next morning Scotland's new leader was somewhat diffident when he welcomed me into his new office. He certainly had the view to go with the job. His picture window looked out onto the drastic crags of Arthur’s seat.
Coffee? Please. Great.
He did the honours himself as if nothing had changed. He was the dad and I was his daughter's oldest friend. We took a moment of to reminisce about past sleep overs and some of Julie's more memorable antics.
After ten minutes of this, he checked his watch with a rueful smile.
“Sam, I don't want to rush you but I think we best get started.”
And of course, there was really only one thing to talk about. It was all I ever seemed to talk about. Johnny Tranter. The EFP. The rising death toll. The plight of Scots living south of the border.
“What did you think when you watched Edward Montford's criticisms of Scotland.”
He bought a little time with a sip of coffee. Should he answer the question as Angus Campbell? Or should he answer as his country's First Minister?
Be diplomatic or shoot from the hip?
“I have learned over the last few weeks what a brutal job being First Minister really is. Eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Don't get me wrong, I am enjoying every minute. But it is hard. Very hard. And let's be honest here, my job is a hell of a lot easier than Edward Montford's job is right now. Our economy is booming. We don't have riots on our streets. We have all the resources we need to give the people the excellent health care and education they deserve. Edward Montford is quite literally fighting fires. All day and every day. So now I am First Minister I think I am able to look at the things he said with a little more sympathy. I can imagine the kind of pressure he is under. And I don't envy him.”
“Have you spoken with him?”
“No, I haven't."
“Have you tried to speak with him?”
“I made a call on the day I was selected to be First Minister. He wasn't minded to take it.”
Christ. Boom. Another scoop for ace reporter Sam.
“How do you feel about that?”
A shrug. "I think it is absurd. We are neighbours when all is said and done. Not so very long ago we were family. This all feels like an older brother showing jealousy at a younger brother's sudden success. To blame Scotland for being successful is ridiculous, quite frankly. We have always been blessed with almost unique resources. For many hundreds of years, England has used these resources like a convenient piggy bank. London used our young men to fight the wars of Empire. Our oil wealth was used to build the M25. It is a long list. But there is no point going over all the old arguments for Independence over and over again. We are no longer a part of the Union. For the first time in three hundred years, we are able to harness our resources for the good of the people of Scotland and only the people of Scotland. This makes us exactly the same as every other sovereign country in the world. We make alliances and we do deals. As a Government, we do our absolute best to make the most of our opportunities. To be criticised for this is plainly absurd."
“Do you think you will meet with Edward Montford at some stage?”
“I certainly hope so. We have given London a standing invitation. Edward will be a welcome guest here at any time and should he choose to invite me to London I will most certainly accept his hospitality.”
“If the attacks of Scottish nationals continue, do you envisage a time when Scotland might feel the need to do more than simply condemn what is happening?”
This seemed to pale his face. Sorry Angus.
“Not a question I was hoping for. I don't have a definitive answer I'm afraid. I am determined to believe the government in London will do all it can to stop this appalling violence.”
“What actions do you expect as a minimum?”
“I expect the English Government to condemn the England First Party in the strongest of terms. This needs to be clear and unequivocal. The EFP is a fascist party, pure and simple. To tip toe around their brutality and thuggery is completely unacceptable. Every country in the world is appalled at what is happening in England and as First Minister, I cannot sit back and do nothing whilst Scottish people are treated the way the Jews were treated in Germany in the 1930's."
Bloody hell. This was more than I was expecting. About a million miles more.
“And what would not sitting back look like?”
Suddenly his face was wall to wall grim.
“Edward Montford knows the inconvenient truth of the situation every bit as well as I know it. Now that the Hinkley Point nuclear power station has finally been cancelled, England will be looking to Scotland to provide at least 30% of its electricity for the foreseeable future. We all know power can be cut off with the flick of a switch. I think it would be a very good idea if Edward Montford takes this into account.”
And there it was. Hardball. A hardball hurled at a thousand miles an hour from Edinburgh to London.
There was predictable outrage in England, but most of it was posturing. The truth had been thrown onto the table and it was there for all to see. Scotland could switch the lights out at any time.
Six weeks after my blockbuster interview, Johnny Tranter was arrested and charged with provoking violence. He was found guilty and given a heavy fine and a suspended sentence of a year.
Edward Montford had been the first to blink. In November he flew up to Edinburgh where he was photographed shaking Angus's hand with a rictus smile hanging off his gaunt face.
The crisis passed. The lights stayed on. Attacks on Scots eased off. Some said this was down to a new hard line approach from the Government. Others said it was because there were hardly any Scots left to attack.
By now a much bigger problem was starting to dominate Edward Montford's 'to do' list: Hackney.
The spring riots had started in Hackney. They had also ended in Hackney. In most towns, the riots were a one or two night affair. Moss Side and Handsworth took a further two days to pacify. Hackney remained at boiling point for ten days. In the end the rioters finally ran out of rage and the Metropolitan Police managed to regain a degree of control.
But there was a problem. A huge problem. In order to re-establish a degree of control, the police had more or less thrown away the rule book. As the dust slowly settled over the next few weeks, a wide variety of leaks showed just how far the rule book had actually been thrown. It became abundantly clear Number Ten had given the police permission to take whatever action they needed to take to reclaim the streets. Fifty two rioters were killed on the streets and a further 41 perished in police custody. Hundreds were hospitalised. Of course, the police had taken their own share of casualties, but none had died.
There was a clamour for a public inquiry which the Government batted away. The Prime Minister told an increasingly appalled nation an inquiry was the last thing England needed in such a time of national crisis. The police had prevailed. They had kept the nation's capital from burning. This was not the time to destroy their morale.
As youth unemployment rose inexorably, more and more young men and women were drawn to groups who promised drastic solutions to the country's accelerating decline. Hackney became a magnet. The police tried to patrol the streets, but they found it virtually impossible. The community viewed them with an implacable hatred. In effect, a huge no-go area was established and fired-up youngsters from all over England started to flock to what was by now known as The People's Republic of Hackney. By the end of the summer, barely a single resident was paying any rent. A new kind of economy started to emerge which was soon known as 'Revolutionary Criminality'. Marauding bands of the self-styled revolutionaries roved across the capital city stealing what the community needed. Kidnapping became commonplace. Tourists and businessmen and bankers were lifted from the streets and hidden away until ransoms were paid.
By late summer, to all intents and purposes, The Peoples Republic of Hackney had declared independence from the rest of England. A new Peoples' Council was installed to call the shots. All roads in were barricaded and pedestrians were thoroughly vetted before they were allowed to enter.
When the Government ordered all power to be cut off, the People's Council sent revolutionaries out across London to set buildings on fire. The night sky glowed red for three nights and on the fourth day Montford blinked first and ordered the power to be restored.
London property values fell and soon several banks were teetering on the brink of collapse. The rest of the world looked on with open mouthed astonishment as London seemed about to succumb to complete anarchy. For a couple of weeks, many thought England was on the brink of becoming a failed state.
But then things started to turn. The Peoples' Republic gave Johnny Tranter a new target for his rage. The England First Party mobilised its troops and deployed them to the streets around Hackney where they erected their own barricades. Now it was much harder for the raiding groups to get out to steal supplies. Brutal street fights were a daily thing. Soon there were more and more stories coming out of Hackney which suggested all was not well in the Peoples' Republic. Council members turned on each other. Some gave up in disgust and appeared on the news a few days later explaining why the dream had turned into a nightmare. Others simply departed the scene altogether. By the time the heat of yet another Indian summer started to drain away, the People's Republic was no more. The police still stayed well clear but the barricades were taken down.
I was itching to cover the story, but my editor wasn't ready to risk sending me onto the streets. My journalism was still office based. I found it immensely frustrating but I couldn't really argue. The comment sections underneath every piece I wrote were still filled with vitriolic threats.
On a Friday evening at the beginning of October, I took a call from Wendel as I was packing up my desk for the weekend.
“Could I ask a favour?”
“Course you can. Ask away.”
“My brother Leroy has been in touch. He says he needs to talk to me. He sounded pretty jumpy to be honest. Could you give him a lift when you drive down?”
“No problem. Where shall I pick him up?”
A chuckle. “Don't panic. You don't need to go anywhere near
Hackney. He's waiting outside.”
“How will I know him?”
“Black. Skinny. Specs. Looks like a maths teacher. But don't sweat it. He'll know you.”
He did. He gave me a nervous wave as I walked out of the front door. I didn't agree with Wendel's maths teacher description. I thought he looked like a civil rights campaigner from the sixties. There was something tremendously earnest about him. A quiet determination. I could easily imagine him being knocked to the floor by baton wielding cops on the road from Selma to Montgomery.
“Hi. It's Leroy, right?”
A nod. A sort of shrug. Something very shy about every mannerism. He wasn't anything like his big brother.
We got going and headed west. I did most of the talking whilst he clutched his backpack to his chest.
“How are things in Hackney now, Leroy?”
“I don't really want to talk about it. I'll talk when we get to Hereford. Sorry. Is that OK?”
“Of course it is.”
We did fifty miles through the cooling evening in a silence which wasn't at all uncomfortable. I could sense the tension draining out of him. He stopped hugging his bag and put it on the back seat. He unzipped his jacket and occupied himself by rolling and smoking cigarettes.
He broke the silence as we passed a sign telling us Hereford was less than an hour away.
“Do you mind if I say something?”
“Of course not. The floor is yours.”
I found it hard to get my head around how different he was to his older brother.
“I've been talking to Wendel quite a lot. You know. On the phone.”
“And the thing is. Well. Well the thing is this....”
“Honestly Leroy. Don't worry about me. I don't bite. Promise.”
A trace of a smile. More furious rolling. Clouds of smoke through the open window.
“He's talked a lot about you. He doesn't really talk about anything else. I never heard him like this before. He's a bit of a loner, my brother. Always has been. This is different. For him, like. Well different. Know what I mean?”
I think I probably blushed. I wasn't expecting anything like this. “I think so.”
“Well, I suppose it's like this. He's my brother. And.... Well you mustn't hurt him. I couldn't stand to see him hurt. Know what I mean?”
Ah. So this was what he was finding it so hard to spit out. I felt my eyes fill up and did my very best to come up with my best smile. I wanted to hug him but that would have meant crashing the car. So instead I talked.
“I will do my absolute best never to do such a thing. You can have my word on it. Does that help?”
He gave me a fleeting smile and nodded. “Thanks. And sorry. It's just.... Well you know...”
And with this, we re-entered our easy silence as the warm light of the evening slowly thickened around us.
My eyes filled up again when I saw the boyish delight on Wendel's face as we walked through the door of his flat. He wrapped his little brother in an embrace which I worried might snap him in two. Thankfully I was hugged with rather less ferocity. The flat was filled with the smell of Bolognese sauce and he had a cold beer ready in the fridge.
I sat back and allowed the cold lager to cool me whilst the brothers caught up. Leroy came alive in the company of his brother.
Dinner was served and for a while, we were upbeat and happy. But it was never going to last. Once he had cleared away the plates Wendel decided it was time to get to the reason for the urgent visit.
And now Leroy was once again the serious activist for a bygone era.
“Things have been bad brov. Seriously bad.”
“I've seen the news."
Leroy snorted his contempt at the idea.
“The news. The news is just bollocks, brov. Lies, lies and more lies.”
“Fair enough. What am I missing?”
Once he was up and running, Leroy was a compelling talker. He was articulate and very, very intelligent. After a few moments, I asked if he would mind if I took a few notes and he said that would be fine.
He told how it was when the riot first exploded. At first, the cops were the same old cops. Heavy handed, but it wasn't like the brothers on the streets were exactly chilling. But then things changed. They started shooting. And the brothers were being taken down. Like a war. Like a real war.
He painted pictures of utter rage in the community. The determination to keep the police out of Hackney. And then the sudden influx of people from all over the country. And for a while everyone was buzzing off the whole thing. There was complete unity. A common purpose. Even their mum was bang up for the whole thing. Of course, he had doubts about the whole People's Republic thing. It couldn't last. He knew that. Deep down they all knew that. But it had been years and years since anyone had known any kind of hope. It just felt good to get the chance to fight back for once.
When they cut the power he knew it was all over. The idea of sending people out to start fires was crazy. For a while, people really thought they had won. But then things started to go bad. The news made out it was only the EFP who were doing all the fighting. But it wasn't. There were others. Hard looking types in vans with blacked out windows. Three of the leaders who the news said had jacked it in were actually shot by some kind of sniper. Lots of others just disappeared. They were snatched by the guys in the balaclavas. Sometimes they grabbed people off the street. Other times it was when they were asleep. There were all kinds of rumours. People had heard these guys speaking. Mostly they were foreign. East European. Something like that. A few spoke English but with accents. It sounded South African.
'The thing is.... Well.. the people who disappeared really disappeared. I mean they completely vanished. Nobody has heard a thing from anyone. The police deny any knowledge of anything. They're not interested. No-one is interested. You can imagine what it's like now. Everyone's scared shitless."
“Who do you think they are? The blokes in the vans?”
“Nobody knows. There's all kinds of rumours and theories. But they seem really... I don't know … professional. They are sort of calm. They never seem angry or flustered. They just do what they do. No fuss. No nothing. Like they're soldiers or something like that.”
And now he was looking hard at his brother with a horrible kind of desperation. He didn't need to use words to ask Wendel the question. Wendel's expression turned to one of near horror at the unspoken thought.
“No way man. It's not us. I can guarantee you that brother. I can absolutely guarantee that.”
“So who is it then?”
Wendel considered whilst fetching more beer from the fridge. "It sounds to me like some kind of private contractors. There's all sorts of outfits out there and Governments use them all the time. I guess it makes sense when I think about it. Montford got into all kinds of shit when he gave the police the green light to cross the line. Maybe he learned his lesson and found a way to get the dirty work off the books. What do you want me to do? Ask about? I should be able to find something out. I know loads of guys who have left the Regiment and gone to do private stuff. They're bound to have heard something."
Leroy shrugged. “That would be good but it's not why I'm here.”
“Oh. Right. So what's on your mind little brother?”
Leroy spoke to the coffee table, his eyes lowered. "It's going to get worse Wendel. I can feel it. They're not going to stop. Everyone who was involved with the Peoples' Council is disappearing."
“I was part of it, Wendel. Not a big part. I did Press Releases and shit. But I was involved. I was a face. I reckon I must be on one of their lists."
“So OK. You need to get out. That's not a problem. I've can put you up here and...”
“I knew you'd say that. But I'm not going to get out. I couldn't do that. Run away. Just leave everyone. Wouldn't be right. You know that Wendel. You would never run away. It's not you. Well I'm no soldier like you, but I'm not going to run.”
Wendel seemed to accept the pointlessness of trying to argue the point.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“We need to make plans to get mum out. If I'm gone.... well … there would be no-one to look out for her.”
“There's no way she's going to leave if you stay. You know that, right?”
“I know that. We both get our stubborn streak from her. We couldn't move her with a bulldozer.”
They both shared a smile at the image. Finally, Leroy raised his head and met his brother's eye.
“If anything happens to me you need to get her out. Both of you. You need to find a way to get her to Scotland. Because they don't just stop with the foot soldiers. They go for their families as well. It's a reign of terror. That's exactly what it is.”
Wendel looked at me and there was something frantic in his eyes.
“Of course I will help. Leave it all to me.” I said.
“But can you actually do it?” Asked Leroy.
“Course I can. My best mate's dad is the First Minister.”
“Wendel told me. I was hoping you'd say that.”
“You have my word, Leroy. But please listen to your brother. You need to get out as well. You really do."
“I probably do but I'm not going to. Just can't.”
“Well there's something you bloody well can do.”
Wendel sighed. He knew what was coming. “Sam.....”
“Don't you Sam me. Don't even think about it. Here is what you need to do, Leroy. You need to bring people to see me. Bring me the stories. The eye witnesses. The times and the dates and the details. I am not allowed to do street reporting but I can find out plenty from a desk. If that bastard Montford has put paramilitary death squads onto the streets of London I am going to write about it...”
“Sam, don't you even think about it! This stuff is darker than dark. Haven't you been listening to anything Leroy has been saying? These bastards are topping people right and left. You absolutely cannot go anywhere near this..."
“Oh do shut up Wendel and stop being so bloody alarmist. Edward Montford isn't about to order some kind of hit on me. Think about it. I'm not exactly low profile these days. Think about the way it would play out. Prominent Scottish reporter killed whilst investigating allegations of death squads in Hackney. Yeah? Sorry to sound like a cold hearted bitch, but I have been waiting for this story all my working life. So don't you dare try to handle me."
My outburst rendered them both silent for a few seconds. Leroy gave Wendel a shrug.
“Scottish women, innit.”
“Shut it, Leroy."
I grinned at the pair of them. “Now that is the most sensible thing I have heard all night.”
“Scottish women, innit. Innit indeed. Innit all the bloody way.”
We made our pact.
Over the next few weeks, I felt turbocharged. I gave my dad the job of arranging sanctuary for Patience MacDonald in the event of Leroy's dark premonition coming true. Dad took it in his stride and oiled all the right wheels.
Leroy brought people to me every day and slowly but surely the Guardian started to compile evidence. My editor kept a tight team and demanded absolute secrecy. By the end of November, we were almost ready to publish.
And then Leroy vanished.
We hunted frantically for two months but by February 2030 the truth was impossible to ignore. He was gone. Another statistic. Another on the long list of the Hackney disappeared.
We collected Patience on a wet Saturday and loaded up her belongings into a hired truck. Whilst we stacked her furniture, a procession of friends and neighbours came to hug her and to say goodbye. Actually being inside Hackney was downright spooky. I had lived and breathed the place for months but this was my first ever visit to the streets where Wendel and Leroy had grown up. Now it felt like a ghost town. No traffic. Hardly any people. Just the rain and the already faded graffiti of the Peoples' Republic.
I caught Wendel staring at a wall which had a set of goal posts painted in white.
“I used to spend hours by that wall. When I was a kid. Left foot, right foot. Over and over again. I was going to play for West Ham and win the cup at Wembley. That was what I was going to do.”
I didn't say anything. There was nothing to say. I took him by the hand and we climbed up into the cab where his mother was waiting.
We drove north out of Hackney.
We drove north out of England.
Nobody spoke much. Patience and Wendel MacDonald were broken in different ways. Patience was broken by the knowledge she would almost certainly never have the chance to bury her second child. Wendel was broken by having all of his certainties destroyed.
The boy who had once dreamed of playing for West Ham at Wembley had instead opted to swear his allegiance to King and Country. He had opted to become the tip of the spear. In the front line of those sworn to defend the Realm.
And now the very same Realm had betrayed him. The very same Realm had abducted his little brother and murdered him in some desperate basement.
After Leroy was gone, Wendel continued to serve in the SAS. And his commitment and loyalty to his comrades in arms was still absolute.
But never again would he be loyal to King and Country he had sworn to serve.
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