Wednesday 28 February 2018


by Robert Ferguson

bitter tea

How prepared are you? This thought hit me like a hammer, as I sat at the table outside my favourite café. I had listened to the news on the BBC, as all ex-pats do – don’t they? still? – the calm lady’s voice telling me from far-away London that those not far away from me over the border now had the means to blast us all to atoms, literally. And the thought hit me - not for myself, I had an air-ticket, and a protective company and an Embassy who would do everything to get me out – but the thought hit me for all these sweet, gentle people around me, the people who had laid my coffee in front of me on the table and would soon bring me my breakfast waffles and syrup, imported straight from the powerful US of A, the tiny lady who cleaned up my flat after me and did my washing, that older guy over there pushing a desultory brush over the pavement in front of |his Aladdin’s cave shop. How prepared are you? Because they won’t end the world, even they aren’t that mad, or the other madman in Washington. They won’t end the world. What would be the point? They don’t want to die any more than anybody else does. They want their creation-ending weapons solely as levers – “We’ll do it if you don’t let us…” – and then they’ll march across the border and take exactly what they want, which is everything. And that includes you, your watch, your cash, your brush, your shop, your body, your whole future, your very life, if you try to oppose them. So how prepared are you for that day?

Because they’ll do it, you dear, kind, gentle people, of whom I’ve become so fond since I’ve been living and working among you for so many months. And they’ll make it work. They are prepared, you see, have been preparing for years. They have the trucks and the weapons and the strategically placed fuel-dumps, and the rifles and the ammunition supplies, and the grenades, and the helmets, but above all they have something you don’t have, something crucial to success, something you’re going to have to find pretty quickly, as they roll over your sprinkling of a Border Force, and whatever defences your great allies have allowed you to have. They have, in spades, the passion of knowing that failure is not an option. And it’s passion that is going to win this war.

I looked around me at the quietly busy, sunny, everyday street, and couldn’t imagine its people growing sufficient passion in no time at all. Afterwards they might find it, after it was too late, and the bayonets were at their throats, or in their chests, the patrols in the darkened streets, their menfolk herded off into camps and starved, and their tiny, docile, smiling women ... well, armies the world over and throughout history have dealt with captured women in just the same way. Then, even they might become passionate, but by then such passion would be nothing but an added danger to them. Passion overwhelms perception so easily, the perception of the weaknesses in a plan, the perception that the available resources are too few, the perception that, possibly, the famous plan might fail. Then, they’d throw away their lives anyway – later than their eventual conquerors might have foreseen, but throw them away they would.

And I sat there, to my lasting shame, thinking these thoughts dispassionately. These weren’t – aren’t – my people. I have come to like them, but my people are far away, and safe; and so is my home, my lounge, my bedroom, my kitchen, the places where I’m safe, the things I’ve gathered and stored there while I travel, knowing that, in due course, I shall return to them and they’ll still be there. The cafes are there where I go for breakfast when I’m home, the shops I go to when I need bread and milk and steak and tomatoes and … None of these are under direct threat, so there’s no need for me to feel passionate about them, is there? I can sit here prescribing for a far-off people among whom I just happen to be at this peculiar time, but won’t be when passion is the only possible salvation for them. Will I?

Or will I still be here? Will the panic that will bloom just like the threatened mushroom-cloud prevent me from leaving, despite my pre-booked air ticket, and the calm, English ladies and gentlemen at the Embassy “making every effort, Mr. …to get you onto a plane. However, …” How long will the Embassy staff stay here, as foreign in this country as I am myself? They too will have homes to get to in England, and they will be far greater prizes than I would for the invaders who are looking for levers on the world stage to add to their nuclear power. Would I even make it to the airport? Taxis? Company cars? You must be joking. The drivers and their families will take them for themselves. Wouldn’t anyone? And even if there were transport available to get to the airport, would it get through the completely chaotic melee which will be traffic that will clog every possible city street and country road? And that is without the prospect of having your personal transport commandeered, if not by the military – probably in full retreat: fleeing, if they still have the strength – then certainly by stronger, younger civilians, more determined to escape, with more passion to fuel their determination to preserve their lives. A European, an alien, taller and with a white face, and alone, I would be a readily identified as an easy target, however I was trying to get from the town to the airport.

As I sat thinking these thoughts over my cooling coffee and congealing waffles, and the city street continued to be the same as it always is, the sun to shine, the shopkeeper opposite to sweep,  I began to realise that my own passion was rising and growing; and I was ashamed, because it was rising out of fear, sheer, selfish fear. But growing it was, and it was time to put it to use, and get myself home.

Back in my flat, I lifted the telephone to call England and tell my company what I was doing, and then thought, “No. They’re in England. Foreboding news, but it’s only news. There’s always news, and it lasts about thirty-six hours before something else takes its place. Sit tight,” they’d say. “Safeguard our interest. Don’t look as though we’re the sort of company who panics at the first sign of difficulty. This contract is too important to us for that. Just sit it out for a day or two and see how things go.” But they were there, and I was here, and the threat was real and not very far away.

Grabbing a small back-pack (mustn’t look like a refugee at this stage, trying to escape with all my worldly goods), I packed it with food and drink that would keep, and keep me, for a few days, just in case. One spare T-shirt and pair of pants, and my spare sandals (comfort, not elegance, let alone dignity, was what I would need if it really did all go wrong) and a good old-fashioned scrape-razor, light in weight but powerful in avoiding the appearance of a fugitive. The white skin and round eye-sockets were bad enough, though the face would soon tan; but I certainly wouldn’t want an untidy stubble all over it. That was exactly what would stop the casual glance of policemen and soldiers on patrol. All the cash I had laid by in its hiding place went into my cotton money-belt, hooked around my waist beneath my shirt. My cell-phone? Yes, its GPS might help if I were forced away from civilisation. Then off, down the stairs on the first leg of my escape.

The streets were warming up, and getting busier already. Fewer shops than usual had opened, and from those which had, the local radios were broadcasting what seemed likely to be news broadcasts rather than the usual gentle, tinkling Oriental music that I understood no more than the words that were all around me. No taxis. I began to walk, quickly. “Taxi. Taxi,” I shouted several times unsuccessfully, until one stopped, already carrying three passengers in the back seat. “Airport?” the driver asked, and that boded ill already.

At the airport, the driver’s implied prophecy was coming true. Eventually getting to the airline desk, I presented my open ticket, and asked, "Next London ‘plane?” 

“Not this morning, Sir,” he said, whistfully. “None scheduled today, I regret.” He made to give me back my ticket, more with the air of giving someone a keepsake than anything likely to contribute to the recipient’s well-being. 
“Anywhere in Europe?”, I almost begged, “India, Australia…” 

“Nothing out of here today, Sir. Sorry. Too dangerous, the airlines say.” 

The walls of the terminal building almost cracked under the pressure-wave of something flying very low, and very, very fast. Everyone ducked. Beyond the big glass wall at one end, a Russian-built Mig flashed across the flatness of the airport. You could see the bombs slung under either wing. It really was happening, and I was stuck in the middle of whatever was to come. Singapore, 1942, all over again.

The harbour! That was it! Get out on a ship, to anywhere. It would only defer the horror if nuclear weapons were actually deployed, but time, a little more life, was worth more than money in this situation. I pushed through the crowds to leave the terminal. Outside, taxis were queuing up to drop hopefuls, for whom I knew there was no hope here. I dropped into the back seat of the first, hardly giving the fat American lady time to get out. 

“The harbour, please,” I said. The driver glanced at me cynically, drawing down his eyebrows in a frown, but not wishing to risk his fare by telling me I’d be no better off there than here.

Crossing town, the traffic had built up, complicated by the number of cars with carts hitched roughly to their rear and piled high with the essentials of a family’s survival. Handcarts, similarly loaded, filled the gutters and criss-crossed where they could through stationary traffic. They would soon find out how essential those essentials are, I thought. Refugees always start with everything, and end with nothing as they journey on. Hey, I suddenly thought as reality hit me, I too am a refugee.

The crowds at the quaysides were worse than at the airport, and more frightened, the range of their dangers increased by all the vehicles trying to get as near to a gang-plank as possible with their accompanying carts, and those which had simply been dumped when their owners, having obtained passage – or at least having paid for it – had no more use for their erstwhile pride and joy. I dashed from ship to ship, starting with those of European lines, but most had withdrawn their gang-planks, and the rest – European or other – had stationed large, heavily-armed and very effective guards at the tops of their gang-planks to prevent anyone, even with a white face, getting near. I stopped a British sailor who was pushing to make a safe return to his ship. 

“There’s nothing leaving,” he told me, “there are said to be gunboats out in the channel, and they’re certainly not ours.”

By mid-afternoon, I was in despair. There was no sign of enemy troops down here at the harbour yet, and the gossip said that, so far, they hadn’t entered the town; but rumours suggested that the President’s palace had been bombed from the air, and the army had fallen apart earlier in the day. What more could I do? Nothing, that I could see. At least I hadn’t ‘phoned England and shown myself up not only for a panicking fool, but also for an incompetent one who couldn’t escape and get home when he should have done. At least, back at the flat I’d be in comfortingly familiar surroundings for a while. I could always cower in the luggage-cellar, if there were a threat of nearby street-to-street fighting; but I doubted there would be. The enemy would want minimal casualties among the locals: enough to subdue, but not enough to adversely affect the re-opening and efficient running of the local high-tech industries. And that included me, of course. I was an asset! Handled right, I could negotiate safety of some sort, perhaps, just until things quietened down, and London persuaded China to get me out.

So I walked back to the flat, slept, and the next morning went down for breakfast in my usual café, and the world was different but the same. The uniforms of the policemen on the nearby intersection were a slightly darker green. The lorries full of troops rushing around the streets were more numerous, and the other vehicles remarkably few. But otherwise, nothing much was different. The sky was blue, the sun shone. My shop-keeper neighbour was brushing his pavement again. I’d go down to the plant later. Probably have to walk all the way, but daren’t be thought to be abandoning productivity, for whichever master. I’m just a little cog, I thought, feeling smaller than I have since I was a small boy, but I’m still alive. Wait and see what happens. It could be an awful lot worse.

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