Seven months ago. [November 8, 2013; inbox]
Hi Mum & Dad,
I know I said I'd call but guess what, it's just meeting after meeting after meeting here, and then there's the time difference… by the time I'm out of whatever bureaucratic schmooze-/snoozefest is
on the day's schedule, you're pretty much guaranteed to be asleep.
The Mo thing… yeah. That's one that maybe it would be best to leave until I actually get a chance to talk to you. You know... "it's complicated." It really is.
That's an understatement.
For what it's worth: yeah, I still want to be with her.
I'm sorry, I can't write more about this.
And now I have to leave again, already. Meeting #748. Joy.
Talk to you later. Yes, really.
The cat sits in the middle of the floor, motionless like a porcelain garden ornament, black fur impossibly glossy, tail neatly curled around its front paws.
Of course his son and Mo would have a black cat.
He expected it to hide in its carrier for a while, then maybe disappear under the sofa for a few hours until it acclimatised, but no: the cat feels at home already. After one leisurely circuit of the room it placed itself squarely in the centre of the carpet and began to engage him in a Mexican stare-off.
He stares back, sweating faintly, feeling his nose itch, wondering when his wife will be home.
He wonders where his son is. His son, who is currently wanted for murder, as well as assault on a police officer.
"A misunderstanding. Really. It'll be cleared up soon, I promise. We're working on it," said Mo, who has aged a year a month since he last saw her, who speaks in clipped, terse tones, and who had to "run, sorry – no, not like that, don't worry." She left him with the cat carrier, and the sinking feeling that he can't even understand the ways in which he can't help the two of them, now.
Mo is technically police, he knows – or was, anyway, recently enough that he feels it still counts. He should take her reassurances seriously. She has access to the right resources, the right kinds of info.
A misunderstanding. Of course it is a misunderstanding. His son has never known how to use his not inconsiderable bulk in a fight, not even in the schoolyard. He is a middle-aged, middlemanagement civil servant with a degree in computer science. The idea of him assaulting anyone – a police officer! - is preposterous. The only assault he might conceivably commit is the virtual sort, a watchamacallit, a "hack"? Even that seems a stretch.
Eleven months ago. [June 15, 2013; unsent drafts]
What is the world coming to?
Now there's an old-person thing to write. Well, I feel more entitled to the sentiment than previous generations. They never had to deal with a floating Mayor of London.
So many bizarre, inexplicable things, these last few weeks. I'd say it's just the tabloids losing it completely, but this stuff is everywhere, all of a sudden. There can't be that much smoke without some fire. Somewhere.
Though what kind of fire would cause this kind of smoke is anybody's guess.
What *is* the world coming to?
I wish I didn't have the gut feeling that you were the person of whom to ask that question. But that was Mo, there on the telly, wasn't it? The lady with the violin. Doing heaven knows what to whom- or whatever that was.
That wasn't... performance art, that wasn't special effects, was it?
What was she doing?
I think you know.
Of course you bloody know, she's your wife.
Of course the cat would be named Spooky. A none-too-subtle joke from his son the spook, whose work, it turns out, is all about spooky things.
There is a sort of mental pothole at the centre of his being, deep and jagged-edged and swamped with stunned disbelief, torn by that moment when for the second time in a year, he found out what members of his family really did for a living, from the news.
His daughter-in-law, the superhero – "superhero administrator", she would amend. She doesn't like the term, or its implications, this much he knows, even from the limited interaction he has had with her since the news went strange, a year and a bit ago. But he has seen her on TV with her violin, and although he still doesn't quite understand what it was she did there he is certain that it was something that... ordinary people could not do.
He has had some time to assimilate that fact, at least.
Now he knows what it really was – the gist, if not the details. He has seen his son - who, it turns out, is actually a spy (a spy administrator?) explain it to Jeremy Paxman:
Ten days ago. [May 4, 2014, 7:14 p.m; inbox]
I'll be on Paxo tomorrow evening. Not a sentence I ever expected to write, believe me. Now, I
really don't *want* you to watch this, because it's bad enough to embarrass myself in front of a national audience without knowing my parents are part of it. But you're going to run into all this one way or another, so the least I can do is warn you in advance.
What I can't do – and I do mean "can't" in an absolutely literal way – is explain any of this in advance.
I'm sorry. For the last decade and change, too.
Talk to you when I can.
[May 4, 2014, 9:34 p.m; sent mail]
I've been calling you for two hours! Please answer your phone!
[9:35 p.m.; sent mail]
Or call us as soon as you can. Doesn't matter how late, we'll be awake.
[9:37 p.m.; sent mail]
[May 5, 2014, 10:20 a.m.; sent mail]
Tried calling again; straight to voicemail.
What's going on?
[10:35 a.m.; unsent drafts]
BBC website says "FIRST INTERVIEW WITH A SENIOR SOE Q DIVISION OFFICIAL"
Surely that's not you? You fix computers. Or something.
[12:14 a.m.; sent mail]
ANSWER YOUR PHONE
[11:37 p.m.; unsent drafts]
All right, I suppose you're pretty busy with whatever it is that "senior SOE Q Division officials" do after being interviewed on television. We can't expect to be allotted very high priority on such an exalted individual's To Do list.
Your communication habits of the last few years have certainly shown that.
[May 6, 2014, 8:02 a.m.; unsent drafts]
Your mother has talked to me about the way I've been hassling you these past few days, and as usual she's right: we need to be patient. I'm sorry if I added unnecessary pressure to what surely is already a bit of a pressure cooker situation. I can't imagine what your life must be like at the moment.
Needless to say, we're both still boggling at the news that you…
At all the news, really.
[May 6, 2014, 8:54 a.m.; unsent drafts]
Does this mean that you're a… computer wizard?
Yeah, all right, I'll show myself out.
[May 6, 2014, 9:42 a.m.; sent mail]
Your mum told me to be more patient, and she's right.
There is far too much to say for e-mail, so please, just call us. When you can.
The cat's eyes are large, round, bright green, pupils wide and hypnotic.
Tiny droplets of sweat well up on his forehead, pool between his eyebrows to run down the side of his nose, tickling fiendishly. Inside his nose, just south of where the sweat collects, a seemingly bottomless reservoir has begun decanting mucus. He feels wetness at his nostril; sniffles noisily. He is in urgent need of a tissue, but he can't take his eyes off the cat.
He would be willing to bet that that little bugger has never had a runny nose in its life.
Do cats get allergic to humans? Maybe he'll ask his son, when all this silliness has finally been cleared up.
It's certainly a much less loaded topic than almost anything else he could ask him right now.
The post-Newsnight explanations, promised by implication, still haven't materialised. What clarifications he's had he has cobbled together from newspapers and TV, half-disbelieving.
He's not as surprised as he should be, perhaps, that maths, apparently, is magic. It feels like a truth he has always known in his gut.
The wife and he, they've tried to keep lines of communication open, throughout the years. In the beginning his son and Mo would join them for the occasional lunch or dinner. Conversations would tend to consummately bland small talk, the barest abstractions of office politics - a smokescreen, he now knows, thrown up by professional liars.
A part of him is still hurt. Another part understands that the distance the pair of them had built so carefully was a kindness, could only have been broken by more elaborate deceptions. Which is to
say, could not have been broken at all.
Oh, there had been tensions, he knew that even then. Too many questions about prospective grandchildren, certainly. Yet there was never a falling out, not a proper one, and he - the wife even more so - was left bewildered when the visits grew rarer, then all but stopped.
That had happened not too long after a period, some years ago, when his son had disappeared entirely for several months, which Mo had explained, vaguely, as "he's been under a lot of stress lately." She had asked them not to contact him, muttered something about therapy.
He remembers his escalating worry – the sense of failure, of missing something huge, something that should have been obvious to any parent, even if kept at more-than-arm's-length by their child.
He wonders, now, with an entirely new sense of dread layered over older fears, what really went on during that time.
His son had reappeared eventually – taciturn, and paler than ever (not that he'd ever not looked like something grown in a cave, if you asked his mum, who fretted about the hours he spent in front of screens when he was thirty just as when he was ten). When asked about what had happened, he offered fumbling, obvious lies.
They stopped asking, bewildered and scared, after a warning glance or two from Mo.
Four days ago. [May 9, 2014; unsent drafts]
You're testifying before the Commons Select Committee today, the papers say.
That is still an utterly surreal sentence to write, even five days into this whole thing. As surreal as seeing you in a suit. Interesting times, truly. Next up: cats and dogs living together.
I checked the Parliament channel, on the off chance, but of course it's all closed-doors stuff. I suppose it would be too much to ask to…
Oh, to hell with this. What's the point? You're not going to reply. I know that.
He is watching the cat through a distorting lens of salty liquid, tear ducts working overtime. He feels like he is melting. He feels like his brain is about to join in the general liquefaction, dribble right out of his head with the snot and tears and sweat.
It's distracting, but not quite distracting enough.
A few days after his-son-the-secret-agent was questioned by parliamentary committee, the problem of magic was replaced in his mind by the far more worrying question of what he could possibly be mixed up in that would land him in police custody, to then have him effect an improbably violent escape from said custody, and get him framed for murder.
Multiple murders, at that.
It must be a frame. He supposes it could be some bureaucratic mix-up, bizarre yet ultimately harmless, but there is that escape – before any charges; before any of the alleged murders had even happened. Surely a civil servant detained due to a case of crossed wires would stay meekly put and wait for the confusion to clear? Not run. Certainly not beat down a police officer.
Only a man who already knows the hunt is on would run.
Indeed, the agency of which his son had been part these past ten years or more had been dissolved that very same day, as the public learned belatedly.
He doesn't like what the timing implies about Her Majesty's Most Secret Service, and/or – possibly - other parts of the security apparatus. Conspiracy? Internal strife and rivalries, fought using the police as proxy?
There is a third option, of course. If there wasn't a mix-up; if there is no conspiracy, no attempt to frame anybody -
He shrinks from the thought. Floating Mayors, underwear perverts, even elven queens and sodding "dragons" destroying Leeds do less violence to his world than granting any space at all to that idea.
Yesterday. [May 13, 2014, 4:37 p.m; unsent drafts]
I know I'm not going to send this mail. If I were to send it, it probably wouldn't be safe for you to read it. Can they track you down if you log into your e-mail account? I think I read something like that in a thriller once. Our lives are turning into fiction, so I'm drawing on what fiction can teach me.
Even if they can't track you – you probably have far more urgent things to do than to check for mail from your old man, right now.
They say you hurt a policewoman and a taxi driver.
They say that you killed five people.
How is it that we live in a world now in which I have to write that about you? Even if it is all just "a misunderstanding", as Mo would have it. (I know it's a misunderstanding. I do.)
How are you the kind of person to whom that misunderstanding would happen?
[May 14, 2014, 2 a.m.; unsent drafts]
I just need to know that you're safe.
The cat wins, of course.
He can't keep up his side of the staring contest – not least because his eyes have begun to swell shut. The nose itch is back, too, grown into a monstrous presence enacting a hostile takeover of his features, slow and inexorable. He scrunches up his face, notices that he can hardly breathe. What air still makes it through burns in his lungs as if every molecule is charged with cat proteins.
The cat twitches an ear, minutely.
It can't be true, really, that he feels that tiny air movement, can it? The single molecule that is wafted across the room, that enters his nose – the final molecule, the one that…
The sneeze is nothing short of cataclysmic.
He has just about remembered to bury his face in his sleeve. Now he stares at the result with horror, and perhaps a little awe.
He will have to change shirts.
He looks up from the eldritch thing on his sleeve to the eldritch thing across the room, expecting to see it gone, fled from the violence of the explosion.
It is still there.
"I'm pretty sure that should have spooked you," he says to the cat. "Loud, sudden..."
The cat returns his gaze as it has done all this time: unperturbed – unknowable.
Superstition, he finds, isn't buried all that far under the surface of the modern mind – certainly not in these days of wizards and dragons. There is something more here than the gap between a mind endowed with speech and one without, something beyond mere animal inscrutability.
He squints at the small black fiend.
"What sort of beast are you?" he asks.
The cat, oddly, is squinting back at him now. Is it falling asleep? No: it is getting up. It stretches, elegantly, then ambles over, tail half-raised, to sling a narrow loop around his legs, depositing an assortment of hairs on his trouser legs.
He crouches down; tentatively runs a hand over – he has to admit - pleasingly smooth fur, and feels it begin to vibrate as if a small engine has been switched on within.
There are no answers here.
He sighs, deeply.
He can already feel the next sneeze beginning to build.
[May 15, 2014; sent mail]
Just wanted to let you know that the cat is ok – and after a few doses of antihistamines, so am I.
We hope you are, too. Both of you.
I don't know if you two are even on speaking terms at the moment, really. That's how out of touch I am.
Of course, now I understand why you couldn't talk to us. About a lot of things.
And I'm not angry. Disappointed, perhaps. Even that's a bit silly, isn't it? He – you both - had no choice.
If you are talking, though, if you have ways of contacting him: please let him know that whenever he's ready... whenever it's safe... we'll be here. Willing, and ready to listen.
To whatever he wants, or feels he can, talk about.
Please take care.
A zillion thanks to the wonderfully thorough, perceptive, and enthusiastic QuoteMyFoot, who volunteered to beta this despite knowing neither me nor the fandom. Also, kudos to the entire fanfic subreddit, for being a fabulously welcoming and helpful community!
Sorry about the awkward name avoidance issues in the fic. It's just that neither the parents nor even Bob himself actually have names in canon! The parents certainly aren't going to think of him as Bob...