51

Eventually I get to doing my math. It’s calculus so I don’t really get it, but I get some answers down, pack up my stuff and go in the kitchen for a glass of water. It’s gone midnight but there’s light showing under the study door. I knock quietly and look in. That smell again.

“How’s my all-American boy?”

Ah. Dad found the whisky. He waves the bottle in my direction, but this time I wave it away.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Drinking. Take a seat.” I sit down on the edge of the chair. He tells me about the change at work. They’ve introduced a rotation system: in the interests of fairness all employees below management level will have to work a week each month in the listening room.

“I’m there this week. I mean, I’ve always known what goes on there. But I don’t want to be part of it.” He sits there with his head in his hands. I try to think of something to say.

“But surely it’s only a problem for criminals and traitors?”

Eventually he raises his head and changes the subject.

“So, you had a good time at camp?”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

“And you’re an American boy now?”

“I figured I might as well make the best of it.”

“Congratulations. Do you even know what happened in 2033?”

“Of course I do. Britain applied to join the United States after they saved us from civil war.”

“Heh, sort of. A lot of people who were there at the time remember it differently.”

“But surely…if the US hadn’t intervened…Hassan would’ve…”

Dad pours himself another drink. I’d like to stop him drinking and I’d like to go to bed, but he wants to talk. And who knows, he might say something interesting when he’s drunk. He lowers his voice.

“Hassan was all right. He was popular, and his party won the general election in ’32, fair and square, most people thought. He’s a Muslim but…well there was no…” Dad thrashes his arm around to conjure the right phrase. “…no crazy idea of turning Britain into an Islamic state.”

Ah. That wasn’t what they told us at school. I settle back in my chair, fold my arms and listen. Dad seems to sober up a little as he focuses on his story.

“But the Prime Minister, Becker, the one who lost the election, he’s a stubborn old guy, and he says no, we’re not having a Muslim prime minister, thank you very much. And he refuses to budge, and the police back him up.”

“Of course, a lot of people don’t like it. There’s huge protest marches in London, Edinburgh, Manchester. Sometimes violent. Arson, looting. The police do what they can, but the cities are out of control, in flames.”

He takes a swig of whisky, but tilts the glass too much and dribbles some down his shirt. He flaps at it with a tissue.

“Hassan goes to Dublin and tries to set up a government in exile. Becker’s government declares a state of emergency, but the army refuses to take sides. And the violence keeps getting worse. So Becker asks for help from the US army, and they come over and restore order, and make sure as hell we don’t get a Muslim prime minister.”

“So that was the liberation of Reagan Square?”

“Well. At the time most of us called it the Trafalgar Square massacre. At least three hundred dead, in cold blood.” Dad puts down his whisky and blows his nose.

“Jeez.”

“My little sister was there. Ivy, her name was. Same as your sister.” His shoulders start to shake. I stare for a while.

“Oh…Dad…I didn’t…you never…” He sniffs, rallies himself and ploughs on.

“So Britain now has an occupying army. And the US president says, hey, would you like to join the USA? And Becker says not really, thanks for the help. But the USA insists on a plebiscite, a full popular vote. And we’re all thinking, it doesn’t matter, people won’t vote for it.”

“But then, the results come out and blow me, there’s a 56-44 vote to become the 51st state. Becker cries foul, but it’s too late, he’s sidelined and put under house arrest. There’s US troops surrounding parliament, Buckingham Palace where the King lived, the dear old BBC…”

“The what?”

“So by May 2033 it all went through, and since then we’re number 51.” I’m trying to take this all in. We sit there in silence.

“So Dad?”

“Uh?”

“After all that, why’d you call me Washington?”

“Your Mum chose it. She was always more pro-US than me. Less anti anyway. And she thought a good American name would help you get along in life, protect you. But I got to choose your sister’s name.”

It’s nearly one. I take Dad into the kitchen and try to clean him up a bit. I make him drink a couple glasses of water. When he’s gone to bed I get the whisky out of his study and pour it down the sink, wash the glass up and put it away, then bury the bottle in the recycling.

At last I go to bed, but it’s no use. I’m still awake at 3 a.m.
At the end of school I get away from class quickly and wait outside Ivy’s classroom. She’s surprised – we’ve hardly spoken since the evening of the raid.

“Ive, can we go for a coffee?”

“Really?” She shrugs. “OK, if you like.”

So we find a table in a quiet corner of McGuffins with a couple of small lattes. And I tell her what I learned from Dad the other night, and about our Auntie Ivy. She goes very quiet. Her head goes down and she starts crying. Finally she looks up.

“I’m so sorry, Wash.”

She comes over and puts her arms out. I let her hug me.

“Yeah, it’s OK. But it’s Dad who needs to hear that.”

 

At home I ask Dad if he’s got any pictures of his sister Ivy.  He manages to get his act together long enough to find one, and I get it printed. It’s a nice picture too: she looks hardly older than me, and you can see the intelligence, the warmth, the humour. No resemblance to Dad at all.

After school I buy a ten dollar bunch of flowers, Ivy cuts a length of ivy off a tree in the park, and we take the subway to Reagan Square. As usual, there’s a lot of big guys wandering around there in trainers and leather jackets.

We can’t decide where to leave the stuff, but we finally settle on the statue of Robert E. Lee. Ivy puts the picture of our auntie next the plinth, and arranges the flowers and the bit of ivy in front, with a card she’s written.

For Ivy, the beautiful auntie we never knew. With love from Washington and Ivy.

I take a quick couple of photos and we leave. I look back and see one of the big guys bundling it all into a black sack and carrying it away. But we’ve done what we came to do.

Finish line

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Start Zone C.  Just ten minutes to go now before the gun.  I fire up my Garmin watch, suck on an energy gel and tuck the empty packet under the fence.  I find a gap in the crowd, and as I stand among the nervous banter, I feel a familiar calmness.  I’ve negotiated the journey, the Expo, and got myself in the right place, at the right time, with everything I need.  I’ve done the complicated bit.  The rest is simple.  Not easy but simple: as my wife likes to remind me, “One foot in front of the other, keep going.”

The PA is blasting out upbeat music with a rapid tempo and feisty female vocals.  The training went well this time: no injuries, some good long runs.  I’m ready.

A countdown and the klaxon sounds.  The elite dash off to the sound of an over-excited announcer, and restrained applause from the mass of runners.  We edge forwards and after a few minutes are able to run as we cross the start line.  The first mile is quite frustrating, expending energy weaving past large and slow runners who have got themselves in the wrong start zone by predicting a hugely optimistic finish time.  But when I check my watch at the end of the first mile, I find that I’ve started surprisingly fast – faster than intended – but I feel strong, so I don’t slow.  I’ll leave that for later.

Well meaning spectators call out “well done”, and we think, we’ve done nothing yet; marshals call out “you’re looking good” and we know it’s a lie but thank them anyway.  We get into our rhythm, and start taking in the placards supporters are holding: “Toenails are overrated”, “Tap here to power up”, “Best marathon I’ve seen today”.  We high-five some of the kids who have come out to see their mums and dads.  Drummers, cheerleaders and bands line the course.

The early miles pass comfortably, with the mile markers flashing past with little apparent effort as I cruise through the sweet spot.  I reach halfway some way inside my target.  But I’m slowing already, so I know the second half will be very different.  I quietly let go of my most ambitious target of running a London “good for age”, and dig in at a safer pace to make sure I finish under four hours.

Negative thoughts swim in.  When my Garmin reaches sixteen miles, my first thought is great, only ten more miles to go.  But no, the official marker is still point one of a mile away.  And the distance is 26.2, not 26.  Somehow that 0.3 acquires a crushing weight in my mind.

At mile seventeen I suddenly get a stitch.  I try a trick I’ve read about: exhale on every second footstep on the opposite side to the stitch.  I don’t know whether there’s any science in this, perhaps it’s a placebo.  It seems to work.

We enter a park on a broad path made uneven by tree roots forcing their way up.  I’m getting pretty tired now, the uneven surface breaks my rhythm, but I make sure to lift my feet safely above the bumps.

The mile markers grow ever further apart.  At twenty-three miles I calculate I can afford ten-minute miles now, and will still be just under four hours.  But my oxygen starved brain has forgotten the point two again.  I’ll have to find a late surge if I’m going to do it.  I grit my teeth and try to pick up the pace.

As I enter the last mile I start to feel light headed: I reach for a gel but I had the last one half an hour ago.  The last water and energy station is miles behind me.  Push on.  I feel my legs get weaker.  At last I turn a corner and see the finish line, close yet impossibly distant.  Two hundred metres to go.  The crowds are now five deep just behind the barriers, but I hear their roars of encouragement as if they were a mile away through a tunnel, a distant dream.  The sound from the PA swirls in my head.  I lose control of my legs and start to wobble.  I just need to walk a bit.  Stop a bit…

I’m looking at the sky.  I close my eyes.  There’s a moment of sweet peace.  I can stop, everything will be fine.  A figure bends over me, holds my head up and tries to get me to drink.  His face blurs and fades.

But soon I feel better. I get up, and feel a surge of energy.  I cover the last metres smoothly and lightly, and as I glide through the finish line I’m pleased but slightly surprised to see my mother, father and grandmother waiting there for me, looking just as they did when I was seven.