She stands, tiptoed, on the very top of the mast, hundreds of feet up, and looks out across the city. There’s a scream of terror in the distance, a mugging perhaps, or worse. ’Not tonight,’ she thinks, and leaps into the darkness.
Part one, Chic.
“You should grow it” said one of the two care assistants getting him up, stroking his thick red crew cut admiringly. “Look there’s not one grey hair, you’re amazing Mr Champion.” She peered a little closer, “Not a single one!” and rummaged, impressed, in his scalp. It was all far too personal if you asked him.
She was new, had only worked at the home for a few days, but they all did it: pawed away at you, grooming and petting. Chic didn’t say anything, she was just being kind, after all.
“And all your own teeth! You’re a miracle!” she squealed, giving his cheek a little pinch.
Chic slid into a long, magnolia corridor. He pulled a chain from round his neck and looked at the object on the end. A belt buckle of a silvery alloy, about two inches round. It had an intricate diagram of a star system inscribed on the front. It hadn’t been worth it in the end, he thought, he’d lost everything. He slid it back under his vest.
His old biceps pumped the wheels rhythmically as he glided down the row of obsolete lives, marked off by identical blue doors, wheelchair groaning under his massive frame.
Chic had always been enormous. A born pugilist, he was boxing at middleweight by the time he was just eleven, and over the following years, a growing collection of trophies had crowded a little mantelpiece in Canning Town. The collection had stopped growing in 1940, when, along with the mantelpiece, the house and his parents, it was blown to smithereens by a German bomb. He’d signed up for the army the day after their funeral. And a year later he’d scrambled up a beach in Normandy, to kill boys his own age.
At the other end of the corridor was the day room, the aneurytic heart of Chestnut Lodge. Just outside was a whiteboard and on it was written the day and date in a green marker ink, to help orientate those residents that could, if not anchored properly, drift, lost in the past. No one had changed it in months.
Inside the day room an old lady clung to the straps of the crane-like hoist that was whirring her from her wheelchair to the high backed, wipe clean, plastic armchair that she would spend the rest of her day in. Terror and humiliation competed for dominance in her mind.
“Help me dear! I’m falling! Everyone can see my knickers! Help me dear!” Every day this process frightened and embarrassed her and every day as she panicked and blushed, knickers and limbs flapping like a dying pink pterodactyl in a nappy, two care assistants would try to calm and reassure her.
“You’re OK Pearl.”
”Don’t worry, no one’s looking.”
“Try to keep still sweetheart, we’re nearly there.”
Across from Pearl sat Albert Goodman, leant over to one side and slowly slipping down inside a grey NHS wheelchair. A bored fly wandered aimlessly across his forehead, pausing now and then to lick tackily at his scalp, not liking what it found.
As far as Chic was concerned his name was not Albert Goodman at all, but Alexander Gourko. An evil genius and cold blooded killer. His arch nemesis. Chic didn’t believe, for a second, that he was the helpless, dribbling fool sat across the way, quietly pissing himself. It was all a clever act, right down to the stupid lopsided expression. Chic believed that he had come for the buckle around his neck. Without it, the belt was useless.
A glistening column of dribble descended like a hesitant abseiler from his enemy’s lip.
They had been comrades once, fought alongside each other and led men into battle together. They had both been recruited, during the war, into an elite force called the Special Operations Executive: a clandestine outfit, charged by Churchill to set Europe ablaze and known as the Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare.
It was Chic’s strength, courage and loyalty that had brought him to their attention. Alexander, on the other hand, had been a scarecrow of a man, but had shown a composure and a ruthless tenacity that was invaluable in the chaos and exhaustion of battle. Chic had never met anyone so unsqueamish, he had mistaken this, at the time, for strength.
Chic glared at his adversary across the day room as another column of spittle began its descent onto the purée stained paper bib of evil.
“You bastard!” he screamed suddenly. “You murdering bastard! Come on, get up, you bloody charlatan! Get up!” He started to wheel himself slowly but threateningly towards his foe. One of the girls eyes rolled as if to say ‘here we go again.’ She took hold of the arms of his chair and began to push him slowly backwards towards the door, smiling.
“Come on Mr Champion, let’s not have any of that today.”
“He killed, he killed my-”
“I know, I know,” she cooed, not letting him finish, not interested. “Let’s see what’s going on in the TV lounge shall we?” she suggested kindly.
“Bastard!” he shouted over the carer’s sizeable, blue-checked backside as they exited. “Bastard!”
Six months before the end of the war, the two men had been sent on a mission high above the Arctic Circle to investigate ghostly sightings in the night skies over the Haldefjäll mountains. Something had come down, apparently intact, by an icy river. They were to identify its origins, no doubt military, and neutralise it.
As they approached, the scorched ground crackled under their feet like volcanic glass. What they found there had been a craft of some kind but, destroyed by the crash and cremating in its own fuels, more than that had been impossible to say. The pilot too, melted into the seat and controls, had been consumed beyond recognition.
Wrapped around this roasted corpse had been the belt, somehow untouched by the fire and soot, and cold to the touch despite the hissing and crackling of the carcass it embraced. And, lying apart but similarly unscathed, they’d found the small round buckle.
Chic fastened the two ends together with it. He could have sworn that it tingled and made his fist feel like a rock. Like he could punch out a cart horse, he’d said. He’d looked over at the thing in the seat. It barely looked human. But what else could it be? he’d thought.
Gourko knew. He’d looked up at the Milky Way, a dazzling scar of light ripping open the throat of the sky from ear to ear, and laughed. Even in space, he thought, they were fighting wars. It made him feel good, part of something. “Come on,” he’d suggested cheerfully, cracking his knuckles “let’s round up some peasants, find out what they saw.” But before they could set off on their grizzly fact-finder, the spit of a rifle shot drew their attention outside. Gourko peeked through a smoking hole in the wreckage, “Shit!” he muttered, a platoon of the Schutzstaffel had them surrounded.