Authors: Chris Cleave
ALFRED A. KNOPF
NEW YORK 2005
For Louis and Clémence
… a most terrible fire broke out, which … not only wasted the adjacent parts, but also places very remote, with incredible noise and fury.
—Inscription on the Monument to the Great Fire of London, north side
Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock ’n’ roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. Next thing you know there was Sonny & Cher and Dexys Midnight Runners. I’ll come to them later. My point is it’s easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?
There’s a reward of 25 million dollars on your head but don’t lose sleep on my account Osama. I have no information leading to your arrest or capture. I have no information full effing stop. I’m what you’d call an infidel and my husband called working-class. There is a difference you know. But just supposing I did clap eyes on you. Supposing I saw you driving a Nissan Primera down towards Shoreditch and grassed you to the old bill. Well. I wouldn’t know how to spend 25 million dollars. It’s not as if I’ve got anyone to spend it on since you blew up my husband and my boy.
That’s my whole point you see. I don’t want 25 million dollars Osama I just want you to give it a rest.
AM I ALONE
? I want to be the last mother in the world who ever has to write you a letter like this. Who ever has to write to you Osama about her dead boy.
Now about the writing. The last thing I wrote was N/A on an income support form that wanted
NAME OF SPOUSE OR PARTNER
. So you see I’ll do my best but you’ll have to bear with me because I’m not a big writer. I’m going to write to you about the emptiness that was left when you took my boy away. I’m going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son. What could be more natural?
I know you can love my boy Osama. The
says you are an
but I don’t believe in evil I know it takes 2 to tango. I know you’re vexed at the leaders of Western imperialism. Well I’ll be writing to them too.
As for you I know you’d stop the bombs in a second if I could make you see my son with all your heart for just one moment. I know you would stop making boy-shaped holes in the world. It would make you too sad. So I will do my best with these words Osama. I suppose you can see they don’t come natural to me but I hope this letter reaches you anyway. I hope it finds you before the Americans do otherwise I’m going to wish I hadn’t bothered aren’t I?
Well Osama if I’m going to show you my boy I have to start with where he lived and I still do. I live in London England which I agree with you is a bad place in lots of ways but I was born here so what can you do? London looks like a rich place from the outside but we are most of us very poor here. I saw the video you made Osama where you said the West was decadent. Maybe you meant the West End? We aren’t all like that. London is a smiling liar his front teeth are very nice but you can smell his back teeth rotten and stinking.
My family was never rotten poor we were hard up there’s a difference. We were respectable we kept ourselves presentable but it was a struggle I don’t mind telling you. We were not the nice front teeth or the rotten back teeth of London and there are millions of us just like that. The middle classes put up web sites about us. If you’re interested Osama just put down that Kalashnikov for a second and look up
chav pikey ned
in Google. Like I say there are millions of us but now there’s a lot less than there were of course. I miss them so bad my husband and my boy especially.
My husband and my boy and me lived on Barnet Grove which is a road that goes from Bethnal Green to Haggerston. There are 2 kinds of places on Barnet Grove. The first kind are very pricey old terraced houses. The estate agents call them Georgian Gems With Extensive Potential For Conversion To Fully Appointed Executive Flats With Easy Access To The City Of London And Within A Stone’s Throw Of The Prestigious Columbia Road Flower Market. The second kind of places are places like ours. They are flats in dirty brick tower blocks they smell of chip fat inside. All the flats in each block are the same except that the front doors don’t match on account of they get kicked in as often as they get opened nicely. They built our tower blocks in the fifties. They built them in the gaps where the Georgian Gems had incendiaries dropped on them by Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler was the last chap who hated London as much as you do Osama. The
calls him the
MOST EVIL MAN IN HISTORY
and he made the gaping hole in Barnet Grove that they built our tower block in. I suppose it was thanks to him we could afford to live Within A Stone’s Throw Of The Prestigious Columbia Road Flower Market so maybe Adolf Hitler was not all bad in the long run.
Like I say our flat was in one of those tower blocks. It was a small flat and you could hear the upstairs neighbours on the job. They used to start uh uh uh very soft at first and then louder and louder uh uh oh my god UH and after a bit you could listen as hard as you liked and still not know if you were hearing love or murder. It used to drive my husband crazy but at least our flat was warm and clean and it was ours. It was an ex–council flat which is to say we owned it. Which is to say we didn’t have to struggle to pay the rent. We struggled to pay the mortgage each month instead there is a difference and that difference is called EMPOWERMENT.
I didn’t work I looked after our boy. My husband’s wages paid the mortgage and not much else so by the end of the month things were always a bit wobbly. My husband was a copper and he wasn’t just any old copper he was in bomb disposal. You might reckon bomb disposal wages would of stretched a bit further Osama but you’d reckon wrong if you didn’t reckon with the horses the dogs the cockfights in the back room of the Nelson’s Head and whether it was going to be a white Christmas. My husband was the sort of bloke who’d take a punt on anything so thank god he had a better track record with bombs than the 11:31 at Doncaster. When we were behind on the bills I used to get teeth-chattering scared of the bailiffs Osama. Whenever I could squeeze a fiver out of the shopping money I used to stash it under the carpet just in case my husband blew everything one day and they chucked us out on our ear. There was never more than a month of mortgage under the rug so we were always less than 31 days away from the street or only 28 days if my husband blew the lot in February which sod’s law he would. But I couldn’t hold his flutters against him on account of he needed a thing to take his mind off the nerves and his thing was no worse than mine Osama I’ll tell you about my thing in a minute.
In bomb disposal the call can come at any time of the day or night and for my husband it often did. If the call came in the evening we would be sitting in front of the telly. Not saying much. Just sitting there with plates on our knees eating chicken kievs. They were Findus they were more or less okay they were always his favourite.
Anyway the telly would be on and we’d probably be watching
. My husband knew a lot about motors. We never could afford a new motor ourselves but my husband knew how to pick a good secondhand one. We mostly had Vauxhall Astras they never let us down. They used to sell off the old police Astras you see. They’d give them a respray but if the light was right you could always see
showing out from under the paint job. I suppose a thing can never really change its nature Osama.
Anyway we’d be watching
and the phone would go and my husband would put his plate down on the sofa and take the phone next door. He wasn’t supposed to tell me anything about the job but when he came back through the lounge there was one sure way to tell if it was serious. They always knew which were the real bombs and which were most probably just hoaxes. If it was a hoax my husband would sit back down on the sofa and gobble the rest of his chicken kiev before he left the flat. It took him only 30 secs but he never did that if it was serious. When it was serious he just picked up his jacket and walked straight out.
When it was serious I used to wait up for him. Our boy would be asleep so there was only the telly to take my mind off things. Not that it ever would of course. After
and then it would be
made you nervous about death and chip pan fires and
made you nervous about life and money so between the both of them they could get you in a right state and leave you wondering why you bothered with the licence fee. But I had to keep the telly on in case anything happened and there was a news flash.
So I used to just sit there Osama watching the telly and hoping it would stay boring. When your husband works in bomb disposal you want the whole world to stay that way. Nothing ever happening. Trust me you want a world run by
Richard & Judy
. At night I always watched the BBC. I never watched the other side because I couldn’t stand the adverts. A woman with nice hair telling how this or that shampoo stops split ends. Well. It made me feel a bit funny when I was waiting to see if my husband had got himself blown up. It made me feel quite poorly actually.
There’s a lot of bombs in London these days Osama on account of if you’ve got a message for the nation then it’s actually quite hard to get on
Richard & Judy
so it’s easier just to stick a few old nails and bolts into a Nike bag of fertiliser. Half the poor lonely sods in town are making a bomb these days Osama I hope you’re proud of yourself. The coppers make 4 or 5 of them safe every week and another 1 or 2 go off and make holes in people and often as not it’s the coppers on the scene who get the holes put in them. They don’t show it on the news any more on account of it would give people the screaming abdabs. I’m not big on numbers Osama but once late at night I worked out the odds on my husband getting blown up one day and ever since then I had the screaming abdabs all on my own. It was practically a dead cert I swear not even Ladbrokes would of taken your money.
Sometimes the sun would be up before my husband came home. The breakfast show would be on the telly and there’d be a girl doing the weather or the Dow Jones. It was all a bit pointless if you ask me. I mean if you wanted to know what the weather was doing you only had to look out the window and as for the Dow Jones well you could look out the window or you could not. You could please yourself because it’s not as if there was anything you could do about the Dow Jones either way. My whole point is I never gave a monkey’s about any of it. I just wanted my husband home safe.
When he finally came in it was such a relief. He never said much because he was so tired. I would ask him how did it go? And he would look at me and say I’m still here ain’t I? My husband was what the
would call a
it’s funny how none of them are
I suppose that wouldn’t be very British. Anyway my husband would drink a Famous Grouse and go to bed without taking his clothes off or brushing his teeth because as well as being
COULDN’T BE ARSED
and who could blame him? When he was safe asleep I would go to look in on our boy.
Our boy had his own room it was cracking we were proud of it. My husband built his bed in the shape of Bob the Builder’s dump truck and I sewed the curtains and we did the painting together. In the night my boy’s room smelled of boy. Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers. My boy slept on his side sucking Mr. Rabbit’s paws. I sewed Mr. Rabbit myself he was purple with green ears. He went everywhere my boy went. Or else there was trouble. My boy was so peaceful it was lovely to watch him sleep so still with his lovely ginger hair glowing from the sunrise outside his curtains. The curtains made the light all pink. They slept very quiet in the pink light the 2 of them him and Mr. Rabbit. Sometimes my boy was so still I had to check he was breathing. I would put my face close to his face and blow a little bit on his cheek. He would snuffle and frown and fidget for a while then go all soft and still again. I would smile and tiptoe backwards out of his room and close his door very quiet.
Mr. Rabbit survived. I still have him. His green ears are black with blood and one of his paws is missing.
Now I’ve told you where my boy came from Osama I suppose I ought to tell you a bit more about his mum before you get the idea I was some sort of saint who just sewed fluffy toys and waited up for her husband. I wish I was a saint because it was what my boy deserved but it wasn’t what he got. I wasn’t a perfect wife and mum in fact I wasn’t even an average one I was what the
would call a
DIRTY LOVE CHEAT
My husband and my boy never found out oh thank you god. But I can say it now they’re both dead and I don’t care who reads it. It can’t hurt them any more. I loved my boy and I loved my husband but sometimes I saw other men too. Or rather they saw me and I didn’t make much of an effort to put them off and one thing sometimes led to another. You know what men are like Osama you trained thousands of them yourself they are
RAVENOUS LOVE RATS
Sex is not a beautiful and perfect thing for me Osama it is a condition caused by nerves. Ever since I was a young girl I get so anxious. It only needs a little thing to get me started. Your Twin Towers attack or just 2 blokes arguing over a cab fare it’s all the same. All the violence in the world is connected it’s just like the sea. When I see a woman shouting at her kid in Asda car park I see bulldozers flattening refugee camps. I see those little African boys with scars across the tops of their skulls like headphones. I see all the lost tempers of the world I see HELL ON EARTH. It’s all the same it all makes me twitchy.
And when I get nervous about all the horrible things in the world I just need something very soft and secret and warm to make me forget it for a bit. I didn’t even know what it was till I was 14. It was one of my mum’s boyfriends who showed me but I won’t write his name or he’ll get in trouble. I suppose he was a
SICK CHILD PREDATOR
but I still remember how lovely it felt. Afterwards he took me for a drive through town and I just smiled and looked out at all the hard faces and the homeless drifting past the car windows and they didn’t bother me for the moment. I was just smiling and thinking nothing much.