Only ever known by their surname or nickname or no name: seventeen men were taken to Windsor Great Park and eighteen came back. This is a true story.
The seventeen are, of course, despised by those who number them onto the coach and number them off again. Despised because they’ve raped, murdered and tortured and because the numberers know the grace of God is limitless. Despised, yes, but someone, somewhere, is kind – Victorian, paternal, we-know-what’s-good-for-you kind – and, this cool Spring afternoon, they’ve been spat out through the red-brick walls and cast-iron gates and carted off to the park for a quick gulp of mental hygiene, of air and colour and pity, of winking, disappearing beauty.
Trusted now – trusted, at least, as much as they ever could be – they’re old, slow, resigned to the shadow-life dictated by the sons of sons of men who work in that place because their fathers did. And I spot them – captors and captives – just as I turn the corner by the small copse her and me once shagged in, just as I feel another, familiar, two-fisted crunch of hurt and rage and jealousy in my stomach. I count: seventeen, each Parkinson’s-shuffling in a tremulous line like a grim parody of a schoolkids’ crocodile, buffalo-herded by half a dozen sour cowboys who are dressed in identical suits and in black ties that would, no doubt, fly loose if anyone grabbed them. I see the trousers flapping too high above scuffed trainers, the stained shirts, the too-long hair from a decade ago: all brown, beige, the dead colours of dirt and shame. I see and I try, as ever, to separate these wretches from me, to list the differences between us, to stay my side of the line. As they come closer, I hear one of them mumbling rhythmically, over and over:
Berkshire-born and Berkshire-bred,
Thick of arm and thick of head.
Berkshire-born and Berkshire-bred…
They’re trudging back towards the coach, eager to return to their mausoleum. I watch them half-heartedly, last night’s phone-call echoing still.
‘Come on!’ A hand thuds on my shoulder. I turn, look one of the funeral-suits straight in his hard eyes. ‘Get on the coach,’ he says, voice firmer now, colder.
‘I’m not… I’m not one of…them,’ I say, ‘I’m a nurse myself, as it happens.’
‘Course you are. And I’m the fucking Queen of England,’ he says, shoving me towards the front of the coach.
Bloody students. To be fair, it turns out the day before all this, his wife (who was also his cousin) had run off with his sister. Hard not to think I did him a favour when I killed him.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I do like it here. The food’s alright, I’ve got my own room, a radio, a little fragile peace. She’ll never bother me again. And, eventually, I’m pretty sure they’ll trust me enough to let me out on coach trips.