By Charles EP Murphy
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 58th contest was Ten Years Later.
Vignettes from this contest are for the second Building A Better Future charity anthology.
Everything burned around him, and his lungs were raw with the smoke. People were screaming everywhere. He was screaming. A dead man stared out of the fire at him.
Hell. It was Hell. He had died and his work had been a sin all along.
He knew the dead man. Statue. Famous man. What was his name? WHAT. WAS. HIS—
“Nate? Nate, are you alright?”
It was 2023, not 2013, and he was safe. He had to hold onto that.
“Lost myself for a second there,” he said, his voice stuck with an old smoker’s rasp in his thirties.
Patience didn’t say anything. What was there to say? You either knew what that meant, truly knew, or you did not, and if you did – and Patience did – then you didn’t have any easy answers.
“Nice day for it,” he said to fill the space, and because it wasn’t, it was a bit too grey and cloudy.
“English weather has no sense of decorum,” she said.
Someone hissed at them to be quiet. The PM was still making his speech. Almost all of Commons stood in Parliament Square as he spoke, the Met’s snipers hidden out of sight in case of trouble. News crews from all over the world were at the front of the crowd and filming Ed’s every word. They weren’t very good words, they usually weren’t, but Nate had heard a lot of words ten years ago and preferred that Ed had got something done.
“…and once again, the mother of Parliaments has a home; once again, there is a Palace of Westminster, and once again, we hear…”
Son of Ben did not ring. The speech hadn’t pulled its timing off.
“You owe me a fiver,” a Tory MP muttered to Nate.
“And me,” said Patience.
Finally, the famous old bell – the actual Big Ben but everyone had been calling the new clock “Son of Ben” anyway – bonged away for the first time in a decade, and despite the delay everyone cheered. It was a genuine cheer, something Nate felt he’d be too cynical to do, but here he was, cheering, a tear in his eye.
Through the pain and the darkness (“hurry up and knock him out, we have dozens more incoming”), he heard Big Ben chime once – twice – nothing. Where was the third chime? There should be a third chime. In his delirium, he thought the world was ending.
Later broadcasts would edit out the delay. Soon, most people would forget it ever happened.
“I hope it’s good,” said Patience. “The Sun and that lot will eat us alive if it isn’t.”
“No, they won’t dare, not on the anniversary. Give it a week and they’ll have the op-eds do it, Hitchens and Brewer and those prats.”
It was almost time to enter the new Palace of Westminster. Nate was calm in the surface and churning underneath.
The new palace had been designed by Renzo Piano, following his work on the Shard and Malta’s own new parliament. Its dimensions were the same as the old building and Son of Ben was a deliberate recreation of the original clock tower’s style, but the palace itself resembled two great lengthy blocks of stone stuck on top of each other with large airy (bulletproof) windows. At the south end was an abstract statue of Britannia to give symmetry to Son of Ben.
If Nate was honest, he didn’t think much of it. The building looked drab compared to the old one, the statue clashed with everything else, and the replicated neo-gothic clock tower really clashed with everything else. But at least the damn thing existed now. That was important. He’d been elected in 2015 and spent eight years moving from Portcullis House to the cramped mess of prefab trailers that had been the temporary Commons. It had been embarrassing watching the news reports, him squished between two other MPs on plain plastic seats.
“Hold up.” Patience was resting on her cane, starting to take slow and measured breaths. “One sec.”
Nate didn’t ask if it was fatigue or anxiety. He just waited with her until it had passed.
“Leg seized up,” she claimed after a minute, when most of the crowd had moved around them. “You know in Doctor Who, they had future Westminster looking like the old parliament but sometimes it had glowy lights?”
“That sounds like Doctor Who, yeah.”
It had been years of people expecting something like that. That had been something the current government were clear on, when they took charge of the mess of the plans in 2015: the old building was gone. There was no point pretending. Parliament had failed to do the necessary maintenance for years and years. Too difficult, too expensive, the public will complain we’re spending money on it. Ignore the damage, ignore the leaks, ignore the rats, ignore the hazards, someone else will deal with it someday.
The Palace of Westminster had burned, and it had taken irreplaceable records and artwork, three quarters of economic growth, the PM and Chancellor’s careers, three MPs, fourteen Lords, eight parliamentary staffers, twelve general building staff, nine members of the public, one journalist, and two firefighters with it.
As they approached the entrance, Nate stopped himself from scratching at the waxy patches of his face where the grafts were still noticeable. He’d been stopping himself doing that more and more in the last week.
He suddenly said: “You ever wonder if we got voted in because people felt sorry for us? Those poor plucky staffers and interns, look how messed up they are, aren’t they brave trying to run for office after all of that?”
“I never wonder about that,” said Patience.
“Yeah. Silly question.”
The entrance chamber was a sweeping, airy room that felt to him like a sports stadium with pretensions. At least the paintings were a nice touch, one for each of the four corridors leading away: the Magna Carta, Parliament at the Civil War, a symbolic painting of suffragettes and veterans in khaki, and the Commons in 1940. Massive classical pieces that enforced tradition on the new walls.
And there was something else in the chamber that he didn’t look at.
Instead, he said: “There’s a painting like those in the hallway before the Commons chamber, you heard about this? Painting of Ed facing off against Kwarteng. There’s going to be one for every subsequent Prime Minister, them and their leader of the opposition—”
“Yeah, I know that—”
“—but that’s going to get daft when one PM has more than one LOTO.” His voice was higher than he meant it to be. “If the tradcons get rid of Kwarteng, there’s not going to be another painting with Hunt in it—”
“We’re only just back and already we’ve got weird traditions—”
“Nate, it’s okay.”
Once she said that, he let himself look.
The statue of Black Rod stood with his head bowed and eyes closed as if in prayer. The man’s face was solemn and dignified – Nate regretted that, in his callow youth, he’d shared jokes with other staffers about the real man – and the ceremonial staff was held downwards like a knight’s sword at rest. Black Rod stood in the very centre of the hall. For hundreds of years, people would have to get past the statue and see the list of names on the brass plague.
All forty-nine names.
Nate, so close to being the fiftieth, knew he was crying.
“It’s stupid,” he said as he wiped his tears away.
“Yeah,” said Patience, a crack in her voice. “I know.”
They walked on but the names remained.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen and Comics of Infinite Earths both published by SLP.