The Sound of Bow Bells on the Wind | Iain D. Chalmers


The Sound of Bow Bells on the Wind

Iain D. Chalmers

2018 Major Comp: The Hate and Coat Award

I scratched my beard and grasped the sniper’s rifle tightly to my chest. I had waited an impossibly long time, so many long and lonely years, to arrive at this moment and I wasn’t going to allow the Americans the opportunity to deny me in my greatest hour.

The drones were the worst thing. You could hear their incessant buzz all day long. They were nearly impossible to spot against the glare of the sun, but I knew others would be training their rifles on the tiny dots. If they were lucky they could disable them, but it was a race against time. Too much time spent firing at the drones allowed their operators to zero in on the snipers – a game of cat and mouse.

Our local battalion commanders were deep in their underground bunker discussing tactics. We’d had some important successes against the military convoys with a new type of explosive that ripped them to shreds, and the Americans were becoming wary of venturing out of their compounds. The war was turning our way and today was special – we were to be joined by our supreme commander. I was curious to get a glimpse of him. He had many names. The Americans called him ‘the Ghost’, because there were no known photographs of him. Few, even on our side, knew what he looked like, but his fearsome reputation preceded him. He was known to us as ‘the Hammer’, because that was what he used to dispatch his prisoners.

But I was immune to such horrors. All that drove me forward was the day of salvation when at last my own suffering would cease and I would be avenged. I crouched motionless with my back to a wall and closed my eyes. I could smell the scent of acacia and tamarisk on the desert wind and in the distance, far away, the sound of a bell ringing the call to prayer. My thoughts drifted to another time, to the red London bus, and the bodies, and of the little one, my sweet little one seemingly untouched except for one tiny poppy blemish on his forehead, and his mother sitting motionless beside the limp body, staring in disbelief and horror. And when the screaming stopped, and the smoke cleared, and the flickering blue lights of the ambulances stilled, she found release; still alive, but dead to the world, retreating speechless and silent into her own head, her mind gone, a living, lifeless shell. But in her hand, she clasped our boy’s scarf, more precious to her than all the jewels of the east, and a week later, after my boy had been laid to rest, his mother joined him, in the same grave, on that day in July. And in that graveyard the scent of jasmine was overpowering, and on the wind the sound of Bow Bells drifted lazily in the air.

A sniper’s rifle is a wonderous thing; its lines are sleek and smooth. It can deal out death at over a mile, but is not a weapon of vengeance. To truly seek vengeance, you must look into your enemy’s eyes as they die. They must be made to realise that there is no escape, and to know that death is coming, and why.
I was led to the commander’s bunker. It was well protected, ten metres underground, hidden and impenetrable. Inside I sat waiting. I knew the commander only by reputation as the architect of a new type of warfare. Gone were the big set-piece battles with tanks and aircraft. He could never compete with that. He preferred subtlety, his followers mingling with the crowds, anonymous, never using emails or mobile phones. He had an army of couriers delivering handwritten notes, and tiny cells so if one group was compromised others could not be betrayed. He had orchestrated attacks in New York, Germany and London, and he had a special job for me which would take courage and tenacity. They needed someone with stillness and patience and cunning, and at long last I would be taken into his confidence. I listened as they joked about a convoy that had been ambushed, how the Americans had squealed and begged for mercy. One battalion leader ran his finger along the blade of his sword. ‘I gave them mercy. I gave them a quick death.’ They laughed but the commander sat motionless, studying me. I saw in his eyes a fierce intelligence and a cold ruthlessness. He raised his hand and the others became silent.

‘I have heard of you. They call you the fox. They say you are frightened of nothing.’

I looked into his eyes. This was a dangerous moment and a wrong word could spell disaster.

‘They are fools! Only the simple-minded feel no fear – and those who believe in paradise.’

‘And which one are you?’

‘I am neither.’

His eyes paused on the red scarf about my throat. Others wore the black scarf of the movement, but I had always steadfastly refused.

‘Why do you wear that scarf?’

‘It reminds me of my son.’

The others stirred; no one knew I had a son.

‘And where is this son of yours?’

‘In a grave, on a hillside in London with his mother.’

‘How did he die?’

‘A bomb destroyed the bus he and his mother were on. It was on the seventh of July 2005.’

The commander’s jaw clenched, and he swore.

He knew all about the bomb; after all, he was the one who organised it from his bunker in Afghanistan all those years ago. I opened my jacket, my very special jacket, and smiled. He saw the explosives and the wires and frantically looked round for an escape, but there was none. I closed my eyes and remembered the sound of Bow Bells on the wind, and the smell of jasmine, and the smile of my wife and boy, happy in the knowledge we would be together again.