“Et Cum Spirito Tuo” by John Rollich, Plymouth England

Connected November 13, 2011 15:49

topic: CONNECTED medium: TEXT

as submitted for the “Connected” contest

Little of the early morning light penetrated the church. At each of the pillars of the nave, candles sat either side of a simple altar. Their light fell upon the monks saying their daily mass, white surplices over their black Cistercian habits. He too wore a hood, also black, and beneath it hid white headphones. The music created a world in which he alone could live and, though in style and content incongruous with the whispers of the monks, the profane lyrics somehow found their home in him, expressed his hatred and his captivity.

As he sat, his father knelt next to him staring at the back of the monk, following his gestures with reference to a worn daily missal like an amateur code-breaker or a cook following a medieval recipe. As he looked at his father’s lined face, furrowed in prayer, he could not see the man that he remembered playing cricket with him in the garden. He knew that it had happened but he did not
recognise this man in a crumpled tweed jacket with hair growing unchecked from his ears.

They were both fugitives. When he was charged, he had stood alone in the dock, only the press taking notes in the public gallery and the court artist sketching furiously to capture some semblance of emotion in his face or element of posture or clothing that might reassure the British Public that they would recognise a murderer. Above his picture the headlines gleefully proclaimed that the son of a senior policeman had been brought to trial. And, beneath it, column inches were wasted in vapid discussion of what this might say about society, gang culture and the role of poly-unsaturates.

The escape itself had been unspectacular: the greasing of a few sweaty palms and he was sitting next to his father. Their passports had not been checked as they boarded the ferry to Le Havre and they had quickly become unremarkable members of the British Diaspora in the middle of France. They had had to wait a day to read the fantastical accounts of subterfuge and intrigue, the theories that inevitably concluded that their escape had been part of a jihadist plot. His father had cut out one with a picture of him shaking Prince Philip’s hand which confirmed the old man’s part in the conspiracy. He said that he was going to frame it and put in the downstairs loo.

On that night, his father had been called to attend Control. There was a sense of order in the room but no sense of control. On a bank of screens images from Croydon and Enfield, from Clapham, Fulham, Hackney all converged: CCTV, mobile camera units, live press feeds. A map showed the location of the different police units, crude symbols representing their numbers and potential
capabilities. The crackle and hiss of radio transmissions leant a sense of urgency to an otherwise two-dimensional and abstract world.

“Oscar Charlie Two Two One requesting back up”
“Rodger Oscar Charlie Two Two One. No back up available. Form fire-break West
End Road. Over.”
And with it one screen would jump and slither as Oscar Charlie Two Two One
retreated to their new position.

Behind the cameras, the policemen were frightened. He could see it in their faces. Behind the riot helmets, beneath the body armour marked to define them ‘OC221: 14’, he could sense the sweat running between the creases of their skin. He was wearing an old scarf, a black hoodie and jeans, comparatively naked, marked only by his allegiance to his gang. They were, in fact, on disputed
ground. D-block and Pepys men would not normally have stood shoulder to shoulder but the Blackberry message had been incontrovertible: “fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”

As he bent forward in prayer, his father tried to pray for his son. He tried to pray for his son’s friends. It wasn’t easy. He remembered only too easily that night. He remembered looking at one of those many screens, a feed from a policeman’s helmet camera which showed a young face, un-lined, jeering as threw a rock. He was wearing a Lebanese scarf. He recognised the scarf. He had bartered for it in the market at Beiteddine. The radios crackled and hissed: “Man down! Man down!”

D’s tryin to plant a murder on me
In the precinct they sayin I done murdered homey
I told my lawyer I ain’t heard of homey
And e’rybody know my niggaz buried him fo’ me

He sat as his father knelt. The priest had his back to him but he could see him beating his breast three times. A pause and then he saw that his father’s breathing pattern had altered. He was reciting a prayer and he saw him beat his breast three times. His father’s head remained bowed in prayer. Sitting back against the hard wooden pew, enclosed in his hoodie and lost in his own world, he laughed.

You see I’m on your crib it ain’t a burglary homey
They fin’ to have me stuck in purgatory
I’m down to do the stickin when it come to the orgy
Conventional methods of sex, totally bore me

He had met lots of girls that his father might have approved of. Might have approved? They were pushed at him at every party that he had been sent to, the reluctant, shy, spotty kid. He hadn’t had the faintest sniff of even conventional sex with them. It was only when he joined D-block that sex became a possibility.

Southside – I make the best of the worst
We gotta share the same bitch, okay I go first
Cause your, baby’s momma is my, baby’s momma
I come through to see my little nigga with the llama

2319666. They had laughed that he had the mark of the devil. He had been congratulated and he was pleased. Not by the number but because of it. He was part of the gang: he had entered a world apart, broken free, and the proof could not be found on any certificate, like the framed Bachelor’s Degree which hung proudly in his father’s office; not in a business card nor the car stickers that boasted of golf club membership.

“I don’t understand.”
His father was sitting across the table from him. He could have told him that he had stray crumbs from his breakfast in his moustache but instead he turned back to his phone and continued to message his friends. He wouldn’t understand, whatever he said. How could he understand? He was as much a fed as a father.

“You know they’ll trace you if you continue to use that thing.”
“Nah man, they can’t do that shit. S’ Blackberry init.” But he wasn’t sure. He looked up, “For real?”
“Blackberry messages might be encrypted but the location of their handsets can still be traced.” His father wiped his lips with a napkin.
“Yeah but what if I don’t send nuthink? Like, what if I just gets messages and stuff?”
“The phone still sends out a signal every time it connects. Anyway, your credit will soon run dry and I won’t buy you any more.”
“Yeah well, I’ll just nick it won’t I?” He smiled and shook it head at the old man.
“And have another charge to your name? Isn’t manslaughter enough?”
He really didn’t understand.

His father got up, washed his plate and bowl and left the room. He heard him tramp down the hall to his study and then the music, a duet of viola da gamba. Marin Marais. He couldn’t help but remember it: he had been in the car as they drove to France. Aged 9, he had felt so grown-up sitting in the front seat. It was a conversation, his father had explained, a dialogue between the young Marais and his aged teacher Sainte Colombe, the passing of a life’s experience from one generation to the next. He inserted his earphones and returned to his world.

They went to the beach in the afternoon. He didn’t want to but his father said  that they should do what they normally did because otherwise people might become suspicious. He felt out of place. Lying on his towel, he looked around: his father was swimming, nose up against the current, doggedly fighting a very personal fight. Children played, making sandcastles, the older ones with their
inflatable rings and canoes. He noticed, with some satisfaction, a girl perhaps his age whose sunglasses did not adequately hide her furtive glances.

He turned back to his phone and began to write a message to his friends. He stopped. His father’s words from the morning were ringing in his ears. “They’ll trace you…” He looked at what he had written: “Dun the rotten with hot beach chik”. It didn’t really make any sense but he had to write something. He had to communicate. They were his friends, the only ones who really understood him. But how could he communicate this scene of middle-class ease? Any attempt to disguise it sounded hollow; so many miles from his normal habitat, the usual patois of exaggeration, self-glorification, felt uncomfortable, as if the distance exposed the lie.

His father maintained a steady rhythm as he swum up against the current. He used to be able to recite the rosary as he fought against the current but somehow he was unable to concentrate and felt that the words had become a mantra to pace his exercise rather than a devotion in their own right. He tried to pray for his son but kept returning to same resentful thought: he had destroyed his life, so carefully constructed, from junior officer to detective chief inspector. Why had he spirited his son away, run to exile? There had been an understanding with the old guards, not so corrupt but rather humane, that he would bring him back to justice in the end but that he should be allowed to do so himself rather than simply surrender him to the impersonal courts.

As he swum, the rocks beneath him barely moved but there was some progress, he was moving upstream. All the certainties had gone: his membership of the golf club, the ridiculous ties by which he proclaimed an affiliation with various alma mater, the professional networks of a bland career. All these no longer held him captive and he felt a kind of freedom: no matter his title, none of these constructs would recognise a man who had been an accessory to a felon’s escape, even if the felon was his son. He did not know what to do except that he knew that he had to retrieve his son. And as he swam, however slowly, the rocks kept moving beneath him.

He woke to find a message from the leader of D-block. As he tried to shield the  sun from his eyes, he translated the familiar patois, as cryptic as Blackberry’s codes, to find that he had been disowned. The fact that his father was a policeman was, it seemed, evidence enough of flawed loyalty. That he had not told them was, he read, an act of gross betrayal. How could he have told them?
And why was it relevant? He had barely seen his father since his mother had walked out, their marriage annulled leaving him, technically, their bastard child. He began to write a reply, a protest, an assertion of allegiance, but it sounded too much like an appeal. All he could come up with was “Fuck you all. You no real niggaz neetha!!!”

He checked his Facebook profile. He was there with the others on the street corner, the picture taken from low down so that they appeared bigger and slightly distorted. There were still posts on his wall from before the riots, mundane aggressive banter in capital letters and links to music videos on YouTube. But his friends had disappeared. A few remained, mainly family friends or old school friends who he hadn’t seen since he and his mother had moved away, but all of the gang were gone.

His father appeared. “You should go in. The water’s beautiful. Are you okay?” He looked up at him, silhouetted against the sun and then turned over. He lay with his head on his hands and felt cold water on his back as his father towelled himself dry. He didn’t know what to say to him.

“Wine?” They were sat again at the table with a simple supper before them.
“Isn’t there no beer? Or vodka?”
“It’s good wine. You should enjoy it,” his father said, pouring him a glass.
“What are we going to do?” He felt his accent slipping back through the years, losing its inflections and regaining more conventional grammar.
“I don’t know. What do you think we should do?”
He didn’t know either. He wanted to tell his father about the gang, about their betrayal, that he was lost, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. It felt too much like defeat. And anyway, he didn’t know how to say it, how to explain what he had had and what he had lost. His father wouldn’t understand.
“Well theres no ways I’m staying here though, right?
“No.”
“But I can’t go back neither.”

His father was silent, staring at his soup. He wanted to tell him that he would have to go back, that it was his fault that they were here, his fault that he would lose his job, his fault that his relationship had fallen apart. But that wasn’t true. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault at all. He knew that his son was frightened and wanted to reassure him, advise him, but the only terms that came to his head were set in the Garden of Gethsemane, carrying a cross, Calvary. Shouldering responsibility sounded too glib and was, anyway, a reference to the same thing.

“When I was younger, not much older than you, I spent a year in a very remote place. During the winter there had been twenty of us, living together through bitterly cold days which were as dark and cold as the nights. I had a very good friend there. I spent most of my time with her. We spoke about everything. Then one day she was killed. It was now summer. I was in the comms room and I
heard the call over the radio, “Mayday! Mayday!” I could see their boat out in the bay, a small speck about two kilometres away and as they returned I saw them huddled over something. As they got closer I saw that they were doing chest compressions and I saw them carry the body up to the surgery.

“The base commander ran into the room and told me to disconnect all external communications. I didn’t understand, stood staring at him, but he shouted, “Cut comms! Cut the fucking comms now!” In the surgery, they were still trying to resuscitate her. They all looked up at me as I came into the room. Their eyes were slate grey and full of compassion. We had all been on a life support course
back in the UK before we had left, laughing as we attempted to bring plastic mannequins to life.

“She had blood coming from the wounds around her neck. The doctor made space for me and gave me the green bag which was connected to a tube in her mouth. “10 breaths a minute, remember?” As I squeezed the bag, I could feel the resistance of her lungs and the rhythmic compression of her chest. Every two minutes we stopped to check her pulse. The green line ran flat across the monitor and we started chest compressions once more.

“After what must have been twenty or thirty minutes, the doctor said we should stop. They all looked at me. I disagreed and we continued. Another two minutes and another then the doctor put his arm around my shoulder. I stopped, we stopped and silently, one by one, we left the room. We all met in the bar. The base commander explained to everyone what had happened and we spent the afternoon drinking, telling stories. I don’t know how we managed it. I suppose we had become so close alone out there and talking was easy.

“I returned to the comms room with the base commander and we contacted headquarters who then told her family. Once they knew, we were allowed to call home and try to explain to our families what had gone on. The news spread and it became News – interviews, pictures, comment and so-called analysis, anything they could find.”

His father stopped, still looking down at his plate. He had been waiting a long time to tell that story. He didn’t know why he had told it to his son. He hadn’t even told his wife. But it had been on his mind again recently after all the articles in the paper, the screaming reports of voyeurs on Twitter dressed up as ‘information-sharing’. He had seen them, as numerous as the rioters, taking
pictures of the destruction to post online, telling their story in 140 characters to anyone and everyone.

“Shit Dad, that’s fucked up.”
“Yes, it was awful.”
His father made the sign of the cross and said his grace, “We give Thee thanks, Almighty God, for these and all Thy benefits, Who livest and reignest, world without end. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
“Amen.” He had not said it for many years and his father looked up at him and smiled. He looked away, a sense of defeat but not as painful as he would have imagined.

His father washed up and he dried the dishes in silence. He followed him andsat down on one of the sofas. His father put the music on and sat down with his book. He flicked through his phone. He had run out of credit so couldn’t check his Facebook or email but he didn’t really want to anyway. He toyed with a game but found himself listening to the music. Marin Marais. He listened to the ebb and flow of the viols as they sang to each other. Beneath them, the basso continuo marked out a strict time and they followed it here obediently, there reluctantly, sometimes responding conventionally, at other times too eager to finish their phrase.

“I’m not sure my cash will last us much longer here and if I use my card they will find us within hours.”
“Can you get more sent out?”

“There has been nothing in the French newspapers yet.”
“Will there be?”
“Yes. It’s only a matter of time.”

His father knelt and said his evening prayers. He prayed the normal prayers, prayers that he remembered from his childhood. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, followed by a litany of personal intentions. He withdrew slightly as he heard his name called in the roll of family names. Then a new prayer, one that he had not been brought up with. It was a very old prayer: “Have mercy on the Pope and on the bishops. Restore the unity of the baptised in Truth. Have mercy on Thy people, Israel, and return their hearts to You. Oh
Blessed Trinity, one eternal God, have mercy on us.”

They went to Mass the following morning. He watched as his father genuflected, crossed himself and walked to one of the altars. He followed and knelt beside him. The monk turned to them, his only congregation, extended his arms and mouthed, “Dominus vobiscum”. He saw his father’s lips respond silently, “Et cum spirito tuo.” He looked around the church. The same charade was being enacted at every altar. Here and there, members of the public knelt behind the monks as they worked, absorbed as one in the same ancient appeal to a God that they could not see.

The priest lifted the consecrated host and he found himself unthinking, repeating St Thomas’ words: “My Lord and my God.” They stood up. Again the priest turned to them, “The Lord be with you”. It was not part of the old rite but he turned to his father and held out his hand to offer him the sign of peace. His father leant across and kissed him. “Pax Domini, my son.” And, with that he whispered a lifetime of apologies, of dedication and of love.

They sat in the car.
“Shall we go home?”
“Let’s go home.”

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