In Competition No. 3043 you were invited to provide a short story inspired by the Salisbury poisonings.
Ian McEwan, a writer who is fascinated by spying, was asked recently on the Today programme how he would begin a novel inspired by the current confrontation with Russia. The image that comes to mind, he said, was of a lion hunting a pack of deer-like creatures in a herd. ‘There’s one that’s trailing behind — too old, too young, perhaps, or has just left the EU…’ We find ourselves, McEwan said, back in that strange Cold War world of brazen lies. Many of you clearly agreed with him, judging by the regular appearances of George Smiley in the entry.
John O’Byrne, Terence Horrocks, Roger Phillips, Bill Greenwell and Joe Houlihan all put in strong performances. But they were pipped by the prizewinners, printed below, who are rewarded with £25 each. The bonus five pounds goes to Alan Millard.
Sid Swain awoke in his squalid bedsit and, without washing, threw on his dirty rags and fried an egg in the greasy pan. He gagged on the first mouthful but still ate it. His immune system had learned to cope with rotten food. Having previously replenished his mobile snack bar with produce salvaged from supermarket waste bins, he made for his usual lay-by on the city outskirts to await his customers.
Later, on seeing the newspaper photographs of the poisoned pair, he remembered them stopping at the lay-by. He had piled tomato ketchup on their hot dogs to disguise the taste. Knowing the police were eager to learn of their whereabouts during a missing 40 minutes he was tempted to phone them but, as the investigations were well under way, he decided against it. Everyone believed the Russians were to blame. It was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Smiley sighed and slowly cleaned his glasses. He contemplated another breach of security in the Circus. An ex-Russian agent had been attacked in this country and he was sure that it was not the Russians. The episode jarred; it felt wrong. He knew it was an insider but who?
No one in the Circus shopped at Sainsbury’s or went anywhere near popular pizza restaurants. It was unthinkable. After all, they might have seen a child or been exposed to a Margherita. He put his head in his hands. Who did he know who would take a risk like that?
Then he remembered. Good God, hadn’t Hugh Chetwynd once had a life? Buried in his file Smiley found a footnote stating he had once got some beers in and watched a DVD. Grim-faced, Smiley reached for the phone. This man was dangerous. He had to be stopped.
Over tea and biscuits he told me the story. In the beginning it had been easy. The memes on social media; the crestfallen dog beside the empty biscuit tin, the comely kitten peeping from the devastated Christmas tree, seemingly endless variations and each with the same caption: ‘The Russians did it.’ Slowly, slowly he watched it build until it became a catchphrase, a beloved cliché, gradually replacing ‘oops’ as the response to any embarrassing accident.
When the Kalashnikovs were poisoned in the sushi bar and the pictures began to circulate, the Russians got the blame by tabloid default and now here we were on the brink of war. He sat back in his chair, rubbing his hands together gleefully.
‘But who, then?’ I asked. He just grinned.
‘You?’ His grin grew. ‘But — why?’
He shrugged. ‘The Devil made me do it. Now drink your tea.’
All genuine news events resemble one another, but each fake news event is fake in its own way. Into which category Dimitri Nikolaevich Anakaramaskolnikov’s brutal murder of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna and Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov belonged was a matter that Porfiry Sherlovich Columbov was determined to resolve. His patience was growing thin. His train had been three days late due to an (alleged) suicide on the track. Desperate for a beetroot and cabbage borscht with potato dumplings, he was not in the best of moods.
‘Dimitri Nikolaevich Anakaramaskolnikov, it is highly likely, highly probable, that you are responsible for the murders of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivano…’
‘Highly likely, or highly probable, Porfiry Sherlovich? Which is it?’ interrupted Dimitri Nikolaevich Anakaramaskolnikov. ‘Are you sure the deaths weren’t accidents? Couldn’t they have simply bludgeoned themselves? How do you know it was me?’
Porfiry, sighing, replied simply: ‘DNA on the axe handle.’
‘Fancy that film Liz mentioned?’ She shook her head. ‘Russian; no way.’ A pity; he’d developed a taste for Zvyagintsev’s work but he knew that look. No meant no, the same way she’d backed out of that new café when she’d seen a samovar behind the counter. ‘It’s only decoration,’ he’d pleaded; you’d think he’d suggested poison the way she’d glared. ‘Shostakovich won’t hurt you,’ he’d said when Radio 3 trailed a concert with a few bars of the Leningrad, and she’d leapt to unplug the set. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ she’d muttered, washing her hands in running water. An unopened bottle of vodka went down the sink — ‘Just in case.’ He still writhed with embarrassment after she’d refused a seat on the Tube, all because the neighbouring commuter was reading Chekhov. ‘Might as well suggest swimming with sharks,’ he growled. She nodded: ‘Much safer. Tomorrow, then?’
No. 3046: first and last
You are invited to supply a poem beginning with the last line of any well-known poem and ending with its first line, the new poem being on a different subject altogether. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 25 April.