It’s 2022 and Robbie, aged fifteen, is living with his mother, Paula, in a semi-derelict 1960s council house on a vast estate of public housing to the north of the city. Paula describes living there as ‘like being in the Wild West’ where security guards have to protect bus drivers. One bus shelter carries a homemade poster of a policewoman with a noose round her neck. It’s early morning. Robbie and Paula sit on white plastic garden chairs in the freezing kitchen, their hands warmed by steaming mugs of black tea. You’ll get warm when you get to school, Paula says.
Bill is dying of cancer. He’s been through the mill of treatment and despite the best efforts of his GP he won’t enter the hospice and is determined to die in his own bed. He has two carers, one part-time for the day and a full-time night carer, Stefan, a young Russian. Bill likes Stefan, to whom he tells tall stories to fight off his fear of the night and the arrival of the grim reaper.
For over fifty years Axel Strummer’s granite headstone remained blank – not even his name was inscribed. This was not an oversight but a result of Axel’s traumatic funeral and internment. For Axel’s son, Proctor, it could have been yesterday when his love for his father was tested to the limit.
A small congregation is assembled for the funeral service in St Mary’s church. Proctor and Rosanna, Axel’s widow, are sitting on chairs near the catafalque on which Axel’s coffin rests. A younger woman sits down at the end of their row.
In 1968, when David is twenty-two, his mother, Bethany, a single parent, dies. Among her effects he finds a letter, ‘To my dearest David.’ Until then, all David knew was that his father, Richard, died before he was born. He had no idea that Reg, his father’s brother, had murdered him. Shock throws David into a rage of an intensity he never thought possible. He finally understands why he hasn’t an extended family and why he and his mother took on the world alone. David has no one to ask why the murder took place.
Andrew, Fay and their five-year-old daughter, Sylvie, are travelling along the A40, when Sylvie looks out of the window, and asks, What’s that funny pointed hill thing? That’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, Andrew replies. Is it sugar? Sylvie asks. Might be, Andrew laughs. Fay smiles as she drives. Are you feeling better? she asks Andrew. Just indigestion. It’ll be those pasties we had for lunch. Why’s it called Sugar Loaf Mountain? Sylvie asks. Maybe Daddy can tell you a story about it at bedtime, Fay says. Will you, Daddy? Will you?
In 1972, Ahmad was training to be a teacher in London where he was nourished by the many galleries and museums. Today, officially retired, Ahmad is a volunteer teacher in Tiaz, once the cultural capital of the Yemen and now on the front-line in the civil war between Saudi-backed government forces and Huthi rebels. From a distance, he stares at ‘his’ bombed out school.
Andrew remembers it as a splendid October day, a Sunday – his father’s day of rest. The sky is blue. The sun is bright. The air is crisp and still. The world feels clean and sharp. October, his birthday month, is when all is possible with nothing to prevent him from conquering his evolving world. The white lines of the rugby pitch are almost three dimensional against the close-cropped verdant grass, while the stark white rugby posts stand to attention.
The dog is large, long-haired, and with deep-set black eyes. He sits on a huge heap of rubble near bombed-out apartments in Grozny, Chechnya. An elderly woman, struggling to carry a large hessian sack, is passing. She sees the dog, sets down the sack, picks up a piece of jagged concrete and hurls it at the beast, shouting, Get away! You brought us this! The dog snarls. The woman looses her footing, falls and hits her head; blood flows from a deep gash in her head. The dog watches her die. She’s still. He climbs down from his vantage point, sniffs the dead woman, lifts his back leg and pisses on her. He walks away into a city razed to the ground by endless Russian bombing.
It’s November 1968. Laurie’s been in his first job as an assistant lecturer in photography at the Art School for nearly three months. All Laurie’s older colleagues, dinosaurs as far as he’s concerned, are set in their ways and he’s yet to be accepted as an equal. They enjoy denigrating his belief that photography can be a force for positive social change. The worst of them is an autocratic Dutchman, Ivo Aalders, who’s publically accused Laurie of being an incompetent commie bastard. It’s become so intimidating that Laurie is fighting to keep his enthusiasm. He dreads the mid-morning gathering of the all-male staff for a brew and chat that normally degenerates into Laurie being made the butt of their so-called humour.
Arthur Holland is eighty-five and lives alone in a large mansion that’s been in his family since 1763. It’s early morning and he’s dressing in front of a full-length cheval mirror. If the Royal Free’s prognosis is right, I’ll not be doing this for much longer, he sighs. At least it’s not lounge suits any more, he thinks, pulling his Guernsey over his head. Those in power thought I was just an eccentric champagne socialist. If they’d really known what I was up to, I would have been done for treason.