The BOAC jet aircraft banked as it approached Boston. He was glad he had a window seat, because he wanted to get a good look at the city. As the aircraft closed in on the buildings and spires, he felt an illicit thrill.
Ten years, he thought.
A decade since he had last set foot in this country. If it hadn't been for that opportune visit out to that American SAC airfield that October, he would have remained in this country. Forever. Cooked, crisped, the fused remains of his atoms mixing in eternally with the Washington embassy building and the dozens of people on that doomed staff. He shivered and looked again at the old brick buildings and the narrow streets of Boston below him. Almost two hundred years ago a revolution began here, and his ancestors no doubt had a hand in it. Ironic, he thought.
The aircraft made a smooth enough landing. As he grabbed his overnight grip from the overhead compartment he was embarrassed at the quickening of his heart. He knew everything would be fine. The chaps back home were the best in the world, and besides, the passport he was carrying was accurate enough. It said JOHN SHEFFIELD, which was true. If it didn't say GENERAL SIR JOHN SHEFFIELD (Ret.), OBE, CB, well, then, whose bloody business was it anyway?
He stood in queue for Customs. The room was crowded, the tile floor scuffed and dirty. Only a handful of passengers moved over to the line for American citizens reentering the country. Few could afford to go overseas and there were even fewer countries where Americans felt welcome. The queue was moving now.
He handed his passport over to a paunchy-looking fellow wearing the U.S. Customs uniform of black trousers, white shirt, necktie, and billed cap. As the Customs man gazed over his passport he felt, again, that quickening of the heart. It would be all right, he knew. It would fine.
He wished he could forget that last conversation with that disturbing man in the Foreign Office. His contact seemed innocuous at first, gently puffing on a Dunhill: "You do realize, general, that if anything goes bollocks up, we can't possibly assist you? I do hate to say this, but you're on your own. We're eternally grateful for your assistance, of course, but we can't be linked to your mission. Either officially or unofficially."
It had been a jolt, of course. No backup, even for a general. The Foreign Office man had smiled slightly, patronizingly, looking like a sad hound with his thick eyebrows and sagging cheeks.
"Fair enough," he had said, speaking quickly, before he changed his mind about going back to that awful place.
The Customs agent was eyeing him. The agent's beard was a day old and his stubby fingers were ink-stained. His hat looked to be about one size too large.
"Purpose of your trip?"
"Business," he said. He had practiced saying the word in front of a mirror.
"What kind of business?"
"Textiles." The lie came easily to his lips. "I'm here to visit your mill towns in the north. Lowell and Lawrence. I represent a concern that's interested in purchasing some textile mills, put them back into business."
The Customs agent glared at him as he stamped the passport. Sheffield knew the look. Ambivalence, that was it. The Yanks had two attitudes about their cousins across the ocean: gratitude for the help and aid they had received this past decade, from food to medicines to seeds, and hatred for everything attached to that aid-the scholarships, raiding the American schools for their very best students and sending them to Britain; the medical programs, helping just a fortunate few each year for the best in burn and cancer treatments back home; and the businessmen, like the one he was trying to portray. Coming in, year after year, to buy up the shattered industries and fallow earth of this wide and wounded nation, to make a tidy profit, of course, but also slowly to bind this former colony back to its former mother country.
The passport slid back across the greasy metal counter. "Welcome to the United States." The agent's voice was as cheerful as a gravedigger's. Sheffield picked up the passport, noticed that the man's uniform shirt was mended in three places.
"Thanks, awfully," he said. After being cooped up in the tiny aircraft seat, the brief walk through the crowded terminal was a pleasure. Outside the air was smoky with car and bus exhaust. He was fortunate, only having to wait two minutes or so for a white and orange taxi cab at one of the stands outside of the terminal. He carried his hand luggage into the rear seat and said, "The Sheraton," and the taxi driver-a black man about his own age-grunted and off they went.
The driver said nothing as they joined the other cars leaving the airport and then went through a tunnel into Boston. That suited him fine. When they emerged from the tunnel he looked out the grimy windows of the cab as the driver maneuvered along the narrow and twisting streets. He had expected the place to look old and tired, like Manchester back home, but what surprised him was the dreariness of it all, like everyone had just given up. Most of the cars were old and rusted out, the buses belched great clouds of diesel smoke, and many buildings looked like they had gone for years without paint or repairs.
Fifteen minutes after arriving at the Sheraton he was in his room, lying down on the bed with his clothes still on and his shoes off, fighting exhaustion and jet lag. He got up and went into the washroom, putting a cold compress at the back of his neck. He looked in the bathroom mirror, seeing the tired blue eyes, the collection of wrinkles from squinting into the sun for years and years while in the Army, the freckled and often sunburned top of his head, fringed by a faint crown of short white hair. He knew he looked his age but he was also proud that he was only a half stone over his enlistment weight, when he was just seventeen years old and entered the service of the King.
And such years of service, from the muddy fields of France to occupation duty in Germany, and then climbing up the long ladder, becoming more and more involved with the diplomatic side of things. Now, he was in service to a Queen, meeting an American he had not seen in a decade, an American who claimed to have something vital, something important for both nations' future.
He washed out the compress, went back into the room, stood near the bed. Of course, the poor bastard was probably as crazy as a loon. He sat down on the faded bedspread for a moment, looking at the phone. Wendy. He could pick up the phone and get an overseas line, and in a matter of minutes, he could be talking to Wendy. The time difference was six hours. She'd be in bed-no doubt with the telly in the corner droning on as she dozed-but he knew his girl. She'd be happy to hear from him, despite her anger at his being in Boston.
He reached to the phone, but stopped. No, it wouldn't be smart. He had no idea who might be listening in from the hotel's switchboard. He got up and put his coat back on. He'd get a quick meal in the hotel dining room before going to sleep. Besides, he had to concentrate on what was ahead of him. He couldn't afford to be distracted by Wendy, as much as he dearly wanted to hear that voice.
The last time...they had been in the sunroom of their pleasant home in Harpenden when he had told her he was going overseas. She had to put her teacup down, her hand was shaking so hard. She had glared at him, her face a mixture of fear and dismay. "Tell me you're joking, John. Please."
"I'm afraid not, love," he said, sitting down in the cushioned wicker chair. "I'm told that it's something quite important, something that only I can do."
"You haven't been on the active list for three years! Surely they can send someone else."
He spoke firmly. He hadn't used this steely tone since his retirement. "They can't. There's...an American. Someone I knew when we were stationed in Washington. He will only talk to me, and me alone. That's why I'm going."
Tears were slowly trembling down her cheeks. Her voice was begging now. "I've been with you many a year, John Sheffield, with nary a complaint. You've been to Malaya and Cyprus and Aden. I've been with you in Germany and Belgium and Washington and Melbourne. Not once have I ever said a word."
"I know, Wendy. It's meant everything to me." But he wouldn't back down.
"And you're a silly old man, riding off again for Queen and Country," she said, raising her voice. "You've done your duty, more than any man I know! And now they want to send you, a man on pension who has to go to the loo three times a night. They're sending you on some silly James Bond mission to a country where they shoot students and people still starve in the countryside. I forbid it."
"Wendy, I've already told them that I'll go."
She folded her arms, stared out at her garden, her most favorite place in the world, and whispered the words again. "I forbid it."
But in the morning she silently packed his overnight bag. The car to pick him up had been late and he went out to the garden, to her bent-over form digging at something with a spade in the soil. He wanted to say so much but didn't know where to begin. So he had gone without a word.
Now he gave one last glance at the silent phone and left his room. An hour later, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. He had a solitary and quite awful meal in the hotel's dining room, some baked cod dish that was dried and tasteless and an American beer that was flat and without any body. He remembered a joke he had heard once, from a subaltern. "What do American beer and making love in a canoe have in common? They're both frigging close to water!"
A good joke, but he wasn't in a joking mood. After dinner he decided to take a quick walk outside to clear his head. He stepped out onto Boylston Street and joined the night crowd. There seemed to be a Boston copper or an Army MP on almost every street corner, and he tried to blend in, though he knew it wouldn't work, based on the way he was dressed. Most of the men and women looked like they were wearing clothes from the last decade, worn from being mended, washed and re-mended.
At Exeter and Newbury Street, he turned left and stopped. A group of Boston police officers and Army MPs were swarming out of a storefront door that had a for lease sign posted in its window. They had clipboards and wooden sawhorse barriers in their hands. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he had seen enough. It was time to get back to his room. He turned and saw a man with a tired face, in a suit better cut than others he had seen, who had his palm up, holding a police badge. He glanced around and saw other men in suits, doing the same thing to about a half dozen people who were walking away from the quickly erected barriers.
"Not so fast, mister," the policeman said. "You got someplace you gotta go so quickly?"
"Yes," he said. "I'm going back to my hotel."
The man cocked his head. "You're a Brit, ain't you?"
"I most certainly am," he said, reaching into his coat pocket. "Here's my passport."
The policeman quickly glanced through the small book and handed it back. "So it is. Go right ahead to your hotel."
He put the passport back and said, "What on earth is going on?"
The tired man shrugged. "Residency check, that's all. Make sure these citizens have permission to live here. You need permission to live and work in Boston and every other city in this country. If you don't, it's back to the suburbs and countryside for you."
"But they're just trying to survive, aren't they?"
"Yeah, but if everyone moved into a city, who'd be out there to grow crops and raise cattle and-hey! You there! Hold on!"
The policeman started running after a scared young man who was racing down an alleyway. Sheffield quickly made his way back to the Sheraton. He should have stayed home. This was an awful place. The only work here was for the young and fearless, and he was neither. He leaned against the wall of the hotel's lift, exhausted. Just twelve more hours, that's all, he thought. Twelve more hours. A good night's sleep and a bracing shower in the morning. Then there would be a quick meeting at some little pub in this city with that bloody American. After a quick pop over to the consulate, he'd be on an afternoon flight back home. If some young guttersnipe from the Foreign Office ever darkened his door again, he'd toss the bloke out on his arse.
He used the key, opened the door. Wait. Could this be his room? He stood there blinking in confusion as he went in. What the hell! There, in his bed, blanket and sheets just above her breasts, was an attractive young woman.
"Johnny," she said. "It's about time you got back."
He went forward. He'd have this straightened out in a few minutes and then he'd get some sleep. It wasn't a woman at all, but a young girl. Barely eighteen. Her hair was blond and pulled back.
"I'm sorry, young lady, but you have the wrong room."
She shook her head. "Nope. You're Johnny Sheffield, and you bought me for the night."
There was a noise behind him and he turned. Three men stepped out from the bathroom, wearing dark suits, white shirts, and black ties, their faces utterly expressionless. He took a deep shuddering breath, felt his hands relax. So. This was where it was going to end. He looked back down at the girl, saw that her hands holding the blankets were trembling. Sitting gently down on the bed, he grasped one of her hands and said, "M'dear, would you care to join me in a prayer?"
She nodded frantically, and as he looked up at the three approaching men, he noted the phone by the bedside.
Damn it, he wished he had made that call.
--From Resurrection Day, by Brendan DuBois. © June, 1999 Brendan DuBois used by permission.