No Man’s Land is out next week, but if you scroll down, you can get a sneak preview of the opening chapters…
Heroes and Villains
I used to think I knew about heroes. That some wore fancy outfits and flexed bulging muscles and had special powers like invisibility or flight or flames from their fingertips. The others wore uniforms and fought for the country with guns and rockets, or carried babies out of burning buildings.
It turns out not all heroes wear capes. And not all heroes carry guns.
It turns out it’s not so easy to tell them and the baddies apart, neither.
’Cause real life isn’t like on the telly or in films. Villains don’t always go round cackling madly and flashing their tattoos. They come in pretending to be your friend and promising you stuff so you’re tricked into thinking they’re the good ones after all.
And the real heroes? They can slip in and out without you even noticing. And fight with their wile and their wits and their kindness instead of weapons.
And they might be skinny as a stick and dressed in a T-shirt and just a kid.
But I didn’t know that then.
I just knew the world was changing.
And I knew I wanted it to stop.
How it Began
It started with Mrs King.
Actually, that’s not totally true. It started ages ago when the Albioneers won the election. Maybe before, even – before I was born. When England decided it didn’t like Europe any more and then there was graffiti on the Co-op wall telling anyone who wasn’t white, or the right kind of white, to go home, even though home was here. Then home changed its name anyway, turned into Albion, and it wasn’t the same for any of us.
That’s what Dad would say, anyway. But Dad wasn’t around for half the story, and he’s not telling it, I am. So I say it started with Mrs King.
Least for Sam and me.
She’d been teaching us about World War One, and the soldiers in the trenches whose feet got rotten, and the rats as big as cats that tried to eat the dead bodies. Ahmed said the soldiers should’ve eaten the rats, and Jayden Nesbitt said he would say that, so Ahmed said, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Jayden said, ‘You know what that means,’ and called him a dirty word.
And Mrs King said that was enough and that no one ate anyone and that this kind of attitude was how world wars started. So Ahmed said actually she’d said some man called Franz Ferdinand getting shot was what started the war.
Mrs King said, ‘Not “some man”. He was the Archduke, Ahmed. And Franz Ferdinand was just the tipping point. The arguing was the build-up. Wars don’t come from nowhere.’
And then no one spoke for a bit and the air in the room felt fat and dangerous because we all knew war might be coming again. It’d been on the news. We weren’t allowed news in our house because of most of it being fake, but Ahmed told me, so I knew too. Sam didn’t; he was only five and he mainly cared about Marvel and DC and dinosaurs, but I was ten and old enough for truth, least I thought so. Like I knew Cassius Barker from our class hadn’t moved school, he’d been sent to his uncle in Trinidad because it was safer there. And I knew that Olivia Mikkelsen who used to work with Dad at Albion Interception had gone back to Denmark. And I knew that the Patels from number forty-four had gone to Bangladesh and all.
And I knew that the war wouldn’t be loud and clattering with guns and bombs and trenches this time, it would be stealthy and silent and sneak in at night when you weren’t expecting it.
It was confusing, too: who was good and who was bad, and whose side I was meant to be on – Albion’s side, or The Rest of the World. I’d asked Dad to explain it and he said it was more complicated than that and that there were good people and bad people in all the countries, and even some people had good and bad inside them, and to just to get on with being a kid, maybe, for a bit.
Finally, Mrs King smiled, wide and real. She said we’d probably done enough war for the day and we should get on with painting our mural of Important Women, which was of a scientist called Marie Curie and a writer called Maya Angelou and a girl called Rosa Parks who had sat in the wrong bit of the bus, which was brave because she was black. So we did.
Only, Ahmed and Jayden argued about where Ahmed should sit on the bus, which Jayden said was in the driver’s seat and Ahmed said was in the bus company headquarters, owning all the buses in the world. And Mrs King was just telling them to pack it in when Paris Metcalfe from next door spilled pink paint all over her shoes, and started crying because they were expensive and her mum would kill her, and Mrs King said she’d clean them up so they were as good as new, and by the time she was done they almost were.
Then it was home time and she said, ‘Goodbye, everyone, see you all tomorrow!’ like she always does. And I didn’t even say bye back and nor did anyone else because we were too pleased to get out and play football or cricket or just eat crisps or whatever.
But I should have; we all should. Because, even though we didn’t realise it at the time, Mrs King was our tipping point. She was our Franz Ferdinand.
Because the next day, she was gone.