Monday Fiction: Margaret’s God

Dredged up from the archives. I wrote this a while back, as a response to some of the tired old arguments about immigration. It’s an alternative history that takes some of the history of Catholic oppression around the Elizabethan era, tied in with a worst-case scenario exploration of what might have happened if Margaret Thatcher had stayed in power. Bit of a mishmash, and there are holes big enough to sail a barge through, but the passion of the piece is genuine, and remains so.

Contains swears and intimations of concentration camp nastiness. NSFW.

 

Ten more came in today. Three families in three little huddles. Mother, father, daughter. Son, daughter, father. Mother and three girls, triplets, none over four years old. Three families, all missing someone. A parent left behind, a child abandoned. An unendurable loss, borne as the price for survival.
As they came through the gate, I saw that the coastal patrols at Calais were up to their old tricks again. The families were damp, shivering and obviously starving. Rather than supply dry clothes and food, they’d simply bundled them into a truck and sent them down the bumpy mile-long track to Sangatte. I could almost see the Gallic shrugs. Let the rosbifs look after their own.
The mother and triplets left the group of newcomers. Uncertainly, they came towards me. The mother looked like a child herself. Barely into her twenties. Thin. Lank blond hair. Exhausted.
“Excuse me,” she said. “We were told there’d be food here. Dry clothes for the children.” Her voice was faltering, weak. Wide, trusting eyes. I could say anything. It would be so simple. I could have her on her knees behind the supply sheds at the back of the compound in ten minutes flat. She’d thank me for it if I got her kids some bread. There are plenty of predators here, behind the wire.
I’m not one of them. She was lucky. I led her and the girls away. As we moved off, a couple of the Aldershot boys moved in on the remnants of the group. Their smiles were wide and toothy. I didn’t look behind me as they closed in, and I made sure the girls didn’t either.
Like I said, she was lucky. There were free beds in the family compound. The Poor Clares from the nunnery over the road from the camp had come through with clothing. Old, sure, but clean and more importantly dry.
Better yet, our Good Samaritan at the local market had brought in a load of cheap lamb. Too close to the sell-by date for the public, but we were black-market at Sangatte Camp, and desperate.  “You know what this means,” Colin told me. “Shepherd’s pie for dinner tonight.”
Colin, who ran the kitchen with his partner Derek. One of the bravest men I know, the last man out of Canal Street before the Manchester Purges, enthusing about the simple pleasures of a meat and potato pie. The saddest thing was, I knew exactly where he was coming from, and the very thought of shepherd’s pie was enough to fill my mouth with juice and my eyes with tears. It’s always the simple things that spark it off. Shepherd’s pie. Jesus wept.
“My name’s Justine.” It was a few hours later. The sun was low and red behind the water towers. Colin and Derek’s wonderous creation was warm and solid in our bellies. The girls, starfished and dozing on our bunks were warm and dry for the first time in days in their nunnery-blue. The mother – Justine – had relaxed enough to tell me her name, and her story.
“We got out of Birmingham as the Purges were moving south,” she said. Her voice was low. She cast a nervous glance over at her sleeping girls, worried I suppose about them being woken to tales of an ordeal they thought was over. “The Renunciation Brigades were everywhere. They knew just where to look. Where the churches were. It didn’t take much to get the priests to tell them where to find their congregations.”
I already knew the rest, although I didn’t want to bother Justine with how many times I’d heard the tale before. The choice given to any English Catholic in the 22nd year of the Minister Prime’s rule was simple. Renunciation, or internment. It was a central tenet of the Thatcherite creed. All true-born and loyal Englishmen are Protestant. If your faith is different, well, then sorry, so are you.
And if you don’t worship like a true-born Englishman, then I’m afraid you can’t entirely be trusted. Better just pop you in an internment camp. For your own good, you understand. Nice places, the camps. Never a bad word said against them. In fact, you didn’t really hear anything about them. Quiet places, really. Surprisingly quiet, considering how many people they were supposed to be holding.
I came out of my reverie, realising Justine was still telling her story. The car that died on her on an isolated roundabout near Watford. Nowhere near enough money for trains, even if she could have found a service that was running. Hitching, then, was the only option, with three terrified little girls in tow. Sleepless, fear-filled nights sheltering in hedgerows as the patrols thundered past. Saving every penny of her pitifully meagre savings so she could hand it over to a French sailor at Portsmouth who said he could get her onto a container ferry bound for North Africa. Seven hundred pounds got her, her kids and six other unfortunates dumped in a dinghy a mile off the French coast and into a refugee holding camp just outside Le Havre.
I didn’t need all the details. Like I said, I’d heard it all before.
“Be grateful you never made it to Algiers,” I said, when she had finally wound down. “The Africans don’t have any patience with English refugees. They hate the idea of infidels sponging off the African Free States. They don’t have holding centres. You’d be dumped in an Algerian jail, and forgotten about. I know it might not seem like it, but winding up here’s probably the first bit of good luck you’ve had since you left Portsmouth.”
“I thought the French hated the English,” she retorted sourly.
“No, the French hate Protestants. They’re perfectly prepared to tolerate English Catholics as long as we sit at the back in church, and don’t sing the hymns too loudly.” I flashed what I hoped was a winning smile at her. “Look, you’re safe here. You’ll be clothed and fed. And you can start to build a case for you and your kids. The paperwork’s a sod, and you have to watch yourself at the induction hearings. But a lot of luck and a wheel-barrow full of patience should give you official refugee status in the protectorum Gallicia of the Most Holy Roman Empire.”

I grinned, trying to make a joke out of one of the most soul-destroying experiences on God’s earth. If you’ve never been certain of the existence or the banality of hell, then HRE bureaucracy will set you straight on the matter.
Justine smiled back at my clowning. A tired smile, but it lit up her face in ways that automatically added a couple of Hail Mary’s onto next weeks confession.
“You’re funny,” she said. “Were you a comedian or something? Back in England, I mean.”
“No”, I said. Suddenly I couldn’t find anything worth laughing about. “I was a history teacher. I worked in a secondary school in Lambeth.”
Justine’s eyes went wide. “You were in London. Oh, no. How did you … I mean, how could you…” She faltered to a stop. It was understandable. Not a day went by that I didn’t question how I’d got out before the Ring Of Steel dropped over the capital.
“I was lucky,” I said simply. “By the time the Renunciation Brigades began firebombing the outer boroughs, I was well clear. We’d had time to prepare, seeing the Purges coming down from the north. A lot of churches had banded together, formed a network. There are a string of safe houses we used, took us down through Surrey, into Kent, then the South Coast. A fishing boat put me in the tender and merciful hands of our French brethren, and it only cost me two thousand pounds.” I paused for a moment, fighting the memories down. “But I’d seen the clampdown coming for years.”
“What made you realise?”
“I’m a history teacher, Justine. I realised as soon as the stories in the textbooks I was teaching from started to change. Do you know there are people who think there was a free election in 1979? Because that’s what they’re being taught! People like me have spent the last twenty years spreading her lies! No-one remembers the Thatcherite putsch. No-one remembers James Callagan, let alone what she did to him on Parliament Green. There are kiosks in front of Portcullis House selling postcards of the gibbets she had built, and people think they’re just a tourist attraction!”
I could feel the bile rising within me, the anger I’d hidden for so long boiling to the surface. I was fully aware that my voice was rising. I didn’t care. This was coming out, and damn the mess and the aftertaste.
“We’re scapegoats, you and I. We’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with England, if you believe her. We’re collaborating with the French, the Iberians, Rome, keeping England down, keeping it small and weak, squashing any trade deals the mad old witch thinks she’s made. Do you know, she thinks she’s got a claim on the Scandinavian oil fields in the Nord Sea? It went to arbitration, not that you’ll have read anything about it in the Sun-Times after the Svenheads confettied the paperwork.
“Same thing with the invasion of Jersey last year. A task force of fifty men. Against Maginot-built fortifications. I don’t imagine you heard much about that either.”
“There was something in the news,” Justine faltered. “A memorial service…”
“And who did she blame for that? Seditionist Catholics tipping off the French authorities! As if fifty men could ever had lasted against the Channel Legions! No, she sacrificed those men so she could weaken the Catholic position!”
“Isn’t that a bit paranoid? You don’t think she’d plot against her own?”
“We’re not her own!” I was screaming in her face now, oblivious to the fact that her kids, no, the whole dorm, had been woken by my tirade. “She says we’re all foreign agents. She says our priests are all paedophiles. Our faith is one step away from witchcraft. We’ve been demonised in our own country, and when we try to find shelter abroad we’re either ignored, or they just think we’re after a handout and an easy life. They don’t realise, Justine, no-one does! What do you think goes on in the internment camps? Back home, we’re being murdered in our thousands, and it doesn’t even make the news!” I was dimly aware of the wetness on my cheeks, the hoarseness of my voice. It was too late to stop now.
“We live on an insignificant little rock on the edge of the Atlantic that hasn’t meant a thing to anyone since America went over to the French and Victoria died in childbirth. As far as Europe’s concerned, we’re just a crackpot island dictatorship with a human rights problem, and the only reason Rome doesn’t turn us away at the border is so that the Empire isn’t seen to be turning it’s back on needy pilgrims. If they thought they could cope with the bad press, they’d fortify Calais and blow anyone who tried to make the crossing out of the water. They don’t care about us, Justine. We’re just an inconvenience.”
My voice broke, and I was in Justine’s arms, sobbing my heart out. I’d forgotten how much it hurt to cry. As I wept, the weak pale little mother cradled me in her arms as if I was a child.
It took hours for it to stop. Once it had, she asked me the question I’d been hoping for, and dreading.
“Where are they? Your family. Did you leave them?” I looked up at her through red-rimmed eyes.
“They’re safe. I think. I left them with people I trust. A village on the Kent-Surrey border. A quiet life. Mary helps out in the post office. The girls go to the village school. And every Sunday, they go to the pretty little village church, and they denounce their faith, and they pray for their lives to Margaret’s god.” Justine stroked my hair, and her eyes asked the question she couldn’t put into words.
“I thought it would be easy. I’d claim refugee status, then I could petition to have Mary and the kids join me. We’re good, pious Catholics. The Holy Roman Empire protects her children. I thought.”
I let a shuddering breath out. “That was nearly a year ago. I’m knee-deep in paperwork I don’t understand. Every form generates three more. Every meeting takes me back a step. And no-one I speak to, no-one seems to realise that today could be the day that some evil little fuck with a hard-on for Maggie does a sus search on Mary, and finds the rosary she always keeps in her pocket. The one I begged her to throw away.”
My voice thickened again. “I’ve lost them, even though I know exactly where they are. Thirty-three miles away, as the crow flies. If someone built a bridge or a tunnel, you could drive there in an hour.” Justine winced. She could feel the bitterness in my voice. A tunnel between England and France. What would be the point to that?
Night fell and I slept, fitfully, guiltily in Justine’s arms. I dreamt. I saw black container ships steaming across the Channel, heading for the camps. I couldn’t tell if they were coming to take us back, or if they were finally bringing our loved ones across the sea to us.
All I could feel as I looked at them was the same mix of hope and dread that I’d lived with ever since I’d stepped on board a dilapidated fishing boat at Dover eleven months ago. And along with the feeling, the awful knowledge that it would always be there, twisting in my gut. Just as I would always be here at the camp, telling my tales, seducing girl after girl with my frantic little lies, filling in the same forms, waiting, forever, in limbo, watching for black ships that would always be on their way, but would never arrive.

 

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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