All The Queen's Men

Joggers, strollers, skaters, buskers…

Moko jumbie.

Ambling, ungainly, like a plastic tube man waving in the wind, arms flailing here, there, around, everywhere.

Towering, dancing - Caribbean eye over London.

Anthony came off the bridge onto Festival Pier. Skaters were already hard at work. On his first visit to London, he had decided to walk from Charing Cross Station until…anywhere really. He had crossed a bridge and stumbled upon the undercroft, its vulgarity startling in the city’s order. He should have been accustomed to this but instead, he walked quickly, mildly disoriented.

In a foreign land, some familiarities are sinister.

He looked over to his right. On the river, a boat was taking tourists on a tour down the Thames.

Wordsworth’s Thames for them. Lucky them.

Heaven in drops of water.

The skateboard park was Dickens’s - always making a way in the world.

A jumble of colours forced its way out as his eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness in the undercroft.

The sunlight outside added an air of drudgery to the graffiti decorated walls.

Peace. Skateboard4Life. Love - words that suggested a community always making a way in the world, thriving under low ceilings and obstacle courses.

Southbank Centre was crowded as usual. He could see the capsules of the eye from a distance as he walked. Billowing red across the merry English sky, the moko jumbie was dancing on the Queen’s Walk, flexible with his height, watching over all who passed by.

A skateboard whisked past him and passed through the jumbie’s stilted legs.

“Whoa!” somebody shouted.

Passers-by laughed, entertained.

A child pointed - two feet of awe looking heavenward at ten feet of jumbie.

A jogger moved deftly past, dodging the throng of people.

Sidewalk sitters,

coffee drinkers,

Englishmen in Lonsdale jackets and

Reebok trainers.

Big Ben chimed away, centuries of chimes trapped in those walls.

London’s timekeeper looked directly past Waterloo Bridge over to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. The face-off was entertaining.

London bridges.

They were tightly secured – for now.

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“Well, at least the rain and the ambulances are the same.”

“I’m afraid anyone could have told you that.” David closes the door behind me. The warnings and wailings of the sick are drowned out—like most important things in London, they will blur and disappear in rainwater.

The welcoming weather has made everything feel uncomfortable, has made me want to throw off my own skin for a little while and breathe in soothing spoonfuls of dust.

I stand peering towards the staircase at the end of the damp hallway. As though through a mist, I see blurs of myself, little scenes from a world in which I no longer exist. With a sinisterly foreign energy I run up and down those stairs, I open all sorts of doors for all sorts of people, there is always a dinner to be invited to, I chew a pack of gum a day, I never carry an umbrella. Someone I recognise hurries past me—ancient giggles and the sound of plastic cups kissing floats down from the top floor; the rain bothers no one.


“I decided to walk past the furniture stores on Tottenham Court Road on my way here. Good to know they’re still mocking me.”

“Those places have the sole purpose of mocking anyone who has ever dreamt up a warmer future for themselves.”

Every night, before traffic dies down but after closing hours, the homeless of Bloomsbury cover themselves with wet front pages of The Evening Standard and fall asleep in the pools of light spilling out from the display windows of the furniture stores. The white beds are occupied by no one. As the sun rises and the garbage truck comes sweeping, the bedazzled gorillas and turtles that decorate the mahogany nightstands stare blankly at an empty pavement.
Ladies and gentlemen! Listen carefully! If you want to witness these sad fortunes you must wait, you must walk the right streets at the right time, but be assured—the curtain will rise and you too, will be able to enjoy our dreary, hand-crafted spectacle!

“You know, it’s strange how much they still bother me. They’re just couches. Stupid couches.” I’m sitting on an inflatable mattress in David’s room. The entirety of London, brimming with its noisy pompous promises, could be boiled down to this blue little space; the only friendly place that remained after I left.

David, perched on the window sill, wraps a purple blanket around his shoulders. “Yes, but those couches belong in homes and homes have people in them. You wanted the person, not the stupid couch.

I look up at him—a grotesque purple bird, my dear friend, too direct, too wise, the only reason I came back.

“You know, I’ve been away for longer than I was here in the first place. So, I decided that this would be a visit to a foreign place, not a return. I would start over. But then—”

“The stupid couches?”

“Yeah, maybe it was silly to think that I would get away without land mines”

“Help me find my phone” He jumps down from the window. “It should be here somewhere.”

“Why?”

“Oh, we’re just ordering pizza. And then we’re calling up the palace and telling all the Queen’s Men to line up outside. And we’ll tell them to bring you all the royal couches they can find. And then, if you like, we’ll kindly ask them to leave again."

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Not too far away at the end of the Mall, a guard in a very big fur hat wanted to sneeze.

There’s a foreign culture that believes if someone talks about you, that you’ll sneeze. The guard did not know this, he did not care much for foreigners and even if he did, he’d likely not be able to make out the reference.

More importantly though, he could not sneeze because was on duty. There were crowds of people watching. People from all over the world, a rainbow of colours from very black to very white. A couple of shades in between. They were expecting him not to move a muscle.

He tensed his nose and tried very hard not to think about sneezing. He still had another four hours on duty. Fun fact: if one of the Queen’s Guards has to go to the bathroom, he’s supposed to ‘relieve himself on the spot’. Breaking his duty is not an option. But would a quick sneeze really break character? What if he marched to the other sentry box, turned his back quickly and wiped the snot away? Maybe there would even be any snot! Genius! Oh wait. Oh no. Got to wait till both of us want to move. He almost thought out loud but luckily kept it silent.

The sun did not help the poor guard. It was a bright, bright sunny day in Central London and the light was shining right into his eyes. He could think of nothing other than having a nice big sneeze. Would probably entertain the crowd right? Before he became a guard, he was a comedian. Or at least, he’d like to think he was. It doesn’t matter anymore, that was in a previous life.

“Hey!” shouted a mildly foreign man from outside the gates. Was he Caribbean? Indian? Was he actually foreign? Probably just from South London by the sounds of his accent.

The guard glances over. He doesn’t move his body. He’s not allowed to.

“I want all your couches”.

Bloody fucking hell, it’s a joker.

“I’m serious. I want your couches”

Ignore him. Ignore him. It’s just another one of those.

“I’m serious and I’ve got a bomb”.

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Anthony was trying to locate a little bookshop he had visited on a walk to Buckingham Palace the day before. He knew he should have bought the book when he had seen it. Now he was in the mood to read, and there was no book.

Tick

Tock

Tick

Tock

‘Time waits for no man,’ so the elders say.

Neither do ideas.

The idea of a book. Unfinished by indecision. Or was it just callousness. The thought that ‘it would be there another day.’

He looked at his wristwatch. It was almost quarter to twelve and he had completed one sketch.

Skatch skatch

The pencil scraped its way around the paper until a form appeared.

It was enough work for the morning. The sketch had taken him three hours and he had finally managed to create an idea that seemed workable. He decided to go in search of the bookstore. He walked out of the three-bedroom flat in Westminster that he was sharing with two Polish men. They were always gone before he was up but they seemed to clean up every day. He hardly ever saw them.

He headed towards Buckingham Palace. Only two weeks in London and he was already finding his way around. He walked a lot now, a freedom he didn’t have where he came from. The roads in Santa Clara were not walker friendly. Not that there weren’t pavements, but that pavements were too open and susceptible to stray bullets and police harassment. It wasn’t what anyone in Santa Clara would call a social space, except maybe for elders. An elder in his part of town was anyone over the age of forty.

Men were lucky to get past thirty-five.

The day was hotter than the days he had experienced since moving to London. It was a comforting heat.

Anthony was walking past the palace when he noticed a commotion at the gates. A man was gesticulating at the guard. He shook his head and continued walking.

“Some joker,” he muttered.

He continued walking, thinking of the guards and the skill of stillness they probably trained for, the people who posed as statues and the time it took to get ready. The images flashed by quickly.

He felt a sudden chill on his neck. He stopped and turned towards the palace.

The energy around the gate was changing. The gesticulating man was shouting something that was inaudible to Anthony who was approximately fifty metres away.

The guard at the gate continued standing, stoic in his dedication to his position.

The crowd was beginning to disperse in a hurry.

Without warning, someone ran through the crowd towards the shouting man. He turned away from the guard to face the runner, a look of surprise on his face.

“Jesus Fucking Christ Alex!” cried David.

“What is it?” said the vaguely foreign man who had until this moment been harassing the Queen’s guard.

Anthony looked around to make sure there weren’t any cops. He decided to take a closer look and took a longer curve towards the perimeter of the castle. Walk in a straight line and the Guards might think him part of the commotion, stay in the same place and he won’t be near enough to even pretend to be part of the commotion. It’s not everyday that a visitor gets to see something like this.

“Get the fuck away from the Guard, Alex” yelled David “Leave you for one bloody minute, and you almost get shot by secret bloody service!”

“Nah, David, you won’t understand mate” replied Alex “I’m doing this for you”

“Have you gone off the fucking deep end?” David retorted, “I just had M16 knock on my fucking door saying that someone who stayed with me - you - is threatening to blow up the bloody palace. You don’t even have a bomb!”

“Yeah, you got me there” laughed Alex.

The Guard took a deep breath. He still had someone managed not to move through the whole ordeal. Maybe Her Majesty will give him a Victoria Cross for bravery. He’d like that.

“Oh, there’s no bomb” thought Anthony who had just gotten within earshot “at least we won’t get -”

The hole in the gate was massive. The Guard was knocked off his feet and straight into the sentry box.
David flew back and landed in front of the statue of Queen Victoria, whose eyes did not glance at him. A disembodied hand flew into his lap.

If Anthony had walked in a straight line, he’d be in a lot more trouble than getting arrested.

There was a blur of colour, as if the camera reel had gone crazy. The scene was shuttling back and forth. It was a distorted video reel, skipping, edged with black. Anthony tried hard to focus, disoriented by the sounds around him.

Limbs. Mangled bodies. Bloodstained floor.
The smell of burnt steel hit his nose.

The scene in front of the palace looked like an all out war. Except there weren’t horsemen or cannons or rifles.

“What just happened? What?” he kept repeating, trying to find stable ground.

Inside the palace ground, there was a quick arrangement of security guards. Nobody looked out of windows. But then there were too many windows to scan and from where he stood, it wasn’t entirely possible to see a peeping face. He could just imagine the reinforcements coming together inside the palace walls.

And all he wanted was that book. A book he should have bought the day before. In the wreckage, that was his one moment of clarity.
He was suddenly aware of the blood. It smelled like rust.
He felt nauseous and threw up right where he was standing. It didn’t matter. There was a bigger mess to clean up. Might take a day to settle and even more days to get citizens’ panic down.
Nothing made sense.
One minute there was no bomb and the next minute, there was a hole in the palace gate and people parts scattered around.

The sirens jolted him out of the confusion.
This shit storm was real!

He made a move to leave. Guilt kept him immobile. He wasn’t sure what he should be doing right at this moment. He thought about the unfinished sketches lying in his room. He thought about the book. Perhaps now the bookstore would be closed because the environs around the palace would be under security watch.

How I Became Stupid.
The cover design flashed across his mind. It seemed wrong in this context.
A year ago, he had sent his friend Jonathan to locate the book for him when he had travelled to the US. Some literature never reached Santa Clara. Jonathan had telephoned, annoyed.
“Everybody was looking at me like I was off my rockers. Even the cashier looked at me like I was dumb. You were making me into an ass weren’t you?” Jonathan had said, audibly irritated. Anthony had broken down laughing.
“But it’s really a title,” he said between laughs.
“It’s a real book. I wouldn’t do that to you man,” he said, trying to convince an irritated Jonathan that he wasn’t lying.

Guilt hit Anthony again.
Was he supposed to be thinking about the possibility of a closed bookstore, an unreachable book, in all this mayhem?

The guard continued to stand motionless. Well, stand would be the incorrect verb. He was still, whether he was still able to ever get up again would be a question for the doctor.

Anthony could move, but he did not move. The bookstore could still be open, but shock kept him glued to the ground. He could crawl, maybe, but he wouldn’t get very far. Perhaps half way to Green Park station, but by then it’d likely be cordoned off by the coppers.

David should have stayed at home. He should have made Alex stay at home. It wasn’t his fault his friend went mad, but now who knows what will happen. Will he become a conspirator? David had never broken a law in his life, he never even jaywalked.

Is this all that was going through his head when his friend just became nothing more than discount cuts from the local market?

The bookeeper saw the breaking news on TV. He nodded.

Yes, he thought. Today was the day. It happened today.

It had begun to drizzle.
“Wow,” Anthony groaned. It wasn’t hardly an exclamation.
“What else could possibly make this messier?” he thought.
The blood and ash and fine debris would soon start to float off.

The rain made light of such matters.

The rains in England were cold and sharp. Rejuvenating even. At times.

Had there been nothing beneath his feet in Santa Clara, the drops may have felt similar. The ground beneath his feet however presented a conundrum. The gift of water, raised the heat from concrete and asphalt. It was suffocating unless there were several days of heavy showers. But then, this would brings days of flooding on account of engineers who evidently had purchased their qualifications at an outlet mall and had found suitable employment in the civil service.
Here, far away from Santa Clara, the rains were different.
Today, even more so.
There would be people in yellow and black raincoats perhaps. People carting off the injured and dead in vehicles that had showed up on the scene, sirens blaring, screeching to a halt at the site of this eruption.
The ambulances certainly responded well.

He looked at the flashing lights and the stretchers in motion. He suddenly realized that there could be dead bodies there.
He threw up again.

The news channels had arrived. Cameras were everywhere.

Queen Victoria looked over it all, still, imperial and safe.

Journalists were like rats, Anthony thought, finally able to sit up, one palm still on the floor keeping his body steady. He wasn’t sure what to do in this situation. It seemed vulgar to leave at this point. He was a witness after all. Was he supposed to wait around until a journalist found him to ask questions? He didn’t think he could give a proper statement.

His cellphone rang. The vibration in his pocket jolted him.

He stood up and immediately felt dizzy. He went down on knees and hands, creeped over to a bollard and leaned on it. His phone hadn’t stopped ringing. He pulled it out.
The number didn’t seem familiar. It was a UK number. The only people who had it were the authorities. His visa wasn’t due to expire anytime soon and he had only been there for a little over a week.

“Hello?”
“Hello. Is this Anthony Saunders?”
The woman’s voice was refined, quiet even.
The quiet tone of the well-educated.

He thought about the voice for a split second.

“Mr. Saunders?” the voice queried.
“Yes, yes. This is Anthony Saunders,” he replied quickly.

In the mayhem, the voice on the other line sounded ominous. Too calm. The sort of voice you heard in movies just before it says 'this message will self-destruct in five, four, three, two, one."

His head was spinning, trying to stay in the moment. He was clutching his mind, his fingertips grabbing it for as long as he could. His hold felt unsteady.

The act of painting was an act of straying with focus. His canvas grounded him. It was his rock. He tried to use the discipline to lock himself into the moment but he was finding it difficult without a brush in hand and a canvas in front of him. He always painted with his left side to the window. That way, the light didn’t blind him and he could use the window to stare outside when he needed to look away. The thought came to him now. There wasn’t a window here.

“Mr. Saunders, can you hear me clearly” the voice continued

“Yes. Yes” Anthony took a deep breath and cleared his throat “Yes. I can. Sorry, I’m in a bit of shock right now, is it desperate?”

“I know where you are Mr. Saunders” said the voice “Take a deep breath, calm down. No harm will come to you, don’t worry”.

Don’t worry? Don’t worry!? thought Anthony. How can one not worry with a message like that?! Blood made of rain, body parts soaring through central London. His best friend just became a kamikaze bomber and no one was the wise as to why.

“I know what you want to say. It must be shocking to receive a call like this at a time like this - but it’s not a coincidence Mr. Saunders”

Anthony was about the hang up the call when the voice spoke again

“Don’t you even think about that again Mr. Saunders. Keep me on the phone. Follow my instructions”

Silence.

“Get up and walk down past the Queen’s Gallery. Side of Buckingham Palace, South. Don’t draw any suspicion to yourself. The police will not frisk you down that way, they’re busy boarding up the northern side of the Mall to stop the tourists”

Anthony did as the voice commanded.

“Good. Keep going down this road for 15 minutes”

Anthony was in no mood to argue. There was no mood in the air at all.

“Perhaps it might make you feel better if I were to introduce myself properly. My name is Charlotte Mansfield; your friend David worked for me. This was his final mission”

“Don’t stop walking Mr. Saunders. No harm will come to you - if you listen to me”

David?
Anthony rummaged through his foggy brain to understand. He stopped walking.
He didn’t know a David. There was a David once, a friend of his father, but that was back home and that David had been dead a long time ago. His father’s generation had started to diminish. The men in his district didn’t live for long. Either they died by mistaken identity or by stepping across gang lines. There was a saying in his area that you were an elder as long as you made it past thirty-five. It made him even more determined to leave.

“I’m sorry Miss? Mansfield. I don’t know any David.”
“But of course you do Mr. Saunders,” she replied in a voice that was authoritative.
The phone suddenly went silent on the other end. He heard a subtle fumbling of what sounded like paper. He thought he heard a quiet “shit!”
“Hello? Miss Mansfield? Hello?”
“Yes Mr. Saunders.”
She was back, composed and self-assured once again.
“Mr. Saunders, you are here as an exchange student. Yes?”
“Well, not exactly. I’m here on a grant.”
Why was he giving this stranger this information, he asked himself.
“Yes, that’s right. And your government is aware that you are here?”
He fumbled. His grant had been a private affair. He had come over on a British passport. The option had opened up years ago for persons with British heritage to apply for passports for their children and themselves. His father, whose father had been a colonial officer, had applied. He stalled. His stomach felt heavy. He hated this feeling of being cornered.
“I’m sorry, but, who are you?” he asked, building up his courage to be direct.

“That’s none of your business” replied Mansfield “but I can sense that you require this information before you’d cooperate”
Again with the mindreading.
“Yes, Mr. Saunders, again with the mindreading. Get used to it. Whether or not I give you information, you’ll still work for me - and I know you’re aware of that. Yes, I’m aware because I can read you”.
No private space.
“None at all Saunders”.

Anthony continued to walk as the mindreader had instructed. She was right, he wanted to think, unless he wanted to lose…something…would he blow up like David - wait that’s David - he was literally alive but half an hour ago - how did he suddenly forget his existence?

“Because I made it so, Mr. Saunders. Do you realize what situation you are in now? No. Do not stop walking till I ask you to do so”.

For the next few minutes neither spoke, nor thought. When Anthony passed Victoria road, Mansfield spoke again.

“My first name is Nuri. Nuri Mansfield. Your friend David worked for me, your father worked with me in the colonial office in Bombay. Yes it is my real name, you can look me up. There’s nothing you can do with that information, as far as the world is concerned I’m dead. Died in the partition. Your father was in command of the office, I was a clerk. When the partition happened, he left back to Britain. I stayed in India”.

Come to think of it, Anthony had heard of a Nuri in his fathers stories. Sadly, Saunders Sr had died a few years ago. It was partly to pay respects that Anthony had decided to fly over to London. He was approaching Victoria Station now when Mansfield spoke again.

“Go inside and go to Marylebone. When you’re there, buy a train ticket to Birmingham. Turn off your phone, but don’t worry, I’ll still be speaking with you…in your thoughts”

There was a snigger and then silence.

David had left. In a flurry. After that grand gesture, a flourish of his hand as if he belonged to the royal family, he bolted. There was no ceremony to it. He had hit his shoulder on the edge of the doorway. It was a dull, painful sound.

We had found the phone.
It rang.
He ran.
I stared.
The rain continued to beat down on the rooftop. I heard it on the pavement below.
Pizza never arrived.
I looked around around at the sparse room.
With David in it, his floral personality, it had seemed full. Now that he was absent, the sparseness of the room was evident. He had always had that effect on me. This colour, this sound that made impermanence seem attractive.

I hadn’t moved from the mattress. That realization descended in slow motion, unsure. I wasn’t sure why unsure. Perhaps it was that I wanted to continue, that I wanted the time to remain one moment.

I had been sitting there, I estimated, about ten minutes after his disappearance. There was a clock on the wall.
It ticked.
Loud.
Second by second ticks.

When he had first arrived with it, a twenty-eight inch pocket watch clock, I heard the ticking before he entered the door.
“Really!” was my only reaction.
He had chuckled.
“I knew you would hate it. But, oh! I love it!” he had cried, gleeful. He had leaned it up under the window overlooking the road.
“We can plank now, without having that buzzing timer shit you have on your phone,”
“Huh” I grunted.
I shrugged, agreeing with the sentiment. I hated the little bell that reminded me of the morning alarm. I hated having my phone when I was detoxing from technology.
The clock stayed. And so did our friendship.

We were eventually clock deaf.

It was the people who visited who noticed the large sound in the room.

“David!” the voice had been frantic. Her had never heard her sound frantic. She also never called him by his first name. It wasn’t a tone that fitted Charlotte Mansfield’s persona. He had known her for two years and all he had experienced was a presence that floated into a room and commanded attention in a calm, measured tone.
“You need to leave now! That idiot Alex is at the gates.”
“Which gates?” he asked, his heart thumping.
“Palace, palace!”
He didn’t ask how she knew. She always knew. How was it that she could never foretell in ample time? Buckingham Palace was at least ten minutes away.

He hadn’t had time to say goodbye to Rebecca. He had been about to fling himself down next to her on his blow up mattress but instead made a leap, hitting his shoulder on the way out.
“Shit!” he cursed, getting to the elevator and pressing the button frantically. He took the stairs instead, skipping steps as he made his way, three flights down. The elevator was still creaking its way up.

He had no idea what Alex was up to. Charlotte Mansfield had explained nothing. She said leave and he had left. He assumed he would find out when he got there. Her urgent tone made his stomach churn. He had a bad feeling about this. To have Mansfield call, meant that there had been a serious plot twist.

He grabbed his bicycle from beneath the steps, pedalling hard towards the palace.

At the gates, Alex was speaking to a guard, shouting at him rather.

It didn’t turn out that way. It didn’t look as neat as she had expected it too. It was horrifying actually. Looking at it unfold from the window of the palace. She didn’t realize that people’s skulls could sound that loud. It wasn’t what she had pictured.
Naive imagination, she thought to herself.
Someone had caught sight of her.
She pulled back the curtain, her heart beating rapidly.
What if they knew?
That woman had looked at her as if she knew.
She pulled herself upright. She was the Queen after all. Untouchable.
How could she know?