26 March 2019

We walked all the way to Checkpoint Charlie that day. At the end of the road, the grey autumn light made the barbed wire and the concrete guard towers disappear into the sky, so that you could believe they kept on rising forever. I stood watching crowds of people stare at the only opening in the Wall for twenty kilometres, and tried to pick out those who had come for a day trip just to gaze at it from the locals who could remember it being built and still felt the loss. But the faces all showed the same mix of anger and quiet sorrow.

The soldiers in their muddy-brown uniforms looked bored as they paced back and forth between the metal barriers. They always look bored. I once saw one grinning and winking at the girls in the crowd, but he was the exception – they stand there for six hours straight, rain or shine, and you wonder if they hope for the occasional attempt to jump the Wall, or an attack by the Western Fascists, just so they can put their training into practice. Even I, when I had a gun placed in my hands for my Compulsory Basic, felt a bit of a thrill as I pulled the trigger. The kick from the Kalashnikov nearly knocked me over, though, and my instructor laughed before taking it from me and replacing it with a single-shot rifle.  

So the boys in the watch towers were looking for a spark of excitement while the people below were looking for some sort of understanding. They wouldn’t find any there, I knew. Nick appeared through the crowd then, carrying the drinks that he had bought from a man with a cart. He handed one to me, and we both turned to silently gaze at the barrier.

‘What do you think, when you look at it?’ he said after a while.

My eyes ranged over the barbed wire and thick camouflage netting that prevented you from seeing through the ten-metre opening in the concrete. ‘I suppose it’s hard to put into words,’ I replied. ‘It feels like we’ve lost something, something we won’t get back. But, well, maybe it’s necessary, just for now.’

Quotation Mark

As we left, north towards Oxford Street, I gazed back at the statue of Eros, his attempt to leap over the Wall permanently frozen, caught by the concrete and the wire.


He peered up at the guard tower. ‘So they say.’

A group of schoolboys shuffled past, clutching the red paperbacks that were to be the map to our future. One broke off and wandered right up to the soldiers, but his teacher caught him and dragged him away, to the laughter of the others. They were just like the ones that I used to teach. I suppose children are the same everywhere.

‘Do you remember it going up?’ I asked.

‘Vividly,’ Nick said. ‘Yes, vividly.’

I understood and twisted his warm fingers into mine. After five months of marriage I could recognize the ridges and wrinkles in his skin. ‘At least we’re on the same side of it.’

‘Yes. That’s something.’ He sighed. ‘I do have friends over there, though.’

I looked over at the guards, wondering what they were thinking as they stared back at us. It must all have seemed very different to them. Perspective changes things. ‘I expect you’ll see them again. They might be on the other side right now, looking this way.’

‘Perhaps.’

A man approached the schoolboys, offering photographs of the Wall to be used as postcards. ‘Strange things to send,’ I said.

‘Presumably you give them to people you don’t like.’ I smiled.

The school party stopped in front of a hoarding showing the country split in half, with ten occupied babies’ cots on the other side, and nine on ours alongside an empty one bearing the slogan YOUR CHILD. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS! The boys’ teacher reached into his briefcase, took out another copy of the red book, in which the First Secretary had set out our nation’s course, and began to read out a passage.

Nick nodded in his direction with a sceptical smirk.

‘Does he think it’s all going to work so beautifully?’ he said.

I glanced around to make sure we couldn’t be overheard. ‘Well it’s worth trying, isn’t it? Surely if the state makes certain everyone is fed and has a job, nine tenths of all the fights and arguments we have with each other will be gone.’ And really it did make sense – God knows there were difficult aspects to our new life, but the argument seemed entirely logical, and rehearsing it in my mind made me hopeful for the future.

‘Overnight. In a puff of smoke.’ He tried to suppress a smile.

‘Oh, you’re a horrid man.’ I poked him in the ribs. ‘So what’s your big idea, then?’

‘I’m glad you asked,’ he said. ‘A gliding wing.’

‘A gliding wing?’

‘That’s it. We build it on the roof in the dead of night, wait until the wind picks up, then soar over the Wall like a couple of birds. Down a pink gin and slip into the best hotel we can find for an hour.’ He did some calculations in his head. ‘Make it ninety minutes.’

‘You need a cold shower.’ But my hand slipped around his waist.

‘Maybe I do.’ A soldier crossed from one side of the watch tower to the other, scanning the crowd with his binoculars. ‘Awful job,’ Nick said.

‘People surprise you. What they can do.’

‘That’s true. That’s always true.’

Above us a flock of black birds drifted so high that they became specks of dust. ‘Shall we go?’ I nodded. ‘Yes, let’s.’

As we left, north towards Oxford Street, I gazed back at the statue of Eros, his attempt to leap over the Wall permanently frozen, caught by the concrete and the wire.

 

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  • 'This richly imagined thriller is set in an alternate past . . . Tightly plotted, tense and set in a chillingly plausible world' Sunday Mirror

    'A gripping story, with heart' Best thrillers of 2019, Daily Telegraph

    It's 1952 and Soviet troops control British streets after winning the Second World War.

    After the disastrous failure of D-Day, Britain is occupied by Nazi Germany, and only rescued by Russian soldiers arriving from the east and Americans from the west. The two superpowers divide the nation between them, a wall running through London like a scar.

    On the Soviet side of the wall, Jane Cawson calls into her husband's medical practice, hoping to surprise him. But instead she detects the perfume worn by his former wife, Lorelei, star of propaganda films for the new Marxist regime.

    Jane rushes to confront them, but soon finds herself caught up in the glamorous actress's death.

    Her husband Nick is arrested for murder. Desperate to clear his name, Jane must risk the attention of the brutal secret police as she follows a trail of corruption right to the highest levels of the state.

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    'A gripping and well-imagined yarn' Sun

    'A gripping murder mystery set in an alternative 1950s Britain . . . One not to miss' William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier

    'A superb and intelligent piece of alternate history. By turns gripping, terrifying and trenchant, it is a remarkably assured debut' Stav Sherez, author of The Intrusions

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