CHAPTER ONE – Shock and awe


Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

Boris Pasternak



Adrift more than liberated, Maggie wanted hard facts. Where was she?

The exit, and the long tunnel, had felt like an entrance. Dreamily, walls wobbled in a worryingly un-British way. Once she had her bearings, socks would be pulled up, and knuckles rapped. Where was her handbag? Why no rings on her fingers?

Something caught her eye, high up. Two men swinging across a set of handholds, upper arms bulging, before abseiling down beside her. The oddest thing was their mining helmets, reminding her of the nonsense she had once straightened out. When was that? She hoped the men had repented.

“We know who you are,” said one, wearing a red shirt. “Aye, and back home we would have been less civil” said the second. Dark-haired, he flashed a smile. “Good luck – chances are you’ll need it.”

Confidently, they turned away. What were they referring to? Luck was for slackers. Where in God’s name was this?

Reassuringly, a beautiful woman, golden hair shining, appeared by her side. She took Maggie’s hand. “Come with me”, she said. Maggie could have sworn wings protruded from the female’s back. She recalled illustrated books from her childhood; began to wonder.

They arrived at a huge room, white walls stretching into the distance. Inside, a group of men, suited and tied, were drifting, aimlessly. Clearly, things needed sorting out. “You there, yes, you, what are you doing?” she asked the nearest chap.

“We have nowhere to go,” said the man. Again, he seemed to recognise her. His badge announced him as a ‘senior policy consultant, 1990, National Health Service’. Maggie thought him rather plain looking, and forlorn.

A klaxon rang. The group began to undress, and to don ragged clothes that made Maggie’s nostrils turn, reminding her of the dustbins piled up on Britain’s streets before she restored order. Some slumped to the floor, others were crying and soiling themselves.

“What on earth are they doing?” Maggie asked the golden one.

“Experiencing care in the community.”

“Now look, you seem like a nice girl. Is there some point to all this baloney?” Maggie asked. Less strident in her tone.

The angelic one looked hard at Maggie. “It’s about consequences. What goes out must come back.”

Mind flickers assailed her. The notions of personal accountability handed down by her father, the lay preacher. The Wesleyan Methodist.

More memory returned. Of how she had presided over the state’s closure of mental hospitals across Britain, raking in cash from the land sales and leaving thousands of patients homeless. How, every night up and down the land, shop doorways became bedrooms and bathrooms to former recipients of mental health services.

“But how long will they be here?” asked Maggie, suddenly wanting her mum. “How long is string?” replied the angel. “Might take a week. Could be a millennium. Until they understand, and can make informed choices.”

“What about me?”

“We’ll come to that” said Goldilocks. “First up, this is the ‘blue room’, where we try and rehabilitate the insane.” They entered, to be greeted by a man parroting the same phrase repeatedly. “To cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukemia with leeches,” he intoned, eyes blazing, spittle drooling onto a dark suit.

Now another raving nutter, screaming a mantra. “There is no such thing as society, there are just individual men and women, and their families,” he barked, snot plastered across his jaw. A third individual walked right up to Maggie: “I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air” he spat.

Looking down the room, Maggie’s vision sharpened. Chanting litanies of lunacy, zombies were punching the air, jumping and shouting. Blue rosettes bobbed like the waves off Brighton and Bournemouth, outside the annual party conferences.

Goldilocks spoke. “There is no bias here. We also have a ‘red room’ full of mad socialists. For the record though, why did you ham up that ridiculous role as ‘The Iron Lady’, as if it would solve Britain’s problems.”

“We created wealth and aspiration,” replied Maggie, effortlessly, jaw jutting. The golden angel stifled a yawn. She led Maggie into a corridor. “You might recall that homelessness more than doubled during your premiership.”

“Shirkers, shirkers, workshy shirkers,” screeched Maggie, receiving a harsh squeeze on her arm. On they proceeded, past a man wearing cufflinks and a gold watch. Half of his arm was forced through the eye of a tall needle, facing a door marked Heaven. “He’s been there awhile now”, said Goldilocks.

“What about 1966?” Maggie suddenly asked, apropos of nothing. Instinctively, she sensed it was a significant year. Goldilocks frowned. “Why is that relevant? You were never into flower power.”

Maggie was ushered on, past two black cats sniffing her feet. The temperature had risen. The corridor was narrowing, sloping downwards. Images on each wall shocked her. British and Argentinean sailors flailing and screaming in the Falklands waters, and then Pinochet’s torture rooms beneath the Chilean football stadium. Blood on the ceiling. Detached limbs and eyes on the floor.

Another image. Showing Maggie and her blue team howling in derision at the red team’s support for the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela and the ANC. Something inside of her died further as the wall beamed an image of a July 2002 article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Don’t Go Wobbly”. She slowly read her own words. “It is clear to anyone willing to face reality that the only reason Saddam took the risk of refusing to submit his activities to UN inspectors was that he is exerting every muscle to build WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)”.

Then countless, unending images of Iraqi children blown to pieces, or dying of malnutrition and radiation and chemical poisoning. Of orphans and dead soldiers and weeping and starvation and hatred and suffering. No escape for the eyes.

“Interesting article,” observed the angel, wiping a dew of sweat from her brow. “You were a supporter of Saddam in the 80’s. Any thoughts on that?” She preferred to think of dining and dancing at Denis’ golf club.

A stench flowed towards them, from a glowingly red chamber entrance. “It was politics. It was sink or swim.”

“You always did know best.”

Traversing the last yards of the now broiling tunnel, Maggie saw images of her beloved son Mark shaking hands with the Saudi Royal family, transposed against pictures of UK-made jets bombing Yemeni women and children. She was shaking uncontrollably.

“This is where we part company – let’s see what you think about luck now,” remarked Goldilocks.

Well over seven foot in height, his blackly-clad frame looked as formidable as she had sometimes fantasised. For a fleeting second, fighting down her terror, Maggie wondered whether he might be “somebody I can do business with”. The Dark One looked at her, lingeringly, prodding her with a hairy, crooked index finger.

“Mmmmmm….I’ve been waiting for you, Margaret,” Satan said, circling her, tail swishing. He drank in her appearance, while she gagged on the sulphurous smell, reminiscent of undergraduate days.

Please let me wake up, she prayed.

“I don’t fuck around in my summaries,” he said. “You were not the brightest of cookies.” She disagreed, but dared not argue. “Few would blame you for marrying into money, but your views were shallow and abhorrent,” he continued. Brimstone and excrement assailed her nostrils.

“You turned Brit against Brit, almost caused a civil war,” he shouted. “God Almighty woman!”

His voice rose: “You had such a chance, such an opportunity to wipe the slate clean in Britain, heal the divisions and spiritually enrich the citizens. You could have encouraged the highest forms of compassion – meditation, contemplation, pacifism, vegetarianism – and pushed for world peace.”

Puzzlement stirred, nudging her dread.

His eyes narrowed. “But no, instead you devolved British thinking back to grocers’ epithets and crude sums involving the value of their houses. It was – still is – medieval, you moron, and now it’s your legacy.”

“Will you keep me here?” she asked, with a gulp.

A pause. He joined his fingertips. “I won’t lie. My greatest pleasure is to probe and drill deep into those who were the nastiest, most powerful humans. Boiling them down to their core views is deeply satisfying – exciting actually, to be brutally honest – but I suspect we would find regurgitated fluff in your case”.

Satan’s tone regained measure. “In truth Margaret, you are not my highest priority. I am awaiting certain individuals that will provide – how to say – quite a party!” Did his genital area quiver? He carried on: “At one time I even believed these degenerates were after my job; and never let it be said that I would not be happy to kick back, watch the flowers wilt and smell the coffee enemas.”

Satan’s humour – and its timing – have been appreciated by too few. Gripping her hand suddenly, he half-led, half-pulled her around a corner, revealing a gruesome torture rack that Saddam and Pinochet would have salivated over. Merriment danced in his dark green irises.

“Now do tell me. Is the lady for turning?” he asked.

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