We Were Swans

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Boot Camp

We spent the rest of the day picking up some ready cash from the country house, checking schedules and familiarising ourselves with the maps and the location of her office. Mid-morning the next day, we left the house on foot and headed for the bus stop on the nearby main road. It all felt so new and yet comfortably familiar with Sacha strolling beside me. I almost reached out for her hand as we walked but then remembered that this wasn’t the good old days. We carried nothing with us to indicate we were planning a journey, just the clothes we stood up in, phones and pockets full of cash. Tucked away, but handy, we also had a couple of the sticky bugs. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d used public transport in general and buses in particular. Today, we were going the whole hog. A bus into Leicester, a train from there to Birmingham New Street and then a stroll across the city to Moor Street Station. There was a route from there that would take us direct into Marylebone, London. Sacha, thinking ahead, even had the right change for the bus, something that hadn’t crossed my mind. The route into Leicester was a familiar one, we’d often driven it in another life but on this occasion, rather than having to concentrate on my driving, I was able to actually see all the sexy houses and parcels of countryside that over the years, Sacha had constantly and annoyingly pointed out to me when I couldn’t take my eyes from the road and was therefore unable to join in the fun. Sitting back now, taking it in, I became more aware of how fortunate we’d been to have settled here. The occasional blot on the landscape aside, this really was a lovely part of the world. Leaving the bus, the mile or so to the train station stretched our legs and sharpened our appetites, that said, our connection time was limited and the journey to Birmingham was a further hour so we’d have to go without for the time being. New Street Station was a revelation having undergone a massive renovation. What before was dark, worn with an almost subterranean, Orwellian feel to it was now bright and modern and coming up and out from the platform was a pleasant surprise. There was the usual smattering of eateries but they were now more exotic than had been the case when I last used this place, maybe 20 years ago. So appealing in fact, that we took some time to fill the gap in our stomachs. Moor Street was an easy twenty minute stroll away and as our journey thus far had been delay free, we were relaxed and chatty. This was all very novel and because of that, weirdly exciting. Moor Street itself was a real eye opener. From the outside, it looked like a scene straight from the 1930’s. Canopied over riveted iron supports, high arched windows set in red brick, it was absolutely not what I expected. Inside were more revelations, so much so, we picked up a booklet that described the renaissance that had taken place. Someone, somewhere, had apparently decided that the old, original building was just too historic to demolish and had made it their business to restore it. What wasn’t the refurbished original, was a sympathetic reconstruction. I half expected to see Trevor Howard and Celia Johnston in the café. Beautifully clean, there were large, mature potted plants scattered thoughtfully on the concourse. In a largely utilitarian world, the place was uplifting, refreshing, and a downright wholly unexpected joy. We took it in trying not to look too much like tourists as we waited for our train. We knew the journey was a little under two hours. That would get us to Marylebone in mid-afternoon. We took the time go over what we knew. Mummy’s offices were in Holborn, just around the corner from The Royal Courts of Justice, not to be confused with The Old Bailey which is around half a mile east, closer to The City. There were heaps of reasons for tourists to be wandering the area with Museums, Libraries, and old architecture in abundance, hopefully, disguising ourselves amongst them would be a breeze. There were hotels aplenty within a small radius and we’d scoped these out on the internet, finally choosing a variety we could book in and out of depending on how long our stay would end up being. We had no intention of being further than a walk away from Holborn or Temple, the two tube stations closest to her offices. The tube was certain to be a nightmare during rush hour so we weren’t going to be inside the stations themselves. Instead, we’d separate and skulk casually outside them, or if there was a coffee shop nearby, in the warm hoping to spot Mummy going into work. We didn’t much fancy the idea of splitting up but we had no choice. During the day, we’d do what we’d always promised ourselves, See London. In the past, holidays had been sunseekers and short city breaks abroad. The usual stuff, Spain, Greece for the annual break. Prague, Rome, Paris and the like for quick getaway weekends. I don’t know why we hadn’t seen London as an alternative. Millions of foreign tourists did and for good reason. London is alive with theatre, restaurants, history and culture. In a sense, we were looking forward to it. We left the train at Marylebone, another restored delight and strolled out into London. Madame Tussauds was nearby but promising ourselves a visit later in the week, strolled down to Bond Street and took the Central line to Holborn. Fifteen minutes later, we emerged into what was to be our zone of operations until such time as we’d clocked Mummy. Reviewing our hotel choices, we plumped for the closest. As we checked in, the desk clerk sympathised over our recent misfortune.

“Oh, that’s awful. Please don’t let it spoil your stay.” We left a significant deposit in lieu of our stolen credit cards while praising Sacha’s Mother who, bless her, we said, had forwarded us the cash to enable our holiday to continue uninterrupted.

Over the week or so it took, we did and saw as much as we could in what we called our ’down time’, between rush hours. On foot mostly, using the tube and buses to cover the larger gaps, we discovered another world and we found out more about each other with each day. Stuff that had passed us by when opting for the beach. Art, music, architecture and tradition, all talking points, some of it quite passionate and animated, particularly when an element of Britain v the U.S. crept in. Mornings and evenings, were for business. There wasn’t a coffee shop directly opposite her offices so we used The Strand as our meeting point as it was roughly in-between the two stations we had to cover. Sacha took Holborn, I took Temple. We were both nervous. We couldn’t afford to be seen by Mummy. If we got careless or unlucky even in something as outwardly mundane as exploring London, someone, somewhere would be made aware that we were somewhere we shouldn’t be. Doubtless she’d get some kind of injunction despite our innocent protestations and that would be that. The whole ‘spy mode’ thing was a difficult mantle to adopt but we got on with it. Learning and adapting as we went along. It was the morning of Day Three when we first spotted her. It was Sacha who’d made the call. My prepaid disposable buzzed in my pocket. I fished it out with cold fingers.

“I’ve got her. She’s on foot and just going in now. Where are you?”

I told her and was already walking towards our pre-agreed coffee shop on The Strand.

”Get me a flat white. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

I ordered her a coffee as I waited knowing she’d be ready for a warm. I’d got it back to the table as she came through the main door and spotted me, she was flushed. I gave her a look that said, ’Take it easy, be grey.’ She slowed in acknowledgement, relaxing as she made her way through the small queue that was habitual at this time of day. She sat, taking off her gloves and reaching gratefully for her coffee.

“It was her. No doubt.”

In truth, Mummy was hard to miss, at least for us. I remembered her from the trial. A pinch faced bitch, tall, bony and birdlike, skinny rather than slender, hair dark and spiked. She was way too old to be hanging onto that look but it suited us, giving us another reason to not like her very much. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb.’ Was how Sacha had graded her. I just saw her as a bitch, an opinion that grew with the way she’d brayed in court, defending her babies.

“No escort. On her own?”

“S’right. Bitch was in a crowd, coat collar up but that walk of hers and her hair? I’d know it anywhere. Trendy she ’aint.”

“She didn’t see you?”

“No, sir. I was on the other side of the road, walking away, just caught a glimpse of her in front of me.”

Since arriving in London, I habitually carried a map of the Underground and fished it out now. She shuffled her chair around to study it with me. We were just a couple of tourists, wondering what to do with our day.

“Ok. Holborn has Piccadilly and Central lines running through it. We’ll do it in stages. I’ll stay outside to spot her going in, you wait by the ticket barriers to see which line she takes, buy an oyster card so you can go down to the platform. Then we come away and leave it a day. Next time around, one of us gets on the train with her, when she gets off, we don’t, we’ll just get off at the next stop. We take the next day to recce and find vantage points to watch the station. When we’re happy with that and see her exit, we follow. This could take days.”

“I don’t care.” Said Sacha, warming her hands around her coffee cup. “Just seeing the bitch has me wound tight.”

I thought about that for a moment then realised why we’d been sent to do this the hard way.

“James didn’t say this but I have an idea it was in his mind.” I paused, getting my words right. “He knew this would be a trip down Memory Lane. We have to see her not as what she was, but as she is right now. A means to an end, we have to try to forget why. Develop an immunity.”

Sacha thought that one through then visibly relaxed.

“It wasn’t easy. Came as a shock, seeing her. I wanted to wring her scrawny neck but I guess you’re right. I’ll be ok. Just give me a minute.”

She looked over at the map again. “Natural History Museum?”

I got it. She was settling back into tourist mode.

“Sounds good to me. At least it’ll be warm. Let’s aim to be back at Holborn around three. See if we can catch her on the way home.”

We spent the day relaxed, but not. Now we knew where Mummy had got into town, we had a focal point and were itching to see where that would take us. But Holborn was just the trunk of the tree, from there, we knew it would branch off, how many times, we simply didn’t know. We’d just have to keep doing what we were doing until we tracked her home. We wanted to get this over with but knew that to do it safely, we’d have to stay low and be patient. It wasn’t going to be easy and I wondered bleakly how I’d react when I laid eyes on her for the first time since the trial.

Sacha stood. “Ready?”

The Museum didn’t open til 10am but we reckoned that if we took in St. James’s Park and the southern edge of Hyde Park, it’d be about ninety minutes on foot and we’d land as the doors opened. Like all public museums in London, it was free. The money wasn’t important but the principle is, massive and fascinating, we stayed til about 2pm. Not nearly long enough to see it all but we had things to do. Footsore, we hailed a black cab and arrived in the area in plenty of time for a late lunch.

“Are you sure you’ll be ok when you see her?”

“I’ll have to be. That’s why I asked you to be inside. Until it happens, I’m just not sure.”

“You’ll be ok, honey. You’ll see.”

I hoped so. It was time to move. Like most underground stations in London, the façade of Holborn looks out over a narrow pavement, the road traffic separated from the pavement by a waist high steel fence. With Sacha now inside, I waited on the opposite side of the road, separated from the station entrance by around five lanes of traffic. I didn’t feel too disadvantaged by that. Sacha had described what she was wearing and Mummy’s distinctive walk should be enough of a giveaway. I had a text for Sacha already prepared. All I had to do was thumb, ‘send’ and she’d be waiting.

Just for once, things went our way. I spotted her a mile off in an animated discussion with a suit. I’d never seen him before and hoped he’d be going into the station with her, as an added distraction to keep Sacha from being seen. I was curiously unemotional at seeing her. She was the object of my interest rather than the subject, separating it that way, just by changing a word in my head, made it somehow easier. They entered together and I hit the button.

’On the way.

All I could do then was wait. I knew that Sacha had shopping bags with her that if Mummy got too close, she could bend down and rummage through them as camouflage but nevertheless, it was ten long minutes before she emerged. She knew where I’d be and without jaywalking, unhesitatingly made her way across the street.

“North on Piccadilly.” She said simply, triumphantly. “I could do with a drink.”

“You’re not the only one.” I replied. The short wait for Sacha was up there in my top ten of the least fun I’d ever had in my life.

Showered, shaved and smartened up. We were now de-stressing by experimenting in a trendy little cocktail bar. Cleverly, in the spirit of the moment, I ordered a ‘Vesper’, made famous by Ian Fleming. I soon wished I hadn’t. How Bond drank that was beyond me. Sacha saw my distaste.

“That’s my department, I think you’ll find. White spirits and all that.”

It had more of an edge of methylated spirit so I slid it sideways across the bar, gladly exchanging it for something fruity and less deadly. Perhaps a little mean spiritedly, I noticed that even Sacha struggled to down it.

“So.” She grimaced, swallowing my ex cocktail. “We know which way she’s headed and on what line. I guess now we need to get up close and personal.” Sacha was right but I had an idea.

“As long as we’re split up we should be ok. If we put ourselves at different ends it’ll go some way to reducing the risk of being seen and recognised.”

“Do you know what, Tom? I don’t think she’d know who we were even if we sat next to her. Have you noticed how wrapped up she is, like in a little world all her own?”

I hadn’t but then I’d only caught sight of her briefly.

“Let’s hope you’re right.”

In the event, she was. Mummy was so familiar with her surroundings and routine, she seemed to insulate herself from her fellow travellers. She never so much as glanced around, eyes and body fixed with the sole purpose of getting home. We had her bracketed between us. The scrum in the carriages made it difficult to keep tabs on her. Difficult but not impossible. We watched her as she got off at Caledonian Road station. We got off at Holloway.

The next day was more of the same thing except we were each stationed about a hundred yards either side of the tube exit on the Caledonian Road, waiting to see which way she turned. It helped that she was a creature of habit. Sacha and I had agreed that if she turned my way, we’d give up tailing her for the time being and station Sacha there the following night. In London, in the dark, women can be nervous and aware of lone men behind them. Our stay in London was prolonged in that that’s exactly what happened. I let her walk by on the other side of the road and then strolled down to meet up with Sacha.

“She went thataway.” I thumbed.

Sacha nodded.

“Tomorrow then.”

We took in Chinatown that night, dining well, relaxed in each other’s company. Conversation was limited by avoiding the subject of Ellen. We hadn’t achieved anything yet and I guess it was too soon for either of us to reminisce. Though we’d been sharing the same room at the hotel, all the niceties had been observed. We closed bathroom doors while showering, and took care not to stray too close to one another. By acknowledging that we were just two people on the same track rather than a couple, it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. There was a good sized chaise that served as a bed for me.

We strolled past the house. Georgian, three storeyed and set back from the road, no driveways unfortunately, that would have been too easy. There were cars outside but we couldn’t be sure which was hers. A Prius, an Alfa Romeo Spyder, if you’re gonna break down, at least do it in style, Mercs, Volvos. My money was on the Prius. It was parked fairly central opposite the frontage and people have a way of declaring ownership of their favoured spot. Rush hour had been and gone, as had Mummy.

“I suppose we can be fairly certain The Twins aren’t in residence?”

There were no twitching curtains, no lights, nothing to indicate any signs of life, that aside, them being here, somewhere so obvious would have been utter madness. It was a safe bet that of all the places they could be, this wasn’t one of them.

“That would be asking for too much.” I replied. “But anyway, we need them to be somewhere quieter. Them being tucked away somewhere low profile is our best chance of getting at them.”

We’d made our way down the full length of the avenue, mentally noting rubbish bins, postmen, and any obvious signs of security precautions. London was a city of perpetual motion, always someone about or awake. We couldn’t hire a car. There was nowhere for us to observe without being observed, no hotels with overlooking rooms, nothing we could use as a static vantage point and we couldn’t simply keep wandering up and down. We limited ourselves to one pass a day but sooner or later, we’d attract attention. Our problem then, was how to identify which car was hers and be there to see it.

“We need to set off the alarms.”

“What?”

“It’s the only way,” I said. “we don’t have a clue which is hers. If we set the alarms off late at night, owners will come out. Hopefully, she’ll be one of them.”

“How do you suppose we’re going to do that?”

I didn’t know, but mulled it over. The road was packed nose to tail, typical of residential London.

Sacha came up with something less dramatic. “How about we just stick a blank piece of paper underneath the wiper blades? Only the owner will bother to remove it. We’ll put them on half a dozen each side of the house.”

“It’s a better idea than playing knock and run. We’ll do it tonight.”

The next morning, we were playing at house hunting. There were For Sale signs dotted randomly about and we were at the far end of the avenue, her house in our line of sight, taking notes from them. We took our time. We knew roughly when Mummy would leave for work and had timed our approach carefully. Irritated owners saw the A4 sheets we’d planted on their windscreens late last night. Wet and fragile from the dew, they fell apart as they were removed. The more conscientious residents balled them up and binned them. Others were less environmentally friendly, dropping them in the gutter whilst shaking or wiping their hands dry. We saw Mummy’s door open and her closing it behind her. Perhaps we were fortunate but at that time, her next door neighbour was engaged in removing the soggy mess we’d left on his windscreen and made a comment we couldn’t hear. Mummy’s attention was drawn to the Prius. Even at this distance, we could see her face sharpen as she picked her way across the pavement and daintily began peeling away at her windscreen.

Sacha and I looked at each other.

“Cracked it.” I mumbled, ostensibly taking notes from a billboard.

She smiled, satisfied. “It looks new but let’s not take any chances on it having GPS fitted, we’ll bug it tonight.”

We spent the rest of the day ambling around Knightsbridge, had lunch, killed time. I called the Jedi to let them know how things were going and that we’d be back some time tomorrow. Assuming things went well fixing the bug. They did. You can never tell these days which parts of a car are plastic or steel. To cover all eventualities, the base of the bug had a strong, circular sticky pad surrounded by a magnetic ring. It was late but not too late to attract attention. House lights were going out as occupants turned in for the night, resting before starting another day in paradise. Strolling by, briefly stooping and fixing it inside the wheel arch was needlessly nerve wracking. It had taken a week but we’d found her, tracked her home and the bug was fixed. We were quietly confident we’d done all of it without being compromised. Mission accomplished.


“Ok. She’s tagged. Now the fun starts.”

“Question…… What is the one thing you’d do if you knew were going to succeed?” We were back at Sacha’s. James had sat us down and was leaning against the living room wall, arms folded. looking intently at the pair of us. Everyone in the room knew the answer to that so we waited for the moment of affirmation to pass. James continued. “Then let’s make sure that happens.” He paused again, then his tone changed as he went in lecture mode. “For the moment, we have no idea what kind of environment the targets are living in. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s most likely to be rural, it’s generally easier to keep a low profile and neighbours can be avoided or shut out by gates. You two are townies. That won’t do. We need to tune you into the countryside, make darkness your ally. That, my friends, is the purpose of the next few weeks. The first thing we have to do is relocate to the country house, we need the privacy, grounds, gym and pool.”

“I’ll lay the gardener off.”

“No need.” Said Ollie.

I looked sideways at him, puzzled. Then slowly cottoned on. “Oh fuck off. Please don’t tell me he’s Jedi?”

“Retired, sort of. Sorry.”

I wasn’t going to ask what ‘sort of’ meant. After getting over my initial feeling of being had, it felt weirdly comfortable at just how good these people were. Even at my most paranoid, Sid had never given me the slightest sense that he wasn’t quite what he seemed to be.

“A bit of a legend, old Sid.” Continued Ollie. “He was in Baghdad when I was in my Dad’s bag. Can’t say too much, but I wouldn’t fuck with him.”

If I’d ever started, this was where I would have given up trying to predict what else the Jedi might have up their sleeves. They were professionals, easy in what they did and how they did it. “Fair enough. Shall we?”

It wasn’t difficult. The boys had a 4x4 already packed and we were told to bring just the one car. We took the Merc, Pooh and his essentials in the back along with what were essentially overnight bags. “You won’t need much.” We were informed, ominously.

When our convoy arrived, Sid was on the driveway, waiting. Getting out of the Merc, I strolled over and shook his hand. “Sid. You’re an arsehole.” Mindful of what Ollie had said, I made sure I smiled when I said it.

He grinned back. “No worries, Mr. H. Glad to be of service.”

He spoke in an accent I hadn’t heard him use before, one he’d hidden. That’s when I figured out he was actually Australian. He registered my realisation with an infuriating smile, knowing I’d been had. This place was turning into the United Nations.

Sacha took Pooh into the house and once he knew where his basket was, was let out into the garden. Emptying the Merc, Sacha and I waited in the kitchen. Our 3 Jedi strolled in. James put the kettle on and briefed us as it boiled.

“Right then. This is how it goes. You two have no idea what may or may not lie ahead. Nor, come to that, do we, and while we don’t have the time or facilities to teach you everything you might need, we can prepare you for the basic stuff. You might think you’re fairly fit. You’re not. We’re going to change that and once we have, change your mindset, take you out of the town and back to nature. Think of this as an episode of ‘I’m a Vigilante. Get me out of here.’ You, Sacha, we reckon to be a top-heavy size 12. You’ll be a 10 when we’re through.” For some reason, she smiled. “You, Tom, are flabby.” I felt offended. “There are kitbags in the back of the Landie. One for each of you. Some of it will need to be broken in, as will you. Sympathy, don’t expect it or ask for it. For the next few weeks, or as long as it takes, the only place you’re going to find it, is in the dictionary, between shit and syphilis. Get settled in, get a good night’s sleep. We start first thing tomorrow. Alarms set for 5am please.” I couldn’t see much reason to be smiling, as Sacha had. Having been a reservist, I had a vague idea of what to expect and wasn’t looking forward to it.

When I bought the house I’d no idea it would be turned into some kind of wartime commando training centre. But that, essentially, is what happened. Not outwardly, no assault courses, muddy pools or rope walks but in its intent. As bid, at 5am the next morning, we were up, dressed and waiting downstairs in the kitchen, self-conscious in our brand-new gear looking for all the world like a pair of apprentice terrorists. James came in, he had the look of a man on a mission. “Right!” He clapped his hands together, rubbing them vigorously. “In the interests of health and safety, medical first. Eyesight and hearing, all ok?” We nodded. He went on. “Flat feet? Arthritis? Hideous tropical diseases?” Sacha and I shook our heads to indicate we suffered from none of those. “Anything at all anyone wants to tell me?” He paused, hands spread to emphasise the question. I didn’t see much point in mentioning my repaired hip. It would either hold up, or it wouldn’t. He took our silence to mean that all was as it should be or at least, we hoped it was. “No? Excellent. Then let’s get to it.”

An hour later, we were covered in mud, ragged and panting, bent double in an attempt to get our breath back. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything other than amble and Sacha, despite regular dog walking, fared no better. I was shocked to discover I had little or no stamina. On that first cross country run, I was hanging out of my arse within a mile. We ran in boots and James had been right, some of the kit needed breaking in and footwear was no different. For days we blistered, bled, gasped and sweated but as time passed, to our surprise and no small relief, were managing better as we healed or overcame the pain of the new regime. Sacha and I had always been competitive. Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit were games we’d played only once, at least against each other, the fallout from the result making it simply not worth the grief, but that competitive streak motivated us far beyond our physical abilities as we found ourselves accepting and fighting silent challenges. We had a sneaking suspicion that there was a psychologist in James that saw this and used it against us, but that was ok. We all had a common aim. When we weren’t running or doing press ups, we were being familiarised with night vision kit, communications procedures and stripping and reassembling the Glocks, Ollie having brought the ‘spare’ lifted from Benny. Now that we had two of them the question as to who would carry our only gun had been answered and in a sense, equalised our status as a team. It took a while, but eventually, the strip and reassemble could be done blindfolded and in good time and each of us recognised our own weapon simply by the feel of it. Inside two weeks, boots, feet, muscles and lungs came together and with that, a sense of achievement. Of being stronger, more able. My repaired hip held up well, I was never going to move as fast as a tall Indian as in my youth but we were easily covering 5 miles and at the end of it, were it required of us, felt we could do 5 more. We were never going to be superhuman but as James had once explained, that wasn’t what this was about. We weren’t expecting to have to tab 20 miles day after day, SAS style, we just needed to be fitter and stronger than we had been. Before this part of our training had started, as fit as I thought I was, it turns out that the only part of my body that was getting harder, was my arteries. Not true anymore. Our clothing was functional, a dull black and became almost a second skin, after runs, we’d swim in it, boots and all. The pool was going to need a serious clean sometime soon, particularly as Pooh had decided he was now some sort of born again gun dog. I also suspected that the Jedi had added a little something of their own, just to make it interesting. Simply looking at the pool made Sacha heave. For her, actually having to swim in it took an effort of will. Not for me. I was 5’10’’ and would happily have waded through a 6 foot deep pit of runny shit if the Twins were on the other side. On the plus side, James did all the shopping and cooking and was seriously good at it. That said, by mealtimes we were invariably ravenous and much of it didn’t touch the sides on the way down. At the beginning of week three, we were sat around the dining room table.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on the Prius. Nothing dramatic on that front. As for where we are right now, you’ve done the hard work and I have to say, I’m impressed. More to the point, injury free. We’ll keep it up but to a lesser degree from here on in. Time for some fieldcraft. That’s Ollie’s specialty and goes some way to explaining why his room is such a shithole.”

Ollie stood. It was his thing. He liked to move around the room when talking, expressing himself with body movements and sweeps of his arms.

“Humans have an irrational fear of the dark. If it’s of any comfort to you, it stems way back, to prehistoric times. Human eyes aren’t adapted to the dark in the same way as the animals that used to hunt them, so man hid, tucked away in a cave somewhere. Kids, nowadays, thanks to evolution, there is nothing out there that is going to stalk, kill and eat you. In the woods, graveyards, alleyways, those noises you hear that give you the shits? Badgers, foxes, Tibbles the pussycat out for a midnight stroll, nothing more. Get used to that mindset. Make the dark your friend. It will hide you, keep you safe from prying eyes. Use it. Don’t fear it. If, as we reckon, the targets are rural, there’s every chance you’re going to have to spend a night or three laid up nearby, watching, gathering intel. Noise, don’t make any. If you’re stung, cut or knocked about in any way, hold it in. You’d be surprised how quickly you can develop that discipline. Hopping about squealing, Oh shit! Oh shit! Is not how we skulk in the jungle. For the next couple of weeks, you’re going to live in the grounds. You’ll have sleeping bags, but that’s it. Make your own shelter, I don’t care how you do it, you’ll learn from your mistakes, particularly the first time you get pissed wet through with no way of getting dry. No showering, washing, shaving or changes of clothes. What you’re stood up in now, you’ll still be wearing when this part of your training is over.”

Sacha immediately thought of her legs. She’d have to forego her nightly ritual of naked body butter. Then it got worse.

’You will shit into plastic bags and piss into bottles. This you will store to bring out with you. Decide for yourselves how you’re gonna wipe your arses. No bog roll in the wild.” He handed us a transparent bag. Inside we could see more of the same and the bottles he’d mentioned. Thoughtfully, there was also a funnel. I guessed that wasn’t for me. Sacha blushed.

“You’ll itch for the first few days. After that, you’re gonna start to stink. Don’t worry about it. It’s gonna be worse for us than it is for you. There is method in this. Wildlife can track a human being a mile off. Scented soaps, perfume, after shave, washing powder, all these things linger on you long after you think they’ve worn off. So get used to it. Revel in it if you like. Find somewhere out back where you can see the house, but not be seen and dig in. Kids, we’re going back to nature.”

All we had were the clothes on our back, a sleeping bag apiece and a notebook and pencil. No instructions. We picked a hedgerow, about 60 metres from the house and embedded ourselves. 24/7 we chinned it out, fashioning a primitive shelter from branches and bracken. It took a bit of patching but eventually, it held off the worst of the rain. Unseasonally, this was of the constant torrential variety that in the past, had caused Arks to be built. Uncomfortable, wet, cold, we’d lurk in our hide taking two hour stints on watch. The first night out we’d both been asleep until Sacha was woken with a boot in her back and the sight of Ollie with a vicious knife gleaming dully at my throat. ‘Learn.’ Was all he said, before disappearing silently into the night. From that point on, one of us was always awake. Lacking any other reason for being given it, we used the notebook to log movements around the house and grounds. Neither of us were wearing a watch, a rookie mistake so we had to guess at when stuff was occurring and took to describing the time in relation to the sun or moon, dawn, dusk. When Ollie saw what we’d been doing, he grunted in satisfaction, clearly that was why it had been issued, rather than for playing hangman or tic tac toe when we got bored. In daylight hours, Ollie would teach us the basics of fieldcraft, how to use the ground as cover, how to choose a route by day, that we would then try to follow after darkness fell and then find our way back to the hide before sunrise. We were fed, which was nice. The sole reason for that, we were told, was that if or when we did this for real, we wouldn’t be out long enough for food to be an issue, nutrition bars and dried fruit would be sufficient for our needs. Ollie was right about much else. We itched, then stank, then got used to it. It was worse for Sacha than it was for me, but that’s only because she was a girl and a fastidious one at that. Our clothing and sleeping bags took on a rank odour, then a personality all their own. We’d grin at each other through the grime because truth be told, the ordeal was almost fun, but swearing an oath that when this was over, we’d never go on a camping holiday. We learned to co-operate, look out for each other, do small things that mattered and as alien as it was, this time together did something to us. Things weren’t as they had been, we weren’t in the same bed, we were in a hedge but strangely, it was the experience we were sharing that was doing something to us, for us. We had to occupy the same, limited physical space. Hands had to be offered and taken to overcome falls or obstacles. Touching became easier, no longer tentative but welcomed. We grew used to sharing body warmth, finding comfort where there was none. We laughed more, quietly of course, suffered more and through it all became more than we had ever been before, initially as individuals but gradually, as a pair.

The second week began with the issue of a mean looking air rifle and instructions that night-time was now for hunting.

“You’ve had a week to tune into your surroundings. Now I want you to get used to having a lethal weight in your hands. This, is only an air rifle but nevertheless, at short range, deadly. You will keep it clean. You’ve got too many rabbits, time for a cull. This exercise has a dual purpose. Firstly, to see how you’ve much fieldcraft you’ve absorbed. To get close enough to kill a rabbit with one of these you’ll need patience, concentration but most of all, the ability to stay silent and if you miss, well, you’ll have to start all over again, so take your time. If you can master all that, stalking a human will be a doddle. Secondly, you need to get your brains used to the idea of killing. Mr. Bunny is cute and harmless but nevertheless must be taken down, he is your enemy, your target, you need to be able to look him in the eye and know that by pulling the trigger, it’s goodnight. It’s only a small step but will help if and when the time comes.”

I couldn’t see how shooting rabbits was any kind of preparation but was willing to accept Ollie’s word. He noted my scepticism.

“Trust me on this, Tom. I’m restoring an edge that civilisation has taken from you. It’s not about the rabbit. Your hatred of those two might, just might be enough to see you pull a trigger on them but this is about removing the passion and replacing it with purpose. On seeing what’s in your sights only as a target, nothing else. Your job is to get close enough to point, take aim and fire without missing. Nothing outside of that can creep into your mind.”

I nodded.

That night, as we left our hide and took to the woods, I was astonished at how normal our surroundings now seemed. Ollie was, yet again, right. The reconnaissance exercises of the first week had served us well. Not only were we able to sense more of our environment and discount what was natural, we also instinctively understood where the other was and could communicate with just a glance. We were wraiths. This was cowboys and Indians writ large. Sacha beat the crap out of me in terms of sheer ability with the rifle. I’d hit maybe two in five. There was nothing wrong with my fieldcraft, I could get close enough but I just didn’t have that certain touch with the weapon that she had. She never missed. Not once and there were mealtimes when I wished she had. I was getting sick of rabbit. Rabbit corpses, still twitching and needing a mercy stroke, rabbit stew, rabbit fricassee, rabbit hotpot. Then, on the twelfth day, a reprieve. Until now, all our meals had been taken outside but today, in the late afternoon, we’d been called indoors to the kitchen. There was an odd sensation just crossing the threshold after a fortnight in the bushes, we were almost wary of being indoors.

“Waste not, want not.” Said James, skinning a bunny by the sink. I groaned inwardly. “Sid’s on his way round so it’s Indian tonight. Incidentally, after that you’ll have to have the night off. Rabbits have a way of knowing if you’ve had a curry. If I were you, I’d do us all a favour and get out of that minging gear and take a shower. The pool is clean. Have a swim. The night is our own. Beer, methinks.”

Sacha and I looked at each other. There was no need for a race, there were two fully fitted bathrooms in the place, but we both knew that a race was on, nevertheless.

“It’s my fucking bathrobe.” I menaced.

“Not if I get there first.”

She was off and running, out of the kitchen and pelting up the stairs two at a time. I had more chance of plaiting snot than I did of catching her and there was the added distraction of her tight butt going up the staircase. Disregarding that it was clearly a lost cause and in the spirit of the chase, I launched myself after her. I got to the landing as I heard the bathroom door locking. “Got it!” I heard a muffled but triumphant cry through the woodwork. I wasn’t going to look very vigilante like in fluffy pink. I hoped I had a clean track suit somewhere.

The rabbit curry was astonishingly good. James’s cooking could be weird in one respect in that he spiced meals up with Turmeric wherever and whenever he could, promising that it worked on inflammation from within. I didn’t doubt him, he’d daubed all manner of concoctions on various small injuries we’d sustained. He talked us through each treatment, how and where to find them in nature and all of which had been beneficial despite our scepticism. It felt good to be clean, really clean. When I’d pulled off my gear in the bathroom, my face and hands, filthy as they were, were an entirely different colour to the rest of me, which had paraded a dirty, grey hue.

Sacha had vodka and tonic, heaped with ice and a slice. Beneath the hem of my robe, her legs gleamed and I caught the faint scent of body butter. The boys and I had beer. Summer had gone and the nights were drawing in with a chill in the air. The fire in the hearth had been lit and we manoeuvred chairs around it to get the benefit of its warmth.

Ollie broke what had been a comfortable silence. “So, how has it been for you?”

Now there was a question that for me, was not a one sentence answer. I thought back to the loneliness of my pursuit and reflected on how much things had changed. How much I’d changed. Physically, I was a Spartan warrior, lean, muscled, flexible, ready. Mentally, I didn’t know where to start and had so much to chew on that it was actually easier to sum it up in two words. Positively charged. Emotionally, I felt steady, calm almost. I couldn’t remember the Tom Hood that had lain broken in a hospital bed. I didn’t want to remember him.

Sacha spoke first. “I’m different. Good different. A couple of months ago, if anyone had told me I’d be sitting here with broken fingernails and scabs on my arms feeling proud of them, well… you know.”

Eyes turned to me and I felt the beginning of tears. It was at that moment that I knew what I felt. Gratitude and a sense of belonging. How could I express it? I struggled, trying to find a way to tell them what all this had meant to me. “I… I feel… grateful. If that makes sense.”

There was a pregnant moment then, as if I was expected to deliver more. But I couldn’t. The English language, for all its virtuosity, simply didn’t have the words and without them, I couldn’t translate what bubbled inside me. Sacha reached over, placing her hand over mine. I think she got it.

She looked over at the Jedi and asked, “Why have you done this… helped us so much?”

Glancing briefly at each other, it was Sid who answered for the group. Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together, almost in prayer, in a voice mellowed by compassion he said, “You’re good people. Lord knows what that little girl could have become if left alone, to grow with you. Drug Lords, Despots, they’re a known quantity and Governments, organisations, people like us exist that eventually sort them out. But your little girl, you two, who steps up for her, for you? So to us, it was simple, a choice between good or bad, often not a luxury our line of business allows. One way or another, one of you would have tried something, possibly failed and ended up in court, or worse. Helping you good people was the right thing for us to do.”

The three of them faced us, silent and understanding. Hard men carved from violence and conflict, there for us. I for one, felt humbled.

“What now?” I asked. I’d fully expected to be out in the rain tonight. I felt not a shred of disappointment.

“Well, from our point of view, it goes something like this. You’ve grafted. Done everything that was asked of you. Pushed yourselves. So as far as we’re concerned, none of this has been a waste of time. Your training’s over. We’ve got something for you. Call it a graduation gift.” James nodded to Ollie.

Reaching behind his armchair, Ollie picked up two small packages, stood and handed one to each of us. Someone had taken the time to gift wrap them, albeit plain brown paper and tied with string. We opened them together. In each we found a military watch and an identical pair of black leather gloves, again military issue, padded on the back of the hand and each finger. All bar one, the trigger finger. Symbolic.

Sid proposed a toast. “Raise your glasses Lady and Gents.” He paused until we were all in the pose required. Then meaningfully, almost spiritually said, “Their time… is up.”

Sacha and I glanced at each other, each understanding where we were, why and how good it felt. I tipped my glass gently in her direction, a salute she acknowledged. We drained our glasses then, to lighten the moment, upended them atop our heads.

That broke the mood, which lightened. More drinks were poured and drank and the evening developed from there. The Jedi exchanged war stories, most of which were eye openers to us but brought scathing comments from each other. Good natured stuff between peers. Scars were exposed and their origins explained. Sid had an impressive pair of feet, lacking several toes.

“Everest.” He explained. “Adventure training, they said. Took me two go’s but I got there.”

Ollie stripped of his shirt, there were scars from what appeared to be claw marks. “Panther.” He said. “Fucking great big Black Panther.”

James almost choked. “Panther my arse. That was a junkyard Doberman. Columbia. Medellin Cartel operation. I told you it was a shit place for a rendezvous and,” James wagged a finger, “you were only supposed to be there as an observer.”

Ollie grinned. “Ok, maybe it was only half panther but fuck me it was big.” He paused. “And vicious. A proper vicious bastard.”

“How about you James?” Asked Sacha. “Any war wounds?”

“Nah. Too careful. I am, as they say, a perfect specimen.”

“Wives, girlfriends?”

“Ollie’s had the wives and Sid’s in-between engagements, so to speak.” James had artfully avoided the question, his private life it seemed, was exactly that. Private.

Stung by the ‘wives’ comment, Ollie struck back. “He’s got a girlfriend. City chick, big in finance. No idea what she sees in him. I mean, if you ignore the cooking, cleaning and gardening skills, what use is he?”

“Ollie. You will never, ever understand, how highly those talents are regarded by the fairer sex. It’s enough to say I have a girlfriend, you have ex-wives.”

“What does she say about your long absences?”

James paused, thoughtful.

“You’re not gonna let go, are you?”

Sacha shook her head. “No Sir, I’m not.”

He sighed. “We get together when we can. She has her thing, I have mine. Both of which are important to us. There’ll come a time when we meet in the middle. Will that do?”

Sacha nodded but I could see she was only partially satisfied. She set her sights on Sid.

“Australian eh, Sid?”

“Yep. Here we sit, two strangers in a strange land, surrounded by philistines and barbarians.”

“Have you thought about when you’re going home”

“This is my home.” said Sid. “Unless we’re up against the Poms in the rugby or the cricket.” Quickly, he added, “I’ve got an Aussie flag somewhere, that’s when it gets an airing. You?”

Sacha sat, staring into her vodka, which had diminished somewhat. “My folks are dead. Have been for a while now, so as for going home, well, you know where it is, you guys live next door. What’s a girl not to like?”

Then we got to where I figured Sacha had been heading all along.

“Ollie. Tell us about The Hole.”

I groaned inwardly. Not that I hadn’t told her everything, it’s just that after finding out Pete/Ollie had been there all the time, it had taken the shine off it for me.

Ollie grinned, reminiscing. “Best job I ever had.”

“Is that it?”

“To paraphrase my learned colleague over there.” Ollie gestured towards James. “You’re not gonna let go of this are you?”

Her response was similarly repetitive. “No, Sir. I am not.”

Ollie hunched forwards, his drink between his knees, looked Sacha straight in the eye and quietly, seriously said, “Sacha. I did heaps of stuff there I should be ashamed of. But I’m not, truth be told, it’s their world and all I did was react to the environment. Tom, on the other hand, and I guess this is what you want to know, Tom, is a good man, in any sense you want to interpret that. He had a job to do and did it. He may have broken a head or two but no hearts. Here endeth the lesson.”

Sacha smiled, touching Ollie gently on the hand.

After that, the evening meandered pleasantly on but eventually, tiredness overcame us. The last twelve days of 2 hours on, 2 hours off had left us bone weary and in need of a proper night’s sleep. A few drinks hadn’t helped and we were shot. We said goodnight to the Jedi and climbed the stairs. Our rooms were opposite each other down a narrow corridor and as was usual,I wished Sacha goodnight and reached for my door handle.

She took my arm and softly said, “Not tonight.”

Taken by surprise, I let Sacha lead me through her bedroom door. Her curtains were open and moonlight cast a subdued lunar glow through the window. Closing the door behind her, she turned and faced me.

“Don’t read too much into this, Tom.” She said, taking my hands in hers. “But I think after the last couple of weeks, I’d miss you tonight but more than that,” she hesitated for a moment then, shrugging my ratty old robe from her shoulders, added conspiratorially, “I could really do with some good, old fashioned sex.”

Unselfconsciously nude, she stood there, waiting. I was numb. I’d grown so used trying not to think of her in this way that when the moment came, now, I was too stunned to react. She reached for me, pulled my tracksuit top over my head, then knelt and slid down the bottoms. Standing, she stepped back looking me up and down and offering me the chance to see her. Now alive to what was happening, I took it. Looking at her, there was no doubt that she was a simply fabulous creation, What God had given her, the last few weeks had enhanced. Her skin, burnished by moonlight, shone. The dips and curves of her body were defined by thrown shadows and were an irresistible invitation. As I absorbed my daydream, I knew that I would sell my soul to spend the rest of my life with this woman.

“Wow. Just look at us.” she smiled. “It might be my memory, Tom. But I don’t think you’ve ever looked better.”

“You,” I could barely speak. “Are breath-taking.”

Part of me recognised that I was lost; she seemed out of focus, as if I couldn’t quite make contact with her. Then, with what felt like relief, I realised I was being led towards the bed. I felt a rush of adrenalin, then a luxurious arousal reminiscent of our first time together, the years had fallen away and we were back in time. I knew somehow, that her gaze had come back to my face and her eyes were unerringly fixed on me. They stayed that way as we lay down together. My fingers reached for her hair, their actions separate from my will, a sensation of silk in my hands. My palms moved to her face, gently lifting it to my own and our lips brushed. Light, moist, sensual, releasing a desire that that for years I’d kept caged. A charge of nerve tingling expectation ran rampant down the length of my body and I felt myself tremble with longing. She was utterly irresistible, once a part of my dreams but now a physical presence, a being my heart longed to cherish. The outside world meant nothing now, my eyes closed and I was oblivious to everything but Sacha. Our mouths pressed together with feverish haste. We had a need for each other, a pure heat that burned, demanding we touch. She took my hand and pressed it hard between her breasts, she held me there, almost willing me to feel the emotions surging beneath her skin as her heart beat faster. My mouth moved to her neck, trembling fingers caressing, remembering, savouring the softness. The soft slope of her breasts guided my fingertips until they reached their goal. My thumb and forefinger closed, encircling the tip, hard with anticipation and desire. She shuddered, knees drawn together, her toes stretching, curling. Her head was thrown back, eyes tightly closed, her mouth open, pink tongue captive between teeth and lip through which breath was urgently drawn in shallow gasps. Her skin gleamed from the heat of passion and the reflection of the moon. My eyes lingered, overwhelmed by the sheer perfection of her exquisitely formed breasts that rose and fell with an erotic innocence all of their own.

I became aware of her hands on me, small urgent fingers touching, stroking. Her eyes flashed open, ablaze, entreating, wanting. Above all, wanting.

I fell on top of her, our skin moistening instantly as it touched, our limbs running together in the pale light. She found my hand again and demanded it between her legs, pressing her palm down, squeezing her thighs; she locked my hand into its soft prison. My fingers searched, found the wetness, dipped and moved up, bringing with it soft oils to heighten the touch.

She writhed beneath me, arching her hips upward, groans escaping, whistling hoarsely from her throat. She pulled the tormenting hand away, frantic to halt this attack on her senses. Wanting, not wanting, the sensation too exquisite.

“Please.”

Half heard but compelling.

Her mouth opened wide, soundless as I entered her. I heard her gasp as the invasion thrust fully home. Moving slowly, I savoured the sensation of being there. I filled her, emptied, filled. The rhythm established, her body moved instinctively with mine. I couldn’t have stopped now even if I’d wanted to. Heaving frantically together, the tempo broken, I came. I felt the warmth of her as she flooded, heat coursing deep between us, touching every nerve, releasing me from reality, striking sparks from my brain, my head ablaze with light and colour.

Slippery with sweat, we lay together, the warmth of our exertions draping us. Sacha’s breathing changed and I sensed that she wanted to say something.

“That wasn’t just sex, was it?”

I knew these past weeks had brought us closer together, I just didn’t know how close. But lying next to her, knowing that what was in me needed to come out, I was apprehensive but unafraid of what I knew I had to say. Never before Sacha, and certainly never after had I felt so at one with a woman. She was my friend. I had no trouble saying the words.

“I love you, Sacha. Always have, always will.”

Sacha sighed deeply, contentedly, then held me tighter.

“That needs an answer, Tom.” She shifted slightly, resting her head on my chest. I could feel her breath on my skin. “I’ve told you I never stopped loving you, but there’s a difference between that and being in love with you.” She paused, then summed up her doubts, her words coming softly, thoughtful. “And that’s the thing. Who are you? There’s the man you were before Ellen died. A loving, caring, wholesome man. There’s the man you became, introverted, frantic, suicidal. And there’s the man you are now, who I reckon has yet to fully reveal himself. Which one is you, the real you? I know it’s been complicated, hell, I’m complicated, people just are, but there’s a confusion here, something I can’t commit to until I know. There are things about you I need to forget and things I need to learn. As for what we’re doing……If ever I needed to justify it, what we plan to do, it’s us. You were lost to me, Tom. As lost as Ellen was but this, it’s bringing you back. And that has to be right, doesn’t it? That we find something left of our old selves and remember what we shared? I’m here, Tom. I’m here with you now and unless something happens to change the way my feelings are moving, I plan to stay, there’s never been anyone else, I don’t think there ever could be but I just need to know. I’m talking about the rest of my life.”

She’d tensed as she’d spoken but now that she was done, visibly relaxed.

As I lay there, I thought about what she’d said. ‘Which one was I?’ Drowsy, my thoughts faded. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was that for now, the man I am was going to see this through, wherever it went.

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