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The International Writers Magazine: Little England

Sam North

Once Upon a Widdecombe Day - London 2012
For all the little englanders...

He's after YOUR j JOB

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They felt quite smug, even as they read the quite complicated customs declaration forms on the flight into 'England'; formally known as Great Britain. With pandemic outbreaks now covering half the African continent and some key tourist cities in southern Europe in quarantine themselves, the pound at four to one Euro meant the holiday package to London was a real bargain. Mrs Valois had so enjoyed her trip to London ten years before she was keen to do it again. Of course, living so far away as they did in Martinique they did not really keep up with the news, or read the papers, they just knew that that the Government of 'England'; had changed sometime to one that was perhaps less friendly to the outside world than the last. Their friends had all tried to discourage them, but they were determined. 'At this price', she told them, 'London is practically free.'

Their arrival had been awkward, at best. The five hour delay in customs was embarrassing, the questions rude, but all their papers were in order and they signed the agreement that they would guarantee to depart no less than seven days later before 9pm or face quite extreme financial penalties. Mr Valois had pointed out to the immigration officer that they had return tickets but that had not seemed to have impressed him. Eventually, after paying a refundable deposit of £4000 on his credit card they were allowed to catch the train to London itself. (Or would have had it been running, but all underground trains ceased now at 9pm in line with the nationwide curfew orders)

The cab driver was taking a risk he told them, but for £250 cash he was happy to take them to their hotel at Hyde Park Corner.

The hotel was worth the wait. Comfortable and luxurious but practically empty. They had a choice of rooms and they took one overlooking the Park. They understood that the hotel was up for sale following an inexplicable drop in overseas visitors. Mr Valois opened a bottle of champagne. Even though they were exhausted, there was still time to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Mrs Valois was a little disappointed to discover that only three plays were currently on in the West End and only one musical ‘Alfred -The Story of a King’. Luckily there were sales on at all the big stores, 70 percent discounts too. She would have a wonderful day shopping tomorrow.

The hotel porter was the first to approach them after breakfast. He met them at the bottom of the stairs, the elevator being out of order. The Valois knew from his expression that he found it awkward, whatever it was he was going to say.
'I really don't think you should go outside today.'
Madame Valois laughed at him. 'Why ever not, Monsieur. It is a beautiful day, no?'
The Porter shuffled embarrassed. 'The hotel would like to recommend that you enjoy the facilities here. We can send the girl out to shop for you if you would like. She has a comprehensive list and knows the bargains...'

Mrs Valois had never heard anything so ridiculous. They had flown all the way so she could shop in Oxford Street. 'No, I have come here to see London. But merci, it was a sweet offer...'

She suspected that this 'girl' would be getting a kickback from the shops and besides, who could choose for another woman?
'It is a bad day, I mean to say... you go out at your own risk. Monsieur? He tried to involve Mr Valois, but Mr Valois knew his wife. This trip had been her idea from the start. Back home he was a prominent businessman with good connections. This was certainly absurd. London was the capital city, was he suggesting it wasn't safe? He hadn't come all the way from Martinique to spend a week in a run down luxury hotel. 'Monsieur, we will walk. We appreciate your concern, but this is London. We shall be safe.'

The Porter sighed, he had tried his best. He turned away shaking his head.

The receptionist frowned when the Valois handed in their keys.
'Monsieur, Madame, you are going outside? Perhaps you do not understand,' she whispered. 'It is Widdecombe Day.'

The Valois shrugged. They were not familiar with this term. They knew someone called Widdecome was the name of a former British politician and celebrity, but had no idea why a whole day was named after her. It was probably an English custom to celebrate this with a special day. The English had a special sexual fetish for large self-righteous political women, it was well known.
'Nous allons,' Monsieur Valois stated firmly. He was tired of this nonsense now.
The Valois departed their hotel.

They walked across the road, where there was little traffic. This itself quite a surprise as Monsieur Valois remembered a time when London was choked with cars, particularly on a Saturday morning.

They strolled towards Green Park encountering no trouble at all. London was as it always was. A little shabbier, but that was to be expected given economic conditions these days. Madame Valois took him up Bond Street towards all her favourite shops. Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Dior, but she was a little confused. The shops were closed, all boarded up. Only Fenwicks was open, and she had no plans to shop anywhere so mundane. Monsieur Valois was worried. No only were the famous New Bond Street stores boarded up, but the boards were covered in Government posters that did not look very friendly.

Graffiti both ugly and illiterate was scrawled around the posters. There was another poster. Madame Valois noticed it first and Monsieur Valois was forced to agree that the picture of the black business man with his arm around his pretty blonde wife looked a lot like him, looked a lot like her and he didn’t like the fact that the man was also holding a bundle of Euro notes in the other hand. He was reminded of something, but could not quite put his finger on it.
'Oh look Bernard, this store is open. Let's go inside.'

Monsieur Valois let himself be led into the famous English fashion store, quite a relief really from the depressing scene outside. They hadn't gone more than ten feet inside the store when two security men descended upon them.
'I.D's please'
'Identification?' Monsieur Valois queried. 'We need an ID to shop here?'
'It's the law. You foreign?'
'We are French,' Madame Valois declared with some pride.
'We don't take Euros.'
'We have credit cards,' Monsieur Valois stated.
'English credit cards only,' One security man stated.

Madame Valois noticed that they were beginning to attract a crowd. 'But we are tourists, we want to look.'
'Appointments only,' the other security men declared, going to the door. 'Get your hotel to make an appointment.'

The Valois could not believe this. Embarrassed they began to leave. In the background they could hear someone snicker and voice say something about the cheek of it - bloody Johnny Foreigners...
'We don't want trouble,' the security men told them, more than once.

Confused the Valois' found themselves hustled out into the street again. They walked on, silent, confused, humiliated. At the back of Monsieur Valois mind was a glance he had made into the shop and how little stock there had been in there.

Behind them the security men watched them go - shaking their heads as if they could not believe the foreigners gall. 'Can't believe they're out here on the street on bloody Widdecombe Day. They're either brave or incredibly stupid.'

The Valois' approached Oxford Street. Nervous now and alert. It was true the street did still have shoppers in them, but there was hardly anywhere to shop. The streets were full of litter, like snowdrifts against the crumbling storefronts. The people around them looked poor. London had never looked like this, surely. What used to be Selfridges was now boarded up. The same Johnny Foreigner posters covering the walls and windows. A little way back at Bond Street underground a crowd of people were spewing out. They looked young, they all wore the same black leather jackets and more disconcertingly, they carried clubs and baseball bats.
'Bernard?' Madame Valois muttered nervously.

Monsieur Valois had seen them, they reminded him of the Paris Flic, the undercover cops who had once beaten him when he was a student there. He needed no urging.
'Come, we'll go to a cafe,' he suggested, 'I don't like...'
He didn't need to complete his sentence. A young girl nearby them in a similar black jacket and blue torch flame insignia had blown a whistle and was pointing at them. 'Johnny Foreigner,' she was shouting. 'Over 'ere, quick, Johnny Foreigner.'

The Valois' began to run across the street towards a Café Albion (the words Nero still visible under the scruffy paintwork). A cry went up behind them. The Valois' began to panic as they ran. Monsieur Valois felt his heart pumping, recalling his bypass surgery six months earlier.

'Get them, get the bastards,' a cry went up behind them. A shout went up, the mob began to bray obscenities as they began to run after their quarry.

The Valois' reached the Café and opened the door. A sea of white faces stared back at them in astonishment. They could see and hear the mob closing in behind them.
'You can't come...,' the manager was saying, but never finished as the first brick sailed through the window, sending glass everywhere. People hit the floor in panic, some screamed. Monsieur Valois saw a reflection of the clubs and baseball bats waving in the air in a mirror. He sensed that he was going to die.

A man in a black suit with a blue flame torch insignia like the child's stood up and gripped Monsieur Valois' arm. 'Don't you know it's Widdecombe Day?' He hissed.
'Throw them out,' another voice shouted. Madame Valois felt giddy with fear. 'But we are French,' she cried out.
'Kill Johnny Foreigner,' the cry went up from outside. Another brick smashed the other window.
'Give them up,' someone was shouting.

The people inside the cafe were as afraid as Madame Valois, they knew from long practice what the Widdecombe black jackets could do.
'The back way, someone suggested. Some began to surge towards the rear of the cafe.
'It's blocked', the Manager shouted. 'There's no way out but the front.'

The mob were gathered outside now. Someone had lit a rag torch, a blue torch flame burned. They meant business. The Valois' suddenly, but with immense clarity understood the significance of Widdecombe Day.

Monsieur Valois touched his wife's hand momentarily as he said. 'Leave me, save yourself, ma petite.'; He stepped aside to avoid a brick that was hurled at him. Madame Valois, instinctively moved back, merged into the white crowd, just another blonde in a sea of them. A man made her sit down.
'Out,' the Manager called, pointing at Monsieur Valois. 'Get out.'
The mob caught his remark and began to shout 'Out, Out, Out...'

Monsieur Valois turned to leave. He faced the mob, he heart in his mouth, his lips dry. For his wife's sake, for the three children, he had to face down the mob, let them have their blood. He stepped forward expecting the worst.

The mob unexpectantly parted, a flash of blue lights caught Monsieur Valois' eyes, some men in heavy armour pushed their way through to him.
'Mr Valois?'
'Oui?'; He was astonished to hear his name.
'You are under arrest for disturbing the peace. Your civil and human rights are suspended. Come with us.'

Tight plastic wrist bands were placed on him and a loop was placed over his head. He was literally pulled through the mob by this collar, some of the crowd took the opportunity to kick him, leering and laughing. Monsieur Valois noticed for the first time that some of the faces in these leather jackets were black, many were female.
'England for the English,' someone shouted. Others immediately took up the cry as Monsieur Valois was bundled into the armoured police van.

He was kicked in, the door slammed behind him and he fell hard into a seat. As he adjusted to the semi-darkness he could see that six other black or brown men were in with him and one Asian woman. He was astonished to see Monsieur Freynard - the junior minister for culture - also from Martinique. He too was under arrest. They had been on the plane together. Monsieur Valois was about to say something when the minister shook his head and indicated a microphone, several microphones in the roof of the van.

The van began to move, the driver turned the radio up. Fists pounded on the sides of the van.
Monsieur Valois thought of his wife who must be terrified.

The van stopped again, five minutes later. The door opened and for a moment Monsieur Valois could see a huge poster on a wall with the Prime Minister depicted, his arm around a little blond boy. 'Together we shall teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson,' the poster declared.

A bloody face appeared. Another hapless Polish man was bundled in, wrists and legs bound. He was left on the floor and the door slammed again.
'We're full,' the driver announced. 'Call the next van up.'

Madame Valois emerged from the café watching the mob running away, people calling to each other as they took instructions on their mobile phones. The black suited man was standing there watching them, his own mobile in one hand,his other picking glass out of his hair. She thought he would know, so she asked him.
'Where will they take him?'
He turned and looked at her with undisguised contempt. 'The tunnel. They take them all to the tunnel.'
Madame Valois was confused by this answer. 'But the tunnel is closed. It has been closed since England left the EU.'
'Of course it is closed,' the man answered. 'It's only 26 miles. He can walk can't he?'

Madame Valois swayed a little, stumbling a little in the debris left by the mob. She thought about her husband walking for twenty-six miles in a dark underground tunnel. His heart. His bad toe. She thought about her children back in Martinique, she suppressed the urge to cry. 'Thank you,' she remembered to say to the man .

He smiled at her, his yellow stained teeth and pinched face so perfectly English. 'Go home,'; he told her. 'Go to your hotel. We don't need your kind here.'

She made her way back. Aware that at every step there was a picture of her husband and his little blonde wife on every boarded shop window. She had done this. She had brought him here, she had made him come. She wondered if she would ever see him again.

A little blonde girl came up to her selling something. 'Buy a blue torch Miss, help save England from Johnny Foreigner.'

© Sam North 2001 (updated 2008)

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