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(eerie music continues; receding footsteps)

Ian Boulton


wo men crouched down in some sort of . . . erm . . . foliage. Both wore green caps with large peaks and their faces were smeared with green and brown gunk. One held a pair of binoculars; the other a complicated rifle.

The subtitle read: (birdsong, indistinct chatter)

Dennis was watching the film with the sound muted so as not to disturb Pilar. She had work in the morning and he knew that the films he favoured tended towards the noisy. He liked in particular anything where a previously timid lead character was moved to violence after his wife and daughter were killed in sadistic fashion by a gang of callous youths. Watching the gang members—as ethnically diverse a bunch of cartoon thugs as you could wish for—being taken out one by one by the hero satisfied something in Dennis that he could not quite put his finger on. Equally appealing were those tales of a young woman attacked in the woods and left for dead by a similarly callous gang. Little did they realise that she would recover, train like an Olympian, then return to take them out one by one in elaborate fashion, each death a baroque escalation on the last. The youths in these tales were not so ethnically diverse, most typically falling into a loose redneck category.

On the screen the two men were walking along a jungle path. Despite being fully camouflaged it was easy to spot them making their way between the trees.

The subtitle read: (birdsong, indistinct chatter)

From the armrest of his chair . . . always his; let the girls have the comforts of the new plush couch or the old comfy sofa, the battered armchair was forever his, contoured to accept his form and his form only . . . from the armrest of this chair, Dennis took up his phone. In real life, he thought, revenge may be a more complicated matter, come in diverse forms. In real life, callous youths may be unaware that they ever did anything wrong; they may be allowed to grow up and become unsuspecting old men. In real life, the aggrieved may be a little unclear about the motive for taking action, simply have some sense that these people had, say, wasted their time. In real life, the vengeful may not seek instant gratification; they may have the patience of an efficient predator. Dennis’s thoughts ran along such lines as he opened the browser on his phone and tapped in the familiar letters, numbers and symbols. He saw a list of topics appear on the screen and he clicked on one titled Sad News.

Here a user known as BigRedMark had posted the following:

Some of you will remember Dennis Sutherland from the Party’s days in Hackney and those meetings in the room above the Rams Head. I was thinking we should . . . 

Dennis read the rest of the message with satisfaction, enjoying some words . . . honour . . . remembrance . . . so much that he found himself hugging his knees to his chest. It was all he could do to suppress a squeal of delight. He logged out of the site and replaced his phone back in its holster. He emptied his lungs in a long exhale and a broad smile creased his face. A smile that said: this was so much better than I could have wished for.

On the tv the scene had shifted. A large white house with an impossibly grand lawn appeared, acceptable code for American wealth, safety, comfort and stability. Not for long, Dennis thought, realising he had seen the film before.

The subtitle read: (birdsong, indistinct chatter)


ow I acknowledge that you are at something of a disadvantage here because I know the reason for that broad smile on Dennis’s face and you don’t. Also I know who Pilar is, who else lives in that house, the ages and backgrounds of all these folk and the name of the tiny seaside town where Dennis and the women in his life live. You don’t need all this information but it’s only fair to give you some of it. So to bring you up to speed without boring you to death let’s go back to that day when Dennis felt compelled to feign a brain injury.

Imagine an English cottage. Its stonework. Its leaded windows. Its creeping vine.

Open that impressive oak door with its lion-headed knocker and make your way down the hallway till you get to the kitchen. Here all is bright white surfaces and gleaming chrome. There is an elaborate breakfast bar and at this sit a man and a woman. You already know their names. Imagine how they look. Perhaps you will be proved right.

Watch Dennis swig down the dregs of his tea from a substantial mug that you somehow know only he uses. See him rise to his feet and hear him say: I’ll get out of your way then.

One thing you must appreciate and accept, as we watch Dennis leave his home and make his way down to the sea, is just how important the phrase tucked away is to him. It lies curled up, nestled snug and deep in his psyche. It brings him great comfort to say it out loud between his gritted Celtic teeth, an accented protection against fierce northern winds that he has never bother to reconstruct. These tones give the two words a nostalgic ring, the sound of a granny pressing a penny in a young palm and whispering don’t tell your Mammy.

Each morning Dennis sits in his toasty winter dressing gown on his worn old armchair in front of breakfast tv and examines the weather map. He peers at his little corner of the world, that . . . whatsit? . . . promontory . . . jutting out there into the sea like a . . . definitely not like a nipple, something that you might be prepared to travel some distance for a brief sighting, that would be remembered once seen, something that you’d miss if it went walkies. No. Jutting out there into the sea like a pimple. Something to be avoided, ignored if you can manage it, probably be gone by the weekend. Nothing to see here and anyway it’s rude to stare.

A rum spot for me to end up, Dennis might whisper to the empty room.

Since moving here Dennis had begun to use, as thoughts primarily, words like ‘rum’, phrases like ‘good egg’. It took him by surprise this campery, this doddery dandyism, but he had decided to embrace it. Each little change between what life used to be back there and what it has become out here was to be welcomed. Why should the new him have the same vocabulary as the old him, he asked himself, as he made his way down the hill from the cottage to the beach (seagulls screeching, sound of distant waves). Why think the same? Why dress the same? Why even walk the same? To emphasise this thought he put a little more bantam into his cocky step. 1957, Year Of The Rooster, meet your poster boy. Barrel chest out, undersized bandy legs kick-stepping in their turned up Levis and DMs, Popeye forearms pumping, luxuriant grey coxcomb blowing in the fresh sea breeze, a Hokusai wave atop his self-satisfied walnut face. Life . . . this life . . . was good. Tucked away out here.

My commiserations if this was not how you imagined Dennis. But, don’t fret, you are spot on with Pilar.

Dennis slowed his step then stopped and turned to face the sea. A cold bright day, the sunlight on the water slick and thick as ice. A lifeboat was on a, presumably, practice run. He listened to the gulls, the erratic yet predictable soundtrack to this fresh start. He let the wind fill his lungs with this new air. It still felt new to him, this health, this well-being, though it had been over two years now since he and Pilar (and Izzy) had made the move here. Over eight years since he cut off all ties with old friends and colleagues. Comrades as were. From time to time Dennis audited himself, checking for regret but found none. Even the tired ‘I wish I’d done all this years ago’ did not apply to him. Years ago this would simply not have been possible. Years ago he would have had to hate himself for this version of contentment.

He had met Pilar about three years after he had decided to go off the radar. Dennis was lying low, playing dead. Nothing dramatic had happened; he wasn’t in hiding as such. There was no big fallout, nothing to look back on and say: so that’s why I’m never talking to any one of those fuckers again. That life just sort of fizzled out. At first he stopped making phone calls and sending emails. Then he stopped replying to phone calls and emails. Then he went offline. Then he bought a new phone and changed his number. The old one went out in a black bin bag with some slimy ready meal packs and beyond the pale underpants. Sometimes, even now, he thought of one of the old gang calling him on that phone and La Marseillaise pathetically trying to rouse the scavenging birds and rats on the landfill to solidarity and action. Such unlikely reveries (battery life etc.) were pleasing to Dennis. The noble suffering fantasy held particular appeal. Yeah, nothing they can do about it. Didn’t want to burden you. Lost on a jungle/icy/watery adventure. Captured by the . . . whoever it was did the capturing these days. Every now and then somebody would try to contact him through Linkedin or something and a message would pop up at his old email address but that petered out after the first year. Then without thinking about it too much he moved out of his terraced house in Whitechapel and into one of his other properties. This was a semi in a part of London so far-flung that few Londoners had heard of it and the people who lived there thought they were in Essex. Nobody who knew him knew about the place. Or his other places. Property is theft and that can carry quite a sentence. Secret property, though, is treason and that can end only in decapitation or permanent exile. Dennis chose the latter. It wasn’t planned, as such, not consciously anyway, but if it had been the result of years of underhand scheming then it couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Dennis had gone.

These thoughts came to him every morning as he walked down the hill. Weekdays he would drop off Izzy at school, drive back to the cottage and leave the car in the driveway but not go back into the house. Pilar used the mornings for study and he didn’t want to disturb her, banging around the kitchen, watching the horrors of that world far from here unfold on CNN and France 24. No, best just to set off and let the satisfaction with his lot sink in once again.

Don’t misunderstand this. The thoughts did not come to him in coherent sentences, rather they arrived in blocky abstract, a collage of feelings, images, codes. They varied a little each day: sometimes a cringeworthy flashback to a meeting above that pub in Hackney or an editorial written for the Party rag would come to him and he would have to dig deep into his inner resources to combat it. But the reassurances were many and they always worked; the shames, resentments and waste lay in wait, IEDs of the subconscious, but now he had the means to defuse each and every one of the nasty buggers. By the time he arrived at the small beachside café for his morning coffee, his mind was a worry-free zone.

The turnover of staff at The Caff was bewildering to Dennis. Always young women, many seemed to work one shift then disappear forever, making it impossible to forge any recognisable acquaintanceship. Today though it was a face he recognised, not exactly a constant but one that made regular reappearances between long inexplicable absences. She was in her early twenties, Dennis guessed, and from China, Malaysia, somewhere out that way. He had no interest in getting to know her, simply wanted an exchange of smiles and a couple of meaningless pleasantries. That imperative to recruit, to see every meeting as an opportunity to enlist a soldier, was long gone. Once upon a time Dennis would have asked her where she was from and either a) dazzled her with his knowledge of her country of origin’s political system and the struggles faced by its peoples, or b) asked the sort of probing intelligent questions about the same that allowed her to open up to him, show off a little. But no longer. His evangelical days were over, thank the God he used to talk people out of believing in. His past as a skilled groomer of the disgruntled and dispossessed was exactly where it should be: skulking around that part of his memory that he rarely chose to visit. So this morning he smiled politely after the briefest of hellos and nice days, ordered, paid, collected his full white cup and matching saucer and went to sit at the small table just outside the door. It was too brisk a day for most, smokers excepted, but Dennis liked to look over the beach to the water as part of his morning ritual.

He used this time to bask in satisfaction with the arrangement he had engineered. There was no reflection, simply relish. Dennis had constructed a life in which he had a single simple responsibility: to ensure the comfort of his wife and step-daughter. His only job was to make certain that they felt safe enough to pursue their own interests; that their confidence in things carrying on as they are now was never shaken. In practical terms this had already been achieved. There was no need for Dennis to take an interest in their interests; the best course for him to take was to stay out of their way. He was more than happy to do this. Practice meant he had developed skills in this area of avoidance, near invisibility.

(I know you have a couple of questions, one of which might be where did Dennis get the money to buy his properties? But you have to believe me when I tell you that the answer to that question is not at all interesting and it would be cruel . . . and I’m going to have to ask you to believe me again when I assure you that I don’t have a mean bone in my body . . . it would be cruel to make you read it. For now you need to remember that I have chosen this day for a reason. It seems typical but I assure you it is not. On this day . . . you’ve guessed it, I know...something happens that crashes this guy’s preferred routine. It’s coming shortly, I promise. But let’s get back to him, drinking his coffee outside The Caff.)

The scene before him was never less than pleasing. Sometimes he would watch early parties of inner city church groups out for a day at the seaside tumble from their community buses, elders barking out the rules of this unfamiliar environment to excited kids. If they were lucky the sun beat down on them but, often as not, the skies were grey and full of a threat that they must have recognised as urban. Other days solitary dog walkers braved the wind and/or rain, flinging tennis balls far along the sand with their cheap plastic catapults. All good for Dennis. But he had a particular affection for days like this day: cold bright and blue, the air almost still but with a bite, the merciless waves quietly pawing at the shore like big cats stalking wounded prey. Just bliss.

Dennis sipped at his americano, looked up at the sky then out to the sea and back again, closed his eyes and imagined the cold sun was warming his wrinkled face. He hadn’t yet shaved, nor showered. His tartan shirt was tattered and worn and the fleece he had grabbed that morning for the school run had seen better days. But nobody cared about that around here, he thought. You pottered about in your comfy gear all day then spruced yourself up a bit to pop out at night for tapas and a pint. Who would ever pull you up on a habit that added a little more to the sum of your happiness? Who, in this place, could be bothered . . .


(waves lapping, birds cawing)

Dennis knew not to open his eyes as some recidivistic survival instinct kicked in. Somehow he understood that he must keep the smile fixed on his unshaven, unwashed, face.

Instinct is a curious guide, more sherpa than guru. We want to follow it, know it should be trusted, but when pressed how well can the bastard explain itself? How articulate? How educated? What quality of self-help guide could our instinct cobble together? This new Dennis, though, spent many hours each day without what he used to recognise as a thought. His current version of self mistrusted the glib certainties of his past incarnation, the slick explanations for EVERYTHING that used to come so easily to his lips. He loathed that useless know-all and his circle of jerks as much as he loved the blackbirds and blue tits that lived in his cottage garden. Those birds knew a thing or two. When to venture out, when to fuck off out of it. They knew what to trust. You didn’t learn it, you didn’t read it, some pillock hadn’t told you about it. You just knew.

So it was that Dennis gave himself over to his nature, bought some time, and hatched half a plan before he opened one eye and looked up to see what he knew he was going to see standing over him. The smile was beginning to hurt his cheeks but he made it stay right where it was. In fact, he stretched it a little further. The smile was integral to the success of what was becoming a scheme.

Dennis knew he was going to see a fat fuck with a shaved head standing over him but he was unprepared for quite how much Steve could have let himself go in the eight years since they had worked together. He was enormous. And old. It took an effort of extreme will on Dennis’s part to keep the aching smile in place and not to let out a gasp, not of recognition but disgust. Steve wobbled shapelessly above him like a carnival blimp of a bloated mutant Mr Men character. Mr Ravaged Diabetic Trot. He seemed to Dennis to be a perfect visual metaphor for the indulgent waste that had marked both of their first fifty years. Sixty now in Steve’s case but, going by the state of him, there were mercifully few to come.

Dennis smiled up at this fuzzy mass, aiming for a look of blank unthreatening fear. Don’t hurt me. Everybody around here knows me. I’m no trouble. The cramp brought on by the rictus grin also brought a film of tears to his empty eyes. That was bound to help the imposture.

‘Hello,’ Dennis said.

‘Matey. Dennis. It’s me. Steve.’

‘My name is Dennis,’ Dennis said.

‘I know, mate. It’s me. Steve.’

‘Steve.’ Dennis said.

‘Are you OK?’

‘Hello, Steve,’ Dennis said. ‘My name is Dennis.’ At this point a tear chose to roll down his aching jawline. He judged it best not to wipe it away and felt it make its long journey down the rivulet created by the smile, around his lips and onto his bristly chin.

‘I know, matey. I know you.’

The satisfaction Dennis felt as he watched Steve’s planetary face crumble under the recognition that all was not necessarily quite right with his old comrade came as a physical pulse that ran from his toes to his scalp. It was a deep pleasure, a near kin to that first piss on a morning that followed an uninterrupted sleep. Amazing, even that which he dreaded most had turned into pure joy in this place, with this life.

‘Hello, Steve,’ Dennis said again, then relished the long pause which followed as Steve tried to make up his mind whether to walk away or probe further into what had brought about this sad transformation in this once vibrant enemy of the status quo. In the end it seemed he would have at least a stab at the latter.

‘What brings you here?’

‘. . .’ Smile.

‘Are you on your own?’

‘. . .’ Smile.

‘Do. You. Live. Here. Dennis?’

Dennis raised a straight arm, the way Izzy used to do when she pointed towards the outside world but didn’t want to take her eyes off the television.

‘I live over there,’ Dennis said and Steve looked along the beachside street towards a row of beat up residential homes.

‘In one of those?’

‘. . .’ Smile.

Nothing filled the long pause that followed. The role that Dennis played left him no room for manoeuvre or more expressive improvisation. All he could do was prolong the inanity and hope that not-too-eventually Steve would become embarrassed enough not to pry further. And, of course, this bastard would be too selfish to try to help this long lost imbecile by, say, getting him home safely. The longer the pause lasted the more confident Dennis became that Steve would soon wobble off. He had always been a lazy cunt, slow on the uptake, slow to make any move towards an encroaching enemy or the bar, quick to take credit for the ideas and actions of others.

And it was so. Soon enough Dennis became aware that a sweaty fat palm was hovering just over his left shoulder, hinting at a friendly pat goodbye which never came. Instead, Steve drew himself up to his full sphericalness, muttered, ‘Look after yourself, matey,’ and rolled unsteadily away in the direction of the town harbour.

Dennis did not dare to move until he sensed that he was no longer in sight of the man who didn’t know he was his nemesis. When he judged that enough time had elapsed he risked a glance to his left and saw that the danger had passed. He raised a half full coffee cup to his lips, cold now but he drank it down anyway. Needed it. Now that it was over he realised how much the encounter had taken a toll, yet he felt invigorated, adrenalized. And very very pleased with himself. As soon as he was certain he could stand he picked up his cup and saucer and re-entered the café, placed them on the counter. The young Asian girl, busy at the chopping board next to the grill at the back of the shop, turned to him and smiled.

‘Thank you,’ she said. Sang, really.

‘You’re welcome,’ Dennis said. He half-turned to make his way to the door and was almost out when some impulse, some fresh confidence, inspired him to turn back and talk to her.

‘I hope you don’t mind my asking but where are you from?’ Dennis said.

‘Hong Kong.’ No attitude. No bristle.

‘Lovely place,’ Dennis said.

‘You’ve been?’

‘Very briefly,’ Dennis said though he had never set foot in any part of Asia. ‘Vowed to return one day.’

‘That’s nice.’

‘Do you ever go back?’ Dennis said.

‘No. I can’t afford to.’

‘No. I can’t afford to go back either,’ Dennis said.

Why did they both laugh at that? I mean, I know why Dennis was laughing but was it possible that the girl was making her version of the same joke? We’ll never know but she was still chuckling when Dennis was in the street and Dennis did not stop shaking his head in wonder at his own wit until he was almost back at the cottage. There, he opened the front door and called out a hi to Pilar whose muffled reply came from the office upstairs. Clearly she was bedded in up there for the day. Dennis walked through to the living room where he spent a couple of hours reading various news sites on his iPad and dozing.


e kept up with the news in a very different way these days. In the UK there were demonstrations against visiting dignitaries from states responsible for appalling and horribly frequent human rights abuses. These were viewed now by Dennis as uncomfortable days out successfully avoided. On the international front reports came in every day of refugees drowning, being sold as slaves, refused entry at safe havens. Awful stuff but nothing that I have to do something about, Dennis thought. He would sign the odd online petition, certainly join in outraged pub talk on the right side of history, but the days when he felt some personal responsibility for the world’s waifs, strays and generally fucked-over had gone.

When Pilar called down to him that it was time to pick up Izzy from school she interrupted a complicated reverie about the girl in the café and her admirable openness to answering personal impertinent questions prompted entirely by her appearance. Steve would have a stroke if he’d heard. Steve’s wife, the appalling Diane, would stage some sort of lefty intervention.

The way it used to be and the way it is. Up there and down here. Short of being a concentration camp survivor who went on to become a highly paid gigolo, Dennis could imagine no greater pleasing contrast between previous and current circumstances than his own.

That night they paid a teenage girl with elaborate eyebrows twenty quid to keep Izzy company for a few hours. Gemma was the daughter of a woman that Pilar had become friendly with on the university course and was, therefore, trustworthy. Dennis thought she seemed OK, not too sullen, not too fawning. She would let Izzy watch some unsuitable crap on tv and promise not to tell but that didn’t bother him and Izzy would tell Pilar anyway.

One of the taxes Dennis paid for his happiness—there weren’t many—but one of them was a promise to Pilar to accompany her to see any Spanish-speaking movie shown at the small independent cinema down by the harbour. It seemed to Dennis that these excursions came around with surprising frequency. No sooner had he suffered his way through the ghost story set in an old orphanage outside Madrid than it was time to face the prospect of a bum-numbing tale of some simple Mexican funeral directors. On this night he and Pilar were off to see something from Venezuela. This much he had taken in; he found it best not to listen too closely when his love read out the synopses from the local free paper or reviews from The Guardian online. The less he knew, the less to dread.

In the event Dennis found that he could drift off nicely through this one, the earlier events of the day lending themselves to extended pleasing fantasy. Much more than those on the screen which seemed to concern some poverty-stricken family in Caracas living in a vast crumbling weed-strewn mansion that had been abandoned by its owners. Dennis made no attempt to follow these proceedings. Instead he imagined Steve returning to London and telling his shrill militant wife who he had bumped into today. He imagined the guesswork, what do you think could have happened, then the pity, maybe even some guilt. He imagined the texts to mutual ex-friends and comrades. The phone calls. Emails. The replies, the shock, the regret. The if-we’d-knowns, the so-that’s-whys, the jesus-it-makes you-thinks. The head shakes. The sighs. The tears. And maybe even some guilt.

On the screen one of the guys who lived in the dilapidated old house was lying on his back in the ocean, luxuriating in the gentle waves lapping over his body and the sun shining down on his face. Dennis, too, basked. He basked in the satisfaction of the final piece of his reinvention puzzle fixed into place. He basked in what he believed was called closure.


nd yet the niggles . . .

. . . crept up on him. The sense of business unfinished, a satisfaction denied, an opportunity squandered, began to trickle into his thoughts. Like the old days when seizing upon weakness, forcing home your advantage, was second nature to him. Dennis was happy but he wanted that other feeling back, the one that had followed his shock encounter with Steve. This could be the tangy relish that was the refreshing topping to his perfect new life. I handled that brilliantly, ran his thoughts, but I let the scoundrel off too lightly. And I let all the other fuckers off scot free. This moment that he lingered on was not just the stuff of bourgeois nostalgia, Dennis decided. Rather it deserved to be the solid foundation of a grand future structure. A shrine for the ages. He daydreamed about his former comrades filing past this virtual mausoleum to pay their virtual respects to his embalmed body that was not really there lying in state in an imaginary state in a glass coffin that would never exist. The satisfaction that he craved was surely within his grasp. He could taste it. He needed to savour it. He needed to plot. He was not just some aged Scottish warrior eking out his last days on the English coast, he was Lenin in Zurich. He was Trotsky in Coyocoac. Che in Cuba.

‘What are you grinning about?’ Pilar was crushing a defeated avocado into an almost invisible sliver of grainy toast. Dennis was salting his porridge. Izzy held a crumpet an inch away from her face—butter knife in her other hand—and was smearing Nutella over its surface with forensic intensity.

‘A project,’ Dennis said. ‘I have decided I need a project.’

‘This sounds ominous. And boring,’ Pilar didn’t say. ‘Good for you,’ she said.

His wife smiled the same lop-sided smile that had beguiled him the evening they had met.

‘Just a wee bit of writing,’ Dennis said. ‘An article maybe.’

That smile. ‘Don’t show it to me till it’s finished. I want to see it in all its glory.’

It felt cruel to Dennis to keep such an angel in the dark but he knew she would not understand his motives. Mischief took up little space in her psyche; revenge even less.

He scooped up the last of his breakfast, stood up from the kitchen table and placed his bowl in the sink. He leant over and kissed Izzy on the cheek, tasting the nutty goo that had landed there in an act of uncontrolled migration.

‘I’m just going out for a bit,’ Dennis said. ‘Clear my head.’

Pilar smiled. This was a pleasing development, potentially. She knew to be wary of her own optimism and normally she would warn herself not to get her hopes up, that this would probably come to nothing. But what if there was a chance that this new project may lead to, say, Dennis fixing some stuff? Or making something useful? It was a bit of a stretch but she could just about see a crude coffee table being something her husband could, after a decent-length course with an exceptional and patient teacher, just about manage to pull off. Or, better, what if the project meant he had to have the odd night away, leaving the cottage just to Izzy and her? What about a whole weekend! But—her mouth straightened—this was no time for idle dreaming. She had an essay to complete and a mound of reading to do.


ennis stood on the beach with his feet planted wide apart in the sand. He took a deep breath from the wind and his chest pushed out towards the sea. He leant back and looked up at the sky and his sandy hair was blown around his ears and neck. His arms outspread as if to welcome ashore a returning god. Passers-by threw balls into the water for their labradoodles to fetch. Some snuck a peek at the stationary figure, others smiled broadly and tried to catch his attention with a ‘Morning!’ Dennis was oblivious to them all, an Anthony Gormley study in ostentatious introspection.

Dennis knew himself, knew what drove him, what were his motives. He understood he had never been pure. He had never acted out of malice, not too much anyway, but he was drawn on by something other than principle or belief. It was always the romance for Dennis.

As a boy in Edinburgh he read Soledad Brother, Soul On Ice and Blood In Your Eye and was taken with the idea of the wronged outsider, the revolutionary rather than the revolution. An only child, being fussed over but living on the margins seemed his natural lot. His father worked at the McEwan’s brewery as a fork lift truck driver until an accident took his right leg off just below the knee when Dennis was twelve. His mother was a nurse. Both were socialists of the cheery it’s-never-going-to-happen-so-dinnae-worry sort. Rocking the boat just carefully enough so as to cause the minimum disturbance was in their make-up. After the accident there was a compensation claim and a redundancy package but his parents were at pains to make sure it was commensurate and proportionate and fair and didn’t imply anybody that Dad had worked for was in any way to blame for what could have happened to anybody, even the bosses if they’d been out on the floor that morning. Dennis liked to think he would have made a bit more of a fuss.

In his mid-teens Dennis walked between and around the permanently rain-stained pebble-dashed buildings of Oxgangs wearing a black beret. On his left hand he wore a black leather glove. On the school bag from the Army and Navy Stores he had painted Death To Amerikkka in virulent green. Posters of Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in Mexico City and Angela Davis and By Any Means Necessary adorned the walls of the bedroom in the family ‘hoose’, a tiny ground floor flat on a council estate.

Dennis loved The Black Panthers. But . . .

There was something . . .

Something missing. Something about them. Something that didn’t quite do it for Dennis.

In later life he would have the same feeling when out on demos about the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people or walking the streets opposing apartheid in South Africa or supporting revolutionary factions in Zimbabwe and Namibia. All wonderfully dreamy causes in their own way but they didn’t have the same pull, they just didn’t have the romance, he couldn’t quite identify with them the way he could identify with the other poster on his wall, the black on red print that offered Dennis everything he desired in a hero. It had the looks, the politics, the martyrdom, the beret. Here was a man that spoke directly to Dennis, a symbol of revolutionary aspiration that surpassed all that dogged Black determination, all that wrongful imprisonment, all that talking and writing and thought. Here was action followed by death followed by cult. Here was Che.

Now at that time Dennis knew less about Guevara than he knew about The Bay City Rollers. But just as all the Islas and Morvas swore eternal devotion to either Woody or Eric, so did Dennis lose his heart to Che. And South America, those countries sticking it to Amerika right on the demon’s doorstep. Chile, Nicaragua, the places that lived with the reality of Amerikan interference every day. And—Dennis didn’t hide it from himself—they looked more appealing to him. They looked more like him to him. If he’d ever spent any time in the sun, that is.

By the time Dennis was more familiar with his hero’s biography he was studying sociology at a polytechnic in East London and living in a squat in a four-storey tenement building in Bow. He was an assiduous joiner-upper, a member of groups both socialistic and anarchic. Stirring—a word the local lefty girls loved to hear him roll around his mouth—was his prime motivator. Getting reactionaries het up, making a noise on the streets, designing offensive banners that begged to be snapped by tabloid photographers. For factions—or any subtlety or nuance—he had little time, but they were hard to avoid. Others found their romance in the futility of the struggle so the smaller and more esoteric the group the more they got off on it. The three members of The Revolutionary Communist Party Of Britain (Marxist Leninist) East London’s People Front could not abide their counterparts in other sections of the student communist community, not even their mirror image cell in West London. This presented a challenge to Dennis who shared his squat with this particular faction and was, ostensibly, its fourth member. So he had to be particularly careful when at home to big up Enver Hoxha and not to giggle at the weekly broadcasts from Radio Tirana that all the housemates listened to, let’s face it, religiously. For half an hour on a Thursday evening they would huddle round the transistor radio on the kitchen table and listen to statistics detailing Albanian car production, the pros and cons in the eternal argument on the export of tomato puree from the promised land, and the flaws of the approach to state control in other oppressive regimes around the world.

Che and George Jackson it was not. But it was a cheap and convenient place to live so Dennis put up with it and snuck off whenever he could to feed his romantic revolutionary soul elsewhere. Once again it was Spanish-speaking America that came up trumps.

The Neruda Centre in Hoxton became his multi-coloured haven. There could be no greater contrast to the lentil-tinged life led by his flatmates in Bow than the fiery murals on the walls of the community hall, painted in tones unavailable to folk in Oxgangs. He drew the smells of the empanadas being cooked by the refugees just arrived from Chile deep into his lungs; he absorbed the sounds of the folk music being played by world class musicians in exile as if they were Bye Bye Baby or Ride A White Swan; and he swooned at the sight of the women . . . oh, the women . . . .performing the handkerchief dance as if they were back home and the Amerikan-backed Pinochet coup was just some fevered fantasy. After the polytechnic and Bow . . . Hell, after grey drizzly old Edinburgh . . . this felt like life at last.

Dennis often wondered if he’d bumped into the three year old Pilar at that time, traipsing around the place where her parents and their friends gathered to organise. He had asked her, of course, but she had no memory of those early days in the new country. And her parents were long gone.

He thought about it now, standing in the wind on the beach. Thought about the advantage that working for The Chile Solidarity Campaign gave him all those years later when he and Pilar met on the bleak hinterland between London and Essex, long after the romance of rebellion had disappointed him. Thought, too, about how the timewasters who had strung him along, the architects of his disillusion, could be made to pay. In a small way, nothing drastic. Not actual payback, not really, more a pastime to while away the long days of retirement. Pilar sometimes told him he needed a hobby; well, he almost said, let my pastime be convoluted satisfying deception.

Dennis lowered his arms and faced north then south before deciding on which direction to set off down the sand. He chose north, of course. To the Finland Station.


oonlight cast shadows—window frame, trees—on the wall above a bed. The sheets appear dishevelled. Somebody’s sleep has been disturbed. Probably the woman lying on the lushly carpeted floor in a white nightgown. Well, mostly white. There was a red stain spreading across her chest.

The subtitle read: (muffled urinating)

Dennis peered at the action over the top of his glasses, his iPad resting on his lap. He paused the tv and looked down. This needed his full concentration. And the patience that had always been his trademark.

He trawled through the old message boards for a couple of hours, unsurprised to see so many familiar names still arguing the toss about how to explain the loss of basic amenities to the proletariat in the days immediately following the revolution. SellThemTheRope from Leicester was constant in his belief that the workers would understand why their fridges weren’t working for a few days or why all travel had been suspended. Dennis knew he had been constant in this belief for over forty years now, resistant to all contrary evidence, and tireless in his mission to belt out all the old tunes till his voice gave out or he keeled over and died.

PartyLikeIts1917 disagreed but didn’t care as leaving behind people who didn’t deserve utopia had always been his passion. Dennis remembered well the little weasel with his straggly blonde beard and pointy teeth, but can’t recall his actual name. No matter. The fact that nothing had changed in that corner of the world where hapless revolutionaries gathered to whine about the wilful ignorance of the working class was all Dennis needed to know.

Heartened, he spent the next couple of nights creating a few fake email addresses and setting up accounts on the two sites he suspected would be most likely to reap rewards. On the fourth night he decided to risk posting a message.

Dennis had no idea if people still use the term ‘tech-savvy’—and there’s no point asking me; I’m absolutely clueless about these things—but that was what the comrades used to call him and how he still thought of himself. In the early days this meant he could work the camcorder, understand the Xerox machine and more or less laminate a flyer efficiently. Later he became the first of the group to see the potential of the internet in spreading the word to the young proletariat, the first to get a mobile phone. It was Dennis the comrades turned to when their computers went inexplicably dark (‘fucking Special Branch’) or some new incomprehensible scientific gobbledygook needed translating into good old plain Marxist dialectic. Dennis then was on the ball; Dennis now could still play technological keepy-up with the best of them.

So, as a muscled figure lay paralysed on his bedroom floor, unable to prevent the gang of men in balaclavas from slaughtering his whole family (distant rustling; cat meaows; ringing telephone), Dennis opened his laptop and began. The keyboard, he thought, is mightier than the drone.

Making up the names and choosing the avatars was fun. Deciding on where these characters were from, their age, class, the specificality of their political stance: Dennis approached these matters with something resembling glee. He wasn’t afraid of causing suspicion by introducing five or six fresh faces to the struggle; he knew that these wankers would just presume that their message was coming through loud and clear. Dennis played to this vanity plus their need to bolster their ranks, forge new alliances with exactly-the-same-minded strangers, as well as bringing in that rare commodity: the convert. Dennis had insight into the short-sightedness and blind faith of this crowd that was invaluable if his project was to succeed. These people lived in a small world but it was still one that craved a hero. Far now from his Che days, Dennis allied with Brecht on this matter, but he knew he could feed the sad old bastards with the most exquisite epicurean delight of their dreams. A martyr to the cause.

His first intervention came in the form of Granny Gramsci. Dennis decided she was a retired health worker originally from Dundee but now moved down to England’s East coast—it was important that this key player lived near the soon-to-be hero. She has a son working with endangered wild cats in South America, a natural step for her boy as his parents had met on the Coffee Brigade in Nicaragua in the 80s. GG is a lifelong, unreconstructed Trot. Her avatar is an image of Supergran with an icepick embedded in her tartan bonnet.

(Perhaps we should take a minute here and acknowledge Pilar’s disappointment in this project. Certainly I feel for her but what can I do? Dennis’s latest activity took place mostly after she was in bed, seemed little more than a replacement for watching bang bang movies without the bang bangs every night. It offered, from her perspective, no change whatsoever in her husband’s routine and, therefore, no opportunities for any adjustments to her own. She lay in bed resenting not just Dennis but also her closest friend Yolanda. Pilar and this dental hygienist came from similar backgrounds and had taken advantage of similar opportunities. Both were in their 40s; both came from the same part of the world; both had found ostensibly undemanding husbands to look after their material needs whilst they got on with their lives. But Yolanda’s ancient spouse proved a wiser—well, luckier—choice than Dennis. He played golf and was an active member of the local club but, even better for his wife, he had recently become extremely keen on something called ‘walking football’. This activity was designed for geriatrics that simply refuse to give up the ghost that was their athletic prowess. It offered Yolanda not just a couple of evenings a week when the old guy was shuffling around in the floodlights trying to pass the ball to his near-stationary teammates, but also a punishing schedule of away fixtures which entailed weekend travel on a regular basis. There was also a summer tournament in Portugal and a winter trip to Scotland every year till he dropped dead. In all, Pilar calculated, and taking major holidays into account, this meant that Yolanda was free to do as she pleased on some 116 evenings per year. Whilst she remained shackled to a rich man who was deep into playing some kind of video game all night, a so-called ‘project’ that did not require any movement off the living room couch. For Pilar this was just the latest in a series of cruel injustices, a series that began with the disappearance of several beloved family members for political activities when she was her daughter’s age. First that, now this! She could weep.)

O, things have moved on. It felt like we were only gone for a minute but it turns out that weeks have passed! And our lad has been extremely productive. The message boards of the ailing left have been swelled by an unlikely influx of keen new members. They are a remarkably diverse group, too, in terms of age, race, gender and sexual orientation. Scattered around the globe, these new recruits have added some much needed, if you will, momentum to the unending debate on the approximate date of the inevitable revolt of the proletariat. Sometimes Dennis would identify an old comrade by his online monicker and have one of his new personae approach them with a question linked to an existing thread. Other times, he would have the newbies bicker amongst themselves.

Some of his inventions were more, erm, inventive than others. Dennis really tickled himself with StalinWasnaeStallin, another hardline Scottish old-timer who served primarily to give Steve an uncomfortable time. For Steve . . . known online as Steve1956, whether because that was the year of his birth or in celebration of the Soviet invasion of Hungary was not clear . . . for Steve was the target. Steve needed to be reminded of another old Celtic comrade that he may have bumped into at the seaside recently. But the fat bastard was so self-involved that it seemed he was going to need more than a nudge in the right direction. That was the job of GrannyGramsci and StalinWasnaeStallin, good cop, bad cop.

Others, like TopMarx, RedTillDead and TheUrbaneWarrior, kept the conversations from flagging with barely believable anecdotes about their contributions to the cause in Ukraine, California and Dublin. Dennis knew that nobody in his old gang could ever examine these imposters for accuracy or plausibility, their true struggle being an inability to get out of North East London. So his new gang were free to tread these boards like seasoned old hams, starting discussions entitled The Great Global Warming Distraction, The Bourgeois Indulgence of Transexuality and How Can We Turn A Race War Into A Class War? It was all great fun.

But life, as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov liked to remind us, cannot be all giggles. Dennis bided his time, waited until his bunch of faux revolutionaries had more substance, more energy, more convincing credentials and back stories, than the tired barely believable flimsy ghouls who had been haunting these pages for decades. It was then that he struck. First he made StalinWasnaeStallin goad Steve into a prolonged and bitter debate over the role that will be played by London in the coming people’s uprising. He gave the slob a right pummelling over two whole nights, hammering home the irrelevance to the revolution of Steve’s home city. It would remain, SWS argued, a monarchist, capitalist enclave, under siege from the freed working masses of the new socialist republic. This was heartbreaking news to Steve who for over fifty years had lived in the certain hope that the revolution would come to him, not require his enormous arse to shift too much towards it. He took this beating over 48 hours and was a half conscious bloody mess, propped up on the ropes, when Dennis sent in GrannyGramsci on a rescue mission. She brought with her a welcome change of subject. She said, Steve. You’ve been around Hackney a long time. You must remember Dennis Sunderland? Without waiting for the battered wretch to reply, she went on, I have tragic news, I’m afraid. Poor Dennis finally succumbed to his injuries last week and died in a nursing home quite near me. He was a fine brave comrade and will be sadly missed. Eventually, Steve came round from his stupor and said, That’s odd. I bumped into him a few months back and I thought something was up. I don’t think he recognised me. What happened to him?

Of all the pleasures of the project, Dennis found the greatest satisfaction in conjuring up his own hero story. The protest, the battle, the injury sustained at the hands of the foot soldiers of the oppressor whilst protecting his more vulnerable comrades, it was just a treat.

(O my dear goodness but this is behaviour is hard for me to take and I’m willing to wager that you are not comfortable with it either. This impulse, this urge, to glorify oneself is incomprehensible to people like me and you, isn’t it? It goes against our grain. It’s not how we were brought up, is it? It offends our sense of decency, of fairness, of what is right and what is very definitely wrong. But we are not Dennis. And Dennis is a man who is not ashamed to admit that he shed a little tear at his own fictional bravery. Hardly surprising as it is becoming apparent to me that Dennis is not ashamed of anything.)

Following the shock announcement, memories were shared of endless meetings and marches with the bogus martyr. Dennis flinched at the reminder of how bleak it all used to be, mourned the waste that was his old life, but contributed moving tributes to himself, the fallen comrade, from as wide a variety of perspectives as his imagination would allow. As is customary during times of mourning, most thoughts were tinged with affection, all enmities set aside out of respect for Dennis’s valiant contribution to their cause. There was, however, one sour note. A poster named LittleRedCook—Dennis recognised him as an annoying twerp who worked in a kebab shop in Dalston—wrote, Yeah. I remember him. Always seemed to be a bit of a pencil pusher to me. Surprised to hear he became an action hero.

‘Well this cunt,’ Dennis said, ‘can fuck right off.’

At this point an old faithful companion returned after a long inexplicable absence. Dennis had presumed it abducted or dead, perhaps lost and confused, a demented accidental runaway. But here it came, tail a-waggin’, tongue a-lollin’, eyes brimming with love. It padded into the room and laid its heavy head on its master’s knee. Let’s imagine that Dennis is as committed to this metaphor as I am and then you will have no problem believing that he patted the beast’s head and said out loud, ‘Welcome home. My sense of purpose.’


n 2029, following a vigorous campaign from dozens of comrades and admirers based on three continents, a seasoned activist from East England known only as Granny Gramsci, was the posthumous recipient of The Dennis Sutherland Award For Solidarity And Sacrifice.

The Grilling

In the hot seat this week we have Dennis Sutherland. A former revolutionary, for thirty five years Dennis plotted the overthrow of the UK monarchy and both Houses of Parliament. At the same time he built up an impressive property portfolio. Retired from both fields now, he lives at the seaside with his wife and step daughter.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I forgive too readily.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Their eagerness to trespass.

What keeps you awake at night?

The usual. Plotting payback.

Have you ever said I love you and not meant it?

Only to a long dead German economist.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it is too easy to recognise me as somebody I used to be.

What’s the worst thing that anybody has ever said to you?

We can’t just talk about reggae all the time. (You needed to be there for context.)

Which living person do you most despise?

A vacancy for that position has popped up recently, as it happens. I’m scouting around.

Which living person do you most admire?

Modesty forbids.

What is your greatest fear?

Waking up to discover I am Home Secretary.

What’s the nearest you’ve come to death?

Enver Hoxha’s Reflections On China reached life-threatening levels of tedium.

What would your superpower be?

Seeing through things.

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who saw through things.

What lessons has life taught you?

People who have the answers have misheard the question.

Tell us a secret

I used to have a brain injury. Years ago.


Ian Boulton