Social media is probably awash with comments about the Manchester bombing but I can’t let the week pass without adding my thoughts. It is awful to think of the suffering of those children, young people and parents, killed and injured. They and their families and friends have my sympathy. I don’t know how I would react if I or someone close to me was caught up in a terrorist outrage. The nearest I’ve been was driving with my girlfriend a few streets away from one of the IRA pub bombings in Bristol in 1975 and that hardly affected me at all. Despite my lack of any authority or intimate knowledge I do nevertheless have some thoughts on the incident and its consequence.
It is often said that bombers, suicide or not, are cowards, and they are, for targeting innocent and unprotected people, particularly the very young, as in this case. We would hail a soldier a hero for giving his/her life on behalf of their fellows and their cause, but it requires little courage for a terrorist to blow themselves up if they have been persuaded that death is just a door to eternal happiness and that the rewards for their act are great. For those with such deeply held beliefs any horrific atrocity has point and meaning. They do it not only to kill and maim but to draw attention to themselves and their cause and to disrupt the lives of others. They succeed.
The Manchester bomber has got exactly what he intended: the newspapers, TV and radio dominated by the event and its aftermath and immediate reaction from the government. I’m not sure whether seeing armed police and soldiers guarding buildings makes anyone feel safer – it doesn’t have that effect on me. I jus think that the terrorists will either sit back for a few weeks (probably looking to act itn a different country) or alternatively will look for a different method or less well-guarded site as happened in France with the truck killings after the shootings. Police forces always have armed response teams ready at a moments notice so I don’t see that dispersing their manpower thinly around the country has any great effect. It can’t be maintained – it’s too expensive. If the UK was to persist with a high level of security for an extended period the cost of the extra manpower would cut into other budgets for example the NHS, education or social care. The most important response is the one we don’t see, behind the scenes, in secret – the eavesdropping, surveillance and the infiltration of terrorist groups by truly brave officers.
The only response to terror is to ignore it. I don’t mean ignore the deaths, they must be mourned, and the injured looked after. No, we must learn to carry on our lives the way we want to live them. Terror will continue as long as people hold different views and beliefs. Thanks to the world being awash with arms, courtesy of governments’ support for regimes and rebels around the globe, determined groups will always be able to find the weapons they seek. We must ensure that our security services do what they can, as indeed they have done quite successfully. That is, to sniff out the terrorists before they can act, but shows of strength by increasing security are meaningless and pandering to the terrorists desires. While being wary and observant we must carry on doing what we want. On that point I was appalled that Birmingham Cathedral closed on Wednesday for security reasons and cannot understand their reasoning.
We must also ensure that that while being aware that the terrorists live amongst us we do not blame innocent members of the ethnic or religious groups from which the terrorists come. All Irish people were not held responsible for IRA or UDA murderous acts. Not all animal rights campaigners were blamed for the ALF outrages. Similarly, Moslem people must not be accused of all being jihadi extremists. Anyone who does react by attacking ordinary Moslem people is just doing what the terrorist wanted and heightening tension. Human nature being what it is I don’t think there is a complete solution to terrorism and while we must do all we can to remove the opportunities for terrorist acts and the causes which the terrorists espouse we must accept that atrocities will occur but must not be allowed to deter us from living our lives.
So, difficult as it might be we must look forward to a warm and pleasant bank holiday weekend.
Last Saturday I attended an excellent workshop on marketing self-published books. I was reinvigorated and will be re-examining by strategy and re-launching my books – but not yet. The next couple of weeks are going to be busy with the Leominster Festival, particularly our Bookfair on 10th June on The Grange. But after that . . . That is also when I will be starting the next Jasmine Frame novella (I’m getting some ideas). Here, therefore is another older short story. It was written at and for a different time of year than now but is, I hope, something completely different and light for this week.
1 in 1461
I can’t argue that it had never crossed my mind. When you reach your late twenties, I expect every guy begins to wonder if they’ll get married and “settle down”. I suppose I was waiting for that special moment, a suitable occasion, when everything would fall into place.
It’s an important step, “getting hitched”. Changes things, doesn’t it. Makes two people into a family. Soon it’s children, one, two, more! I suppose I was a bit scared. I like excitement and thrills but I do like things to get back to normal afterwards, back as it was, steady, untroubled, and, after all, I quite liked the life I had.
I got up early that day. It was always early, six a.m., dark and cold; well, it was still February, just. It was the worst thing about the job. What am I saying – it was the only thing about the job that was less than fun. I had to get up at that time to be sure of getting a seat on the train. Kate, as usual, made breakfast, still in her p.j.s and her old, pink dressing gown – how long has she had that? She didn’t have to leave for her school for over an hour or so but every day she made sure I had something to eat before I left home.
“I’ll be a bit late this evening,” I said, going out of the door, “important meeting.”
I glanced at her as I picked up my briefcase and a look of disappointment flashed over her face but it passed and she said,
“Okay, take care.” She blew me a kiss as I stepped outside, as she always did.
It was that routine that I loved about Kate. We’d been together since student days. Back then we’d shared the house with Russ and Chris but they left to buy their own place. We could have moved to a better postcode, I suppose, but, well, it was handy for the station and for Kate’s school. Kate loved the area as it was so different to her father’s country parish. Mind you, you can take the girl out of the church but not the church out of the girl. She was so honest and fun-loving but a little bit uptight about some things.
I can’t say my mind was on work much. I signed off on a few deals, set a few other things in motion, just a few mil., nothing special. I left the office soon after five and picked up the flowers I’d ordered from the stall down by the station.
Becky was already in the restaurant when I arrived. As usual she’d found a table that couldn’t be seen from the entrance or from most of the other tables. We’d been there once or twice before but Becky was always keen that we shouldn’t become well known in places. Her new dress looked just like the bunch of spring flowers that I handed to her. She smiled so cheerfully that I knew that this meeting was going to be special. She gave me a hug and big, sloppy kiss and cooed over the flowers. We sat down; she poured me a glass of wine, spoke the usual pleasantries then she said.
“It came through today. It’s all over.”
“That’s fantastic news,” I said, genuinely feeling happy for her.
“I’m no longer married to that man,” she said with a sense of relief that was so apparent on her face.
“Has he been in touch,” I said guardedly. I knew that even hinting that he might have sought her out could set her off in hysterics.
“No, thank god. He hasn’t got my new address or my mobile number, and he won’t get them either. I’m free of the vicious bastard at last.”
She took a sip of her wine and the cloud that had covered her face evaporated.
“Now we can get on with our lives.”
The waiter approached and took our order and then we talked about our shared memories and our plans. It was when we’d finished the dessert that Becky bent over and rummaged in her handbag. She placed a small box on the table in front of her. It was square and covered in black leather. I should have recognised it at once for what it was, but, well I suppose I can be as dim as the next guy sometimes and the significance of the date hadn’t occurred to me.
“I’m so glad that the divorce went through so that I can give you this today,” she said, “the one chance in four years a lady gets to propose. You’ve been so good for me these last years, helping me get through it, not minding when I’ve got a bit anal about keeping our meetings secret. I love you and I want you to marry me.”
She lifted the box up and handed it across the table to me. I took it from her but in fact I was choking, speechless. I opened it and there was the engagement ring. Well, not an engagement ring with diamonds and sapphires and things like girls wear but a man’s signet ring, white gold with her initials and mine engraved in it.
My mind was racing. Of course, I had known her divorce was due; we’d talked about it often, but I hadn’t planned for a change in our relationship at least, not straight away. I loved spending time with her, we were good together but marriage hadn’t entered my head.
“What do you think?”
“It’s, um, gorgeous.”
“Does it fit? Try it on.”
I took it from the box and slipped it on my third finger. Of course it fitted. She knew me so well. I looked at it and looked at her. She was glowing with happiness.
“Well? You haven’t given me an answer.”
“My question, silly. It’s the twenty-ninth of February and it’s a lady’s prerogative to ask her lover for his hand in marriage. So, what do you say?”
She was so expectant, so full of joy, I couldn’t say anything else could I.
“Of course. It’s what we always planned isn’t it. You beat me to it.” Actually, despite all our plans to do things together I can’t recall discussing getting wed. I looked at my watch. “Oh, dear, it’s that time already. Look I’ve got to go, got to meet a client. I’m sorry, love.”
She looked disappointed for a moment then brightened. She was used to me dashing off to “meet clients” and after all how was I expected to know that she was going to propose that evening.
The waiter got my coat and I paid the bill. I kissed Becky on her cheek and made a pretence of having to run to make the meeting on time.
Sitting on the train, I looked at the ring on my finger and tried to imagine having another one, simpler, a wedding band. In some ways, the idea was attractive but although Becky may have been sure, was I? I took the ring off, placed it back in its box and dropped it into my suit pocket.
Night had fallen when I reached the house of course, but strangely the house was dark as well. I put my key in the lock and opened the front door.
“Hello,” I called into the unlit hallway. Kate opened the door from the kitchen diner. The yellow glow of candles silhouetted her but I could see she was wearing the gold lame dress she’d worn at the New Year, with her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders. She looked stunning.
“Hi, I’m glad you’re not too late,” she said, approaching me, kissing me on the cheek and taking my briefcase from my hand. She took my hand in hers and led me into the candlelit room. The dining table was laid for dinner for two, there were daffodils in a vase and a bottle of red wine breathing. She pulled my overcoat off my shoulders and signalled for me to sit.
I was nonplussed. We evidently weren’t expecting guests to join us so what was the special occasion? Kate poured wine into two glasses and sat opposite me. Her right hand enclosed something. Something small. She lifted up her glass.
“Knowing you, I knew you would never do anything about it, and this chance only comes around once in four years so I decided it was now or never.” She reached out her hand towards me and uncurled her fingers. A small red box lay on her palm. “Will you marry me?”
I stared at the box.
“Take it,” she urged, “try it on.”
It was a simple silver ring with two threads engraved around it, criss-crossing and forming a never-ending knot. I slipped it on my finger. It fitted perfectly. I knew it would.
“Well?” She said giving me one of her large-eyed smiles.
“Stop kidding,” she giggled, “you have to answer. On the 29th February, you’ve got to. Will you marry me? Yes or no?”
My right hand fell down to my side brushing the pocket of my jacket. I felt the box containing Becky’s ring. I looked at Kate’s on the finger of my left hand. I didn’t like decisions. Which future should I choose? I cursed the calendar for adding this day every four years.