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TOWER of LONDON by M.G. SMOUTWilliam the Killer
by Kristin Kenway


The car swept along the south side of the Thames. At 5 a.m. it was busy with traffic. People got up earlier and earlier as the years progressed. Kevin wiped his face. Perspiration poured down his cheeks. The inside of his trousers itched against his sweating flesh. The driver of the car said, 'You all right, sir?' and from behind, Kevin could see the driver was dressed smartly, somewhere between a limousine driver and a commissionaire. His face was not visible to Kevin. But in the way he spoke, he had that kind of charm, the kind people who do horrible jobs always have.
       'You all right, sir?' he asked Kevin again.
Kevin threw up on the black leather back seat. The driver looked in his mirror while Kevin looked down at the mess.
       'Don't you worry about that,' the driver said. 'That's not unusual.'
       Kevin nodded, tried to find something to wipe his mouth. The driver passed a handkerchief over his shoulder, his eyes not leaving the road. '..By appointment...' was embroidered in tiny red writing. Kevin could just make that out, but the rest was blurred to his cataract-blocked eyes. He mopped up the vomit as best he could. He felt dizzy, his nerves alerted, blood firing round his body, enlivening his normally flaccid limbs.
       The car moved slowly through The Borough. Even at dawn, men were working in the rubble, embarrassingly visible in the crater where the Jubilee Extension line was supposed to be. The car crossed London Bridge. The Twin Wharf Towers stood high in the distance to the left, cutting the rising sun into two separate streams of orange. The drive had started half an hour earlier. As the car had passed through Bermondsey the driver pointed across the water: 'Wapping over there. Memories?'
       Now Kevin looked over to the right, at Tower Bridge, its edges illuminated in blue paint, sparkling in the sun.
       'Is orange the opposite of blue?' Kevin asked.
       'That's not for me to say,' the driver said.
       Kevin's eyes rested a few hundred yards from Tower Bridge, on the HMS Delightful, later re-named HMS People's Princess. The ship had been bolted onto the dock between the two bridges for nearly twenty years. It was a victorious battleship - famous for surviving a severe aerial bombardment - and from which the missiles were launched that finished Operation Sly Fox. The ship became known as The Empty Vessel when it was revealed that it had been bombed as had been reported, but was hit so badly it came back to Britain in tiny pieces. Londoners called it HMS Bullshit. What was moored between the bridges was a mocked-up fake version, using some retrieved parts of the old warship. Before the truth came out, NATO described the ship as 'a metaphor for how peace can be achieved.' It sank within a week of being moored. No one could be bothered to move it, to take responsibility. Ninety percent of the real ship was at the bottom of various oceans and in scrap heaps. All the crew had been killed.
       The car bumped over a pothole.
       'If you don't mind me asking...' the driver said, not looking back.
       'What?' Kevin said.
       'Well, I wondered how you, y'know, doing what you do, well, what you used to do...'
       'What?' Kevin said, in a low whisper. His voice was phlegmy and quiet.
       'I wondered what your headline today would've been, how would you have headlined what's happening to you?'
       'The King Wills It,' Kevin said, tiredly. 'All in capitals.'
       The driver laughed a thick, throaty laugh.
       'Very good,' he said. 'You've still got it. Front page June 1st. Is it the first today? Yes, June 1st 2039. Front page! It's from the French - Le Roi le Veult, isn't it? Very clever.'
       Kevin started to wish he had not said anything. The driver indicated and took a right turn. The tone in his voice changed, became more serious.
       'I shouldn't worry too much. It'll all be over very quickly.'

The car pulled off into a side road, down Fish Street Hill, past Sir Christopher Wren's monument to the Great Fire of London, then took an illegal left onto Lower Thames Street, alongside the river.
       'It's funny how we don't bother with monuments anymore, isn't it?' the driver said.
       'I don't know what you mean.'
       'There's still that one from the Fire of London, but we went through Canada Water and London Bridge and there's not even a plaque for the Jubilee Extension disaster.'
       'The rubble is the plaque.'
       The car took another right, headed directly towards the river. They approached the Tower of London on the right and the car slowed down. Kevin tried to pull himself up over the remnants of the pool of vomit on the back seat - there was not the strength in his 89-year-old arms. He put his hand to his stomach, to his heart, and he took a deep breath.
       'Don't get out yet,' the driver said. 'We're not there yet.'
       'We are.'
       'Yes, but we're early.'
       The car crossed Tower Bridge, continuing in a loop, rejoining the route they had just driven. Kevin caught his reflection in the window. He looked like an old war criminal: confused and guilty and battered.
       'I'll tell you what,' the driver said, 'I was talking to my son the other day and he couldn't even remember who the Prime Ministers were, in the right order.'
       'A lot of people forget easily,' Kevin said. 'Unfortunately people don't always forget the things one hopes for.'
       'The King Wills It, sir' the driver said. 'Parliament has been dissolved!' he added, theatrically.
       'It has only been prorogued. It can still go either way. There's a difference.'
       'But as I understand it, with no Bill of Rights to stop the King, and large public support...I mean, that is a strong position. Re-establishing his own courts; imposing enormous bail and fines and "cruel and unusual punishments." I've always liked that - unusual punishments - it sends shivers, doesn't it?' The driver laughed.
       'Re-establishing? It hasn't been established for hundreds of years,' Kevin said.
       The driver shook his head. 'You're sounding like a broken record, if you don't mind me saying. He has always been able to veto legislation and declare war. Even after the Bill of Rights was established, all Sovereigns had that power. It's in the book.'
       'You're forgetting the Act of Settlement,' Kevin said.
       'Of course I'm forgetting it. It gets in the way, and these things can be interpreted in so many ways.' He sounded like someone's mother when he said so many ways. The driver carried on, 'The Act of Settlement is a lot older than the UN Resolutions - rules are made to be...'
       'Please, spare me,' Kevin said.
       'Freudian slip?' the driver said, laughing.
       Kevin stopped listening to the driver; he was like a cabby, talking and talking but never getting anywhere.
       'I've thought of one,' the driver started, out of nowhere. 'People remember Churchill. Oh yes, Churchill. But you know, nowadays, because of all this, people talk about Æthelred the Unready and Norman - no, wait, he wasn't a King was he? - I mean William the Conqueror. All those people. They were leaders. Most people know that - now I always get the order wrong - Major, Blair, Portillo, Mandelson, and then that coalition fiasco were just different ways of presenting the same.'
       Kevin sighed, rolled down the window. 'The problem with idolising Kings of the past is that no one knows truthfully what any one of them did.' He felt the breeze on his face.
       'Why would the truth matter?' The driver sounded confused.
       The car crawled around now familiar streets.
       'Why're we going in circles?' Kevin asked.
       'We're still early. Thought you'd like a few more minutes. I was enjoying our conversation.' The driver continued, 'They say that people get the government they deserve.'
       'They do say that,' Kevin sighed.
       'So I suppose we deserve no government at all.'
       'That's an interesting way of putting it.'
       'Well, most people I know think that it was about time we had a strong leader. Now obviously I feel for your predicament, I do, but this country would have gone down the toilet if it wasn't for him.'
       Kevin became bored with the driver's thoughts. 'Do you drive all the poor souls to the Tower?' he asked, abruptly.
       'Some of them. But most of them stay in the Tower Hotel the night before. Nice views. Poor things usually think they are about to get some award.'
       'Did you ever feel like saving them, just not dropping them off, just keeping on driving.'
       'I sometimes think if someone impressed me enough on the journey I would just keep on driving and save them. But most have been chefs and such. No one would miss them, so I didn't do anything. The King chose fairly easy targets to start with...'
       'Why do you think that was?'
       'Well, it's not my business to say.'
       'It seems to be your business to have an opinion on everything, please be consistent.'
       The driver was silent. He turned the radio on, it mumbled in the background. Jerusalem came on, as it did every morning at the same time.  'And did those feet...'
       'Okay, I'll say it,' Kevin started. 'How about: he didn't know where to focus all this anger so those idiots felt the brunt of it. They were the figures, the images and memories on television from his youth. His young mind just remembered them as part of the mocking media - even if they weren't the ones who directly hurt him. They were the targets he practised on and when they disappeared and no one noticed or cared, he realised he could get away with it. Then he focused his attack.'
       The driver scratched his head. 'That's a little bleak. But it's one explanation. No one misses a TV chef turned TV priest, or a celebrity decorator turned agony uncle. And that man who presented that programme Police, Stop, Cook! who became Mayor - what was he worth? Lives have prices and theirs, it turned out, were as low as the quality of their personalities.'
       Kevin could see the driver laugh to himself.
       'What are you laughing at?' Kevin asked.
       'I was just thinking,' he said. 'I miss those women with their breasts in the newspaper. That was great having that in the morning.'
       Kevin began to cry. The beads of water got spiked by the minute hairs on his rough skin, holding the microscopic droplets for a moment before they fell down his face.
       'Try not to cry. You aren't the first and you shan't be the last.'
       'Do you rehearse these lines?' Kevin growled, his voice deep with cigarettes and fear.
       'It's not definite that you'll be...that you'll... he may just want to talk over some things. For his own piece of mind,' the driver said, affecting a chirpy voice which was entirely unconvincing.
       'Don't people think this is wrong?'
       'People don't know about it. And those who do are not certain exactly what's happening. Nothing has been proven. All I know is someone has to be in control or we'd all go down the drain.'
       'But this?'
       'It only seems strange and unbelievable because it's happening to you. If it was happening to someone else you wouldn't think it strange at all. It's only what William II would've done. And people want someone like Henry VII grabbing the country by the scruff of the neck. So we've got the best of both of them.'
       'Why are people talking about these kings as if they were around just yesterday,' Kevin said, winding the stiff window up, pain shooting down his arm as he rotated it in awkward circles.
       'Well, it wasn't that long ago. When people have seen in a new century, it changes their perspective of time - history becomes just the same stories on a loop.'
       Kevin stopped talking. He sat there and looked out the window. Two lines echoed around his head: 'I think the way he is managing is wonderful; he's really taken it in his stride.'
       'Do you know what taking something in your stride means?' Kevin asked the driver.
       'It means letting it simmer for 42 years.'
       'Has it been that long since she died?' the driver said, shaking his head.
       Kevin thought back to when he was summoned. The List with himself and six other ex-tabloid editors. And how, later that same day, with what everyone agreed was wonderful timing, a list of broadsheet editors was issued. He was a great leveller of the people, they would write about King William one day, if this was ever uncovered. Wonderful tragi-comic timing, they would say.
       'I often think that a lot of people became famous who shouldn't have been. I do think that was part of the trouble we were in,' the driver said.
       'I'm going to have a last poetic cigarette, pass me the lighter,' Kevin said.
       The driver carried on talking.
       'Storytellers like Shakespeare and Spielberg got famous because they had talent and left something behind after their death,' he said, getting back up to speed. 'We remember them. But since the King started that penalty for bad art, suddenly not everyone is "doing some writing" or has "an idea for a film." Execution, you must admit, is a wonderful way of keeping the quality of art nice and high. And if the odd famous chef or interior decorator gets it in the neck, literally, along the way then I think that shows we're not happy with the way things were and the country is changing. You can't make an omelette...'
       Kevin found a packet of matches in his suit pocket. He lit a cigarette.
       'We're all a product of what we watched when we were little,'  the driver continued. 'Just like you were saying: he was only a young one when he would have seen all that stuff. Who were the visible aggressors to him? The cacophony of talk-show hosts and minor talents on television. And then I suppose, with maturity, he went after others who were less in the public eye but were more directly connected to the disruptions in his life, the infringements on his privacy. People like yourself.'
       'But look around you. We've just replaced one kind of frenzy with another. Did you ever think you would see the day when pictures of Offa would be used to sell JCB's and digging equipment?' Kevin said, exhaling smoke.
       'It's all part of getting people into the swing, into the mood. Better Offa than a celebrity gardener. Surely you agree with that?'
       'But no one remembers him; it was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. No one that's alive knew him. Wasn't he Welsh, anyway?'
       'With all due respect, why would that matter? People need someone. If you can believe in one thing then it's simpler.'
       'Like a God.'
       'No. A leader, like a king. Someone who is real.'
       'Leading and killing aren't the same thing.'
       'They are mutually inclusive. And never underestimate the basic stupidity of people. That's rule one.'
       Kevin exhaled again, laughing under his breath. The loop was ending.  There was not much road left on their journey. The driver pointed out the Garden Tower. It used to be called the Bloody Tower when it housed souvenirs for tourists. When it contained spilt blood again it was given back its more pleasant name. Trees sprouted up in between buildings, gasping for air, crooked and arthritic. Kevin's cracked hands rested on his lap.
       'All this will pass like everything does. There will be casualties, but people like yourself won't be missed. You've spread lies and hate in your time,' the driver's voice remained as even and dislocated as before. 'Everything passes,' he continued, 'or trickles out. What's happening to you, and your peers, will one day be called the Great List or something. But then something will replace it. Something greater.'
       'Like the Great Plague,' Kevin said, stubbing his cigarette out.
       'I have a theory. Well, it's a question.'
       Kevin tried to get comfortable. His nervous vomit jittered on the seat as the car rocked. They came to a halt outside the Garden Tower.
       'How long until I have to be in there?'
       'You have a few minutes,' the driver said.
       'Go on,' said Kevin, 'your question.'
       'Do you think it's more painful for people who have lost friends and relatives to smallpox or to AIDS than it is...'
       'Dead is dead. It doesn't matter what happened afterwards. That's my answer. I've heard this debate a thousand times.'
       'I just think it's strange: The Great Plague was stopped by the Great Fire...'
       'Yes...' Kevin said.
       'But we don't have that sort of natural cleansing any more. The fire of Greenwich was pretty impressive. Shooting miles down a tunnel and then blowing up... what was that thing?'
       'The Dome.'
       'Yes. Now that was impressive. But that burning down had no effect on any disease did it? How could it? No fire could cure a virus nowadays. So it was up to man to intervene and make that breakthrough.'
       Kevin's face went white. He could feel his pulse in his throat, in his eyes. He could hear it. 'But what use is a breakthrough when it's so late. It was a leak, remember?' Kevin found himself able to raise his voice.
       'You're right,' laughed the driver. 'I forgot.'
       'Jesus!' Kevin said, 'How easily people forget. I broke that story. Remember it? The withholding of the formula. How can you not remember that?'
       'It does ring a bell,' the driver said, vaguely. 'Wasn't it just until further tests were done though?' he said by way of an excuse. Kevin knew he did not believe that. The driver swallowed a couple of times, smacked his lips together. It was warm in the car. He hummed a tune while he pondered.
       'Well, that makes me feel different about things. You did all those terrible things, but you told the world about that. If you hadn't then more people would've...'
       'We used to do the odd thing like that,' Kevin said, sarcastically.
       'I feel humbled now,' the driver said.
       'You don't need to feel humbled, you just need to know that that was something important, and it never got the coverage it should have. It was covered up.'
       'Why weren't people rejoicing then, when all that happened?' the driver asked.
       'When we broke the story they simultaneously "discovered" it, so a lot of people believed the "it did exist but was still being tested" story, which we proved was a lie. And what did you remember? Their story. That wasn't the truth.'
       'I didn't think..'
       'I don't want to talk about this any more. I've one more thing to say.'
       'It's your day, sir,' the driver said. 'Say what you like.'
       'A revolution happened in people's heads,' Kevin said. 'About twenty years ago, say around the early 20s, people realised that it wasn't their right to be happy. Once they understood, like people had a hundred years before, that no one had the right to or even the chance of more than a few moments of happiness in their lives - that that was normal - once they realised that, they asked for less from life. And enjoyed it more. I'd like to enjoy my last few years.'
       'Quite a speech.'
       'It's what I wanted to end on. That was my last editorial. A paraphrased version.'
       'With a different ending.'
       'Yes. With a different ending.'
       The driver sat dead still. 'I've had second thoughts with you.'
       'Do you act on second thoughts?'
       'To think that you helped stop that virus,' the driver said to himself. 'And that people were covering up a vaccine. That's something to be proud of doing.'
       'Why don't we just drive on, then?' Kevin's smile stung on his cracked lips.
       'Where would we drive to?'
       'In larger and larger circles.'
       A Yeoman Warder came up to the car and opened the door. The driver turned around in his seat. Kevin saw his face for the first time. It was blank. There was a pause. Kevin could hear his heart beat Beefeater in 2039above the traffic noise.
       'This is Lord Montgomery,' the driver said to the Yeoman Warder, sounding official and authoritative. 'He just wanted to look at the Tower now it's back in operation.'
       The Warder smiled and nodded. Kevin looked at his proud uniform. The driver started the car up again. The Warder went back to his post. The car pulled away and headed towards Tower Bridge again, the sun still sparkling against the water, against the bridge. Rejoining the loop.
       'I do believe orange is the opposite of blue, sir' the driver said.

© 1999 Kristin Kenway                                     

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Author bio:

Kristin Kenway was born in Bristol in 1972. His short story 'Interference' appears in NeonLit 2 (Time Out book of new writers) in October 1999 and his first novel Precious Thing will appear in May 2000, published by Allison and Busby. He lives in London.

e-m@il: kenway.kri@virgin.net

navigation:                                       barcelona review #14   mid-august to mid-october 1999
-Fiction The Waffle Code - Steve Aylett
William the Killer - Kristin Kenway
Perfect - Marcy Dermansky
Against the Door - Margarita Saona
-Poetry Special Round-table Discussion with Six Catalan Poets
Interview: Dolors Miquel
Poems in English:
Antoni Clapés | Enric Casassas
Visual Poetry:
Xavier Canals

Ernesto Mestre

-Quiz Vladimir Nabokov
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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