April 15, 2012

The Peace Criminal


The Peace Criminal
by Vaughan Stanger

Philip Healy permitted himself a wry smile as he listened to the rain beat against the windscreen of his BMW. For the first time in several months he had parked the vehicle himself, reversing into the tight space without the benefit of warning beeps from the radar. He liked to think that this insurance-unfriendly whim was a reaction to the air of conformity that clung to the neighbourhood. Protected by high walls and security cameras, each foursquare redbrick building evoked the essence of suburbia.

But suburbia was where the action was, more often than not, its genteel anonymity providing the perfect cover for the maverick characters that Philip sought. Here, in leafy Stanmore, he hoped to record the raw material for another edition of Myths and Mysteries of the Twentieth Century, a show that had become something of a fixture in Carlton Television’s late-night schedules.

Philip leaned over the passenger seat and peered at the house he had parked opposite. According to the sign on the wrought-iron gate, Wimbourne Grange was a private nursing home owned by the Belhaven Trust. For sixty years the building had provided a safe haven for the elderly and the infirm. Now, after years of isolation, one of its residents wanted to tell his story. A junior member of the nursing staff had instigated the contact, attaching half-a-dozen pages scanned from his memoirs to her message. Those pages had made for interesting reading.

A teasing email sent to his researcher, Ruth Levin, had elicited the usual swift response. Philip’s cryptic invitations were part of the ritual of working together on Myths and Mysteries, as were Ruth’s replies, which invariably quoted some passage from the one of the more obscure books from the Old Testament.

The rap of knuckles against the driver’s window interrupted his thoughts. Ruth was standing beside the car, sheltering her slender frame beneath a bottle-green umbrella and waving a cigarette with her free hand. The windblown look suited her, he thought, though he knew better than to say so.

Ruth stepped back as he opened the car door.

“So we two meet again,” she said with a conspiratorial wink.

The kiss on each cheek was also part of the ritual.

Having concluded her greeting, Ruth made a dash across the road. Philip trudged after her, burdened by equipment cases. By the time he had caught up with her again, she was unbuttoning her leather coat in the shelter of the porch.

“Is it safe to let me into the secret yet?” she asked.

Philip deposited the cases on either side of the porch. “We’re here to interview Arthur Renwick,” he said between breaths. “Formerly Lance Corporal Arthur Renwick of The Brigade of Guards.”

“And who might he be? Some hero of Dunkirk?”

Her cynicism was understandable given the glut of wartime documentaries foisted on television audiences in recent years. Under normal circumstances, Philip would not have felt obliged to contribute another example to that genre, but Arthur’s memoirs had hinted at something out of the ordinary.

“Oh, much earlier than Dunkirk,” he replied.

“First World War, then?”

“That’s right.”

Now Ruth was frowning. “But didn’t the last-surviving British veteran die a couple of years ago? I’m sure I recall watching a short item about him on The News at Ten.”

Philip shrugged. “Well, it seems their reporter got his facts wrong.”

“I take it that Arthur Renwick wasn’t interviewed for the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice?”

“According to his nurse, Arthur has spent most of his life in institutions of one sort or another. If any journalists did trace his whereabouts in 1998, I suppose they must have concluded that he didn’t fit the bill.”

“But you disagree, evidently.”

“Let’s just say that I think Arthur will prove a most interesting subject.”

The glass-panelled door clicked open just as Ruth was reaching for the doorbell.

* * *

There was a depressing ambience to Wimbourne Grange’s common room, thought Philip; an ambience that comfortable furnishings, Monet prints and bright décor could not quite dispel. He attempted to shrug off the feeling, aware that this was not time to let intimations of mortality get in the way of professionalism.

In the hour that it had taken Philip to rig the lights and microphones, set up the digicams and configure the system for remote control, Ruth had downloaded a detailed history from the regimental website and prepared a set of questions that she would put to Arthur. Philip was happy with this arrangement, since her dual role helped him keep production costs low.

Now all was ready.

Philip glanced at his monitor, which presented three views of Arthur Renwick. It didn’t matter whether he inspected the head-on shot provided by the central digicam, or the oblique aspect from the right, or even the close-up profile from the left; each gave the same visual impression. The man sitting in the armchair resembled a skeleton that someone had coated with a thick layer of wax. The ill-fitting suit and regimental tie only added to the ghoulish effect.

“How much longer must I wait?” Arthur whined.

Though the years had withered Arthur’s body, they had lent his voice a shrill, insistent edge.

Philip glanced at Ruth, who was sitting on a padded footstool situated to the left of the central digicam. On receiving her thumbs-up sign, he said, “We’re ready for you now, Arthur.”

A single tap of Philip’s stylus against palmtop screen started the recording.

Ruth smiled at the veteran. “Arthur, according to your service records you were conscripted in August 1917. What were your feelings on that fateful day?”

To Philip’s surprise, Arthur refused to answer the question. Instead, he scowled at Ruth as though she were his mortal enemy. Ruth frowned but pressed on regardless.

“Arthur, what were your first impressions of trench warfare when you were posted to the Western Front in January 1918?”

Arthur cleared his throat and leaned forwards slightly. He looked as if he were about to spit at Ruth. She turned towards Philip and shrugged.

“Your turn, I think.”

Philip glanced at the remaining questions on her crib-sheet, looking for something that might stimulate a response from Arthur. All of them seemed valid, so he picked the next one on the list.

“In April 1918 the 4th Guards Brigade saw action near Hazebrouck during the Battle of The Lys.” He paused for a moment, hoping that the details would jog the old soldier’s memory. “What do you remember of that engagement?”

Arthur acceded to Philip with a curt little nod, as if acknowledging a fellow soldier.

“The Hun pushed us back ten miles in three days, despite everything we could throw at them. Then, on the 11th of April, Field Marshall Haig ordered us to fight to the last man....” Arthur’s words emerged in bursts, as if from a machine gun. “So we slogged it out hand-to-hand, up to our waists in mud and water, while gas shells landed all around us. Whenever the Hun captured a trench, we fixed bayonets and charged right back at ‘em. Two days and nights we held out in that hell!”

“Did your unit lose many men?”

Arthur trembled with anger. “My best mate was trapped on the barbed wire just thirty yards from my trench. Might as well have been thirty miles.” Tears were welling in his eyes. “Bill took two days to die; two whole days!”

“It must have been an dreadful experience for you.”

“Not as bad as for Bill! Mind you, I almost copped it myself.” He rubbed the back of his head before continuing. “The medics told me I was lucky to survive. Didn’t stop ‘em sending me back to the front-line after they’d patched me up, though. Just in time to join the big retreat.”

Philip felt a sudden release of tension. Those excerpts taken from Arthur’s memoirs had mentioned defeat on the Western Front. But scribbled notes were not a firm enough basis on which to build a documentary. Verbal testimony, however, was quite another matter. He zoomed the central image to frame the old man’s eyes. Ruth chose that moment to break her silence.

“But Arthur, it is a matter of historical record that the British Army halted the German advance in April 1918. The Battle of The Lys marked the high tide of the German advance in Flanders.”

Arthur shook his head but said nothing.

Philip panned the right-hand digicam so that it framed Ruth’s face. “We’ll handle this as an insert,” he told her. “When you’re ready, please recount the subsequent events on the Western Front.”

Ruth cleared her throat and addressed the camera.

“On the 27th of May, the German army launched an offensive against the French forces on the Marne. They came close to breaking through, but the American Second and Third divisions bolstered the French line at Chateau-Thierry at the critical moment. The German advance was halted sixty miles short of Paris.”

Arthur was spluttering with indignation. “What American divisions? There were no Americans on the Western Front!”

Philip glanced at Ruth. The researcher was gazing at the old man as if hypnotised.

“If that were true,” she said, “then the French Army would have been in very serious trouble.”

Arthur’s expression was scornful. “The poilu just caved in. Too spineless to defend their beloved Paris.”

“So the French sued for peace?”

“Of course they did! And while they were grovelling to the Kaiser, what was left of the British Army was making a dash for the Channel Ports. Those of us who made it threw our equipment into the sea and embarked for Blighty in any boat that would carry us.”

Just like Dunkirk in 1940, thought Philip.

“Ours was not a heroic homecoming,” Arthur said with a sorrowful shake of his head. Then he slumped against the cushions of his armchair, which seemed to swallow him up like so much mud.

* * *

“Thanks for the lift,” said Ruth, as she engaged her seat belt.

“No problem,” Philip replied. “I passed the station on the way here.” And could have picked up Ruth, he realised belatedly.

Philip eased the car into the light traffic. The collision avoidance radar was clicking every second or so. Easy driving for once. He glanced at Ruth.

“So, what did you make of Arthur Renwick?”

“Well, he is remarkably lucid for his age, but hopelessly deluded.” She paused for a moment, as if rerunning part of the interview in her mind. “Don’t you find it ironic that the last survivor of the Western Front should turn out to be such an unreliable witness?”

Philip grinned at her. “That’s what makes him such an interesting subject! But if we’re going to get the most out of our oddball veteran, I think you’d better do a bit more research.”

Taking the hint, Ruth pulled a palmtop from her coat pocket and activated the wireless link to the car’s head-up display. A red warning light started flashing on the dashboard, accompanied by an insistent beeping sound. Philip keyed in the over-ride code that Ruth had given him several months earlier.

“I knew you’d find that useful,” she remarked.

“Well, you can pay the fine if I get stopped by a policeman.”

The grunt he received was non-committal, an indication that her attention was now elsewhere. Five minutes passed before he felt able to ask the inevitable question.

“Found anything yet?”

Even as he spoke, several text windows flashed up on the windscreen. Ruth scrolled through them, while Philip attempted to focus on the road ahead.

“Well,” she said at last, “according to this Home Office record, Arthur is a convicted criminal. In May 1926, he was found guilty of assaulting a jeweller while attempting to rob his premises. He was given a five-year jail sentence.”

That an ex-soldier had turned to crime was scarcely unheard-of, mused Philip. Myths and Mysteries was going to need something spicier than that.

“Is there anything else?” he asked.

“His victim was a Mr. Ira Silverman of Bethnal Green. A Jew, needless to say.” She uttered those words as if the crime had been perpetrated against all Jews, everywhere.

The intensity of Ruth’s remark surprised Philip. Aside from the idiosyncratic emails, her religion had never previously impinged upon their working relationship. That she was a Jew had seemed unimportant, a residue of her upbringing rather than a day-to-day reality.

“Well, let’s see what else you can dig up,” he said.

“Okay, but this is going to take me a while. Arms to twist, encryption to break, that sort of thing.”

Moments later, Philip swung the car into the forecourt of Stanmore station and parked in the first available space. A taxi horn blared out from behind, but he ignored it.

He turned towards Ruth. “How do you feel about recording another session with Arthur?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything!”

“Then I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 9:00 AM,” he said.

“I’ll be waiting.”

A train was just pulling into the station as Ruth stepped out of the car. Philip grinned as he watched her splash through the puddles while wielding her umbrella with typical élan.

* * *


* * *

Philip sighed with frustration as he reset the digicams for the third time that morning. This recording session was proving even more difficult than its predecessor. So far, despite careful questioning, Arthur had refused to elaborate on his account of events on the Western Front. Aware that time was running out, Philip decided to try a different tack.

“After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, Britain was supposed to become a ‘A Land Fit For Heroes’. How did post-war Britain seem to you, Arthur?”

This time Philip got a response. Arthur was quivering with anger as he began speaking.

“There was no bleedin’ Armistice! Not that year anyway. Lloyd George vowed to continue the war whatever the cost. But our situation was hope— ” A bout of coughing interrupted his account. He spat phlegm into a handkerchief before continuing. “By March, the Turks had driven us out of Palestine. Then we lost control of the Suez Canal, which meant we lost most of our oil supply....”

Philip glanced at Ruth. Her shrug suggested that she was quite prepared to let Arthur make a fool of himself, at least for now. As for the man himself, he seemed only too willing to oblige.

“By September, those few merchant ships the U-boats hadn’t sunk yet were tied up in port. Britain was on its knees.” He turned towards Ruth, his eyes narrowing as if to focus his anger exclusively on her. “And where were your precious Americans then, eh? Too busy making money to give a damn about us!”

Arthur’s diatribe was interrupted by another coughing fit. When it was over, he seemed content to glower at Ruth rather than resume his narrative. Aware of the need to regain momentum, Philip supplied a prompt.

“What happened next?”

Arthur’s sniff was disdainful. “Lloyd George sued for peace, of course. The Kaiser made us pay a heavy price in reparations, just like France. Worse still, he forced us to scuttle two-thirds of the Royal Navy. As for the army, what little remained was spread too thin to keep control over the Empire. Ireland was lost within the year. Not long after that, the Troubles got going in India. Soon, even Australia and Canada were cutting their ties. Can’t say I blamed them, considering how many men they’d lost — and for what, eh?”

Keep him on track, Philip reminded himself.

“What effect did the downturn in trade have at home?”

“What do you think?” snapped Arthur. “Things started out bad and got steadily worse. Throughout the Twenties there was precious little work to be had anywhere. Children were starving. So Ramsay MacDonald set up soup kitchens. He thought that would fix the problem. Soup kitchens!” Arthur spat out the words with a vehemence that belied his age. “Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin — useless the lot of ‘em.”

“This is ridiculous,” Ruth interjected. “Conditions in Britain were nothing like that bad after the First World War!”

“Nothing like that bad?” Arthur wagged a forefinger at Ruth. “Easy for a Jew to say, but then you parasites never went hungry.”

Philip glanced at Ruth. Indignation had left her speechless momentarily, whereas Arthur was cackling in triumph.

“I thought so!” He tapped the side of his nose. “Always could sniff out a Jew!”

Although Philip regretted the hurt caused to Ruth, he sensed that Arthur’s anti-Semitism was precisely the hook the documentary required. Now he had to make the most of that opportunity. Fortunately, the brief extract from Arthur’s memoirs had given him a clue.

“If the situation were really as bad as you claim,” he said, “I would have expected a major public figure to come forward and challenge the government of the day.”

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And that man was Mosley.” Arthur uttered the name with awe.

“Mosley?” Ruth said. “You mean Sir Oswald Mosley?”

“God bless the man!”

“Mosley led a revolution, did he?” Ruth sounded incredulous.

Arthur’s face beamed with pride. “Of course he did!” he replied. “Things were already brewing up when I joined the British Movement in November 1932. For three-and-a-bit years I was right in the thick of it. Every weekend, we held a parade in some town or other. Usually got to crack a few skulls afterwards: mostly Commies, but sometimes we got lucky and found ourselves a few Jew-boys to play with.” His laughter ended with a snort.

Forty years later, it would have been the Blacks or the Asians, Philip realised.

“Go on,” he prompted.

“Then on the 3rd of July 1936, Baldwin cut the bread ration by a third. Now that lit the blue touch-paper! Two days later we marched on Parliament. Mosley was at the front, waving this enormous Union Jack. Sounded like the whole country was cheering us on when we stormed the House of Commons and threw out that bunch of Jew-lovers. Should have shot the lot of ‘em if you ask me, but Mosley said ‘no’. So we slung ‘em in the Tower instead.”

Arthur grumbled to himself briefly before resuming.

“Anyhow, Mosley set up a provisional government in London. We commandeered what little fuel we could find, organised food handouts, put everyone to work.” He turned to face Ruth, his expression scornful. “Best of all, we rounded up the Jews and put ‘em behind barbed wire.”

Philip glanced at Ruth again. Although her face was pale, her gaze remained fixed on Arthur’s face. Philip, too, found it difficult to look away from the old man.

“Please continue,” he murmured.

Arthur’s drawn-out sigh signalled a shift from elation to despair.

“We really thought we’d got it made,” he said. “But we’d reckoned without Winston Churchill. It was our rotten luck that he was off inspecting what was left of the fleet while Mosley was storming Parliament. Winston wasn’t having any of it, of course. So he steamed his cruisers down from Scapa Flow, landing Royal Marines at every port. Within a fortnight, the RAF was bombing London. Two months after we kicked Baldwin out, Churchill’s Army moved in for the kill.

“The Battle of London lasted for three days. When the end came, I was manning a barricade in Cable Street, throwing fire-bombs at armoured cars.” Tears glistened as Arthur recalled the scene. “Mosley realised the situation was hopeless and ordered us to surrender. I heard later that he shot himself.”

Ruth leaned closer. “And you, Arthur,” she said. “What happened to you?”

Arthur shook his head but said nothing.

“Tell us what happened,” she insisted.

“Leave me alone,” Arthur muttered. “Just leave me alone!”

“You must tell us!” she insisted.

Observing Arthur’s anguished expression, Philip realised that they had pushed him too far. “Let it rest, Ruth,” he said. “He’s had enough.”

He gestured towards Nurse Williams, who was standing just behind the central digicam. She grasped Ruth’s forearm and escorted her from the room.

* * *

Nurse Williams ushered Ruth and Philip into the reception area. The fidgeting movements of her hands betrayed her anxiety.

“I realise now that it was wrong of me to pass on Arthur’s request,” she said.

Ruth made herself comfortable on the sofa. “But you did pass it on,” she said, keeping her tone business-like. “So here we are.”

“It’s just that Arthur is much weaker than last time.”

Her comment was enough to give Philip second thoughts. Ruth, however, seemed willing to take the risk.

“Arthur has made it absolutely clear that he wishes to complete the recording of his testimony,” she said.

Nurse Williams acquiesced with a sigh.

“If you would both wait here, I will make the necessary preparations,” she said.

Philip sat down next to Ruth. “How do you feel?”

Her grimace made a reply unnecessary, but she answered anyway. “I can’t quite believe I’m going to put myself through this again,” she said. “But we do have a documentary to finish, don’t we?”

“In any other circumstances, I’d agree wholeheartedly. But right now I’m wondering whether we oughtn’t to let Arthur take his story to the grave.”

Ruth’s expression was adamant. “We can’t let that happen, Philip! This man is our last direct link with one of the defining periods of twentieth century history. We owe it to posterity to record his testimony.”

“Even if that testimony is a ludicrous tirade of anti-Semitism mixed up with fictitious history?”

“Yes, even then.”

Philip knew better than to argue the point further.

“Anyway,” Ruth said, “there is something else you should know about Arthur.”

She flipped open her palmtop and projected an image onto the opposite wall. Philip peered at the page of cramped text and wondered what he was supposed to glean from a newspaper dated August 16th, 1936.

“Read the article at the bottom of the page.”

Philip skipped through the piece. It told of the death, in a house fire, of Mr. Ira Silverman and his wife and daughter. Murder was suspected.

“It can’t be a coincidence,” he said.

Ruth inspected her palmtop. “No charge was ever filed against Arthur.”

“But that’s ridiculous! He must have been the prime suspect given what happened ten years earlier.”

“Arthur was questioned by the police, but it seems he had a solid alibi. He claimed he was attending a meeting of the British Union of Fascists at the time of the murder.”

“Don’t tell me the police actually believed him!”

“Several witnesses came forward, including a couple of ‘pillar of the community’ types.”

“No more reliable than Arthur if you ask me!”

Ruth shrugged. “Who can say? Perhaps Arthur was telling the truth in 1936. Perhaps he is now.”

Her change of attitude baffled Philip.

“Look, Ruth. I realise you find Arthur fascinating. So do I! But ultimately, he is just a bitter, evil old man who’s concocted this bizarre fantasy world so he can blot out his feelings of guilt.”

“Possibly,” she said, folding her arms. “But I do want to know more about that world, real or imagined.”

* * *

Philip glanced at the single video image and sighed. The recording set-up was inadequate, but the cramped bedroom permitted nothing better.

Arthur wore the expression of someone who had been confined to bed for several days and did not expect to leave it again. Beneath the layers of blankets, his chest rose and fell like a North Atlantic swell. Philip suspected that the motion might stop at any moment.

Taking her cue from his thumbs-up sign, Ruth leaned forward and delivered the first question.

“Arthur, what happened to you after the Battle of London?”

He glared at her for a moment, before turning his head to address Philip instead. “Churchill declared an amnesty, but that was a laugh. I was arrested, same as everyone who supported Mosley. I spent a month in solitary, then I was brought before a judge at the Old Bailey.”

Ruth ignored the snub. “What were you charged with?”

Finally, Arthur deigned to acknowledge his interrogator. “If you must know, I was accused of murdering three Jews at the Hyde Park work-camp.”

“Did you kill them, Arthur?”

“Wasn’t about to disobey Mosley, was I?” A tiny shake of the head accompanied the reply. “He told us to ‘Put ‘em to work not put ‘em in a coffin.’”

Philip felt that he could not let the old man’s tale go unchallenged.

“Arthur, I believe you did kill three Jews in August 1936, but that you committed the crime here, in this world, when you set fire to Ira Silverman’s home in Bethnal Green.”

Arthur attempted to raise his head off the pillows, but the effort proved too much him. “I never killed no Jews,” he said. “But when the judge sentenced me...I bleedin’ well wished I had!” His outburst ended in a fit of coughing. When it was over, Nurse Williams reached forward to wipe blood-flecked spittle from his mouth. Tears were trickling down Arthur’s cheeks as he resumed his account. “The guards came for me at dawn...pinned me to the wall...tied my hands behind my back...an’ dragged me to the gallows.”

“Arthur, none of this really happened!”

“When the hangman...placed that noose...over my head...that was real enough...far too bleedin’ real!”

Philip shook his head. “I don’t believe a word of it,” he muttered. “Not a single word.”

Ruth hissed at him to be quiet. “Let him speak!”

“When the trapdoor dropped...I was choking...couldn’t breathe.... Then something snapped.” Arthur gasped for breath before resuming. “When I woke up...I was lying in a hospital bed.... Took a while to figure out...what kind of hospital.... Even longer to figure out...what kind of world.”

Philip knew then that he had heard enough lies.

“Arthur, it’s obvious to me that you’ve created this fantasy because in the real world you did murder three Jews, but couldn’t cope with your feelings of guilt.”

Arthur rocked his head from side to side. “Do you really think...I would dream up...my own execution...so I could spend seventy years...in this bleedin’ purgatory?”

The forcefulness of Arthur’s denial silenced Philip. Arthur grunted, then turned his baleful gaze on Ruth.

“Mind you...this world...did have one thing...going for it.”

“And what was that?”

The old man tried to spit at her, but the phlegm stuck to his lips.

“The Nazi Party!”

Trembling, Ruth turned away from her tormentor.

Philip zoomed the digicam so that it framed Arthur’s face. A split-second later, the look of triumph turned to terror. His head jerked up off the pillow as if tugged by an invisible rope. Then a series of violent spasms racked his body. Nurse Williams attempted to administer an injection, but before she could restrain either flailing arm Arthur gave a long, drawn-out gasp. His blood-darkened face relaxed into a death mask. The stench of urine and faeces filled the air.

Nurse Williams reached forward and pulled the blankets over his head.

* * *


* * *

Now that the brief downpour had ceased, the wooden bench glistened in the sunlight as if covered in tiny lenses. Philip wiped the slats dry with a tissue before sitting down. He closed his eyes, content to let the minutes drift by on the breeze while he waited for Ruth to arrive.

“Arthur Edward Renwick. Born 15th August 1899, died 5th April 2008.” Ruth’s voice was quavering as she read the inscription on the memorial plaque. “Hardly does justice to a double life, does it?”

Philip opened his eyes. “I wasn’t sure you’d come here. I realise it must be difficult for you.”

“I’m okay — really.”

Puffy skin around reddened eyes belied Ruth’s words, so he took her arm and led her away. They walked along the gravel path in silence, pausing from time to time to inspect the rosebushes. After several minutes, they came upon another bench, shaded by an oak tree. Ruth sat down and lit a cigarette. Finally she asked the question he had been expecting all along.

“So, did you ever finish that Myths and Mysteries?”

“No, I abandoned it.”

Ruth said nothing.

“I was working at home," he continued, "editing sequences from that final session. Seeing Arthur’s death throes again made me realise that I was sick of exploiting him for the sake of solving a mystery.”

Ruth frowned at him. “Do you really expect me to believe that Counterfactuals won’t be exploiting Arthur?”

Philip blushed. That Ruth had learned about his prospective new series for the BBC was hardly surprising, since nothing remained secret for long in the television industry. Even so, he felt ashamed that he had not told her himself.

“I suppose you got the idea from Arthur’s testimony!”

“Look Ruth, I know how you must feel.”

“No Philip, you do not know how I feel.” She steepled her fingers beneath her chin before continuing. “For a Jew to meet a man who sincerely believed that he had lived in a world where the Nazis never came to power in Germany.... How could you possibly know how that felt?”

A world that was no less riddled with hatred, but not nearly as efficient at genocide.

“Ruth, it wasn’t the real world,” he said.

Her expression was withering. “Two of my great-grandparents died in Belsen. So don’t lecture me about the ‘real world’!”

“I’m so sorry,” he murmured.

“Isn’t everyone?”

Philip felt compelled to justify himself even though he knew that he might make things worse.

“Ruth, you have every right to ask yourself if we live in the best of all possible worlds. But so does everyone, including me.”

“Said with the glibness of someone who is making a television series on the subject!”

Her put-down stung him into silence.

“I’d better go,” she said eventually.

“Please don’t, Ruth. At least, not until I’ve told you what else I’ve learnt about Arthur.”

Her nod, though reluctant, came as a relief to him.

“Two weeks after Arthur’s death, Nurse Williams contacted me again. She had been going through his personal effects. There were no surviving relatives; so she passed on anything she thought might be of interest, such as his campaign medals. Odd that he never wore them, don’t you think? And then I found this.” He pulled a folder from his briefcase: inside were two hundred pages crammed with spidery handwriting. “Arthur’s memoirs.”

She sat down on the bench and riffled through the sheaf of paper. “I suppose it’s all just a pack of lies.”

“There’s no way to tell for certain, Ruth. But Arthur’s written testimony does go into a lot more detail than his oral account.” He paused for a moment, unsure whether Ruth would want to hear what he had to say. Fortunately, his preamble had piqued her interest.

“So, what did you find?”

“According to Arthur, the main prosecution witness at his trial was a man named Ira Silverman. He testified that Arthur murdered three Jews at the Hyde Park work camp. For what it’s worth, Arthur pleaded ‘not guilty’.”

“Which proves nothing!”

Philip nodded. “Exactly my point, Ruth. Sometimes the truth can’t be revealed, however hard we try.”

“That won’t stop me wondering about what might have been!”

Philip reached out and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “I wouldn’t want it to, Ruth. Which is why I want you to work with me on Counterfactuals...”

Ruth rolled her eyes upwards and muttered something in what he took to be Hebrew, before favouring him with a rueful-looking smile. Philip smiled back, relieved that she had given her consent so readily.

Arm in arm, they walked back along the path that led to Arthur’s memorial. There, Ruth set fire to his memoirs. When the flames had subsided, they scattered the ashes beneath the roses.

* * *

First published in Postscripts 9.

* * *

Fourteen years ago, Vaughan Stanger started setting himself writing homework. Since then, he has seen his stories published in End of an Aeon, Daily Science Fiction, Nature Futures, Music for Another World, Postscripts and Interzone, amongst others. He's also had stories translated into Polish for Nowa Fantastyka, and into Hebrew for Mercury. Needless to say, he's working on a novel. Like most writers, he loves cats, but so far he has resisted the siren call of the cute little brown creature that howls outside his front door.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

For me, a story usually comes into being when two seemingly unrelated ideas intercept each other. "The Peace Criminal" is a case a point. I have long been fascinated with the First World War and its aftermath, also with the way that some people can remember events that could not possibly have been true. This story, which was originally published in Issue 9 of Postscripts, arose from a collision between those two particular ideas.