|Publisher:||Legend Times Group|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||974 KB|
Read an Excerpt
When I was a child, I used to count my footsteps. Whenever the journey seemed overwhelming, or the surroundings intimidating, I would keep the drumbeat of numbers pounding in my head.
The walk home from school was broken down into small numerical accomplishments. One, two, three. I watched my shiny black shoes patter on the cracked paving stones, ignoring the uniformed hordes around me. Four, five, six. I listened to the predictable, ordered pattern in my head, not the chaos of laughter and gossip. Ten steps and I passed the boys spitting and swearing on the corner, shouting the numbers in my mind, drowning them out. Twenty and I reached the post box.
It's funny how these childhood mantras come to mind right before you die.
Now I need to make these adult feet move. Just a few more steps. I need to take this one last journey through the heaving crowd. I inhale deeply and try to focus. Human life simmers beneath the August sun; its aromas teased out. The scent of fresh sweat in the air is almost sweet.
I fix my gaze on the wooden stage ahead. About fifty steps, surely? No more than from the battered wheelie bin at the end of my road to number thirty-seven's broken gate. Maybe less? My stride was shorter then. If I count loudly in my mind, I can block out the crowd. If I watch my brown boots on the gravel path, I can ignore their faces.
I don't want to see their faces.
The policeman on my right touches my shoulder. "Miss Lincoln? Are you okay to do this?"
I nod. But I realise I'm trembling.
"You'll be fine," he says. "You'll do him proud."
I chance a glimpse of his face. His greying brows are furrowed with concern. He's about forty, maybe more. Strong jaw, bright eyes. He looks like one of those self-assured types. I wonder if he holds anyone's hand. If there's a little girl who will have to count her footsteps when her guardian is gone. My eyes dart away, back to the ground. I shouldn't have looked. Shouldn't have put a face, a life, to the man beside me. Because now I worry what they'll think of him. I feel sorry for his family, for what they'll have to deal with. He'll be vilified. Shredded. He had his hand upon me, saw my own hands shaking. Christ, he can probably hear my heart racing; it's loud enough. But he didn't realise.
Incompetent, they'll say. Maybe he volunteers at the local shelter on his days off. Maybe he's saved hundreds of lives in his career. It won't matter. All he'll be remembered for is today's fuck-up. Perhaps, he'll even come out of this with a posthumous reputation worse than mine. I'm unstable, after all. Understandable, they'll say, after all I've been through. With the twenty-twenty clarity of hindsight, they'll all be aghast at the catalogue of oversights that led to this. To me being escorted to my final destination by the very authorities that ought to have stopped me.
All these people, gathered to pay their respects, were frisked before they entered Hyde Park. Waiting in line like cattle for the pleasure of the indignity, then herded into their positions. The officers stride among them with suspicious eyes, evaluating, profiling. But me, I'm being taken care of, protected from the rabble.
They should have considered this a possibility, troubled as I must be.
He probably thinks I'm scared I'll be attacked again. There's no reason to suspect anything untoward. Who wouldn't be a little flustered, just at the prospect of standing up in front of all these people, let alone everything else? It'd be more suspicious if I were calm and confident. Having strange, male hands on my body is the very last thing that ought to happen to a young woman who has endured what I have. If it were necessary, surely it would be done by the female officer who escorted me here. He's not incompetent, just mistaken.
He'll be crucified just the same. But it comforts me to think he might not be alive to know about it.
It takes forty-five to reach the wooden steps. I leave tomorrow's pariah at the bottom and climb. One, two, three, four. I reach the top step. My seat, beside the Archbishop, is the next target. One boot on the shiny platform; two. I don't look right at the crowd, or left towards the other speakers already seated. I keep my eyes on the gaping expanse of blue chair waiting for me to fill it.
One. In my periphery, I can see the white robes of my soon-to-be chair-neighbour. Two. The microphone stand comes into view. Three. A small beetle spins in frantic circles on its back under the empty chair. Four. I reach it, turn with my eyes still on my boots, and sit.
The Archbishop says something to me. I don't quite catch it. Something to do with being sorry for my loss, or my ordeal. It's safe to assume, anyway. So I lift my cheeks. That's as close to smiling as I can manage, relying on my cheek muscles to lift the edges of my lips a little. I mutter a thank-you. But now I've got a problem. There are no more steps. Without the drum beat of numbers in my head I hear the crowd. They're clapping. For me.
"We love you, Rosa!" a woman cries. "Be strong."
They clap louder. They chatter among themselves. I look up at the front row. Expectant faces full of doe-eyed sympathy. Frowning faces, trying to plaster concern over curiosity. Here I am, Ladies and Gentlemen, in the flesh. Their eyes move over my body. They're thinking about what they've read in the newspapers. What Gridless did to me. They're wondering if I'm wearing long sleeves on a hot day because I've still got rope burns round my wrists. I wonder what they'd think if they knew it was really because of the track marks. And the bomb, of course.
Against my better judgement, I lift my gaze further, scanning the whole crowd. My brother's face stares back at me from a dozen different angles. His picture held aloft on home-made placards. Enlarged, embossed, underscored by handwritten messages.
R.I.P. brave soldier.
Thank You, Jimmy.
The same photo on every one. That photo. The one they chose from the hundreds available. The one that captures the essence of who they wanted him to be but nothing of the truth. Or rather, nothing that was truth. Now I know even truth can be changed. Manipulated. It happens all the time. Our perceptions are changed for us so rapidly, it's a wonder we're not constantly dizzy and disorientated. Perhaps we are.
Some of the crowd begin to clap and cheer, others fall silent. A glance to my left tells me why. It's not appropriate to boo and jeer at a memorial service, whatever your political leanings. Cole approaches the stage, in his customary black suit and wacky tie (the black suit says, 'I mean business', the irreverent tie says 'I'm a man of the people'). Today, it's less garish, out of feigned respect I assume. A muted sky blue with an embroidered cartoon dog on it: Dusty, Jimmy's media-approved favourite.
The applause continues, Cole's supporters unmasking themselves with clapped hands. I have a fleeting fantasy that all English Reclamation Party voters are asked to move to the front. I wish I could request it, but I know I can't. Shame.
I find myself counting his footsteps as he approaches the microphone. I have an awful feeling he'll try to catch my eye, shoot me a condescending look of pity. Or worse, mouth a pithy condolence. So I keep my eyes on his shoes and let the numbers sweep my mind away. He stops at twelve and my distraction is gone. I don't want to hear a single word that comes out of his mouth, much less any that concern my twin.
So I think about footsteps. All the millions of footsteps we've taken that we can't undo. The paths we've walked that we can't retrace. I think about Cole's steps. I think about mine. But mostly, I think about Jimmy's.CHAPTER 2
The first steps I remember taking were through the blue doors of our small nursery school, my red-mittened hand firmly gripping my mother's. I was used to a certain amount of raucous noise, I lived with Jimmy after all, but when the doors opened the collective voices of the other children made me step backwards.
Jimmy wrenched his naked hand from our mother's. (He would never wear gloves or hats. It was all Mum could do to get him to put a coat on. He wanted to feel the world around him. Feel the cold, feel the wind, marvel at how red and sore his hands got in the snow.) He ran into the heaving mass of children without looking back. Within seconds he was sporting a plastic Viking hat, brandishing a sword and running around with other boys as though they were his blood brothers.
I clung even tighter to my mother. A woman with a tight perm, enormous smile, and huge saucer-eyes cooed at me in high-pitched tones. She tried to take my hand. I wouldn't let her.
But then a little beacon of light appeared, emerging from behind her own mother's floral skirt. A girl with sparkling ebony eyes, and long black hair tied with a scarlet ribbon. She was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. Or ever would.
"Ah, Soheila," Miss Jenkins, the woman with the saucer-eyes, said, "this is Rosa, would you like to show her what we have to play with?" Soheila nodded, beaming. "You want to be my friend, Rosa?" she asked.
And I did. Oh, I did. Such a delicate, dainty hand took mine from my mother's. Such a quiet, peaceful soul. So unlike the charging bull I lived with. She spoke in little tinkles, not great big booms. She told me that her name meant 'star', and to me she was. She was the North Star, guiding me in uncharted waters.
While Jimmy thundered round the room, followed already by the crowd, Soheila and I poured sand in and out of cups, giggling and grinning at one another. At some point Mum left and I didn't even notice.
At the same time that Jimmy and I were taking our first steps into the education system, a young businessman named Jeremy Cole was taking some important steps of his own. Well, it was in the same month at least. In the movie of my life it would all happen simultaneously. Exact truths are less important than a good story, after all.
I often picture Cole, walking through the streets of London towards that bar. But in my fantasies, he never reaches it. A black cab careens out of control as he steps off the kerb, just yards from his destination. Knocks him flat. I'm shaky on the details. Head trauma, organ damage, doesn't matter. The point is there's a lot of blood and a dead body. The point is he never makes it to the heavy oak door. Never orders his favourite, iconic, lime and bitters. Never shakes hands with Jon Heath, the up-and-coming media mogul. Never sets the next decades in motion.
Then he wouldn't be standing in front of me now, spewing bile to the masses at Jimmy's memorial.
Of course, there were plenty of times during those early years of my life when fate could have intervened. Many journeys that could have been cut short. Millions of steps. Hundreds of people whose actions led us here. All through our infancy the wheels were in motion. Like all children, though, I lived in a bubble that extended no further than my parents allowed. I had no notion of the events of the wider world, until they burst it.
Soheila and I became inseparable, much to the delight of our mothers. Both had worried about their shy, timid daughters making friends. Now they had found one, they did everything they could to kindle the relationship. Mrs Afzal became a regular fixture at our house and I loved her, almost as much as I adored her daughter. She had a broad, warm smile and always wore such beautiful bright skirts and headscarves. I used to tie jumpers around my head and pretend I was her. Mum turned crimson the first time I did it in front of her new friend.
"Rosa, what on earth do you think you're doing?" she chided. "I'm so sorry, she doesn't mean any offence."
But Mrs Afzal just roared with laughter. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," she said. I didn't know what that meant, but she ruffled my hair and gave me a lollipop, so I figured she was pleased.
It didn't take long for them to discover that both their husbands were in accountancy. Our mums already firm friends, our dads soon followed suit and the two families became an intrinsic part of each other's lives.
Soheila and I held hands, and shared dreams, all through infant school. Jimmy had a new best friend every hour; I had only her. But that was the way we both liked it.
One evening, during our first year of junior school, Dad and Kadeem (Mr Afzal) gathered us all together, over dinner, to make an announcement.
"We have decided," Dad said, "that enough is enough. No more London commutes, no more slaving for faceless corporations."
"No more working weekends and never seeing our beautiful families," Kadeem chipped in, squeezing his wife's shoulder. "We are done with being wage slaves."
Mum frowned and poured a glass of wine. Mrs Afzal beamed. "That's great news, my love. What are you planning?"
"Afzal and Lincoln Accounting," Dad declared with gusto. "It's got a great ring to it, don't you think?"
"It certainly has," Mrs Afzal smiled.
"The loan has been approved, and we've just agreed a lease on a small office. Less than ten minutes' drive away," Kadeem explained. "Oh, this is the start of a new life for all of us. Working for ourselves, spending more time with our families."
"Oh, this is wonderful news," Mrs Afzal clapped her hands. "Oh, Janey," she nudged my mother, "isn't it wonderful?"
"Absolutely," Mum replied, topping up her glass, "and how unusual to surprise us, instead of consulting us."
Dad ignored the thinly veiled criticism and raised his glass. "To Afzal and Lincoln Accounting," he said.
After dinner we meandered into the lounge to rest our full bellies. All except Jimmy, who tore around the garden in his usual style. Soheila and I played My Little Pony on the soft, fluffy rug in front of the television while our parents talked on the sofas. I don't know which one of us first noticed they had fallen silent. But when the chatter stopped we looked up from our game.
Mum grabbed the controller and turned off the TV as soon as she realised we were paying attention, but we'd already seen it. Aarif Ishak (a wild-eyed man with scruffy black hair and olive skin) emerging from an alleyway in Birmingham, holding the lifeless body of a beautiful, blonde little girl in his arms.
None of us had any idea at the time what this would mean for our little bubble.
I saw the little blonde girl again the next morning, on the front page of Dad's newspaper. But this time she wasn't limp and dripping with blood. Suddenly, her rosy-cheeks and baby blue eyes were everywhere. On posters taped to lampposts, on hand-held placards all over the news. 'Justice for Lily' was the phrase on everyone's lips. I didn't understand. But I was fascinated by her image. I would gaze at her porcelain skin, the sincerity of her gap-toothed smile, the blue uniform so similar to my own. I would concentrate hard, and try to comprehend that the girl in the photo was no more. That those eyes no longer saw. That no 'big teeth' would ever grow to fill that gap. That life can end, even before it has properly begun.
But when Lily disappeared from the news, I soon forgot about my inner struggle to understand mortality. The following months passed uneventfully. For Jimmy and me, at least. I imagine that behind the parental curtain things were far more complex, what with my father and Soheila's starting their new venture. But our lives were unaffected, so we didn't give it a thought.
Our days were predictable. Soheila and I worked hard at our lessons, both excelling in almost every subject. Jimmy spent more time out of the classroom, sitting on the small plastic chair in the corridor than he did in lessons. Mrs Henderson tried calling Mum over after school, to tell her about Jimmy's disruptive behaviour, but she was having none of it.
"He acts out because he's too clever," Mum said, determined to see anything Jimmy did as proof of how wonderful he was. "He's not like it at home. But of course, we make sure we keep him stimulated."
Even then, I knew she was talking shit. But I was far too polite to say so. It's true, he wasn't the same at home. He was much, much worse. Nothing was sacred. There were holes in the walls, broken fences, flooded bathrooms. He wasn't wantonly destructive, or intentionally violent, he just had to try everything, most notably our parents' patience. You could tell Jimmy a hundred times that hopping on the bannister rail was a bad idea, but he wouldn't believe you until he fell. Even then, instead of a lesson in caution, he took it as a challenge. "I'll make it next time," he would say, grinning despite the limp.
Jimmy thought boundaries were for other, less awesome, people. Given the lack of consequences he received for breaking them, I have to concede he was probably right.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Poster Boy"
Copyright © 2019 N.J. Crosskey.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.