My job during the war was to administer beatings. This didn’t make me better than anyone else, particularly not the people I beat. To ensure that I never forgot this, I was periodically beaten myself. I, Laura Grimsey, a White, beaten quite roughly but within official boundaries by a Brown. A team of Browns was retained expressly for this purpose: to beat the beaters.
I celebrated my two-year work anniversary the week the war circus arrived. This was by chance also the ten-year anniversary of the war effort itself. The economy was soaring. To celebrate in a traditional manner, the Bureau had received a shipment of commemorative tin helmets and tin flasks, and at the entrance to the war circus’s big top tent, spectators were handed tiny tin keyrings fashioned in the shape of a nuclear warhead with every circus programme. Whites and Browns flocked to the war circus together, flush with anniversary bonuses and promotions. In tribute to the unsinkable camaraderie of our army, the Whites and Browns bought each other pails of popcorn from the clown shuffling between the stands with a plastic tube of fluffy kernels braced like a sandbag across her shoulders.
The War Machine Speaks with a Liquorice Tongue
Immigration, boy. Can’t fault the Browns, far better off as they were loping through deserts and savannahs. Hunting that big game under their own God-given sun. Unafraid of what sails down from the sky. But here we are. Here we are. We can only get on with it. Come together, all of us patriots. White. Brown. No matter. We know our bombs the way we know our lovers. The Annabelle. The Betsy. The Claudette. In the armament factories we bellow out love songs. Hands percuss metal shells. We forget whose voice is White. Whose Brown. We’re lucky to have steady jobs. What’s more, bonuses. Britain. Britain. First. Britain first.
What surprises people most, when they arrive at the Bureau of Beatings and are finally led down the hall and finally, finally brought behind the crushed velvet curtain – dyed midnight black to hide the splatters – is not the waiting pommel horse, nor the public gallery (they always look so relieved at its emptiness). It’s the brief sight of my face before I pull on the suction-tight latex hood. They don’t expect a face like Laura Grimsey’s, I can say that much! They say, oh, you remind me of my nan. Or they’ll compliment the bob I get tinted strawberry blonde once a month, or my four silver earrings in each ear, every one stamped with the initials of one of my eight grandkids, Benedict, Moran, Spyler, Soldier, Petersham, Dolly, Matt, and Becky. The impressive thing about me is what I know how to give and what I know how to take in this war. I didn’t use to know these things before the war, not even when I rose to the position of shift supervisor at the Bureau of Work. If the person I’m to beat is Brown, I make sure to tell them my baton doesn’t hear any silliness about White or Brown, and I explain the officiated beatings I receive from our team of Brown beaters. Not everyone knows about our diversity policies. The Equality Act is upheld strictly in this bureau, and it always will be. And I can only thank the war effort for how I’ve grown, morally and financially, over these years. Neither the odd streaky bruise nor the occasional scar can tell against that.
The war circus, for instance. What a delight. I brought my granddaughter Spyler with me as a treat to her. She’d just turned eight. Our VIP tickets offered an uninterrupted view of the ring, courtesy of the Bureau. I clutched the stubs tight to my chest, Spyler held onto my shirt, and like that we inched into the big top. The child had never enjoyed crowds. The air was colder inside and in the dimness all we could see were four torches burning smokily at points around the raised dais. I favoured my left side, the ribs there being very tender, since I’d received a harsh beating just a few days before. ‘You okay, Grandma?’ Spyler asked in a tight whisper. ‘Fine, doll,’ I reassured her. ‘Just a good hard week of work. Always be proud of breaking a clean sweat helping the war effort, you hear me?’ Spyler wasn’t much of one for acknowledging being talked to, so I never thought much of her silences. We sidestepped our way over seated Whites and Browns with as much dignity as possible and found our seats.
A glorious view, the only thing interrupting it the fog of our out-breaths. A spotlight was flung on and the ringmaster stepped in, golden waistcoat shimmering.
The War Machine Speaks with a Frothing Tongue
Anarchists, ANTIFA, hooligans, cucks! Anarchists. ANTIFA. Hooligans. Cucks! Snowflakes, snowflakes, daddy’s triggered snowflakes. ANTIFA terrorists, anarchists, and triggered little cucks.
The war circus kicked off with an Enemy Lampoon. Behind the bobblehead actors playing the Diktator, the Shaykh, and the hateful Whisperer, a choir from our Third Penitent Regiment’s Bureau of Morale swayed in unison. Decked in skin-tight finery, their leotards stuck with peacock feathers, they raised beautiful harmonics. The sadness in their voices couldn’t be faked. Spyler, hunched over her knees like a reptile provoked with a stick, was working at a hangnail with her big square front teeth. ‘See, here it comes,’ I said, pointing out the foam nuke scuttling into the ring from stage right. Its little human forearms and tail of foil flames. This was always the best part of the Enemy Lampoon. ‘Mmm,’ mumbled Spyler. Just as I was hoping no one’d heard the boredom in her tone, the Brown to my left nudged my personal space with an elbow. ‘They’re always like that at that age, miss,’ he said. ‘The so-gay! haircuts. Bad attitude about the war effort. Picking at their skin like hungry rabbits.’ I looked into his face properly. He had a kindly Brown face, not angry or aggressive at all. ‘Britain first!’ he said with gusto, and smiled quite wide. His straight teeth were as good as a uniform; they were one hundred per cent army-sponsored dental plan. On the stage, the Enemy Lampoon nuke had just detonated, and all of the characters’ costumes now unfurled, some into peonies of organic reds, fatty yellows, and whites, and some into ribbons of metallic greys and blacks. Silence settled, the spotlight came on, and the ringmaster announced the next act: the High Rollers.
At this, Spyler looked up from her fingernails. ‘She’s excited about this part,’ I said to the Brown at my side.
‘Don’t talk about me without my permission, Grandma,’ said Spyler, eyes glued to the spectacle.
I’d seen the High Rollers once or twice before. Beaters were invited to war circus rehearsals. Neat little job perk. But it was obvious the circus had decided to do something special for the ten-year anniversary of bountiful hostilities. The cannon, when they wheeled it out to drum roll and applause, was tremendous, the size of an armoured people carrier, and handsomely painted in an overlapping pattern of Consolidated Union Jacks.
Spyler was looking up, where – almost too small to see – a vent had been peeled back near the apex of the big top, and a trapeze artist was snaking himself, his trapeze bar, and a tangle of ropes down into the interior. There he dangled by his knee joints, higher up than I’d ever seen before. The drum roll intensified. I felt a chill bolt through my blood. It was the chill I’d feel after completing a perfect beating, when I stooped just inside the crushed velvet curtain and scrubbed my flecked forearms over the bucket of sudsy water. ‘Is it about to happen?’ asked Spyler. The need in her voice startled me, since this child never needed anything from anyone, or was too proud in any case to admit it. Spyler in that moment was her smallest self, six months old, three months old, and I recalled the day I hid with her in my basement bathroom while the bomb sirens blared on and on. Her mother and father were working side by side at the insignia factory, and above the din of the factory chants and songs they never even heard the alarm. Now, just as that day crouched in the dry bathtub, cracks in the ceramic spidering under her pudgy baby hands, her eyes were wide and white as two Trebor Mints, and guttered with water. I had an evil premonition: sensitivity would ruin this child. ‘It is about to happen, Spy,’ I said. ‘Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.’ ‘You don’t want to miss this, young lady,’ added the Brown beside me, who was intent on including himself in our Quality Time. Spyler deftly ignored him. That, at least, wasn’t something she was sensitive about.
On stage, the drum roll stopped. In the stands, we all – all of us – took a breath, as one. And there it went. An eruption of mass and air from the cannon, and instantaneously a Brown figure was diving up through the atmosphere we’d fogged with our out-breaths, fast and sleek. As he flew he shouted, quick as anything, ‘Britain first!’, and somersaulted, still gaining height. High, high above us, the White figure waited, arms outstretched, and the swanning Brown met the forearms of the White with his own, and neither figure slid or slipped. They swung back and forth, hinged at the trapeze bar, as the crowd exploded with cheers.
‘They’ve only ever dropped a man five times the whole entire war effort,’ said my neighbour. ‘From that height, they die on impact, of course,’ he added, pitching his voice for Spyler’s benefit, as if tossing her a chew toy. His smile was still wide, but his eyelids drooped against the sudden blaze of strip lights stitched into the rubberised tarp of the big top. ‘Anyway! Britain first,’ he added, as if bidding us goodnight.
On a good day at the Bureau, I process ten or eleven tickets. There’s a lot of official procedure to it. I don’t envy the people I beat, their endless waits, the ticket-number-will-be-called, the form-filling, or the fastidious disinfection routines. The day after the war circus, I did six tickets before lunch, feeling spirited, then walked down the road to the chippy for a large portion of chips and gravy on my break. My pulse hopped excitedly in my neck. My first tickets of the afternoon were people I’d beaten before. ‘How was the weekend, Laura?’ said the first of them. He was a perfectly unblinking White, very formal, and he arranged himself tidily over the pommel horse before I asked him to. ‘Lovely, thank you, Ken.’ There had been bomb sirens at the start of the weekend, of course – he knew that, but it wasn’t patriotic to mention those things. Forty lashes, eight whacks of the baton, twelve lashes dipped in acid wash. White, Brown, Brown. I never knew – wasn’t permitted to ask – the reasons for the beatings.
My supervisor Anne came by towards the end of the day, trailed by two men. A White and a Brown. ‘Tickets CY697 and PN332. These are self-referrals.’ Anne over-enunciated this, throwing me a scandalised wink on her way out. I smiled welcomingly at the pair.
‘This is Guy-Jean and I’m Reshid,’ said the Brown.
‘We’re the High Rollers from the war circus,’ said the White.
‘Oh! I saw your act just last night. Quite fabulous!’ It was good to say something genuine.
‘Thank you,’ said the Brown. ‘We practice day and night. Until the vertigo is too much. Even lying down doesn’t help it at all.’
I slid pale green intake forms into their cracked and calloused hands. ‘My granddaughter Spyler suffers with vertigo sometimes.’
The Brown shook his head sorrowfully and cast about for a pencil.
I handed him one. ‘She watched your act last night too. She’s not –’ it felt momentarily wrong, divulging family things. But the intimacy the four of us had just shared – two actors, two spectators – was a balm, a bucket of warm water upended after an icy wash. ‘She’s not enthusiastic about much. But she loved it. Loved you!’ I began pulling on my gloves. Stopped. Humming in my body was the nearness of the beating –
– When I was a child, before the salvation of the war, I’d take the 393 home from school each day. Sometimes, Aunt Carrie would be waiting, and as the bus sped up, slowed down, sped up, stop requests dinging, she’d ask a few questions about my day, her eyes trained out the window. On the days I travelled alone I did everything just the same as when Aunt Carrie was there. I stepped up into the bus with my same left foot, toes scrunched in those tight Mary Janes. I waved to the driver. I sat in the middle right row, or if that was taken, the middle left. One day, a soldier boarded behind me. He sat right behind me too. He was a White. He wasn’t in uniform, but even back then I knew about soldiers because of my stepbrother, and I could tell by the camo hold-all slung over his big shoulder. It was just like Simon’s.
‘All right?’ he said behind me. His voice was unfriendly and powerful. I turned a half turn. This was a British soldier, but Aunt Carrie and Ben had told me over and over not to talk to anyone on the bus, ever. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t talking to me at all. He was staring knives at the Brown sitting beside him. ‘You a patriot?’ the soldier asked. The Brown mumbled something, something like ‘No, no, leave it.’ I would start saying that to myself a lot, from then on. The White soldier then began to scream curses at the Brown. I can’t remember them all. What I remember is that I flinched forward in my seat, and there was a sudden hum in my body, and in that hum there were many swirled flavours. Fear, guilt, shame, discomfort, but also: excitement. The thrill of something powerful setting the world to rights. Maybe shouting, maybe beatings, maybe these had their place in our odd little wonderful world. That’s the beauty of war. It is a largeness. A thick blanket spread headboard to footboard, with more left over. It’s got space for folds and crannies and dark corners. And over it all, pinning it down, our country’s time-honoured laws and procedures –
I scanned the High Rollers’ intake forms. They’d filled them perfectly, checking exes next to Self-Referral. ‘My granddaughter doesn’t get excited about much at all,’ I repeated. ‘But she really enjoyed your act.’ I had a marvellous thought. I peeled my gloves back off and stacked the two forms neatly. ‘This all looks fine, but we need one additional administrative check before we process self-referrals. It’s completely standard.’ I looked from the Brown to the White to the Brown again. The White had completely deflated, his face a mound of putty poisoned by surplus adrenaline. ‘Didn’t Anne mention the administrative check?’ They shook their heads no. The hum in me was back; it was at my throat, fang-like, translucent needle tips catching in my paper-thin skin. ‘Give us two working days. We’ll get you all sorted on Friday. Be here at eight.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Brown, tugging the shirtsleeve of the White. ‘See you then.’
The War Machine Speaks with the Voices of the Third Penitent Regiment’s Bureau of Morale Choir
Think of it as a little joy, friend. Think round the sudden bend, friend. Mount the horse and let your feathers stand proud to point up to Heaven. Asthma and Bovril in the trenches of this winter. Britain climbs its own body until it is above the choking clouds. Cloaked is the bombardment! Fear not the fists of rockets, friend. Fry the Diktator, for he’s but a strip of plaice. Pickle the Shaykh’s turban, layered like an onion. Steam the Whisperer; he’ll sizzle like a Yorkshire pudding. Here come the bombs, replying. Here come the bombs, a-wailing. Here come the bombs with an address to the people. And still and still we cannot be beat.
Wednesday night, the sirens wailed again. I stood from my barstool, drained my last work anniversary pint, saluted my beater colleagues. Around me, everyone was gathering up their coats, all heckles and game laughter. The sirens didn’t always escalate to active bombardment, but when they did, the first bombs would fall an hour after the sirens screamed. There was nothing to be sad about, really. The war had given us such a red-hot economy. True enough, the bombardments meant some had to lose their homes, and some had to lose loved ones, and perhaps some unlucky ones lost their lives. True enough. But the important thing was all the steady jobs, promotions, and the national feeling, with everyone so brave and unified. I got in my car, pointed it in the direction of my grandchildren. I was watching Becky and Spyler, their parents on another overnighter at the insignia factory. The sirens poured over rush hour, the streets jamming. The bombs really weren’t the worst of it. It was all the hurrying around before they came, the emergency protocol and car horns and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Forty-five minutes later, I pulled up the gravel driveway. It was pitch dark. Two rainbow pinwheels stuck in a planter pot spun in the drizzle-specked gusts that lifted the collar of my coat. Becky’s eyes appeared in the window at the sound of my car door slamming. She opened the door, fighting the wind for it. ‘Grandma Laura.’ I rushed her in, and when I asked about Spyler she pointed at their bunker, the utility room under the stairs. ‘The sirens won’t stop.’ ‘Shh, love, bring your blanket and a pack of biscuits,’ I said. Spyler was waiting in the utility room. The space was close and smelled of damp.
‘It is likely, girls, that they’ll bomb now,’ I said gently, because the sirens had not stopped. Spyler rocked in a kitchen table chair not meant for rocking. Her face was stoical. There was some mercy to the bombardments, in that they had a precise logic. The sirens, if they went on for too long, meant the bombs would come. Once the bombs came, they came at two-minute intervals. Once the intervals began, there would be exactly twenty of them. It was nothing to be sad about.
‘Grandma,’ said Spyler. She had stopped rocking and was very still. ‘Why does our own army bomb us?’
‘They taught it at school,’ Becky snapped.
Then the first batch of bombs fell. We heard them far off, rumbling like small underwater quakes.
‘It was even on the exam,’ Becky continued, contemptuous the way only an eleven-year-old could be.
‘But I want Grandma Laura to say why,’ said Spyler. She whisked her choppy fringe out of her eyes.
‘You tell me, princess,’ I said to her. ‘Tell me what you put down on your exam paper.’
Spyler looked right at me, her mouth a slash of shadow in the light of the lone bulb. I wondered whose sensitive nature, tonight, would win out.
‘Because it will make us durable,’ Spyler intoned. Bombs fell, followed by crashing, maybe just down the road.
‘Because it will make us fear less.’
‘Fearless,’ said Becky.
‘And because a great surplus of bombs is manufactured in our unstoppable British factories.’
‘Britain first,’ said Becky.
In the quiet, bombs fell, one-two-three.
‘Good job,’ I said. ‘I have a treat for you, Spyler. No school on Friday. What do you think? You get to come to work with me instead.’ Spyler looked at me. ‘I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘You’ll meet all the beaters,’ I teased. ‘I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘The High Rollers will be there,’ I said. ‘That was supposed to be the surprise.’ Becky chimed in breathlessly: ‘Can I go, Grandma?’ I shook my head. Bombs fell. Distant sirens – an ambulance. ‘You’ll get your turn, poppet.’
‘The High Rollers from the war circus?’ asked Spyler carefully. I knew I’d given her something. Something to hold onto. I nodded.
‘Can you write a note of absence for Miss B?’
I leaned over, pulling my granddaughters into an awkward hug. They were sweating, their necks slick beneath their hairlines. Their pulses quivered in their jugulars. We sat like that. We counted the rest of the way up to twenty.
The War Machine Speaks with a Liquorice Tongue
Anarchists, ANTIFA, snowflakes, cucks. What have they all in common? The ruin of mankind. And what fabric fashions the caul that drapes over and drags down such a proud civilisation? It is none other than the fabric of self-indulgence, soiled pile rising from a weave of maggots, in desperate need of being thrashed over the balcony until everything shakes clear in the light. Hence, our Bureau of Beatings. Hence our brave judiciary. Hence too the penitents’ choirs. We could all use more of the rod upon our hunched backs, our pert behinds. Even the righteous, even those of us wielding the rod – we, too, must be reminded of the sweet sting of discipline, which is the intimate fabric of this great Britain.
‘There they are,’ I pumped Spyler’s little hand.
The High Rollers sat side by side in the intake area on the second floor of the Bureau of Beatings. They pogoed their knees up down up, the Brown’s right knee knocking the White’s left. Even in this room, grim and grey, all its window blinds slightly crooked, the High Rollers’ energy was loud and showy. Inside, I was humming again. I tugged Spyler ungently behind me.
‘This is my granddaughter,’ I said. Cutting short their greetings, I ushered the High Rollers ahead of me towards the lifts with a swipe of my security badge at the glass barrier. The Brown guard nodded acknowledgement as my small procession headed in.
We had the lift to the seventh floor to ourselves. ‘And how old are you, Spyler?’ asked the White High Roller. ‘Eight,’ she replied, aloof in that Spyler way, although in my hand hers was trembling. On the meat of my thumb, a flake of her glittery black nail polish had fixed itself like an island on a map. The third floor blipped past.
‘What did you do? To have to be beaten?’ Spyler asked.
‘You don’t have to answer that,’ I hurried to say.
I realised, though, that they didn’t have to not answer it either. Spyler wasn’t Bureau staff. And, oh, I wanted it. The knowledge. I wanted a front row seat to their indulgences and taboos. I wanted it more than I’d wanted for much during the ten years of this war. Oh, I was so good at giving, and careful and measured in how I took. But this? The dirty underbellies of this Brown and this White, how they slithered when no one was watching, a perfect lesson for my peculiar grandchild –
‘Well,’ said the Brown warily as we passed the fourth floor. ‘When I’m scrunched up in that tight cannon, then boom, in the air, I –’ He chuckled nervously. ‘Sometimes your bad thoughts wrap you up like a python!’ He made a silly face, pleased with his punchline. ‘When you’re hanging upside down, too, praying you won’t miss this time,’ whispered the White. ‘You sadly wonder. What makes us a nation first. A great nation, the great nation that we are.’
The lift bell sounded cleanly.
I led us down the hall, slid the door to the beating room. Dust motes tumbled when I whisked us past the velvet curtain. Something calm had taken root in me on hearing their confessions. I was the soldier on the bus, just the same. How similar every one of us was. How unified.
‘She’s going to watch.’ I deposited Spyler in the public gallery, front and centre. ‘I don’t want to watch, Grandma. It’s horrible.’ I patted her on the head. ‘Discipline is not horrible, princess. It’s government procedure, as old and honourable as the war itself.’ I gave her a hanky. ‘Don’t cry. Britain first.’
‘Britain first,’ she blubbered.
I pulled back my strawberry-blonde bob, snapped the latex hood on. ‘Who’s up first?’ I glanced at the High Rollers. The Brown stepped forward, then took another step up to stand before the pommel horse. The caretakers must have just been in to wipe down the red vinyl; the room was heady with the pine and lavender scent of disinfectant. With slow fingers, the Brown began to get undressed.
‘No, Grandma,’ Spyler whispered, loud enough only for me.
The crushed velvet curtain rustled with the slide of the door behind it.
‘Oh. Anne?’ The shift supervisor wasn’t normally due in before lunch. ‘Just about to process these tickets. I’ll be with you in ten?’
‘Morning,’ said Anne. ‘Hi, Spyler,’ she added, less cheerfully. ‘Laura . . .’ Behind her, another colleague emerged from behind the curtain. It was a Brown I’d had dealings with before, a woman from the team retained to administer beatings to the beaters. Around the tea kettle and shortbread tin, I’d learned to give her wide berth – something about her dimensionless brown eyes, so cuttingly bored.
‘Your number’s come up this morning,’ said Anne in her usual lilt. ‘Sir,’ she addressed the Brown High Roller, ‘would you please come down from there? I’m afraid there’s one further step before we can see to you.’
The High Roller slid down the pommel horse and self-consciously gathered up his pile of clothing.
I was not self-conscious as I took his place. If I scowled at the red vinyl piping along the side of the pommel horse, it was merely because I was concentrating. I found that if I gave it the right focus, Spyler’s cries and the wheeze of the lash dissolved into a background wash of crossfire. And I took the lash happily. It was for the prosperity of us all. There was nothing to be sad about really.