The Mayor pulled his finger from the blinds allowing them to snap back into place. The protesters had not moved all day.
‘This isn’t going to go away, Bill,’ the man on the other side of the desk said.
The Mayor surveyed the small, wood panelled office in the town hall. He could almost see the cracks appearing in the walls, blotches growing in the old town map framed on the wall, town history books falling from their shelves and snapping their spines on the thick carpet.
‘Where’s Peter?’ The Mayor squinted, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
‘On his way but I can tell you what he’ll say…’
The Mayor sniffed. He knew too. The crisis wasn’t getting solved anytime soon. The noise outside swelled and they both looked to the window. ‘That sounds like him now,’ he was sure he heard a splinter of wood, saw a cloud of plaster.
‘If you start making demands he’s going to want something in return. And we have nothing.’
‘Shut up, Chris,’ said the Mayor and walked to the drinks tray but ignored the tea. The whiskey was one of the perks he enjoyed in his post, a post that seemed to have less and less perks as time went on. He necked the whiskey.
‘You’ve got that interview with the Herald later, remember?’
‘I said shut up, Chris.’ He’d been just about able to rise above all this so far. Float gently above the complaints and defer the accusations but now it was literally on his doorstep. There was a knock. ‘Come in’.
A gangly man clattered in, shedding a long coat, dropping briefcase and wrestled with a wet umbrella whilst making various noises of discomfort and frustration.
‘Morning Peter,’ the Mayor put his glass back on the tray and returned to his chair. ‘Have a seat,’ he indicated to the other side of his desk. ‘Got any good news for us?’
‘Ha!’ the politician spat as he sank in the chair, stretching his long legs before him. ‘We’re on our own. Like everyone else. PM says it will be a council by council issue for now. Which basically means they don’t know how to deal with the issue in Whitehall so are letting the local jurisdictions deal with it while they try and figure out our foreign and domestic policy.’
‘So no extra funding?’
‘They must see what the papers are doing to us?’
‘I know, Bill. You’re not the only one in the spotlight.’
‘Wonderful,’ sighed the Mayor leaning back into the stitched and worn leather chair. ‘It’s like they’re drinking blood thinners and wondering why all their little cuts are bleeding.’
‘Cuts is right,’ laughed the politician.
‘So what do we do?’ The Mayor threw up his hands and let them slap back down on his thighs.
‘Not a lot we can do, Bill.’ The MP heaved forward and grabbed an old wood ornament from the desk and began turning it over in his hands. ‘No one’s getting any more funding, if anything they’re talking about cutting more, meanwhile they are going to keep coming whilst we are such an affluent seaside town.’ The MP shrugged, fondling the object. It was an ocarina.
‘Hamm Lynn has been here nearly six hundred years,’ the Mayor said as he rose from his seat and walked slowly around his desk. ‘It’s survived wars, the plague, bombings and floods and now we’re being laid low by our own government letting in waves of immigrants that come begging at our door for aid.’ He snatched the instrument from the politician’s hands and put it gently back in its place. ‘We’ve got two new food banks in the area because of demand, the job centre queue stretches to the main street, the waiting list for council housing is a mile long, our crime rate is through the roof and everywhere I go I’m wading through protests either telling me to save the refugees or send the immigrants home!’
The MP looked incredulous. ‘And what do you want me to do about it? Call another vote? It’s the same all over the country, Bill.’
‘No other town is being scapegoated by the papers like we are though are they?’ The Mayor turned his back and walked to the bookcase. He adjusted his belt under his belly, the stress was exacerbating his reflux. He felt the hot bile catch in his throat. He took a deep breath.
‘Y’know,’ the Mayor’s aide broke the silence. ‘None of those examples have any real evidence to suggest it has anything to do with the migrant crisis. If anything the figures show it’s purely to do with an overpopulated centralised business district and high cost of living due to- ‘
‘Exactly!’ The Mayor snapped. ‘And why is it over populated? Because of a revolving door border policy that let’s in- ‘
‘Enough!’ The politician held up his hands. ‘Enough. Whatever the reason, it is clear we’ve got problems. There is no quick fix. Until the issue is resolved in Parliament we’re just going to have to endure for now.’
‘You think the public are going to stand for that?’ The Mayor felt his face flush red. ‘”Like it or lump it”? They want action.’ He pointed to the window where chanting could still be heard through the glass. ‘We can’t just keep bandaging over this.’
‘Look Bill,’ the politician sighed. ‘I’ve had a hell of a morning already and I’ve still got the rest of the day to get through. People want a quick fix and there isn’t one. Rule number one in politics, Brian: If you can’t give ’em what they want, tell ’em what they want to hear. Ride the rough sea till you reach the shore and all that, yeah?’ He had collected up his things and stood by the door. ‘ Look, I’ll try and hustle the Home Secretary along but that’s all I can do for now. Call a council meeting and see where the budget lies. If you can afford a steak to throw to the dogs that will at least distract them for a while.’ He nodded to the window.
The Mayor had turned his back again and stared at the bookcase.
‘Take it easy, Bill.’ The politician shook his head and left.
There was a long silence whilst the Mayor looked out the window and his aide waited to be told what to do. The room felt all but a ruin now, hunks of bare brick, gaps exposing the sky.
‘Sir?’ his aide finally asked.
The Mayor turned, keeping his unfocussed gaze on the blinds and the slivers of light they cut. ‘Call the council. Schedule a meeting. Tonight. And tell Marianne I’m going to be late home.’
‘Right you are,’ his aide said as he got up to leave.
‘And Chris,’ the Mayor turned to him. ‘If you want to keep this job will you keep this stuff about centralised business districts to yourself, please?’
His aide’s expression remained passive as he replied, ‘ Yes, sir,’ in a monotone and left.
The Mayor poured another drink. He put some water in it this time. His heart was beating painfully. He sat back down with his glass taking another deep, calming breath like his doctor had instructed. He hadn’t had these problems when he started. He’d been re-elected Mayor every time he had stood. It had been a perfect position in the early days. The town was booming, few decisions had to be made and the rest was pressing the flesh and exclusive get togethers with the great and good. Since the crash though it had been an uphill struggle. More and more responsibility was being piled on him and his wife insisted it was the cause of his health problems. He had imagined those cracks in his insides first. Tightening veins, fissured lungs, all crumbling away. He had to fix this. There had to be a way. All it would take is to get rid of those…
There was a knock at the door.
‘Yes?’ The Mayor sat forward, looking at the closed door, bemused. It knocked again. ‘Come in.’
The door opened and the Mayor gaped. In walked a tall, strikingly handsome man with a grin that seemed cut from pearl. But it was his clothes that grabbed the Mayor’s attention. He was dressed in a three piece, deep blue, pinstriped suit that looked straight from Saville Row. A yellow tie and pocket square would normally have seemed garish but instead tied the outfit together along with his brown leather, hand stitched brogues. The beautifully bespoke fedora completed the look, as if he had stepped from a catalogue. The stranger flashed a smile whilst raising his hat, ‘William Almsgate I presume?’
‘Can I help you?’ asked the Mayor.
‘Quite the reverse, old chap.’ The stranger winked and placed the hat on the coat hook by the door. ‘I’m here to help you.’
‘Really?’ The Mayor observed dryly. ‘And how are you going to do that?’
‘Mr. Mayor, yours wouldn’t be the first town I’ve single handedly brought financial and cultural turnaround and regeneration to,’ the brightly clad man said. He sat himself in the chair opposite the Mayor, lounging with his legs outstretched.
‘Did I ask you to sit down?’ The Mayor glared back.
‘Mister Mayor, you have a problem.’ The stranger had reclined into the chair, a relaxed smile on his face. ‘One that I can help you with.’
‘How did you get in here? Who are you?’ The Mayor reached for the phone.
‘James Piper, PR and advertising consultant.’ He leaned across the desk holding out an expensive looking business card. ‘I make problems go away. Or come back.’
The mayor looked at the card, intrigued. ‘”Centuries of experience”? A family business then?’
The man smirked, ‘something like that, yes.’
‘Well if you’re that good you might be able to help this town,’ the Mayor pocketed the card.
The man flashed his immaculate teeth again. ‘So. What can I do for you Mister Mayor?’
The Mayor took a deep breath as he looked at his desk, littered with figure sheets with stats of unemployment and homelessness, approval ratings, damning newspaper articles and front pages and his computer screen filled with tabs on his browser tracking keywords in social media and search engines. ‘We do indeed have … a problem,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘What with the economic crisis we’re already rather strained. Now we have some, ah… guests in the town that really aren’t making life easy for our townsfolk.’ He waived his hand over his desk. ‘You need only look at the papers to see what a mess Hamm Lynn has become.’
‘It sounds awful,’ the stranger said as he shook his head.
‘Something needs to be done. For the good of this town.’ The Mayor paused, glancing again at the papers. ‘For the good of the country.’
‘I understand,’ the man nodded. ‘So you want rid of these “guests” from your town?’
‘I want the town not to be overrun by people sucking the good, hard working families of Hamm Lynn dry. That’s all,’ the Mayor muttered the last words into his chest.
‘The asylum seekers, you mean?’ The man looked confused.
‘Yes! Do you want me to spell it out for you?’ The Mayor felt his heart race, the blood rush to his face, his neck bulge uncomfortably. ‘The bloody immigrants!’
‘Say no more your honour.’ The stranger held up a hand with a knowing nod. ‘I will get on it straight away.’
The Mayor took a few steadying breaths. ‘That’s very good of you Mister… uh…’
‘Please, call me James.’ He leaned forward and picked up the ocarina, turning it over in his hands. ‘Of course we haven’t discussed the matter of payment.’
‘The Mayor blinked. ‘Yes, of course. If you can rid us of our problem, name your price.’
‘Fifty thousand pounds,’ he looked up from the instrument. ‘And they’ll be gone by the end of the month. Every last one.’
The Mayor stared. There was a long silence. He thought hard. The town could not afford that as a mere consultancy fee. But if he could really deliver on his promise could they afford not to? ‘Fifty thousand?’
‘Non-negotiable.’ No hint of the dazzling smile.
The Mayor reached over and plucked the ocarina from the man’s hands and returned it to its place on the desk. ‘My grandmother’s. From Germany.’ He leaned on his elbows. ‘That’s an awfully large amount.’
‘It’s an awfully large undertaking.’
They looked at one another, both leant forward, both waiting for the other to give. The Mayor broke the silence, ‘I’d have to run it by the council,’ he said, warily.
‘Naturally,’ the man nodded with closed eyes, then offered his hands. ‘Thank you, mister Mayor.’
The Mayor hesitated. He heard the chanting waft up from the street and felt the room shudder around him again. He shook the stranger’s hand.
‘Thank you, James.’
‘I just want to know why I’m always the bad guy.’
‘Because you’re the one saying she’s wasting a degree!’
‘Degrees are already devalued, I’d at least like her to do one in a field that might see her right in the future.’
‘Bill, she loves her art. It makes her happy, just let her enjoy it,’ the Mayor’s wife said with her back to him, hunched over the sink.
‘But we’re the ones footing the bill. Goldsmiths isn’t cheap you know.’
‘Oh it’s always money with you. We can afford to give our children a good education for crying out loud, Bill.’
‘Speaking of,’ he poured himself another glass of wine, ‘had a fella come in today saying he could sort our immigration woes.’
‘Was he selling magic beans too?’ The Mayor’s wife turned off the tap and dried her hands.
‘No but he seemed like the type to get it done. And he wasn’t asking peanuts…’ He swallowed more than a mouthful. It burned a little in his chest.
‘How much?’ His wife joined him at the table filling her own glass.
‘He wants fifty thousand,’ he sniffed.
His wife choked slightly on her wine. ‘He’d better have a bloody good idea.’
‘Said he could sort it by the end of the month,’ he shrugged.
‘Even if he could, the council will never sign off on that amount,’ she said as she shook her head.
‘They already did,’ he grinned. ‘Had a meeting with them today and he joined us. Charmed their pants off and they signed it away, provided he delivers. We’d get back more than that on what we’d save anyway.’
‘Emma woke me up,’ came a voice. ‘When she slammed her door.’
They both turned to see a young boy in the doorway to the kitchen. ‘What are you doing up, scamp?’ The Mayor opened his arms and his son walked into them, clutching his stuffed elephant. ‘And what are you wearing your new shoes to bed for?’ The loose laces of a small pair of trainers trailed behind the boy.
‘He loves his birthday present,’ his mother smiled.
‘Well you can’t wear them to bed now can you?’ He tickled his son and they both laughed.
‘Am I going to get thrown out of school, Daddy?’ The boy asked as the Mayor sat him on his lap and removed his shoes.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Danny pushed over Ahmed at school today. Danny said he’s taking over the school.’
‘Did he now?’ The Mayor looked at his wife who shook her head. ‘Well firstly Danny’s wrong but more importantly where did he hear that from?’
‘His Dad.’ The boy picked at the fur of the elephant. ‘He said we need to get rid of him or we’ll all get thrown out of the school and he won’t.’
‘Well that’s definitely not happening,’ the Mayor gave the boy a squeeze. ‘I’ll have a word with Danny’s father. Now back to bed.’ He kissed his son on the head and released him from his embrace.
‘Can we get Danny thrown out, instead? I don’t like Danny,’ the boy said as he was walked to the stairs. ‘I like Ahmed.’
It was a song that did it.
The Mayor barely even noticed it happening. One minute everything was simmering away like it had been, threatening to spill out at any moment. The next it really had boiled over. Mass protests across the country, splashed headlines, celebrities clamouring for change on every channel, then finally a rushed vote in parliament called due to “extreme circumstances”. But it started with a song.
The most recent TV talent contest winner released a new charity single to raise funds for a homelessness foundation. His cherubic face innocently staring into the hearts of anyone who saw the sombre music video, his sweet voice intoning the need for aid at home so these poor people on societies lowest rung were better cared for by the people who had forgotten about them. It shot to number one in the charts and suddenly the spotlight was on the plight of a poverty riddled homeland having its funds sucked dry by apparent “leeches”. The song was everywhere, lyrics quoted in the headlines, cover versions across the web, until it was being chanted by a crowd marching through Whitehall.
At first the Prime Minister refused to be drawn but soon, with the single reaching the top of international music charts and the video reaching millions of views, the eyes of the world were on him and his party and he had to be seen to do something. Arguments were made that poverty and homelessness had been a fixture of western civilisation since its inception and were a systemic issue not easily legislated against or controlled but these were buried under the tide of public opinion being hissed like digital white noise across every social network on every letters page, over every broadcast and in every home, over dinner tables, bar stools, sofas. But all eyes were now on Hamm Lynn.
The sweet, seaside town had become a symbol for national decline as it crumbled under the weight of budget cuts, housing shortages, rising crime, poverty and the highest concentration of refugees in the country. And it was them who were to blame.
A white paper was hastily compiled and published followed by an equally hasty Bill put before the House that met little resistance in its vote. The formalities that followed were paid the merest lip service and before long the Poverty, Immigration and Emigration Defence Act was nationally enforced, taking immediate effect in Hamm Lynn.
Sure enough, before the month was out, every ‘non-British’ person in Hamm Lynn had been evicted and were on their way to be deported. The stranger had made good his promise.
‘I don’t care, I want that snake oil salesman in this office, right now!’ The Mayor was raging about his office, pacing in front of the window behind his desk.
‘Sir,’ his aide pleaded. ‘Your approval rating is through the roof. Nationally. They’re saying you should be taking Rymerite’s job.’
‘I don’t care!’ The Mayor was turning a bright pink, sweating through his starched shirt and wheezing at the end of every sentence. ‘He got rid of the wrong bloody people. The guts have been ripped out of this town in a matter of days.’
‘Sir,’ his aide sighed. ‘You asked him to- ‘
‘Shut up, Chris!’ The Mayor snapped. There was a knock at the door. ‘ Who is it?’
A pristine Cheshire-cat grin leaned around the door. ‘Only me,’ he winked. ‘Come to collect.’
With a stare that seemed to smoke aimed at the stranger, the Mayor waved his aide out, who duly scampered quickly away closing the door as he did. ‘You’ve got some bloody nerve…’
‘True,’ the stranger said swinging his arms as he flopped into the chair opposite the desk. ‘Couldn’t do what I do without it.’
‘Do you not see what you’ve done?’ The Mayor bellowed.
‘I got rid of all the immigrants,’ he smiled up at the man on the other side of the desk whose silhouette expanded and contracted with the wheezing sound. ‘Just like you asked.’
‘The wrong ones!’ The Mayor slammed his hands on the desk and leaned forward, glaring. ‘You fool! The hospital’s empty of all its staff!’
‘More positions for British doctors and nurses, surely?’
‘Half the shops and supermarkets have closed.’
‘Creating plenty of business opportunities for British startup companies.’
‘All the restaurants are closed…’
‘To be replaced with fine British cuisine.’
‘Most of the property in town has been repossessed or put up for sale…’
‘Solving the housing crisis.’
‘I’m Mayor of a bloody ghost town!’
‘Perfect for local regeneration courtesy of international business. Another corner stone of the Big Society.’
The Mayor drew a breath, grinding his teeth, ‘You know the worst part? My daughter won’t even talk to me because her boyfriend is being deported and my son was crying all night because his best friend got removed from school.’
‘But their future’s safe. Secure.’
‘You listen here, you shyster.’ The Mayor straightened up and pointed a finger. ‘You’ve ruined this town, not solved anything. Set things right or so help me, you’ll be sorry.’
The immaculate smile stayed but the man’s eyes hardened. He stared at the Mayor for a moment then leaned forward in his seat. ‘Are you threatening me, mister Mayor?’
He wasn’t sure but the Mayor thought the room darkened in that moment. A little shaken he tried to bluff back his overbearing manner, ‘I should hope so. We had a deal.’
‘Yes we did,’ the stranger’s voice had hardened too. None of the warmth or charm it once had. ‘A deal I fulfilled. You requested all of your immigrant populace gone by the end of the month something which I delivered on time. So now you will pay me the fifty thousand pounds as agreed. Or you will be sorry.’
‘Oh will I?’ The Mayor replied. The defiance in it sounded forced even to him.
‘You remember my card?’ The stranger’s eyes narrowed. ‘As you pointed out, it’s a family business. We’ve been doing this for centuries and we have always been paid. One way or another.’
‘You’ll get not a penny until this is sorted and even then it won’t be that amount, by any stretch,’ the Mayor laughed. He sat, attempting an imperious indifference, closing his suit jacket across his rotund chest.
The smile faded from the man’s face. ‘Do not test me on this, sir. It will not end well for you. Or this town…’
The man’s normally handsome features had set like stone and the Mayor swallowed. ‘Don’t think you can come in here and threaten me, my lad. I have some of the best lawyers in the country behind me.’
‘Pay me my money,’ the man said in a flat tone.
The Mayor leaned forward again staring the man straight in the eye. ‘No.’ He enunciated the word for effect.
The smile returned. This time it was like a wolf baring his teeth. The Mayor’s breath caught in his throat. ‘Then I shall collect my payment by other means,’ the stranger said as he rose from his seat, fastening his own jacket as he did.
‘Oh will you?’ spat the Mayor, also rising from his chair. ‘Then I’ll see you in court and you’ll be the one paying me.’ he shouted at the pinstriped back as it walked calmly from the room. He stood seething behind his desk as the silence whistled in his ears. It was then he noticed his Grandmother’s ocarina was missing.
The Mayor slid under his bed sheets and fell back, staring at the ceiling.
‘She just needs time, Bill,’ his wife looked up from her book. ‘She’ll come around.’
‘It’s not just Emma, it’s this whole bloody town,’ he sighed. ‘We’re ruined. I don’t know how we can recover from this.’
‘The town’s been through worse,’ she shrugged. ‘You always say that. And the public think you’re a hero. The man who- ‘
‘I had a bad dream,’ their son stood in the doorway.
‘Oh Michael.’ The Mayor sat up. ‘Come here, what happened?’
The boy hopped onto the side of the bed and his father put his arm around him. The boy stared ahead of him as he spoke, ‘There was a river and loads of rats and music and a mountain and it was cold. And dark.’
The three sat in silence. The Mayor looked at the floor where a pair of shoelaces trailed from the bed. He sighed and slid the new trainers off the boy’s feet. ‘Come on, you can sleep in here.’ The Mayor tucked the boy in between he and his wife and switched off the light.
He woke before his alarm, he didn’t know why. The light was dim and blue through the curtains. The house was quiet and he felt a lightness like when you take off a heavy backpack having worn it all day. He felt across the bed, running his hand along the cold sheets. He touched his wife who rolled over sleepily. He rubbed his eyes, sand crumbling from his lashes. His dream dissipated as he roused himself. There had been a mountain and a cave, his had voice echoed around it. He had been calling for something. There had been music.
‘Where’s Michael?’ he rumbled, his morning voice coming from his chest. His wife merely made a quizzical groan. The Mayor cast about, seeing if the child had just moved but he was nowhere to be seen. He threw off the covers and climbed slowly out of his bed and put on his slippers. He looked in his son’s room expecting to find him back in his own bed, elephant in arm. But he wasn’t. The Mayor looked around the room as an icy fear crystallised his blood. He felt an earthquake rend the floor in two and shower him in brick dust. Those same fissures ran up and down his veins and around him on the walls. He looked in every room but could not find his son. He called into the cold blue light that lit the house hoping for a reply from the shadows, but none came. His daughter appeared on the stairs squinting through sleep gritted eyes.
‘What’s going on?’ she mumbled.
‘Is your brother with you?’
His wife came shuffling sleepily from their room. ‘I can’t find Michael,’ he said, panicked by the very words entering the atmosphere. He ran downstairs and froze at the bottom step.
The front door hung open onto the street, a silent screaming mouth.
‘Oh god,’ he said as he ran out into the road calling his son’s name. Lights came on in houses along the street. Doors hung open at the front of almost every house. Panicked voices came, muffled, from the inside into the morning air. The Mayor called again, increasing in volume and pitch, his voice shaky and wavering, his heart pounding angrily against his ribs, thudding inside his ears. He stopped as he saw, in the orange glow of a streetlamp, a small stuffed elephant. That road led to the beach.
‘No!’ he shrieked and ran as fast as his shaking feet could carry him.
Figures appeared in the open doorways, their voices similarly hysterical, screaming the names of their own missing children into the pre-dawn blue. They watched as the Mayor sprinted past, following him, still begging the silent street for a reply. A crowd of people were now sweeping down the road looking like ghosts in their pale nightgowns and pyjamas, wailing like banshees.
The Mayor reached the end of the road and the steps that led down to the pebble beach. The dim glow of dawn was slowly pouring colour over the scene. His wife and daughter came gasping up behind him as they looked across the beach and the shore line, as quiet as a graveyard but for the hush of the waves, when they saw it. The three figures all screamed, the Mayor’s wife falling against their daughter as he leapt clumsily down the steps, his heart rapping painfully inside him. He got closer to it and slowed, shaking his head, the shattering realisation pressed down on him, dropping him to his knees in the shallows of the ocean as the ice cold water, trimmed with white foam took his breath, snatching the sob from his throat.
The crowd of spirits in white reached the seafront just in time to see the Mayor fall at the water’s edge. His wife and daughter sunk to the floor in grief, as they all looked to where the waves made their hushed retreat. A wail unlike any cry ever heard in that town went up across the rooftops, the full horror claiming them, as waves lapped at the body of a small boy, face down in the surf, his shoelaces trailing behind him.