[Based On A Real-Life Conversation]
I can tell you the precise moment when my brother decided to take out Kim Jong- un. Not in a polite, asking-someone-out-to-dinner kinda way. No. Who eats North Korean food apart from North Koreans, anyway? Little grey cubes of Communist Soylent tofu?
Hm, that terrorises the very notion of appetite. No, Damon was not asking the Asian enfant terrible to join him for supper and a movie.
It’s an appropriate term, don’t you agree? He is a terrible infant isn’t he? Kim, not Damon.
Having said that, some would say it is a rather childish idea: putting yourself forward to be judge, jury and executioner to a pesky tyrant who’s peskiness, let’s be honest, always had the potential to transform into something more worrying. One glance in the wrong direction from the U.N. or whichever security council is keeping an eye on son-of-il and that button would be too tempting for him to not press. Again, Kim. Not Damon. A battery of warheads must be to a rogue leader what wet paint is to an idiot: a litmus test.
Damon has had his fair share of peskiness. I was there to see it growing up. I can’t even say he learnt it from me, being younger than him. His troublesome tendencies were directed at me, rather than my parents. For reasons unbeknownst to either myself or social workers world-over, Damon would be left to babysit so Mum and Dad could head to the Irish Club of a weekend night and match pints of Guinness to glasses of Pernod until it was safe to come home to three sleeping children. Yes, another one would came after me but at a wisely-judged six-year gap. Mum knew her limits.
Damon tried to test mine. I was bombarded by all the racially apposite names his hormonally challenged mind could breed. “You must be a Russian! You must be a Nazi!” I could see where he was going. I had breached into this family like something out of Tolkein’s Rivendell: golden, radiant, slight and the kind of doubtless whippersnapper who knew it, too. An arsehole, in other words. And Damon never handled it, his appearance being the yin to my self-promoted yang. Russian! he’d launch. Fascist! he’d throw, somewhat intellectually for somebody who had excelled in CDT at school. I threw back things much less abstract and much heavier.
The Polaroid camera a set of grandparents had passed down to us had been the last strategy. Once my parents – wobbly from aniseed, barley and a competitive streak – had spotted the shattered glass from the door you could once slide across the kitchen entrance with the same noise as the theme tune to ‘Abigail’s Party’; that was it. I got away scot-free as my angelic complexion occluded any notion of a self-serving attitude. Damon was sent to his room having been banned from ever babysitting again.
He signed up for the Royal Air Force barely a fortnight later.
Having such a duty taken away from him must have felt like a sort of banishment. I watched it happen, from those gaps in the banister that were the perfect size for a child’s face to squeeze between, leaving vertical impressions on each cheek but also a great view of the dining room where Damon received a slightly-slurred telling-off. He caught me spying and while I must have been the one who resembled a prison inmate – small, clutching hands gripping the staircase uprights – it was he that was in the line of fire. His eyes told me that his revenge would be served sub-zero and it would be the type that’d outshi e any measly achievement I was destined to achieve.
All these years later, the idea of hanging out with Kim must’ve seemed like a breath of kindred air to him, comparatively-speaking. Much more of a level-playing fight than Damon and I trying to outshine each other from very different angles.
Can you just picture it, the pair of them? Not a blonde hair in sight but an event horizon of opinions and fingers being wagged ‘til a few little pinkies fall off. Their combined beliefs would resemble some mulish offspring conjured up from the entangling of a hydra and a hamster: too many heads snapping at each other and way too many wheels to go ‘round on. The crossfire of viewpoints alone would be enough to start off World War 4!
(I stand by a belief of my own. World Wars 1 and 2 should by rights be known as 2 and 3. The War of Spanish Succession that kicked off in the 18th century managed to find a toehold in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. If that doesn’t qualify as a global affair, I don’t know what does.)
I’ve lost my train of thought… Ah. That precise moment.
We were having a back-garden picnic, catered for by Gregg’s, an establishment that everyone in the family is a teensy bit worried Dad has an addiction to. That’s how they’ve kept afloat during these tough times.
Through mouthfuls of sausage rolls and ersatz pasties, we chatted about the world and its politics, nobody understanding either of them currently. It was an eclectic affair, with a foreboding sort of opinions-crossfire we probably should have paid attention to, as even the seagulls above chimed in with their strangulated thoughts on the matter. We weren’t talking about North Korea specifically, you understand. That wasn’t the international mystery we were trying to comprehend. Not even I, and I’m known for comprehending ev- er-ry-thing.
Oh… dogs! That’s what we were talking about.
It’s near-impossible to trace the seed of a conversation when it ends up at dogs in North Korea. That’s the briar patch, right there. You start with ‘hello, how are you?’ and ‘how’s 2020 been treating you?’; the two most-asked questions of the last six months.
Then the conversational paths intertwine and everybody loses their way and Dad starts readying himself for some vocal sparring and I try not to let anybody see my notepad being retrieved from a back pocket and then you’re at the point where Damon’s declaring: “I’ll do it. I’ll take him out.”
Damon’s never shot a gun in his life, I’m sure. When we were kids, it wasn’t water pistols. Not any that worked, anyhow. We went full-in on the attack with buckets of water. What was my brother proposing to do? Pull a ‘Home Alone’-style set-up on not-so-lil’ Kimmy? I’d watch that sequel. But the grown up Macaulay Culkin looks nothing like my elder sibling, so the film’s miscast before we’ve even raised the budget.
“I’ll take him out. I don’t understand why someone doesn’t just do it already? Pop the sucker! He’s one man, just one bullet.”
As a family, we’ve had as much experience of North Korean socio-economic politics as we have had guns.
We’d heard it all before. Mum sat chewing her chicken-and-pesto baguette and somehow rolling her eyes at the same time, like that trick when you pat your head and rub your belly. How was she doing it? Admittedly, something we did have years of experience of was the eyeroll at one of Damon’s highly-farcical, spur-of-the-moment decisions.
“I’ll do it.”
“Go on then,” I goaded, expecting the same reaction as when I tried to convince him to train as a NAVY S.E.A.L., or emigrate to the land Down Under to study as a viticulturist, or run for local government i.e. a reaction that amounted to nothing.
Hairbrained ideas are so-called because they have all the substance of a single strand of hair and are brushed away just as easily.
I don’t know what snapped this time. Six months imprisonment maybe. We’re all re-entering the world with crazy notions of newfound freedom and how we’d like to chase those dreams finally. You know the ones: those dreams. The ones that demand you take a stance and claim: “No more Mr Nice Guy, universe!” Just look at me, for example. I decided to come out of all this enjoyable quarantine a percentile more iconic than when I went in.
It’s a work-in-progress.
“Go on then,” I repeated. A part of me, I think, then – at that moment – really wanted me to see this unfold. I wanted that newspaper-clipping in my memories album: North Korean Leader Assassinated by Mysterious Vigilante from Shropshire. Dated April the 1st, except we’ve already had half-a-year of fool’s days.
I tried pressing those buttons again, mostly because the comedy duo of Damon and Dad is pure gold, possibly painted over pyrite. April, remember. They’re Morecombe and Wise except the wisdom part of their act was the kind you find on a small slip of paper that falls out of a Christmas cracker once a year. You really couldn’t script it. One of ‘em says it’s black, the other says it’s Neptune.
That was the moment. The third goad. There’s Damon’s autobiography title right there.
His demeanour changed. It wasn’t so much a penny dropping. It was a financial crash. His stock had gone… I don’t know which image works best: through the roof or bottomed out?
Whichever it was, I didn’t even finish the sentence and it was only three words long! “Go on -” but something in Damon’s eyes told me finally, that the man-of-action, that Terminator T-two-thousand-and-twenty, that relentless Wile E Coyote, that Goliath… had finally awoken. He’d thawed the dish his vengeance had been congealing on.
He stood up.
“Does anyone need some more coffee?”
That’s all we do really, as a family. Coffee and cake and Gregg’s, albeit raised to an Olympic art-form. We do it so well I have to mix my metaphors to describe it. There’s no art in the Olympics, but there’s sport in how we snack.
“Yes.” Me, now that caffeine has replaced alcohol; so while I can remember everything lucidly these days, I do it with terrible shakes and the fear of delerium tremens at the first whiff of insight.
“Yes.” Dad, because his other addiction is a short coffee, short so he isn’t kept awake at night. He has terrible insomnia.
“Yes.” Graham, Damon’s landlord, who has wisely stayed pretty quiet throughout this conversation and short-story of mine, because quite frankly it’s too good to be true. This is a month’s worth of entertainment right here and nothing on Netflix is going to drag him away.
And a ‘yes’ from Mum, who proved that women are the more talented and should inherit the Earth as she was still eating her chicken-and-pesto baguette and rolling her eyes and now talking: all at the same time. Never try to out-multitask a mother.
Off Damon went to make a cafetière of Colombian roast. So we thought. Instead, the only roasting was about to be received by a short dumpling of a dictator 5,386 miles away.
Credit where credit’s due. He packed his bag, collected his victuals, dusted off his passport and – on the way to the airport – picked up Ethel. Oh, Ethel… The sticky barbecue messes you get yourself into! I haven’t seen her since, either.
There are no direct flights from Shrewsbury to Pyongyang, which makes getting to Kimmy’s capital a real pain in the jax. I’ve always said Damon should travel more… North Korea isn’t quite what I meant.
I think we waited for that pot of Colombian roast for about twenty minutes, before we realised that maybe something was up. Our suspicions were slow to arouse. You wouldn’t have thought anything was up, let alone some thing. Everything about our setting spoke of perfect, mid-week, springtime bliss. The herbs lined up in faux terracotta planters above our heads not only rained a bouquet of smells down upon us, but also the kind of snobbish disdain the likes of thriving basil, parsley, sage and coriander excel in. ‘We are not brought to you by Marks & Spencers,’ their vivid greens waved. ‘We are nature’s bounty and we’ll still be here when you’re all gone. Cockroaches don’t care for garnish. We’ll be left alone.’
The lawn twinkled in the sunlight, trying to attain the kind of perfection astroturf does. The gulls had passed over and a lone raven had taken its place. It scraped its vocal chords open as far as possible to cheer my brother on, though we were all so enamoured of the momentary break in the clouds we didn’t pick up on it.
Mum agreed with me, turning her head to where I was staring off over the neighbours’ fences.
“They are good clouds, aren’t they? They look like fluffy pillows.”
They looked much crisper to me. I could see the white linen in their grandeur but I didn’t have the relationship with laundry that Mum did, so that’s not where my thoughts wandered. Those clouds were quietly rollicking behemoths. Man, Shropshire has some of the best clouds I’ve ever seen! It’s like the Montana of the cumulus world. When it rains here, it pours. And when it pours here, it empties out quickly.
Where was our coffee?
Had it happened? Had something turned into that suspicious up the moment Damon had risen from his white, plastic chair and made a silent choice to sort out these topsy-turvy times? Finally! The something was up. Damon was up and on his feet and off, Ethel in tow, weapons of small, singular destruction in his Air Force-issued duffel bag, and – I’d imagine – a passport over-the-moon that it was about to get a stamp that wasn’t Spanish in origin.
We never even got the chance to offer suggestions as to his chosen instrument of assassination! I would have plumped for a tessen, being a fan of … well, a fan. It’s essentially an object you can still use in the summer months to waft a cooling breeze in your face, handheld and often decorated with some clichéd image consisting of koi and kabuki. Along the edge, however, it wears a concertina’d rim of iron, sharpened. When you give someone a flick of the wrist with this in your paw, the breeze cuts.
Just – iconic – enough.
I couldn’t for the life of me guess what Damon would use. My mind shot immediately to kitchen utensils as he’d once been a chef, a job I’m sure I talked him out of as an obnoxious fourteen-year-old simply because I wanted his blue-and-white checked chef’s trousers so I could wear them of a Friday evening at the Dog & Trumpet’s alternative night. Dancing to PJ Harvey’s ‘Dress’ with miniature gingham print wrapped around my pins?
The musical irony wasn’t lost on me.
I hope he wore black. None of us saw him leave so I don’t know if his burgundy polo shirt remained the uniform for a self-appointed saviour of the free world. I hope he packed some comfort-slacks for once the mission had been accomplished, regardless of how impossible it was. Plenty of imodium in his washbag, too. Some face-offs can be shit scary. And what were you even allowed in hand-luggage nowadays? Certainly not knives. How would this crime-of-the-century unfold?
It was Mr Damon, in the De-Militarised Zone, with a … rolling pin?
Without him, the garden suddenly seemed much less springtime for any dictator, much more an autumnal vignette where those characters who had been left – namely, us – could only sit and look around and, in our de-caffeinated slump, wonder why we hadn’t set ourselves any such quixotic ambitions.
We went home once the Gregg’s bags had been put in the recycling and we’d written a cheque for Graham to cover a year’s rent, just in case Damon’s operation took a bit longer than he’d first planned. The car-drive home had an air of adrenalin attendant to it. If Damon could alight from our shores to skip over land-and-sea to perform such good deeds for all, who’s to say one of us wouldn’t suddenly book a one-way flight to a police state just to show my elder brother that he wasn’t the only one with such a set of cajones?
I was certainly tempted. I was angelic on the outside but a Machiavellian bastard on the inside, perfect for not drawing attention to myself. Or better yet, the wrong kind of attention. Get ‘em from the inside. Join the harem and then one night: snip.
I looked over into the front of the Ford. No, I can’t tell you what kind of Ford it is Dad drives. I lost interest in the time of the Capri. Mum was sat still, pensive. She held her new handbag on her lap like she’d just found the Holy Grail. It could have been schemes of a grand nature that were billowing out behind that calm composure. Which imperilled state needed her, now that she’d raised four children (yes, that included the one driving next to her)? And as anyone will tell you, a woman of a certain generation has absolutely ev-er-ry- thing she needs to survive in her handbag. It was magnolia, though my younger, straighter brother – absent from this story because Leicester has been turned into England’s very own Alcatraz – had labelled it something appalling like vanilla, eggshell or puce. What do they know, I tell you! The young…
Dad seemed just as alert. Yes, he was fuelled by those short coffees he dismissed as powerless and his carb levels were sky-high and ready to crash, thanks to the doughy afternoon; but I could see he was ready for action. There was always Leicester to rescue, which was at least only a thirty-minute drive from home so whatever rescuing needed to be done, could be done swiftly so everyone would be home in time for dinner.
An espresso to finish off.
Nobody leapt out of the car while it was pummelling down the M69 southward- bound. Disappointing I know, but every member of this family is rather keen on their kneecaps so those kind of stunts will have to wait for another story.
He’d be there by now. Damon, disguised in his grey, hard-edged Republic’s uniform with his feet planted 125° east of where he was born. There’s something about Croydon that I reckon might’ve prepared him for such a country. I do hope, for her own sake, that Ethel chose to jump off somewhere along the way. Ethel, roaming the countryside in Tajikistan trying to find home. Or just a light. Oh, Ethel… She has such a propensity for getting lost.
We buy the newspapers, religiously. And we’re being sensible about it, covering all the different editorials between us. I gave myself the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Star, just to confuse the old Methuselah at the newsagent’s.
“For my Page 3 collection,” I’d wink campily, probably causing ol’ Meth to despair at these sexually-confusing times he’s found himself in. Shoulda stayed put within those Bible pages.
No mention of Damon yet. However, no mention of Kimmy either. He-who-should- be-obeyed has been a bit quiet of late. We watch the news. Dad’s eager for it, the breaking headline. Any day now, we’ll get the 9 o’clock announcement that’ll make our family proud.
(Except Ethel, but the reason she has so much shame and smokes so much will have to be left wispily in the air like the last gasps of a Benson & Hedges silver.)
Often, if not always, things never turn out the way you expect. I can almost guarantee Damon and Supreme Leader discovered a mutual respect for each other, the latter advising the former that the one thing missing from Damon’s diet was little grey cubes of Communist Soylent tofu. I bet the rolling pin never made it out of his duffel bag.
Though I’m the traveller of the family – clichéd philosophies and gypsy ponytail in situ – Damon used to remind us of one repeated fact before he left for his protracted stint with the Air Force.
“Damon spelt backwards is ‘nomad’.”
“Inarguable,” I’d reply contrarily. “But it also reads as ‘no mad’.”
And I’d leave the sentence there, thinking I was being cryptic. All things cryptic are merely one point-of-view away from being infuriating.
I still don’t really know what snapped for my brother this time, but I’ve begun to suspect that because he could never catch this stubborn, Timotei’d little fascist he grew up with, Damon set his crosshair’d sights on a bigger fish. They must be having quite the fry- up over there, laughing in the oily spit-back about the younger sibling stuck in the UK without a world leader to his name. I was probably right all along. There was ‘no mad,’ as in no M.A.D. Mutually assured destruction does not make for best friends.
Jealousy is an international language. And because being someone’s brother is a constant arms-race I’ll have to raise my game to a warlike level. They’ll be chuckling away like a couple of mutts while hatching dastardly plans. They’ll wash them down with copious amounts of whatever Google claims they drink over there.
I read the steam beer in North Korea has a definite malty quality to it, inspiring none other than The Economist to state that “…brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South.” You can’t deny that a product certified with an ‘origin of demilitarisation’ has more appeal than the usual pigswill. Fresh to the buds.
Washes the dog down.
“Kampai,” I’ll say to my adventuring brother. He hasn’t saved the world yet, I don’t think. Although…
Maybe he has, just by taking Kim Jong-un out and getting him drunk.
Now. What to do about Ethel…