That Which Is [Chapter Seven]

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.

“Emmy, love?”

“Here.”

“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.

“Probably Micah.”

Michael frowns.

“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.

“Hello, Michael.”

“Hi.”

“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.

“Micah!”

“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.

That Which Is [Chapter 6]

Zoe stands in her new dress. It is, simply put, beautiful. She wanted to look the best she possibly could, but now that she is standing outside her childhood home she feels uncomfortable. She hasn’t worn these shoes before and they rub away at her little toes and the backs of her ankles. She has made up her face for the first time since she left. It took her longer than usual to get the fine, smooth lines in the right place and the powder to stay put. Today, she is trying to take pride in her appearance.

It shouldn’t surprise her that the house looks the same as it always has, but for some reason it does. It should look different to how she remembered it, but it doesn’t.

She steps into a hallway full of flowers. Pollen slips up her nose and she has the instant urge to sneeze. Although the room she is standing in is quiet, there is a busy rustling going on elsewhere in the house.

Everything looks a little different. It takes her a moment to notice that the antique furniture is new, the cushions and chairs have been reupholstered, the curtains are the same shade with a new pattern, the knick-knacks on the fireplace have been moved and replaced with two slender vases, the rug is not the same, and neither are the light-fittings. Everything occupies the same space, it is the same colour scheme, it has the same feeling, and yet, to Zoe, it looks completely foreign.

She walks through to the kitchen at the back of the house and pours herself a glass of water. A whole new set of glasswear occupies the shelves. Through the window, she can see a marquee set up around the back, and Hal and his best man checking with the planner on all the last minute details. Zoe goes out to join them.

Zo!” calls Hal, striding towards her and giving her a great, big hug. “I’m glad you’re here!” He puts her down.

Hi, Hal. Hello Mitchell.” The best man gives her a little wave. “Is there anything I can do?”

Hal shrugs, “there’s a wedding planner doing everything. I’m not even sure what’s going on!”

Zoe smiles, and the three of walk down to the ruin folly down by the pond. She has been preparing herself for this day for a long time, but she hadn’t realised just how affected she would be at seeing the ruin. Generations of her family have been married here. She was supposed to be married here. Her throat goes dry from the memory of a future that can never happen.

Hal puts an arm around her shoulder.

Where are Mum and Dad?” she asks him, shrugging off his arm as gently as she can.

Somewhere,” he says. She frowns. “In the marquee, I think.”

Nana Lola?”

With Asha.”

Zoe nods, and walks back up towards the house. Her upper lip quivers, breaking the stiff tradition. She wants to be somewhere familiar that doesn’t leave her feeling sick to the teeth of things that can never be.

She goes inside and up to her room. She wants to lie down on her old bed and forget about everything. She gasps as she opens the door.

Everything has been packed up into boxes. Artwork pulled off of the walls, all her personal possessions packed into boxes and piled up ready to be taken out. Tears run uncontrollably down her face, but she is too shocked to cry out. Her room has been gutted. They are better prepared for what is coming than she is. They are ready for it.

Zoe?” Asha taps her on the shoulder. The weight of it knocks Zoe from her feet and lands crumpled on the floor, still staring at the boxes. “Come on, love,” says Asha, offering her hand. “Stand up.”

Zoe grasps hold of Asha and pulls her down, crying into her dress. A long, terrible cry echoes round the halls. It isn’t loud and it doesn’t scratch the ear drum with its pitch. It is the sound of desperation. A trapped soul, unable to voice her pain, unable to move, surrounded by her life, and clutching onto one of the only people who can bare to be near her.

Asha takes Zoe through to her brother’s room and sits her on the bed, gently wiping the running make up clear. She holds the cool wipe to Zoe’s tear-burned cheeks.

It’s ok, love,” she whispers. “It’s ok to cry.”

They don’t want me here.”

Hal does.”

Mum and Dad don’t.”

Asha puts the wipe in the bin. “They are finding it very difficult. They aren’t talking to anyone.” She stops herself from saying any more. “We need to get you ready.”

Downstairs, people start arriving and are ushered down to the ruin. Their perfectly wrapped, pastel gifts topped with ribbons and bows are put on a trestle table in the marquee. A photographer has arrived and is already snapping away artsy shots of the ceremony setting up.

Zoe knows everybody here. Not that she’s met them all before, but because they are all somebody. Old family friends, famous for their long lives, celebrities and socialites.

The ex-wife of a cousin, a particularly popular débutante in her time, arrives with her new beau. Her skin is ageing, and although it does little to distract from her beauty, the bitterness she holds inside her taints that beauty she was world-renowned for. Had she have been taken in the prime of her life, she would have been forever young, pure and beautiful. As it is, she is a fading relic, unable to escape her role of lowly jester for another twenty years.

The cousin arrives with his new mrs and sits as far away from his ex as he can. Aunts and uncles start to fill in the gaps. School friends dressed up to the nines show up in droves and are herded into their respective seats. Old friends of the family that haven’t been seen for donkey’s years are warmly welcomed to the event. New friends breathe new life into stale lives. Hal’s colleagues are there, and so are the bride’s. People neither of them know have turned up, probably business associates of one of their fathers’.

Staff weave through the crowds, offering glasses of champagne and sweets to the guests. The planner directs the ushers about and organises the gifts into a beautiful arrangement. The dressmaker is on hand for alterations. The florist is adding her last minute fresh blooms. The last few bobs are put in place and everything’s ready to go.

The photographers are kept at the gate, though; this show has already been bought.

Zoe is almost remade, and Asha goes to help Nana Lola get ready.

Jessie and Hanna, who had promised to visit but haven’t seen her since the day she left, come up to Hal’s room. Zoe stands by the window. She doesn’t react when they come in. She hates them. She hates that they abandoned her.

Zoe!” they enter the room smiling and rush over to her. “Hey, how are you?!” they call in unison.

I’m fine,” replies Zoe, still staring out of the window. She snaps out of it, turns to face them and puts on a convincing brave face. “How are you two?”

They complement each other’s dresses and make their way down to the ceremony. The three of them sit in the second row, right behind Zoe’s parents. She doesn’t say hello to them and they don’t say hello to her. An invisible barrier has fallen between them.

It is past time, and the bride is, as always, fashionably late. Hal doesn’t seem bothered by this; the last few years have given him time to get used to it. She will be here, in her own time, as perfect as always.

Nana Lola is wheeled out and positioned on the front row. Today, it seems, she is in possession of her marbles. She says hello to everyone by name, even Zoe, and then takes her place. She is treated like a star attraction at a rival’s circus, the people stare, straining to get close to her. She has been the oldest woman in the world since she was eighteen years old. Her time is almost up and this may be the last time she is in public.

The harpist plucks her strings, the bride has arrived. She wears a beautiful, embroidered silk gown. She slowly sashays down the aisle with her father, the CEO of a multinational media company, the man who is proudly merging his family with the Greens. He is delighted his daughter has finally fallen for the son of a good family.

Vows are vowed, songs are sung and readings read. The register is signed and everyone makes their way over to the marquee. The transition between ceremony and celebration is smooth.

A magnificent banquet is laid out. Dozens of courses stand side-by-side, a whole table is dedicated to cakes, pastries, tarts, ramsays, puddings and confectionery. Outside, a barbecue is manned by a celebrity chef and his assistant who throws on great hunks of meat he has prepared himself. The chef answers questions from adoring fans, giving advice and generally being much more pleasant than his persona usually allows.

The weather held for the ceremony, but the sky is turning grey and the clouds begin spitting.

Asha rolls Nana Lola beside Zoe.

Hello, Zoe,” says Lola.

Hi, Nana.”

She chuckles to herself.

What’s funny, Nana.”

She points over to the people huddled under the umbrella by the barbecue. “Mad ducks and Englishmen!”

Zoe smiles.

Where are you living these days, Zo?”

In the Shambles.”

What you living there for?”

Zoe decides she doesn’t have to tell the whole truth. “It’s near where I work, Nan.”

Oh,” says Lola. “I thought you were still at school.”

Zoe smiles but says nothing. “How are you, Nana?”

Still got marbles rattling about, though not as many as I used to, and they drop out now and again,” her voice cracks. “I’m lonely.”

This startles Zoe, “Why’s that?”

Nobody talks to me. I’m just waiting to die.”

Zoe rests her hand on her Nana’s, “Me too.”

Rain splatters down on the marquee, waves beat against the doors and those listening closely can hear each wave running over the marquee. Trees bow with the weight of the wind. Smoke from the harboured barbecue gathers in the umbrella. The all weather plan slides elegantly into place.

After watching her dancing brother succumb to the numerous alcoholic beverages he has been plied with all afternoon, she decides to try and talk to her mother.

She can’t find her in the tent, nor outside by the food, and it isn’t like her mother to go wondering off into the drizzle. Zoe makes her way up to the house, holding a cardigan over herself. She walks through puddle after puddle, cold soaks in and her feet turn to ice. She pulls off her shoes when she gets into the kitchen and wipes her feet on the mat.

She can hear her mother talking to someone in the hallway. She sees what she supposes to be the end of the conversation. A girl gives her a thick envelope and takes a note with her as she leaves.

Her mum opens the envelope as she walks through to the library and lies down on the sofa. Before Zoe can go in, she sees her mother take out a needle from the cupboard and lift up her dress to reveal a wasting leg covered in scaly wounds. Her mother looks for somewhere to jab herself.

She doesn’t say goodbye to anyone, she just leaves.

The walk back is no less than terrifying. She is drunk, sad and angry. The people look foreign to her. She is still wearing her dress with the flimsy, soaking cardigan, and carrying her handbag. She is shoeless on the wet cobbles. She is acutely aware of eyes tracing her, and taking her in. She has a strong desire not to be alone. There is something wrong and she is chased by fear.

She takes out her phone, trying not to flash it about. She doesn’t know who to call. Her brother is passed out drunk, her father hasn’t spoken to her and might not come.

The only person she has a phone number for is Charlie. She calls him, repeating over and over to herself that she is being stupid, that there is nothing to be worried about.

Charlie?”

His voice replies asking her why she is calling so late.

I think someone’s following me.”

Are you sure?”

I think so.”

What do they look like?”

I don’t know, I can’t see them.”

Where are you?”

I’m walking down the canal. Near Spinners Turn.”

Ok, come off the canal at the lock and walk down North Road. I’ll see you there.”

Thanks Charlie.”

She hangs up. It’s a five minute walk to the lock and although she tries not to look around, she does catch brief glimpses of a small group of shadows following her.

It is a long walk. Every rush of wind that brushes branches against her arm alarms her. Shocks run through her head at every noise she hears. There is no one on the tow path but her and her stalkers.

Her feet are beginning to ache. They are covered in small cuts from the canal’s fauna.

She reaches the lock, and uses the bushes to hide her escape down North Road. The road slopes downwards and she begins taking longer strides.

A man crosses the road towards her, and although she recognises his gait, she hesitates for a moment. But he calls out to her.

Hi,” she says. “I’m sorry I called, but I just…” She stammers, and can’t think of anything more to say.

Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Where have your shoes gone?

I forgot them.” He raises his eyebrows and guides her across the road. “Where are we going?”

My place; it’s closer.” He keeps an eye on the group behind them, but they seem to be backing off, avoiding confrontation when there is easier prey elsewhere.

Charlie’s place isn’t far from the canal. They walk down the narrow, sheltered alley between two tall buildings and up a flight of stairs before entering a hallway. Zoe begins to shiver. She is feeling the cold now. As soon as they get inside, Charlie puts of the heating and grabs her a jumper and some socks.

You can wash your feet in the bathroom. It’s just on the right.”

Thanks.” She goes in and showers off her feet before pulling the warm socks and the woollen jumper on over her beautiful dress.

Charlie is sitting at a desk in the main room with a thick pad of paper he is half way through. Zoe is surprised by the size of the place he has all to himself. The lack of furniture makes it feel much bigger, but not unloved. She sits on the windowsill, bringing her knees under her chin, draping her arms around her legs and resting her forehead on the window pane. A pleasant chill seeps through the glass.

Even though it’s dark, she can tell that the view from this window goes on for a long way. She would love to see it on clear day.

Who do you think they were?” She asks.

Hmm?”

The men who were following me.”

He looks up from his work. “I don’t know. But there are loads of gangs hang about at this time of night.”

What would have happened to me?”

Maybe nothing,” he says, but he knows better. He goes back to his week and circles a paragraph in the wad of paper. Curiosity moves her and she walks over to the table.

What are you doing?”

They announced spending cuts last night that are aimed at halfers. Jenna asked me to read through the budget and see what’s going on.”

Zoe sits on the chair opposite him. “What have you found?”

I’m not sure,” he says with a sigh. “I need to talk to an account or somebody, cos I don’t get it. That or Jenna’s missed out a load of pages.”

Zoe turns over the pages he’s already read and flicks through them. The dry text means nothing to her. A world of dull words. She tries to concentrate on them, to understand them, but she is so easily distracted by the thoughts in her head.

Is there a drug that can rot your skin?”

You what?”

I saw someone inject themselves with something, and it was like the skin on their muscle was wasting and their skin was eating itself. I wondered what it was.”

Have you heard of Lizsud?”

No.”

Lizsud can do that,” he says. “Eats you from the inside out. It’s a quick high. I wouldn’t go for it if I were you.”

That’s not why I asked.”

Charlie puts his pen down on his book. Not for the first time, the two of them end up in bed together.

Last orders are called in the Angle, the bouncers begin turfing out the customers. The dance hall is emptied first followed by the lower floors. Many leave willingly, some have to be persuaded, but, for the most part, there are no scuffles or skirmishes. Staff put their departments back together, everything back in it’s rightful place. Every item is counted and reported and shopping and to-do lists are drawn up for the morning. A battalion of cleaners begin their work, the night watchmen settle in and everyone else goes home.

Deep down in the bowels of the building, Frankie Cleaver finishes his arrangements. He has spoken to his friend. There’s nothing that can be done about his son’s body; there was too much damage, he will have to find another.

He is angry that his son could be so selfish, he thought he had brought him up better than that. How dare he put his mother through this. Anger boils up inside of him and he sweeps his desk clean, sending his office supplies crashing into the wall and onto the floor. He thumps his fists down on the table, pounding into the hardwood again and again until his bloody knuckles can take no more.

They will have to bury him.

He slumps into his chair and grips the armrests. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Everything was supposed to go to plan. His nails tear at the leather leaving white scuffs in their wake.

The noise has attracted the attention of his secretary. There is a knock at his door and it is opened a little.

Mr Cleaver, sir?” he asks. “Are you alright, sir?”

Go home,” he shouts.

The door closes and the man leaves. He knows his place.

Cleaver’s wife, who also heard the noise, comes through from their residence. She takes hold of his hands and kisses them. He stops himself flinching from the pain. He takes a strand of her hair and places it behind her ear.

I’ll find us someone,” he promises. “I’ll find us both one.”

She nods and takes him into their apartment.

One of the last employees to sneak in as the others begin to leave is Emily. She hands an envelope over to Asrid office and scrounges the kitchen for leftovers, managing to grab a pasty before she is shooed away by the sous chef closing up for the night. She takes a half bottle of Bathtub gin that’s been left on the side of the bar and makes a hasty exit.

It is dark out. The streets are nearly empty. She keeps to the shadows; you never know who you’re going to meet. Down a narrow street, she tucks into her pasty and takes long chugs of her drink. She sits down in a sheltered spot, away from the wind and settles in for the night.

Nothing can wake her from her deep drunken slumber. The city is far from silent. Whining sirens flash past her, car alarms go off, people get into fights with their friends, the weather turns and a storm erupts over the her, but nothing can get through the protective, alcoholic veil.

Someone is searching in the darkness, it is his last day and he is afraid. He wants to live. He wants to hold someone and for them to tell them that it’s ok, but he never found anyone; he didn’t have enough time. He can’t sleep. He doesn’t want to sleep. He is out hunting for his last request.

He should have gone out earlier, he could have got into the Angle before it closed and satisfied himself there; they have people for this kind of job, but now he is getting desperate. He dies today. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it past sunrise.

He finds Emily, tucked away in her little corner, and nudges her. She moans but doesn’t wake up. He can smell the alcohol on her breathe. He notices how young she is, but tries not to let it distract him.

He pulls her legs at the knees until she falls to her back. The rough jolt wakes her and she tries to sit up, fighting the gin. She sees him kneeling in front off her with himself in hand. Fear focuses her, and she tries to scramble away from him, landing the briefest of kicks on his chest. He brushes it off and grabs hold of her ankle, wrenching it towards him, pulling her back in. There is a cold smack as her forehead hits the cobbles. Blood seeps into her hair and runs down her face.

She doesn’t cry out; no one would come for her, and if they did she would be in more trouble. She was the one on the street after dark. He is removing her underwear and forcing her dress up to her waist, bruising her. She frantically feels in the darkness for something to defend herself with and finds a loose bit of paving. Without thinking she swings round and cracks him over the head with it.

He falls to the side.

Pulling her knickers up, she begins to run. Hobbling silently, ignoring the pain in her legs. She can’t tell which way she is running. As she turns the corner she almost bumps into a man. She quickly turns and walks away.

He grabs hold of her, she snaps her arm out of his grasp. He holds his hands up.

Are you alright?” he asks gently. “You’re bleeding.”

She battles him into focus, lowering her head and concentrating on his mouth, trying to understand what he’s saying.

I said, are you alright?”

She shies away from his voice. It is too loud.

I know you,” she slurs. “You eat at the Wayfarer’s. You sit with my brother.”

Who are you?”

I’m nobody. Who are you?”

Come on, then. Let’s get you home.”

He encourages her to follow him across the road. “Where are we going?” she asks.

The Wayfarer’s.”

An intense, confused look grows on her face. Her eyes draw down and her head follows. “Why?”

You’re hurt.”

Who are you?”

I’m Michael,” He says. “I’m Micah’s friend.”

Oh.” She dawdles off down an alley to throw up and has to be brought back on track by Michael. “Where are you taking me?”

Wayfarer’s”

Oh.”

It is only a few blocks away, and she has walked these streets all her life, but she doesn’t recognise where she is. She feels out of sorts. There is a sharp pain stabbing at her eye. When she touches her head her hand feels the wet blood.

What happened?”

I don’t know,” says Michael. “What happened?”

I don’t know,” she says. “There’s blood.”

It doesn’t look too bad. Head’s bleed a lot. You’ll get cleaned up at home. You shouldn’t have been out so late.”

I don’t have a home.”

They reach the Wayfarer’s. The closed sign is up, but the upstairs’ big lights are on. Michael knocks on the door. A muffled kerfuffle goes on behind the door. Hushed voices and the floor is quietly scraped by hurried feet. A rough cough comes from the upstairs window. Feet come lightly tripping down the stairs.

A relieved sigh comes as the blonde licensee opens the door. “I’m sorry, love, we’re closed.” She notices Emily. She takes her by the shoulders and brings her inside. “Oh, God, what happened?”

I don’t know. I think she’s got a concussion,” he says. “You might want to call a doctor.”

Could you stay,” Max asks. “Everyone’s up at the moment. We thought you were the police.”

Michael gives a little shrug, “yeah, course.” He’s in no rush and, even though it’s getting early, he’s still wide awake. Everyone will be asleep at his place. He could go back to a silent flat, eat alone and fall asleep listening to the shipping forecast. Some company would be nice.

Thanks,” says Max, and she goes upstairs to let Micah out. “Sit her down in the back room down there.”

He takes her through to the back and pulls a chair out for her.

Where are we?”

We’re in the Wayfarer’s.”

Are we?”

He fills a bowl with water, takes a clean bar cloth and places them both on the table next to her. He sits down opposite her, dips the cloth into the water and wipes the blood from her head.

The colour drains from her face.

Are you going to throw up?”

She nods. He gets the mop bucket for her and holds her hair as she chucks up her stomach. She is sweating. He wipes her face.

You hot?”

She nods. He helps her take off her coat and notices the bruises on her legs. He wipes the blood on her leg. She winces away from his hand.

Although there is a lot of blood, the wound itself isn’t very big. She probably needs stitches, though it’s probably not worth the risk. The scar probably won’t be too noticeable.

I’ve got her some ice,” says Max, bringing over a tea towel. “Does your head hurt, flower?”

Emily nods.

Speak to me, Em.”

Yes, it hurts.”

Have you been drinking?”

Yes.”

Do you remember what happened to you?”

Emily shakes her head. “I was asleep. Someone grabbed me.”

What have I told you, eh!”

I hit him.”

She needs to rest,” Max tells Michael. “Could you help her upstairs. I’ll make her up a bed.”

Emily can’t stand up. Everytime she does, she wobbles and throws up. Michael picks her up and carries her upstairs.

In here,” says Max.

It is Micah’s room. The room is sparse, two beds little bigger than cots stand side by side. Max is putting photographs back on the chest of drawers, a bin bag full of clothes is resting on the door frame. Soft words are spoken to calm the young boy who sits wide-eyed on his bed and watches Michael bring in his sister.

Hello,” he says. Michael smiles back. He tries to lay Emily down.

Stay with me,” she says, wrapping her arms around his neck, trying to pull him down with her. Embarrassed, he takes her hands and pulls the covers up to her shoulders. She looks dazed and confused. Kindly, he says,

You need to sleep.”

She passes out. As he leaves the room, Maxine offers him a blanket. “I’ll be doing breakfast in a couple of hours if you want to stay.” He thanks her and goes downstairs to find a comfy seat.

In the safe house set aside by Leela, Cerys babysits her scientist. He has been irritating her from the onset. It isn’t that he tries to leave the house, he doesn’t. It is the irregular hours he sleeps and the polite requests he makes for food. She can’t get her head around him. A well-respected scientist, covered in tattoos, who is the pickiest man she knows. He likes things to have their own place and to stay there. She leaves him to himself, picking a single chair for herself in the living room and spending most of her time dangling her feet out of the window, ready to leap at any moment.

He isn’t very good with heights either, which is a shame, seen as they’re on the twelfth floor. The very little they have conversed is enough.

The flat itself isn’t too bad. Two bedrooms with their own bathrooms, a well stocked kitchen, a dinning room that is currently serving as a study, a pantry, and the lounge. The pantry is locked up tight. The furniture is run down second hand from a charity shop, but it’ll do. Cerys lies on the sofa she has commandeered and covers her eyes with an arm.

She has been here four days and it is beginning to send her doolally. She can hear the church clock peal, a constant reminder of the world outside. The confinement is getting to her far more than her ward. She sits staring into space for hours and is then unable to remember what she was thinking of.

A vibration alerts her to a message. Leela is on her way with two others. They are coming to talk to the scientist. A call comes through from Leela, Cerys takes the phone through to the little devil of a scientist. He looks at the screen for a moment then picks up the phone.

Cerys leaves them to it.

They buzz her before they arrive, nonetheless, Cerys takes her knife with her to the door gently sweeps the peep hole cover to one side and watches their approach to the door.

They don’t knock. She lets them in.

Good evening,” says Leela as she comes in. She places two bags of shopping on the sideboard. “I thought you could use some fresh food.”

Cerys nods and watches warily as the other two come in. Jack, the man impossible to kill, though Cerys would like to test that theory. She has never met the other man before, but guesses that he is some sort of engineer. She is proven right when he opens the pantry door and reveals a fully operational, miniature carding room.

Would you like to go out for a bit. We can watch the good doctor.”

It isn’t a request. Cerys takes her jacket and climbs out the window, and up onto the roof. She goes for a run, skipping over the breaks between the buildings. Stretching her cramped muscles, feeling the wind sweep across her face.

At the town square, next to the church, people go about their business. The buying and selling of every sort of ware goes on in the market. The scent of dozens of herbs and spices blend in the air, rise up and soak into the buildings. A bright selection of dull and fading umbrellas cover the traders and their trade. Shoemakers and keysmiths ply their trade alongside the merchants. Cerys imagines the tinkering merging with the buskers she can see.

She lies on her back and breathes in deeply. The gentle haze of rich smells mingle with sweat and urine from the capacity stretched waste system. If she concentrates hard enough, she can smell the flowers though it all, the Indian cuisine, the leather workers, the cheese stall, and the mangy dogs running about covered in fleas.

She decides to drop down and walk through the crowds, to go down to eye level. She disappears into the crowd.

An hours passes. Leela sits down with Dr Howe in the living room to see how he’s finding his new situation.

The lab is fine. It’s just not ideal,” he says, honestly. Leela nods,

Yes, she can be difficult.”

She’s not normal is she.”

No, she isn’t,” says Leela, but doesn’t elaborate. “Is there anything we can do to make your stay more comfortable?”

He shakes his head. In all honesty, he hasn’t noticed any difference between his life before and his life now.

How is the research coming along?”

It’s coming along well,” he hesitates. “Though, of course, the next stage requires test subjects.”

Of course, we have already begun selecting possible candidates. They will be fully informed of what it is about closer to the time, and their families will be compensated.”

I understand some people would find it difficult to comprehend what I am trying to do here.”

Doctor, I understand entirely the necessity of this kind of work. I am sure many people here would understand completely. The talk of Hollowing has sent the people here into hysterics, no one likes the idea of their body being reused.”

It’s always fascinated me that the Shambles are so much more open to some areas of scientific study and yet completely disgusted by others.”

You agree with Hollowing?”

It makes sense,” he says. “I disagree with the people running the program, with who they are intending to use. There are many applications for the kind of technology they are creating.”

Cerys climbs back through the window.

Ah, June. Did you have a good walk?”

Cerys raises her eyebrows and walks through to the kitchen. She couldn’t care less about the conversation the two of them are trying to hide. She takes a pie for herself, and sits cross-legged on the counter. She takes an apple juice out of the bag and drinks it out of the bottle.

An hour outside will never be enough. She longs to sleep on the rooftop, but she holds herself in check, she has a job to do. It is at times like these she wishes she had a hobby. A distraction that could keep her occupied for a couple of hours. She wishes she enjoyed reading, or watching films, or knitting. Something she could wile away the hours with.

She loses herself in thought. Instead of productively charging through the hours, she forgets them.

Jack and the technician come out of the pantry and walk through to the lounge. Kit flashes her a smile. It is an honest smile, bright and wide, something she is not used to seeing, especially on a young man. She wonders what it means. She follows them through to Leela.

Jack hands her a card. Another card with another date with his name on it. A year from now. Bullet wound. Jack shrugs,

What’s to say that’ll happen.”

Leela takes the card. “What do you think?” she asks the technician.

I’ve done it exactly the same as every other card I’ve worked on. That is his fate. I can’t explain why he would continually outlive them.”

Cerys frowns. His lips betray his accent. She can’t be sure where he’s from, but she’s certain he’s not from this island. She watches his go for a walk around the round, his hands in his pockets.

She returns to the conversation between Leela and Jack but catches only glimpses of their words. They are speaking too fast, and there seems to be too many meanings to their words.

It gets too crowded for her, she goes and sits on the window ledge.

That Which Is [Chapter 5]

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.

Yes.”

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.”

Ms Kapoor.”

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.

Maybe.

If everybody had a soul that went somewhere after death, then that could change people’s attitude to life.

Could.

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.”

Yes.”

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.

Why not.

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?”

No.”

He looks disappointed. “I want to draw a dragon,” he says, and shows Michael a picture he has drawn of a dog.

That’s good.”

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?”

Ewald.”

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. 

That Which Is [chapter 4]

Frankie Cleaver Junior disappeared from his father’s club almost a month ago. He had kissed his mother goodbye and left one morning without saying a word. And, although his father had gone hysterical, his mother suspected it was probably for the best. Cooping up your son in the equivalent of an underground nuclear bunker was bound to send him crazy.

Since he left, his mother has been wondering round the halls of the Rakish in a vain attempt to find him. The staff there have become accustomed to her as she hides in what little mind she has left. She holds onto the wall, distrusting her sight and balance. She slowly moves one room to the next, and when a person passes her, she squashes herself flat against the wall, unable to bare the touch of anyone.

Frankie Cleaver Senior has been sending out experts to track him down. He has sent them after his son’s friends, to every part of the city that could be hiding him, to the bus stops, the train station, he has even considered calling in the favour he is owed at the airport. He hangs up the phone after arranging a meeting with a man about a sniffer dog.

He is angry. His son is ruining the best laid plans. Everything is getting too close. He needs to find him before everything is lost. He is getting desperate.

Cleaver’s phone rings.

On the far side of town, Junior climbs up to the belfry; he has had enough. The priest has called the police, and a dozen cops come running down the narrow streets. A crowd gathers round the bottom of the steeple, several recognise the poor boy. Some know his time is up.

He cries out against the injustice of it all. He doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t want to live on. He holds onto the cross at the top of the spire and cries angry, bitter tears.

The chapel has the tallest spire in the Shambles, and from the top he can see all the world he has missed living underground. He can look the sun in the eye. He can see people living. He can see all the things he has only heard about from his mother. The shapes of the buildings, the way they lean in when they reach the top. He can see the mess of electricity cables taped to the outside of the buildings, the washing out on the lines, people filling the square, filling the walkways round the blocks of flats and crowding the windows, he watches as the police take statements from those gathered, he can see birds flying, the factories working and churning out smoke, he can see the iron railings around balconies, mounds of rubbish, and cafes full of people simply living.

He can see all this and still wants to die.

Zoe joins the crowd. She is on her way to her first day of work, but is early so decides to stop and watch. A young man at the top of a church spire. There are people taking photos of him. She takes one too.

The crowd mutter to one another. Every once in a while someone calls out to the boy, but they are, for the most part, quiet and respectful; one of there own is about to die.

Zoe watches as he lets go and tumbles forward, falling head first towards the stone flags. Someone screams out. The whole crowd holds its breath waiting for the moment to be over. They watch as he slams into the pavement. He lies in his own blood breathing out his last terrible breaths.

The police check his card, mark his death and leave when a removal team arrives.

The crowd stands in silence until the boy finally dies.

Zoe shudders at the thought of this happening to her.

She makes her way over to work. She is still excited about her first day. She woke up early and met one of her neighbours in the games room on the ground floor of her block of flats. They are planning on going out later.

The offices are haphazard. The cluster of ink-stained desks are covered in notes and old thoughts and words are stuffed into the drawers. There are computers, but most haven’t been turned on yet. Zoe doesn’t know yet that there is a severe distrust of the technology in this office, and for good reason; they don’t like being watched.

She hasn’t met her boss yet. She still isn’t sure what she’ll be dong. She hopes that she will have the opportunity to write something. She had never considered a career in journalism before, and even now, even though she is unable to take up a profession, she doesn’t really have an interest in the calling.

Miss Green?” a middle-aged woman offers her hand.

Zoe.”

Hi, I’m Jenna Howul. I’m the editor. Let’s go through to my office.”

They walk through into the next room. A room the size of a cleaner’s closet stuffed with a desk and a small window.

So,” Jenna begins, “ that out there is where everyone writes their stuff. This is my office. Downstairs we’ve got the printers. There’s six of us that work here. Nina, Charlie and Caddoc are our journalists, they report all the things that go on around here. Downstairs, there’s Dun and Herrick. Herrick is in charge of the printers and Dun is his assistant.”

What do you want me to do?”

A little bit of everything. Today, you’ll be on the phones. All you have to do is answer them and write down the information. If it’s for a story, you give it to the person writing the story, if it’s for the classifieds you give it straight to Herrick, he sorts out that stuff.”

She puts her handbag in the bottom drawer of her desk. “Come on. I’ll show you round.”

Jenna directs Zoe round the office, pointing out this and that. Her desk is near the door, she will be talking to any and all drop ins that make their way in off the street. It has a phone and a boxy, dust-covered computer. Across from her desk is an old, half-empty vending machine and a couple of filing cabinets. She is in charge of them. Round the side of the cabinets are the desks of Charlie and Nina, squished in such a way that means the two of them sit next to each other with their backs to the other’s desk. Whenever Nina needs to move she has to climb over her colleague. Fortunately, they both spend a fair amount of time out of the office.

Caddoc spends a fair amount of his time in the office, his desk is in the corner near the staircase down to the printers. He checks off his death list, writing the obituaries in anticipation and, occasionally, checking facts with the deceased. He also writes sports.

He often comes in late,” Jenna tells Zoe. “He goes to the matches in the evenings and does most of his work then. With the championships on just round the corner in The Flavium he’s got a lot on at the minute.”

Football?”

No, derby.”

This doesn’t help Zoe.

They go through the solid door at the back of the office and head down the brick stairs to the printers. She couldn’t hear the noise upstairs and is surprised by how loud everything is.

At the bottom she is confronted by a bric-a-brac of mismatching machinery. Metal painted black, stamped with old marks, worked with skill by an old man in a flat cap. He is covered in ink.

Oi! Herrick!” Jenna calls him over the sound of his shunting gear.

He turns to face them, ink and oil have folded themselves into ever creek.

Hiya, Jenna, you alright?”

I’m not so bad, you?”

Pottering on,” he smiles. “Who’s this, then?”

Zoe, she’s going to be with us for a few months.”

How do?”

It’s nice to meet you.”

He nods and smiles wringing his hand on an old rag. “I’d shake your hand but I’m covered,” he says gesturing to his hands. “Come down to see the old beauty have you?”

Zoe smiles and nods.

Well,” he says. “Here she is. She’ll be a eighty-three this autumn, still going as good and strong as ever. Just got to keep her well-maintained and she’ll go on forever.”

Where’s your Dun?”

Ah,” says Herrick. “He was out for a last drink last night. Bit emotional. He’ll be in later.”

Jenna nods. “Do you need Zoe to help out for a bit.”

Well, if the lass’d like to learn a bit of printing know-how, she’s more than welcome to stay.”

Jenna turns to Zoe.

Uncertainty muffles her words. “Yeah,” she says.

Jenna squeezes her shoulders and heads upstairs.

Well, come now. See this,” says Herrick, pulling a wrench from a workbench in the middle of the room. “This here, this wheel here, it doesn’t turn as well as it should. So,” he sprays it with grease. “We spray it with grease.” He hits it with the wrench. “And hit with the wrench.”

Doesn’t that damage the machine.”

Nah, doesn’t do no harm.” He chucks the wrench back onto the table. “This here’s where the paper goes in. This bit’s where the words are put on. And that’s where it comes out and Dun wraps it.” he stands back and scratches his head. “Mind you, it’s a bit more technical than all that, but that’s the gist.” He points to the table. “Pass us the spanner, would you?” she passes it to him. “Have a seat.” She sits.

So, you want to be a journalist, do you?”

She shrugs.

Ah,” he says, knowingly. “I get you.” he loosens a bolt, cleans and replaces it. He points to a strange tool Zoe doesn’t know. “Pass it me.”

By Lunchtime, they are all in. Jenna calls lunch at half twelve, and the lot of them head down to The Angle for lunch.

The midday crowd is a little more subdued than the night’s. Zoe hasn’t even heard the rumours that surround this place, but Mr and Mrs Cleaver are pointed out to her. They are sitting at their own table in the royal box.

See if we can’t get an interview with the big man himself,” says Charlie, as they sit down at their own table. “I’ve been hearing all sorts.”

Any of it printable?” Jenna asks, taking a sip of her beer.

Is it ever?” he replies.

How are you doing with the write up for the Gillies-MacKenzie Group?” Jenna asks Nina.

I have some good interviews on tape,” she says. “But if the Group have anything to do with it, none of it will see the light of day.”

Zoe notes the frustration in everybody’s voices. She wants to know what’s gong on, but everyone round the table just nods.

Why won’t they let you publish it?”

Nina turns to look at her. “It’s damaging,” she says. “They don’t like it when you print things that doubt their regime.”

Your regime,” scoffs Dun, a young boy, who Zoe suspects should still be in school. Herrick clips him over the head.

That’s no way to talk to no one.”

It’s not censorship, as such,” Jenna explains, “we can print anything we want to, it just doesn’t mean that we can’t print anything we want.”

I don’t understand.”

Have you heard of the Hillside Gazette? The Ramstable Guardian?” Charlie butts in.

No.”

Ipsley Evening Star? Bellefield Echo? Colton Visitor?”

No.”

Don’t forget the Carmagh Reporter.”

There are nods around the table.

Those papers printed what they wanted to, and were legally allowed to, but work was made very difficult for them, and they went out of business.”

How?”

More than one way to skin a cat,” Herrick chips in.

Zoe’s food arrives. She isn’t sure what to make of her colleagues as they settle into a conversation about politics and censorship. They are all very keen on their jobs, they see themselves as very important, and Zoe just doesn’t see it. She doesn’t think anyone would really care about what a scratty, old, chip rag would have to say.

She tries to follow the conversation but doesn’t understand half of what they talk about. She dozes off into her daydreams but is rudely awakened by the slapping down of plates of pie and chips. Small pots of mushy peas, coleslaw and ketchup are placed in the middle of the table, along with a basketful of cutlery.

Everyone tucks in. The only thing that jolts their attention away from the food and conversation is when the police enter and ask to talk to Frankie and Mrs Cleaver at their table. The writers suddenly quieten and strain their ears to catch a snippet of conversation to corroborate anything that they have already heard.

Whilst Mrs Cleaver holds her hands in her lap, turns her face to the table and begins to cry, Mr Cleaver goes red in the face, grinds his teeth and lets out an angry grumble. Ignoring his wife, he interrogates the policeman, who apologises that he doesn’t have any more information for them at this time, but will inform them, when suitable, about any developments in the investigation. He gives them his condolences and leaves.

Mrs Cleaver continues to weep quietly. She feels like a failure. Weak and guilty for her son’s soul. She tries to not distract her husband, knowing the state he is likely in, and worried that she will be on the receiving end on his temper later.

He slams his fist down on the table, the thud echoes round the still room. A moment later he stands up, straightens his jacket and leaves. His wife dutifully follows him.

Looks like the police might actually do something about this one,” says Nina, but Zoe notes the slight sarcasm in her voice: a less than hopeful inflection. She doesn’t understand it, but she tries to remember to ask about it later.

The flatmate of a man at Michael’s work is about to pass away, and Michael has been asked to move in to help with rent. The flatmate has disappeared for his last month, off exploring some distant part of the country with the meagre savings he has managed to scrape together.

The flat isn’t far from the halfway house, he folds all his clothes into two plastic bags and walks down past the Angle to the far side of the square.

He can feel the past few years fade away with every change he makes. Staying out late, going for walks, moving house at will, meeting girls: it all leads to restoration of a normal life. He gets the feeling he may be speaking too loudly at times, that he ates too slowly, and that he chooses the food that would be impossible to get on the inside. He used to like running, but he still feels uncomfortable to walk quickly, he is thinking of joining work’s football team, just to get him moving again, or to go out to the countryside just to get away from it all and just let go; make a complete break from that time.

It is too late to catch tea at the Angle, so they head down to the Wayfarer’s for some dumplings and satay. One of the stalwarts, the Wayfarer’s has passed through a dozen hands since Michael was a boy, a fairly typical practice in this part of the city. A business keeps its name and is run much the same as before, except for the tiny addition each owner has made. Certain aspects make it very clear who owned the restaurant at one point. Michael can barely see any differences in the running of the place since he was younger.

The menu is a little different. He can’t pin down exactly what’s different, but there is something missing, or something new, or something renamed. He gives up trying to remember, and orders three liang of the beef and onion dumplings and a beer. His friend orders a load of shumai and toast. They pay and sit back to chat about the most recent rugby game.

Michael isn’t paying much attention, he still finds it difficult to concentrate on what other people are thinking. Trying to focus on the here and now, and resist being sucked back into the memories that he has lived in for the past few years.

His eyes drift to the wall. The décor looks much the same as always. A dour, almost grubby texture to the walls and tables. Scuffed up skirting boards with cracks caked in thick dust. Every other light bulb has blown and bottle-top,frosted glass keeps a murky air in and daylight out. The stone flags have been worn with years of use. And in the wall, a legendary bullet hole from a perfect shot meant to kill the owner that ended with the perpetrator’s death and released a new old adage: not even point blank can change fate.

The food comes on blue porcelain, their beers in glass mugs. The new flatmate enjoys talking so much that he doesn’t realise he’s only talking to himself. His voice carries, irritating the couple sitting quietly in a booth across from them.

Eh, Max!” the flatmate calls the blonde owner over, “Could you get us a bottle for the road?”

Sure, love. What do you fancy?”

You got any Runner?” he asks handing her a couple of coins.

Yep, two secs.”

She disappears into the back room behind the bar, down a half-flight of stairs to the storeroom and picks up a bottle. She can hear coughing coming from under the stairs.

Cleo? Is that you?”

I’m ok,” Cleo calls between bouts. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Max doesn’t pressure her. There’s no point. The rough, hoarse coughs have returned, and this time they won’t be going away. She has spent the past few months trying to sort everything out and nothing is panning out.

She calls over the little girl from the kitchen and gives her the bottle.

Em, love, can you give this to the bloke in the hat by the window.”

Then she curls up with her loved one and tries to comfort her as she cries.

The little girl, Emily, watches the two men at the table. The one in the sporty peak cap talking ad nauseum, the other slowly eating. She watches him as he picks up the dumpling and places it in the oil, watching it drown and swilling it round as the poor thing loses its innards and leaves a spiralling trail of debris in its path. He picks up the scrambles of egg and finishes the lot.

Lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t even notice when she drops the bottle off on the table.

Emily has finished for here for the night, and is on her way to pick up a package from her second employer. She has no love of the work, but until the day they start carding the likes of her, she has little choice but to do what she’s doing.

She takes her brown coat down off her peg and kisses her brother on her way out the door. At one point she had wished that she had settled down when Cleo and Max had taken Micah in, but, even though they had encouraged her, she had never felt at home with them. Her brother comes with the pub, she doesn’t.

What’s worse is their time is nearly up, and she worries there won’t be a home for either of them. She knows the signs, they won’t last long now, none of them ever do.

It is hard not to love her brother, everyone says so. He has a sweet disposition and loving demeanour. He tries hard and is always giving. She knows herself to be prickly, aggressive even. She tries to make friends but she finds it difficult to keep them.

As she walks round to the Angle, she pulls a textbook out of her bag and flicks through the pages. She tries to study every moment she isn’t working. It stems from her favourite legend, the one about Laurelita, a young nobody who won the right to be carded when she proved to be the most intelligent person who ever lived.

Fanciful stuff, she is beginning to doubt the story. There has never been a nobody who has been carder in her life time, nor has anyone ever spoken about a person they know to have been carded out of obscurity. She hasn’t spoken about it to anyone since she was a small child, but the naivest, still innocent part of her hopes that it is true. So, she studies, she learns and she reads as many books as she can.

Ultimately, she realises that she is nothing impressive. It sometimes haunts her how average she is, and sometimes the dread of never amounting to anything drags her spirit down, but she continues nonetheless to acquire as much knowledge as she can.

She reads the science and tries to get her head around it, but she hasn’t got very far when she arrives at the Angle.

She walks past the front door to the set of stairs that do down to a cellar door. She pushes the door open and walks into the millers. A dozen or so ageing nobodies work the machines, making and fixing costumes, cleaning the stains out of the sheets, and taking in the Shamble’s dirty laundry.

Em hopes to God she doesn’t end up in a place like this. They don’t talk to each other and they don’t smile. They don’t even know how long they have to keep doing this. Every drudging day they turn up, put in their hours and return to their squalid rooms before returning the next day.

She does wonder why they don’t all just give up.

Through the back, she finds Asrid, the cook, boiling up another batch of Lizsud.

You up for a long run?” Asrid asks her, looking her up and down.

Yeah, that’s fine,” Emily says. They always put her on the long runs, she suspects they don’t like her, and that they don’t care. She knows the score, there won’t be a trial if she’s caught; she’ll be put down straight away. It is probably why Cleaver uses her kind to mule; to make it this far they must already have their wits about them.

Asrid gives her a package and an address on the far side of the city. It will probably take a good few hours to get over there without being seen and make it back.

She doesn’t stay for a chat.

It is going to be a long walk, seen as she has to avoid being seen. Out of the Shambles and into the fire. There are many paths to chose and the wrong one could be the difference between life, death and worse.

She hugs the shadows as she walks down the poor, but law abiding road just east of home, and makes her way down the alleyway to the main street that runs at right angles to the long rows of red brick terraces.

From the far end of the lane, she can see a man in a long coat coming towards her. After a momentary glitch in her defence mechanism, she climbs over the wall and onto the outdoor lavvy and lies down onto of it, listening to the man’s footsteps as he passes her by, holding in her sigh of relief in case he comes back. She closes her eyes and listens. No one is coming. She climbs down and runs down the street, trying her hardest not to make a sound, but leaves a quiet, tapping echo in her wake.

The industrial estate stands between her and the drop off point. Three square miles of squat, squalid factories and office buildings where, during the day, workers would mill about, labouring for the good of all. They work there, they pay taxes and they reap all the benefits society can afford them, trapped living in relative comfort which allows them a certain dignity.

She runs, half skipping, through the car parks and yards, knowing that security will be around. But tonight she is lucky, no one comes for her and she makes it all the way to the canal before she sees another soul.

A stagger of drunks waddle their way to and fro along the tow path back up town to the Shambles’ closest taxi rank, a good two miles from the centre.

She avoids them; ‘lads will be lads’ and all that – what a terrible world, but she thinks nothing more of it. That’s just the way it is: she doesn’t have the power to change it.

She manages to find the house, one of the big, new, architectural feats on the side of the hill. She goes through the gate and up to the front door, knocking on it twice.

Back at the Wayfarer’s, Max turns the sign on the door and wpes down the bar. She picks up the glasses left on the tables and places them on the side ready to go into the sink. She passes Cleo on her way down to the basement to change a barrel.

Cleo’s old Roller Derby team has swung by after their game in their trackies and full-blown make-up. They gossip and giggle, throwing food back and forth across the tables they have clobbered together in the corner. Bloody wounds are tended to. The vicious bout with their old rivals have left them battered and bruised. No broken bones though, which is an improvement on the last time when half of them spent the night in hospital and their best jammer missed the next few bouts.

They are surrounded by backpacks and roller-skates. They chat loudly, thumping eah other on the back, and nurse each other’s wounds. One girl has her leg propped up on the table, a vodka in her hand, and gripping onto the wooden arm of the chair as a woman in a shirt with ‘axe’ scrawled across the back dabs antiseptic across her gash whilst another sterilises a needle and thread.

Fourth jam were a nightmare, Max, you should’ve been there,” says one, leaning over the table and grabbing a beer.

What happened?”

They’ve got a new jammer, Gonzala. She is the fastest thing I’ve ever seen. But they started with this really slow start, so Icky couldn’t get into the jam. It gets going and their Kaytana whips Gonzala round, Ivy is walled up by their blockers. And in the fifth, Klitta were westerned back twice whilst Mayhem got whipped round four times. Tiny bloody blonde got 14 in a minute and an half.”

Max pours another round of drinks. The jam-talk means nothing to her, but she likes watching Cleo’s face light up when they talk to her. She likes the way they keep on including her even now. She brings through the pints and a couple of pies and portions of chips. Everyone fathers round the table for a session.

Little Micah wonders in in his pyjamas, Klitta sits him on her knee and he steals chips from everyone’s plate to make up a potion of his own. The girls coo over him and he tells them about the things he is learning and shows them a picture he has drawn of Cleo, Max, Emily and himself. He falls asleep after he has eaten. Max carries him up to bed.

Can I have a word?” Cleo pulls Klitta into the main part of the bar. “I, er,” she doesn’t know how to ask this. She tries to remember how she was asked. “We don’t have a lot of time left… me and Max, we’ve not got much time left. And we’re trying to find someone to look after Micah, and Emily, when she’s around. Now, I know it’s difficult cos they’re nobodies, but Micah really likes you and…”

Cleo, I… I can’t,” she says, avoiding looking Cleo in the eyes. “What you and Max are doing is amazing, but I,” she searches for a reason, “I can’t do that. I have a boyfriend and if we’re good and play by the rules, we can have a kid ourselves. I can’t jeopardise that.”

No, of course not, I understand,” says Cleo, smiling. “ We should get back to the others.”

Cleo keeps out of their way for the rest of the evening. She could be sulking, but then again, she has reason to. The thought has been plaguing her since she and Max took Micah in, keeping her awake at night and causing her to take moments away from the bar when it all got a little bit too much at work.

Micah was given to them when he was 16 months old by the midwife who delivered him. They had gotten hold of clothes from jumble sales and charity shops, always local places and never where people would ask questions; they couldn’t go into legitimate shops. Children like Micah had to be kept secret.

They didn’t know about Emily back then. She was being cared for by her father’s younger brother. But he was no good and a year ago she had turned up on their doorstep after he had been sentenced to a lifetime in prison for existing. She had escaped after he had shoved her out of the window on the fire escape and she had managed to evade the police. She rarely stays overnight with them and they don’t know where she goes.

The teams leaves at about four, most of them have work in the morning. Max is still awake when Cleo joins her.

I asked Annie to take Micah.”

She said no,”

Yeah.”

Cleo turns her head from Max. She doesn’t want Max to see her cry. Max pulls Cleo closer to herself and puts her arms around Cleo’s waist. Cleo digs her head into the pillow, still unable to bring herself to look at Max.

It’s ok,” Max whispers in her ear, pulling Cleo’s body into her own. “We’ll find someone.”

Emily finds her way home as a dawn breaks and crawls into bed. 

That which is [chapter 3]

 

Chapter 3

This rooftop is covered in gravel and ash. It lies downwind from the cement works and captures all the dust that blows in. Most of the people in the building work in that factory, living and working with the same square mile for the whole of their lives. She can just make out the edge of the Shambles from the north side of the building. This is the only side with a street wide enough to see the comings and goings of all the little people covered by a friendly darkness.

She walks around the lip of the building and steps easily from one rooftop to the next as she makes her way over to the square.

A nasty cloud has settled between the buildings, suffocating the whole city with its poisonous fog, blinding people to walk into their own fate, or simply taking the wind out of them.

An acrid wisp hits the back of her throat, leaving tears in her eyes. Bleary amber lights fight valiantly against the haze but leave a lot to be desired. Horns blow in on the wind from every direction and vanish like a whisper, leaving not even the hint of an echo to prove their existence.

She has nothing to worry about. She perches on the edge, experimenting how far she can go. She leans out and feels the centre of her balance touch the point of danger. She hovers there for a moment, hooks her foot on the inner ledge before she leans out further and reaches into the haze.

She stands up and walks along the very edge of the roof. She imagines dropping over the side and tries to imagine the way she would survive, but she cannot see anything; she is surrounded by the cloud. Hidden from the world. No one can see her. No one even knows she’s here.

It is here, within the cloud, that she can escape from everything that hunts and haunts her. She is outside reality. True freedom, she holds herself against the wind she meets at the corner, and breathes in deep the smog.

She coughs. It tastes awful.

She sits down on the ledge and considers her options. Away from anything to tempt her, she is able to think it all through carefully. To make decisions without any outside influence getting to her.

The first is a good offer. Take the boy out to the back of beyond and ask him to reveal the truths required by her contractor. She likes this kind of work; it’s always interesting. She can discover a lot about a person, not by what they tell her, but how long it takes them to say anything. Holding them over the volcano’s edge, she meets the true them.

The second offer intrigues her, though she isn’t sure why. It is technically a babysitting position and thus far beneath her talents, but she enjoys working with these people. April always brings her the most interesting cases and she has always provided her with a safe place to stay if she has required it. She hasn’t been told why the baby needs sitting, only that they need someone that can be trusted to protect it.

She has never seen herself as a trustworthy person. She sees little value in the virtue herself. She fulfils contracts and doesn’t talk about them afterwards. She feels no need to talk about them, they have been completed. She doesn’t ever find herself in the situation she needs to reveal any of her past jobs. She wouldn’t describe herself as loyal either. She doesn’t really like people, but there are some she dislikes less than others.

She could always do both, though she doesn’t like to stretch herself. She has no need to.

In the end, she chooses to do both; it’s so rare to find two contracts she is interested in.

Tonight, she can start the first job, then she can be available twenty-four seven for April. She sends them both messages and makes her way back over to her building where she climbs down the side of the roof to a flat a few feet below.

The window is open a fraction. She pulls it up and steps inside. Her Spartan rooms feel light and spacious after standing in the fog. She doesn’t like to close the window fully but on this occasion she will. The front door is blocked, no one can get in. She did the work herself. The only way in or out is through the window and that’s the way she likes it.

She goes through to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water. The sink is clean. The fridge beside it has never been used. The whole kitchen, in fact, is an empty husk except for a box of teabags and a kettle.

She sits on the side to drink her water staring at the blank wall.

As she stares, the tiny imperfections begin to dance before her eyes. She sits staring at them for a few moments, suspecting that they are merely the leftovers of her exertion. She enjoys the quiet.

She washes her cup and leaves it dripping on the sideboard. She takes off her jacket and falls into a little siesta in her dress on a mat in the corner.

The Trap, a nightly nomadic rave, is in full swing. This week, it has been set up in an old mill that has been put aside for a building program. The contractors are still putting in bids, so, for now, it stands empty. The machinery has all been pulled out and pushed into a back room, exposed wiring has been taped over, and the DJ has set up in the far corner.

Due to the shape of the mill, and the extra insulation that was installed in the final decade of its working life, the music is barely audible over the motorway that passes nearby. When the ravers enter, they are blasted with an incredible powerful industrial soundtrack. The whole place is moving. Body after body is worked up into a frenzy, jostling with each other in the damp darkness. Drinks are drunk then the empty cups are tossed over the dancers, raining down droplets of beer and covering the floor with plastic debris.

The speakers, far too big for a venue this small, keep a constant beat just high of a heartbeat.

This is where he can usually be found at the weekends, drugged up on the current substance of choice. ‘Lizsud’, a dirty liquid processed by the inept, is passed through the crowd, leaving the bleary zoned-out and grasping for help, and pushing others to dance on in a delirious frenzy. It will kill a good few of those that take it regularly, eating their insides and turning their skin to scales. The cheap high becomes an obsession and addiction that is impossible to control.

It knocks our boy sideways. He stumbles through to the makeshift bathroom and pisses against the drainpipe.

He walks back through into the pit and starts jumping. His feet with every thuddering beat and reaches up to the strobe that spreads in rays across the room. He has nothing on his mind but the brash sensation of existence and he loves every moment of it.

“Tommy!” his friend calls him through the racket. “Tommy, we’re over here, mate!”

He joins his friends as the music reaches its climax where it will stay for a few hours. The never-ending beat will plough on til morning. Those dancing will barely notice the hours changing; there are no individual tunes, nothing that differs one song from the next.

Tommy takes a glass of whatever has been supplied for the ravers from an ice barrel. It isn’t difficult to make your entrance fee back in drink and Tommy, in his more sober hours, has wondered how The Trap continues to run when its profits are drunk by its customers.

Tigerlily, pretty little Tigerlily, pulls him into the crowd to dance. In the darkness, her face catches the flashing lights and makes her appear much older and better looking than she really is. She always comes to the raves. He doesn’t know her real name. It doesn’t really matter. He loves watching her dance. She seems to be pulled one way and the other by invisible forces and looks as though she will fall but never does. He moves, but his movements are rough and awkward.

He doesn’t care. There’s still Lizsud in his blood.

Cerys makes her way through the dancers, the drums take up residence in her chest as a second heartbeat that feels as though it will rip through her lungs. The loud, sweaty mess disgusts her, but her mark is here tonight. She has watched him dance, piss and drug himself up. She takes off her jacket and joins in with the dancing. Around her, a swarm of leaches appear, completely out of their faces. She doesn’t even bother to look at them.

She finds him in the centre of the room, banging his head against the rhythm and dancing away the demons.

Unfortunately for him, she is still there.

This isn’t the time to take him. There are too many people around. She follows him as he takes his tiny dance partner to his home on the edge of the Shambles.

Cerys walks back through the dead city. The pubs and bars have already turfed out their customers and they have all staggered home.

The walk isn’t very long, but entering the better part of town puts her on edge. He lives on the last street of their world, there is a bigger police presence here, and although they are unlikely to recognise her, she pulls up her hood just in case. She’s not in the mood for running.

She watches him take the girl up to his apartment. There is no need to follow him up, there is only one exit for the people unwilling to jump. She sets up residence in a noodle bar, The Wayfarer’s, across the street, and waits for him and her to finish their business.

She finds herself surrounded by baby-faced teenagers unable to get into The Trap and unwilling to go home. They are the rebellious children of the rich and powerful. Cerys despises what she sees as their blatant and pathetic attempt at defiance. There is a little boy that momentarily distracts her, he is sitting at the bar. He must be a nobody, no one allowed children would be permitted to carry him to full-term. Here is probably the only place he is allowed to sit out in public.

She ignores them all and orders a beer.

On the other side of the cafe, Zoe, Hal and her friends celebrate her new flat. Her meeting with Ms Dean went well. Without pressure or incidence, she can move in straight away, the current occupant has moved on. They laugh and smile and promise to visit.

They haven’t told her parents yet; they haven’t had the opportunity. Their mother has been in a near permanent alcoholic coma, and their father disappeared a few days ago.

She has her own bedsit. Her own room with kitchen and sink. It isn’t much, but she hadn’t dared hope for that much. The area isn’t that bad either. It’s near enough to the river that she can walk to see her parents, and near to her workplace where she will start work shortly after moving in. She even gets a few weeks off near the end to do whatever she wants to do.

Her job is even going to be pretty cushy, working in a printing house. It didn’t sound too difficult when Katie Dean was explaining it, but she still isn’t exactly sure what she’ll be doing. General office stuff, she presumes.

The waitress brings over their dumplings, noodles and beers, along with the bill. Zoe has almost an entire meal without thinking about her future.

The girl comes out of Tommy’s flat, crosses the street and comes into The Wayfarer’s. In a moment of panic, Cerys worries that she has been made. But the girl passes her and gives a sweet to the little boy sitting at the counter.

“Hi, Max,” she says to the woman behind the bar. It is difficult to judge the girl’s exact age, she is small and still has chub in her cheeks, but her eyes and skin look old. She is short, only just passing five foot, but carries herself much older. Underneath the cake of makeup, she is, simply put, very plain.

“Hey, honey,” comes the reply. “You hungry?”

She nods. Cerys notes the stash of paper money in her pockets and turns back to watch the flats across the road. A plateful of dumplings are put between the girl and the boy and she gives them some watered-down beer in mugs.

Cerys pays her bill and leaves, making her way indirectly into the building so as not to draw attention to herself. She rough and ready shack of flats, rotting from the inside, like all the others in this neighbourhood. The stairs are covered in a layer of dust. Old fliers covered in grit and grime paper the walls with old messages. Light barely pierces through the dust covered staircase skylight.

She knows his room, Cleaver had given her that much information. She waits at the door for a moment trying to sense any movement inside.

She knocks.

It takes a few moments for the door to open.

“Hello,” he looks her up and down. “Who are you?”

She knocks him out, hoists him over her shoulder and goes out down the back stairs. There is a car waiting for her. She dumps the boy in the back and drives out of the city. No one is there to stop her. A scrap of paper in the glove compartment directs her to a hovel that has been acquired for her use. In the middle of the woods, in the back end of nowhere, she will have peace and quiet to fulfil her contract.

A clear, bright day breaks over the farmhouse. She has tied his wrists together and has tied him to a sofa. She makes herself a cup of tea in the kitchen. The long wisp of steam rises from the kettle, reaching up to the ceiling and finally dissipates. She can taste the water vapour in the air, and breathes in the humidity.

The warmth it brings is welcome. Although a beautiful day, it is still cold and the dew has turned to frost on the grass outside the window. She pours the water over the teabags in the mugs, but is disappointed to find only old milk in the fridge.

When she walks back through to the living room, he is awake.

“The milk’s off,” she says as she places the cup on a coaster on the coffee table.

“Where am I?” he asks her.

“In a cabin, in the woods,” she says and sits down opposite him. “I’ve been asked to talk to you.”

He tries to stand up but can’t get very far.

“Please, sit down,” she says. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”

His response is lost to her; his back is turned and he is mumbling.

She takes a walking stick from its place near the wall, swipes at the back of his knees and brings him crashing to the floor.

“Sit down,” she says. “I have a few questions.”

There is blood in his hairline, he must have caught the edge of the table with his fall.

“I don’t have to hurt you,” she says calmly, “As soon as I’ve asked my questions you can go.”

“No, he sent you to kill me, I know who you are!”

“Who do you think I am?”

“The Banshee.”

“I don’t like that name.”

He pulls himself back onto the sofa and sits there staring at her. She pulls out a small notebook.

“You are Tommy Adler,” she says. “I am not here to kill you, Mr Adler, I am here to talk to you.”

“Ok.”

“You work for Frankie Cleaver.”

“Yes.”

“And how long have you been talking to Detective Constable Turner?”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Look, I never told him anything big. I never said anything that he didn’t already know.”

“When did you start talking to him?”

“Just, like, a month ago.”

“You understand that your employer sees this as a breach of contract.”

Adler sits staring at her, not sure what is going to happen. It isn’t his time yet. He isn’t sure how to react to her. She is small but not skinny. Dirty blonde with big eyes. He wonders how she managed to get him here. She must have dragged him. There is mud and grass on the back of his trousers.

“Mr Cleaver would like to know exactly what you did and didn’t tell Mr Turner.”

He stumbles over his umming, unable to piece together a sentence.

“For instance,” she continues, flicking through the notes she has, “Was it you that told Mr Turner about the shipment that he seized last week?”

“No, no I didn’t!” he says, desperately.

“Did you tell Mr Turner about Mr Cleaver’s whereabouts on the fifteenth of June?”

“What?” she notes his look of confusion. “I don’t even know what he was doing on the fifteenth of June!”

“So, you didn’t tell Mr Turner.”

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She makes a note and continues with the interview. “Do you know where Mr Cleaver’s son is?”

He misses a beat. Cerys can tell that he does. “No,” he says.

“You do.”

“I don’t. I swear I don’t.”

Cerys takes out her knife and picks her fingernails with it.

“I know you are lying,” she says. She has been given specific instructions for what to do when he lies.

The knife has grown dull from its years of use. She remembers every person she has used it on. She remembers the person who used it on her. She doesn’t feel regret. Some of them might not have deserved what she did to them, but that wasn’t her concern. She had a job to do.

He can do nothing but watch as, within a matter of seconds, she straddles him, forces his head back, places the knife in his mouth and rips him a permanent smile. He screams out but can’t do anything to defend himself. She leaves him squirming, unable to holds his mouth together, his jaw covered in blood.

She goes through to the kitchen to wipe the blood from her knife.

She feels a vibration in her pocket and takes out her phone to check her messages. Someone is trying to call her. Clearly, someone doesn’t know her. She hangs up on them.

She watches a strand of her hair flow across her face and feels a breeze hit the side of her face. The door is open, and through the window she can see Adler running bent double away from the house. She climbs out the window, takes aim and throws her knife at him. It hits him square in the back. He falls down and doesn’t get up.

The wind rustles the long grass around him, but he doesn’t move. She walks over to him, wary of some kind of trap, looking every which way for a possible ambush. She crouches down beside him and pulls the knife out.

“Mr Adler?” she says. He doesn’t move. She rests her fingertips on his wrist. There is no pulse. Poor sod must have known it was his last day. She takes the card from the pocket and feels a stab in her chest.

Thomas Arthur Hadler doesn’t die today. He can’t be dead; he has another six years. She kneels down next to him. She feels for his breath but there is nothing. His eyes stare at the ground, his widened mouth gaping at the ground, blood in the grass.

She sits with him until the sun disappears behind the trees, waiting for him to suddenly wake from a stunned dream. To come back into the land of the living. She holds his wrist, waiting for a pulse to erupt from it.

She doesn’t understand what’s happening. A powerful sense of strength is bubbling inside of her; she has broken the most basic natural law; she has killed a man that couldn’t be killed. The fundamental principle that underpins the entirety of her existence is quickly eroding beneath her. She panics. She could die at any given moment. Anyone could. She wonders if it works the other way round: if people could live longer. What would happen if people found out? What if people already know? Doubt and fear swarm in her mind, but the power she felt a moment ago still lingers.

She has survived impossible situations.

She has killed somebody that couldn’t be killed.

She is a god.

 

That Which Is [chapter 2]

Chapter 2

She tosses and turns in her sleep. It has been three days since she last slept and now that her eyes are finally closed, the vivid images that flash before them leave her trembling and sweating. She can’t possibly know for sure, but it seems that the torment has found her early.

She tries to cry out, but she can’t make a sound. She is lost and afraid. The thoughts she has been having during the hours of darkness have swilled round and settled down into a bog that she is now trapped in. She tries to run, but can’t pull her legs out of the mud. Something is coming for her. She can hear it moving in the undergrowth. Stalking her. Tracking her down.

Before it comes out from the trees, she pulls at her own skin and rips herself apart.

She wakes with a sudden breath. It is still dark out. She walks through the silent house down to the kitchen for a glass of water. She feels shame as she passes the ancestor portraits on the wall. Photos of her mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great-grandmother. None of them have spoken to her since she was carded. Neither have her father’s side of the family. She used to look up at them as she passed but now she hangs her head.

Nana Lola, four generations above Zoe, is still shuffling about the house. She doesn’t stay fixed to one spot for very long. Zoe wonders where her carer is.

The water feels strange. Her mouth is so dry the water barely makes an effect on her thirst.

She places the glass on the side and watches the last remnants of her drink drain back down to the bottom. Her chest heaves as she tries to suppress her tears. She is too angry and instead of suppressing the anger it erupts. She grabs the glass and throws it against the wall. The shattered shards scatter across the room. She grabs hold of the kettle, tears it out of the socket and throws it behind her. The glass jars filled with rice, flour and pasta she takes and smashes against the floor. The herb-filled flower pots are knocked off of the windowsill as she runs her arm along it. She pulls the cupboard doors off their hinges as she wrenches them open, seizes the plates and sends them to the ground.

She doesn’t hear when others begin to arrive at the kitchen. Asha, thinking it must be Lola, arrives first and watches as she splinters the cupboards with a pan, her poor feet torn and covered in blood. Her nightie is sticking to her. Tears burn into her cheeks. When her mother arrives, she doesn’t stay, she just turns and walks into the study to pour herself another drink. She sends the toaster crashing through the glass cabinet. The wine glasses tumble to the floor and bursts into splinters that skittle across the lino.

The front door opens. Hal comes in from a night out.

“Asha?” He asks, “what’s going on?”

“It’s Zoe,” she says motioning to the kitchen.

For a moment he doesn’t know what to do. He comes to his senses, goes into the kitchen and wraps his arms round her, clamping her arms to her sides. Her legs give way but he manages to hold her up out of the broken glass and ceramics. She cries out violent tears. He carries her out to the car. Asha brings him her coat and a towel for the floor. He thanks her and drives off down to the city.

The hospital is nearly empty, apart from the drunk teenagers having their stomachs pumped. As he carries her in, a porter brings him a wheel chair and she is taken into the emergency room for the doctors to assess her.

Hal sits on the plastic bench. His hands are lying palm up in his lap. There is dry blood on his fingertips. He keeps dazing off into a doze and waking with a start when his head snaps back. His eyes are caught by the flashes of colour as the nurses pass him. His body is shaking he is so tired. Regardless of whether they are open or closed, his eyes sting and well up with tears. His chest begins to hurt as his yawns become deeper.

He was on call last night, then did a shift with a couple of hours overtime and had just arrived home to drop into his bed for a few hours before starting all over again. He feels guilty for not being there for Zoe for the past few days. He can only imagine what she’s been going through. He wonders if he can get some time off. Maybe, he can be there for her. Their mother has been worse than useless and their father has been nowhere to be seen.

A surgeon comes out of the theatre. Hal stands up.

“She’s going to be ok,” he tells Hal. “There shouldn’t be any lasting damage, but she shouldn’t walk for a while until the damage is healed.”

“Thank you,” says Hal.

The surgeon nods. “If it had happened a few weeks later we wouldn’t have been allowed to operate on her. She needs to be more careful. You should make sure she knows that.” He shoves his hands into his scrub pockets. “I’ll be sending a message to her social worker. She’ll want to meet with Zoe.”

“When will I be able to take her home?” Hal asks.

“She’ll need to stay here for a couple of days, just so we can check on the healing, but I don’t see any reason why she shouldn’t be home for the weekend.”

“Can I see her?”

“She’s sleeping. She won’t be awake until the morning. You should go home and get some sleep.”

He nods and the doctor leaves. He is too tired to drive home. He considers calling a taxi but crashes in the back of his car instead, thankful that his fiancée had insisted leaving a blanket in there, just in case.

Michael has finished his shift. Dirty, sweaty and bored he heads out with a group of lads for a slap up meal and enough drink to get them all lairy. That last one probably isn’t a good idea; Michael’s still on parole and anything close to a violation will see him seeing out the rest of his sentence.

The Rakish Angle is a notorious establishment full of the colourful characters many prefer to avoid in their real lives but who, in the safety of the darkness, are tolerated as part of the décor. The Angle is a warren that leads to the underworld.

They could have gone anywhere in the city, but the boys are out for the night and they want some unadulterated fun.

On either side of the giant oak doors are burning torches bracketed onto the stone building. The bouncers stand to attention in their smart suits, their trained eyes flicker over the crowds queued up to get in, ready to leap into action and remove anybody at a moment’s notice. The grand entrance, gothic and gloomy, with its low, iron chandelier has a cloakroom to one side. Six women constantly rotate, swapping coats for number tags and hanging them up on long winding racks, tripping over each other and struggling to maintain order as the customers rush to get through the next set of doors that lead to the music hall.

Already rowdy, a stout, middle-aged woman stands on stage singing one of the cheeky, old tunes. The audience joins in with the chorus. The waiters and waitresses meander through the wooden benches and tables, dropping off pints and picking up orders.

Small alcoves house individual rooms and tables. A mess that is impossible to map-out on the first visit. A mishmash of eastern imperial design and old world pub. Trees grow throughout the stonework. They were here when the Shambles were built, and were more trouble to remove so they were left as part of the foundations. The roots have already broken through part of the floor.

The bars have been made with bits of an old abandoned church. Part of the organ keeps up a wall. People sit of sofas in the pockets round the wall, on long benches down by the stage, barstools for the impatient, or on the random barrels around the place. Rickety wooden staircases join the different levels together. Even though there are many lanterns, they do little to light the rooms and everywhere is kept in a state of near darkness.

Food is taken upstairs to the circle using dumb waiters. Gastro-delicacies are delivered on chipped plates with mismatching, dull cutlery. You can feed your face for a reasonable price. Meat and two veg with a yorkshire drowned in gravy, or a curry and a bit of bread, or a newspaper of chips that are damp with the good old salt and vinegar.

Going down the spiral staircases to either sides of the stage, you reach the bawdy house. There are customers enjoying the company of girls, boys and everything in between, swinging every way, indulging in every pleasure. Wine flows freely and the customers select whoever they desire and take them to the rooms located down a corridor where they can’t be heard over the noise of the hall.

But further down the rabbit hole the scene becomes more unsavoury. Here, every desire is catered for, even the soul crushing ones. In the centre, on a giant pile of rags, is a writhing mess of people, in further rooms, there are toys for them to play with, and the girls and boys (and at this point, they are mostly girls and boys) are tortured mercilessly for pleasure.

Behind the scenes, cooks man the kitchen and seamstresses keep everyone clothed. Deep down in the belly, offices are staffed, everything is maintained. And right down at the bottom, the furthest it is possible to go, Frankie Cleaver sits in his office, personally guarded by a his own private detail. His wife and son are kept safe in the private rooms that spin off his office. They are kept forever in the dark.

Michael and his workmates hand in their coats and go up to the music hall’s balcony to get something to eat. A darkly comic ventriloquist has taken to the stage, setting off howls of laughter throughout the crowd. Her dirty dummy flirts with the front rows as her voice berates her. Witty back and forths culminate in the dummy completely humiliating her owner and being dragged off stage. They are replaced by a bolshy drag act with a perverse and droll repertoire.

Their food arrives quickly. His workmates discuss which room they will go next, and what they want to do. Michael doesn’t join in the chatter. He hasn’t been with anyone in years and has never been to the Angle before, he isn’t sure what to expect or what to want.

The food is hot and greasy. He hasn’t had anything as delicious in years. He savours the heat especially. The food was never hot inside. After queueing up for an hour, eating food that had been prepared by the inexperienced but fortunate; the kitchen was a cushy job in a place where starvation was not uncommon.

His workmates peel off one by one and make their way downstairs. Michael is left with Humph, a middle-aged ex-con he barely knows but whose presence makes him feel uncomfortable.

“Are you going to go downstairs?” he asks.

“I’m thinking about it,” says Michael, dabbing his chip in the puddle of vinegar.

“People always go downstairs,” says Humph. “Question is, how far down will you go?” He pulls a few filthy notes from his pocket. “Not as far down as I’d hoped.” He leaves Michael alone at the table, suddenly put off by his food.

A perky waitress asks if there is anything else she can get him.

“No,” says Michael.

He thinks for a moment, but goes downstairs anyway.

The moment he walks through the door, he finds himself face to face with a harem for hire wearing the most beautiful, scanty clothing. Lace and veils and velvet cushions. Chaise lounges draped with girls on one side and boys on the other. The forthright approach the customers whilst the shy sit in the corner and wait for someone to come up to them. They hold onto each other.

He pays the door toll and has a look around. Every shade of every colour, every height and every girth lay sprawled out for his choice. Some have their customers with them. It is still early, and there is a lot of choice.

He finds himself a girl. She is beautiful. She wears a pearl on a silver necklace that stands out like a star against her skin. She holds his hand as she leads him down the hallway. She is so beautiful, a perfect doll.

When they reach a free room, she offers him a drug. He shakes his head. She takes a hit for herself.

He kisses her. She lets him. She lies back on the bed. He unbuttons his flies and follows her. She touches his stomach. He brushes her hair back. She pulls him out and brings his hips to hers. He is already hard, he hasn’t any control. He buries his face into her neck and rocks in and out of her desperately grasping her shoulders, moaning into her skin as she twists her hips up to meet his.

He doesn’t last long. She mimics his release.

Zoe wakes up in her own bed with her feet bandaged. There is a glass of water on the bedside table and armchair with a blanket on it, but there is nobody in the room.

Her feet sting. A sharp twinge runs through them when she tries to sit up. It is too painful to move after that. She looks around for medication but can’t see any. There is nothing at all within arms’ reach.

She pulls back the sheets. The bandages are thick but she can see discolouration. A dull red bleeds through to the sheets. A dark brown has formed and is beginning to harden. She covers them up.

The door opens.

“You’re awake!” says Asha as she comes through the door carrying a box. “I’ve got your medicine and new bandages.” She smiles as she takes pills out of her box, a bottle of water and a glass, antiseptic wipes and the new bandages. “How are you feeling?”

Zoe takes her pills. “Where’s my mum?”

There is nothing that can be said to make her happy. There isn’t even the sound of the clock; it has been removed so that she could sleep better, but now that she is awake there is a gap between the seconds that is impossible to fill with anything other than sound.

Her bandages are carefully removed. She gasps when the wrap fused with her foot is plucked from her. Asha rubs the cream into her cuts. The sting delves deep into her sole and seems to be trying to drive a wedge in her skin. It takes everything she has not to snatch her foot away from the pain.

The pills kick in. She feels tired again.

“Asha?”

“Yes, love?”

“Where’s mum?”

Asha wraps Zoe’s foot in the new bandage, taking care to not inflict any more pain. Zoe’s head starts to drop.

“Asha, please!” she cries. “Where’s my mum?”

Asha starts on the second bandage.

“She went out,” says Asha, taking care not to cause any more pain than necessary. “She goes out and doesn’t come back till late. I don’t know where she goes.”

Zoe begins to sob. Her shoulders wrack in tremors as she tries to hide, to disappear into the folds of the sheets, to just get it all over with and die.

The doorbell rings.

“Your friends came round yesterday. They said they would come back today.” She packs up the box and covers her legs with a blanket. “Would you like to see them? I think it would be good for you.”

Her friends have finally come for her. She is nervous about seeing them.

In through the door, three girls tumble. They all speak at once, creating more noise than Zoe has had to deal with in a week. An instant headache erupts and she tries to calm them down.

“Hey. Come in. Sit down.”

They crowd her, give her hugs and kisses, then sit themselves on her bed. Still talking over one another, they ask her how she is, how she’s feeling about it, what she’s going to do. They mention people from school and give her the gossip, though, of course, she is the main topic of discussion.

The loud and brash Cara, delivering well-considered opinions a little too quickly for anyone to believe she created them on the spot, even though some of her thoughts come out a little garbled. Jessie likes to talk but is usually overshadowed by Cara. When the two of them come to a verbal spar they can each hold their own. Then there is quiet, little Hanna who says very little.

Noticeably absent is Shauna.

“Guys, calm down! I can’t hear any of you!”

“Some of the parents have got up a petition,” says Cara, opening up the box of chocolates she brought and eating one before handing it to Zoe.

“What?”

“That’s why Shauna’s not here. Her parents are spearheading it. They don’t want her to have any distractions during the exams.”

“Distractions like me dying?”

“Yeah,” she says a little too quickly.

The other two look at each other. Zoe breaks the silence, “why didn’t your parents stop you?”

She is more careful with her answer this time, “Honestly, my parents think it will be a good experience for me.”

Zoe isn’t sure how to react to that. “So, what’s this petition?” she asks.

Cara pulls a sheet of paper down from her bag and passes it to her. “They’ve got this petition that demands you are removed from school for the sake of their darling children so you don’t ‘damage’ them.”

“Cara!” Jessie exclaims, surprised.

“It’s what it says. She should know!”

“What do the teachers say?”

“Some of them are for it, most aren’t,” says Jessie with a shrug.

“Some say it’ll be educational, others say you’re still in your final year and you have a right to stay.”

“What do you think?”

“Why would you want to stay! You can go and do whatever you want. Why waste your time at school.”

No one talks for a while.

Hanna breaks the silence, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Nobody talks to me here. I want to move out.”

Between them, they map it out. What she is allowed to do, where she can go. She can ask Katie Dean at their meeting. They arrange for her to go on blind dates, they try to find her a flat of her own (one they can all visit).

Zoe is going to live for her last few months.

rain and cotton

That Which Is

My body dies with me,” she said, and within hours she was gone.

Pamplet CW2

Anon.

Chapter 1

She arrives shortly before dawn. Even with the directions that came with her appointment letter it takes her a good few minutes to find the appropriate building within the complex of towering, windowless blocks. A long queue has already begun to form but the process is going to take all day. The same as yesterday. The same as tomorrow. The long benches that run down the walls are filled with people filling in forms. The walls have forgone colour in favour of sombre and unrelenting simplicity.

She signs in at the front desk and is handed a clipboard by a secretary. She takes a seat on the bench. A nurse takes blood and hair samples and attaches them to a piece of card that contains all of her details. She barely notices him do it; she is too busy reading through the forms and accompanying leaflets. They look almost identical to the ones she was given to practise with at school except that the paper is thinner. She can see the scribbles on the clipboard through the paper.

Oh, God, it says. Please. And there are doodles of people. She tries not to look at them, but they bleed through the paper. She finds if she lines up the pictures with the writing they seem to sit on the words. She smiles. Someone was trying to keep themselves occupied. She wished she could draw like that. Maybe she should take an art class.

She settles into her space on the bench, places her handbag beside her, takes out a pencil and starts to fill in the form. The person next to her twitches nervously. He distracts her. She crosses her legs the other way and aims her body away from him.

For a moment, she can see everybody in the room, wringing their hands, tapping their knees with their pens, shifting uncomfortably, wincing, frowning, scratching their heads, nervous ticks flick, breathing deeply and steadily, and shaking. Some are on the verge of tears, whilst others stare into the distance with shock etched into their faces. They glance nervously at their neighbours papers and try to keep calm.

According to her brother, she has no reason to be nervous. For them it is just a matter of protocol. It has to be done, but the results themselves are a foregone conclusion. Genetically, she has nothing to worry about. Out of everybody in that room, she has, by far, the best background. She comes from a good family. She is healthy. She has never had any problems. This is just a legal thing. She has to get her card and then she can begin to live the life she has planned.

She puts the thought of her great uncle out of her head. A fluke. A statistical anomaly.

She wonders about the girl across from her. She is wearing worn brown lace-up boots. Clearly hand-me-downs, and can’t help fidgeting. Her eyes keep wanding off the page and onto the floor, and her pen races as she taps. The boy sitting next to her is wearing a shirt a little to big for him.He can’t stop his writing hand from shaking. Several seats down from them there is a girl wearing a hand-stitched, knee length, Eduardo Marin-Zhu quippao dress that only came out three weeks ago. It is beautiful. She sits and stares at it jealously. She is particularly fond of art you can wear. The girl catches her eye, looks at her dress and smiles.

“Zoe Green?” the nurse calls. She stands up and walks over to the little, white room.

“Hello, Miss Green,” says the doctor looking up from the computer screen and resting his elbows on his desk. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine,” she says. The doctor nods, they all say they’re fine.

“Have you been ill recently? Are you taking any drugs?”

“No.”

He looks at her. “Any drugs at all. We need to know.”

“No, nothing.”

He nods and ticks off some boxes.

“Do you drink? Smoke?”

“No.”

“Good, good,” he says ticking off some more boxes. “Stand up. Put your arms out to the side and stand on one leg.” She does. “Ok, you can put your foot down. Touch your toes. Good, good.”

He takes her over to the weighing scales, records her weight, then her height. He hands her a tube. “Take a deep breath and blow as hard as you can.”

She does.

“Ok,” he stays stamping her forms. “Sit near the nurses station and someone will call you soon.”

Zoe does question the point of a doctors exam considering what they are about to do, but she is in and out in a couple of minutes and lets it go.

It takes all morning for them to be processed. One by one, Zoe watches as the called into the offices at the end of the corridor. Not one of them returns. They never get to see the reactions of the others, nor do they have to suffer the humiliation of walking past those still left with tears in their eyes.

She regrets not bringing something to eat. She hadn’t eaten breakfast, she didn’t like eating that early, but she hadn’t expected to have to wait so long. She considers asking if she can be moved up the list, but shortly after midday, Zoe is called into the office.

The desk is piled high with files and a single photo frame of the case workers family. Above the second door are two LED lights. The red on is on. The same non-committal colour on the wall, but above the desk is a motivational poster of a sunset and the case worker’s certificates from one of the lower universities. Zoe wonders why she has even bothered to hang them up.

“Hello,” she looks down at the file, “Zoe. My name is Katie Dean.” The removable, metal name tag on the desk says the same. Zoe sits down. “I’m the case worker who’s been assigned to you. I don’t think you should anything to worry about. From what I see in your file, it all looks very promising. Though, of course, you should be prepared.”

Katie Dean looks to be in her mid-forties though something tells Zoe that she hasn’t got long to go. If the hair style and mediocre job weren’t enough to go on, the look of resignation in her eyes and the slight, self-pitying sigh she gives every time she catches a glimpse of the family portrait is a dead give away.

“I see you’ve already taking ‘society’ class that explains the procedure and the results.” Zoe nods. “You’d be surprised how many people haven’t. They think there’ll be time in their final year. I’ve had to explain it to more than half of you who have been in this morning.” She leans forward on the table and hands Zoe a card. “This is what your card will look like.”

It is a thin, sturdy business card with a metallic thread running through it, a lion embossed in the top corner and a rose in the bottom. She runs her finger over the raised name ‘Tommy Atkins’ in the centre, his birth and death dates and written in a font impossible to tamper with, and the way in which he would die.

Zoe counts the years. Poor Tommy Atkins never made it to twenty-six.

The corners are still crisp, even though the card itself is getting old. The corner cuts into her finger, not enough to draw blood but enough to

It is identical to her friend’s card. A few months older than her, one of the oldest at their school in fact, Ava Roberts had shown them all her card with pride. 87. No one in Ava’s family had ever passed 85 before and she beamed with pride when she handed it round to each of them. She had described the process n far more detail than the teachers, she spoke with a new wisdom. She knew what they were all going to go through. She had more authority than the teachers who hadn’t been to the fate offices since they’d been issued with their own cards.

“When you come in tomorrow, we’ll go through the details of your fate, but today you will receive your card. Do you have any questions?” Katie Dean asks her. Zoe shakes her head. “Are you nervous?” Zoe shrugs and places the card on the table. “Well it won’t be long now. Are your parents coming to pick you up?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. If it’s good news you can go out and celebrate.” The red light above the door goes out and the green light turns on. Katie stands up and walks round to the door holding out a business card, “If you need to talk or anything outside of our scheduled meetings.” She holds the door open. “You’re going down the hall, fifth on the left. I’ll see you tomorrow for our follow up meeting.”

This must be the long corridor that Ava described to them, far narrower than the last, it seems to taper off at the other end. As she walks down it, she tries to make out sounds from the other rooms, but she can hear nothing; all the doors are firmly shut except for the fifth door which has been left ajar for her. She gently knocks on it. A bright voice with an American lilt calls out,

“Yes, yes. Come in!”

She goes in.

It is stiflingly hot, even with the banks of fans there keeping machinery cool. Heat mingles with nerves and Zoe begins to sweat. She stands just inside the door. There is no one about.

“Hello?” she calls out. Her voice wobbles as anxiety bleeds to the surface. The technician bumbles out, fiddling with wires.

“Take a seat,” he says, ignoring her.

It is a small, red, plastic chair with metal legs. Apart from the technician, there is nothing natural in the room. Nothing wooden, no flowers, no natural fibres of any kind. The air tastes funny; small amounts of poison are leaked into the atmosphere to kill any insects that manage to get into the room. Something as big as a moth would completely throw off the machine.

“I need to take this,” he says taking her handbag. “Put these on,” he says passing her a smock.

She sits down. He takes her handbag into his booth, dumps it on the table and flicks on some stitches.

“What’s your name?” he asks through the loud speaker.

“Zoe Green.”

“Ok, Zoe, place your hands on the sensors on the chair arms. Are you right-handed?” She nods. He places a glove onto her left hand and places it back on the armrest. He nips her right index finger and wipes the blood on the sensor. He taps her legs and she puts them onto the foot rest. He pushes down a lever and a great whirring and clunking begins above her. She looks up to find an enormous, metal contraption coming down. The technician is beside her. “It might look scary but there’s nothing to fear. Just make sure you look forward at all times and don’t move.” he slides a mask over her face before the machine completely surrounds her. “Look through this right into the red and green lights. It’ll only take a few moments. Try to relax.”

As she looks through the mask, she can see a red light, but can’t judge how far away it is. It is dark and light at the same time. She can see the same blue stars and grey squares she sees when she rubs her eyes. It hurts to keep her head still; she can hear the blood whooshing round her ears and a fizzling. After a moment, a green light appears and begins to blink, she tries to concentrate on the two twinkling lights as the flashes seem to get closer together, take over each other and then get further apart. The air gets closer together. She can’t breathe. She gasps, but gets no air. Everything is spinning. She wants to throw up. Her hands burn and she loses all feeling in her feet. A thousand needles stab into her head. She screams and passes out.

“Hey! Hey? Hey!?”the American calls her back into the room. “Oh, thank fuck!” he says. “I thought you were gone.” he smiles as he pulls her up to sit against the wall, “That was a rough one, huh!”

She is on the floor. The machine has gone. He hands her a glass of water. She tries to stand up.

“Uh-uh,” he says. “Take a minute. Just sit. Drink water.”

She drinks the water. It tastes as bad as the air. She could swear she can hear cogs turning and taping of keys. A small business sized card slips out into the tray next to her. The thin white slip of paper has a metallic thread running through it, a lion embossed in the top corner and a red rose in the bottom. Her name in the middle. The dates below.

“Shit,” the curse escapes him. He looks at her. He passes her the card and her handbag.

She looks at the card and feels ill. It isn’t the world that falls apart but her.

“Are you ok?” he asks, his voice low and cautious. He has seen some people go mad when they get a fate that bad, some spent their few months in institutions. He knows of some technicians who have been attacked, one nearly lost an ear when the guy he’d fated lashed out. But the poor girl just looks ill.

She takes her bag and leaves.

It is the middle of the afternoon outside. The sun scorches her eyes. Her skin heats up under its rays. People are lounging on the grass and park benches, soaking it up before the winter comes. People are chatting, reading and smoking, eating their lunches, fussing with newspapers, putting on make up, walking arm in arm down the street, eating ice-cream and simply enjoying existence.

She runs across the street and down an alleyway, where she throws up on the cobbles behind an industrial bin. Resting on her hands and knees she tries to bring up the nothing in her stomach. Bile stings her throat. She hears a couple talking at the mouth of the alley. She scrambles round the back of the bin, peeking out at the open road. She watches the two ladies walk past. They don’t notice her. They don’t look into the alley.

She sits back against the stone building and rests her head against it. It can’t be true, it just can’t be true. She doesn’t believe it. It’s a mistake. She looks at the card, gently rubbing her thumb over the raised edges. She stifles a cry and puts the card in her purse.

Out of sight…

No. It didn’t help. Her chest staggers as she breathes in, tears well up in her eyes and she trembles. A small cry escapes her. A wheezy, little breath that catches in the back of her throat. Her eyes squeeze shut and force a tear out onto her cheek. She draws in a dogged gasp but it runs away from her and she is left choking on shallow sighs.

It takes her almost half an hour to pull herself together and stand up. Her legs ache from cramp. Instead of walking back onto the main street, she walks further down into the alley.

On the other side of town, in a stern, imposing grey building, a man sits staring out of the window. There is no traffic and no parked cars. No signposts, electricity of telephone poles. Nothing connects the outside world to his inside one. There is a wide road scarred with potholes, rough, worn and uncared for. It has been dug up to gain access to the pipes below and left open to the elements. The pavement dips leaving hollows that the rain water collects in. A young girl makes her way along the path skipping over puddles. She sneaks peaks at the building he is sitting in with sidelong glances through the hood in her coat.

He watches her with great interest. She isn’t wearing his uniform, nor that of the guards, she has brown boots and a brown woollen coat. He can’t see her face, he can’t even tell how old she is.

The building opposite is as ugly as the one he is sitting in, and yet it’s not an unwelcome sight. His eyes rest on the grey building. Scanning it from top to bottom, from the pigeon spikes on the roof, the concrete window slabs the jut out from under the blacked-out windows, the drainpipe draped with barbedwire, the air-conditioning box hanging outside the top floor’s central window with its whirring round, the little faux-flourish above the main doorway with heavy steps going up to it, and a slight, twisting staircase heading down to a cellar, sectioned off from the world with a gate and padlock.

He takes it all in. He hasn’t seen out this side of the building for many years. He has spent his time watching the clouds from a tower block and watching his back. Now his release is imminent, he longs to walk on the street and look people in the eye. He longs to get out of his blue cotton shirt.

He looks down at his clothes, worn with years of wear. His navy blue trousers dig in at the thigh. Badly tailored and impossible to get comfortable in, whether sitting or standing. It has crossed his mind before that this is part of the design, in order to stop them being sluggish whilst also discouraging running. There are no identifying marks on his clothes, nothing that singles him out from the thousands of others, nothing that allows him to be an individual, a person.

A woman enters the room. She sits opposite him, smiles guardedly, and places a sound recorder between them.

He adjusts himself to sit square on to her, pulling his trousers to relieve the tight crease that formed at the top of his leg.

She pushes record.

“Could you state your full name, please?” She asks with as much confidence as she can muster.

“Michael Jame Fuller.”

“A little louder,” she says.

He hasn’t spoken in an audible voice since he arrived. He knew to keep quiet when in the building. He clears his throat and forces his name through his cords, “Michael Jame Fuller.”

“Hello Michael. My name is Nina Feeney. I am here doing research on the St. Nicholas’ Riots on behalf of the Gillies-McKensie Research Group. We are conducting interviews with people involved in the riots. We would like to interview you about your role in the riots.”

Michael nods.

“Could you speak for the recorder?”

“Ok,” he says.

“Would you like a cigarette?” she asks, proffering him one. This isn’t how he’s going to die. He takes one.

“So, before the guard comes to release you, I’d like to ask you some questions. Is that alright?”

Micchael shrugs. The woman looks at him. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

He tries to look up at her face but can’t.

“Ok, let’s start with some background info?” Michael nods. The woman sighs, but continues. “So, where did you grow up?”

“Wray House.”

“On the Abbeystead Estate?”

“Yeah,” he coughs.

“Didn’t they close it down a few years ago? A scandal?”

Michael stares out of the window. Not long now. He watches a bird land on the street and peck at the ground. His takes a long drag of cigarette and falls into a dark memory. He has tried not to think about it.

“Michael?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to your family?”

“I never knew my father. And my mum died when I was thirteen.”

“She wasn’t carded?”

“She had me when she was fifteen.”

“How did she do that?”

“She went to live with a cousin on a farm.”

She pulls out a notebook from her handbag and makes a note.

“Was this the first time you have been in prison?”

His mouth falls open but shuts again. She has his records, why is she even bothering to ask. “No.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

“I got done for GBH.”

“What did you do?”

Michael shifts uneasily away from the memory. “I beat someone up.”

“I have the reports here,” says Nina, fumbling through the papers. “It says the man was in hospital for three days, that the police had to pull you off him, and that you also struck a policeman.”

He doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t give in. She leaves him sitting in silence.

“I was angry.”

“This was at Wray?”

She waits for him to elaborate. He knows he needs to start answering her questions. They are probably watching and they might not let him out until he does.

“I, er,” he stutters. He decides he might as well tell her everything, it is all on record anyway. “There was this bloke, right, and he… he worked at the house. I’d had a bad day at school and he was pushing me and starting on me, and I tried to get away from him, but he was in my face and he was saying stuff and he wouldn’t back off, so I pushed him away. He came back and swung at me, so I punched him. I couldn’t stop punching him. I… I… it was,” he stumbles over the words. The longest phrase he has uttered in years. “I couldn’t stop myself.”

“And you were locked up?”

“Yeah, Juvie.”

“Why? How old were you?”

“Almost 15.”

“Do you think a lot of people at the riots were repeat offenders?”

He shrugs and looks up at the sky outside. A thick cloud is disappearing and he can see the sun. “Maybe.”

“It says here that you were caught stealing during the riots and committed arson.”

“That’s what they said.”

“What were you stealing?”

“Just stuff.” The woman raises her eyebrows. Michael sighs before he elaborates. “A phone. Money. Clothes. Just… stuff.”

“What did you set on fire?”

“I didn’t, but they said I did.”

“Why did they say that?” she asks making notes.

“I was caught next to a burning building. I had a lighter on me and someone said they’d seen me do it.”

“But you hadn’t.”

“No, I was just stood there.”

His stubs out his cigarette and is offered another. He takes it.

“Could you tell me about how you got involved in the riots? Why and when? Just tell me everything you can remember. Take your time.”

Michael breathes in the smoke, in a long steadying breath. “Erm,” his brow furrows as he searches into the past. “The second day. My mate sent me a message telling me they were meeting on the High Street. I’d heard about everything that had happened the night before, so I went down to see what was happening.” He had finished his day at work and walked down to the city centre. He had past broken glass, fire, ripped metal, torn clothing, puddles of blood, rubbish, overturned bins, and people trying to hide down the passages, but he walked on. He saw something monumental happening, something extraordinary, and he wanted to be a part of it.

“When I got down there, there were loads of people and they were just hanging about on the street. You know, no cars could get through. All the police cars were on fire. They’d cordoned off one end of the road, completely stopped the traffic. They weren’t letting anyone through, they were just stood there watching us. People slipped through people’s houses to get to the street because the coppers wouldn’t let them through.”

“What did you do when you got there?”

“We were drinking. People were shouting at the coppers. Swearing at them and they never did owt. It was people were trying to outdo each other, you know, shout somet better. And then they just disappeared. They weren’t at the end of the street any more. And someone, I don’t know who, kicked in a window of this shop. I saw stuff just lying on the floor. Phones and all sorts just lying there and people were picking it up.”

“What did it feel like?” she asks him.

“What stealing?” he asks. She nods. “It was a rush. I liked it. You could take anything you wanted; stuff you’d never even had the chance to have before, you could just pick it up and people… people would take it, even if it was just crap.”

“What was it like on the streets? What was the mood like?”

“Mood?”

“What was the feeling among the people? The atmosphere?” she clarifies.

He thinks for a moment and shrugs. “Happy. Like it was a big party. You know, people were drinking and you could hear music. Someone set a bin on fire,” he smiles. “They got this packet of marshmallows, right, and they were were roasting them, and when the cars where on fire people were dancing and jumping about. Someone got hold of fireworks out of one of the shops and they lit them and they lit up the whole street like it was Bonfire Night or somet. People were joking about what they were taking and about the police. Yeah, it was a party.”

“Who was there? Who did you go with?”

“I didn’t go with anyone.”

“Who was in charge of where to meet?”

“No one was,” he says. She looks disappointed. “It wasn’t like that. I got a text from a mate, but it wasn’t like ‘let’s meet up and break and steal stuff’. We just went down to see what was happening. It kicked off the night before near the market but it was going on all over the place. People hadn’t slept since the night before. They’d built, like, barricades out of trolleys and industrial bins and the like. It was all burning. The whole street was covered in rubbish and smoke.”

“Who else was there?”

“Loads of people. People from the area. People from other areas. Some students, I think. There were even families. Everyone was just mixing together. Like everyone was family. Everyone was angry.”

“What were they angry about?”

He looks up at her. He can see it in the way she holds her head, the way she looks down her nose at him, the hint of contempt in the corner of her mouth and disgust in the crease of her eye, the way her hands clasp the papers a little too tightly, the curl in her hair, the cut of her jacket, the heels of her shoe, and the way she’s drawn on her eyelashes.

“Being lied to,” he says. “We were angry because we were lied to.”

Michael is given his clothes, shoes, watch and wallet with the few photos he has of his family. He is then given papers that detail his new accommodation and work permit, as well as a pittance of cash to get him through to pay day. The officer passes his parcel through the glass window and Michael has to sign for it.

He pulls his thin coat on and is sent out the door. The last thing handed to him as he is ushered out is a wispy paper bus ticket to his new home. He doesn’t look back at the building. He doesn’t speak to the guard that opens the gate for him. He shows his papers at the checkpoint and goes outside onto the street.

It is cold out. He had gone in in the summer and it is almost winter. He pulls his collar up, tucking his chin into it, and jabs his hands under his armpits. The air bites his ears as the wind whistles down the street. He breathes smoke.

He turns left at the end of the road, and now, out of the sight of his old residence he lets out a sigh of relief. He’s out. He’d even had a quasi-conversation with a woman. He is his own man again.

Suddenly he finds it difficult to breath. He leans over and places his hands on his knees as he tries to get some oxygen into his lungs. The cold stings his chest like thistles. It feels like he’s hardly breathing at all. He braces himself on the wall for a moment before he continues down the street to the bus stop. There is a woman sitting surrounded by bags full of clothes. She budges up for him.

“Cold today, isn’t it,” she says.

“It said it’ll get colder this weekend.”

“Did it now,” she contemplates this. “I need some gloves, then. Looks like you do too.” She smiles. “It’s no good when you young ones go out wearing nothing. You’ll catch your death of cold!”

“I’ll get myself a scarf,” he promises.

She looks down the street for the bus.

“Bloody thing’s always late,” she tuts. “You off into town, then?”

“Yeah, down to Bowland’s.”

“Ah,” she nods, “you’ve just got out.” He nods slowly. “Not escaped, have you?”

“No,” he laughs. “No, they let me out.”

“Good, good,” she beams. She nudges him.“My old man was in there twenty years. I hated going in there to visit him.” The bus appears down the street. The woman stands and collects all her bags together. “Worst place in the world. Bet you’re glad to be out. This your bus?”

He looks at the number on his ticket and then the number on the bus. “No.”

“Well, mind how you go,” she waddles onto the bus and buys her ticket. He smiles to her as the bus sets off.

Left alone in the bus shelter, his thoughts turn to the conversation with the researcher that morning. He had answered her questions fully, like they had told him to. He hadn’t asked anything, again, like they’d told him.

His bus arrives before he can follow the thought through to some sort of conclusion, and he is left with a deep sensation of unsatisfied wonderings.

His digs are fairly standard: an iron bedstead in a cell, a single door wardrobe and a sink with a shelf. He has the use of a kitchen on the ground floor and a bathroom on the first. There are five others in the house with him. He knows them all by type but doesn’t know a single one of them. He passes a petty thief on the way to the kitchen but says nothing. They have come from other places and keep to themselves. An old habit, thinks Michael, one he needs to get out of. They barely even so much as look at each other as they pass in the hallway. He can hear his neighbour enjoying his new found freedom in his room with whoever it is he’s found on the street.

Michael tries to break his routine by sitting in the kitchen after it gets dark outside. He can’t bring himself to go for a walk. He has already seen how much the city has changed in the few years he’s been absent. He will leave it to the morning to reacquaint himself with his surroundings.

He sits at the kitchen table with a mug of tea. He isn’t drinking it, though. He just stares at it waiting for the night to pass. He isn’t sure what to make himself to eat. He hasn’t made that decision for so long and he is overwhelmed by it. There are potatoes and a loaf of bread in the cupboard and a block of cheese in the fridge.

He makes himself a sandwich, puts it on a plate and sits back down at the table. He doesn’t eat it. He spends an hour staring at it and letting his tea go cold. He puts the sandwich in the fridge and goes back to his room promising himself something proper to eat in the morning. He passes a young girl on the stairs, pulling on her brown coat as she leaves.

The heavens open and rain pitters down over the city, washing away the even the most hardy from the streets. The tension in the air that has been building up over the last few days has finally cracked into lightning, and each bout of thunder rocks the window panes in the ageing masonry. The street lights turned on an hour ago when darkness rolled in, but on this side of town the lights barely penetrate through the grim darkness. The residents are left with a gloomy pool of light at the base of the pole but little else. Most have gone inside, but the lightening has blown the electricity. They are dry but left in total darkness.

Cerys runs down the street, her shoes silently passing over the cobbles. Each lengthy stride twists her torso as her arms and legs work in harmony to carry her forward. She leans forward, willing herself to move faster. She can hear the tapping boots clunking on the cobbles behind her. She beelines for a ginnel and jumps up to grab the bottom run of the fire escape. Although the rusted metal doesn’t move, she heaves herself up and reaches the top of the ladder before her uniformed pursuers begin to climb behind her. She swings round and throws herself up the next flight of stairs, er bag follows her in a greater arc. Silent on each step. Her dress quivering in the wind. There is a rip in her jacket at the shoulder where she was almost caught. Her hair is a damp ragged mess curled up in her hood.

She grabs hold of the second shorter ladder and gracefully hauls herself up onto the roof. The men behind her have almost caught up, but there’s nowhere for her to go. She crosses the roof to the trap door but as she bends down to open it she can hear people on the other side of it. Some must have come up the centre of the building to cut her off. There is nothing she can do about it. They think she can’t escape.

She backs off to the centre of the roof and waits for a moment. Preparing herself, she tries to clear her mind. Rain beats down on the brim of her hood. Her face, plastered with water, twitches. When the trap door is thrown open a jolt of excitement runs through her body and she tingles to the extremities. She begins to smile.

They have sent the big guns after her this time. They shout at her to give herself up but their voices are lost in the wind. It doesn’t matter, she wouldn’t have done what they asked anyway.

This time, she turns left and runs. She doesn’t know why left, last time she picked right and the time before was right also, but she runs with all her might. Within seconds she has launched herself off the roof and is hurtling towards the floor.

She can’t hear the reactions of the men on the roof but she imagines they are much the same as all the others. None of them will follow her.

She closes her eyes and feels the rain hit her face as she falls through the air. She begins to count. Two.

She opens her arms to catch the air. Spreading herself over a wide area. She loves the sensation of the moments after two, when it no longer feels like falling. With her eyes closed it feels like she’s flying.

Three.

Four.

She thinks back over the evening and tries to pinpoint the moment that they worked it out. She can feel the drag of her bag behind her.

Five.

Six.

Her arms tremble as she holds them against the wind. Her arm hits something, she instinctively grabs it. It pulls her arm out of its socket but she doesn’t let go as the pain shoots down to her hand. She swings round and lets go.

Seven

Eight.

Turning through the air, she rolls onto the canopy of the shop and tumbles to the ground. Landing on her feet she runs off down into the warren of the Shambles. They won’t follow her there. The city within the city: the Shambles is a shanty town inside a housing project of squatters. Left to its own devices, it has been abandoned to its residents. Half a square mile of lawlessness bordered on all sides by flyovers. Haphazard tower blocks thrown up by anyone with the bricks. Wires running over one another in an erratic attempt at getting electricity into the flats.

The narrow alleys are already filling with water, it gushes down the inside and dribbles down the outside of the pipes. Clothes are still hanging on the lines outside the windows. The shops have been hastily tidied away out of the street, but the eateries are still crammed open. Noodle shops and cafes are still serving their customers, even though the water is rising around their ankles. Neon lights gleam out against the eternal night of the slum. She can hear the quacks in their practises, the metalworks churning out anything of use, the brothels running at full capacity, and the newborn nobodies screaming their lungs out.

Officially, that is, at least on paper, it doesn’t exist. It is an embarrassment and a damning shame on the failures of society. It isn’t discussed. It is mentioned. It is a terrible secret hidden in plain sight.

She heads into one of the concrete buildings between a fruit shop and a laundrette and up the stairwell to the first floor where she knocks on the door. It is opened by a little, balding, bespectacled woman who looks at Cerys suspiciously.

“Doctor Foster?” Cerys asks and is let in.

Foster is a relatively well-respected doctor. Relative in terms of location. A nobody with no formal training, he studied himself a medical degree which he will never be presented with. The room, although reasonably clean, is filled with antique equipment and plastic furniture.

“Hello, June,” Foster says looking up from desk. “What can I do for you today?

“Hello, Doctor Foster,” says Cerys. “I fell when I was out.”

“Oh, dear,” he says. “Let’s have a look.”

She sits on the hard bed and pulls her jacket off.

“Ah, yes,” he says. “Nothing to worry about; it’s just popped out. I’ll just,” he pulls it out, twists, and puts it back in, “there we are. Get yourself a painkiller and you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, doc,” she says and turns to leave.

“June?”

“Yes?” she says pausing at the door.

“April wants to see you.”