A LEGEND'S CONFESSION
“So… this is your penance?”
The realisation had struck me – no, not “struck”. It was nothing so sudden or forceful as a hammer blow. “Dawned” is better, but even that term is not right. I realised later it had been a slow, creeping certainty as Mitchell told his tale, gaining in strength as the tuning fork timbre of tinnitus invades and overpowers one’s hearing; a tone of understanding so clear, so refined, it made me wince, as if stabbed by a sharpened blade. I sucked an involuntary breath, so loud it’s heard on my recording.
Mitchell’s dismissal of his status as legend; his disdain of his portrayal and the dramatization of the First Emergence,; his discomfort having the moment of his and Dr Edwards’ heroism captured in paint declaring itself from the other side of his study – hell, having it anywhere near him. Then there were his pauses when speaking about the Fire Fence; the fact that Jennifer Edwards – not him – had asked questions about it. Last, the way Mitchell spoke of Victor’s collusion in the crime; wishing him peace, not as one would of someone with whom he shared sympathy, but a darker solidarity… more akin to shared responsibility. It all now made sense to me why.
‘You knew…’ I said again, the words escaping my lips barely a whisper now, as if not wishing to give greater power to the mushrooming horror of what I now understood was the truth. ‘The propane tanks. You knew they’d been switched.’
Mitchell’s gaze bore into mine, his eyes expressing no deflection, no revulsion at my accusation. If anything, I saw in them relief.
‘Very good, Jay. Very good.’
Mitchell’s body seemed to sag then; relax at the lifting, at last, of his secret, decade-borne burden. He nodded, satisfied someone had finally succeeded in following his trail of tell-tale breadcrumbs to the centre of the maze-like public persona we – and he’d – built around him. Here was Alec Mitchell laid bare.
’It was Victor who told me. Only three nights before Jeff’s head rolled onto the lab table. I’m no Catholic priest; I didn’t offer the sacrament of confession as a rule. But Victor was, and needed it. So much so, he’d defied the curfew and snuck here through the dark. He told me, in this room – your very seat, in fact. He knew it was an abuse of the Haven’s trust, what Henry had asked him to do, and his being an accessory… He’d had to tell someone.
‘But it wasn’t just about assuaging his own guilt – telling me, that is. Many of us with the eyes to see could tell where things were going with the Haven, and Henry’s making him do that job, back scratching as it was, made Victor complicit with his regime. Victor realised what a mistake he’d made. So, he thought that, by telling me, one of the remaining Beestoners left on the Council, it could at least give me some leverage against Henry’s… machinations.’
‘But you did nothing,’ I said, aghast. Again, Mitchell nodded.
‘For the record… I did nothing.’ His eyes fell from my phone, recording every word of his confession, and stared at the floor, flexing his fingers. ’Oh, I thought to, right there and then. Defy the curfew, storm up to the Ward and demand what the hell Henry was playing at, endangering the Haven by disabling one of its primary defences. But I then wondered what that would achieve. So I thought, “Wait till morning. Sleep on it; consider how best I can use this for the Haven.” So I did. And, the more I thought about it, the more I felt I couldn’t confront Henry without us all somehow being compromised, losing out in some way. The controversy it would cause, the potential to split the Haven, provoke unrest at best – at worst all out civil war – and all when we had to focus full time on the number one task at hand; surviving.
’Then I thought I could maybe talk to Henry quietly, man to man, to win some concessions. I canned that idea almost as soon as I had it; Henry could easily arrange for me to have an “accident” before I’d even left his room, or outside the perimeter on a surprise stint of neuter duty.
’The second day passed. Still I pondered what to do with the information… and then Jeff blundered into Josh’s sword.
’Events ran away with me after that.
‘But, truth to tell, if I didn’t do anything with Victor’s secret, it was because… I was afraid. Afraid of the consequences. It paralysed me.’
‘But you did nothing wrong.’ It was a weak case for him that I was making, and I knew it. Nothing that would salve a heavy conscience.
‘Oh, I may not have switched the tanks,’ Mitchell replied, ‘but I did nothing about it either. So I’m as complicit in Henry’s crime as Victor was.’ He nodded toward the hill. ‘Who of those two hundred souls would be alive today had I called out Henry about the tanks? And before you say it, yes I know had I blabbed and been killed by Henry before Jeff appeared, maybe the Haven would have been lost altogether.’
‘The warning may not have gone out in time – if at all,’ I offered – another attempt at a lifeline of comfort.
‘Yes, I know all that!’ Mitchell snapped. I gave up trying to offer any comfort.
‘Did…’ I stammered my words, I could barely dare ask. ‘Did Jen know?’ Mitchell shook his head.
‘Only later, after the War. I wanted to ask her to marry me. But I needed to know first how she felt about me after she knew the truth. So I told her.’ His expression brightened, though his eyes shone with tears. ‘She was… surprisingly understanding.’ He smiled. ‘A little pissed off though.’
So there it was; the real reason why Alec Mitchell went up the hill every day. Like Victor, he too was on his own pilgrimage for dispensation, a measure of peace. I told him as much.
‘So… this is your penance?’
He only shook his head.
‘Again, nothing so straightforward. If anything… “pilgrimage” is a more apt description. I see my role now as a sacred duty. I owe Beeston that, at least.’ An ironic smile played on his lips. ‘I prayed for a purpose. I was given one.’
I sat for a while, dumbly absorbing this revelation, until an obvious question occurred to me.
‘So why admit this? Why now?’ Alec – strange how I felt I could call him that now – Alec only shrugged.
’Because you struck me as someone possessing the clarity of thought to understand. Because that… that lionizing Hollywood farce playing out up at the hill, it’s the final straw. People shouldn’t see me, see us, like that. We haven’t earned it. We don’t deserve it. And Beeston’s too important. It can’t be filtered through rose-tinted spectacles, it shouldn’t be. History isn’t like that, people aren’t like that. We can’t be packaged, labelled, merchandised. Their “All’s well that ends well” version, it trivialises events, it belittles us, our responsibilities. It weakens the lessons learned!’
He waved at my phone. ‘So do whatever you want with this recording. Let people know the truth. It’ll help my cause.’ He flung his hand contemptuously toward the wall, the hidden hill beyond.
‘They can take this deluding legend they’re constructing and shove it up their arses.’