Sunlight bursts into the room along with the smell of dust after the rain. The air seems clearer, like a fog has been lifted. The tension in the air left with the storm.
The two of them lie awake in bed, unwilling to roll over and accept the day. Both have been crying, tear stains soak the pillows on both sides of the bed, but neither reached out for the other during the night.
Denial is the only thing left on their side.
The coughing stopped during the night, as though it were the only thing holding back the illness in the last few months and had given up, and their night was peaceful. This is one of the reasons Maxine is unwilling to look at her partner; she might have gone already.
Cleo finally places a hand on Maxine’s shoulder and they decide it’s time to go down to breakfast.
Max went out to the shops yesterday to pick fresh fruit an flour for this morning’s meal. She makes a dozen strawberry and banana pancakes and enough smoothies for everybody in the Shambles. There is a vase on the table full of her favourite small blue, white and pink, five lobed flowers. Her favourite tea is poured into her best teacup. Instead of the usual mid-morning easy listening radio, a selection of well loved records lean up against the player.
Every small gesture for her partner is an attempt to express a lifetime of love. Their love was never star-crossed or filled with turmoil, but they have weathered their own storms, and today is the last day of it: the last storm. Max refuses to leave Cleo’s side for a single moment today. She won’t let her lover die alone.
They have discussed what they would like to do on their last day together. And after a lot of ‘um’-ing and ‘ar’-ing about fantastical adventures they could have today, about places they could go and things they could see. And, somehow they settled on this, a day at home, with their family, and the doors locked. To spend the day smiling.
Micah comes down the stairs and takes his seat at the table, tucking into the delicacies.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” says Cleo, kissing him on the cheek and resting her head against his to breathe in her son’s skin. The two of them sing along to their favourite songs. He still doesn’t quite get what’s going on, though they’ve explained it to him several times.
“What do you want to do today?”
“Play games,” he says. Max smiles and takes the boardgames off the shelf and places them on the long table. She needs to keep it together, she can’t be weak today. She goes upstairs to wake Emily, hoping that she hasn’t skipped out in the early hours. The poor girl has never settled down living here. If Micah weren’t here, she would have left years ago.
She feels somewhat guilty about how things turned out. She knows it’s not their fault, but still, somewhere deep down that niggling pang of guilt eats away at her. They could have done more. She decides she will do more.
In the bathroom, Emily is already up and dressed and staring in the mirror. She has taken one of Max’s bottles of concealer and is trying to clear up the scrapes and scratches from last night.
“Would you like some breakfast? I’ve made pancakes.” Emily nods. “Do you want hand with that?” Max walks into the bathroom and takes the concealer from her. “Do you want to talk about what happened?” Emily shakes her head.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I know you think that but it really does.” She doesn’t push the matter, but makes a mental note to talk to her about it again. She helps her cover up the bruise on her right cheek and they go down for breakfast.
Michael is awake. He is sitting eating pancakes and playing dominoes with Micah. Maxine finally sees what Cleo has been saying for the last week. It’s him. He is Micah’s next family. The two of them look completely at piece with each other, comfortably playing their game. With his actions last night, they might have found a good man to take over from them.
Emily goes behind the bar and grabs herself a bottle of Bathtub and a tumbler. She pours a good measure and pinches a few pancakes before sitting down at one of the smaller tables.
“Good morning,” says Cleo.
“Morning,” Emily replies. “You alright?”
“Fine. Are you going to stay with us today?”
Emily scratches her bruise and instantly regrets it, “Are you going to get angry when I get drunk.”
Cleo chuckles, the sudden jolt of her chest sends a shooting pain through her, her hand goes straight to her chest. It was just lightening; the pain goes as suddenly as it came. She sighs, “not today.” And has a drink herself.
Emily nods through a shrug. “What are we doing?”
“Micah wants to play board games.”
For a few hours all five of them play the game; happy, smiley people having fun. Max has hung a sign on the door explaining the situation so they aren’t disturbed.
It gets a little too much for Cleo after lunch. She doesn’t want to go. She goes and sits on the stairs for a break. Max kneels down in front of her. Emily and Michael watch the hushed conversation from their table. Max wipes away Cleo’s tears and holds onto her hands.
“What are they talking about?” Michael asks.
“Max’ll be gone soon, so no one’ll be here for him.”
“He has you.”
“I don’t know how to look after him,” she says, rolling the dice and moving her counter. “Plus, I can’t take over this place. Not legally. And I don’t get a fate, so I couldn’t prepare for when I’m gone.” She takes a card. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
“Not ’til later.”
“So you’re gonna hang out here, then?”
“Is that alright?”
“Not up to me.”
Michael notes her cold manner. Every word she says is bitter and angry. Micah begins his turn.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she says, ignoring him.
“Emily?” She looks up at him. There is something almost defiant in the way she looks at him. Daring, even.
“It’s your turn,” she says and looks back down at her cards.
Max comes back to the table. “Who’s winning?” she asks.
“Me,” says Micah. Max isn’t surprised; Emily is distracted.
“Michael?” Cleo calls.
“She wants to talk to you. I’ll take over here,” says Max quietly.
Michael takes the last sip of his drink and pulls himself out of his chair. Max keeps watch out of the corner of her eye.
“Michael, I’m going to be very direct right now, cos I could literally drop dead any second.” This takes Michael aback. “I want you to have the bar and to look after Micah.”
“I, um…” he doesn’t get the chance to say much more, Cleo cuts him off with,
“I’ve gained a certain amount of clarity in the past few days. Maxine and I have been asking people left, right and centre if they’ll take it on, and no one’s said yes. She’s not got long left either and she’s worried about Micah’s fate. We both are. We need someone to take care of him.”
Michael shifts uncomfortably. He doesn’t like this pressure she’s pushing on him, but her voice drops in pace and pitch to a calm, but brittle, patter.
“It’s not a burden, I promise. His mother’s family used to own this place. Max was a friend of hers and she gave us the bar. We promised to pass on the bar when we left so Micah would be safe.”
She stands up, “You don’t have to answer now, have a think on it. She has a month, so there’s still some time.”
The whole conversation takes less than a minute. It is the only time Michael and Cleo have ever spoken, and will ever speak together. A desperate plea wrapped in a confident, yet faltering, demeanour. This place could be his, he could own it all. It is something he has never dreamed of, he has never dared to; he’s not sure if it’s something he wants.
Startled, he rejoins the others and they finish the game together.
At about four in the afternoon, violent coughs begin to hack at the back of Cleo’s throat. She chokes up thick blood clots and begins to gasp for air. Emily and Michael take Micah out of the room as Max rocks her lover to sleep.
Their tea is left to ruin; no one is up to eating anything.
Jenna labouriously clacks away at a typewriter she’s managed to borrow off a friend who works for the Museum of Science and Engineering and got a few of them out of storage for her. She is typing up Nina’s interview.
It’s good. It’s really good. But, she worries that printing it in the paper will have consequences and she’s not willing to risk anything for it. Stuffed into the paper feed are several sheets of low quality white paper with carbon paper slipped between. Her first set of papers kept jamming, but now she has worked out the optimal number she is whizzing through it.
She likes the sensation of typing, there is something almost therapeutic about it. There is also no trace of it. Nothing is copied for some fifth columnist to read. There is no evidence. Unless someone was to walk in right now and catch her red-handed no one will ever know.
She reaches the end of the page. They managed to whittle down the interview to certain key points on a single page. They’ve been careful not to use her name, though, of course, most people will know who it is.
She pulls out the paper, splits the carbon from the copy. She places the copy onto the pile and quickly thumbs through it to count how many she’s done. She’s reached fifty and feels half done. Nina and Charlie are in their own safe places typing too. Jenna prides herself in having selected an excellent staff, one which she trusts implicitly.
At least, some she does. She hasn’t asked Cadoc to do a set. She reasons with herself that it isn’t that she doesn’t trust him, per se, just that she’d rather keep it to a core group that have nothing to lose. Cadoc has a wife and children, he might talk if pressure is applied. Nina is so focused on being a great writer, she’d rather write something fantastic and no one know it’s her than have some crap under her name. Charlie is so antisocial that Jenna doubts he has any friends.
She has noticed something between him and Zoe, though she doubts it’s serious. They don’t flirt openly in the office, in fact they rarely seam to chat at all, but they have walked home together on a few occasions and they always sit together at lunch, though they don’t speak then either.
Regardless, it can’t last.
She has lined up the next set of papers. Paper, carbon, paper, carbon. She taps heavily on the first few keys and checks that it has gone all the way through to the last sheet. Satisfied that is has, she continues at an even pace, careful not to jam the keys as they fling up to strike the ribbon.
She smiles; sometimes the old ways are the best. She imagines herself in a long line of writers to have disseminated their work like this. She sees the broad scope of society and her place within it. She hopes the message comes across and isn’t lost to the weaker readers, she always fears people won’t quite get what she’s trying to say, but Nina’s work is usually understood. She has clear expression and rarely has to spell it out.
It’s not right.
It’s not right and it’s not fair.
Nina is in her flat typing away. She is only doing two copies at a time, even though Jenna suggested doing more than that. She doesn’t want to rush it, to have pages almost unreadable. She’d rather do it slowly and accurately, than risk typos and errors.
This is her fourth hour at it. Her neighbours are having a party so nobody can hear her. She is proud of her work. She falls into a daydream about her other pieces and tries to find a way to tell the research without giving away that she is writing it. Unfortunately, using the interviews from the prisons are all on record. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to track down some former inmates and re-interview them. Maybe they would even be a bit more open and honest, though she is aware they have no incentive to talk to her now.
She stops typing for a moment and writes down the names of the people she can remember interviewing.
Evan Hughs. Peter McLaughlin. Michael Fuller. Rosie Parl. Carrie Nichols.
That’ll do for now. She can start searching for them in the morning. She is excited at the prospect of writing something else and returns to her typing, wallowing in the warm hubris glow of creating something truly wonderful.
Charlie is probably typing the slowest. He is well aware of his tendency to make mistakes and is trying not to mess up Nina’s work too much. He is enjoying working on the typewriter. The heavy mechanical sound and elegant simplicity brings out the poet in him. Every hammer strike against the paper is musical. He likes the metal against his fingertips and the way everything fits together so effortlessly. He likes the way the machine is a few hundred years old, but has been kept in such good condition that he is able to use it for the same purpose it was created.
He then hates it; nothing has changed.
“What you doing?” Zoe asks from the bedroom doorway.
“Typing up Nina’s interview.”
“Mine?” She asks picking up the top copy. He watches her sit down with it, taking in every word. “It sounds weird when it’s written down.”
It’s not untrue, but to Zoe it doesn’t sound like her own life. It’s more like a biography from a heavy-handed fan. All the facts are there, everything happened just the way it says, and the gist is right, but someone else’s ideas are their in her thoughts and actions. The reasons are all wrong. She places it back on the table and goes back through to the bedroom and gets under the covers. Charlie doesn’t notice; he is concentrating too hard to notice her.
Morning comes and the troops assemble, paper in hand. Between them they have made a few hundred untraceable, identical documents. And now it’s time to distribute them. They’ve called in reinforcements: the nobodies are here. Half a dozen scratty, little waifs have been promised a fiver each to hand these out in certain working men’s clubs, pubs and down in the market. Hand them out and make sure they’re read.
It’s been a while since a circular has been handed out this way, and some people are unsure what it means, but some of the older nobodies, who have good memories, pick up the ones thrown away and sit down to ponder them. Their calm interest sparks curiosity in others and by the end of the day there are whispered conversations in every nook and cranny of the Shambles. People are reading, and what delights Jenna more is: people are thinking.
They go for a pint. They don’t normally go out together on a Monday, but all of them had decided individually to stay out tonight and bask in anonymity. Their section of the long table is quiet, though the edges get dragged into conversation with their neighbours. They play dumb, trying to get as much information as they can out of their acquaintances. Inside they are full of the glee that can only come from knowing a secret.
Nobody doubts the paper. Someone passes them a copy to read, and they secretly toast their new creation: The Crier.
Up in the circle, Micah sobs. He is sitting with his sister. There is a puzzle book on the table but he isn’t even looking at it. He hasn’t been able to stop crying. Emily has brought him here to try and cheer him up, thinking that if she could get him away from Max he might calm down a bit. But thinking about it, she might have done the wrong thing; maybe the two of them should be crying together. Maybe the funeral was too much for him and he should be at home in bed.
She feels more uncomfortable than usual in the pub, more unwelcome. She knows what Cleo asked Michael. She isn’t sure what to make of it. She’s never been very good at sorting her emotions, putting words to them. There’s a nauseous twinge in the pit of her stomach, but she can’t tell if it’s hope or fear. She knows she’s frowning, she can feel her browns coming down to her eyes, and she suspects she has a surly expression, but today she couldn’t care less. She’s doing her vest not to snap at her young brother.
She picks up a pen and draws a line on one of Micah’s puzzles.
“Stop it, that’s my book,” spits an angry Micah, and he wrenches the book away from her, ripping the corner off, and stuffs it into his bag.
“Stop it. My book. Stop it,” he bursts into tears again.
She’s glad there aren’t many people up here tonight, and those that are don’t seem very interested in a crying boy. There’s a vibe running through the Shambles today, though she can’t quite put her finger on it. Every single person is talking but it’s so much quieter than usual. The Angle is usually rowdy at this time of night, but tonight there are dozens of huddled chats going on all over the place. The waitresses aren’t paying attention to their sections. When she walked passed tables earlier, people went silent. Something is not quite right.
The Unions meet and decide something must be done. News filters down to the streets that a general strike has been called. This time there will be no dialogue with the powers that be, there will be no intimidation and backing down. This time they are just going ahead and doing it.
Tomorrow morning no one will go into the state-run factories, offices or institutions. There won’t even be a walkout, people will simply not show up. The Shambles will not be owned.
At 6am the strike is made official. The unions tell the government their demands and ask all their members to stay at home today.