Short Stories

PinkSkySmooth Pools May Drain There

I heard the slap from two rooms away. There is no mistaking that sound. As I ran in, he was standing over her. He looked up. “She tripped,” he said mechanically, then pushed a smile onto his face. “Ah, welcome, Jasmine! At last we meet.”

“I tripped,” Agnes repeated, holding her cheek as I helped her up. “I’m OK.”

So, this was Ian Stanton, newly arrived from London. I recognised him now: portly, grey haired, his round face creased like ripples on a pond. He crossed to the fireplace and retrieved his brandy from the mantelpiece.

My sister appeared in the doorway. “Ah, Millie, come and join us. Please sit,” he said. “We haven’t formally met, but I feel that I already know you. You waited table several times when the PM and I dined at The Savoy. I watched with interest as your friendship with Mrs Winter blossomed,” he said. “And then a plan began to form in my mind. At last, the planets were beginning to align; the end game could begin. "Nick,” he called over his shoulder. “Fetch me the prize, there’s a good chap.”

Stanton’s Chief of Staff, Nick Souter, emerged from the side office holding a tiny brown bottle. He acknowledged each of us with a nod and then retreated to his room. Stanton shook the bottle gently and unscrewed the top. Carefully, he withdrew the pipette. “Remitam. Outside of Porton Down, you are the only people who know of this drug’s existence. Not even Mrs Winter is aware, our dear Prime Minister.”

 “What does it do?” I asked. Willing myself to remain calm (I’d had plenty of practice at masking my feelings), I glanced at Agnes to see how she was doing, conscious of the molten anger building inside me.

Stanton’s eyes slid over Millie and then me, holding each of us in his cool gaze. “It’s a nerve agent,” he said at last. “However, it doesn’t kill. Over time, usually a few days, the victim becomes forgetful, to the point where they can’t even remember their own name. One drop in a cup of coffee. Although the drug has already been tested on several thousand undesirables, it is still in development. There can be unfortunate side effects, sometimes severe. Such a pity.”

Millie chugged her cola and looked bored. I could tell the only thing on her mind was getting back to our snooker game. But the bottle held my attention. “I’m sorry, but why are you showing this to us?”

Stanton smirked and sipped his brandy. “That’s my girl, straight back with the killer question. We have been discreetly observing both of you for some time. Millie, you are the extrovert: impulsive, intelligent, chatty. Jasmine, you are the quiet one: the watcher, the thinker, the planner. I like that. Often, you have been overlooked because your sister shines so brightly. Now, your star is in the ascendant. You will take centre stage in the ensuing drama that will establish Mr Ian Stanton as our next Prime Minister.”

****

I thought back to our arrival, three months earlier. We had travelled most of the night, forced onto the back roads. The resistance was growing bolder. Dad said our time would come and, as we left, he had whispered the secret salutation: “The world is widest at its corners.”

Automatically, we had responded: “Smooth pools may drain there.” Like a Zen koan, the words thrilled and baffled me in equal measure.

The driver pulled our bags from the back of the taxi and dumped them on the porch. He eyed us sourly. “You should sod off back to where you come from if you ask me.”

“D’you mean Brixton?” Millie retorted. “And nobody is asking you.” We had heard it all before: Generation E, the forgotten children of the Emergency.

The driver gave a mirthless chuckle and fingered the leather holster on his belt. Then he spat and climbed back into the taxi. “See you in a couple of years,” he said. “Or not.”

A short woman stood in the cabin doorway. We were expected at least. She stepped aside and allowed us to enter. Apart from the beds, the room contained a small table and two kitchen chairs. A kettle and a microwave sat on the sagging breakfast bar. A shrivelled houseplant occupied the sink.

The woman waited while we explored. Then she said, “Welcome to Leasby Hall. My name is Agnes. I am the housekeeper. You will be working under my direction. You can run away if you like; you can even dig out the transponder – there are scissors in that first aid kit. But they’d find you inside an hour; the drones would find you, and then you’d be in for a cold, dark winter.” She pointed at the electricity meter. As if to underline the point, a distant, high-pitched whine, like a bluebottle trapped in a butcher’s window, filtered in from the direction of the empty fields beyond the trees.

Turning from the window, Millie sank onto a bed and clamped her hands to her ears. “This isn’t where I thought I’d end up,” she moaned.

I regarded the woman. I guessed she might be mid-forties. Her voice sounded Caribbean, and kind, like Gran. Her careworn face had an unfinished look, like embroidery seen from the back.

“We’ll see if we can borrow a couple of armchairs from one of the other huts,” the woman said as she counted out ten tokens and stacked them on top of the meter.

Back at the window, I used the grubby curtain to wipe a hole in the grime, careful not to let my braids touch the damp wall. The room smelled like Gran’s cellar, often our hiding place during the worst of it. The Emergency had begun with street protests; then came the arrests, the purges, the internment camps and the enlistment of neighbours into the hated Truth Marshalls. Everything became rationed, even education, with any young person not apprenticed or in school conscripted into the National Emergency Workers Service. Dad called it low paid slavery for poor kids.

It was getting light. Beyond the trees, the mansion house brooded silently, a featureless grey lump just visible through the September mist. “I wonder who lives there,” I said to no one in particular.

“You have met him, or rather you have served him, and the Prime Minister, on a number of occasions in your previous employment,” Agnes said. “That is why you are here. It was a personal request – you must have impressed him. I’m talking about Ian Stanton, the Deputy Prime Minister.”

Millie gave a low whistle. She nodded towards the window. “So, is he here now?”

****

Before the curtains touched to exclude the last glimmer of winter sun, I watched the long tree shadows creep over the dimming lawns. Stanton called over, “Jasmine, don’t you want to hear what I have planned for you?”

I didn’t, and yet I stayed silent. I went and sat with Agnes so that I didn’t have to look at the bureau drawer where he had put the bottle. I tried to picture Dad’s face, but my thoughts were too scattered. I wondered what he would want me to do.

Then I realised Stanton was addressing me. “You will do what you do best, Jasmine. You will solve my problem of a Prime Minister who has lost her nerve, who’s gone soft on the promises she made to the English people, who allows the scum of the earth to land on our shores. In the New Year, after you have returned to The Savoy, there will be many opportunities for you to introduce Mrs Winter to the charms of Remitam. Your sister will remain here; I’m sure you can work out why.”

I glanced at Agnes, whose grip on my forearm confirmed the story her face plainly told. Then she said, “Ian, why not let the young people go and finish their snooker game?”

“Hey, great!” Millie shouted, as if she had never even heard what lay in store for us.

“Telephone call,” Souter called from the office doorway.

Agnes and I exchanged looks. Her eyes briefly focused on the bureau, then flicked to the brandy glass on the table. “Well, I must get on. I have Christmas presents to wrap.” As she rose, I gripped her hand. “I’d like to call you Mum, that’s if you don’t mind.” She replied with the faintest of nods.

I had just potted my third red, much to Millie’s annoyance, when a deep-throated roar of pain from another room made me cower and drop my cue. The roar ballooned into a scream, filling my head, an excruciating, tortured wail, now so high in pitch that I could not tell if it its origin was male or female, or even human. Finally, it ended with a bursting blister of noise, unmistakably the sound of a pistol shot. In spite of my fear, I had to see, and sprinted in the direction of the sound.

Souter watched me from the office doorway, the pistol still held in front of him. His face showed no emotion. “It was you,” he said. “The Remitam.”

I swallowed, unable to move, my legs rigid and defiant. “He…”

“Deserved it? Yes, he deserved it, for a thousand unnamed crimes.” I watched as he wiped the gun with a duster and dropped it into a padded bag. “Stanton did say the drug could have unpredictable side effects,” he said with a grim smile. “Evidently, he was right. You look surprised, Jasmine.”

“But you killed him. I don’t understand,” I faltered. “What will happen now?”

“We continue with Stanton’s plan, of course. Just without him. Like most egotists, the last thing he expected was disloyalty from his dedicated staff. Finally, we have reached the moment fighters like your father have worked towards for years. And you, Jasmine, are the one who will trigger the uprising.”

This felt real. But was it just more lies, more deceit? Sensing my doubts, Souter took my hands. “The world is widest at its corners,” he murmured.

 “Smooth pools may drain there,” I replied and felt at last the hot, bitter tears.