There are ghosts out in the rain tonight, high up in those ancient trees
And I have given up without a fight, another blind fool on her knees.
And all the gods that I’ve abandoned begin to speak in simple tongues
And suddenly I’ve come to know that there are no roads left to run.
So here I am, your ragged disbeliever, Old Doubting Thomas drowns in tears,
As I watch your church sink through the earth like a heart worn down through fear.
She is reaching out her arms tonight and yes, my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again from Guadalupe on her hill
And who am I to doubt these mysteries, cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke,
I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope.
Excerpt from “Guadalupe”, by Tom Russell.
Other than sighing “Heaven!” over a hot fudge sundae or a truly great orgasm, I don’t think most ordinary folk talk about paradise much. But everyone’s heard a million definitions of hell. So yeah, I thought I couldn’t be surprised by one more. But that day, once every hour or so, I wanted to cry out, “All those other definitions are crap, because this is Hell. It’s here and now. Hell is what we are living.”
I wasn’t so far gone as not to know that I was restricting my definition to earthly hell – maybe because I didn’t want to think about the fate of all those poor souls who had lost their lives. It was bad enough just watching the faces of the friends, the families who seemed to arrive en masse only seconds after the explosion. It couldn’t have been seconds of course, but time was behaving very oddly. There were moments when it slowed right down, like during a car crash. Then the next instant, it was an out of control film, where everything is whizzing by, so it seems like it’s all happening at once.
One segment of my brain told me what it was – Trauma Time – and also reminded me that I’d experienced it often enough to be better at dealing with it than I seemed to be right now. The truth is that I wasn’t coping at all. I couldn’t get my head round the sheer bloody awfulness of it. The fact that we’d failed – I had failed – to stop the Mysterons’ latest act of wilful destruction wasn’t the worst of it. It was the target. The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe; Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, right in the heart of Mexico City. And not just the place, the time. December 12th, Our Lady’s Feast Day. That period in the run up to Christmas when thousands flock to visit the shrine in the hope that the icon of Latin America’s Virgin Mary will beatifically bless their humdrum lives. If that sounds somewhat cynical, then I am guilty as charged – I don’t think I have much faith left in anything these days.
But if we’re talking cynicism, the Mysterons have me beat. We always know it’s them by the type of attacks they make. Unlike your average bunch of crazed psychopaths, there are no deranged rituals or deliberate sadism. But just as there are no indications of cruelty, there are no signs of decency, either. No concern or remorse for their victims. It’s all so impersonal. The Mysterons don’t have a cause, or a set of twisted ideals they wish to impose on a disbelieving world. It’s not even as if they want to invade us, show how powerful they are by beating Earth into submission. It’s just slow annihilation, bit by agonizing bit. That’s the sick part – there’s no getting it over and done with quickly, which would, in a weird kind of way, show that they have some respect for humanity. They have brains, but no hearts, especially that thing with the colossal nerve to call himself Captain Black, as if he were just a slightly more irritating parody of the original. I had no doubt that he was instrumental in this attack and that the date had been deliberately chosen to maximize the number of innocent lives lost.
We hadn’t even been in the race this time. We were still getting our heads round the fact that the Mysterons were back and just to up the ante, they were no longer giving us clues as to where they would strike next. Spectrum was working on finding reliable intelligence sources to at least keep us in the game, but if this was anything to go by, we clearly had a lot of work to do.
Most of the bodies were gone now. The emergency services had done amazing work. The steady rainfall hadn’t hampered the rescue operation and hundreds had worked around the clock, digging and if need be, scrabbling in the rubble to find and release what turned out to be tragically few survivors. For the most part, the best that could be done was to enable families to identify and claim the bodies of their loved ones; those that were in a state to be identified, of course.
We had had a tip off, but it hadn’t come soon enough. Probably Black’s little joke, I thought. Get us there just in time for us to witness our failure, long enough for the message to hit home that no matter what we did, it was looking pretty ineffectual against the force of a superior race of beings.
There were just a handful of us left on site now, tying up loose ends. All that remained was dealing with the few distraught families still milling around, and talking to the media. Neither of the two were jobs anyone volunteered for, particularly in circumstances like this, where there was no good news to be had.
The Angels had all departed, except for Destiny, who was stumbling around the ruins, looking like the Mad Woman of Chaillot. Her face was splodged with dirt and her hair looked like she’d gone grey overnight. It took a second to realise that she was covered in ash. Eventually, as if her legs would no longer keep her upright, she collapsed against a fallen pillar a few feet in front of me. She sprawled on the ground, legs splayed out in front of her, as if she, the Pilates Queen, couldn’t summon up the energy to move, let alone haul herself up.
“How could they do this?” she said in a whisper. “How could they? All those people.....there were children, babies.....” She looked up at me and I saw that tears were streaming down her face. “How could he do this?”
As her voice rose from a whimper to a screech, two thoughts occurred simultaneously; one, the only other time I had seen Destiny cry was at Black’s funeral and two, judging by the rivulets of black water coursing down her cheeks, she had yet to discover the benefits of L’Oreal’s ‘Midnight Miracle’ mascara. But here’s the weird bit - not only did I understand exactly where she was coming from, I actually felt sorry for her. This came as something of a shock to me; I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but to my mind, Destiny’s range of responses has never quite approached Normalville, even before her former squeeze was killed and reincarnated to bat for the other side. Today, though, I found myself conceding that if I had been through what she has, I’d be a basket case, too.
I tried to say something to her, but it was as if my vocal chords had been severed because no noise emerged. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw TV cameras moving towards us, so I stepped forward, resorting to gesticulation to convey the words, “Move, get out of here.” I figured the last thing Colonel White needed was for the world to witness his most senior fighter pilot going into major meltdown live on CNN Primetime.
I don’t think she understood, but it didn’t matter, because Scarlet suddenly appeared round the corner and clocked the situation immediately. He crouched down next to her, making sure he was shielding her from the cameras. “Go home, Destiny,” he said.
“Home?” She repeated the word in that uncomprehending way people do when a foreign language is being spoken.
“Back to Skybase. Take off, there’s nothing more you can do here. Probably not much any of us can do now.”
Her face took on that stubborn look she gets just before arguing the toss, but he got there first, because he said, “That wasn’t a request, by the way.” So she simply glared at him, wiped her face with her sleeve and muttered “S.I.G.” Then she got to her feet and stomped away from him towards her Falcon. He sighed heavily and gazed down at his boots for a long moment and I realised he knew she would chow him out later for pulling rank on her. What puzzled me was that I got the feeling it mattered to him all of a sudden and I wasn’t sure why.
I mean, if we’re talking rank, it could matter to me, too. Strictly speaking, the senior colour-coded personnel don’t outrank the Angels. But we have an unwritten rule that the person in charge of the mission is usually the person whose field of expertise is paramount to the situation we’re dealing with. In this case, that was me. The way it works is like this; we have a bomb, I defuse it. No-one else can do exactly what I do, so I call the shots, which is usually something like, “get the fuck out of my way and let me get on with it.” Only in this case, we had a bomb and I couldn’t defuse it. Two hundred people died. And now Scarlet was doing what he always does, taking charge of the operation. I would normally have been irritated, but at this point I didn’t have the energy. In fairness, I suppose all he’d done was send her packing, which is what I should have had the foresight to do at least an hour ago.
I realised I was crossing my arms and holding them tight against my ribs in an effort to hold myself together. I must have looked as defeated as I felt, because he came towards me and laid his hand on my shoulder. He said, “It would have taken hours to defuse that thing. There was nothing you could have done, El.”
“I know,” I replied, although what came out were not so much words as a weird froggy sound, because I was so choked up. “So why doesn’t that make me feel any better?”
I knew I sounded whiny, despite my best efforts at grace under pressure, something to show him that I wasn’t going to give in and howl like a dying animal. I’m not sure what I expected him to do; hug me, perhaps? But he just shook his head and walked away. I guess providing comfort wasn’t popping up on anyone’s to-do list right now.
“Captain Ochre?” I recognised the voice immediately and felt my heart sink even lower, something I had not thought possible. I knew that as soon as I turned round, CNN’S chief news anchor would have a camera jammed so close to my face that if I opened my mouth, an unedifying view of my tonsils would be beamed across the world.
Roger McCauley was a blobby man who looked like he’d been put together by a balloon-twister at a kids birthday party. No matter what the situation was, the corners of his mouth perpetually turned up as if he couldn’t stop smiling. I sometimes wondered if he’d had a stroke early in life because his personality wasn’t at all sunny. Not morose, just bland. If he were ice-cream, he wouldn’t even be vanilla. That’s not to say he wasn’t good at his job, however. He was a firm believer in responsible journalism, which meant that he usually gave Spectrum a fair crack of the whip. When it came to dealing with the media, we tended to prefer Roger to some other hacks I could name.
So I turned round and tried to mimic the upturned mouth thing, although I daresay it fell short of an actual smile. “Roger. Good to see you again,” I said, as graciously as I could manage. He nodded back, although it was clear he wasn’t going to waste too much time on pleasantries.
“Can you tell us who is responsible for this?” he asked, cutting to the chase even faster than I’d expected.
“I’m afraid it’s a little early for that,” I replied in my most reassuring, ‘don’t worry, Spectrum will soon get to the bottom of this’ voice.
“But, Captain – a disaster of this magnitude – you must have some idea who the perpetrators are? Surely you don’t expect us to believe Spectrum received no warning?”
“On this occasion, I’m afraid our intelligence was insufficient to enable us to avert this tragedy,” I replied, my teeth already beginning to clench with the effort of remaining polite. “Naturally, Spectrum’s immediate priority will be to find those responsible so they can be brought to justice. However, as always, internal enquiries will be ongoing to see if there are any lessons to be learned here.”
He nodded in a conspiratorial sort of way, still with the super-smiley face. “Of course, of course. Are you at least able to tell us where your intelligence came from?”
“Are you nuts?” I snapped back, without thinking. I realised immediately that if he were watching this, my retort would not at all have been to Colonel White’s liking. ‘Improve charm and diplomacy skills’ was probably already being added to my performance development objectives. I knew I needed to keep my temper in check. So I said, throwing him what I hoped was a winsome smile, “Roger, you know that Spectrum can’t reveal its sources.”
“I understand that, Captain. Naturally, I was not expecting you to give up names. However, I asked the question because it seems to me that Spectrum may have developed a problem in this area. As you will be aware, there have been two major terrorist attacks in the last few weeks, both of which your organisation has apparently been powerless to prevent. I’m talking, of course, about the massacre of the Chinese trade delegation in New York and the tragic assassination of Ambassador Galdani of the UN. Now, as far as I am aware, no one has taken responsibility for those events, nor has Spectrum given any hint that it is close to apprehending the perps. It seems to me that either your intelligence is not as reliable as it once was, or that there is a new enemy at work, one that is currently outsmarting even Spectrum. Would you care to comment on that?”
I tried to look impassive – I couldn’t let him see how dismayed I was. Although I didn’t for one moment think that Roger, even with his superior powers of investigative journalism, was anywhere close to discovering the Mysterons, his line of reasoning hovered dangerously near the truth. We needed successes to show we were back in the game, that recent events were just a temporary dip in our league table. We couldn’t afford to have the world lose confidence in us. Up to now, we’d had the unequivocal backing of the UN in the fight against the Mysterons. We’d given them results to back up our belief that we are Earth’s best defence. But it’s dog-eat-dog out there and if they decided we’re losing our edge, they might start to remember that it was Spectrum who got us into this war in the first place. They wouldn’t hesitate to slash our funding in favour of anyone who could do better. We needed to show that we’re still the best, but I’d be the first to admit that, right now, it didn’t look good for us.
“I really can’t give you much more than I already have, Roger,” I said as sweetly as I could, manfully resisting the impulse to ram his microphone down his blobby little throat. “It goes without saying that we’re all devastated at what has happened here today and our hearts go out to the victims and their families. Spectrum will, as always, do everything in its power in the continuing war against terror. Our enemies know better than to underestimate us and I don’t believe anything has changed there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to have a word with Padre Miguel.”
I turned and walked away from him before he had a chance to say anything more. It was a lie, of course – I didn’t particularly need to have a word with anyone. We had already covered all bases with our usual military precision. Scarlet dealt with the emergency services, Grey handled the police, Indigo and Magenta did the families and other interested parties and Blue and I divided up the media between us. As far as I was concerned, we’d done as much as we could. All that remained now was for someone to give the signal to go home.
I knew I should want to leave. Twilight was turning into darkness, making the ruins of the Basilica even more dangerous than they had been when you could actually see where you were putting your feet. The rain was falling ever more steadily, to the point where, highlighted in the harsh glare of the emergency arc lamps, the sky looked like it was showering needles.
There was something more, though. I realised that what I had said to Roger McCauley hadn’t actually been a lie. I did want to speak with Padre Miguel, the priest who had lost not only his church, but many of his congregation, as well as the wider flock of worshipping tourists who had been here for the day. I had no idea what I would say to him, but my heart informed me that there was an acknowledgement of some kind to be made.
I wasn’t sure if he was still here, of course. I knew Magenta had talked to him earlier in the day. For such a deluded, shallow self-obsessive, Mario is surprisingly good at these things. He not only knows exactly what people need to hear, he manages to inject just the right amount of sincerity into his delivery. Not too much, not too little. He’s impressive, he really is. If I didn’t know him as well as I do, I’d believe he was genuine.
Anyway, from what I saw, Padre Miguel looked like he’d taken on board whatever drivel Mario had spouted at him, which would no doubt be something along the lines of “go home and pray for strength, as your people will need you more in the days to come”, or whatever. So he was probably back at home toasting his tootsies in front of a nice warm fire and working on his ‘aftermath of a disaster’ sermon for NBC’s ‘The World On Sunday’.
Except he wasn’t doing that at all, as I discovered when I walked down the road towards the ancient basilica, which, although only a few yards away from its more modern replacement, seemed undamaged by the bomb. What he was doing was directing what appeared to be a rather covert operation to load a very large picture-like object into the back of a Ute. The size of the thing required at least eight burly Mexicans to strain their muscle-bound bodies to the limit in order to ensure its soft landing in the truck. Although I was momentarily distracted by so much sweat and testosterone, I couldn’t help wondering why the removal of an objet d’art would be of such importance on a day like this.
As I approached, activity slowed down. All eyes were on me, expressions wary. I almost expected them to say, “Who goes there? Friend or foe?” Of course, if they did, it would be in Spanish, so there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be any the wiser. Mexican Spanish isn’t my strong suit.
Then the light fell on my uniform and I saw their shoulders relax, as if the expected threat of blows from a blunt instrument had been suddenly vanquished. Padre Miguel stepped forward and held out his hand.
“Captain Ochre?” His voice was pleasant, well-modulated with only a hint of a Latin-American accent. He was a tall, thin, ascetic-looking man, possibly in his mid to late forties. Even in the relatively poor artificial light, I could see his dark eyes shining.
“My name is Miguel,” he said, unnecessarily. “Please, won’t you join us in our endeavours?”
Endeavours? He made it sound as if they were about to embark on a high-class picnic – substitute endeavours for hors d’oeuvres. I felt hysteria rising in my throat; if someone had suddenly popped up with a bottle of Pimms, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
“What’s going on here?” I asked, hoping it sounded like I was merely showing a casual interest. I didn’t want them to think I was suggesting that this man of God and his cohorts could possibly be up to no good.
“Captain Ochre, we have witnessed a miracle today,” Miguel said earnestly. Alongside him, several dark heads nodded enthusiastically. I looked around me. Where had these people been? Clearly not on the same planet as the rest of us.
“A miracle?” I repeated, trying to keep my voice reasonably normal. After all, the man had suffered a catastrophic blow – if the shock had pushed him over the edge, maybe it was to be expected. What was going on with the rest of them, though, was way beyond what my imagination could conjure up.
Fortunately, Miguel was not going to keep me waiting long for enlightenment. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, waving his arm expansively towards the back of the truck.
I assumed he wasn’t expecting me to say “An F-Series Dodge that’s seen better days”, so I peered through the gloom to get a better look at what the vehicle contained. I recognised it at once, as any Catholic, however lapsed, would do.
“Our Lady? This is Guadalupe, the icon?” If I sounded amazed, it’s because I was. I swung back to Miguel. “Padre, how on earth is this still here? How did it..?”
“How did it survive the explosion?” His face was a shining beacon of happiness. “That is our miracle, Captain Ochre. The Basilica has been almost completely destroyed. There is nothing left of the altar – except this, the image of Our Lady. And she is untouched; there is no mark on her. She has been protected by God.”
“Jesus,” I muttered in disbelief. Then I was suddenly ashamed to be taking the Lord’s name in vain, although I couldn’t recall having had that particular sensation since I was fourteen and had said something similar during Holy Communion when Bernadette Kelly, who was sitting in the pew in front of me, had unexpectedly started her period. I say unexpectedly, because I assume she hadn’t thought it a possibility. Even Bernadette, who was universally acknowledged as being a bit dim, understood that there could be nothing in the world more mortifying than the combination of menstrual blood and white lawn cotton, so if in doubt, precautions were needed. To my teenage sensibilities, it wasn’t an unfortunate accident; it was a social disaster of gigantic proportions. Poor, inadequate Bernie, who I felt sure would never get a husband and whose life would be forever blighted by ridicule, had deserved my sympathy, not my scorn. Yet with a cruelty that astounds me now, I had turned to Siobhan Connolly on my left and said in a loud voice, “Christ Almighty, would you just look at that!”
Siobhan looked, as did everyone else within earshot and I watched as Bernie’s cheeks turned the same colour as the unfortunate streaks on the bottom of her dress. Her face crumpled and tears began welling up in her vacuous eyes. Just when I was starting to experience the faintest hints of shame, my mother’s hand slapped my face with a force I hadn’t felt since I was ten. “Elaine Mary,” she hissed in my ear, “you stop that right now! You are in the House of the Lord; you do not ever take His name in vain!
The fact that it was the profanity of which she disapproved, rather than her daughter’s betrayal of a so-called friend, was typical, I suppose. My mother, Barbara McGee, aka Saint Babs of Belfast, went to Mass every morning where she probably prayed that the Lamb of God would strike her family down rather than have any ecclesiastical disgrace heaped upon it. Back then, she did needlepoint most afternoons, in between watching the TV soaps; she was about eight years into her masterpiece, a gigantic ‘The Marys at the Sepulchre’ throw pillow.
You’ll have gathered from this that she’s not emotionally savvy. I’m not saying she doesn’t feel love for her husband and children, but the idea of life outside the box upsets her equilibrium. She has to live by rules, because otherwise she’d need MapQuest to find her way around. I don’t know if our branch of Clan McGee has its own crest, but if it does, “Think for Yourself” would not be its motto.
“Captain Ochre? Are you all right?” Padre Miguel’s concerned voice dragged me back to the present with a jolt. I glanced round and saw at least ten brown eyes gazing at me in puzzlement. Their confusion mirrored my own. What was going on with me? I wasn’t in the habit of taking trips down memory lane, certainly not on occasions such as this. And why Bernadette Kelly? She hadn’t even crossed my mind in at least fifteen years, although of course, the same could not be said for my mother. Perhaps it’s the first sign of madness, I thought. Maybe I was on my way to becoming another statistic, one more member of the military who goes way beyond being de-sensitised and finally loses sanity altogether because it’s preferable to living with what’s in your head.
The idea of being permanently incarcerated in a room covered with gigantic bubble wrap was sufficient to catapult me back to reality, however. “Padre, I’m so sorry,” I said earnestly. “The J word – it just came out. I didn’t mean any offence.”
“None taken,” he replied with a smile. His eyes were kind, but shrewd. I had the discomforting sensation he could see right into me – not just bones and tissue, but thoughts and feelings, even those I couldn’t articulate. Having this guy take confession would be some experience, I thought. Forget the bits you normally leave out – with Miguel it would be like plugging a jack into your brain and downloading everything, so there would be no point in subterfuge.
“What do you plan to do with the icon?” I asked, more in an attempt to regain my authority than with any real desire to know.
“We are bringing her back to her home, the original basilica,” he said seriously, his gaze firmly fixed on the men offloading the Ute. “She will be safe there until we can rebuild.”
“Rebuild?” I knew I sounded slow on the uptake – I was expecting him to snarl, “What’s with the repeating thing?” any second now. Instead, he just looked straight ahead with a gaze which, in light of the day’s events, seemed unnaturally calm.
“We will build another basilica, just as we did with this one,” he said evenly. “This has been one more dreadful episode in Mexico’s history, Captain. The things human beings are prepared to do to one another do not seem to change over the course of centuries. But we will not be defeated. We will carry on.”
“Human beings weren’t responsible for this,” I replied tersely, before I could stop myself.
Fortunately, he misunderstood. “No,” he acknowledged, with a sad shake of his head. “This was indeed the work of the Devil. But that is not new, Captain Ochre. We have always been battling the forces of darkness.” He looked directly at me. “You are a soldier. You must know this.”
“Yes,” I admitted. Poor Padre Miguel. He had no idea how much I wanted to scream and cry, fling myself at his feet and beg forgiveness for failing in my soldierly duties in such spectacular fashion.
“Do you know about the legend of Guadalupe, Captain?” he asked.
“You mean how her image was supposed to appear to Juan Diego, the Aztec peasant? I’m no longer a practising Catholic, Padre, but I know the basic story.”
He nodded. “It’s fascinating, even for those who do not believe. I would like to tell you a little more about it, because it says much about the spirit of Mexicans. It is a spirit that cannot be crushed by tragedy. But first, I would like to know your name – I do not want to go on calling you El Capitano.”
I was completely incapable of explaining to him that the identities of Spectrum personnel were not for public consumption. I had the strange, but certain conviction that this man knew me inside out within the space of ten minutes and that to hide anything from him would not only be pointless, but foolish. So I said simply, “It’s Elaine.”
“Elena. That is a beautiful name.” He pronounced it El-en-a, rather than El-ayn-a. “So, Elena, to continue with my story. You know that the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in December 1531, on Tepeyac, the hill over there? Do you know what she wanted of him?”
“She asked him to build a church for her at the base of the hill.”
“Correct. But Juan Diego was not a rich or a well-educated man and was also known to be somewhat fanciful. So, as you might imagine, he had trouble getting the local Bishop to believe his story. He had to ask the Virgin for proof of some kind. She complied by covering the hillside with roses. That was seen as a miracle, because not only was it December and very cold, but back then, the hill was not a hospitable place for flowers or shrubs of any kind. Juan Diego cut several of the roses and placed them in his tilma, which was a sort of cloak used in protection against the elements. He was instructed by the Virgin that he must only disclose what he was carrying to the Bishop himself and that this would be seen as a sign that she was for real.”
“And was it? Did the Bishop believe him?”
“Eventually, yes he did. So, the first church on this site was built. Of course the Old Basilica where we are standing now was not completed until 1709, many, many years after Juan Diego’s death.”
His brown eyes regarded me intently. “But it was more than just the flowers, Elena. The legend would not have survived all these centuries on the basis of roses in December. The most important part was that Guadalupe left an imprint of her image on Juan Diego’s tilma. That cloth is what goes to make up the icon. That was the second miracle, you see. The tilma was made of poor quality cactus cloth; it should have disintegrated relatively quickly. Yet, here we are, over five hundred years later and it is intact, no signs of decay.”
“Right,” I answered with a knowing smile, as if the fact that this piece of religious hokum was being imparted by a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church made all the difference to its believability. Not for the first time, I wondered why faith could make idiots of seemingly intelligent people.
“And now, today, Guadalupe has shown us her third miracle,” he continued. “The forces of evil cannot destroy her and they cannot destroy our faith. She will be safe in her original home until a new Basilica can be built.” He grinned broadly. “Let us hope that next time a better architect may be found. The inside of the modern basilica was truly beautiful, but there are many who will not mourn the destruction of the exterior. It was – how do you say? A carbuncle?”
I smiled at him. Despite his whimsical strangeness, Miguel was an immensely likeable man. I suspected that his sense of humour could hold its own in the roughest of Belfast drinking establishments.
“Why was the modern Basilica built in the first place?” I asked. “The old building is beautiful. What was wrong with it?”
“It was sinking,” he replied seriously. “Its foundations were not strong. Now it is shored up by extensive repair work and modern engineering. But there was a time when it was deemed to be in imminent danger of collapse, so in the nineteen seventies, the decision was taken to build a new church nearby. This old building is still in use, but not so many people worship here now. Most want to spend time with Guadalupe, so they visit the modern Basilica.”
“Looks like they’ll be coming back here, then,” I said. “At least for a while.”
“Yes,” he said with a faint smile. “It is as I explained earlier, Elena. We trust in Our Lady. Ultimately, she will not let us down. People will still come to worship and pray for a better world. Guadalupe will provide.”
How wonderful it must be, I thought, to endure such tragedy and still have faith and hope that one day, everything will be all right. I wondered when I had lost the ability to do so – probably long before the advent of the Mysterons. In that moment, instead of arrogant condescension, I felt only envy.
“Would you mind if I had a look around the old church, Padre?” I asked impulsively. “I’d like to make sure everything is secure and in order. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to this one, now would we?”
“Of course not,” he replied, his eyes twinkling. “Take as much time as you need.” He touched my arm lightly before walking away and I realised he wasn’t fooled by my morphing back into ‘Captain Ochre of Spectrum, here to save the world’ mode. He knew that inside, I was a puddle.
I wandered inside the old Basilica. It seemed to have been restored to something approaching its original magnificence, although I wasn’t sure how many people actually worshipped here now. I could see that Guadalupe had been carefully removed from the Ute and positioned with due reverence on an altar surrounded by candles. Just underneath her was a bowl of silk roses and a bright yellow child’s bicycle. It all looked a little bizarre, given the circumstances, but maybe it was the best anyone could do. I was beyond giving serious consideration to the strangeness of a bike in a church.
The place felt damp and chill in the darkness. The second week in December, but no-one seemed to have considered heating. Nor had any lamps been switched on – the only source of light was candles, randomly grouped in their dozens. Perhaps religious fervour wasn’t always conducive to paying the utility bills.
The place was empty, apart from a woman sitting alone on a pew at the front. From a rear view she looked to be tall and very snappily dressed in a dark business-like suit. She was muttering something to herself – prayers, I assumed. I didn’t want to disturb her privacy, but by the same token, it didn’t seem right to just turn tail and walk back out. After swift deliberation, I slid as noiselessly as I could into a seat a few feet behind her. I wondered if I too, would find it possible to pray and quickly discovered that no, I would not. Despite my upbringing, I could no longer be a party to hypocrisy. So, I just sat quietly and waited for a sufficiently decent interval to elapse whereby I could leave.
She must have sensed my presence though, because she turned around and stared at me. She was probably only in her early fifties, although at that moment, she looked about eighty. She had abundant hair in a shade of blonde that would never occur naturally on a person of Hispanic origin and a cosmetically enhanced face that was covered in so much make-up it must have been laid on with a trowel. I guess she would normally be considered very attractive by middle-aged men with impaired eyesight, but right now, she was a mess. The hair was escaping in demonic fashion from the slides intended to keep it out of her eyes and the face was puffy from crying. Her whole body seemed shrivelled up with grief and exhaustion.
My uniform seemed to mean something to her because she treated me to an outpouring of rapid Spanish, in which the word “Spectrum” was heavily featured. The ‘understanding a language other than English’ section of my brain seemed to have given up the ghost, so in the end, I said, “I’m not really following you. Could you talk more slowly, please?”
“Ah. Eeengleesh,” she said, with a nod of enlightenment. I was tempted to say, “Well, Irish, actually,” but I decided it wasn’t a good idea to be pedantic over this distinction when I was showing such a lamentable lack of knowledge of her own native tongue.
I thought she understood me, but she didn’t say anything more, just thrust a photograph into my hand, jabbing a shaking finger at both me and the picture in turn. “Look,” she cried at last. “Look. You see!”
I did see. The photo was of a young boy in a school uniform beaming proudly out at the camera. He looked to be about five or six.
“Grandson,” she said proudly. “My grandson. This picture – his first day at school, you know? His clothes, his – how you say? His uniform, yes. His uniform was too big, but my daughter, she say don’t worry, he soon grow. But now, he will not. He is lost to me, as is my daughter. Lost under the rubble.” Her tears began to spill over once more, as her voice rose to a raging howl of despair.
I had no words of comfort to give, so I simply put my arms around her and gave her what was admittedly an awkward hug; awkward in that she was at least six feet tall, so my five six meant that my arms were stretched round her middle and my face was resting dangerously close to two skin-stretching, volley ball sized objects that her plastic surgeon had probably told her was the bosom everyone was asking for these days. If she was the clingy type, I might well suffocate.
Fortunately, she pulled away and patted her skirt in what seemed to be a blind search for something. This turned out to be a white lace handkerchief, which she unfolded and pressed against her eyes with both palms. I noted with interest that her eyes were just red, rather than smudgy black, a clear sign that her mascara was holding up better than Destiny’s. I fought down the urge to ask her what brand she used. Even though the world had become surreal, to the point where the floor occasionally changed places with the ceiling, I still had enough of a grip on reality to know that such a superficial question would be in exceedingly bad taste.
The problem was, I couldn’t seem to get beyond superficial. My brain was refusing to deal with the concept of anything deeper than the properties of waterproof mascara. That was a bit of a worry. What if it was another sign that my mind and I were parting company and that my future consisted of nothing more creative than macramé and papier mache baskets?
Mexican Granny – I should have asked her name – had finished dabbing her eyes by now and had grabbed my hand. She was pulling me forward towards the altar, where the bike was still lolling awkwardly next to the silk flowers.
“See?” she asked again, giving me a push in the small of my back. She was clearly no slouch in the fitness stakes - the force was such that I stumbled, almost falling over the handlebars.
“This is yours?” I asked, rubbing my bruised elbow. I realised at once how ludicrous the question was. This was just a kid’s bike. It still had stabilisers attached. No way would a six foot, fifty-odd year old woman be riding around the streets of Mexico City on it, not unless her entire body was double-jointed. I didn’t think even the most ambitious plastic surgeon would run to that.
“It is present,” she replied sadly. “Christmas present for José. It is the thing he most wanted, but he will never use it now. I wanted to bring it here, to Our Lady. She will bless it and through this, she will keep safe my little José.”
I was stunned by her naivety; not just her simple-minded devotion to a centuries old religious symbol, but at the fact she didn’t seem to realise that the chances of the bike still being here tomorrow morning were slim to none. I had no doubts that the local delinquents would misappropriate it in double quick time, even if the church were locked overnight, which seemed unlikely.
“Look, Ms....” I began gently.
“Rosa,” she said. “My name is Rosa.”
“Okay, Rosa. You really shouldn’t leave the bike here, you know. It isn’t safe. Someone might steal it.”
She looked at me as if I had committed the ultimate blasphemy. “Steal it?” she echoed. “From Our Lady? No, no. Not possible. Guadalupe will protect it. It must stay here to receive her blessing.”
I shrugged. “Well, it’s up to you, I guess. But you’ll need to come back tomorrow and collect it. I don’t think you’ll be allowed to leave it here indefinitely.”
She nodded and began to cry once more. “Every day,” she whispered. “I will be here every day from now. There is nothing else for me. Just praying to Our Lady for José and Maria.”
And for all the others, I thought, as a wave of utter despair engulfed me. Her sorrow was unbearable. I wanted to fall down on my knees and scream until I had no voice left.
“Rosa, I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It probably sounded trite, but I could think of nothing else to say to her.
She smiled at me through a sheen of tears. “Thank you,” she said softly. Then she laid a hand on my arm. “You have a good heart, I think. God will go with you, caro.” Then, after a final dab at her eyes, she tucked away her hanky, picked up her handbag and hurried out of the basilica.
My legs felt like they were turning to jelly, so I slumped down into the pew she had vacated and tried to take deep breaths to fend off the waves of nausea. Unfortunately, all the hyperventilating did nothing more than increase my dizziness, so I stopped breathing so much and kept my head still and my eyes fixed on the marble slabs of the altar. And I thought about pain.
You don’t remember pain, do you? Physical pain, I mean. You remember that you felt it, but not what it was actually like at the time. When I was twenty and fairly new to the army, I was accidentally shot in the shoulder by a guy from my own regiment who had misaligned his M-340. The pain was indescribable. I can recall thinking, as they stretchered me off to the helicopter: I will not live through this flight because the pain will kill me. I truly cannot take it. I displayed no stiff upper lip qualities whatsoever. I just kept shrieking, “I want a priest!” Me, whose last confession pretty much coincided with my first communion. The point is, the pain was terrible, but I can’t remember the actual degree of terrible.
You don’t remember emotional pain, either. When Danny McNulty, the most gorgeous boy ever to grace a sixth form biology class had unexpectedly dumped me for Bridie Cooper, a four foot eleven midget with acne and pudgy ankles, I was in no doubt that I would die. The only way to escape the agony in my soul was to embrace the Holy Trinity of youth: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Boy, did I embrace. I was a true believer. I screwed, drank and drugged with the best of them. I didn’t die, of course, I just got chucked out of university. By the time I joined the army and had done a couple of tours of Afghanistan, I couldn’t even remember what Danny McNulty looked like.
So you know that this pain and more, occurred. You remember the instances with sadness; you might even cringe. But you don’t remember the pain itself. And the fact you don’t remember is part of getting over things. But this was different. As I sat alone in that dark church, I realised that Rosa, with her sad little gift to Guadalupe, and Destiny, in her tears of anguish, understood something that until this moment, I had not. There is pain that will be remembered, pain from which it is impossible to recover. There would be no getting over this.
But then, the strangest thing happened. As I gazed at the altar with unseeing eyes, something appeared to float to the floor from above. It looked for all the world like a scattering of pale pink rose petals. The silk flower arrangement was obviously falling apart faster than it was meant to, I thought. I bent down and picked them up. If the most I could accomplish today was to leave the place tidy, so be it. But the petals were not silk. They were real and what was more, they gave off that indisputable rose scent that no artificial flowers can ever possess. I looked around, puzzled. There were no flowers of any kind in the basilica, other than the aforementioned silk arrangement. Where on earth had these come from?
I caressed their velvety softness gently with my fingertips and watched, trancelike, as they slowly disintegrated and slipped to the floor once more. Soon, there was nothing left but dust and a lingering aroma of roses on my hands. I smelled like I had been doused in a bottle of Jean Patou’s ‘Joy’. Come on now, Elaine, get a grip, I thought hysterically. This is just some high-falutin’ air freshener they’re piping through.
I glanced up at Guadalupe. “Sure know how to spin heads, don’t you?” I said sardonically. “You’ve even got me thinking I’m going nuts. What do you do for your party trick?”
She just smiled. She did, I swear to God. Her expression changed and she smiled at me. And as I gazed at her in disbelief, I saw myself reflected in her eyes. It was just like a mirror, me standing gazing up with rose dust between my fingers. I stood, rooted to the spot and watched as the picture changed. It was like watching a movie on a tiny, tiny screen. There was Captain Black, then he was gone. There too, was the Mysteron City before it also vanished in a prism of colour. I have never actually seen the Mysteron city, but I knew without doubt that this was what I was looking at. Then I saw Scarlet and Blue and Colonel White raising champagne glasses in celebration. Destiny was there too, dressed not in her Angel uniform, but in civvies. Two small children, a boy and girl, were happily playing at her feet, while in a corner, apparently unobserved, a coffee and cream coloured baby crawled with dogged determination towards one of Skybase’s elevators.
The picture changed again. Back to me this time, although my uniform looked a little different and I was wearing the epaulettes and insignia of a colonel. I was seated at Colonel White’s desk in Central Control. Occupying Lieutenant Green’s place was someone I didn’t know. I looked older, but nothing to complain about. In one small corner of my mind, I was oddly cheered. If this was meant to be a vision of the future, then not only was I still alive, I didn’t look to be in urgent need of a facelift. I’m ashamed to admit I was more pleased by my lack of wrinkles than I was by the fact that, against all odds, I’d actually made colonel.
But then I started to feel really frightened. What was happening to me? Hallucinations had never before been part of Trauma Time. It wasn’t the fact that I was watching a show that wasn’t listed in the TV guide that scared me; in an odd way, the visions were comforting. It was the fact I was having them in the first place.
Keep calm, I told myself sternly. This is all in your head, Elaine. It’s not real. I sat back down, closed my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them again, there was no evidence of rose petals and Guadalupe’s face bore her previously sanguine expression. There was nothing reflected in her eyes.
When I got back to base, I decided, I would behave like a sane person. I would do the responsible thing and book in an appointment with the fair Alex, our resident psych. Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m a firm believer in nipping these things in the bud. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all part of the job. In the same way you don’t ignore routine physical stuff, you need to pay attention to the mind things, too. The Angels complain that altitude and G-forces wreak havoc on their systems; for us, it’s usually more mental stress overload. Of course, you could point this out to some of my male colleagues until the cows come home and they would simply scoff at it. But that’s men for you.
A noise at the back of the church made me turn. I saw the outline of a Spectrum cap and felt my heart sink. Someone had come to look for me. I crossed my fingers that it would not be Blue, with his gung-ho cheeriness, or, God help me, Magenta, whose internal radar could pick up female distress signals at a thousand paces. He would immediately morph into his Mr Sensitive persona, here to dispense comfort as required. Maybe I was being a little harsh on him, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he was above turning a comradely cuddle into an excuse to cop a feel. I didn’t even want it to be Scarlet; his concern would be genuine, but then he would just be so damned nice to me that I would start blubbing and once that happened, there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to stop.
Maybe I need to explain something, here. We – the senior personnel – all have nicknames. Most of the time, it’s self-explanatory. For instance, Magenta is Romeo, Blue is Tex and Scarlet is The Alien. He wasn’t too happy about that at first, but once he understood that we only said it to his face because we wouldn’t have him any other way, he seemed okay with it. We didn’t bother nicknaming the Angels – I think we felt that they had enough to cope with being musical cherubs. Mario does call Destiny The Snow Queen, but fortunately, for his sake, I think she’s completely unaware of it.
As for me, I’m The Girl. Obvious, really. I’m the only female senior colour – coded captain. I don’t have a problem with it. No-one can say it’s not accurate, except that at the age of thirty-one, the word “girl” might be a misnomer. Still, it could be worse. The difficulty is, because I am The Girl, I can’t be the girl, if you catch my drift. Which is why I didn’t particularly want to be caught in my present emotional state. It was way too girly for my liking, but equally, I didn’t feel up to masking it with the usual defence mechanisms.
So I was mightily relieved to hear a Scottish bass voice boom, “So this is where you’ve been hiding out, lass.”
Captain Grey. I felt my shoulders relax immediately. The good thing about Iain is that you can be yourself with him without fearing disapproval or censure of any kind. At least, I can. I’m not sure why I find him so easy to be around – I know it’s not a view shared by everyone. There are those who find him dour, to say the least. He thinks it’s because we share a Celtic connection which has filtered down through the centuries. Maybe he’s right. There is a sympathy between us which often transcends the need for explanations. That can be so restful.
He took one look at me and plonked himself down at my side, stretching out his long legs as far as the pew in front of us would allow. “Here,” he said, without preamble, holding out a plastic cup of what looked like extremely hot liquid.
I sniffed it. My nose didn’t receive any positive vibes. “What is it?” I asked suspiciously.
He could have said, “rat poison,” and it wouldn’t have mattered. What he did say was, “The Red Cross has set up some kind of refreshments stall. I can’t remember if I asked for tea or coffee, but the important thing is that it’s hot and sweet.”
I gazed down at it and knew that if I took even one small sip, I would be sick. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”
He picked my hand off its resting post on the pew in front of me and placed it round the container. “Come on, El,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Golden rule of Trauma Time – you don’t let your blood sugar drop so low that you wind up in La- La Land. Drink up.”
I knew he was right. And with that knowledge came the realisation that maybe I wasn’t losing my marbles after all. Padre Miguel, Rosa, the weird stuff with Guadalupe, it was all just temporary. I was so weak with relief that I decided giving the tea/coffee a try was worth the risk of throwing up over Iain’s admittedly less than immaculate boots.
It didn’t taste any better than it looked, but it was indeed hot. “This is vile,” I declared, ungraciously. “You could at least have got me a Mars Bar.”
“They’re running a soup kitchen, not a ruddy sweet shop,” he protested mildly.
“That’s no excuse,” I said, as I slid my arm through his and felt him lean into me with companionable warmth. We sat in silence for a while, as I sipped the liquid and concentrated on the burning issue of whether it was tea or coffee. It actually tasted like hot water mixed with sugar and gravy granules. By the time I had triumphantly concluded that it was Bovril which had been mistaken for tea and sweetened in error, the world was reverting to some semblance of normality.
“I feel like such a wimp, Iain,” I announced at last. “For some reason, this one has really got to me. I don’t know why.”
“That can happen,” he replied thoughtfully. “Some things hit home more than others. Personally, I think it all boils down to ethics. Or the lack of them.” He looked at me. “You know what I mean, hen? Most people, even terrorists, usually have some kind of moral code, which limits the depths to which they’ll sink. Even in war, we’ve come to expect standards of some kind. But with the Mysterons, there are no standards. They don’t have any no-go areas and you’re angry at that. You’re outraged at their lack of ethics.”
“But I’m not angry,” I said slowly. “Not really. Oh, I should be – I should be filled with rage, because that I could handle. But instead, I just feel heartbroken. See that?” I pointed towards the altar, where the bike still leaned perilously close to a cluster of candles. “That was going to be a little boy’s Christmas present. But now he’s dead, along with his mother, so his grandmother brought the present here to give it to Guadalupe.”
I could tell by Grey’s bemused expression that he thought I was still suffering the effects of low blood sugar. But then he said, “I was rather wondering about the bike...” in such a manner that I realised he was all too familiar with the peculiarities of post-traumatic stress.
“He was only five,” I continued. “He’d just started school. And now he’ll never see his presents or learn how to ride his bike. He’ll never grow up, get married or make his granny a great-grandmother. That’s what I can’t bear, Iain. There’ll be no more Christmases for any of these people.”
He was silent and I glanced up at him. His face was impassive in the shadows of the candles. Then I remembered. He had lost his small daughter in tragic circumstances before she even reached school age. Okay, it hadn’t happened at Christmas, but even so, I knew this time of year was difficult for him. I reached for his hand and entwined my fingers in his.
“Sorry,” I muttered. “Didn’t mean....” my voice trailed off. I didn’t really know what it was I didn’t mean.
He squeezed my fingers briefly in understanding. “I know,” he said. “It’s fine, hen. But as for no more Christmases.... well, that’s not true, you know. Yes, a lot of people died and many more have had their lives ruined. But they’ll go on to recover what they can, because in the end, that’s all any of us can do.”
His eyes, as storm-cloud grey as his tunic, gazed intently at me. “We may have lost the battle today, lassie, but we’re not dead in the water yet. There’s still a world out there. There are millions of kids who are blissfully unaware of what’s happened here because they’re so caught up in the excitement of wondering just what Santa Claus is going to bring them. And that’s exactly as it should be. Our job is to find better ways of making sure that that they’ll have plenty more Christmases to look forward to.”
The lump in my throat was threatening to choke me unless I could manage to unclog it by drowning it in tears. But, Iain being Iain, he had already worked that out for himself. So he got to his feet and gently touched my shoulder.
“Would you like me to give the signal to pack up now?” he asked. I nodded, grateful that, in asking the question, he had deferred to my judgement, even if he probably believed that right now, I wasn’t capable of exercising any.
“Thanks, I’d appreciate that,” I managed to say. I caught hold of his sleeve as he moved away from me. “Iain? Would you just give me a couple of minutes on my own? I’ll be out in a jiffy.”
“No problem,” he said. “We’re not in a hurry.” He sauntered back out of the church in a manner which was no doubt designed to convey the erroneous impression that indeed, we had all the time in the world before we needed to get back to Skybase and officially account for our failings.
But the spectre of a de-briefing session wasn’t really uppermost in my mind at this point. I was too busy trying to stem the tide of wetness flowing down my face. Water was dripping from my chin onto my tunic. Damn it, I thought irritably. I needed to have a word with the people who supply our uniforms. It’s bad enough finding anywhere to store Tampax, never mind a convenient pocket to deposit tissues.
I must have been casting about my person rather desperately, because a voice I had come to recognise suddenly said politely, “Allow me,” as a square of clean white linen was pressed into my hand. Padre Miguel. He was so soft-footed I hadn’t heard him approach. He took Grey’s place next to me in the pew and bent his head in silent prayer as I rather noisily blew my nose into his beautifully laundered handkerchief.
When I had composed myself somewhat, I turned towards him. He was still away on his prayer trip, muttering to himself in Latin. It was probably tactless of me to interrupt, but in the end, I couldn’t stop myself.
“How do you do it, Padre?” I asked. “How do you live with all the rottenness in the world and still believe? Surely no-one in their right minds would ever believe this could be God’s will. So why do you?”
He sighed, almost inaudibly. “My child,” he began, as if he was not aware of the fact that there could certainly be no more than fifteen years difference in our ages, “God cannot prevent the wickedness we inflict on ourselves. He cannot wave a magic wand and take away all the tragedy and suffering in the world. The fact that He cannot do these things does not mean we should cast Him aside. What God gives us is the strength to deal with whatever fate hands us, be it good or bad. I have gained from that strength all my life and nothing that has taken place today changes anything.”
“But if you believe in God, then you believe He will protect us from harm, surely? Otherwise, you wouldn’t think that a centuries old bit of cloth has some magical power to heal and watch over us. That’s what I don’t understand, Padre. How can you believe in something so patently untrue? The only thing Guadalupe protected today was herself.”
I was quite surprised at the bitterness in my voice, but Miguel didn’t seem perturbed. I expect he’s used to people like me, the black sheep who resolutely refuse to return to the fold. He said quietly, “I understand your loss of faith, Elena. You do a difficult job in circumstances where sometimes, the presence of God is not evident. All I can tell you is that you should not give up hope. The Lord will continue to walk with you, even if you do not wish to acknowledge Him.”
I decided I’d had enough religion for one day. “Thank you for your advice, Padre,” I said, giving him my best effort at a grateful smile. “I’ll try to bear it in mind. Now I really must go. My people will be waiting for me.”
I gave him back his soggy handkerchief and got to my feet. Oddly, he did not rise with me. He was examining the cloth with a strange expression on his face. Then, to my amazement, he brought it to his nose and sniffed. I stared at him, appalled. The Catholic Church has always had its odd practices and shameful secrets, but never before had I come across a snot fetish. And in such a fastidious man; who would have guessed?
“Roses,” he murmured. “It smells of roses.” Then he looked at me with wonder in his eyes. “Did something happen here, Elena? Did Guadalupe appear to you?” His voice was urgent, tinged with awe.
I just stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to say. His hand shot out and closed round my arm in a grip that was probably more forceful than he intended. “Please,” he said. “You must tell me. This is important.”
I had no idea why my hallucinatory trip through the light fantastic should be important, or why he didn’t recognise the smell of the fabric softener his housekeeper had used on his hanky. I decided to indulge him anyway. After all, we were unlikely ever to meet again. What harm could there be in co-operating in his little fantasies? So I explained the rose petals and the movie of the week I had seen in Guadalupe’s eyes.
When I had finished, he simply clasped my hands in his own and beamed at me. “My child,” he said reverently. “Another miracle! Guadalupe has revealed herself to you. You are blessed indeed!”
“Oh, come on, Miguel,” I said with a short laugh. “That’s ridiculous. Look, there are no roses and whatever I thought I saw on Guadalupe’s face was just my imagination playing tricks on me. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I was seeing stuff that wasn’t there, that’s all. It’s just been a tough day for everyone.”
He shook his head, still holding tight to my hands. “Please,” he said. “Sit down again. There are things I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” I replied, resigned to the fact that I was not going to escape any time soon. I slammed my rear end back down on the hard wood and thought that the next time our uniforms were redesigned, I would suggest the incorporation of a little padding in the posterior. If I ended up looking like Marilyn Monroe’s darker, fatter, Irish sister, it would be a small price to pay for comfort.
“What do you want to tell me, Padre?” I asked.
“When I related the story of Guadalupe, I did not explain everything,” he began earnestly. “There is more to the legend than the flowers and the cloak. Over the centuries, several people have seen images reflected in Guadalupe’s eyes. Sometimes it is of themselves, sometimes of events around them, or of things to come. Photographs have been taken of these images and even now, scientists cannot agree on a rational explanation.”
“What do you mean, ‘a rational explanation’?”
“No-one knows how it happens,” he said seriously. “No-one can indisputably say it is not real, despite the most detailed forensic analysis. All I know is that every now and again, Guadalupe reveals herself in this manner. I have never experienced it myself, but I have heard stories that I believe to be true.” He looked at me intently. “You say that what you saw could be interpreted as visions of the future. Were they hopeful scenes?”
“Well, yes, I guess maybe they were,” I agreed reluctantly. “I mean, it looked like maybe we were winning the fight against the Mys...... against terror. I’m not sure what it meant, really.”
“Guadalupe wants to show you that there is still hope left, Elena. Hope for us all. If you believe nothing else about her, then at least believe that.”
I stared at the icon on the altar. She refused to do anything other than stare back at me in her usual inanimate fashion. But then, it was as if she reached into me and turned a key. A door opened in my heart, leading to a room I hadn’t known was there. I didn’t know what it contained, but I knew that there was nothing to fear. I suddenly felt lighter and freer than I had in a long time. Well, okay, I thought, exhaling silently. Perhaps Iain is right, we’re not defeated yet. Maybe we can beat them. I acknowledged the possibility that old Guadalupe knew a thing or two after all.
I stood up again. “I have to go,” I said once more. Impulsively, I reached out and gave Miguel a quick hug. “God be with you, Padre.”
“He usually is, I believe,” he replied calmly, although his cheeks had gone a little pink. “I don’t expect Him to drop out now. You should remember, Elena. When you’re running out of options, God will still be running with you, even if He’s so far in front you can’t see Him. But He will wait for you to catch up if you want Him to.”
I couldn’t take any more allegorical references. I needed to be out of there. “See you around, Padre,” I called, giving him a cheerful wave of my hand as I strode towards the door. “Take good care of Guadalupe for me. Who knows, I may be back to have another chat with her in the future.”
“Both she and I will look forward to that,” he answered with a smile.
When I got outside, the place was pretty deserted. Spectrum had departed in a big way, although Captain Grey was still there, leaning against a nearby tree. I was touched by the fact that he had waited for me, although since I was the one in possession of the lockdown protocol for our Hummingbird, he didn’t have a lot of choice. Still, I was pleased that he hadn’t decided to abandon me and cadge a lift from someone else.
“Ready to go?” he asked. As I nodded my assent, he slung his arm around my shoulders. “When we get back to base, let’s all have dinner together in the Starlight,” he said. “I’m paying, it’s my treat.”
I blinked in surprise. This was a grand gesture indeed. The Starlight Room was Skybase’s most exclusive and expensive restaurant. Most of us could only afford to eat there on special occasions. And, while I wouldn’t describe Iain as mean, he certainly is an enthusiastic exponent of the old maxim, ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’ Pushing the boat out on fine dining isn’t exactly his style and yet here he was, offering to fork out for a meal for all of us that could cost him a week’s pay. I was so touched by his kindness, I wanted to blub all over again. You’ll be glad to know that I didn’t.
All of a sudden, though, I wished he were offering me sex rather than food. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never particularly had the hots for Iain, nor, as far as I’m aware, has he for me. It’s always been more of a chummy, matey thing with us. But as I leaned into his large, solid shoulder, I began to imagine what it would be like to have his body wrapped around mine, to be enveloped in its warm strength. I closed my eyes, thinking of his hands moving all over me, his fingers teasing me towards those hot, sweaty, blissful moments of release when, for however brief a time, I would forget today.
Then I opened my eyes and gave myself a mental shake. This was another of the dangers of Trauma Time. If you weren’t careful, you could end up in the wrong situation with the wrong person for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been around the block enough times to know that seeking solace in a good shag is rarely worth the risk of fallout. Besides, not only is Iain ‘romantically involved’ with another member of Skybase’s personnel, he’s that rare breed, the steadfast, faithful type. He doesn’t need to use variety as a means of boosting his self-esteem. If he intended to share his bed with anyone tonight, that person would not be me.
So I moved out of his embrace and said, “I haven’t got much of an appetite, I’m afraid.”
“It doesn’t mean you don’t eat,” he replied. “Life goes on, Elaine, whether you like the way it goes or not. If the best we can do sometimes is just pay attention to our ethics and eat a decent meal, then the food should be damn good.”
I sighed. Truth be told, I wasn’t interested in food as a pick-me-up, whether it was haute cuisine or a burger from McDonalds. If I wasn’t going to console myself with sinus-clearing sex, then I needed to consider a different type of tranquilliser. I cast my mind around the contents of my bathroom cabinet and came up with an unopened bottle of (legally prescribed) Xanax. Yes! What a find! All I wanted now was to be home, showered and medicated into oblivion.
But of course, after his splendid offer, that wasn’t really something I could explain to Iain. So I took a deep breath and resolutely straightened my shoulders. “Okay,” I said, flashing him my brightest smile. “The Starlight it is, then. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a big fish supper with salt and vinegar and loads of ketchup. Oh, and a double helping of mushy peas. Washed down with at least three pints of Heineken. Do you think the chef will be able to cope with that?”
“Probably,” he said dryly. “I wouldn’t like to speak for your digestion. But, if lager and greasy chips are what it’s going to take to sort you out, then what the hell.” He linked his arm through mine. “Come on, hen. Let’s go home.”
So that’s what we did. For the record, the chips were fantastic and so was the lager. After I had downed the fifth pint, the proof of our superb team work was demonstrated by simultaneous decision-making. I decided it was the perfect moment to instruct Blue in the finer points of Strip Poker and Scarlet decided it was the perfect moment for me to leave. So he did the gentlemanly thing and carried me back to my quarters. I left him little choice but to deposit me in unceremonious fashion on the bathroom floor, but at least he didn’t hang around long enough to watch me throw up. I didn’t make it to the medicine cabinet to locate the Xanax, but there wasn’t really any need. I slept like a baby and didn’t dream of Guadalupe at all. And in the morning, I breezily reported to Grey that my digestion had held up just fine.
As you might guess from the quote at the beginning, the inspiration for this story came from Tom Russell’s song ‘Guadalupe’ and the gorgeous rendition of it by Gretchen Peters and Tom on their collaborative album, ‘One to the Heart, One to the Head’.
The story of Guadalupe and Juan Diego is well-documented and although I knew very little about it prior to hearing the song, I was fascinated by what I discovered. The icon resides in the modern basilica to this day and is visited by millions of tourists each year. Masses are held every hour throughout the day and confessions are also ongoing from early morning to late evening. Saint Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
I am not Catholic, so any inaccuracies in terminology or description arise purely from profound ignorance. I hope that Captain Ochre’s views on religion do not offend any readers who may not share them.
Thanks, as always, to Hazel Köhler, friend, editor and most excellent drinking companion, for her usual superb beta-reading services. Any mistakes in the text are mine and mine alone. I am grateful, not only to Chris Bishop for providing such a great platform to indulge my love for New Captain Scarlet, but to all my friends in the Scarletinis. Your companionship, support and inspiration are deeply appreciated.
At this point in time, I am not sure who owns the rights to New Captain Scarlet, but I do know that unfortunately, it’s not me. I would, however, like to assure those who do own it, that I have no profit-making motive in mind. I am simply grateful to Gerry Anderson and the scriptwriters for dreaming up such wonderful characters for me to play with.
I hope you all have a very happy Christmas. 2011 promises to be a great year, what with the tenth anniversary of SHQ and lots more fan fiction to look forward to!
20th November 2010
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