She heard the news on the radio while taking her elevens’. She’d missed it on that morning’s TV, hung-over and late for work with barely a moment to brush her teeth and clumsily grab a cup of tea before running for the bus. Gillian, plump, mousy-haired and thirty-two, began to listen more intently to the news announcer’s words as she caught the name, blocking out the younger girls’ chatter in the main area of the salon.
Slowly, she found their meaning through the fog of last night’s Bacardi’s as she sat hunched in concentration. She saw a disguarded Sun and snatched it up.
“IRON LADY IN RED – Maggie to Become New Labour PM!”
Her hands trembled as she read it; “After the Chancellor’s monetary irregularities and his bitter rival’s brawling in a Glasgow pub, stunned Labour MP’s learnt last night of behind the scenes moves to make ex-Prime Minister…” (She still couldn’t speak the woman’s name) “…their party’s new leader after she resigned from her seat in the Lords yesterday.”
“For some time I have pondered a return to politics, and now New Labour have finally come around to my point of view, I think we can do business together…”
The rest was lost in a haze as Gillian’s eyes refused to focus. One of the girls sat down noisily opposite her and glanced up. “You OK, love?” Gillian gave an embarrassed nod. “Boyfriend?” She shook her head and quickly returned to the salon. At going home time she asked her boss for the next day off and he grumpily agreed.
It had been on the Six O’clock News when she’d got home, then later a Newsnight special in more detail. The party had given a press conference. Gillian recognised the patronising smile of old, now a little wan as she sat flanked by two young men in smart suits.
“When will you be holding the leadership contest?” a girl asked.
“We’ve already held a secret ballot. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the next leader of New Labour.”
Cameras clicked and lights flashed. A man put his hand up.
“Is this anything to do with the new drug you’ve been taking, Ma’am?”
The woman gave her questioner a frosty stare. “I don’t take drugs, young man. I just do what I can to help my country. Where there is strife let us bring peace, where there is…”
Gillian switched it off. She took down the picture of her father with his dark overalls and grimy, grinning face from the bookshelf and stared at it for a long while until she found herself crying.
Her father’s grave lay beneath a large knotted pine at the bottom of the churchyard, her brother’s beside that, the clean brown marble top and headstone shiny in the strong morning sunshine. It had turned chilly, but she hadn’t noticed. Peter’s grave was definitely the posher of the two, paid for from her father’s redundancy package and the war office’s cheque they’d received three weeks after the funeral. The rest of the money had been put in trust for her but until today she’d swore never to touch it. She swept off the leaves, replaced the little flowers in the jugs with fresh ones and dipped her head in prayer.
Then she turned and walked quickly away down the hill.
On the train Gillian forced herself not to breathe heavily. The hotel had been booked on the Internet, as nearby as possible. She’d quickly found what she was looking for in Peter’s things. Now it was wrapped in a towel nestling in her overnight bag, making it unexpectantly heavy. She made a mental note to get a taxi rather than risk the security checks on the underground.
Her sleep that night in the unfamiliar bed had been invaded by the whinnying of horses, shoes clattering on the road outside her old bedroom window as their white-helmeted riders in their black padded jackets forced them onto the crowd below, pushing them backwards along the street. She could see the wild-eyed animals’ breath clouded in the yellowy streetlights, and now her father, caught up in a crush of angry men. She glimpsed his face turning away as a long black truncheon fell from the sky and then he was gone, down beneath the flailing hooves.
Her morning call roused her at six thirty. She showered and dressed in the smart new jacket, blouse and skirt she’d bought the previous day and left for the short walk to Downing Street. Too nervous to eat, Gillian felt her stomach rumble as she joined the crowd already stretching along the security gates towards the police checkpoint. Pretending to tie her shoelace, she hunched down to push the child’s stuffed toy police dog through the iron bars. Nobody seemed to notice or care. It had been a good plan then; she was suddenly pleased with herself.
She got around to the other side just in time to grab it back from a little girl too surprised to start crying. Then the crowd swallowed her up as Gillian allowed herself to be carried steadily along the narrow track of pavement between the well-scrubbed brick walls and the yellow crush barriers towards ‘number ten’. She squirmed to the front and waited behind the tape as important looking people came and went. Finally, as flashbulbs flared and television cameras lumbered forward, the black door opened and a woman in matching red skirt and jacket with a red rose clipped to its collar stepped out.
A young man escorted her to a bank of waiting microphones. “I have just informed Her Majesty the Queen of my intention to accept…”
Gillian had ducked below the arms of the policemen holding back the crowd and now stood in the road, twenty paces before the woman. She held Peter’s service revolver in front of her, still partly covered in the toy’s straw stuffing.
“No, I can’t let you do that.” She heard the metallic clicks and rustle of automatic machine guns before the words left her mouth.
The woman flinched then straightened again impressively. “We don’t give in to terrorism, my dear.”
“No, you’re very brave with other people’s lives; my brother’s. You don’t believe in community but you wrecked ours. You crippled my dad and took away his hope. You made people mean, and distrusting and uncaring, and I won’t let you do it again. People have to see…”
Gillian hesitated, her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
“See… what you’ve really done. What you’ll do to them. What you’ve done to me.”
She arched the gun backwards, rested the barrel against the roof of her mouth, and squeezed the trigger.
As her body slumped to the ground a woman screamed followed by two more, birds took off skywards as the pistol crack reverberated around the rooftops. Several policemen in flak jackets hurried the woman in red back inside. As the black door opened for them the TV cameras caught her face as she stared back uncomprehendingly at Gillian’s body in the road.