Hearts And Minds

Entry by: macdonald

4th November 2016
Hearts and Minds

I wouldn’t even have picked up if I’d known it was Starkey, but was half asleep and didn’t check.
‘You don’t sound good, Prester.’
‘A late night. What do you want, Starkey?’
‘You, mate. I need a snapper at Corporation headquarters. I’m giving you one last crack.’
‘In the Zone. They needed the best, so they called me.’
‘Now. I’ve fixed you a Zone pass. Bring a bag.’
When I arrived they gave me a double espresso and sat me in front of some orientation material. The Corporation were releasing that old freedom fighter, Cruickshank, from prison. After thirty years, his wife sick with cancer, he’d agreed to make a statement backing the Corporation’s policies. In return they could live out what little time they had left together, in some godforsaken exile up north.
Starkey appeared.
‘You look worse in the flesh, Prester,’ he said. Smart-suit, suntanned, radiating his unmistakeable veneer of bogus sincerity as usual. ‘I thought you might have cleaned up your act by now.’ I didn’t answer because it would have made no difference. He pointed at the screen.
‘We fly up tonight. It’s a hearts and minds shoot. They’ve prepared a statement for Cruickshank to read and I’ll be interviewing him. Joe Public still love him, so once he’s backed the Corporation, it’ll have no opponents with any street-cred left.
The chopper landed on a sandy beach. Beyond a swathe of marram grass there was a stone barn, scattered wooden shacks and caravans and a hill rising steeply beyond, its summit hidden by low clouds blowing in from the sea. An icy blast caught me as I stepped onto the sand. Only the barn seemed to have any lights on, so we headed for it.
Twenty people were inside, seated in rows on cheap plastic chairs. A tall guy, about sixty, was standing beside a trestle table. I unbuttoned my coat, switched the Canon to video and moved between the rows, focussing on him. He had deep set eyes below a dome of a forehead and the densely packed pixels of my Canon captured every blemish and crease of his skin, sharply contrasting with the open necked, white shirt he was wearing. His lips were set, his eyes blazing with fire as he addressed this gathering of the community he was joining. I took the hand he offered.
‘Donald Cruickshank,’ he said. ‘We were told you were coming. He bent forward to inspect my camera. ‘I hope you’ll be honest with that.’
‘It’s only an eye, Mr Cruickshank; nothing else. It’s people who decide between truth and fiction.’ We were joined by a woman, pale and thin, who said:
‘Some people try to hide the truth, Mr Prester.’ Cruickshank introduced me to his wife, Morag.
Starkey did his interview.
‘How does it feel to be free?’ was his first question, but Cruickshank just thanked the Corporation for releasing him and said nothing much else, except he and Morag were tired after a memorable day. Starkey followed them out to their caravan, but soon returned to tell the watching public that Cruickshank would be making a statement the following day.
A light drizzle had just started and I spent time setting up my tripod outside their caravan, focussing on the light, refracted by raindrops on the windows, leaving the viewers to make up their own stories for the blurred shapes within. Starkey was jubilant when I got back to the barn.
‘Bloody fantastic!’ he said. ‘The broadcast broke all records, Prester and we’ll have a bigger audience tomorrow. They want to climb that hill in the morning,’ he added, ‘and I’ll go with them.’
‘You up to it, Starkey?’ I said turning to the craggy peak overhead. ‘It looks steep.’ I knew he didn’t like heights.
‘How could I miss it? he replied. ‘It’ll be my biggest scoop ever.’
Next morning, I rose in darkness and stamped my feet outside, warming my lungs with a cigarette and watching stars being extinguished by streaks of yellow and red, the colours a child might use to paint, forming in the sky to the east.
Two security men led the way, followed by Cruickshank and Morag with me and Starkey close behind. We ascended through a forest of Larch and Oak, the track twisting and turning as it shadowed a stream in the gorge below. Starkey was soon too knackered and went back down. By the time we were on the open hillside he was whispering directions in my ear, telling me where to point my camera.
‘Get closer. I want to hear what they’re saying.’ Ahead, Morag and Donald stopped by a large boulder which seemed to be spotted with blood.
‘Shit. What’s that?’ Starkey shouted in my ear.
‘Fuil nan sluagh,’ Donald said. ‘Blood of the Hosts. The souls of Highland warriors float over these hills, waiting for their sins to be forgiven. It’s their version of purgatory. Some nights they can be heard fighting and in the morning the rocks are spattered with blood.’ But as he spoke he rubbed at the surface of the rock. The wine coloured spots were only embedded crystals. Then they were off again, Morag and him, scampering upward. Near the top they sat down with the security men. I scrambled passed to the grassy summit. To the west a vertical cliff dropped a thousand feet to a dark loch. My camera followed Donald and Morag’s final ascent and watched as they clasped hands to move forward carefully, turning back to the camera at the cliff edge.
‘How does it feel to be free?’ I repeated Starkey’s question to them both.
‘It feels good to have climbed this mountain,’ Morag replied. But her husband was silent, staring in my direction and through the Canon lens as if he’d caught sight of something beyond.
‘And what is your view on the Corporation's plans for the future of our country, Mr Cruickshank?’ He had a copy of the agreed statement in his pocket, but didn’t reach for it.
‘The Corporation’s plans are too fearsome for us to face,’ he said, ‘but we have been happy citizens of this great state and it is no hardship that nature, who brought us here, now allows us the freedom to leave.’
Starkey understood what was going to happen before I did. The security guys were thirty yards downhill and not paying attention anyway.
‘Switch the camera off, John,’ he whispered in my ear as Morag stepped in close to Cruickshank. In a quick movement he lifted her up, one arm around her back, the other under her thighs. She wrapped her arms around his neck, resting her cheek against his chest, whispering to him. Then he spun round and stepped out over the cliff edge. I held the camera very still for a moment, contemplating a space that was now empty and silent.
‘Cut that shot!’ Starkey screamed and I staggered back and fell to my knees. I pulled my earphones out, but kept hold of the camera as the whirrings of auto-focus began.
Somehow, amidst the stone and scree of that wind-blasted hill top a little scrap of life had taken root. A light breeze wafted the fragile flesh of a purple saxifrage, and then from nowhere a flash of orange and black. A pair of butterflies, Painted Ladies, settled together on the little plant, searching for nectar on their journey north. They danced with the wind on the trembling plant for a few seconds, but then were off, their solar powered wings fluttering over the cliff edge.
I sat for a time, my mind blank, staring at the sky, then wiped my eyes and started back down.
I didn’t know it then, but those butterflies, they flew on; onto all your screens, the New Campaign posters. They sunk the Corporation and scrapped the Zone, saved our Healthcare, kick-started a society that works for everyone. And in my heart I know they’re flying still.
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