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The War on Terror

It rained for three days. And I didn’t go near the window, like they told me not to. But then the rain stopped and I went over and sat on the arm of the chair and peeked out from behind the lace curtain. It was a normal kind of street, I suppose. There were a few shops at the end of the road. Just the kind of shops you would expect in a road like that. I thought that I would maybe go out and buy a newspaper but they told me explicitly not to leave the apartment. You get more information in the newspapers, but it’s not of a form you can do much with, I mean, the images don’t stay with you so much, unless you make your own. But you can always do that, I mean, anyone can do that, make their own. So I didn’t go out. What would be the point of me being there if I didn’t do what they said?

After three days I phoned ‘Finkelstein’. That wasn’t a real name, obviously. What would be the point of using a real name? Someone answered but there was no-one there. I said, Hello, Finky, it’s me, Dan. Finky? It’s Dan. But no-one replied. That in itself is not unusual, in this kind of work. There are millions of reasons to change the plan, or to just be cautious. I didn’t read anything into it. I’d ring again later, to have a chat and see what was happening.

I spent my days watching television. There wasn’t much on, to be honest. They’d bombed Birmingham, the Exhibition Centre, and Manchester, Victoria railway station. Three big blasts in one day. No-one I knew, obviously, or someone would’ve told me. I think they would’ve rung me about that, but you never know. Sometimes operational orders have to take precedence and I can imagine all kinds of situations in which they wouldn’t tell you if it was someone you loved. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many. She’d be at school now. Three years since I saw her. Everything comes in threes. She was three when I saw her, now it’s another three. Which probably means I’ll see her soon. Except everything is weird these days. I used to be able to work on that principle, the Tripartite Principle I called it, mainly because I had nothing else to do that day, but it seems to work, if you think about it: one thing happens, then you’re just getting over the surprise of that thing, and it happens again, or something quite like it; and you’re just remarking on the unlikelihood of the same thing happening twice when it happens again; and you think, Aha, now I have a series, but then it stops. You sit around waiting for it to happen again and it doesn’t. That’s what I call the Tripartite Principle, and it’s always been true, up until now. But now, everything is a bit weird.

So then I watched ‘Tell Your Secret’, which sort of annoyed me because everyone in the audience obviously already knew the answer, which is why they were all shouting out and booing and hissing every time the person being interrogated told a lie. To my mind, it would have been better if the audience didn’t know anything either because then they couldn’t give the game away to the contestant, making it easy for them. But I suppose that’s why people like it—dramatic irony. It means that we all know when they’re lying and the contestant is going up the garden path. Also, if it were me, if I was the producer of that particular show, I would insist on a better class of secret. Like who wants to hear, ‘I was Winston Churchill’s batman’? Or ‘I owned the field where Eddie Cochran got killed’? No-one, probably. No, I would have much more human interest, like ‘I shot all my family when I lost my job’, or ‘I shared a cell with Adolph Eichmann’ or ‘I am the father of my great-grand-daughter’, something that would surprise the audience and make them gasp. But for that to work, it’s essential that they didn’t know the secret. The way they do it now actually makes me sick, the way the audience calls out all the time because they know something. They should just shut the fuck up and let us enjoy the show, the intricacy of the questions. I mean, that’s where the talent lies, if you want to talk about a talent show. Anyway, I turned that off after about ten minutes.

It’s a pretty anonymous apartment, to tell the truth. It contains everything you’d expect to find without anything being personal. I mean, the first couple of days I had a good look around, turned out the cupboards and the drawers looking for something personal, a photo maybe, or a love letter someone had pushed to the back of a drawer, but there was nothing. They’re good at their job. That’s not to say it wasn’t full of things, because it was, but they were just the sort of things you’d find in any apartment like that, a few cookbooks, old magazines, a calendar, a couple of paintings (the same as the ones you see on the walls in sit-coms), medicines in the cabinet (they gave nothing away about the physical peculiarities of their owner), a dressing gown, all the soaps and shampoos you could possibly want, plus all the essentials, like food, crockery, and cleaning fluids. I didn’t mention the books, apart from the cookbooks, but they were in the kitchen. There was a bookcase in the lounge but all it had on it were book-club books, the kind they sell you for a pound either to get you hooked on the book-club or because they used to be best-sellers and now no-one really wants them. Well, it’s not that no-one really wants them, it’s just that they’ve lost their excitement because you know that lots of other people have already read them, and paid good money for the privilege of doing so, which sort of makes you feel like a second-class citizen, that you didn’t rush out and buy it like everyone else at the time. And you might want to read it now but you know, in the back of your mind, that all those other people are already opening the new best-seller, the next best thing, while you’re reading the knock-down, one pound one from last year. It gives you a sort of second-hand feeling, like driving around in an old car that wasn’t your own when it was new, you just got someone else’s discards. Which is why none of the books had been read, I suppose. I mean, I got a few of them down to look at but it was obvious they’d never been opened and I could see why—it wasn’t the kind of stuff you’d want to read, to be quite honest, I mean, it didn’t give you any useful information, it was all stories and nonsense, stuff about the war, things that happened a hundred years ago, redundant information like that bloke who was Churchill’s batman. I mean, who cares?

But it was a nice touch, to have them there. It added a bit of solidity to the room, to have a bookcase in it full of books that all looked the same with imitation leather spines. You know, you feel that they went to a bit of trouble on your behalf, although, to be honest, it probably wasn’t my behalf since I was just a guest for a couple of weeks, but the people who were there before must have thought of it. Or maybe they did it without thinking, just filled out the form on the back of the Sunday magazine one day, probably the same day, Sunday. Maybe something caught their eye, the only one they read probably, and then after that they just kept coming and coming, every month a new package, which meant you had to go down and open the door for the postman and sign for it. They probably didn’t like that bit, but you don’t know—not everyone is like me.

I slept well in there, which is what they advised me to do anyway: ‘Use it as an opportunity to get some rest’, is what they actually said, and by ‘rest’ I assume they also meant sleep, in addition to just sitting around watching television, which in itself is not necessarily restful because being annoyed and immobile doesn’t equate to rest, in my book. But it was nice, I mean the bed was very comfortable, although somewhat firm for my tastes, not that I would claim to have sophisticated tastes when it comes to beds, but I think that most of us know when we are comfortable and I was definitely comfortable on that bed, specifically when I was lying on my back. I’m a side-sleeper by nature, which is why I prefer a softer mattress, but this mattress was somewhat firmer which is why I took to lying on my back. That wasn’t a bad thing though, because you definitely think differently while lying on your back, and that’s something I’ve never understood (one of the many things I’ve never understood). When you lie on your side, it must be like being a baby because your thoughts kind of swim, they’re not as straight or logical. But when you lie on your back, there’s a kind of rigour there, like the blood is going straight to your brain and your eyes are open looking at the ceiling. Yes, I’m convinced that it’s hard to keep your eyes open while lying on your side, but I’m happy to admit that that could be an idiosyncrasy of mine. Whatever, I really slept well in there, for the first week at least. After that I started to get a bit restless and had trouble falling completely asleep; instead I just lay there going over the plan, trying to remember every detail, in the way that medieval monks used to remember knowledge by imagining it was all stored in a library, every room clearly marked with the branch of knowledge and every shelf articulated to express a relevant piece of something. That’s what I did with the plan—I broke it down into sections, some of which applied only to myself, and I stored it away in a house with lots of rooms. And then, when I was either bored or curious, I would lay on my bed and imagine myself walking into a fine detached house that even had a name plate, ‘The Plan’, in big gold letters, and I could walk through the house and examine the plan in detail, a bit at a time. All my bits I kept on the ground floor because they were the bits I visited most often and it would have been stupid to have to go upstairs every time just to find my bits. But in retrospect I think that that was a big mistake because it meant that the upstairs rooms were rarely visited and as a consequence they started to become kind of vague as to their contents. I mean, if I’d done it the other way around and stored all my bits of the plan in the upstairs room, I would have had to have walked through the ground floor every time to get there, assuming that the stairs were at the back of the house, which is where I would’ve put them, obviously, since it was my house and I designed it. But by the time I’d worked this out, there was already quite a lot of stuff missing upstairs. I mean, I would walk up the stairs and find the right rooms, with their name tags on the door, such as ‘Placement’, ‘Evacuation’, and ‘Contact’, but when I went in there all the boxes had gone and there was just dust on the floor. It was then that I started to panic, because I’d been paying so much attention to my bits of the plan that I’d forgotten all the rest. It would have been an easy thing to write it all down on a bit of paper and then reallocate it to the same rooms—in fact, while doing that I could have redesigned the house so that everything was in a better order, as I just described. But they were absolutely firm in their injunction that I was not to write anything down, so all I had was in my head and now I’d messed that up. To be honest, I started to become angry with myself at that point, the fact that I’d messed it up, despite having a good method of remembering everything, using the ancient building technique. But at least my bits were all still there and in place on the ground floor, so what I did was just put a ribbon across the bottom of the stairs, you know, like they do in buildings which have rotten stairs, to stop you going up, or maybe a murder took place there and the police have sealed it off. I don’t know, but it was a solution of sorts, which meant that at least I could concentrate on my bits of the plan and leave the rest to the others.

So the bed was useful to me in that first week, apart from the simple act of sleeping, I mean, but maybe I’m wrong to describe sleeping as an act when it obviously isn’t, it’s kind of opposite to an act, a scene, maybe, I don’t know. But I spent a lot of time in there lying on the bed looking at the ceiling and going through the plan. That first week it was fine, apart from losing track of the rooms upstairs, which is a loss I could deal with to be quite honest, but on the seventh day things began to go a little awry. I think what triggered it was that I happened to peek out the front window and I saw some plainclothes arresting three Arab-looking guys. There were about six plainclothes and they looked pretty brutal to be honest, not the kind of people you would want to cross on a dark night near a jetty. So when the Arab guys started protesting, it pretty quickly got bloody and the plainclothes had them bent over and were thumping them in the ribs and kicking them down, holding their heads in place with their shoes. I stepped back a bit from the window then, knowing I shouldn’t be looking out anyway, when I sees this woman run out of a building screaming. She was wearing the all-over thingy, the head-dress that covers your face so’s all you could see was her eyes, and she was yelling and cursing (I suppose) in her own language, which wasn’t the same as mine, and she grabs hold of one of the plainclothes and starts gouging his cheeks and eyes out with her nails, ripping strips off him she was, and then he just smacks her, right straight between the eyes. That shocked me that. I mean, the whole episode shocked me but when he hit her, she just went down like a sack of potatoes to the pavement, her knees just buckled like a stun-gunned abattoir heifer, and they let her fall. I mean, they just left her there unconscious on the pavement and drove away with the three Arabs. After they’d gone some good people came out the houses and helped her up.

And that was it. After that I had trouble with the plan. In fact, I was scared to get up off the bed in case I started losing it. I just kept going back into the house and wandering around from room to room, checking all the details, which I kept in folders on the shelves. It was easy really, I never had a problem while I was in the room but then I would get this sense of panic that one of the other rooms was disappearing so I would put the folder away, trying to memorise as many of its details as I could, and then I would run out into the hallway and go into the room I thought was disappearing. Normally everything was okay—everything was still there and I hadn’t lost anything. But then, something weird happened. I mean, not weird like beyond the bounds of normality or the rules of physics but weird as in unexpected. I had just read through the whole plan, which must have taken me about three hours, going carefully from room to room, methodically opening each folder, meticulously reading and noting what I read, letting it sink in. I came to the last room, named ‘Reintegration’, and I must admit, I was feeling very pleased with myself because it meant that I still had the whole plan safely in my possession, excluding the bits that I’d stupidly stored upstairs and then lost. But at least I was fully in possession of my faculties and knew every detail of my part in the plan, so, like I say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, and this was the beginning of the second week so it was well advanced time-wise and I still had the whole plan safely in my head.

Anyway, I walked out the last room, called ‘Reintegration’, which I had considered naming ‘After the Attack’ but that was not an accurate description of the process, when I walked into the hallway and saw my daughter standing there. That sort of surprised me, because she was not part of the plan and there was no way that I’d put her into the house where I kept the plan. She was wearing blue jeans and a blue tee-shirt, which also surprised me because when I’d seen her last, three years before, she only wore dresses. Anyway, she would be six now so I suppose that’s the kind of thing she wears to school. I didn’t know what to say to her, and I was a bit nervous about her being in the same house as the plan, not that she would have understood any of it, but still, there was a sense of wrongness there, so I just smiled at her and said, How’s school? Fine, she said, smiling and skipping around on the spot like she was playing a schoolyard game. And how’s your mummy, I asked, not expecting her to remember me. Oh, she’s fine too, she replied. And does she remember me? I asked. She stopped skipping then and tilted her head like she was remembering something. Yes, I think so, she said, then looked at me with a cheeky expression on her face like she was playing a game with me. She said you were to come home straight away, and that’s why she sent me, to tell daddy to come home. Oh, I said, disappointed, since obviously that was something I couldn’t do right now, until the plan had been executed. I knelt down then, to get on her level, so’s what I was going to say didn’t sound like it was an admonition coming from a god: You tell mummy that daddy will be home as soon as his work is done and then we’re all going to have a big party, you, me, and mummy. And Brad, she said, Brad can come too. Who’s Brad? I asked, thinking that she had acquired a brother since I left. He’s my daddy, she said, my daddy who reads to me and plays with me. Brad can come too, and you, and mummy, she said, you’ll like Brad, he wears shoes too.

I looked down at my shoes. They were the ones I bought the last time I was home, sort of golf shoes but without the fancy tasselly bit that sticks out over the tongue. I was kneeling down then so I could see her face pretty close, like all the little freckles and stuff, of which there were none, and I took hold of her in my arms and whispered in her ear, Daddy’s coming home when the plan is done and then we’re all going to eat ice-cream and play hopscotch until sundown, when the shadows get really long. And she went quiet then, and she said to me, like a question but it was really sad like she’d been saving it up a long time and it meant a lot to her, so I listened really close, not to miss a syllable, and before she spoke I could hear her heartbeat and her intake of breath through her nostrils, like the gentle soughing of the breeze in the tree at the end of the garden, and she said, Daddy, when you come home, can you be more American? I want you to be more American. I want an American daddy.

I stopped going into the house after that. I don’t know if it was seeing those Arabs getting beaten up, or what, but I just didn’t fancy it. I was aware, in the back of my mind, that I was losing touch with the plan but I figured that the house was still there where I left it and I could always go back there whenever I wanted and I could find the plan again if I had too, but I didn’t have too. There was plenty on television to keep me busy and there were all those books. I must admit I spent a lot of time looking at the spines of those books, wondering what was in them, but not really bothered to look, to tell you the truth. But then, I guess it was on the eleventh day, I noticed that the spine of one of them had come loose. It definitely wasn’t like that the day before, so I went over and inspected it with the tip of my finger, pulling it up to reveal some corrugated cardboard under there, the kind they used to stick behind the plaster on the walls of old houses. So I pulled the book out and ripped it a bit more, thinking there might be a message in there, like the ones the builders used to leave on the walls of old houses before they covered them up with wallpaper. That’s what I thought would be there, otherwise I wouldn’t have damaged it, honestly, because I’m not a vandal and have no destructive instincts apart from the obvious ones, obviously. Anyway, it wasn’t in that book, whatever it was that I was looking for, so I did them all, one at a time, carefully tearing the spines off and checking what was in there. It’s obvious that whatever it was was really well hid because I found nothing, so I started ripping them apart, grabbing about 25 pages at a time, just enough to get a good grip on, and ripping the whole fucking thing to bits, scattering it all around the room so’s I could see the whole damn thing in one go without anything packed up and hidden like you’d expect in a normal library.

But there was nothing there, which was pretty much what I expected, to be honest. They would’ve had to be stupid to have just left important information like that lying around for anyone to see. So I started on the rest of the apartment, unscrewing all the panels from the kitchen and the bathroom, ripping open the furniture, carefully, shredding the cushions and opening the covers of the light sockets. Okay, it took me a couple of days but it was time well spent, being thorough and all that. I even poked some holes in the walls and got my arms right in to feel the draught excluder but that was safe. All in all I did a pretty good job: there was nothing in the light bulbs, no hidden messages inside the crockery, the cans of food were clean, no smoke behind the wallpaper, nothing anyone could signal with.

So that was coming up to the end of the second week and I thought I should try and phone Finkelstein again but it took me a while to find the phone and put it back together again. It was still working, which came as a relief, since it meant I still hadn’t lost the old touch of magic, and I sat on the springs of the sofa, naked, with the phone on my knees. I was just about to punch the numbers when I noticed that there was a lump coming out the side of my knee. I was sure it wasn’t there before so I touched it and it seemed to move around like there was something solid in there, a lump of fat or gristle maybe. I tried to remember whether I’d banged it while I was searching the apartment, maybe caught it on the doorframe when I dragged the dresser into the bedroom, but I couldn’t recall anything and it wasn’t bruised in any way and it didn’t hurt like it was sore ‘n all, it just was this swelling with something inside it. That is so clever, I thought, for them to put it there where I’d never think to look, so I goes to the kitchen and I finds a flick-knife amongst the rubbish on the floor and I took it back and sat down. Then I starts to digging away with the knife, cutting my leg open so that the blood spurted all up my arm, which made me laugh, seeing my own blood all over the place, dripping through the springs, and although I found this little piece of white gristle in there, like a little man made of bone, I dug it out but it wasn’t it, so I carried on digging and then I hit my knee bone, which is not as simple as you think, and I stuck the blade of the knife right into the intersection where two of those bones meet, which is when I screamed I guess, and I must have fainted, because I came around later and it was almost dark but I could see there was blood everywhere, all over the lounge, up and down the hallway, in the bedroom and the bathroom—everything was red and covered in blood, I mean, what the fuck had I been doing? So I dragged my leg behind me and went back to the sofa.

I phoned Finkelstein and let it ring. They always answered you in the end. It was like they knew what everyone was doing and did just enough to keep you happy. Someone answered it but there was no-one there. I said, Finky, it’s Dan. I’ve done it, I’ve carried out the plan. I need to go home now.

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