I lie awake, the sheets soaked with sweat.
I am afraid that I will not succeed.
It will be OK in the end, you said.
You breathe gently.
A sound in the still night wakes you.
You turn, and you sleep again.
Yesterday you said we were one,
But how can you be so sure, so confident, so in control?
You said that it would be all right,
Together we would make it,
Whatever it may be.
But it mocks me, chanting,
“What have you achieved?”
“What hopes have you for the future?”
Grey and fatigued by the night,
I wake before the alarm.
If it is not OK, then it is not the end.
In the orchard, the autumn sun on my back,
The leaves rustling in the breeze,
The birds singing, I was happy; I was at peace.
If it is OK, does that mean it is the end?
“All department managers, please report to your department heads.”
The men’s department in Harrods on Knightsbridge in London was packed with Christmas shoppers. I was there looking for presents for my family, and I had chosen some novelty boxer shorts for my two brothers: one pair had a reindeer design and the other a Father Christmas. I gave a twenty-pound note to a young sales assistant; her name badge read “Molly.” She went to ring up the sale and fetch my change.
Harrods’ public-address system repeated the message: “All department managers, please report to your department heads.”
Molly stopped in her tracks. An older man I presumed to be her supervisor came over to her, and they exchanged a few words. They were too far from me for me to hear what they said. Molly turned back towards me; there was a look of panic on her face.
I followed her with my eyes as she walked over to a counter piled high with Arran sweaters. She bent down and started to search for something under the counter. She looked up at me again, and she saw that I was still watching her. Her expression of panic had changed to one of desperation.
I was knocked to the floor when the bomb exploded. There was broken glass and other debris all around me. The air was thick with dust, and I was covered in it. For some reason, I looked at my watch; it showed 1:21 p.m. I picked myself up from the floor, and I felt blood running down the side of my face. I put my handkerchief to my head and then took it away again. There was little blood. It was only a small cut.
In the shocked silence, someone started crying. I walked towards where I had last seen Molly. I had a vague idea of seeing if I could help. A security officer stopped me. He asked if I was a doctor, and I shook my head. He told me to make my way outside.
I turned around and wandered in a daze to the back of the store and onto Basil Street. A man on the pavement outside was also holding a handkerchief to his head. He had a cut above his left eye that was bleeding badly, far worse than mine.
“It’s the IRA,” he said. “Bunch of bastards.”
The Provisional Wing of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, had been carrying out bombing attacks in England for the previous ten years; they wanted to pressure the UK government into withdrawing from Northern Ireland. They also wanted a united Ireland. It was a nationalist battle, but it was also a religious one: Catholics against Protestants.
“Almost certainly no warning,” the man next to me said, continuing to mop at the cut above his eye. The terrified expression on Molly’s face came into my head. There had been a warning. The man was wrong, but I didn’t want to start an argument with him now.
I had read earlier in the newspaper that the IRA had exploded a bomb the previous week at the Royal Artillery Barracks in London. No one had been killed, but three soldiers had been injured. There had been warnings on the radio and on the television all week that another bombing was likely. I hadn’t paid any attention to them; these sorts of things only ever happened to other people.
I looked down and saw that I was still carrying the two pairs of boxer shorts that I had wanted to buy for my two brothers. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I was suddenly worried that I might be accused of shoplifting. I tried to make my way back into the store but met Molly coming out. She was sobbing. I took my twenty-pound note from her clenched fingers and gave her the boxer shorts. She gave me a blank stare, not registering anything.
A police officer walked up to me and asked if I was injured. I told him that it was only a slight cut, and he suggested that I make my way home. He said it would be easier for the police if there were less of a crowd. The whole street was indeed a mass of people.
I looked at my watch again; it was 1:30 p.m. I had a reservation for lunch with Mary at the Montpeliano Restaurant on Montpelier Street. It was on the other side of Knightsbridge from Harrods, just five minutes’ walk from where I was standing. I realised that the best way I could help was to simply get out of the way. I doubled back along Basil Street, onto Hans Road, and across Knightsbridge onto Montpelier Street.
When I got to the Montpeliano Restaurant, the place was in chaos; nobody knew whether to carry on as usual or go across to Harrods and try to help. Customers were standing up by their tables, and everyone was talking loudly. One man with a round, ruddy face and a pink shirt asked me if I had been in the store when the bomb went off. I told him that I had, and a small crowd gathered around me, asking what had happened.
I told them what I knew, but I didn’t know much. All I knew was that a car had exploded in the street outside the men’s department and that a lot of people had been hurt. “No, I don’t know if anyone has been killed,” I added.
After a while, they left me alone, and I went to the washroom to clean myself up a little. I was shocked when I saw what I looked like. I did the best I could to wash the dried blood and dust off my face and then went to my table. It was next to the window; that meant I would be able to see Mary as she arrived.
I looked at my watch and realised that it was already two o’clock. Mary was late. Perhaps the Tube—London’s underground train—had closed its lines as a security measure. Or perhaps she had taken a taxi and got caught in the gridlock that the attack had certainly caused. I hoped that she would abandon her taxi and walk. It would be much quicker.
Mary came from a wealthy, old-money family—landed gentry in Shropshire. Her family members had originally made their money out of sugar plantations in the Caribbean as well as from the African slave trade that had kept the plantations supplied with labour.
Mary was tall and young and beautiful, and her dark-brown hair fell to her shoulders; her pale-blue eyes were so deep you could lose yourself in them. Her skin seemed permanently tanned, even in the middle of winter. Maybe sometime in the distant past, one of the ladies of the house had gotten bored on a hot afternoon in the Caribbean. Or maybe Mary’s own mother had gotten bored with her at-times-overbearing husband.
Mary already had quite a reputation at university by the time I met her. I had heard rumours that she worked during university vacations as a porn star and as a high-class prostitute in London’s five-star hotels. I had also heard that she had been engaged to an English lord. One of the London tabloids put an abrupt end to the engagement with this headline: “Hooker to marry British aristocrat.” I had laughed out loud when I read the story.
I met Mary at a party at the end of our second year at university. I asked her straight out whether the rumours were true. She denied being in any porn movies but admitted that she worked London’s five-star hotels during the university vacations. I was surprised and amused by her candidness.
The following term, we met up for lunch and then started seeing each other on a regular basis. I think that I was first attracted to her because I liked the idea of dating a hooker, especially such a famous one. After a while, however, I had no choice; I had fallen completely in love with her.
I never really knew whether she was in love with me or not. Mary was certainly “loving”; she was a very gentle and caring person. There were no hard edges to her. But perhaps that was why she did what she did; she just enjoyed giving pleasure to others.
Mary hated her parents with a vengeance, particularly her mother, Joanna. A friend of mine had once suggested that she might have been abused by her father as a child; he wondered if she blamed her mother for not doing anything about it. That might have been true, but I doubted it. I tried to broach the subject with her a couple of times but quickly gave up. It was a secret place to which I was not allowed access.
Mary moved into my student lodgings, and we lived together for the final months of our final year. My room was next to a pub called the Oyster Tavern, which had been my preferred haunt for my first two years at university. Bernie, the landlord, stocked Ruddles County, my favourite beer.
Mary’s friends made fun of her for settling into “married” life so young. They called her Mary Magdalene. I nicknamed her Maggie May after the Rod Stewart song: the older, more experienced woman who leads a young man astray. She was only two months older than I, but she was certainly more experienced.
I was in debt by the time my final university year was over, and I worked on the family farm for a month to earn some money to help repay those debts. Mary stayed in London, where I suspected she worked the five-star hotels again. She certainly had plenty of cash to spend when we took off to the South of France for the month of August.
The holidays ended in September, and she went to work for a publisher in Covent Garden. I went to work for a commodity broker in the “City”, as London’s financial district is called; it was a job that my uncle had gotten me. We rented a flat together on Jedburgh Street in Clapham on the north side of the common.
Mary was a paid-up member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She had been on a number of Ban the Bomb marches, including the big one in London the previous October, protesting against nuclear cruise missiles in England. She had also stayed at the Greenham Common Peace Camp and in April had been one of some seventy thousand women who had formed a fourteen-mile human peace chain.
Mary had asked me to join her in the demonstration in London, but I declined. I was not sure that I was in favour of nuclear disarmament; I was more of the If you want peace, prepare for war type. Besides, I had that English middle-class thing: always afraid of getting into trouble. I hated even the idea of being arrested.
I had once tried to suggest to Mary that the CND was a tool for Soviet propaganda, financed by the Soviets. There had been articles about it in the newspapers, just as there had been suggestions that the Labour leader, Michael Foot, had received money from the KGB for writing articles in favour of nuclear disarmament. Michael Foot had even recently sued the Sunday Times for libel for repeating the rumours. Mary had dismissed the stories and said that even if they were true, she didn’t care.
I often told Mary that she was born in the wrong decade. She dressed in long, flowing skirts and cheesecloth shirts that she bought from charity shops. She listened to Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Young, and I could have imagined her as a hippie: flowers in her hair in the California sunshine.
But then the whole hippie movement was a function of the threat of nuclear war. What was the point of working hard and building a future if we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust?
Mary was convinced of it. “There are too many nuclear warheads in this world,” she argued. “It is almost inevitable that one will go off, either by accident or on purpose. I have to at least try to do something to stop that.
“But while I do, we have to be sure to live for the moment,” she added with a soft smile. “We have to make love, not war.”
I didn’t like it when she said that. I thought she was using it as an excuse for free love, and I felt threatened by it. I didn’t want to share her with anyone.
But I had to. About once a month, she would tell me that she had a work function—”a publishing party that will bore you to tears,” she said. On those days, she would dress up in her black cocktail dress and her one pair of black high-heeled shoes; she would carry her Louis Vuitton handbag with the gold-chain strap. And she would look stunning.
In the evening, she would come back home late, smelling of expensive perfume, cigarettes, and a hint of a cigar. I never asked her where she had been, but I guessed that she had kept on a preferred client. I presumed she saw him whenever he came to London.
Mary had studied English at university, and while she was there, she had written a book about her double life; she called it The Student Whore.
That Saturday morning, we had woken up late and made sleepy love. The night before, we had been to see a film, Terms of Endearment, with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. The film had been about the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. The film had been a bad choice; it had put Mary in a funny mood.
As we lay in bed that morning, she told me that she had a meeting at eleven with a publisher who was interested in her book—not the publisher that she worked for but a different one.
I asked Mary if she loved me. It was a question that I never asked her, but I had big plans for the day and wanted to build onto them.
“William,” she replied with a cheeky smile, “how can I love you? We are the same person, you and I…we are one. Loving you would mean me loving myself, and I couldn’t do that, could I?”
I showered and went into the kitchen to prepare breakfast: scrambled eggs and toast. Mary refused to eat any meat; she said animal farming was not only horribly cruel, but it also polluted the environment. In a way, she was an animist; she believed that every living thing had a soul, what she called the “God of Small Things.” However, she still ate scrambled eggs when I made them for her.
I looked up from the stove when she came into the kitchen and was shocked to see her in her black dress and heels. She saw my surprise and came over to me. She kissed me on the forehead—a kiss that I knew. It said, “Don’t worry, my dear; it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
I suggested that we meet for lunch afterwards, part of my big plan for the day. She hesitated, calculating how much time she would need with the publisher. We agreed on a late lunch at 1:30 p.m.
Montpeliano’s was slightly above my pay grade, but I wanted it to be a special lunch. I wanted to talk to her about the black cocktail dress and the growing danger of AIDS, the “gay disease” that was no longer just affecting gays. I was worried that she might not be taking the necessary precautions.
Most of all, I wanted to talk to her about the little bump that her stomach was forming—and that was becoming visible under the little black cocktail dress.
But now it was 2:30 p.m., and she still hadn’t shown up for lunch. I didn’t know whether that was because of the chaos on the streets or because she was still with the publisher. I settled for the former and continued to watch for her through the restaurant window. The waiter came over, and I ordered a third gin and tonic.
Mary would not be pleased. Over the two years we had known each other, she had succeeded in getting me to cut down on my alcohol consumption. I had replaced my three pints at lunchtime with workouts at the gym; my one bottle of wine over dinner was a distant memory. But today, I needed to drink.
I waited until 3:00 p.m., paid for my drinks, and left Montpeliano’s without eating anything. I tried to work my way back to Basil Street, but the whole area had been cordoned off. I explained to a policeman that I was worried that my girlfriend had been hurt in the explosion, but he said he couldn’t help. He told me that “the authorities,” as he called them, would soon release a telephone number that I could call to get further information. He advised me to go home and keep the radio or the television on.
I hung around for another half hour or so and then set off for home. I walked down Sloane Street and managed to find a cab that would take me south of the river. Back in Clapham, I turned on the radio, but there was no mention of a telephone number. I turned on the television; it was all about the bombing, but there was still no telephone number.
As I had thought earlier, the IRA had given a warning about the bomb. At 12:44 p.m., a man using an IRA code word had phoned the central London branch of the Samaritans charity to say that there was a car bomb outside Harrods and another one inside. No one ever found the bomb inside Harrods; it had evidently failed to go off and was removed, either by the security forces or by the bombers themselves. Or maybe it never existed in the first place.
The television news reporter said that the bomb had contained about fourteen kilograms of explosives and was detonated by a timer. It had been left in a blue, four-door 1972 Austin 1300 GT with a black, vinyl roof, registration plate KFP 252K.
One of the talking heads on the TV criticised the police for not evacuating the store as soon as they had received the warning. But if they had, there would have been more people in the street outside and more casualties when the car bomb exploded.
I thought about calling Mary’s mother. I had met her only once, and it hadn’t been a success. I decided not to call her. Instead I found the number for the Kensington Police Station. I tried that a few times, but the line was always busy. I then called a couple of hospitals but didn’t get anywhere either.
Looking back, I realise now that I was too passive. Mary would have been more active. She wouldn’t have sat around all afternoon waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what she would have done, but she would have done something.
By 5:00 p.m. I had summoned up enough courage to call Mary’s mother. She didn’t seem at all pleased to hear from me. She told me she had heard about the bombing and that she was watching the BBC. I told her that I had been in Harrods at the time of the bomb and that I had arranged to meet Mary in a restaurant opposite, but she had not shown up. I asked her if she had heard anything, but she said that she hadn’t. She put her hand over the receiver to talk to her husband, but I could still hear what she said.
“I’ve got the Clapham pig man on the phone,” she told him. “He says that he is worried about Mary. She hasn’t shown up, and he thinks she may have been caught up in the bombing.”
I heard Mary’s father mumble something, and then Joanna was back on the line. “If we hear anything, we will let you know,” she said. They were the last words she ever spoke to me.
I switched from gin and tonic to Scotch and sat in the descending darkness, waiting for the phone to ring. It did so—two horrible hours later.
“Hello, Christopher,” I said as I picked up the receiver. Christopher was Mary’s elder brother, an officer in the army, the prestigious Life Guards regiment. He drove tanks.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked, his voice sounding even more upper class than usual. It was an accent he cultivated on purpose. Mary didn’t talk at all like him.
“I was expecting your call,” I replied, trying to sound calm. Despite the half bottle of Johnnie Walker that I had drunk, my chest felt as if it were going to explode.
“Bloody awful business,” Christopher said with fake military bluffness. “Terrible…and to think that I have done two tours in Northern Ireland and not a scratch on me.”
“Do you have any news of Mary?” I asked. But it didn’t feel as if I was talking. I was looking down from the ceiling and seeing a drunk and frightened twenty-two-year-old trying to sound sober on the phone.
“Bad news, I am afraid, old boy.”
“Is she injured? Is she all right? Where is she? Can I see her?” All the questions that had been building up in my mind came out in a garbled rush.
“I am awfully sorry, old chap,” he replied, hiding his emotions behind his fake military accent. “Mary was killed outright in the explosion. She didn’t suffer; that’s one good thing. The police say they should be able to track down the bombers.”
“But that can’t be true,” I replied in disbelief. “She was nowhere near Harrods. She was in Covent Garden.”
“Sorry, old chap. But it seems she was…must have been doing a bit of Christmas shopping.” I sank deeper into my chair. “Father’s making all the arrangements,” he continued. “Trying to get her body released and all that.”
The muscles in my body had collapsed, and I had a hard time holding on to the telephone receiver.
“There will be a funeral, of course,” Christopher said after a moment.
“Of course,” I replied stupidly.
“I am afraid Mother has asked me to tell you that she doesn’t want you there,” he said slowly. His accent was slipping a bit now that he was on more uncertain ground. “She says you are not welcome.”
I hung up on him. How dare they not let me go to the funeral! How dare they keep Mary away from me!
I was so upset that a thought crossed my mind that Mary wasn’t even dead at all, that Christopher was just telling me that to get me out of the way. It was a ridiculous idea but one that took hold in my head. I had to get confirmation.
Alex was Mary’s best friend. They had been at the same school together. Her number was in the address book under the telephone. I turned the lights on in the sitting room, found the number, and called her. The telephone rang for a long time, and when Alex eventually answered, I didn’t recognise her voice.
“Yes,” she said through her tears. “It’s true.”
A couple of days later, Alex called to tell me that the funeral would be at 11:00 a.m. the following Saturday in the family’s local village church in Shropshire. I told her that I hadn’t been invited, and she said that she knew and that she was sorry. We hung up without arranging to see each other. We should have gotten together, but we didn’t. It would have been good to have someone with whom to share the grief.
I don’t know how Mary’s father managed to get Mary’s body released and buried so quickly. Nor do I know why Mary’s death was never reported in the papers. I guess her parents covered it up; they didn’t want any publicity. They didn’t want anyone digging into her past or for any scandal to resurface.
On the day of the funeral, I gathered Mary’s clothes from our bedroom and took them to the Cancer Research Charity Shop on Clapham High Street. When I got home again, I emptied the dirty clothesbasket and threw her stuff into a black plastic bag. Her underwear had become intertwined with mine, and it was hard to separate the two. I wasn’t sure what to do with her shoes, but they were so scuffed and worn I decided to throw them away as well.
I found £10,350 in fifty-pound notes in the shoebox where she kept her one pair of high-heeled shoes. I wrote out a cheque for the same amount and sent it to CND’s office in Finsbury Park. I kept the cash. I had already decided that I was going to drink it.
I then looked around the flat for any of her belongings. She had taken the manuscript of her book with her when she had gone to see the publisher. I imagined that it had either been destroyed in the explosion or taken by her parents when they collected her body. I looked for a copy, but there wasn’t one. Nor were there any notes.
Mary possessed virtually no material objects. She had her Simon and Garfunkel record collection but only two books: Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot and The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. Both books were old and worn and had lost their covers. The inscriptions inside showed that she had won them for receiving top marks in English in her last two years at school.
Apart from that, Mary didn’t own anything. She had always said that you didn’t need material objects, only emotions and memories. And you didn’t need material things to bring back memories. She said that music could evoke memories, as could taste and smell. But material things only cluttered up your life.
I went into the bathroom and emptied her makeup—what little there was of it—into the black plastic bag. I was about to add her toothbrush but couldn’t. Instead I broke down in tears, sitting on the bathroom floor between the toilet and the sink, clutching her toothbrush in my hands.
I was so angry with her, at her little black dress and her Louis Vuitton handbag. She had ruined everything.
I threw her toothbrush in the rubbish bag and then went and got myself a drink.