Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 39

Our guests were due the following day at 11am (eleven hundred hours), but they were late, and Kelvin got a bit annoyed.  He watched the ferry crossing the moat (as we call the river) and stood with his arms folded as they alighted stiff-limbed from the back of a Land Rover.  He was wearing his khaki uniform, beret and army boots (all of native manufacture, not imported).  The day was windy and overcast. 

We had set out drinks and sandwiches in the dormitory, which I had made sure was reasonably warm.  Our guests helped themselves generously to beer, whisky, and food.  They were irritable and impatient.  Kelvin had not told them why they had been invited, other than he had something very important to show them, which they would want to write about in their newspapers.  Each guest was an editor.  The oldest was Augustus Blandshott, whose paper came out intermittently and was called The Notebook.  The most quietly-spoken was Lucian McGonnell, who had taken over The Rover from Kelvin, and turned it from intranet nonsense into a relatively serious weekly publication on paper (but still with a nonsense page).  Lucian seemed occasionally to glance at Kelvin, as if trying to recall where he had seen him before.  The most fed-up looking was Colin Turnbull, a rather fat, rather bald man of right-wing temperament whom Kelvin disliked, and who was editor of a paper called The Gen.  The one who drank the most was a rough-looking, sandy-haired man called Frank Hoyland, editor of The DiggerThe Digger was published in a small mining settlement on I-11 called Carbonapolis.  It was reputed that many of its articles contained the phrase, “A fight broke out when…”  Last, and certainly most alert and determined to make something out of the visit, was Cerise Vallance, editor of several publications, including Royal Flush, which Kelvin made a point of never reading.  She was the only one who had brought a photographer.  He was a tall, gangly young man, whom Cerise did not allow to drink any alcohol. 

When the guests had had their refreshments, we all sat down around a table and Kelvin began to address them. 

‘I have called you all here because I need your help.  I have a message that I want to communicate and you have the means at your disposal to help me do it.’

‘If you’ve got a fuckin’ message to put across, why don’t you publish your own fuckin’ paper?’ asked Frank Hoyland. 

‘Because, Frank, I want you to put my message across, in your own words.  The reason I invited you here was not for an interview, but to have a debate.  I am going to explain to you how the war is going to be won, and I want to convince you that I am right.  If you have questions, ask them.  If you disagree with me, say so.  All I ask is that you don’t all talk at once.  If I can convince you lot, then I think I can convince anybody.’  Frank Hoyland grunted, a noise that signalled neither assent nor dissent.  He re-filled his empty glass from the decanter in the middle of the table, half an inch fuller than Kelvin had done.  He did not use the water-jug.

‘Are you going to attempt to control what we print?’ asked Colin Turnbull.  

‘I am not going to attempt to control what you print, Colin. I am going to attempt to talk to you, and let you ask me questions, and then you can print what you like.’

‘Whatever we like?’

‘Whatever you like.’

‘And what happens if we print “We’re finished – let’s all surrender”?’

‘You aren’t going to do that.’


‘Really.’  Turnbull seemed less than satisfied.

‘What do you have to say, then?’ asked Augustus Blandshott.  He was the most eccentrically-dressed of those present.  He had on a magenta-coloured bow tie, bottle-green tank top with holes in it, check shirt, plus-fours and brogues.   His journal, despite its irregular publication dates, was the most neatly and expertly typeset of any on the planet.  The general response to Blandshott’s question was nods of approval from the other editors. 

‘Let me begin by asking you a question.’  Kelvin paused, and they waited quietly for the question to arrive.  Even Frank Hoyland did not interrupt.  ‘Do you believe me when I say that we are going to win this war?’

‘Yes,’ said Augustus Blandshott.

‘I think so,’ said Lucian McGonnell and Cerise Vallance.

‘No,’ said Clive Turnbull.

‘Who’s “we”?’ asked Frank Hoyland.

Kelvin turned his eyes heavenward, but it seemed to me that he was secretly pleased.  This was exactly the response he had expected, except that he would have put money on Frank Hoyland’s having continued with, ‘Is that the Royal We?’  Everybody knew that Hoyland openly ridiculed the idea of Kelvin’s having been made King.  To him it served little purpose other than to make Kelvin vulnerable to caricature and wisecracks. 

‘Let me answer your question first, Frank.  “We” means every-one on this planet who doesn’t agree with fascism.  The only thing that divides us at the moment is to do with the fact that the enemy has struck first, and has struck with heavy weapons.  If we had tanks and helicopters as well, I don’t think there would be any need for this discussion.’  Nobody contradicted him.  ‘I feel as if the main thrust of what I am trying to say is directed at you, Colin.’

‘Because I’m right, you mean.’

‘No, because I think you represent the views of a silent body of opinion that I want to inform.’

‘The silent majority?’

‘No, it is not a majority.  It is a relatively small minority, but its number is nevertheless significant.’

‘You’ve counted the people who think that the invaders are more powerful than we are, have you?’

‘I have more pressing demands on my time than that.  I count things such as gun barrels and .303 rounds.’ 

I checked the time on my internal clock.  I had been having a sweepstake with myself about how long it would take Kelvin to utter the phrase “point-three-oh-three”.  He was continuing. 

‘That does take up a lot of my time because we have more of these things now than we used to.  Let me ask you another question.  What do you think we ought to do in this crisis?’

‘It is clear to me that the only thing we can do is to make contact with this other group of people, explain to them that we think this planet is big enough for both of us, and negotiate with them about which land they want and which land we want.  At the end of the day, there’s no point in going to war with them, because we’d lose.’  Kelvin winced at the phrase at the end of the day.  Turnbull and his paper were known for clichés. 

‘Do you genuinely believe that?’

‘Yes, I do, and so does every-one else with his head screwed on right.’

‘You would actually attempt to negotiate with the leader of the person who fired the rocket into O’Mally’s?’

‘Basically, what choice do we have?  If we try to fight against them, then we’re next.’  Kelvin winced again at basically.  He is such a delicate flower, even in a khaki uniform. 

‘No.  If we don’t try to fight against them, then we’re next.’  Kelvin looked across the room at Frank Hoyland.  He was slumped sullenly in his chair, as was his custom.  Kelvin caught his glance, and Frank reluctantly gave a slight nod, as a signal of agreement with the monarch whom he liked to ridicule.

‘If you think you can negotiate with these twats, then you’re a bigger fuckin’ fool than I thought you were,’ Hoyland pronounced.  Turnbull shook his head forlornly.  Cerise Vallance looked bemused.  She had not seen a story yet. 

‘I thought it would be difficult to convince you with words, and so I will stop making speeches and show you my demonstration,’ said Kelvin, mainly addressing Turnbull.

‘Demonstration of what?’

‘You’ll see,’ said Kelvin, getting up from the table. 

Kelvin led our guests towards the back of the room, to a place that they could not see from where they had been having their conversation.  The men were thinking about another glass of whisky and resented having to go outside. 

Kelvin conducted them to a small garden with some benches in it which were too rain-sodden to sit on.  The view looked across the river up the side of a neighbouring hill, uncultivated, ungrazed and uninhabited.  Round the garden were a few glazed pots, some containing herbs and some containing nothing.  There were a trowel and a hand-fork unaccountably left lying out in the rain (by Kelvin).  Also nearby, on the gravel next to the lawn, standing with its barrel pointing towards the uncultivated land on the other side of the river was a gun.  Not a pistol or a rifle, but the kind of gun which is mounted on a two-wheeled carriage with pneumatic tyres.   Kelvin took a whistle from his pocket and blew a sharp signal.  

As if from nowhere, a gun-crew in khaki uniforms appeared, and began to unload ammunition from a crate and to aim the gun.  The gun-crew were all immaculately turned-out, and were led by a wordless and inscrutable-looking Gurkha with the rank of Sergeant.  All the newspaper people (except Frank Hoyland) stood back in alarm, as if the act of putting two extra yards of distance between them and six artillery shells would save them if one were to explode accidentally.

Kelvin pointed to one of the shells.  He gave a short lecture about its design, manufacture and ability to do damage which I already knew about and which nobody else retained.  Kelvin tapped the shell with his foot as he was speaking, and the onlookers (again, except Frank Hoyland) took another pace backwards.  Here Kelvin handed each visitor a pair of ear-plugs.  They did not seem to know what to do with them, and so Kelvin demonstrated by putting his in his ears.  He gave a pair to me, even though he knew I would not need them.

In a series of precise and well-drilled movements, one crew-member opened the breech, another loaded the shell, another checked the bearing and elevation, and the first one then fired.  The target was a red flag which the onlookers had just noticed had been planted in the ground on the hillside opposite them.  The shock of the explosion seemed to each observer to dig him or her in the stomach.  The sound seemed still quite audible, in spite of earplugs.  It was a dull, reverberating report which sounded like nothing else that most of them had ever heard.  The gun recoiled a few feet, and Kelvin watched keenly towards the middle distance.  About a mile away, the shell landed, exploding immediately, this time with a sharper, higher-pitched sound.  It made a visible crater, and sent the red target-flag along with chunks of soil and plant material flying in all directions.

The gunner opened the breech and let the hot shell-casing fall to the ground with a clatter.  The gun was manoeuvred quickly into a new position, re-aimed at another flag, re-loaded and fired.  Another direct hit.  This drill was repeated a total of six times.  Kelvin nodded to the Gurkha section-leader and dismissed him and the crew, and looked round at the faces of his guests.  The crew having departed, taking the empty shell-casings with them, the cannon returned to being an incongruous item of garden furniture.

‘That concludes the demonstration.  Every part of this gun was made here.  We are making more of them now.  Those of the raw materials that we cannot obtain from I-11, such as rubber for the tyres and cotton for the propellant, we have stockpiled.  Are there any questions?’

There was silence, except for the sound of Cerise Vallance telling her photographer to get some pictures with Kelvin and the gun in the same shot.   The party had one more drink, and then got back in the Land Rover.  Kelvin watched the ferry all the way back to the far bank, as if to make sure that they would not come back. 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: