1.

In the end, the only option was violence. He was not a violent man; he tried every peaceful means he could. But two choices remained: accept the abuse, or act with force against those who were inflicting it.

He had been confined to his bed for months. He was hardly aware as they manhandled him into position, cleaned him, cursorily checked for sores. When the incontinence pads leaked, they struck him, muttering fiercely in languages he did not understand. They turned off the radio to spite him. He lay alone in his room, curtains drawn, blankets to his chin, ceiling grey and blurry to his failing eyes. Bastards, the lot of them. He pushed his tongue against cracked lips. If his mouth wasn’t so dry he would spit in the air. Spit at nothing. But all he could do was move the pads, widen the gaps, increase the chances of soiling the bed.

Strangely, he did not hate them. He was no racist. He had seen too much of the world for that. He did not hate the way they spoke to him: patronising, laced with impatience, as if directed at a sickly child—a baby even—that nobody wanted. He had been spoken to a lot worse in his time. He had been hurt a lot worse. He hardly felt the bruises they left on his body. They called themselves nurses.

One day, perhaps it was autumn, his mind surfaced and he found himself back in the world, felt his skinny shoulder blades pressing into the mattress. He saw a spoonful of food being pushed between his gums. Then he knew why he did not hate them: he needed them. He was not ready to die. That would come later.

2.

Why did he not tell anyone about the abuse? He did not know. Was it pride? Refusal to be seen as a victim? He did not think so. Perhaps it was generational. The terrible things in the War, that he had seen, that he had done: he never told anyone about those either. He opened his bedside cabinet. He rummaged through the box of photos, medals and assorted paraphernalia which constituted the final remains of his life. He took out a white, putty-like ball; it fit perfectly in his palm.

His daughter came on her monthly visit. It began as normal: fifteen minutes of one sided conversation. He made noises when required. When her news came to an end she rose, pecked him on the cheek and repeated the same conversation with the staff. The Director appeared from his office.

We’re rather worried about your father. He gets ever so upset, you know. When you leave.

He lay there, keeping his breath shallow, kneading his worry ball.

Oh, poor dear, his daughter said.

It takes him a week, sometimes. Before he’s himself again. Won’t speak, won’t listen to his piano music. It’s a funny thing, with the elderly. They just, you know. Retreat. Disengage with the world. It’s very sad. But you have to respect that. Sometimes, you just have to let go. Like they’ve let go.

His daughter did not reply. He sensed her, standing in the doorway. The Director’s door clicked shut. She stood there for what seemed a very long time.

The following month his daughter stayed ten minutes. She sat next to him, the silence broken only by footsteps in the corridor, raps on the Director’s door. She was looking at him intently. She came close. He turned his eyes to meet her. She had a look of pity, then guilt, tinged with relief, which became a blur of hair and lipstick as she leaned over and kissed his forehead as you would a corpse before it was buried.

Bye dad, she told him.

3.

He retreated deep into his memories. The outside world was limited to a jolt, a pinch, being rolled over, being rolled back again. Mostly he thought of Oonah. Meeting her after the War. They were only friends then; she was grieving her first husband. Ten years later: his second day in Belfast, bumping into her in a pub. They talked all evening. Then the next evening. The next evening, he dared not think about. He could not do it to himself; could not return to the soft warmth of her skin, the laughter in his ear, the sweet cries of pleasure. Instead he thought of their easy companionship, her strident voice, quick to anger, quick to forgive. How he loved the Irish! Even the ones who wanted to blow him up. He understood them. Besides, they gave him a job: defusing their bombs. Full circle. In the War he had been setting them himself, blowing up roads, bridges, vehicles. People. He had been good at it. He made a career of working with bombs, one way or another.

It was winter; the nurse’s tights were woollen, their cruel hands cold. But in the mix of faces, in the variable tones of colour and voice, in the never ending reel of portraits morphing from one to the next, there was something new: a new face. At first it was an interruption, an inconsistency. Gradually he learnt to recognise her. Now she remained constant, suspended above the rest. Her face: caramel, framed in black, teeth pleasantly crooked; her touch: gentle, careful, as soft as Oonah; her name: Husna.

He came to miss her on her days off. She was the only one who called him Reg. She talked to him about her life, about this new country she called home. In Iraq, she had been a doctor. She would not have left but for her children; they were too young to ever remember. For that she was thankful. She wished that she could not remember. She never told him goodbye, never asked about his own life; she only told him about tomorrow. See you tomorrow, she said. We’ll take a few more steps tomorrow, Reg. Keep your glasses by your bed, Reg. We’ll read some more tomorrow. We’ll have you speaking again too. Tomorrow.

He became stronger. Nobody else knew. They did not care. He even dreamed about her, eyes shining like a starry night, voice almost singing, face full of joy as she spoke about her children. Then she told him she was going. Not for long, she assured him. Just a few weeks to see her cousin in Portsmouth. So he went back to Oonah. He stayed in bed. He kneaded his ball, turning it in his hand. The faces span as before; the bruises returned; each day finished a perfect replica of the one before, forming an empty, unwritten chapter at the end of the story of his life.

This continued until one afternoon in late November, when he overheard the Director, in his office, speaking on the telephone.

4.

Violence to others should come only as a last resort. He had always believed this and this remained unshakeable. He went on hunger strike for ten days. It was not hard. He had endured much worse in Burma. As the fast continued he became stronger. The tiredness left him. He watched the nurses as they tried to feed him, stared back at them, unyielding, when they gripped his arm so hard he thought it might break. A doctor came, remarked it was the sort of thing that happened in prisons, or homes for the mentally ill. Still he refused to eat.

Do you want to die, Mr Dixon? the doctor asked.

Even with the power of speech, he would not have answered. He would not have told them: it is this, or it is war; and in war it is the innocent who die.

The doctor persisted. Why are you doing this?

Again he would not answer. He would not tell them about the Director’s telephone call, six days before:

Yes, we do have shifts available. Who have you got? No, someone else. Mrs Husseini isn’t right for us. We found her care… inconsistent. No, I could not recommend her to anyone. She is not suited to this industry. Yes, any of those will do. Tuesday.

An overheard conversation: this was the catalyst for the hunger strike. And it was another conversation, ten days later, that ended it. It was mid-afternoon. Sunlight was ebbing from the cracks in the curtains. He lay in the darkening room, faint with hunger, shielding his eyes from the brightness of the corridor. Movement. He looked up, saw the Director, hand against the doorframe, glare from a light-fitting curving round his head. The Director did not say anything, just watched with a look of cool amusement.

He looked back, lips pressed in defiance, until his eyes watered and in the blur he saw his commanding officer ordering them to blow the bridge that meant certain death for two hundred Burmese villagers. He saluted, made his case calmly, knew he spoke for the men. Orders, he was told. You’re not here to think. His heart exploded again.

The corridor was empty. He heard the Director’s voice next door, calm, friendly:

Yes. From Goring Beach Nursing Home. You called this morning. We do, yes. No, it’s not quite ready. It won’t be long. Oh, it’s one of our best rooms. She’ll love it. Plenty of light. Ground floor, views of the garden.

Two hours later, he pulled the cord and asked for dinner.

5.

For two weeks he feigned his previous weakness, biding his time: waiting for the right moment to escape. What would he do if he made it outside? He had no idea. Throw himself in front of a car? Make a statement to the world. But what would it achieve? Nothing. He lay thinking for two days. Oonah. He would go to see her. It was a long way, but he would just get on a bus, then another, and another, until he got there.

It was a Sunday morning in early December when everything fell into place. The nurses had their Christmas party the night before. He woke at five. He lay in the dark, chin raised to the ceiling, listening for any change in the stillness of the home. He had an hour; the nurses would be on their rounds at six o’clock. He studied his shaking fingers; they gleamed like melted plastic in the light from the corridor. It was time. He gripped the bar above his head, pulled himself upright, turned on the bedside light. He pushed aside the bedclothes. My God! He was always shocked by his legs. They made him realise how very old he was. I can’t do this. Stop it. Focus. Think of Oonah. The wheelchair: next to the bed.

It took fifteen minutes to manoeuvre himself into the wheelchair. His body rattled as he dropped into the seat. He tasted blood. He felt alive. He powered over to the chest of drawers, took out some clothes. The trousers—no chance. He dropped a blanket over his legs, angled his arms into a shirt. Each button a minute of fumbling. Next the cardigan. He gritted his teeth to stop his hands trembling as he fastened each button. Floorboards creaked in the room above. He didn’t have long. He waited for a second in the doorway, listening for life in the corridor outside. This was it. He pushed the joystick forward.

The corridor was long and bright and stark. He trundled past black, open doorways, chair motor slicing the home’s deathly quiet. Hard left. Another doorway. He stopped briefly. See you later, Sid. Then on. Another hard left. Voices up ahead, the smell of instant coffee, navy polyester moving at the edges of an open door. He pressed the joystick hard, looked straight ahead at the front door: tall, white, expanding. He reached up, buzzed the door open. The lock gave with a loud snap. He pulled the door open, crashed it against the wall and he was out: rolling down the ramp, air cold in his lungs, grass frosted, paving stones holding dull orange balls for the streetlights. A car whizzed by. A man walking a dog glanced at him. Life. Freedom.

6.

His time on the run lasted a little over four hours. Half an hour at the bus stop. An hour on a single decker, bouncing through the backstreets of West Worthing. He got off, ignoring the looks of the other passengers, not even checking where he was, just knowing he needed a different bus. Half an hour rolling over paving stones, following an avenue of bungalows into a cul-de-sac. Two hours outside a driveway, stooped over his knees, chair battery dead, so cold he was hardly aware as the ambulance took him away.

The family refused a hospice. He would want to be back in the home, they said. His home. Then whispered: and it’s so reasonable. Yes, he was a spirited old man. Stubborn, difficult sometimes, it was true. He might have lived a few more years if he hadn’t gone on that silly dash outside. Yes, it is sad. Hopefully he’ll last a couple more weeks, have one last Christmas in the home.

He woke one morning, a week later. The Director was standing in the doorway. It was nine o’clock. The Director gazed at him, the same look of amusement. Sipping coffee. Waiting for him not to wake up.

It became a ritual. He waited each day for the Director to arrive—always at nine sharp—always made sure he was the one waiting, looking back with steady contempt.

You’re like a cat, the nurses told him, without a trace of warmth. Unwittingly, it was the closest they came to knowing him. The Cat. That was what the other sappers called him in the War. Blown up twice; bayonetted; shot; emerging skeletal from the camp in Burma. The name stuck: in Cyprus, Germany, Belfast, even pushing pens for the police at the end of his career.

As each day passed, he became stronger, rose earlier and edged his way with the zimmer frame across his room to the chair in the bay window. The Director would now come in, sit on the bed, drink coffee. Hatred coursed up his neck as he stared unwaveringly back, kneading his worry ball. The ritual continued until the twenty third of December, when at lunchtime Reginald Dixon decided he had no choice but to blow himself up.

7.

It was not difficult to assemble the materials for the bomb, but he knew he did not have much time left. Twice in the last few days he had blacked out. The last occasion left him with a distant sensation in his left leg. Better than poor Sid, though. The rumour was, someone had left his window open all night, left him lying on top of his bed. Ten years he had lived there. He died of hypothermia.

That afternoon, using the Swiss army knife he had carried in his pocket for decades, he opened up a portable electric heater. He cut out the relay and two lengths of internal wiring. The following day, at Beryl’s ninetieth birthday party, he procured card, lengths of used sticky tape, a chef’s sized box of matches. The matches he would use for the detonator. He went to bed early, woke at 2am, and spent the night working in the red glow of the clock’s digital screen to wire up a simple electrical circuit. Just before six, he slid the beginnings of his improvised device deep into the cobwebs under his bed.

He spent the afternoon lying in bed, staring at his worry ball. He marvelled at its terrible potential. When he had taken it, twenty years ago, he never thought he would use it. It had been his final week in the Force, early morning, bitterly cold. Four officers arrived, cock-a-hoop, bantering and high-fiving. One of the biggest seizures of explosives and weaponry on mainland Britain. He went outside and watched them lug crate after crate into secure storage. During their third trip back to the van he opened a crate: C-4 plastic explosive, American stock, shrink wrapped in small oblong blocks. He took two. Keepsakes. Souvenirs of his forty years working with explosives. Early in his retirement he used it for relaxation, something to mould and press when he was thinking about something else. Finally it ended up in his box of medals and family memorabilia.

C-4. He loved it, much as a child loves Plasticine. Better than Semtex; better than PE-4; he did not know why exactly, they were much the same. Its name: Composition 4. Maybe that was why. Sounded like a piano sonata. He had no concerns about it blowing until he wanted it to. Highly stable, fire was not enough; neither was electricity. Heat and pressure, you needed. There was a story going round in the seventies, about the Americans in Vietnam, how they used to make fires with blocks of C-4, cook on them. You could do that alright. Except one bloke stamped it out and blew his leg off. One thing was for sure though: he had more than enough to blow off a leg. This would kill everyone in his room.

8.

The morning of Christmas Eve passed as normal. The Director came in at nine, sat on the bed, put his coffee down to take a call. He was speaking into his mobile phone, still looking over with cold, mocking amusement.

Comes with the job, the Director was saying. Yes, he would be working Christmas Day. He always worked Christmas Day. Then five days off. Yes, he would miss the old folks. Oh no, he didn’t think they would miss him. A faint smile towards Reg.

The room was now empty. He sat in the bay window, ignoring the nurses’ brief incursions into the room, planning out the final twenty-four hours of his life. He must finish the bomb tonight. The blackouts were now coming every day. Tomorrow was his final and only chance. Christmas Day. His leaving present for the Director.

His final meal was at 5pm. He took his time over the food, carefully chewing each spoonful, ignoring the next—already impatiently pressed to his lips—until he had extracted as much flavour as possible from the discoloured peas and shreds of stewed beef. He was in bed by eight. He lay thinking. Why was he doing this? Oonah would not approve. Sid might. But he was not interested in approval. He wanted justice: for Sid, for himself, for every resident. He would strike a blow for the weak against the strong. He thought of Husna, remembered how she would gently touch his hand to wake him up; the way she spoke with shining eyes about her children; the look of sadness on her face when she thought no one was watching. Above all he was doing it for her. He did not know why exactly. But she had suffered more than anyone.

At midnight he reached under his bed for the device. He had six hours. He opened his bedside cabinet and took out the remaining components: mobile phone; nine volt battery (from an electronic blood pressure monitor); box of matches; metal cigar case (from his box, end sawed off). Finally, the C-4, dimpled with fingerprints, like an oversize golf ball.

The phone was a Nokia, ten years old, navy blue. He had never used it. It took six minutes, fingers quivering red in the clock’s light, to remove a single screw. Half an hour later, the back was off. He cut out the vibration unit, dropped it in the cabinet; he would not need it; he would connect the wire to his own circuit. Rather than buzzing, the phone would blow the bomb.

Screws back in, cover back on. He looked up: two o’clock. Four hours left. Now for the matches. He scraped the first matchstick head. A minute gone, a dozen tiny black crumbs scattered on the cabinet top. By three o’clock he had a thimbleful. He cursed his trembling fingers and the sharpness of his knife. He would have to risk the bedside light.

At 5am he had enough phosphorus to half-fill the cigar tube. His detonator was ready. Heat and pressure. He inserted a bare wire from his home-made circuit-board. There were a hundred far better, much safer ways to configure the device, but he was eighty-eight years old, he did not need to survive the explosion, and he was nearly collapsing with exhaustion. He pressed one end of the tube into the heart of the C-4. Then he blacked out.

9.

He came to. Panic, gripping his throat. Christ, what was the time? A mug of tea obscured the clock, set down among two hundred bald matchsticks. 08:45. The bomb was on his chest. He lay back, almost laughed. How had they not noticed?

He had fifteen minutes. It was enough time. The phone was the only thing left. How did you operate the thing? He ought to have practised. There: alarm. What time to set? The Director was a creature of habit. He would give a few minutes grace: three minutes past nine. What else made it made buzz? Calls, texts. What did they call it? Flight mode. No one ever called, but better play it safe.

He placed the bomb in the bedside cabinet, connected the battery, closed the drawer. He gathered the matches and tossed them under the bed. The phone he positioned next to the clock, a foot from his pillow. If for any reason he wanted to abort, all he had to do was disable the alarm.

He got into bed, pulled the covers up. 08:51. Twelve minutes to live.

At 08:55, he heard the Director’s voice. On the phone. Next door. Had he looked in already? He held his breath, listening. The call ended. He heard a chair creak. He had to come in. Surely he would, on Christmas Day, of all days.

Silence.

Footsteps, coming down the corridor. His uneaten breakfast: someone was coming for it. A nurse’s uniform, then gone, steps now growing distant. He breathed out in relief. He could not risk it. Abort. He reached for the phone. 08:58.

No, give it two more minutes. There was still a chance.

At exactly 09:00, a figure swept into the room. The Director? Finally! He could not be sure. Arms opening the curtains; navy-blue in the periphery of his vision. My God! Abort! For God’s sake get out!

But something was happening in his brain. A slow moving, numbing force was pushing through his left hemisphere, seeping into his face. He stretched his fingers towards the phone. They would not move. Numbness. Everywhere. One feeling only: cold fear. He stared in desperation at his fingers, two inches from the phone.

Movement. Sunlight obscured as a figure knelt by him. Shining eyes. Caramel face, framed in black.

Reg. I missed you so much. I’m so sorry.

He stared back at her in disbelief.

I called the agency so many times, Reg.

He blinked at her frantically. Get out. Get out.

09:02.

She was looking searchingly into his eyes. He stared back, screaming silently.

She smiled, showing her beautiful crooked teeth. She wiped the tears from his face.

He shut his eyes and waited.