CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
THE EXIT STRATEGY
Our Situation Room had none of the whistles and bells of the English counterpart. There were six of us. Myself, Angus, two Captains and two tech guys. We had no satellite images, no drone feed. Instead, we tried to judge the course of the battle via a selection of barked commands which were played out through a tinny speaker.
Finally, 'JJ' Jackson's voice brought clarity.
“Are you there, First Minister?”
“Yes 'JJ'. I'm here.”
“The operation was a complete success, sir." The words emerged from the speaker flat and lifeless. I could tell Angus was struggling to find the right way to react.
“Have we taken many casualties?”
“Some. Not many. It's too early for any kind of accuracy. Less than we anticipated I think.”
“Thank God for that. And the English?”
A long pause.
“It's a bloody slaughter house.”
An even longer pause.
“So you will proceed as planned?”
“Of course sir. Is Sam with you?”
“Message from Wendel. He's fine, but they lost one of the guys. He's heading to Glasgow with the others. He says he'll be with you tomorrow.”
When I heard the two words 'He's fine', a damn burst inside me. One minute I was standing with my arms locked into a fold. The next minute I all but collapsed into a chair feeling like I had been punched in the guts. I only just managed to speak.
“Thank you 'JJ'. Who was it? The one who.....”
“It was Nazir.”
There was no more to say because there was so very much to say. But this was not the time to say any of it. There would be plenty of time for a million words in the months and years to come. Now a kind of despondent silence took hold of us and held on tight.
I cried in silence as a vast ocean of relief swept through me. I hadn't allowed my brain to consider the prospect of a future without Wendel. Not once. Not for a second. Instead, I had immersed myself in playing my part. I think we all had.
Angus sat very still, utterly lost in his thoughts. His expression was an open book. He didn't speak. He didn't need to.
What have I done?
What have I done?
The bitter pill of victory. Words from Dylan Thomas jumped into my jumbled thoughts.
'The hand that signed the paper felled a city.'
My best friend's dad. All those sleep overs and lifts to after school activities. Barbeques in the garden and trips to the cinema.
And now this. So many dead. So many broken.
'JJ' Jackson went into a kind of furious overdrive. He tore around the field of battle in a 4x4 screaming orders. Soon his screams were echoed by hundreds of sergeants and corporals.
Every Scottish soldier had been briefed about what to do in the aftermath of the battle. They had been told all phones, cameras or recording devices of any kind were banned. Now they took the phones of the English soldiers.
The living and the dead.
The phones were thrown into a growing pile and eventually burned. The five masts which gave mobile phone coverage to the valley had been blown up the moment the Legionnaires had opened fire. 'JJ' and Marc had pulled no punches when they explained their plan of battle to the First Minister. The plan was to deliver the maximum amount of carnage in the minimum amount of time. A win would be an ugly win.
And now the quiet valley floor looked like some kind of medieval depiction of the fires of hell.
Thousands of wounded men were driven to every hospital within a hundred miles. Many didn't make it.
The English prisoners were gathered up and ordered to form ranks. 'JJ' addressed them and told them they would be required to join his men in the task of clearing the field.
Once the injured were patched up and sent away to hospital, the dead were zipped into hundreds of body bags and loaded onto trucks.
As soon as the ground was cleared of the dead and the wounded, scrap merchants were allowed onto the field to collect up the wrecked vehicles. They were also required to give up their phones before driving their vehicles into the valley.
So it was that the battle of Lochie Bridge found something else in common with the battles which had gone before.
Bannockburn and Dunbar and Flodden and Culloden.
There was not a single photograph or snatch of video footage to recall the desperate, blood-soaked minutes when so many men died so badly.
Instead, all there would be for the historians were the stark statistics. An army of over 10,000 had been ambushed by a force of 3100 and had suffered total defeat in a matter of minutes.
The English force suffered a casualty rate of over 80%.
The raw statistics carried enough horror. Angus Campbell knew in his bones that for Scotland and England to have any hope of a decent future relationship, the story of the battle would need to be told in numbers and words.
For the thousands of words such pictures would paint would poison the future.
The clean-up took three days and many of the men involved left Lochie Bridge with mental scars which would never heal.
Edward Montford called a Cabinet Meeting for 7.30. In the hours following General Moore's devastating call, he had worked his way through a whole sleeve of Oxys. Now he felt as if a vast blackness was closing over him. He could tell from the faces around the table the news hadn't leaked. Not that it mattered. Nothing much mattered. Not anymore.
“I am afraid I have bad news. Our convoy was ambushed this afternoon. Operation Cumberland was completely wiped out. Destroyed. Annihilated......"
He realised he was mumbling. Like an old drunk in a doorway. Like a drooling old fool in a care home.
It was all too much of an effort. The blackness was wrapping him up.
Swallowing him. Jonah and the whale.
Just a few more words. The very last words.
“Of course I will resign. Of course...”
And there they were. The trees of Birnam Wood. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. High up on the top of Dunsinane Hill.
Cheering. Cheering trees.
Cheering fucking trees.....
Ten minutes later the Downing Street doctor dragged the Prime Minister out from the warm nothingness of his overdose. An ambulance collected him from the back door.
“Sir, there's a call for you. The French President.”
“Right. Fine. I'll take it in my office.... “
I watched the First Minister straighten himself and step back into his designated role.
“Are you OK, Angus?” I asked.
“Yes. I think so.”
He did the basics. He left the room. He strode into his office. He sat. He took a long breath and he picked up the phone.
“I have heard the news. Marc has briefed me. A total victory. You should be very proud, I think.”
“Not really. I feel..... Christ, I don't know …. polluted....”
The sound of a cigarette being lit brought a trace of a smile to his face.
“War is ugly, Angus. In time you will understand there was no choice. You have led your country well.”
“Thanks, Valerie. And on behalf of the people of Scotland, please allow me a moment to thank the people of France for being there for us. It will never be forgotten,"
Smoke inhaled and exhaled.
“You know Angus, over the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about history. In the past France has made promises to Scotland and failed to keep them. It is good to have finally put it right. It was time, I think.”
They lapsed into silence. Eventually, Valerie broke it.
“Shall I make the call, Angus?”
“Yes. Please do.”
President James Buchanan had been in the middle of a photo call with the President of Peru when he was called away by a whispered message in his ear.
Minutes later he bounced into the kind of Situation Room the Generals in charge of the English and Scottish armies could only have dreamed of.
There were lots of furrowed brows.
“What have you got for me, Bob?"
“Things are still unclear. Satellite images appear to show a major confrontation. We can't be 100% sure, but it seems the Scottish have staged some kind of ambush.”
“Any indications of what has happened?”
“Well, yes sir, we have but we're going to need to check the images closely before we can give any kind of categoric scenario evaluation....”
“For Christ's sakes, Bob. Who won?”
“Sir. At this time we believe the Scottish army has prevailed.”
“Yes, sir. You want my best guess? Looks like a turkey shoot."
Buchanan pulled off his tie and demanded coffee. He told an aide to convey his apologies to the President of Peru and promised to call him later. He was going nowhere.
Over the next hour, the story of the battle of Lochie Bridge slowly emerged.
“Sir. You have a call. It is the President of France.”
“OK. I'll take in the office.”
“Good afternoon, James.”
“And a very good afternoon to you too, Valerie. I hope you are well."
“But of course. I presume you have heard the news from Scotland?”
“Not really. We have been watching the pictures from our satellites. It looks like the English just got their butts kicked. Are we right?”
“Yes, James, you are right. The Scottish have achieved a decisive victory. The English column has been entirely destroyed.”
“Jesus H Christ.”
“Well, many thanks for bringing fully up to speed Valerie.....”
“Actually James, this is not the reason for my call."
“I have been having discussions with Angus Campbell. He has some ideas about how a peace agreement might be reached. He would like you to be the broker.”
Buchanan sat back and lifted his feet up onto the desk. This was getting interesting.
“Well, there are the basics of course. All English soldiers will be given safe passage back across the border. All prisoners of war will be returned immediately. The injured will be returned home as soon as they are well enough to travel. All the bodies of the fallen will be returned.”
“And are there many? Bodies?”
“There are thousands.”
“Christ. Go on Valerie.”
“Angus Campbell is not willing to negotiate with Prime Minister Montford. But maybe he won't have to. My people think Montford will almost certainly resign. The First Minister's main concern is what is going happen in England. First the collapse in the value of the pound and now this defeat..... He thinks there might be total chaos. I agree with him.”
“So do I.”
“So. He is willing to make an offer. If the Bank of England decides to issue five hundred billion pounds’ worth of ten year Government bonds at 3%, the Governments of Scotland and Qatar will buy all of them.”
“That's one hell of an offer.”
“There is more. The Scottish government is willing to write off the cost of all unpaid electricity debt. Finally, France has agreed to cancel our contracts for 30 water tanker deliveries per month to enable the Scottish Government to meet the needs of England.”
A grin grew across Buchanan's face. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't half a trillion pounds the ball park profit those boys made when they sold the pound short all the way down to fifty cents?"
“I do believe it was.”
“The sly old bastard. OK. I'm sold. Something tells me you will probably want all of this to go down in the Palace of Versailles?”
A chuckle. “How very perceptive of you, James. Rather a good look for France, don't you think?”
Angus didn't really know what to feel when Valerie Latour called him with the news. He knew he really should be punching the air.
He didn't feel like it. Nothing could have lifted the flatness of his mood. I picked up the gist of the news from listening to his end of the call.
“It's wonderful news, Angus.”
“Yes. I suppose it is. It just doesn't feel that way. I'm going to take some time out, Sam. I'm going to drive down to Lochie Bridge. I need to see it. It would be wrong not to. And before you ask, the answer is no. I'm not letting you anywhere near the place and if you try anything I'll have you locked up. OK?"
He ordered a vehicle and refused a driver. He drove south down the A9 and spent three hours in the midst of the horror.
By the time Airforce One touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport a week later, the Versailles Peace Agreement was already a done deal. The English Government had resigned from power three hours after the resignation of the Prime Minister. A Government of National Unity was announced with the Leader of the Opposition at the helm.
The new all-party Cabinet was in no mood to look James Buchanan's gift horse in the mouth. It took them less than twenty minutes to promise to sign on the dotted line.
England spent the next few days in a state of shock. First, there was the news of what had happened to the army at Lochie Bridge. Then there was the news of the generous peace offer from Edinburgh. The EFP tried to stir up public anger but the mobs they managed to put on the street seldom added up to more than fifty. After three days they gave up and disappeared into the footnotes of history.
The vast, vast majority of the people of England were simply relieved it was all over. By the end of the week, an English pound was capable of purchasing $0.92 and the threat of empty shelves in the supermarkets was beginning to fade.
Four days after the battle, an unexpected belt of low pressure formed up over the North Atlantic and treated the British Isles to three full days of old school summer rain. Many took the grey skies and gurgling gutters as a sign of better things to come.
Of course, there were prolonged celebrations all across Scotland and pubs were pretty well drunk dry. Every town saw huge crowds dancing and singing in the rain. However such celebrations were street level only. The newly restored Government in Edinburgh avoided all traces of triumphalism. A strict tone of business as usual was adopted and press demands for the 'warts and all story' of the battle of Lochie Bridge were batted away.
Wendel and I were both invited to the signing ceremony in one of the Palace of Versailles's many gilded halls. I went along. Wendel said it wasn't his thing.
It has to be said, Valerie Latour put on a hell of a show
First Minister Angus Campbell and Interim Prime Minister Jennifer Saxby signed on the dotted line and shook hands for the cameras whilst the Presidents of France and America looked on.
I finally visited Lochie Bridge ten months after the guns had fallen silent. I visited with Wendel and Omar and Davie and Alf and Faisal and Tariq and Moses.
We laid flowers for Nazir at the newly erected memorial to the fallen. We stood by the small stone bridge and looked up and down the shallow valley. Steady traffic rolled along the A9.
Apart from the memorial, there was no evidence of the battle which decided what people were by now calling 'The Last Colonial War'. There were cows in the fields and sheep on the sides of the valley. A crop of spring barley was starting to fill out. Finches flitted about in a blackthorn hedge. A couple of rabbits showed their faces and then hopped away.
We stayed there for nearly an hour and not a word was spoken. I had wondered if the valley would be haunted by thousands of angry ghosts. It wasn't. Well, none that I could sense.
Instead, everything seemed uncomfortably normal. A quiet spring day in the Highlands of Scotland.
The independent nation of Scotland.
I looked at the faces of the men who had fought for my country's continued independence.
A Scotsman. A Welshman. An Englishman. Three Afghans. One Ugandan.
All fully adopted Scots now. Even the Englishman. My Englishman.
Their eyes said all that needed saying about what had happened on that fateful afternoon ten months earlier.
The day they lost Nazir.
The day the Last Colonial War was settled.
We got into our people carrier and drove out of the valley and into the rest of our lives.
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