The polystyrene makes a sizzling sound as it sinks into the petrol. Harry hates polystyrene, hates the dry feel of it in his hands and the high-pitched “clink” as it breaks. It sets his teeth on edge. But he carries on breaking it up into small white chunks and poking them into the open can, his mouth set with grim determination. The polystyrene is from the packaging that came with a flat screen TV.
You’re never going to understand about protesting, Dad. You just want to stay in your nice warm home with your flat screen TV.
Harry grunts. What does Mark know? Hasn’t ever held down a job. Wait until he has to pay rent. Then he’ll learn the value of money. The fumes are making Harry queasy, so he works quickly and before long a gel begins to form that’s close to napalm.
Harry’s not a terrorist; he’s a civil engineer. That’s how he knows about polystyrene dissolving in petrol. Construction companies use large, moulded sections of polystyrene in road embankments because it’s relatively strong and light. But they have to coat it in concrete or cement just in case a petrol tanker spills its load. One spark and there’d be an inferno.
Earlier he made sure to pour some of the petrol out first and now the can is almost full of the jelly-like fluid. He screws the lid back on. It’s a handheld incendiary device, and as long as it’s kept away from a naked flame, it’s pretty stable. He places it in a bin bag and ties the ends to contain the fumes. Then he puts the package in the bottom of his golf trolley, placing a turkey baster in beside it and his usual collection of golf clubs.
It’s almost dusk as Harry approaches the golf course. It’s an easy walk from his house through tree-lined suburbs. He’s wearing a deep maroon Le Croc jumper and charcoal grey trousers with a subtle check pattern. The trousers are bespoke, bought on a business trip to Hong Kong. It’s a uniform of sorts that whispers success. Most of the houses he passes have three cars parked outside: a Range Rover, a little Nissan runaround for the wife and usually a sporty Subaru for the grown up kid who’s still living at home. Harry refuses to buy his son a car. The lad can do what Harry had to do – get a job and buy one himself.
The gardens are large and well kept, some of them fenced with tall brick walls and black iron gates. The folks in number 45 have had a security camera installed since they were burgled. It stands vigil, peering down the long street and recording hours and hours of empty footage. Harry makes a point of turning down a side road to avoid it. In Park Mews he really is in the posh part of town. This is “bankers’ row,” where city brokers and lawyers live. They are not the best sorts of neighbours, with their noisy parties, but Harry feels like he has earned his place among them. He wouldn’t share a pint with them, but it’s a decent neighbourhood. The schools are good, as are the local gastro-pubs. It’s comfortable.
You’re just too comfortable to know what a protest means. You toe the line, sucking it up with your golf club pals, as long as you get the tax breaks. Face it, Dad. You’re too comfortable, too middle aged and too middle class.
That had hurt. But at least the boy had something to say. Chip off the old block. Wait until he has to raise a family. He’ll learn about compromise then. When Harry reaches the clubhouse, he checks for a cctv camera on the entrance porch, but there isn’t one. Inside he changes into his patent leather golf shoes, pulls on a flat cap over his thinning hair, wraps a scarf round his neck and steps outside.
Crossing the green, he sees two men. They are chatting easily, and though he doesn’t know them, he assumes they are father and son. He sees the similarity in their looks, one dark-haired the other with flecks of grey. They are both broad and solid, more like rugby players than golfers. How relaxed they look, the father patting the son on the back.
Harry’s son would never pick up a golf club; “bourgeois” is what Mark would say. Shame, because maybe in a round of golf he’d get to chat to his son instead of argue.
That morning the two of them had got locked in a discussion about human rights and civil liberties.
“China has the worst human rights record in the world,” says Mark.
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” says Harry. “All governments have means and ways of controlling us. Some are just more subtle than others. Take this demo you’re going to…”
“It’s not a demo. It’s a peaceful protest. We’re going to lie down in the street outside the Chinese embassy.”
“Ok a protest. They monitor these events, you know – they’ll be taking your picture. Probably start a file on you.”
“Dad, didn’t anyone tell you that The X-Files was all made up?” says his son smirking. He pulls out his iphone and starts tapping at the screen.
“I suppose the event was organised via Facebook, that utterly private communication network?” says Harry.
But Mark is distracted, moving his fingers across the screen, selecting and tapping.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Er, yeah, course,” says Mark absently.
Harry sighs. When did he get so old?
“Look, son. Just be careful Ok?”
Mark shrugs. “You just don’t get it do you. We’re taking action. Civil disobedience – it’s the only way to get attention.”
“Actually,” Harry says, then he stops himself. He looks at his son still engrossed in his hand-held gadget. How fast the world seems to change but really it just stays the same. Mark will have to work it out for himself. The way Harry had done.
On the golf course Harry breathes in the cool evening air, catching a whiff of gunpowder that tickles his nose. It’s a week before Bonfire night and already people are letting off fireworks. In the distance there is the “crackle-bang-crackle” of firecrackers. Still, Harry supposes, flouting the law is at least in keeping with the flavour of the festival – Guy Fawkes, the thwarted terrorist. These days most people don’t really think about the gunpowder plot, it’s just another excuse for a party.
Harry does a few squats, shrugs his shoulders and swings his arms. He’s pretty warmed up from the stroll anyway, so he pulls out his favourite driver from the trolley. The large rolling green that stretches out before him gives him an expansive feeling of privilege. The green is perfectly smooth – a captured patch of countryside, tamed, primped and manicured. Along the edges of the fairway, there are raggedy trees and brambles –the rough, as golfers call it– impossible to eradicate entirely, and in Harry’s opinion all the better for it. He takes his first shot.
The ball is nicely placed just a short hop from the putting green. When he reaches it he gives it a swipe, deliberately sending it into the rough. Then he follows it in, pulling the golf trolley behind him. It’s getting dark and he can hear the occasional car passing by on the main road beside the golf course. He leans his trolley behind a large tree.
When he opens the bin bag, the petrol fumes hit him in the face so that he gasps. He moves his scarf up over his nose and pulls his flat cap down to hide his face. He finds the speed camera easily and looks for the service hatch. Then he uses the turkey baster to suck up fluid from the petrol can and squirt it into the gaps in the hatch.
Locals hate this ugly box with its one ever-watchful eye; it lies in wait at the bottom of the hill where fast-moving traffic from the main highway must pass to reach suburbia beyond. It’s a speed trap. A flash of light in the distance signals a car approaching and Harry steps back into the shadows. As soon as it’s passed, he slops on more home-made napalm, emptying the can. He stands back, feeling for the lighter in his pocket.
The fire is instant and intense. The post of the speed camera acts like a chimney, and the flame soon grows into a big orange plume like a giant Olympic torch. Harry savours the heat of it on his face. He knows what next week’s local paper will say: Speed camera arsonist strikes again – seventh time in as many months.
He doesn’t do it for the headlines.
Placing the can and baster back into his trolley, Harry strides through the rough, up the golf course and back to his peaceful neighbourhood.