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Cal listened but didn’t say anything.
Selina was dishing out baked seabass with lemongrass. Her red dress crumpled at the front as she leant forward in a way that Cal found so attractive she had to look away.
‘He’s literally separating babies from their mothers.’
‘If he can do that without any qualms, then his next move doesn’t bear thinking about.’
‘It’s basically a test case for the introduction of Fascism.’
The guests competed for the highest level of indignation. Cal still didn’t say anything. Why had she been invited to dinner? The smile Selina gave her across the dinner table, as she ladled out the last of the sea bass juices, was deliberately bland. Cal raised one eyebrow but Selina quickly looked away. Despite this caution, Cal thought she could feel Selina’s boyfriend watching them, his mild blue eyes glinting in a surprisingly hostile way.
When she glanced over he didn’t turn away and it felt like he’d been studying her for a while. It was unnerving. She stared back. His mouth quirked up into an ambiguous smile, no, not ambiguous – smug but then he was the kind of man whose natural smile would be smug. This could be well meant.
He was thin, far thinner than her. As she’d taken her seat at the table her hips had felt enormous. He wore black skinny jeans that hung off him and a collarless shirt that had a narrow blue stripe like mattress ticking and probably cost £200 It made Cal feel the garishness of her navy silk shirt with its pattern of red, tropical flowers. He was losing his hair though, only a bit at the crown, but still.
Their eyes locked past the point of awkwardness as the dinner party talk continued around them. Cal switched to an expression of polite, bemused enquiry, but he just kept staring with that stupid smirk.
Facing him down across the table, Cal couldn’t help imagining him and Selina together, sitting in bed reading, frowning at pictures in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, buying sourdough at the Farmers’ Market. You just had to look at her boyfriend (no, Selina would probably say ‘partner’ to hide the fact that she wasn’t fashionably queer) to know he was a softly spoken, I’m-being-eminently-reasonable, mansplaining prick.
Their deadlock was broken by another guest passing between them to go to the loo. Cal was sure then, as she glared angrily away at the bookcase, that he knew. To spite him she summoned her memory of Selina in the toilet cubicle at the British Library, her black dress hiked up, head thrown back.
The guest talking now was a BBC journalist who was certain, although it was highly confidential, that John Goodman (had she heard that right? Rosanne Barr’s ex-husband?) had an audio recording of Trump physically assaulting Melania in a lift.
‘Yeah,’ a third guest chimed in, ‘Didn’t she cry when he won the election?’
But they’d all read Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or rather the excerpts that had been reprinted in the papers, so this didn’t make as much of an impact.
‘God, he’s just an awful, awful man, isn’t he?’
‘The protest’s going to be rammed.’
Selina, dark hair brushing her shoulders as she lifted the empty serving dish, said, ‘Are you going to come, Cal?’ Her smile was genuinely inviting this time. ‘We’re going to have a session making placards the day before Trump arrives.’
‘Umm.’ Cal had been planning on going swimming at the lido next weekend. There’d been an unusual run of baking hot days at the start of the summer but this didn’t mean anyone should count on the sunshine sticking around. They’d all been hurt by weather forecasts before.
‘I lead a very selfish life,’ Cal often said to people. ‘I’m sure you don’t,’ they’d say and laugh in a way that was flattering in its disbelief.
Selina was waiting, one tensed arm wobbling under the weight of the serving dish.
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Cal said.
A woman with messy, blonde hair and bright red lipstick broke in. ‘Oh my God, did you see that brilliant tweet, “Think you can hide in Scotland, Trump? Think again,” then there were just loads of photos of Scots with signs saying, ‘Trump’s a bawbag’ and ‘Ya maw was an immigrant, you orange roaster’.
Cal was pretty sure that Trump wouldn’t understand most of those words.
‘The Scots at least have got some sense,’ the boyfriend chipped in as if the whole table had been waiting for his verdict. Cal deliberately didn’t look over at him. She didn’t want to see the white flecks of crud that clung to one corner of his mouth. How could Selina stand to kiss him? Cal just knew that up close his skin would smell of damp plaster.
There were plans to fly a twenty foot blimp of Trump which looked like an orange baby and apparently someone had carved ‘Fuck Trump’ in Russian into a crop circle which he would definitely helicopter over on his way to Chequers.
‘Well, that should bring him to his knees,’ Cal said, aiming for jovial. As if Trump could read Russian, even read probably.
‘At least we’re doing something,’ Selina’s boyfriend snapped.
‘Not really, you’re not,’ Cal wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead she thought of the last time she and Selina had fucked, their mouths just missing each other’s, Cal’s fingers buried deep inside Selina.
There was an awkward silence while plates were cleared and Selina brought out a chocolate pavlova glistening with cherries. The boyfriend began to speak at length on the importance of protest and on the parallels between now and 1930s Germany, probably on the basis of an article he’d read in The New Statesman.
Over the expensive cheese and biscuits Cal found herself becoming obnoxious. ‘I don’t believe in the power of protest. It’s just whinging to make yourself feel better.’
‘So what do you believe in?’ asked the boyfriend in a pompous voice.
Cal snapped a cracker in half and scooped up a smear of brie. ‘Action,’ she said.
The boyfriend gave a scoffing laugh. ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ What made it far worse was Selina resting her hand on his shoulder as if to restrain this overwhelming display of masculine power.
‘Anyone want some more red?’ When Selina looked round the table her eyes had that measured, insincere warmth of someone carefully tucking her feelings away.
When Cal got home that night, drunk and tired, she did what anyone else would have done, googled. She opened an in-private window in Safari and typed ‘buy air to surface missile’ but Wikipedia quickly revealed this wasn’t right. She re-typed ‘buy surface to air missile’. It had sounded better the other way round.
You could buy a book on Amazon which listed which armies had what. According to VICE’s website, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was in the market for one. There was a newspaper report of an auction in Florida that had included a Soviet SCUD missile. Apparently it needed some light restoration but was still expected to command up to $350,000.
The Telegraph had an article about how the British Army in Mali had found a guide on how to use MANPADS, which were man-portable air-defence systems. There was a helpful photograph of a soldier in desert fatigues with what looked like a length of drainpipe balanced on his shoulder. This seemed much more plausible than the ones that needed to be mounted on the back of a truck. Cal didn’t have a truck, not even a car, no one in London with any sense did. Selina’s boyfriend probably did.
In the guide there were grainy images of Soviet-looking soldiers firing the weapon. Point-by-point instructions explained how to insert the battery, focus on the target and launch. It advised the shooter to change into a second set of clothes after firing to avoid detection. Even though it was only research it felt like doing something.
There was a useful report from the Federation of American Scientists, which did sound like a phony organisation when she actually thought about it. It was entitled ‘Black Market Prices for Man-portable Air Defence Systems’. One could apparently be had for a couple of thousand dollars. Prices were from June 2010, though, so you’d need to allow a bit for inflation. She fell asleep with the laptop open in front of her.
Cal woke the next morning with a headache and went on facebook. She had a friend who re-posted videos and events all the time, adding ‘Share Widely!!!’ Cal had unfollowed her feed long ago but she flicked over now to look. Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Great NHS Sell Off –Film Premier. Stop the extinction crisis of the vaquitas (super-cute mini dolphins!) that live off the coast of Mexico. Come and support the Rio Cinema to become solar powered. Earth’s Cooperative Ecosystem for a Fairer Economy. The Future of Money – tonight! Vote no Heathrow Vote Rally – we must stop the third runway!!!!!!! We need climate jobs not dirty fossil fuel jobs! The first AIDS histories and cultures festival will come to London in July 2018 – so looking forward to this!!! Labour Live Music Festival, White Hart Lane – friends, come along!!!
Cal remembered how she’d been having dinner with this friend in Dalston and the friend had begun talking about Momentum and the possibilities for change this could unlock in every neglected child and had actually brought herself to tears. When Cal patted her arm, the friend shook her off, eyes shining. ‘No, don’t. I like crying. It’s so cathartic.’
If, to save herself from the mortification of having to witness such self-indulgence, Cal had had to sell the entire NHS to buy the last surviving vaquita for a dolphin club sandwich while taxiing down a third runway made of Momentum leaders laid end to end, she would have done it in an instant. That was why people liked Fascism. It made them look strong and powerful, not weak and hopeless, treating themselves to a cry over a £6.50 slice of vegan, gluten-free pizza.
Cal typed a deliberately bland text, thanking Selina for a lovely evening, then slowly deleted it. Instead she messaged her Cambridge friend, Tajana, to see if she fancied a coffee that afternoon. Tajana was Serbian and worked in software development but at university they all used to tease her for her mafia-like band of uncles and cousins. It was hard to broach the topic casually but in the end Cal said a friend of hers needed a portable missile for a performance piece.
Tajana sipped at her espresso. ‘So she definitely doesn’t want it to work then?’
‘No, it has to work.’
Tajana set her tiny espresso cup down.
‘It has to have a real threat, you know, otherwise the energy of the piece will be neutralised.’
Tajana raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow. ‘Since when are you a supporter of performance art?’
Cal had a vivid flashback to labelling an experimental dance piece she’d seen with Selina as two hours of an anorexic laying an egg. She muttered something about doing her friend a favour.
‘What do you really want, Cal?’ Tajana wielded her dimpled smile. ‘Why are you feeding me this ridiculous story?’
‘It’s not a ridiculous story.’
‘Fine.’ Tajana’s ponytail flicked pertly as she cast her eyes up in the pose of an Orthodox martyr. ‘Okay, if I was trying to buy something so secret that I couldn’t even tell an old friend what it was and instead had to make up ridiculous stories, then I’d certainly consider downloading the TOR browser and going to one of the marketplaces that have replaced Silk Road.’
Back home that evening Cal bought two missiles off a dark website called Valhalla. She used the money she’d been saving to try and buy a flat in London. An investment in downing the helicopter belonging to the President of the United States seemed infinitely more likely to come off than her ever owning a studio flat closer in than Leyton. But she’d been hoarding that money for such a long time that it had come to seem like hope. She tried not to think about it and made sure not to check her depleted bank balance in the days after.
Paying in bitcoin was less of a pain than she’d thought. The first two purchases cost $11,000 and £1,500 but these prices turned out to be too high and too low respectively to be evidence of the sellers’ serious intent. Still, she felt a lurch of excitement every morning that week when the postman rustled along the walkway. When polite, then sarcastic e-mails to the sellers had gone unanswered she’d ordered another two, then another two.
Ordering the missiles had become an end in itself so she was confused for a moment when, the day before Trump’s visit, she opened the door to the DHL guy. ‘Whew, that’s heavy,’ he wheezed. His grimace looked less good natured than he sounded. Cal presumed he wasn’t allowed to swear at work. He hefted a long, thin parcel over her threshold and left it propped in the hall.
It seemed portentous the ants were swarming on the day President Trump was due to arrive in Britain, although of what Cal couldn’t have said. Up on the roof of her block of flats it had clouded over but the air was blood warm. Flying ants poured out from a cement crack by one of the risers, a foot or so from where the long tube of the missile lay.
She refreshed BBC News on her laptop, which she’d balanced on an old plastic chair, and there he was, stepping down from Airforce One at Stansted Airport, clutching Melania’s reluctant hand like he feared she might make a break for it. Trump leaned in and spoke to his wife as they descended the metal steps but her empty face didn’t flicker.
Cal had to close her eyes to stop herself imagining Selina, her hair held back in an impatient twist, paint-spattered t-shirt tight over her breasts, kneeling forward to splodge a brush over blank cardboard. FREE MELANIA. No, her placard would be better than that. MELANIA, BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP. Cal’s heart began to thump.
She quickly picked up her phone, found the message Selina had sent her mid-week, inviting her to the anti-Trump poster making session, and typed, ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more with you.’ Her stomach dipped as she hit ‘send’.
Cal refreshed Twitter. There was a photo of Marine One leaving the north runway at Stansted. Despite the cloud it was hot. She focused on the winged ants crawling blindly on the flat roof. How could they live up here? What did they eat? She was sweating. She’d calculated it should take Trump’s helicopter no more than 12 minutes to cover the 34 miles.
Until she’d sent that message she hadn’t realised how much the tormenting excitement and uncertainty of her affair with Selina had blotted out the ache of having broken up with her girlfriend six months ago. The loss of the children they’d been planning together was something Cal used to think about a lot, lying in bed on her own, late at night when it was too hot to sleep with the windows closed and too noisy to sleep with them open. Or when she hung, eyes closed, fingers gripping the overhead rail, buffeted by men in expensive shirts, in the muggy depths of the Northern Line.
Cal put on a pair of black latex gloves taken from a sex party she’d been to a few months ago. Then she clipped her bike helmet on. She knew it was ridiculous but from the footage she’d seen on YouTube of idiots firing missile launchers she’d learnt that she could expect to be thrown backwards by the recoil. She’d considered dragging her mattress up for a soft landing but she didn’t want to arouse suspicion. She glanced down at her phone. No reply.
The thought of Trump and his helicopter exploding in a fireball was as satisfying as a cartoon, though Cal was under no illusion that this would actually change anything. Mike Pence would simply become President – bluster being replaced by the serious, quiet intent of fundamentalism. If anything, this might be worse but England had just crashed out of the World Cup and everyone needed some cheering up.
Still no reply from Selina.
One. Two. Three. She hefted the SA-7 onto her shoulder. Fuck. It felt like she’d put her back out already. She wobbled under the lop-sided weight. The latex gloves were tacky but this let her grip. Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck. She held the smug face of Selina’s boyfriend in her mind and pictured him saying ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ This. This memory seemed to make the weight of the missile lighter. But now she had it on her shoulder she couldn’t refresh Twitter. She’d just have to wait and listen. But if Selina messaged back she’d be able to see as the screen would light up.
It was strangely tranquil up on the roof, like being on a remote cliff. Cal wished she had come up here more often. She peered through the sights and practised tracking a seagull overhead.
Standing there with the missile heavy on her shoulder, she was using the same technique she used to get through her smear tests – don’t think about what was happening – just break it down into a series of mechanical stages. Trousers off, knickers off, lie on the padded table, place the sheet of paper over your stomach. This was no different. She told herself that once she had Trump’s helicopter in her sights, all she had to do was pull the trigger. Soviet 1960s infra-red technology would do the rest.
She glanced down at her phone. She didn’t have much time. Her stomach felt like it had just reached the rolling boil recommended for immersing tortellini. Why didn’t Selina text back? Please don’t say that. Or even I don’t want to not see you would do. The screen stayed stubbornly black.
The inside of her gloves were slippery with sweat. Her head swum. To calm herself she itemised what she could see: the flying ants, splodges of tar, spills of loose gravel, an old bucket and mop desiccated by the sun into a horrible head of hair. But this didn’t help. Her hair was clammy under the helmet. Every beat of her heart felt like a punch.
She felt her courage begin to slip. Surely it wouldn’t really matter if she simply abandoned the SA-7on the roof, took the lift down to her flat on the third floor, sat on the balcony and ate the rest of the tomato salad she’d made last night? But she knew it would matter to those migrant children who’d been separated from their parents. And any refugees trying to find safety in America. And any Muslims. And anyone who didn’t want to be poisoned by pesticides. Or was a black bear who didn’t want to be shot. Or had a student loan. Or was worried about climate change. And all those Americans who needed Obamacare, so all poor Americans really, and any woman who needed an abortion. She took a tighter grip on the SA-7.
Her phone buzzed. Selina. Im outside yr flat. Let me in? Relief opened up inside Cal like an umbrella. Selina was here. She lowered the SA-7 to the floor, peeled off the gloves, unfastened her helmet.
When Cal stepped out of the lift all she could see was Selina’s back. She was wearing a navy blue dress and espadrilles. She turned before Cal had quite finished wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans.
‘Where the fuck do you get off sending me texts like this?’
‘Where the fuck do you get off inviting me to dinner with your boyfriend?’
‘You know that we live together.’
‘That doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with him.’
‘I knew it would come to this.’ Selina shook her head. ‘I’m not leaving him, Cal.’
‘Then why are you here?’
Selina’s eyes narrowed. Cal couldn’t decide whether it was hostility or she was about to burst out laughing.
Cal flung the front door of her flat open. ‘Go inside and take your clothes off.’
Selina didn’t move. Far away Cal could hear the buzz of a helicopter. She tried to glance casually at her watch.
‘Don’t let me keep you,’ Selina said sarcastically, as though she wasn’t the one with a boyfriend and a whole other life.
‘Selina, come on–’ Cal moved towards her, ready to take her thin, tanned arm, to lead her into the flat, into the bedroom.
But Selina pulled her arm away, her black eyes unfocused, mouth smaller, tighter.
‘Fine.’ Cal took a step towards the lift, making sure Selina saw. ‘Look, there’s something urgent I’ve got to sort out.’
Selina’s face flickered.
‘It won’t take long.’
‘Where the hell are you going?’
‘Come and see.’
That was the problem with jealousy – you focused on desiring, not on what you desired. Cal couldn’t quite be sure through the closing doors of the lift if Selina was following.
As Cal threw herself up the final few steps, she could already see the helicopter, a black dot growing against the roiling grey clouds. The distant hum had swollen to an ominous clatter.
Shit, there were three of them. But the tail fins of Marine One were unmistakeable. She shouldered the SA-7 missile. More quickly than she could have imagined they were right above her. The noise was overwhelming. She hadn’t meant to let them pass overhead but they were already skimming the trees, over the park, heading towards the grey outline of central London.
Cal hunched her shoulders. The middle helicopter was centred perfectly in the scope. There was nothing left but to pull the trigger. So why didn’t she? She realised she was waiting for the restraint of Selina’s hand on her shoulder.