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Mutually Assured Destruction

by David Macpherson

Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the roads, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments. There was, in fact, not very much Anita Rust – for this was the woman’s name – was afraid of.

She was for a time, during the summer of 1975 to be exact, afraid of great white sharks, but this was cured by a weekend in the zoology section of her local library, wherein she discovered more people were killed each year by falling vending machines than by the rolling rows of serrated teeth on the business end of Carcharodon carcharias. Her mind was further put at ease when, on checking the locations of these few recorded shark-related deaths, she discovered precisely none of them had occurred in the small Scottish hilltop town of Achiecrankie, where she lived.

She considered chastising herself for such foolishness, but in the end she sent a letter to Steven Spielberg – whose recent fin-featuring feature film had started the whole business off – and chastised him instead. She also sent a letter to the local paper – The Crankie Chronicle – to warn people of the dangers of predatory vending machines, which is the main reason why it remains near-impossible to buy a can of cola after 6pm in Achiecrankie to this day.

Now, here it is necessary to explain that a letter from Anita Rust was no small thing. Quite the opposite. Often a letter from Anita Rust was a very big thing indeed, running into several volumes and delivered in a series of heavy packages. And they got results. Her letters had brought down dictators, they had freed men unjustly imprisoned, they had rescued species from the brink of extinction, saved forests from clear-cutting and protected majestic mountains from rapacious mining companies. They had – she told her friends at the Achiecrankie Bridge Club – helped put a man on the moon and a woman on the back of the £1 coin. They had also ended the careers of five promising young members of the postal service and were a near-constant agenda item at union meetings.

But this is not to say that Anita Rust was old fashioned. Far from it. When we join her in this story, during her 82nd year on Earth and Earth’s two thousand and fifteenth year on the Gregorian calendar, she was entirely capable of shooting off an email (although she would never use such an ugly phrase), could text faster than a four-thumbed 15-year-old, and could navigate an automated customer service line like an astronaut guiding his bullet-fast space capsule through atmospheric re-entry.

A letter, however, she knew, possessed two very special qualities that these other methods of correspondence lacked. The first is that, once received, a letter demands to be read. The second is that, once read, it demands to be answered. Emails could be deleted, telephones hung-up, texts ignored, but to throw away a letter, unopened, unread, unanswered, particularly one with a hand written address (all of which Anita Rust’s letters bore), was a sin only omitted from the original seven because God felt it best to await the invention of stamps. When a letter falls through the slot in the door the bargain is struck: it will be there, waiting, patient as a headstone, until either a response is written or the universe passes its use-by date and implodes, leaving naught but a whiff of lingering regret in reality’s fridge.

Given her knowledge of the great power contained within the folds of even the slimmest of envelopes, Anita Rust took care to only open the silo of her inkwell and roll out her yellow, calligraphy-grade headed paper on the darkest of days.

Today was such a day.

It had started with the discovery of a notice in The Crankie Chronicle that struck very close to home. In fact, it struck about as close to home as it was possible to be: close, behind, in front of, beside, and – above all – on top of.

The day quickly progressed with Anita Rust telephoning the head of the council planning department. This unfortunate man was called Peter Brittle.

Their conversation went like this:

PB: “I’m very sorry, Ms Rust, but this supermarket must be built. It is essential to the local economy.”

AR: “But there are already four in the village, and the big one in the new retail park down the road.”

PB: “They are all essential to the local economy.”

AR: “They are the local economy. All the other shops are shutting.”

PB: “All the more reason to build more supermarkets. People need to have choice, Ms Rust.”

AR: “But this one is going to be owned by the same company as the one on Trivet Street. Where is the choice in that?”

PB: “Yes, but it is going to be bigger. They have promised it will have mangos in the fruit section. You wouldn’t deny your neighbours mangos, would you, Ms Rust?”

AB: “I will if it means knocking down my house.”

PB: “Technically, we will not be knocking down your house, Ms Rust. The council will buy the house from you first. So you see, by the time any knocking down begins, it will be our house.”

AR: “And what if I don’t want to sell?”

PB: “Then we will be forced to use a compulsory purchase order. One cannot stand in the way of progress.”

AR: “This isn’t progress. It’s mangos.”

PB: “I’m sure people once said that about bananas, and look where we are now.”

AR: “I don’t think you are taking this matter very seriously, Mr Brittle.”

PB: “I can assure you, Ms Rust, I take this matter very seriously indeed. I am, after all, legally required to personally sign all compulsory purchase orders myself, by hand.”

AR: “Well how long do I have?”

PB: “If you have not sold your property by last day of the month I will begin the CPO procedures. I’m sorry, Ms Rust, but my hands are tied.”

AR: “Balderdash!”

 

Anita Rust was not one for taking this kind of thing lying down. Come to think of it, there was only one thing she did like to take lying down and that was a small nip of Glenmorangie on a Friday night before going to sleep.

With diplomatic negotiations broken down, she reluctantly – but not without a small measure of excitement – began preparations for war. She swept the cloth from the kitchen table and replaced it with rank on rank of blanks sheets of her best yellow paper. She took her writing block from the cupboard and set it down on the old oak table top. She placed the first sheet of paper on the writing block and smoothed it out with arthritic hands, readying it for the marshalling of words to come. She took up her pen. It was a simple model: a fountain pen but without any frills, from an age when such implements were commonplace. If it was possessed of particular potency (and its many victims would say that it was), this came not from the instrument, but from the hand that gripped it.

Anita Rust dipped the pen in her inkwell, filled the reservoir to three quarters full, traced a perfect circle on the back of an old envelope, and then, with a deep breath and a small smile, fired her opening salvo. It was dated eight days into the future and began like this:

 

Dear Mr Brittle,

I am disappointed to have not received a reply to my first letter of eight days ago. Given that you said you were taking this matter seriously, I am surprised and saddened that you have not found the time to respond to the points I raised…

 

For those still unclear as to why Anita Rust did not fear governments, an explanation is provided. There were two main reasons.

Firstly, she did not fear governments, or indeed sharks, because she understood what they were. Sharks, she knew, were a kind of cartilaginous fish composed of fins, teeth, a strong tail, and an even stronger aversion to movie theatres. They were predators and killed for food. Governments, on the other hand, she knew, were not a single animal, but a herd. They were a herd composed of rules and regulations; of red tape and IT contracts; of consultations and policies and local development plans. Anita Rust understood that while man may sit on top of these brutish beasts as they thunder across the plains of great nations, he has no more control over them than a flea does when clinging to the tail of a stampeding bull elephant. Thus, to rage at any one individual, one rule, one element of the system, was entirely futile. The only way to stop such a herd, Anita Rust had discovered, was to tangle it up, to divert it into difficult ground, to tire it out, to break it apart, and to turn its size and complexity against itself.

The second reason Anita Rust did not fear governments – or anything else – was that when she fought, she fought dirty.

The non-existent first letter would put the council on the back foot. It would assume the missive had been lost in the unexplored depths of its internal mail system, a common enough occurrence, and waste precious time trying to hunt it down. When it didn’t turn up the council would either apologise, surrendering the moral high ground, or be forced to call the sweet old lady, whose house they are about to knock down, a liar, a statement Anita could easily spin for The Crankie Chronicle into a prime piece of propaganda.

And that was only the first three lines. There were pages and pages to come. Nineteen pages she devoted to a demand that her home be saved because of the pixies that lived in the old chestnut tree at the bottom of the garden. Here she drew on precedent set in Iceland, which, she informed Mr Brittle, makes special provision in planning legislation to protect the little folk. She followed this up with 26 pages on the sleeping giant that she claimed lived under her house and would be disturbed by any building works. A full 142 pages covered Anita Rust’s legal objections. Here she drew on a raft of real legislation, obscure planning regulations, and down-right made-up medieval laws, which she claimed were still in effect. She even quoted in length from academic research papers on the destructive impact of intensive mango farming on the indigenous people of the Venezuelan rainforest. All this she did without any hope of receiving a positive reply to the points she raised.

You see, Anita Rust did have a plan to save her house. This much was true. But this letter was not it. It was but one small tactical move in a much larger strategy, and Anita Rust knew a lot about strategy.

The funny thing about old ladies is that most people tend to forget they were ever anything else. It had, for instance, never crossed Peter Brittle’s mind that the old lady whose house he was about to knock down might have been, at one stage, for approximately 14 years, the director of counter espionage at MI6. Certainly, he would not have guessed, even if given a brace of hefty clues supported by suggestive nods and winks, that this person could also have spent a further eight years as chief strategist for Nato. Nor did even the smallest winkling of an inkling squeeze through his extensive inner ear hair and knock on his brain’s front door to suggest that Anita Rust might have followed this position with a four-year sabbatical in America, serving as the President’s top advisor on information-based warfare. Had she actually done all of these things? Well, that of course is classified.

No matter what Anita Rust may or may not have done as a young lady, and then as a middle-aged lady, before becoming, begrudgingly, an old lady, what she was doing now was creating chaos.

She used councillors’ public email addresses to sign up to an eclectic mix of specialist internet dating sites, filling their system with spam. She hijacked a Russian supercomputer to send a constant stream of Freedom of Information requests to the council website. These covered important subjects, such as the number of teabags used in an average decade, the serial numbers of every council computer, and the council’s contingency plans in case of attack by dinosaurs. She plastered Achiecrankie’s high street with fake notices advising that the council would be moving to annual bin collections. She made an anonymous tip to the Trophy Hunter’s Association of America that the Grand High Haggis had been seen roaming the hills outside of town and changed Wikipedia to show Peter Brittle’s house as the birthplace of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Scottie from Star Trek, redirecting several busloads of tourists in the process. Games within games, feints and counter-feints: fog and confusion swirled in great, dark clouds around the council offices day and night for the full month before the deadline.

And all of this she did to hide her real plan.

***

The last day of the month arrived in Achiecrankie on rumbling treads. Clothed in yellow steel, reflective vests and diesel fumes, it ground its way along Anita Rust’s street. When the lead bulldozer shuddered to a halt in front of Number 8, Shedslocky Drive, down from the cab stepped a very weary Peter Brittle. The reason for his weariness was that last night, after a long, long day at work, he had been informed that a delegation from the Hidden Kingdom of Bhutan had arrived at Glasgow Airport having been invited, by him, or at least someone posing as him, to oversee the construction of a new sanctuary for Himalayan mountain lions, reportedly being built behind Achiecrankie golf course. He strongly suspected that the reason for his weariness was the fresh-faced, purple wellington-booted, octogenarian female standing in front of him. And the worst part was, she was smiling.

Well, thought Peter Brittle, not for long.

“Ms Rust,” he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a rolled-up sheaf of blue papers. “This is a compulsory purchased order, signed by me, and it requires you–”

“What about the giant?”

“Ms Rust!” Thirty days worth of rage bulged in the veins on Peter Brittle’s head. The stamp of his boot shook the gnomes in every garden on the street. He had had enough. She would not make a fool of him any longer. “This,” he said, thrusting the papers forward, “is a compulsory purchase order and it requires you to sell your house to the council so that–”

“I’ve already sold it.”

As Anita Rust said this she looked deep into Peter Brittle’s eyes. She was waiting for something. She was waiting for the fear. It was a special type of fear. It was the fear that crept over her enemies when they realised they had lost.

Peter Brittle had the fear. He did not know it yet, but it was there, behind his fury, and it was growing. When he spoke, his voice was cold and hard. “Sold it to who?”

“To the giant,” said Anita Rust. She smiled again.

And the ground began to shake.

It shook far more than at the stamp of Peter Brittle’s boot. It shook more even than at the growling of the bulldozers. It shook the bulldozers themselves, all 60 yellow-steel tons of them.

“What, what have you done?” The fear flooded Peter Brittle’s weary, tired eyes.

“What have I done? I have simply followed your instructions, Mr Brittle. You said I had to sell my house and sell my house is exactly what I have done.” The shaking was getting nearer and nearer. Like thunder marching in a thousand boots. “Not all to the same person, perhaps, but it is sold. The terms of the compulsory purchase order no doubt still apply, but you will have to issue one to each individual owner. And didn’t you say they are required to be signed by you, personally? I’m afraid your hand may be a bit sore by the end.”

“How many?” asked Peter Brittle as the first heads of the giant came into view. Some were carrying placards. Some were shouting slogans. Both featured his name heavily.

“Six million, give or take. Not all here of course. I only invited those from this country to come along today. I’m putting on tea and cakes in the back garden. It is amazing what one can do with technology these days, is it not Mr Brittle?”

“But how? How did you? You? You!”

“I made a viral video. I believe that’s what they call it. Not all on my own of course. An old friend helped me with the directing. It’s been making quite big news in America, I’m told, but I imagine you’ve been too busy to read the news much lately.”

“The decision still stands. It’s the law, Ms Rust. This house has got to go,” said Peter Brittle, but he said it from an increasing number of metres away as he backed down the street. “You won’t get away with this.”

“No, Mr Brittle, I imagine I won’t,” Anita Rust said, waving to the fast-retreating planning official. “But neither will you.”