Read Blast From the Past Online

Authors: Ben Elton

Blast From the Past (4 page)

General Kent looked at the face in the pictures. Such a nice face. A little careworn, perhaps, but very pretty. Not everyone would have thought the woman beautiful, but General Kent did, ravishingly so.

The file also contained a telephone number.

Kent carried a mobile phone, but this he left in his pocket. Instead he took up the little stock of ten-pence coins that his security contact had furnished him with and got out of the car. Nearby was a public phonebox. Not one of the solid red ones that Jack remembered, but a phonebox none the less, not merely a phone in a hood on a pole.

It was very late and the street was quiet. Empty almost, save for one other man, a nervous-looking fellow loitering further up the street. The other man appeared to have been making for the phonebox himself, but when he saw Kent he stopped.

Kent wondered whether the man had been planning to call one of the extraordinary number of girls who advertised their sexual services on little cards inside the
phonebox
. Judging by the pictures on the cards, some of the most impossibly glamorous and attractive women in Britain were advertising cheap fucks in Stoke Newington. Kent suspected that if the fellow ever did pluck up courage to call he would be disappointed.

He pushed twenty pence into the machine and dialled. It was 2.15 a.m.

8

THE PHONE WAS
on its fifth ring. After the next one Polly’s answerphone would start. She sat on the floor and assumed the lotus position. When the Bug spoke she wanted to be ready.

Polly’s yoga teacher, a Yorkshireman called Stanley, had said that yoga was the process whereby the superior, conscious element in a person was freed from involvement with the inferior material world. A tough trick to pull when you’re being stalked in the small hours of the morning, but Polly was determined to give it a go. And so she sat, as the answerphone began to clunk, her feet crossed, her knees spread like a wing nut, her elbows on her knees and her fingers and thumbs set in the required position.

She was calm, she was at ease, she was relaxed.

Her bottom was freezing.

The problem was her nightie. It was an old shirt of her father’s, and was too short for the situation; it did not properly cover her backside from the cold floorboards on which she sat. She did not wish to break position at this crucial moment of calm; on the other hand the whole point was to be comfortable, and a cold
bum
was not comfortable. Besides which, some ancient memory was whispering to her that this was the best way of getting piles. It was no good, she would have to move onto the rug. While remaining absolutely calm, at one with herself and in the lotus position, Polly shuffled over to the rug using only her buttock muscles to motivate her.

‘Hello,’ said Polly’s voice as Polly shuffled. ‘Nobody’s answering at the moment, but please leave a message after the tone. Thank you.’

A defiantly unfunny and matter-of-fact message. Polly’s days of using music, cracking gags and pretending to be the Lithuanian Embassy had ended the day that the Bug had first discovered her phone number. During the worst period of harassment she had got a male friend to record her outgoing message, but this had just made genuine callers think they had the wrong number.

There was no incoming message.

The caller hung up and the answerphone clicked and clunked accordingly. Furious, Polly leapt up from her lotus position (an effort which nearly broke both her ankles), grabbed the phone off its cradle and shouted, ‘Fuck off!’ at the dialling tone. Stanley would not have been pleased.

‘Now, d’you think ’indu philosophers’d go abaht ’ollering “Fook off!” into’t pho-an?’ he would have enquired. ‘No fookin’ way.’

Polly struggled to prevent her blood from boiling. Calm was required. Calm. She had work in the morning.

Perhaps it had been a wrong number after all.

Perhaps the drug baron on the other end of the line had heard Polly’s voice on the machine, realized his mistake and had gone on to deliver his threats elsewhere.

Inside the phonebox Jack put down the phone. He had been expecting her to answer personally; he hadn’t prepared himself for an answerphone. She couldn’t be out. He’d specifically had that checked. She must be screening her calls. Or else she had become a heavy sleeper over the years.

A little further up the street Peter was watching Jack. For a moment he thought that the man must have finished his calls but then, to Peter’s fury, the man picked up the phone a second time.

Polly was just about to return to bed when the phone rang again. This time she didn’t bother with the lotus position; she just stood in the middle of her room, shaking with anger and fear, and waited.

‘Hello,’ said Polly’s voice again. ‘Nobody’s answering at the moment, but please leave a message after the tone. Thank you.’

This time the machine did not clunk to a halt. Polly could hear the faint electric hiss of an open but silent line. He was there but he wasn’t speaking. Standing there, alone in the night, Polly watched the phone like it was a hissing snake. Like it was going to pounce. She itched to grab up the receiver again and scream further
obscenities
, but she knew that she mustn’t. If there was one sure way to give the Bug satisfaction it was to share her emotions with him. Do that, shout at him, let him hear your fear and he would be nursing an erection for a week.

‘Polly?’

It wasn’t the Bug. She knew that within those first two syllables.

‘Polly. Are you there?’

Within four words she knew who it was.

‘Are you there, Polly?’

It was the last voice in the world that she had expected to hear.

‘Listen, don’t freak out,’ said General Kent. ‘It’s Jack, Jack Kent.’

9

JACK AND POLLY
had met many years before, in a roadside restaurant on the A34 near Newbury. Jack was a captain, serving with the American forces in Britain. Those were the days when the Cold War was still hot, which was more than could be said for most of the food in the restaurant. The moment he’d walked in, Jack had regretted his decision to stop off for a cup of coffee, and as he brushed the crumbs from the orange plastic seat he very nearly turned around and walked straight out again. His uniform had already attracted attention, however, and he did not wish to appear foolish. He was, after all, an ambassador for his country.

Jack cleared a space for his newspaper amongst the debris left by the previous occupants of his table. There was an election on, not that he cared much about British politics. Mrs Thatcher was in the process of pulverizing some whitehaired old boy in a donkey jacket. It didn’t look like a very equal contest to Jack; he’d been under the impression that the Brits believed in fair fight.

A hormonally imbalanced teenaged lad approached Jack’s table and offered him a menu.

‘Just coffee, please,’ Jack said.

‘Coffee,’ the lad repeated, and Jack knew immediately that he would not be brought coffee. He would be brought that beverage the British chose to call coffee but which the rest of the world recognized as the urine of the devil’s dog. This dark and bitter brew would be accompanied by a small, sealed plastic pot of white liquid marked ‘UHT Cream’, which Jack knew to have been squeezed straight from the colon of a sick seagull.

Jack took in his surroundings. Great Christ, what hellish imagination had conceived of such places? These ‘Little Shits’ and ‘Crappy Cooks’ and ‘Happy Pukers’? These pale imitations of another, more vibrant culture plucked from the highways and byways of America and dumped down, dowdy and deflated, upon the A roads of Britain? In the three years that Jack had been in the United Kingdom he had viewed the inexorable advance of these gastronomic ghettos with increasing alarm. They were everywhere. Every turn in the road seemed to reveal another ghastly vision of red, yellow and orange identikit architecture plus a huge plastic elephant for the kiddies. Any day now Jack expected to find one of these cheery hellholes installed at the gates of his base, possibly even outside his office door.

Jack’s ‘coffee’ arrived, about half of it still in the cup, the rest in the saucer, lapping around the grimy thumb of Jack’s server.

‘One coffee,’ the server said. ‘Enjoy your meal.’

The fact that Jack was clearly not having a meal was
of
no concern to this boy, whose instructions were to say ‘Enjoy your meal’ on delivery of every order, and that was what he did. Jack reflected on the problems of imposing a corporate culture. There was simply no point attempting to make English kids into Americans. You could put the silly hat on the British teenager, but you still had a British teenager under the silly hat. You could make them say, ‘Enjoy your meal,’ ‘Have a nice day,’ and ‘Hi, my name is Cindy, how may I help you right now?’ as much as you liked, but it still always came out sounding like ‘Fuck off.’

Jack was restless. He could not be bothered with the newspaper. Mrs Thatcher would win the election and she would probably stay in power for ever. The Brits weren’t stupid; they had a winner there. Hadn’t she just won a war, after all? A war! Even a year after the event Jack could still scarcely believe the good fortune of his British colleagues. It was so unfair. America was the world’s policeman; they had the best army, they should have got to fight the wars. And yet all of a sudden, just when everybody least expected it, those lucky bastard British had arranged themselves a real live, proper, nonnuclear, blood-and-guts, old-fashioned war. Jack and his comrades had suffered agonies of jealousy when it happened and, of course, being in Britain at the time had made it a hundred times worse. There they were, young eager members of the most powerful army on earth, and they had had to sit around in Britain, of all places, guarding cruise missiles while the dusty, down-at-heel old British sailed off halfway round the world to
defend
the Queen’s territory in the South Atlantic.

Jack put the frustrations of the previous year from his mind and took a sheet of writing paper from his pocket. Perhaps he would pass the time by writing to his brother. Jack had been meaning to write for some time but had kept putting it off because it was too depressing. What had he to say for himself? Only that it was starting to look as if Harry had been right all along. Harry had always said that joining the army was throwing your life away.


OK, Harry, I admit it
,’ Jack wrote in his small, precise hand. ‘Y
ou were right all those years ago and you’ve been right ever since. The army is a pain in the ass. It’s boring and there isn’t any glory any more. Are you pleased, you son of a bitch? Maybe you should put it in one of your damn poems
!’

This was a cheap shot. Harry no longer wrote poems, although for a brief period as a teenager he had attempted to. Jack had never, ever let Harry forget this.


Yeah, I’ll bet you’re pleased
,’ Jack continued. ‘
Tell Mom and Pa the black sheep is bored. Tell them they saw more action shouting slogans at LBJ and fighting cops in ’68 than I’ve seen in the fifteen years since I joined the fucking army
.’

This was not true at all. In fact Jack had seen plenty of action, having served with distinction in Vietnam, but Jack was in a sour mood. Besides, Jack’s South-East Asian service had been at the end of the war, beating the retreat, so to speak, a great power cutting its losses. The US disengagement from that bloody adventure had not
felt
very glorious at the time and it still rankled with Jack. It was one of the many things for which he somehow managed to blame his parents, an attitude his brother Harry found pathetic.


What
?’ Harry would exclaim. ‘It’s Mom’s fault you didn’t get enough Vietcong to shoot at! Jesus, Jack, you are such an asshole.’

‘Well, it was the enemy at home that stopped the war, wasn’t it?’ Jack would counter. ‘Those students and hippies and campus fucking heroes! They had their Vietnam War, oh yeah! Outside the White House and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial! And then they ruined it for me! I didn’t get sixties Vietnam, no, not me. I got seventies Vietnam. I didn’t get to play Beach Boys music and fight a jungle guerrilla war. No, I finally get out there in ’73, just in time to help load a bunch of fat fucking failures onto helicopters in the compound of the Saigon Embassy. That was my introduction to the new global reality. Even the music was shit. You can’t fight a war with Donny and Marie at number one.’

Jack and Harry had fought all the time as kids and they still did whenever they got the chance. Harry certainly had no sympathy for Jack’s frustrations with army life. He had never made any secret of the fact that he thought Jack’s life choices incomprehensible. As far as Harry was concerned, in the army there could only be two states – bored and terrified – and neither seemed very attractive to him. Harry’s theory of why Jack had chosen the course in life that he had was the old favourite that he had done it to spite their parents. They
had
been teenagers during the sixties and while their mother and father had not embraced the counterculture entirely, they had certainly inhaled. Being college teachers, it would have been almost impossible for them not to. The sixties had been a very difficult decade to opt out of. Even the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family had hippy values. Almost overnight unorthodox behaviour had become the new orthodoxy, long-haired weirdos became the norm and patriotic boys with crew cuts started to look like freaks. Jack felt like a stranger in his own home. He had wanted proper parents at a time when the concept of formal generations was breaking down. Anybody could be hip; greyhaired old men were on the TV extolling the glories of drugs, and grizzled beat poets and blues men were becoming folk heroes. Whereas traditionally adults had encouraged young people to act like grown-ups, suddenly grownups were acting like kids. Jack was fifteen and he felt like the only adult in his house. He had cringed away his teens while his mother swapped dresses for caftans and his father’s thick wavy hair got longer and longer and stupider.

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