In the end, as the priests and the doctors had predicted, it was painless. Already, his face had caved in, an empty mask. The eyes were colourless and without focus and whatever was left behind the pale, blank expression registered only in tiny movements of the fingertips or one corner of the mouth.
During the final week, the terrible dry retching that had so angered him suddenly ceased. At first the nurses were baffled. Was it possible that this remorseless descent into coma might somehow be reversed? The doctors, tight-lipped as ever, said no. Sixty days of starvation had begun to destroy the man's most primitive responses. He no longer tried to throw up because his body had forgotten how to. The nurses nodded, faintly disappointed. In a land of miracles, they felt somehow robbed.
Two days before he died, there was a final attempt to revive negotiations with London. Perhaps the prisoners' demands might be reframed. Perhaps a minor concession or two might be worth the price of a man's life. Telephone calls were made. The old invitations renewed. Nothing happened. Thirty six hours later, during a sudden icy squall that rattled the windows in the prison hospital, the man died.
That evening, in a room over a timber yard in a small seaside town eighty miles to the west, five men sat down around a table. One of them poured tea into an assortment of china mugs. The single plastic spoon passed from hand to hand. No one said a word. The announcement from the prison authorities had dominated every broadcast since dawn. The news had been utterly predictable, another life hazarded and spent, but the sense of shock, or personal injury, had come as a surprise. Making sense of it all was a complex proposition. Retribution was far simpler.
The man with the teapot, the man they called The Chief, sat down and wiped his hands on a dishcloth. Then he looked up.
"Something special," he said finally, "Has to be."