Kingdom Come, p.1J. G. Ballard
OTHER WORKS BY J.G. BALLARD
The Drowned World
The Voices of Time
The Terminal Beach
The Crystal World
The Day of Forever
The Disaster Area
The Atrocity Exhibition
The Unlimited Dream Company
The Venus Hunters
Myths of the Near Future
Empire of the Sun
The Day of Creation
The Kindness of Women
Rushing to Paradise
A User’s Guide to the
The Complete Short Stories
THE ST GEORGE’S CROSS
THE SUBURBS DREAM of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world . . .
WISHFUL THINKING, I told myself as Heathrow airport shrank into the rear-view mirror, and more than a little foolish, an advertising man’s ingrained habit of tasting the wrapper rather than the biscuit. But they were thoughts that were difficult to push aside. I steered the Jensen into the slow lane of the M4, and began to read the route signs welcoming me to the outer London suburbs. Ashford, Staines, Hillingdon—impossible destinations that featured only on the mental maps of desperate marketing men. Beyond Heathrow lay the empires of consumerism, and the mystery that obsessed me until the day I walked out of my agency for the last time. How to rouse a dormant people who had everything, who had bought the dreams that money can buy and knew they had found a bargain?
The indicator ticked at the dashboard, a nagging arrow that I was certain I had never selected. But a hundred yards ahead was a slip road that I had somehow known was waiting for me. I slowed and left the motorway, entering a green-banked culvert that curved in on itself, past a sign urging me to visit a new business park and conference centre. I braked sharply, thought of reversing back to the motorway, then gave up. Always let the road decide . . .
LIKE MANY CENTRAL LONDONERS, I felt vaguely uneasy whenever I left the inner city and approached the suburban outlands. But in fact I had spent my advertising career in an eager courtship of the suburbs. Far from the jittery, synapse-testing metropolis, the perimeter towns dozing against the protective shoulder of the M25 were virtually an invention of the advertising industry, or so account executives like myself liked to think. The suburbs, we would all believe to our last gasp, were defined by the products we sold them, by the brands and trademarks and logos that alone defined their lives.
Yet somehow they resisted us, growing sleek and confident, the real centre of the nation, forever holding us at arm’s length. Gazing out at the placid sea of bricky gables, at the pleasant parks and school playgrounds, I felt a pang of resentment, the same pain I remembered when my wife kissed me fondly, waved a little shyly from the door of our Chelsea apartment, and walked out on me for good. Affection could reveal itself in the most heartless moments.
But I had a special reason for feeling uneasy—only a few weeks earlier, these amiable suburbs had sat up and snarled, then sprung forward to kill my father.
AT NINE THAT MORNING, a fortnight after my father’s funeral, I set off from London towards Brooklands, the town between Weybridge and Woking that had grown up around the motor-racing circuit of the 1930s. My father had spent his childhood in Brooklands and, after a lifetime of flying, the old airline pilot had returned there to pass his retirement. I was going to call on his solicitors, see that the probate of his will was under way, and put his flat up for sale, formally closing down a life that I had never shared. According to the solicitor, Geoffrey Fairfax, the flat was within sight of the disused racetrack, a dream of speed that must have reminded the old man of all the runways that still fled through his mind. When I packed away his uniforms and locked the door behind me, a last line would draw itself under the former British Airways pilot, an absentee parent I once hero-worshipped but rarely met.
He had left my strong-willed but highly strung mother when I was five, flown millions of miles to the most dangerous airports in the world, survived two attempted hijackings and then died in a bizarre shooting incident in a suburban shopping mall. A mental patient on day release smuggled a weapon into the atrium of the Brooklands Metro-Centre and fired at random into the lunch-hour crowd. Three people died, and fifteen were injured. A single bullet killed my father, a death that belonged in Manila or Bogotá or East Los Angeles, rather than in a bosky English suburb. Sadly, my father had outlived his relatives and most of his friends, but at least I had arranged the funeral service and seen him off to the other side.
As I left the motorway behind me, the prospect of actually turning the key in my father’s front door began to loom in the windscreen like a faintly threatening head-up display. A large part of him would still be there—the scent of his body on the towels and clothes, the contents of his laundry basket, the odd smell of old bestsellers on his bookshelves. But his presence would be matched by my absence, the gaps that would be everywhere like empty cells in a honeycomb, human voids that his own son had never been able to fill when he abandoned his family for a universe of skies.
The spaces were as much inside me. Instead of dragging around Harvey Nichols with my mother, or sitting through an eternity of Fortnum’s teas, I should have been with my father, building our first kite, playing French cricket in the garden, learning how to light a bonfire and sail a dinghy. At least I went on to a career in advertising, successful until I made the mistake of marrying a colleague and providing myself with a rival I could never hope to beat.
I reached the exit of the slip road, trailing a huge transporter loaded with micro-cars, each shiny enough to eat, or at least lick, toffee-apple cellulose brightening the day. The transporter paused at the traffic lights, an iron bull ready to rush the corrida of the open road, then thundered towards a nearby industrial estate.
Already I was lost. I had entered what the AA map represented as an area of ancient Thames Valley towns—Chertsey, Weybridge, Walton—but no towns were visible around me, and there were few signs of permanent human settlement. I was moving through a terrain of inter-urban sprawl, a geography of sensory deprivation, a zone of dual carriageways and petrol stations, business parks and signposts to Heathrow, disused farmland filled with butane tanks, warehouses clad in exotic metal sheeting. I drove past a brownfield site dominated by a massive sign announcing the Heathrow South extension with its unlimited freight capacity, though this was an empty land, where everything had already been sent on ahead. Nothing now made sense except in terms of a transient airport culture. Warning displays alerted each other, and the entire landscape was coded for danger. CCTV cameras crouched over warehouse gates, and filter-left signs pulsed tirelessly, pointing to the sanctuaries of high-security science parks.
A terrace of small houses appeared, hiding in the shadow of a reservoir embankment, linked to any sense of community only by the used-car lots that surrounded it. Moving towards a notional south, I passed a Chinese takeaway, a discount furniture warehouse, an attack-dog kennels and a grim housing estate like a partly rehabilitated prison camp. There were no cinemas, churches or civic centres, and the endless billboards advertising a glossy consumerism sustained the only cultural life.
ON MY LEFT, traffic moved down a side street, family
I waited for the lights to change, an eternity compressed into a few seconds. The traffic signals presided like small-minded deities over their deserted crossroads. I lowered my foot onto the accelerator, ready to jump the red, and noticed that a police car was waiting behind me. Like the nearby town, it had materialized out of the empty air, alerted by the wayward imagination of an impatient driver in a powerful sports car. The entire defensive landscape was waiting for a crime to be committed.
TEN MINUTES LATER I eased myself onto a banquette in an empty Indian restaurant, somewhere in the centre of the off-motorway town that had come to my aid. Spreading my map over the elderly menu, a book of laminated pages unchanged for years, I tried to work out where I was. Vaguely south-west of Heathrow, I guessed, in one of the motorway towns that had grown unchecked since the 1960s, home to a population that only felt fully at ease within the catchment area of an international airport.
Here, a filling station beside a dual carriageway enshrined a deeper sense of community than any church or chapel, a greater awareness of a shared culture than a library or municipal gallery could offer. I had left the Jensen in the multi-storey car park that dominated the town, a massive concrete edifice of ten canted floors more mysterious in its way than the Minotaur’s labyrinth at Knossos—where, a little perversely, my wife suggested we should spend our honeymoon. But the presence of this vast structure reflected the truism that parking was well on the way to becoming the British population’s greatest spiritual need.
I asked the manager where we were, offering him the map, but he was too distracted to answer. A nervous Bengali in his fifties, he watched the traffic moving down the high street. Someone had thrown a brick at the plate-glass window, and the scimitar of a giant crack veered from ceiling to floor. The manager had tried to steer me into the rear of the empty restaurant, saying that the window table was reserved, but I ignored him and sat beside the fractured glass, curious to observe the town and its daily round.
The passers-by were too busy with their shopping to notice me. They seemed prosperous and content, confidently strolling around a town that was entirely composed of shops and small department stores. Even the health centre had redesigned itself as a retail space, its window filled with blood-pressure kits and fitness DVDs. The streets were brightly lit, cheerful and cleanly swept, so unlike the inner London I knew. Whatever the name of this town, there were no drifting newspapers and chewing-gum pavements, no citizenry of the cardboard box. This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity. In short, the town was an end state of consumerism. I liked it, and felt a certain pride that I had helped to set its values. History and tradition, the slow death by suffocation of an older Britain, played no part in its people’s lives. They lived in an eternal retail present, where the deepest moral decisions concerned the purchase of a refrigerator or washing machine. But at least these Thames Valley natives with their airport culture would never start a war.
A pleasant middle-aged couple paused by the window, leaning against each other in a show of affection. Happy for them, I tapped the broken glass and gave a vigorous thumbs up. Startled by the apparition smiling a few inches from him, the husband stepped forward to protect his wife and touched the metal flag in the lapel of his jacket.
I had seen the flag as I drove into the town, the cross of St George on its white field, flying above the housing estates and business parks. The red crusader’s cross was everywhere, unfurling from flagstaffs in front gardens, giving the anonymous town a festive air. Whatever else, the people here were proud of their Englishness, a core belief no army of copywriters would ever take from them.
Sipping my flavour-free lager—another agency triumph—I studied the map as the manager hovered around my table. But I was in no hurry to order, and not merely because I had a shrewd idea of the sort of food on offer. The one fixed point on the map was my father’s flat in Brooklands, only a few miles to the south of where I sat. I could almost believe that he was waiting behind his desk, ready to interview me for a new post, the job of being his son.
What would he see, in those make-or-break thirty seconds when the interviewee entered his room? Applicant: Richard Pearson, forty-two years old, unemployed account executive. Likeable, but can seem slightly shifty. One-time secret smoker and former junior Wimbledon player with right elbow spur. Failed husband completely outwitted by his former wife. Good-humoured and optimistic, but privately a little desperate. He thinks of himself as a kind of terrorist, but all he is good at is warming the slippers of late capitalism. Applying for the post of son and heir, though very hazy about duties and entitlements . . .
I was very hazy, and not only about my father.
A WEEK BEFORE his death I drove a close friend to Gatwick airport, at the end of my happiest months in many years. A Canadian academic on a year’s sabbatical, she was flying back to her job in the modern history department at Vancouver University. I liked her confidence and humour, and her frank concern for me. ‘Come on, Dick! Jump! Bale out!’ She talked of my joining her, perhaps finding work in the media studies department. ‘It’s an academic dustbin, but you can rattle the lid.’ She knew I had been eased out of the agency—my last campaign had been an expensive fiasco—and urged me to look hard at myself, never an inviting proposition. I started to miss her keenly a month before she left, and was more than tempted to pull the ripcord and join her.
Then, at the Gatwick departure gate, she discovered my passport in her handbag, zipped away in a side pocket since our return from a Rome weekend. Baffled, she stared at the war-criminal photo. ‘Richard . . . ? Who? Dick, my God! That’s you!’ She shrieked loudly enough to alert a security guard. I took this as a powerful unconscious signal. Vancouver and an escape into academia would have to wait. If someone who liked me and shared my bed could forget my name at the first glimpse of a departure lounge I needed urgently to reinvent myself. Perhaps my father would help me.
I finished my lager, watched by the manager, who had come to the window and was staring uneasily at the sky above the multi-storey garage. I was about to ask him about the St George’s badges worn by many of the passers-by, but he turned the ‘Closed’ sign to the street and retreated quickly to the rear of the restaurant. Sirens sounded, and groups of shoppers gazed up at the clouds of smoke floating across the precinct. Two police cars sped by, roof lights flashing.
Something had happened to disturb the deep consumerist peace. The manager disappeared into his kitchen, and a woman’s voice cried in alarm. Leaving enough cash to settle the bill, I folded the map, unlatched the door and let myself out of the restaurant. A fire engine bullied its way through the crowd, siren turning the air into a headache. I followed on foot, pushing past the pedestrians who stared at the darkening sky.
A few hundred yards from the town centre, near the road I had taken from the motorway, a car was burning on the perimeter of a modest council estate. Residents stood in their front gardens, arms folded as they watched the flames rise from a battered Volvo. A policeman discharged his fire extinguisher into the passenger cabin, while a fellow officer held back the crowd. They were staring at the shabby house of one of their neighbours, where a policewoman stood by the front door, gazing in a resigned way at the untended garden. Splashes of white paint traced a gaudy slogan over the masonry, and I assumed that an unpopular arrival had sullied the atmosphere of the estate, perhaps a released murderer or a paedophile exposed by the local vigilantes who had torched the car.
I eased my way through the onlookers, many still carrying their shopping bags, viewing the scene like an unexpected publicity disp
‘What’s going on? Is someone hiding inside . . . ?’ I spoke to a stocky woman muttering to herself as her wide-eyed daughter stared up at me. But my voice was drowned in the crowd’s roar. The villa’s door had opened, and a bearded man in turban and black robe stood on the step, beckoning to the anxious faces in the hall behind him. Above the door was a small ceramic plaque bearing an Arabic inscription, and I realized that this modest suburban house was a mosque. I was present at an outbreak of religious cleansing.
Instructed by the policewoman, the imam urged his followers into the garden. Three Asian youths in jeans and white shirts emerged into the light, followed by an elderly Pakistani man and a woman in a jellaba carrying a suitcase. Heads lowered, they moved through the now silent crowd, guarded by the firemen and police. As she passed me, the woman stumbled on the kerb, and I caught the stale, sweat-stained odour from her robe, the reek of fear.
I raised my hands to help her, but a strong shoulder knocked me off balance. Two of the hardware store assistants in St George’s shirts blocked my path, narrowed eyes staring over my head. I tripped onto one knee beside the Volvo, my hands pressed against a charred rag of plastic seating. Legs stepped over me, shopping bags swinging past my face. Without comment, the policewoman lifted me onto my feet, then walked me through the crowd to her car, where the imam sat alone in the back seat. His small congregation had vanished into the smoky air.
Kingdom Come by J. G. Ballard / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes