Well I guess it just goes to show even the most independent gals can get swept off our feet. Except I was already off my feet. I was very much down on the tarmac with an ankle which was already starting to throb like an absolute pig.
The ride to my flat wasn't exactly a picnic as every bump and jolt sent an electric shock up my leg. When we arrived Wendel asked what floor I was on.
“So maybe best if I carry you?”
And of course, by now I was starting to wonder about this knight in shining black leathers who had probably saved my life. My attackers were routine pond life, but they were hardly kids. I put them all between eighteen and twenty. Fair enough, none of them were ready to fight for a heavyweight title but neither were they eight stone weaklings. And they certainly had a full quota of natural brutality.
And yet the stranger on the bike had dropped them to the floor in a matter of blurred seconds. Sam the journalist tried to find the right words for an imagined piece. Casual, instinctive violence? Something like that. I certainly had never witnessed anything like it. Wendel was no giant. He was a regulation five ten and looked like he would have tipped the scales at twelve stones or so. But when he picked me up it seemed to require no effort whatsoever.
He carried me upstairs like I was a small parcel and gently put me back on my feet so I could unlock my front door.
Once I had the lights on he quartered my living room with flitting eyes and ordered me to sit down.
“I'll make you some tea. Kitchen through there?”
“Yes. Actually, I'll have coffee...."
OK. Tea. I shouted through through the door. “No sugar and just a splash of milk.”
This prompted a mildly dismissive chuckle.
When the tea arrived it was laced with at least four sugars. He gave me a brusque explanation.
“Best thing for a shock. Drink up."
And then he was rattling off a series of bizarre questions which I answered as best as I could. Was there a paper recycling bin? Where was it? Did I have a plastic bucket? OK. The washing up bowl would do. Where did I keep flour? I sat and drank my tea and I really should have been starting to worry. Had I jumped from the frying pan and into the fire? Had I opened my door to some kind of nut who was playing out some kind of weird 'Easy Rider' fantasy.
I could hear vague splashing sounds in the kitchen. He chatted amiably as he got on with whatever he was getting on with.
“I've seen you on the TV. Read your stuff too. Pretty good."
“I was on the phone with my brother a couple of weeks ago. Just after you were on Newsnight. He thought it was quite funny. Know what he said?”
“Hey, bro. Looks like Scottish is the new black. Maybe after three hundred and something years, the brothers are about to get a bit of respite. He's a bit of a radical, my brother."
“I see. Could I ask you something?”
“Of course. Ask away.”
“What on earth are you doing?”
He emerged from the kitchen wiping his hands on a towel.
“Have you got any spirits? Scotch? Gin? Anything will do.”
“I have some whisky. It's in the cupboard over there.”
He poured about eight measures into a mug and handed it to me.
“Down the hatch.”
By now my patience was starting to wear a little thin. Fair enough he had saved my life, brought me home, carried me upstairs and forced me to drink tea with at least four sugars. And fair enough he was the best looking visitor I had ever had visit my flat by quite a distance. Every time I looked at him I was reminded of the cover of my mum's favourite Marvin Gaye CD. But a whole tumbler of scotch? Not a chance.
“No, I will not. Not until you tell me what on earth you are up to."
He shrugged, poured himself a drink and sat on the chair opposite mine.
"OK. You have a broken ankle. It isn't the worst break I've ever seen, but it needs fixing up. We could go to A&E, but I don't think we should. The average waiting time for Hereford A&E is over 30 hours. With everything going on in the town tonight I think it fair to assume you'd be hanging around for the best part of two days. It would be boring and very painful. Besides, I'm sure you will be itching to get your adventures down on paper ready for the first edition tomorrow. OK so far?"
“As it happens I am more than capable of sorting out your ankle. The flour, washing up bowl and old newspapers were what I needed to mix up some papier mache which I am going to use to make a protective cast for your ankle. But before I do that part, I need to set the bone back into place and it will hurt like an absolute bastard. The good news is you are female which means you have a naturally high pain threshold. But I can promise you the Scotch will make it a whole lot more bearable. Is that acceptable?"
“So you're a doctor?”
“Any chance of an answer made up of more than one word?”
“I did work in an A&E department for six months. Does that help?"
“A bit. Why only six months?”
A sigh. He sat back and shook his head. “The joys of helping out a journalist in distress. I think this the part where I ask to go off the record. Can I do that?”
My turn to smile. “I allow anyone who saves my life to go off the record.”
“Good. So I am Sergeant Wendel MacDonald of 22 Special Air Service. I am a fully trained medic. Part of my training involved being seconded to the A&E department in a Birmingham hospital for six months. I treated gunshot wounds, stabbings, heart attacks, and strokes. I also set my fair share of bones and set them into casts. However, this will be the first time I have used papier mache. We are trained to improvise. To use whatever is available to manage any particular task. In this case, I have access to old newspapers, flour, a washing up bowl and a bottle of Scotch."
“So they taught you how to make papier mache in the SAS?”
“No. That was Primary School.”
I raised my glass with what I hoped was a sweet smile. “Here's to off the record.” I knocked back the 'water of life' like a proper Scot but it still hurt like hell when he crunched the bones back into place.
And then we talked as my makeshift cast slowly dried and hardened. We talked all the way to the bottom of my whisky as the sounds of rioting floated in on the unseasonably warm air of the night. I kept the 'off the record' status in place in order to tease out the nuts and bolts of his life story.
He was two years older than me. Just past thirty. He was a London boy, born and raised in Hackney. He had a younger brother, Leroy, and no sisters. The rocks in his life had always been his mum and his grandparents. His dad had departed the scene before Wendel started primary school. As a boy, his main thing had been football. When he was twelve he was given a place at the West Ham Academy as a 'box to box' midfielder. He lived the dream all the way to sixteen years old. Then they told him he didn’t have what they needed. His granddad told him not to let the rejection get him down. There were plenty of other clubs. Why not try Leighton Orient?
Instead, Wendel took the news hard and started to let his life slide. The local gang was more than happy to open their arms to him.
He stopped going to school and drifted seamlessly into nickel and dime crime. His career as an up and coming Hackney gang banger lasted less than six months. One Saturday morning his grandfather more or less dragged him out of his bed and forced him to sit in the living room to be subjected to a brutal inquisition. Arrayed against him were both grandparents, his mother, and his brother. The riot act was duly read and when it was over he felt like he'd done ten rounds with George Foreman. He was more or less ordered to sit at the kitchen table where his grandfather stood over his shoulder and watched him fill in every line of an online application to join the British Army. Only when Wendel hit the 'Submit' button did the old man let out a grunt of satisfaction.
At his first interview they asked him which branch of the army he wanted to join and for some reason, he said the Paras. He must have seen something about them on tele at some stage.
From the moment he walked into basic training he was a fish in water. His natural athleticism and stamina carried him through everything they threw at him. Everything was good and after a few months, he had his wings and his red beret and a slot in 3 Para. He made sergeant after six years and decided it was time to take the plunge and try for the SAS. Again he took everything they threw at him and he was awarded his sand coloured beret early in 2024.
He drew the line at telling me about anything he had done either in the Paras or the SAS. 'Off the record' only stretched so far. But he was more than happy to tell me all about his times playing for the Army football team.
By the time dawn arrived, my eyes were too heavy to keep open. Wendel issued his final set of instructions.
“Keep it raised as much as you can. Walking is bathroom and back only, OK?”
“I'll be round to check on you later. Mind if I take a front door key?”
Did I manage to say yes? Or was it more of a 'Mmmmm'? Whatever. He took the key. And I made like a good girl and kept my leg rested all day. I put together what I thought was a pretty damned fine 1200 words for which my editor promised front page coverage. I watched the rolling news roll by. It seemed the whole of England was on fire. Everyone was arguing the big 'will there be troops on the street?' question. I hoped there bloody well wouldn't be. Well, that one troop in particular wouldn't be ordered to the streets. A certain Wendel MacDonald who I was very much looking forward to seeing again later in the day.
He came just after seven bearing trays of take away food and a bunch of flowers. One look at his smiling face was more than enough to confirm what I had probably known from the moment he put me on the back of his motor bike.
I was hook, line, and sinker smitten. We have been an item ever since. I hope we will be an item until the day I die.
I think a lot about the night we met. The night of the first riots. The night I might well have been kicked to death on the warm tarmac. What if Wendel had chosen a different route back to his flat? What if he had made his way home half an hour earlier? Or later? What if I had stayed in and listened to the sounds of the riot through my window? What if?
It was fate that put us together on that baking hot night filled with the sounds of violence and breaking glass. But of course, lots of relationships start out with chance encounters. I suppose such lifesaving first meetings are pretty rare.
Hindsight sometimes makes me think there was more than mere fate at play. And here is where things get a little spooky. You see, there is the whole Scottish thing. The reason why I stared death in the face was my accent. My Scottishness. By this time there were barely any Scots to be found in Hereford. The spread of Johnny Tranter's poison had seen to that. And yet I was saved by a knight in shining armour who went by the name of MacDonald. Wendel wasn't your average MacDonald from Paisley or Arbroath. His family had acquired the name in very different times. Hundreds of years ago, a Scottish overseer on a Barbadian sugar plantation must have taken a fancy to one of the slave girls and awarded their baby his surname. And now, many centuries later, a descendent of the overseer and the slave girl arrived from nowhere to save a young woman who was about to be murdered for the crime of being born Scottish.
Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. But there is more. Much more. I have thought about this endlessly.
In the whole world, there were probably only two people who could have changed the course of history in the summer of 2030. One of them was me and the other was Wendel. To manage to do what we did, we needed to be together. A team. An item. A partnership.
If we had never met, then we wouldn't have been there to play our part.
This is where the sheer, million to one against chance of our first meeting becomes even more spooky.
Maybe Wendel and I would have done what we did regardless. I like to think we would. I guess nobody will ever know.
What I do know is in the summer of 2029 there were two last straws which snapped the back of any reluctance we might have shown. One straw for me, one straw for Wendel. To be honest, my straw was relatively small beer. Wendel's straw was absolutely brutal.
The early heat wave riots raged for five nights. Hundreds were arrested and the damage ran to several billion pounds worth. The first few days of our relationship saw Wendel constantly checking his phone. The news was filled with speculation. Would the police be capable of restoring calm? Or would the army have to be marched out onto the streets? In the end, the police managed to hold the line.
However, restored calm did more or less nothing to paint England in any kind of flattering light. The TV screens of the world had become accustomed to a very particular view of the country as reporters gave breathless pieces to camera in every city from Plymouth to Newcastle upon Tyne. Cars burned and swarming, masked mobs of angry young men threw anything they could lay their hands on at the lines of riot police.
Slowly but surely consequences started to unwind. A decade of Brexit had eaten away at the City of London. One by one the major banks had moved large chunks of their operations out to Dublin and Paris and Frankfurt and finally Edinburgh. What was left of the City was all about 'off shore'. It was money laundering in a pin stripe suit and the rest of the world hated it. London continued to be the 'go to' refuge for the dirty money of the world and the men who owned it. A bank account showing enough zeros was enough to guarantee sanctuary for oligarchs, arms dealers, drug cartel bosses, corrupt officials and on the run dictators. The mansions of Kensington and Chelsea continued to be used as bricks and mortar versions of gold bars.
Looking after the ill-gotten gains of the world's super rich was just about the only way post-Brexit England managed to keep its head above water. As living standards slipped with every passing month, levels of resentment about this grew and grew. In the riots of 2011, the mob on the streets had focused all its attention on stealing expensive trainers and bottles of vodka.
The riots of 2029 were very different. This time thousands of rioters made their way across the city from Hackney to Kensington to put bricks through the windows of multi million pound mansions. Over a hundred gilded properties were burnt to the ground. The resulting insurance claims ran into the billions and one of the major players in the market was forced into liquidation.
New policies didn't cover riot damage. All of a sudden, a London property wasn't such a safe haven for dodgy money. Within weeks of the riots, it seemed like the whole of Mayfair was up for sale. Property prices went into freefall and the pound soon followed. The exodus from the City accelerated and by the end of the summer hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space were to be had at bargain basement rents.
Scotland had plenty of problems of its own. After hundreds of years of suffering from the consequences of emmigration, the country was now trying to wrap its head around a vast queue which was forming at the door. Tens of thousands of Scots living in England were voting with their feet. EU citizens from the baked south of the continent sought an escape from the desert heat of the long summers. And of course, the deal with Qatar meant nearly a quarter of a million of its citizens were eager to escape the furnace and take up their places in the Caledonian Ark Suleiman Khalidi had created for them.
Thanks to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, money was no kind of problem. A massive house building programme was underway and the world's clever money was desperate to invest in all things Scotland. More building meant more well-paid jobs which meant more immigrants.
The Edinburgh Government took a hard-line approach to planning. Permission for any kind of construction anywhere in the Central Belt was all but impossible to secure. Instead, the new villages and towns started to spring up in the long-empty areas of the country which had been depopulated in the Highland and Lowland Clearances.
Many compared what was happening in the Highlands and Islands to what had once happened in the American West. Thankfully there were no cavalry regiments roaming the countryside murdering locals. Many of the dubious characters who had found safe haven in the leafier parts of London were keen to set up shop in Edinburgh and the West End of Glasgow. Luckily the Scottish Government was in a strong enough position to order a draconian 'fit and proper person’ test for any person or company attempting to buy any property valued at more than a million pounds. No off shore entity was permitted to own any kind of land or building.
By the middle of the baking summer, the flow of English nationals looking to escape the worsening situation on the streets started to grow to unmanageable levels. New controls were put in place at the border and tensions rose dramatically.
By the beginning of August, Johnny Tranter's EFP was riding at nearly 25% in the polls and every weekend saw more and more disgruntled young people drawn to their street rallies. Tranter himself proved to be a remarkably canny operator. His speeches never quite crossed the line into anything illegal. He had a knack of not quite saying the words which would lead to his being arrested. It seemed like he was never off the TV and more and more people were keen to listen to what he had to say.
His message was consistent and it couldn't have been any clearer. Want to know why your life is suddenly so shit? Scotland. Want to know why it isn't safe on the street anymore? Scotland. Want to know why you can't get a job? Scotland. Want to know why your house is barely worth half what it was last year? Scotland.
Scotland, Scotland, Scotland.
The root of all evil. Some English people were desperate to get a permit to make Scotland their home. Many more wanted it wiped off the face of the map.
By now I had more or less found my feet at the Guardian. I spent my weekdays in my small flat in Kilburn. On Fridays, I drove back to Hereford to spend time with Wendel. I barely got back home to Edinburgh at all. My mum and dad still rang at least twice a week to tell me how worried they were and to implore me to come home.
And I continued to dig my heels in and be stubborn. Not surprisingly the Guardian mainly deployed me to report on anti-Scottish incidents. I received at least twenty death threats a day and the paper soon decided I needed a minder. Wendel recommended a pal he knew from the Regiment who had set up on his own as a provider of close security. Alf was a Welshman of few words who could back off a crowd with a single glare. On more than one occasion, I was glad he was there, especially when I was dispatched to cover any kind of EFP event.
I finally arrived in the journalism big time on the first Thursday in August. The Prime Minister was holding a major press conference in Downing Street and I was awarded the Guardian's allocated slot.
That morning I woke early with a churning stomach. I showered and did my best to power dress myself. I picked at a bowl of cereal and probably put on far too much makeup.
Alf gave me a once over when he arrived to pick me up.
“Well, you're done up like a dog's dinner."
“Thanks for that Alfie. And a very good morning to you too.”
The next hour had something of a dream like quality. The drive to Whitehall. The passage through endless levels of security checking. The back door route into Number 10. Handshakes and introductions with reporters I had kept on a pedestal for most of my adult life. A sudden hush in the room before the Right Honourable Edward Montford made his big entrance.
Edward James Montford, Member of Parliament for a few thousand acres of the South Downs. Born in 1970 with a silver spoon already spot welded into his mouth. Born into bucketloads of old money. A vast country house straight off a Constable painting. Eton and sporting prowess. Then Oxford, where his Hugh Grant good looks ensured plenty of adulation. A cricket blue and lots of pictures of him with a succession of well-heeled debutantes on his arm. President of the Oxford Union in full white tie and tails. Three years as a second lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards where he picked up a mention in dispatches in Kosovo.
After the army, he walked a well-trodden family path into merchant banking and pots of easy money. He married into 30,000 acres of Lincolnshire in 2005 and became a father of three. By 2017 his bank accounts were overflowing and he was ready for the next challenge. He was handed a super safe leafy Parliamentary constituency in the commuter belt which he won with predictable ease. It was basically one of those places where they say you could pin a blue rosette on a chimpanzee and it would still will by a landslide. Yeah? You know the kind of place.
By 2020 he was a junior minister and he soon became a TV regular where he defended the party line with a mix of articulate determination and old money charm. He became a tabloid favourite.
His stock rose very quickly. Men liked the fact he had been a soldier and seemed like the kind of bloke you could have a pint with. Women wanted to elope with him. One wag christened him the Tory George Clooney.
He held his seat easily enough in the midst of the post-Brexit Labour landslide of 2021 and was basically a shoe in for the leadership contest which followed. For three years, he eviscerated Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister's Question Time and proved the bookies' short odds right when he took his party back into power in the emergency election of 2026.
And then it all started to go wrong. The man who had found everything so very easy was suddenly swimming against the tide. Three years was enough to turn his salt and pepper hair completely gray. He followed through on his promise to slash taxes and reduce the size of the State, but the promised Singapore style boom never happened. His efforts to strangle Scotland at birth failed miserably thanks to the Qatar deal. He only just managed to keep a lid on the spring riots and by August there was rumoured to be a queue of Cabinet colleagues ready and waiting to stab him in the back.
As he took his seat and poured out half a glass of water, I was struck by how much thinner he was in real life. He was almost emaciated. His once boyish face was cut with deep lines and I wondered when he last smiled at anything.
For ten minutes we listened to a familiar stump speech. England had faced many challenges in the past and always found a way to come through. This time would be no different. Time for unity and pride. Time for the old Dunkirk spirit. Violence and lawlessness would not be tolerated. He was ready and willing to take whatever steps were required to restore order to the streets. Plans were in place to find a long term solution to the water situation.....
There was nothing new and the room knew it. The interesting part would be when the time came for questions. How would he handle it? Over recent weeks the old cool had largely disappeared. His performances in the Commons had become increasingly ill tempered. Would he lose it today?
He wrapped up and took a sip at his water. A lackey stepped forward.
“OK guys. Questions.”
A very predictable sea of hands. The lackey turned in my direction and pointed to me without a second's hesitation.
“Samantha. Why don't you kick things off.”
I have never, ever, ever been so nervous. This was ridiculous. I was without the doubt the most junior reporter in the room and they had chosen me to go first. Was it planned? It had to be planned.....
“Thank you, Prime Minister." My voice was actually surprisingly strong. "Over the last five months, 27 Scottish Nationals have been murdered. Every day the England First Party is fanning the flames of hatred. The Scottish people are waiting for you to give your unequivocal condemnation to these vicious hate crimes. It has been suggested your reluctance to offer this kind of condemnation is down to the fact the EPF are polling at 25%. Is this so Prime Minister?"
I sat and felt the cold eyes cut through me. His hard face twitched with a suggestion of a smirk.
“Maybe you haven't been listening properly, Miss Keating. I have spent the last ten minutes condemning all aspects of the violence and lawlessness we have seen over the last few weeks. And I am quite happy to reiterate my promise to come down hard on those who perpetrate this kind of violence. Very hard. But I think we need to look a little deeper into the reasons for much of the anger we had seen this summer. Miss Keating, our two countries have been through a lot together over the last few hundred years. English soldiers and Scottish soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder at Blenheim and Waterloo and Balaclava and Passchendaele and El Alamein and Goose Green. I myself was proud to serve with Scottish soldiers in Kosovo. For hundreds of years, we went through thick and thin together. And let's not beat about the bush here. There were plenty of times when things were pretty thin up in Scotland. And whenever things were thin, the good people of England were always there to help out. To prop up. To lend a helping hand. Let us not forget how the Union of 1707 came about. The Scots lost all their money on a fools’ venture in central America and were forced to ask London to bail them out."
Another sip of water.
“In my book, a Union is like a marriage. Like an Infantry Platoon. There will be good times and there will be bad times. Rich times and poor times. Times of war and times of peace. Partners in a Union look out for each other. They are there for each other. And for three hundred years the people of England were always there for the people of Scotland. We were like the rich side of a family offering some coal and a bag of groceries and a few kind words to the poor side of the family. And of course after the Brexit vote in 2016, things got a little tough and then what happened? Well, we know what happened. The good folk of Scotland couldn't jump ship fast enough. To paraphrase the words of your beloved Robert Burns, 'Bought and sold for Qatari gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation.'
'So is it so very surprising so many English people are angry at you, Miss Keating? Is it so surprising they are angry when they open their electricity bill and wonder how they are going to pay it? Is it so surprising they are angry when they have to wait an extra fortnight to see their GP because the Scottish doctors have gone home? Is it so surprising they get angry when class sizes in the local school go to over fifty because the Scottish teachers have gone home? No Miss Keating, of course it isn't surprising. Of course I deplore all violence, but I can understand the anger which causes violence. Quite frankly, the English people feel like we have been shafted. We feel betrayed. So, of course, we feel angry. I feel angry."
And all the while, those cold eyes were fixed on me. When he was done, a brief silence sat on the room for a few seconds. Everyone knew what had just happened. I had been set up. The whole press conference was merely a vehicle for him to use me to send his message out.
A few days later a YouGov poll showed support for the EFP had slipped back to under 20%. The general view was that Edward Montford had stopped the rot. The Scottish Government was outraged and many countries shared the outrage. But the Prime Minister clearly didn't care what the rest of the world thought. He was only bothered about his own back yard.
Wendel had murder in his eyes when I got back to Hereford the following Friday. Had he found himself alone in a room with Edward Montford, the Prime Minister's life expectancy would have been measured in seconds. I told him I was fine. I was a big girl. I was bloody Scottish for goodness sake. All in a day's work for a thick skinned hack like me. And of course my lords and masters at the Guardian were as pleased as punch. They gave me a rise and the promise of a weekly column. The only way I managed to calm mum and dad down was by getting Alf to talk to them on Skype.
Being lined up as the designated punch bag for the Prime Minister of England and Wales basically put my career into the fast lane. It took me to the place I had always dreamed of reaching. It was my big break. And for that, I suppose I should be grateful. And I am.
But something else happened on that day in August 2029. I came to hate Edward Montford. And I have never felt more Scottish in my life. I made a quiet vow to myself as I walked out of the Press Conference. If the moment ever came when my country needed me, I would step up and do whatever was required.
Thankfully when the moment duly arrived nothing had changed.
I stepped up.
TO READ ALL PREVIOUS CHAPTERS PLEASE FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW
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.