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 two]

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.”