He Died Twice (Chapter 1)

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Everton, Hampshire 50°44’53.8″N 1°35’21.5″W March 23rd 18.57 hrs

It was dead quiet on the street. Behind neat fences and hedges, detached houses stood like islands in their wide lawns. The only visible signs of life a were few different-coloured windows lit up from the inside. The jolly theme tune of The News Quiz faded out and the announcer began the link to The Archers and still she was waiting… The car had grown chilly in the past fifteen minutes and the windows were misting up. What the hell was he doing in there? Bobby often ended up chatting to clients for longer than he’d promised, but he knew she was picking him up and that they had to be somewhere – they were going to be late for dinner with Craig and Mel now. There was no phone signal here, she’d already tried.

Oh for fuck’s sake!”

Kate snatched the keys out of the ignition, grabbed her handbag and got out of the car. Unlatching the low gate and passing through a tall, thick hedge, she stomped up the path towards the house, grumbling. The house had no security or porch lights, and, suddenly feeling an unevenly paved surface beneath her feet, she slowed, picking her way along. Halfway up the path she heard raised voices from inside the house:

“…You know what they will do. They won’t let you just walk away. And there’s nowhere you can go that they won’t find you. Your only option is to carry on, do what they ask.”

But not this, I can’t do this! I must have some right to refuse jobs – for god’s sake, Jim’s one of our own, and his family surely have nothing to do with any of this! He won’t have told Susan anything, just like I wouldn’t tell Kate anything: for her own sake. I can’t hit kids. I won’t!”

Hit kids’? What kind of weird job was this they were talking about? And what wouldn’t he tell her ‘for her own sake’? Was the business in trouble? Bobby sounded angry and distressed.

Bobby. I know it’s a tough assignment, but Jim needs to be terminated. That’s your job, I suggest you do it. Approval goes all the way to the top. All the way. The Russians as well. You know what that means.”

But why all of them? It’s hard enough to contemplate doing Jim, although, well, it’s hard to take in, but I do accept from what you’ve shown me that he’s a traitor. But all of them? I’m practically Cindy and Rory’s uncle! I won’t fucking do it, I’m telling you now. Get someone else to do it.”

Bobby sounded furious. Who were Cindy and Rory? He was their ‘uncle’? ‘Jim’ was a ‘traitor’? Kate had never heard of these people. The whole thing was mystifying and therefore fascinating. Perhaps they’re rehearsing a play…? She stopped where she was, hidden in the shadows of the front garden, to hear more. The other man was saying:

“…Bobby. Our employers do not take it kindly when a trusted employee such as yourself refuses to carry out their duty, however morally repugnant. Our employers start asking themselves questions, and they start coming up with certain answers … especially if that employee and that duty are close friends, like family, even, with ties going back years, and so on… Surely I don’t need to spell this out any further? You do this job, you’re proven squeaky clean. You refuse, your loyalties are questioned, and the same fate may well await you and the lovely Kate. And your kiddies too, if you had any. It’s the way it is. Shitty, but true.”

Shitty is fucking right! I’ve done this work for HMG reliably for more than ten years, and this is what they think of me? That I’m untrustworthy? Fuck you, and fuck them. I’ll take my fucking chances in Timbuktu, you can tell them that.”

Shh! Keep it down, for god’s sake! There is no Timbuktu, son. I –” the man broke off. Kate wondered why. She was motionless, riveted. What the hell was going on? It didn’t sound like any kind of conversation that could possibly relate to organising a cycle safety workshop, which was what Bobby had told her this meeting was about. And anyway, Bobby was self-employed, he didn’t have employers who could tell him what jobs to take. He sounded odd, not like himself. Ten years was the whole length of their marriage.

The voices went quiet. Kate crept closer to the window. She couldn’t see in because the curtains were drawn; there seemed to be whispering, but she could make out no words. It was cold out here and her feet were getting wet. She looked down to see that she was standing in a flowerbed. She held her breath and strained to hear what was going on. A breeze whispered through the hedges. Her breath escaped quietly in mist and it grew darker.

Inside the house, the man Bobby knew as ‘Jerry’ put his finger to his lips and inclined his head towards the TV screen in the corner. It showed a night-vision image of the front garden. During the most heated part of their argument neither man had looked at the screen, and so it was not until now that either spotted the figure standing close up by the window. Bobby immediately knew that he’d made a huge mistake in asking Kate to pick him up from this briefing when he hadn’t known the subject of it. But how many times had he been that lazy over the years? It had always seemed important to maintain an illusion of normality, to let her pick him up or meet him places, as if he’d really just been organising triathlons or hill-running events. So he’d reasoned, and it had worked out fine until tonight. In the blurry green image, Kate looked ghostly, and you couldn’t see her expression. From the way that she was standing by the window and not simply ringing the doorbell, it seemed impossible to doubt that she’d overheard at least part of the conversation. It took a split second for this to flash through Bobby’s mind. It took another for him to reach round to the back of his belt and release and open his flick-knife.

Jerry took only the same brief moment to turn to Bobby with suspicion and horror in his eyes. The flick-knife convinced him. You could read Jerry’s calculations on his face: Jim must somehow have found out what was coming and got word to Bobby. The wife obviously knows all and is here to help Bobby kill me and clear out. Jerry drew a gun and aimed at the window. Aware that Bobby was not carrying a gun, not wanting to risk Kate getting away, he shot at her first, rather than ensuring that Bobby was disarmed or disabled. It was instinctive, and it was stupid.

Kate, get down!”, yelled Bobby as loudly as he could, and, not pausing to look at the TV screen to see whether she had done so, simultaneously launched himself at Jerry, managing to deflect the shot towards the upper right corner of the window.

The gun was silenced, but Bobby’s shout and the explosion of glass fragments from the window made Kate jump in surprise so hard that she stumbled backwards over the border of the flower bed. She sat dazed on the grass, then stupidly ran back to the window. Like the time I got that electric shock from a tap and immediately put my hand back on it again; her body demanding further proof. From inside she could now hear sounds of a violent struggle, things being broken. What to do? She ran to the front door. Locked. She pressed her face up against an etched glass panel trying to see through the little clear strip at the edge of the pane. Inside the house there was a deep groan and the noises stopped. Frantic, she hammered on the door, terrified that Bobby had been shot. The door began to open in slow, slow motion. In its wisdom her body now decided to anchor her to the spot, whilst shrinking itself as small as possible. Behind the door stood Bobby, covered in blood. Kate felt faint. He must have seen this in her sudden pallor; he grabbed her around the shoulders and pulled her into the house. He sat her down on a chair in the hallway.

Breathe! Put your head down between your knees! I’ve got to sort out a couple of things here and then we’d better get away.” Oddly, he seemed not the least scared or shocked himself; in fact he was perfectly calm. This was Bobby in the ‘professional mode’ – cool and focussed, serious looking – that Kate was used to seeing when he was at work. In this situation it was surreal. The whole thing was surreal, it wasn’t helping her dizziness.

Get away? I don’t understand… Shouldn’t we call the police…?”

You don’t know what’s going on here – that’s for the best right now. Kate, you have to trust me. These are dangerous people. I’m sorry to have gotten you mixed up in it, but we’ll have to discuss that later. We can’t call the police, that would endanger our lives even more.”

What? Wh–?” Kate mumbled into her own lap.

Bobby said nothing more, but went back into the front room. She lifted her head and looked after him, and immediately regretted it. Alongside the remains of a broken table and smashed lamp lay a man. Was he dead? His belly was just a mess of blood. Bobby was doing something to a laptop at a desk in the corner, and a greenish film was running backwards on the TV. Bobby stuffed the laptop into his backpack. He crouched beside the man on the floor and went through his pockets, taking his phone and wallet and adding them to the bag. Looking at the man made her dizzy almost to fainting, and she had to put her head back down between her knees. So Kate missed seeing the moment when two small discreet thuds sounded, and Bobby grunted and slumped and then fell back with a crash.

In an instant her head and vision cleared and she rushed into the room. The wounded man had managed to shoot Bobby in the stomach before collapsing again. Bobby was slumped against the sofa with the backpack in his lap. Not moving. She ran to him without thinking about the other man, or the blood, or anything else except that the love of her life lay wounded or dying. She said his name and kissed his face. Tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to find a pulse, a heartbeat. There it was, faint, fluttery. She held him and whispered “Come back, my darling, hold on! I’ll get help, just stay with me, I’ll get an ambulance…” She was looking around for her bag, her phone…

His eyes flickered open.

No … no ambulance…” he whispered. “No police… Run.” His eyes were fully open now and boring into hers, trying to communicate something more than he could manage to say. “Run. My love. Sorry … all this … run, now! Kill … you … too… GO!” He raised an arm towards her and tried to push her away. He placed her hand on the backpack and then he died. Blood came out of his mouth.

Kate curled up into a ball and put her head in her hands. What the bloody hell is going on? Am I actually awake? She stayed like that for what seemed a long time. But when she raised her head and opened her eyes it was all still there in Technicolour. The two men lay motionless and bloody in the wreckage of the room. A green and black image – a night-vision image of the front garden – was frozen on the TV screen. They had been watching the front garden with night vision? That seemed very unusual. Most people just have security lights or a (fake) CCTV camera. In her stunned mind churned images of what she’d just seen her husband (her friendly, kind husband) do, with scraps of the conversation she’d overheard. ‘Russians’, silenced guns, ‘hit kids’ … night vision cameras … ‘I’ve served HMG for ten years’ – what was ‘HMG’? Bobby had said ‘dangerous people, get out, run, kill you, too’. The other man had said ‘the lovely Kate as well’. All this whirled around and around in her head as she hugged her knees and rocked, tears on her face and fear in the pit of her stomach.

What the hell am I doing? She sat back on the floor and thought: This is not a good place to be sitting a moment longer. A numbness descended upon her. She was freezing cold.

Bobby had said ‘don’t go to the police’ and she had her reasons not to trust them herself. Terrors present combined with demons from the past. Instead, she got up and went over to the bodies, and prised the gun from the dead stranger’s hand. If the authorities could not be trusted, she needed to secure this evidence herself. She wrapped the gun in her scarf and slid the bundle into the backpack’s front section, alongside Bobby’s wallet and phone, which were sitting in their usual organiser pockets. The quiet in the room thrummed at her eardrums; Kate pushed her hand into Bobby’s jeans pockets and pulled out only keys and some loose change. Taking Bobby’s back pack with her, she caught sight of herself, covered with blood, in the long hall mirror and had to sit down suddenly in the same chair as before and breathe a bit. Some deep impetus forced her up from the chair.

There was no noise from outside. Kate stood close to the front door, hardly breathing. Silence. She opened the door a crack. She could see nothing in the dark garden. Leaving the door ajar, Kate stepped into the porch, and as she did so, saw a hand reach in and carefully unlatch the front gate. Another hand holding a gun followed it. Who are all these people with handguns running around the countryside? Kate darted back inside, then turned and raced down the hallway towards the rear of the house, into a kitchen. The back door was locked. She rattled the handle in a panic. Someone entered the house through the front door and she heard footsteps and curses.

Kate looked around desperately; there was just enough light to show a small china dish in the shape of a fish on the nearby windowsill. With a Chubb key in it. She grabbed it and trembled it into the lock. It turned. But she’d been heard. She had to run.

Round the back! Don’t let him get away!”, hissed a woman’s voice from the hallway, and Kate heard someone bang out of the front door.

The back garden was smaller than the front; just a few feet away, a side gate led out onto the street. She dashed across a bare patio, not looking behind her, and decided to vault the gate, which didn’t quite work out: her foot caught on the top of the gate and she fell over it ungracefully and landed hard on the ground. Her pursuer came around the house, reached the back door, found it open, and span around to face the back garden. Now the fact that she was down on the ground was to her advantage. Kate stayed low and crawled away, towards the street corner where the car was parked.

Where did he go?”

Over there!”

Whoever it was that was pursuing her did not want to shout or call attention to themselves. Probably not the police. She ran to the car and unlocked it. Everything seemed to take such a long time – fumbling with the handle, trying to get in, get the key into the ignition, close the door… She started the car as her two pursuers came running around the corner, weapons raised. She screeched away from the house. The back window exploded, showering her with little chunks of glass. It took her a second to realise that bullets had caused this. She was just driving, as fast as she could, round the corner, out of sight, through the maze of bungalows and out onto the lane that led directly into the National Park. She knew this lane very well and could put on speed here. Trees rose up on both sides. After a quarter of a mile, Kate pulled off the lane into a parking spot. Turning off her lights, she tucked the car tightly behind some scrub. Then she ducked down and recited atheist’s prayers until a car came tearing down the lane and past her hiding place without stopping, slowing only very slightly at the bends. Someone was a very good driver. Kate waited for a breathless few minutes, heart pounding and frozen with fear, no cars came by. Her breath became short and her chest tightened. What the fuck shall I do? Then she remembered: the woman had said “Don’t let him get away.” They did not know who she was, or even that she was a woman. Kate restarted the car and pulled slowly onto the lane. She should not stay so near that horrible house.

For ten minutes or more, she drove mechanically, her body trembling, without thinking where she was going. Craig and Mel! She didn’t want to risk them coming to the house to see why she and Bobby hadn’t shown up to dinner. She pulled over in a lay-by to text:

So sorry! Car broken down, waiting for AA. Will not make it tonight. Ring you tomorrow and re-arrange? xxx

It was 7.31 pm by the dashboard clock. Half an hour had destroyed her life. She rested her head on the steering wheel. The numbness was wearing off and she shook violently. She drove a circuitous route into the depths of the forest, to take shelter with the trees.

Putting on the vest

I have a lot to thank James Cameron for. Whatever sins he has been guilty of since, in the mid ’80s he helped to change my life.

When I first saw Aliens I was 15 and living at a residential school in rural Devon for children in the Osho (Rajneesh) movement. I felt I was on the cusp of life; I felt the adult me was about to be born. I’d just arrived back from a visit to London where I’d actually met a boy I liked and who liked me in return (first time those two situations had aligned). Everyone over the age of ten crammed into a room and we watched Aliens on VHS. From the very beginning I was gripped. Ripley is both Cassandra, the woman fated to know the awful future, cursed to be never believed, and Odysseus, clever and tough but set against a range of opposing forces that obstruct her return to home and family. Ripley wears the action hero’s vest. In being a woman who acts, who is independent, who is a mother and a lover and draws fighting strength from her love, she was a new kind of heroine to me. In a world that obviously has more gender parity than our own, Ripley still stands out to those around her as ‘more equal than others’.

In the search for heroines amongst the women I’d been exposed to on screen, I’d found that I had to go back to the black-and-white women of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I loved irreverent Jean Harlow, breezy and modern Katherine Hepburn, devilish Bette Davis, sharp-shooting Barbara Stanwyck. I admired a lot of other women of that era but as a decidedly androgynous-feeling person, I was intimidated by the sexuality of Dietrich, the elegance and poise of Bacall. I loved them, but I could not identify with them. It was the same for most of the women presented to me in comtemporary roles: they were too pneumatic (Wonder Woman), too good (Charlie’s Angels), too princessy (Princess Leia), too clean (The Bionic Woman).

Ripley impressed by being six feet tall, taking no shit and working as hard as any motherfucker out there. She didn’t have to be clean or feminine to be sexy. She picked up her flamethrower and fought as a mother might fight, and she used her brains as well as her muscles. It was love. I had found my hero. That night a lot of the younger kids were scared by the film and so I led them around the house, armed with a big stick, bursting into the bedrooms with a shout, checking under everyone’s beds, even leaving my watch with my favourite kid as a ‘tracker’. It was simultaneously a childlike performance, acting out scenes from the film, and the first assumption of adult-like behaviour: taking charge and making the young ones feel safe. Something awoke in me that night, a new possibility. I’d always felt nervous and cowardly, anxious and weak. That night, my inner Ripley got to her feet and showed me that that was not the whole story. Being bullied had made me strong as well as paranoid. Being different and lonely had made me independent; I could stand apart when I needed to. Plus I had discovered how much I love action movies and how much of an outlet for my aggression and rage they could be.

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Cameron and his wife, Linda Hamilton also created the amazing figure of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, who, although seriously disturbed, is another action hero who is not confined to the usual gender roles, not forced to be good or sexy or even sane in order for us to root for her. These women are mothers who have been forced into existential battles and then chosen the fight over everything else, neglecting their parental role like a man is allowed to. They ‘wear the vest’, strap on weapons, lace up their boots, and learn how to handle the hardware. They battle against fearsome monsters and bang their heads against dark corporate entities and manage to be much more intelligent and humane, less casually psychopathic, than Arnie, Bruce or Sly.

I know that I have disgusted people of taste over the years with my preference for Aliens over Alien. I don’t care. I don’t care about taste or what critics think. I even like Alien 3. I will never forget what Ripley did for me that night. It’s been a long wait for us to see such powerful women on screen again. Nowadays we are used to women fighting, firing guns, flying spaceships. They can even turn out to be the Jedi-in-waiting, which I admit did both delight me and bring a tear to my eye in the latest Star Wars Franchise offerings. But while they are in lycra or latex or corsets,* while they have perfect lipgloss and hair and wear high heels and have Barbie-doll figures, while they have to be good or feminine, they remain unbelievable and inaccessible to me. Give me a woman in army boots and a vest, a complicated and imperfect woman who will stub out her fag with a tired sigh and get to work, getting sweaty and dirty in the process. Give that woman a flamethrower and I will be in heaven.**

*Not Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, I really liked her even though she breaks all the rules I list here. She’s just so deliciously bad and insane.
**As I write, I realise that this is basically a vision of me doing archaeology with a flamethrower.