I could never be sure who my friends were and who I could confide in about the past. Those closed off years; the emotional parts of my life locked away deep within your motivations. So, I guess, I never disclosed any details more than was necessary. I had a reputation to maintain.
There was one story of my childhood I would tell the newcomers to our cause. It was their only glimpse at the emotional side of me. And I’d retell it, round the fire, when faith in my leadership was dwindling. It was to remind them that my – no – our motives were Pure. So, I’d tell them:
I was perched on my father’s shoulders, on a steel bridge over the Great Western Mainline. My dad had parked in the adjacent industrial estate to take me here, knowing well that this was the greatest way for us to bond. We were there to wave to the train drivers of the High Speed Trains – the Flying Banana as it had been known colloquially. I’m telling you now, that there was something most rewarding in their response. The horn could be heard all the way over in Old Town and it was all done in honour of me.
While we waited for at least one of them to leave the platform of Swindon Station, my dad as always tried to make conversation, but being a six-year-old, very little of what he usually said was taken aboard in its entirety. The one thing that stuck with me was him saying:
‘Over there, son, is where your Granny worked.’ He pointed to a long row of buildings belonging to the old railway works, parallel to the line. ‘In fact, most of your family worked there.’ I felt a small tinge of pride in this. These buildings, the line I stood over, and the diesel fumes filling my nostrils were the reason for my being.
But being scared that this pride may distract me, causing me to miss the departure of a train. I looked back towards Signal Point, that weed of brutalism that marked the station. Sure enough – it was lucky I looked over when I did – a yellow face was emerging from its shadows, and heading towards us.
Now and again, I wonder if I did the right thing. Did I have the right to make that choice? I remember all seven faces of my inner circle, crouched down in that railway carriage filled with spilled boxes, bags of potatoes, and cans scattered across the central walkway. I did not dare to look at them for too long, turning my attention to the holes in the floor where the seats used to be fixed. I was trying to think of a plan.
Overhanging our heads was a thick feeling of dissent, which worsened as we were reminded of their presence. We could hear their boots crunching in the snow outside, and the occasional bullet fired nearby. My men were strong minded. They were usually resistent to this sort of pressure, but none like this. The only thing, I think, keeping them from mutiny was their trust in my plans.
I had by this point been contemplating who would be the Judas among the lot. There were some like Godfrey, who in these situations always had his head turned back towards home and not the gunfire. His place in the inner circle was precarious. Many a discussion was held concerning it. The outcome, of course, was since he was prone to the odd life saving fluke, all plans of ditching him was put on hold. It was better his survivalist mentality was employed with us, not against us. I thought he would be the most likely to seize the opportunity. Yet, it was my very own enforcer, Robert, that made the challenge. He sang:
‘”Our God, heaven cannot hold Him~
Nor Earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter-“’
‘Enough,’ I shouted.
‘You thought of a plan then, My Lord, Our Saviour?’
Did he suspect something? I guess I will never know. I considered my reply to successfully quell the overwhelming unrest. I never got the chance to respond.
‘Can you hurry up and choose our method of death?’ These words had thrown me into silence. Not because I was beaten, obviously, but my mind had become occupied by the memory of old ballads I used to amuse myself with. The heroes who lived on a diet of thrill and blood, and – oh, what was it? Ah – better to die young living free, being the code they lived by. However, much to my dissatisfaction, they’d always meet the misfortune of the gallows or betrayal. Even with a rope round their neck, they considered it a victory that they never turned their back on what they believed in.
You know, it has been a while since I’ve had any meaningful conversation without the pressures of survival persistently on my mind. The survival of these people, who in so much misery or in search of a free life, have attached themselves to me. I am bound to my responsibilities, so I’m now sure that I won’t ever get to experience intimacy again. I’m not sure if I need to.
It was no further than – let me think – three to four weeks ago, just after we had picked up a particularly bountiful shipment through the junction. Yes, I remember it clearly now since the stew that night was made with baked beans and a sizeable chunk of salted beef, imported from what remained of the United States – still going strong, I guess.
I was sitting in the ballroom of the Mechanics Institute, about half a mile down from Signal Point. The paint of the walls was like the dandruff of an old man’s head. It was here that I felt like the world outside was normal again. Because none of crumbling of the structure could be attributed to what happened – this place looked no different when the summers were still warm.
In the centre of the dance floor, we had a rusty oil drum. It was between the fire of the drum and the bitter cold radiating from the windows that really made you appreciate how lucky you were.
Robert sat opposite side of the drum, and for the first time in what felt like years, we were alone. He was a man that bred an atmosphere of composure, the conditions in which our adolescent friendship was forged. We enjoyed debates on old novels we studied or the odd newspaper we managed to get our hands on. We had our intellectual differences, yet none of this concerned me until this night.
‘Have you seen the recent issue of the Mail by your quarters? Even Hazelwood is calling you it, now.’
‘Yes, but titles are not honourable. Just think of all those yuppies with their titles. They showed their true colours, didn’t they?’ I tried to disguise the joy that these articles inspired within me. My name being used as a weapon, a destroyer of public confidence in the Government. I fear, however, in trying to appear humble and reminding him of our principles, I must’ve been careless to allow treacherous thought to consume Robert.
‘Are we any different from them, though?’ he reflected. ‘Are you any different from Hazelwood?’
These questions annoyed me. Need I remind Robert of the Purity of our cause? How Hazelwood and his accomplices might hear of our heists, shrug, and resume tucking into their venison.
‘That is a very Narrow way of looking at it,’ he replied. ‘The people there do suffer as a result, even Hazelwood. The food we take, the food for our own was meant for them. If you bothered to actually read the Mail you would see they have forced a harsher ration on London.
‘We’re not only stealing food, we’re stealing the lives of children from their mothers.’ I could see Robert was becoming increasingly weak minded to London’s propaganda. I could see faint tears resting on the bottom of his eyes. ’We fight them because they stole everything we had, they closed the borders of London and left us to die. But would you have done any differently?’
The wind whistled through the stairwells, they twisted and turned through the corridors of the Institute, and the fire flickered. Robert’s face at times was obscured from my sight. I felt uneasy. There seemed to be more warmth coming from the corridors than there was from the fire. I wasn’t sure what Robert attempted to achieve from this discussion other than to taint our motivations, our Purity.
I feel no remorse over his fate. Unlike the others, I was able to look at him in the eye without any sign of trembling. I knew they were all going to die, but it was a necessary sacrifice for the good of the commune. I sat there feigning an attempt at a plan, but what good was fighting our way out? I knew the garrison were under strict orders not to kill me. My bullet was in someone else’s gun – or I was destined for the gallows, perhaps?
I saw how they all looked at him. He had the confidence of the inner circle. Robert had been assuming many of the superficial aspects of my leadership by this point. He had insisted that the only way to heal the fractures was for him to become responsible for speeches.
As I stand here on the bridge I once shared with my father, I remember their faces. The hatred that seeped from their pores. They all still believed in a cause, but not in mine. They kept silent, hoping that I would save them. I will declare now, I am glad they are dead.
I don’t know how long I’ve been gone from Swindon – I’m surprised they kept me alive long enough for me to plot my escape. I’m not even certain the commune has survived without me. I will go out later in search of survivors to rebuild our movement. I will certainly not die young. I will only die when spring finally comes.