Zoe can’t sleep. A desperate cry is keeping up everyone in her block. It has been going on for the last hour or so. It has been going on for hours and she has about reached the end of her tether. She gets up, pulls on a dressing gown and follows the sounds of a woman in pain.
Down on the fourth floor, the corridor is filled with people trying to catch a glimpse. The man next to her hands round a bottle bathtub gin, everyone tips a little into their own mug. The bottle is offered to her, but she hasn’t brought her mug and so refuses. The man takes offence. He huffs and walks past her. Zoe can feel the tuts of all those around her.
A woman appears at the door. “You can wet her head now,” she says, “It’s a girl.”
A man, presumably the father, takes hold of the baby and lifts her up for everyone to see. People crowd round and congratulate him as a group of women rush into the room to take care of the poor, exhausted mother.
People seem swept away by the occasion. People swarm into the rooms around the birth. Drinks are shared and conversation is struck between the most unlikely of people. Zoe is tugged into a room by a smiling, possibly senile man, saying “We got our own little un, eh!”
It is dark outside. The curtains are drawn and the dim street lights struggle against the night. Inside, a man sets himself up in the corner with his banjolele and belts out a couple of the old songs. Everyone, but Zoe, joins in. She sits in a corner having found herself a mug to pour a drink in. She starts on the hard stuff.
Not before long, the whole company is swaying to an old favourite, and Zoe finds herself joining in in the catchy chorus, raising her glass with all the others as they shout out the refrain. A boy brings in his guitar. He’s heard of the new baby and has come to scrounge a couple of quid from the merry. He plays some recent hits, and some well-known tunes that, regardless of age, birth and card, everybody knows.
Raucous laughter and games erupt all around the room. People keep dodging in and out, and the drinks keep coming. Zoe gets pulled into a drinking game with a pack of well-thumbed, water-damaged cards, a giant bowl, and half a dozen of the youngest people in the building. Mostly Shortlivers, such as herself, and Nobodies. The door guard has been promised his bottle of something very good and a pot has been passed around to raise a collection for him.
A Nobody explains the old custom to her: the door guard has as much to lose as the mum and dad. He could lose his job, and the pot is a promise from all the residents to keep the child secret. As soon as you put money in the pot, you are a co-conspirator. Every resident is responsible for the child for the first four years, after that, the child should be able to keep itself hidden.
Zoe puts a couple of coins in the pot. It’s all she’s got until she gets paid.
The party goes on until the small hours. She can still hear them going when she climbs up to bed with a nobody she has just met. It is not like her to go off with a lad she’s only just met, but he fills her with a warmth and a kind amnesia that lasts until she wakes him up and kicks him out when she leaves for work.
Her second day of work begins much smoother than the first; no one kills themselves on her way in. She is surprised when man on the door gives her her post because she never realised anyone knew her address. She tucks it into her bag and picks up a sandwich and a cup of tea on her way in. By the time she reaches the office, the tea is stewed and cold, and the sandwich is soggy. She pours herself another brew.
Jenna is already in the office, she is at her desk on the phone. She nods to Zoe, but is clearly committed to the phone call. Charlie drags his sleepless body into the office five minutes after time and is relieved that his brief absence hasn’t been noticed. He greets Zoe with the briefest of hellos, and settles down behind his desk to knock out the report of last night’s findings.
He doesn’t stir from his desk for several hours, and Zoe, having completed the tasks that Jenna left her, takes it upon herself to make him a brew. He doesn’t even notice when she places it next to him, the keyboard clacking away as he hits each of the ancient machine’s giant keys with a determined stroke.
When the postman arrives, she pigeon holes the mail and remembers her own letter. Taking her mid-morning tea break, she opens it. The pale rose card invites her to society’s biggest wedding this year; her brother is getting married.
She feels hurt and wonders why he didn’t give it to her himself. Maybe they’re busy, too busy to see her.
Her mum has picked out the card, she can tell. The hideous floral motif is nothing like her brother or his fiancée would choose. Hal is keeping her mind off of everything that’s going on, giving her a project to keep her mind occupied. She always did like to throw a party.
Lost in thought, an hour passes. No one notices she hasn’t done any work. No one cares. She is a pointless addition to a team. There is nothing for her to do here. She isn’t needed. She isn’t wanted. It is a pity job, a mercy until she is finished.
A warp turns her mind and sends her plummeting down into a quiet depression. Her shoulders sink under the weight of all her thoughts. She can’t cry, there is no point in doing that. There’s no point in anything. It isn’t that she wants to die, it isn’t that she wants to curl up foetal and cry, it isn’t even that she wants to kill herself; she wants to simply fade away into the nothingness, to disappear and not exist any more.
It is lunch time before anyone even asks her for a brew.
Cerys has picked up a message for her next contract. She skips up the steps of the grand building. She hasn’t been in a place like this for many years; she’s had no reason to. She’s dressed as closely as she can to how she imagines those inside will dress. She hasn’t done a bad job of it, but there is something a little off about her appearance. Maybe it’s a little too much hair covering her face, or perhaps the cut of her skirt is last season’s, or her shirt is the wrong shade of white. Whatever the case, this is the best she’s got, and hopefully no one will care too much about her anyway.
She checks the directions on her phone. Every other person seems to be reading their mail or talking to someone on theirs, so she assumes it safe to mess about on hers.
It is a long and winding building, winding corridors lead to cul-de-sacs of labs. The endless, charmless, grey corridors that all the official buildings tend to have. The names of all the scientists proudly displayed on their doors.
She had expected more security. The single, old, dusty man sitting in a booth near the front door is hardly enough for the things that her contractor is paying her for. There are no metal detectors, very few cameras. She can’t even pick out the interested parties that are here for him too. She is suspicious but presses on, she is forewarned.
She finds the room, quietly opens the door and steps inside.
Her man hasn’t even noticed her. He is hunched over his computer as data rapidly climbs up the screen. Cerys can’t tell what it is, the numbers and letters read out too quickly for her to catch. She guesses that he can’t read it that quickly either and is probably scanning it for some specific piece of information.
He jumps. She must have made a noise. He looks her square in the face.
“Are you here to kill me?” he asks her.
“No,” she says. “I’m here to take you somewhere safe.”
He turns to his computer screen and begins typing. She can tell he’s speaking, his reflection is jabbering away, but it’s too quick and too distorted for her to understand. We looks at her questioningly.
“We have to go now,” she says. “They are coming for you.”
“Now?” he asks.
She looks out of the window, but can’t make out any of the men that are coming for him. She supposes they have been specially trained and won’t give themselves away easily. Still it is strange that out of the five or six men she suspects they would send, not one of them is breaking his cover in some way. No lingering arm over a concealed weapon, no jumpy twist at a loud sound, nor the furrowed brows of a man in deep concentration.
They must be good.
“We really have to go now.”
He tugs a datapen out of his computer and stuffs his satchel with papers and disks. He grabs his coat and waits for her. She notices him standing behind her and leads him out the front door. She links arms with him as they disappear into the midday crowd of couples meeting up for for their dinner, who are taking their time to mingle with other same-life couples and enjoy today’s fashionable cuisine with a reasonably priced bottle.
When they reach the house, she takes a small yale key out of her pocket and opens the blue door. He follows her into a dank hallway. They walk up the threadbare, carpeted stairs. The low-watt light bulbs that usually glumly light the staircase are off. The only light bleeds through a scummy window in the ceiling. Musk hangs thick in the air, specks of dust swarm, and the scientist feels sick and light-headed.
Things aren’t much better upstairs, where Cerys delivers the scientist to her client.
Leela is a difficult person to get along with, even though she dedicates much of her time to helping people. She grates on people, irritates them with her righteous indignation. She has opinions, she knows how to talk, and yet, somehow, instead of firing up the same passion within those that listen, she tends to bore them.
Her constant companion slouches against the wall in the corner next to the window, peering carefully through the curtains. Jack should be dead. Very few people know this. He shouldn’t be here. Leela has never found anyone who has outlived their fate before. She has arranged a second test for him, something completely unheard of. They expect the their technician to arrive at some point this afternoon. They have the room ready.
On edge, when the door opens, they both turn instinctively and defensively towards it. Ready to fight, Jack points a gun at them both. Cerys doesn’t look at him. She turns to Leela.
“I don’t die here.”
Leela shrugs, “you never know.”
Jack only lets his guard down when both Cerys and the scientist are in the room and the door is closed.
Cerys doesn’t normally get claustrophobic, yet here, is one of the biggest abandoned buildings available in the city, with windows that reach from the floor to ceiling, and no neighbours for a street or two; she feels contained. A pressure begins to build in her chest and she hopes she can leave soon.
Nobody likes this house. They all have keys to the front door but they can’t all leave.
Leela steps forward and takes the scientists hand,
“Dr Howe, we spoke on the phone.”
“I hope everything went smoothly this afternoon.”
“I still don’t think this is necessary.”
“I must insist that it is,” says Leela offering the doctor a seat. She pours him a cup of tea. “There are many people who I am certain would like to take your findings and either hide or destroy them. We have kit out a lab for your use so you can continue to do your research.”
Cerys looks at him. This is the first opportunity she has had to really take him in. He is pretty average in every way, but there are tattoos on his hands, something Cerys had not expected. He hasn’t smiled, but Cerys imagines a lopsided grimace, something that could be a little more than intimidating in the right light.
She checks in on their conversation ever so often. He appears to be working on an interesting project, ‘tracking the soul’ he calls it. She isn’t entirely sure what that would entail, but if it is what she imagines (and she imagines it is due to Leela’s keen interest in it), then it could change everything.
If everybody had a soul that went somewhere after death, then that could change people’s attitude to life.
It would effect the law, religions would have to accept certain truths (or continue to ignore them), this area of science would be opened up, funded well, and encourage, or, more likely, the information would be hidden and pushed into a convenient, little hole with him any others who expressed an opinion on the subject.
Yes, the Old Egged would keep their grip and footing; they wouldn’t let some scientist take them on and win.
The question of what Leela wants to do with him crosses her mind, but she doesn’t have time to entertain the thought fully. Leela and the doctor have stood up and she is saying goodbye to him.
Jack is moving over to the door, Cerys presumes it is for them to leave, but a technician walks in. She is taken back by the light colour of his skin, and his light brown hair against the blackest eyes she has ever seen. These eyes, she swears, can see straight into her soul. It unsettles her, a sensation she hasn’t felt before. He intrigues her, and in the slightest of seconds she wonders everything about him.
She leaves with the certainty that they will meet again, and know each other.
“A great tragedy has befallen this community. 3 year old Louisa Hamull has died unexpectedly of what has been described by doctors as SUDC, Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood.
Louisa Hamull is from the same area that experienced the loss of Zoe Green, daughter of noted industrialist David Green and great-great-great-granddaughter of the famous Nana Lola, whose death this year will mark the end of the life of the oldest person who ever lived and who still lives on the Green estate. Zoe Green was moved, by her own insistence, to an area befitting her current, and what will be short-lived, status.
Although childhood deaths are not obsolete, they are so rare that many people may never have known a child that has died, something that previous generations knew all too well. People are now asking what can be done about this, and whether it is possible to card people at a younger age, or have more intensive screenings during pregnancy to prevent such a terrible incident.”
Jenna Howul switches off the news. Zoe says nothing; the reporters comforting voice has left her feeling uneasy.
“You’re Zoe Green.”
“The Zoe Green she was talking about?” Zoe nods. “And you didn’t think to mention this?”
Zoe isn’t sure how to respond; she isn’t sure what he is being asked and Jenna looks angry.
Jenna sighs, finally softening her face, “You didn’t think that maybe this was a story?” Zoe can think of nothing to do but shrug. “Zoe, did you not think that people would want to read about your story. The Shambles like this kind of thing. They would love to read it, and you don’t even think to mention it.”
“It never came up.”
Jenna sighs. Zoe has been working for her for several weeks now and is clearly very clever, but she is not smart. In theory, she knows a lot of bookish facts, but she doesn’t know how the world works.
“Zoe,” says Jenna, sounding kind, “I want to write an article about you. About your life. About the way you have been treated.”
“What do you mean ‘been treated’?”
“About why you’re here. About your life on The Hill and in The Shambles. About what you’re doing now. Would that be alright with you?”
Zoe considers shrugging, but instead nods slowly. “Whatever.”
“I think it’ll be a really good article, people will be interested in your story…”
“Whatever,” Zoe says a little louder.
“You’re in a mood,” says Jenna, frowning. Zoe turns her face away from her, but Jenna knows that people would rather talk than endure a silence.
“They talked about me like I was already dead.” Jenna looks at her questioningly. “The news reporter on the telly, she talked about me like I was dead.”
Jenna thinks about it for a moment. This could be a great story and she wants it. “Then you should have your story written down so they can’t forget you.” For a moment Zoe doesn’t look swayed, but she shrugs and accepts it.
“No time like the present, eh?” And with that, Jenna calls Nina in and sets up her office for the interview. A tape recorder is placed on the table, notes are hastily made, and the two of them sit in the comfiest chairs they have available.
Nina offers Zoe a cigarette, which she accepts, and they get to it.
The two of them are left in peace, but by the time they have finished a few hours latter, all the staff have congregated outside the office and have been updated on what is going on. They all have their own work to do, but they can’t help turning their heads every time a sound snaps through the door. The inherent curiosity they collectively possess captures them and holds them in place. Their work progresses at an easy pace. And even with Herrick shouting bloody-mindedly at them to buck up and send down copy for the morning print, they can’t focus on the work at hand.
Jenna takes a seat at the reception desk and flicks through the figures for this month, counting up the returns and hoping that this will pay off.
They’ve been in this situation before and they’ve always muddled through. She has considered skinning down the staff, but can’t bring herself to letting someone go. Not yet. Not until they are in true dire straits. Not until the bailiffs are knocking on their door.
She convinces herself that they’re not that badly off. They did have a recent bump in the readership with another article Nina had written about the riots, and there were a couple of things that were coming in the next few months that would increase circulation, especially now that they had someone who could get them in places.
High society’s wedding of the year, which she presumes will include Zoe, she’ll be expected there regardless of her newly found status. Maybe she’ll be a bridesmaid; they can get in and get photos of everything.
She contains her excitement and flicks through the bills.
Michael has settled into life outside. He took up a job at the Rakish, and enjoys the routine. He still finds it difficult to go out without a reason, to stand in a group of people, to speak above the quietest whisper. He finds himself caught in stares not even searching for something to keep him entertained, lost in thoughtless dreams.
He talks to his flatmate, but has found they have very little in common and nothing. They are, however, very polite to one another and occasionally watch TV together. For the most part, they don’t actually see one another. He works evenings and nights, often getting home in the small hours or before sunrise. His flatmate still works in the factory, going out in the evening to play.
He likes his job. He has a quiet, intimidating soul to him, one that the drunks find particularly hard to read. He also likes the people at his work; the chatty barmen, waitresses, cooks, kitchen staff, cleaners, seamstresses, dancers, singers, actors and actresses, musicians, stage hands, technicians, the administrators, cloakroom attendants, managers, doormen, MC, DJs, the working girls and the working boys.
He likes watching the downstairs dancers on their breaks. Hyped up on so much snuff, they never stop dancing, and in the little, corner, basement level staff room, they dance sweet dances around the pole. The expression of their strength and elegance is so much more beautiful to him than the rough bump and grind they usually have to perform.
As always, the Rakish has put on the Shambles pantomime. The usual racy behaviour is replaced with bawdy humour and the old catchphrases. Michael watches from the back. He misses some of the jokes, they’re too well-ingrained in the local history from way back, before he arrived here and before he returned. They poke fun at everything through the medium of fairytale, a winking Buttons highlights innuendo, coasting dangerously close to the truth hidden in plain sight, mocking all the tabloid pin-ups, and adding a scandalous amount of slander to it all.
Had they bothered to put it pass the censors, it would never have been allowed. Fortunately, they don’t bother with such silly things. None of the censors ever dirty themselves with the Shambles.
He feels sorry for Amber and Tawny inside the horse costume; it’s hot enough on that stage, and poor Bernard in that dame dress.
He feels somewhat relieved that he got his job after the main bulk of the rehearsals had been done. He doesn’t look good in tights.
The audience is loud: playing their part in the proceedings and having a whale of a time. Some of them are massively drunk, but they’re not being a bother so he leaves them to it. There are a lot of young people in. Some have been brought in by the family, but others have wondered in themselves. He’s already sent a couple of young lads trying to head down to the floors below on their way.
He’s starting to recognise faces. He can’t place them all, but it is becoming something like home. He can pick out of the crowd the people he walks past on the way to work, those that work in the factory, the people that staff the corner shop and the post office, and even the little boy from the pub.
He gets off work at the same time the pantomime lets out and, unable to bear the thought of eating in the kitchens, heads over to the Wayfarer’s for a bowl of stuffed dumplings.
He says goodbye to Dino as he picks his coat up from the cloakroom. Instead of taking the long winding road up to the bar, he goes up the shortcut he found; through an old courtyard and up the steps between two old workshops. At first he found the steps difficult to get up the dozens of narrow, worn stones with a metal rail to grab onto and haul himself on, but he now prefers it to the slow path.
He walks into the bar area and walks up to the bar. He knows what he wants to eat and hasn’t got the patience to sit and wait. The staff are nice enough but are currently away somewhere doing something. He sits at the bar and waits.
“Hi,” a young boy with one chromosome too many says as he dumps his lunch box on the bar and climbs up onto the barstool next to Michael.
“Hi,” says Michael.
“What’s your name?” asks the boy as he opens up his lunch box and takes out his paper and pens.
“Michael. What’s yours?”
“Micah,” he beams. “Why are you sad?”
“I’m not sad.”
“You look sad,” he says, taking a pen and beginning to draw.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you draw a dragon?”
He looks disappointed. “I want to draw a dragon,” he says, and shows Michael a picture he has drawn of a dog.
“Do you like colouring?”
Michael shrugs. Micah gives him a crayon and they sit and colour.
Cleo and Maxine hang back in the shadows of the cellar door, watching Micah and the man colouring. He comes in around this time most days. He keeps himself to himself. Maxine recognises the signs; her brothers all came out quieter men, unable to look her in the eye. She reasons that whatever he did couldn’t have been too bad if he’s out already. Cleo nudges her and nods over to Emily who is sitting down and watching her little brother’s interaction with the man.
“Have you seen this?!” Carl Muthers comes in and slams his paper down on his usual table.
“What now, Carl?” says Jim Bowlen, opening the paper and searching through the front page.
“That ‘method’, the one all the doctors are lauding. The ‘Hollowing’.”
Emily’s ears prick up and she turns to the men on the long table. She goes over and picks up the paper.
“Paper says they’re going to take the brain dead. That it’s only the people who aren’t in there any more,” says Jim, scanning through the paper.
“They’ll go after the Nobodies and other criminals next,” says Carl.
“And who then?”
Michael is listening, though he continues to colour. He knows they can take whoever they want.
“What’s ‘hollowing’?” Karo Bowlen, Jim Bowlen’s youngest lad asks.
“Hollowing’s where they steal your soul,” calls out an old Nobody from the far corner.
“Be quiet, Sonia, you’re frightening the lad,” says Jim.
“They’ll not take my bones,” she bites back.
“Who’d want yours!”
“I’d be quiet if I were you, young Jim. How many of yourn are proper?”
“You’d best be quiet,” threatens Jim, jabbing a finger at her
“Leave her be,” Maxine says in her best soothing voice as she puts down pints on the long table and wipes up the spillage. “She doesn’t mean owt by it.”
By now, the whole room is listening to them.
“What can we do about it?” the lad pipes up.
“Nowt,” calls Sonia from the corner.
“They’re discussing it in the courts next week.”
“Who’s the magistrate?”
There is an audible silence, then, as the shock wears off, conversation breaks up around the room.
Rex Ewald is well known for his sanctimonious attacks on low lifers. There are rumours he is behind the Nobody culls that rage through the city every once in a while, but has his grubby fingers in every one of the city’s pies. He is related to some of the longest livers, a grandson of Nana Lola, and a cousin to almost every politician.
His most recent crime was to campaign against community funding for projects in lower income areas. A scheme that would have had a direct influence on the lives of the people in the Shambles. In theory at least, there would have been more education and training programs open to the short-lived, better housing, better work environments, better health care, none of which ever came to fruition.
There isn’t much in the way of conversation after that. Micah is sent up to bed, Emily nips out and everyone else ebbs away home, staggering into the night; steaming but holding their tongues. By two, everyone but Em is in their bed.