(The peaceful festivities of the town of Downbourne are shattered by the arrival of some very nasty interlopers.)
The van, a white Ford Transit with black-tinted windows, moved like some cruising predator, certain of itself, unnervingly unhurried. People coming to the festival along the high street scuttled out of its way, seeking the sanctuary of the pavement, there to stand and stare as it rumbled by. To them, and to those in the precinct, the van was an apparition of a kind they had not set eyes on in years, a ghost from the past, a once-familiar sight that had been made, by its abrupt recession from their lives, infinitely strange. Eyes were wide. Fingers pointed. Children pressed themselves against their parents.
Then a second van appeared, trailing in the wake of the first. A little Bedford, also white, also with tinted windows.
Simultaneously, at the other end of the precinct where the bonfire stood, a third white van, a lofty-sided Luton, drove up to the iron bollards that had once enforced the distinction between pedestrian and non-pedestrian territory. A fourth pulled up in swift succession.
And now another white van hove into view on the high street, and another, and yet another, an entire convoy of them, all makes and models, and more appeared beyond the bollards, and in no time both ends of the precinct were blocked off, the vans parking at angles to one another, interleaving, forming an almost impenetrable cordon.
It was only then, as the festival-goers in the precinct realised that the vans had trapped them in a pincer movement, cutting them off from the rest of town, that their murmurs mounted to a clamour and a sense of panic began to swell. Fen saw Gilbert Cruikshank turning his head this way and that, demanding that someone, anyone, tell him what was going on. On the podium, the Green Man appealed for calm. He had to shout to make himself heard.
The white vans sat there, motors idling, windscreens menacingly blank, radiator grilles grinning. No one seemed in any hurry to disembark from them.
Gradually the Green Man’s pleas began to take effect. It was either that or the puzzling reluctance of the vans’ occupants to emerge that led to voices petering out among the crowd and an anxious quiet prevailing. The vans’ engines growled on, the smell of diesel exhaust permeating the precinct, causing a number of people to cover their noses. The Green Man fixed his gaze on the vanguard van, the Transit. He waited. Everyone waited.
At last, the Transit’s engine cut out, its driver-side door opened, and a man climbed out onto the road.
He was short and stockily built, and his hair had been shaved to a fine down, a see-through cap of pelt. He had a lumpen nose, evidently once broken, and eyes that were set deep in their sockets, as though pushed into place with force. He was dressed in a polo shirt, tracksuit bottoms and trainers, all of them adorned with trademark logos, and there were tattoos on his arms and neck, trademarks of another kind, blurry blue statements of oath and fealty. One was a monochrome Union Jack. Another, on his right biceps, was simply two words in Gothic script:
The man stared, hard and contemptuously, at the crowd.
Then another van door opened and another man stepped out. He was almost the twin of the first – same close-cropped hair, similar clothing, tattoos. Slightly taller, slightly leaner, but from a distance the two of them could well have been brothers.
And then more such lookalikes were climbing out from all the vans, from their front-seat doors, from their rear doors, from their sliding side-doors. The vans rocking and jolting, out the men filed like paratroops, falling swiftly into position, forming a line across either end of the precinct, a dozen of them, two dozen, three, four. Sportswear was their uniform, close-cropped hair their chosen tonsorial style, tattoos their de rigueur body ornament, along with the occasional ear-stud or signet ring. Though of various sizes and shapes and complexions, they all of them conformed to a sartorial template, doing their best to resemble one another, or one particular exemplar, as closely as possible.
Still more of these men appeared, and the Downbourne residents began drawing together, moving towards the middle of the precinct, putting distance between them and the strangers. It was the instinctive response of the gazelle herd when the lions appear, gathering into a tight knot so that no single individual stands out and makes itself a target. Fen happily became a part of the communal merge. By his estimate, the Downbournians outnumbered the new arrivals three to one, but that made no difference. There were children here, and the new arrivals were true thugs. Violence professionals. It was written in their physiques, their stares, the stance that each of them adopted: head slightly cocked, feet apart at shoulder-width, muscle-corded arms folded or dangling down with cocky insouciance. Each was a match for any three Downbourne adults.
Only the Green Man was not cowed, or if he was, he gave no sign of it. Standing his ground on the podium, he eyed up the opposition, his gaze finally settling on the driver of the Transit, the first of the interlopers to have shown his face.
“You, sir,” he said, pointing to him. “Whatever you may want here, we do not have it. Please leave.”
The other man took the suggestion on board, seemed actually to consider it, and then smiled, displaying a glint of gold tooth. “You know what?” he said. “You don’t half look a twat.”
There was a churn of laughter from his near-identical cohorts. Shoulders pumped up and down.
The man with the gold tooth, pleased that his witticism had been so well received, decided to expand it into a full-blown comedy routine: “In fact, you look like a fucking human cabbage. Don’t he, lads? What, was your mum fucked by a cucumber? A fucking cucumber was your dad? Or was it the Jolly Green Giant? The Jolly Green Giant stuck his jolly green dick up your mum, and you were the result. And what’s that lawn doing stuck to your head? Oh yeah, it’s not a lawn, it’s hair.”
The Green Man bore the invective impassively, while Gold Tooth’s colleagues chortled and guffawed their appreciation.
Then, when Gold Tooth had run out of permutations on the theme of greenness, the Green Man said, “I’ve asked you to leave. Please do so. We are a poor, peaceful town, holding a small celebration. We have nothing for you, and we don’t want any trouble.”
“Ah now, that’s a shame, innit,” said Gold Tooth. “‘Cause we do, don’t we, lads?”
There was a lowing cheer of assent.
“‘Cause what are we?”
As one, the men from the white vans cried, “British Bulldogs!”
“And who’s our boss?”
“And what does he like?”
This finely-turned example of strophe and antistrophe was evidently the British Bulldogs’ prearranged cue for attack, for no sooner had they uttered the word “Havoc!” than they launched themselves at the assembled Downbournians, laying into all and sundry.
- Untied Kingdom [Gollancz hbk, April 2003] – ISBN 978-0575073852
- Untied Kingdom [Gollancz tpbk, April 2003] – ISBN 978-0575073869
- Untied Kingdom [Gollancz pbk, January 2004] – ISBN 978-0575074484
- Royaume Desuni [Bragelonne (French ed.) March 2008] – ISBN 9782352941552