The Watershed [Chapter 12]

Chapter 12

Officially, the explosions are blamed on a fraction of the occupiers with Nobody sympathies. Arrests are made and the protesters are forced off their turf.

This doesn’t go as smoothly as those in charge had hoped. Far from being afraid of the law, the people link arms. Hand in hand, they stand defiant. Songs of their ancestors are passed down and learnt by a new generation. A festival ground has been established with the rise creating a natural stage. Someone sets up a rudimentary sound system. People show up with instruments, no matter how hard the police try to limit the influx of new protesters. With a focal point, the occupation turns to voice their issues in song. The list of songs goes on, but the favourites are repeated again and again, in every style, from every angle.

The police aren’t sure how to react. The response is sluggish at best. Orders are relayed down the line but by the time they have arrived those on the ground are unable to implement them. They are overwhelmed by the shear number of people. Had they received the support they need to execute their commanders orders, it might have been possible to quell the excitement before it had erupted into what it has become. The rank and file are left in the square holding the people in and praying it doesn’t get too violent.

They made the national press last night. There has, so far, been little attention paid to the city’s problems, but after the explosions yesterday, public interest has sparked. Whether it is a morbid curiosity or a genuine concern, no one quite knows yet. In other cities there is electricity in the air, people are waiting to see how the rest of this turns out. Some people are already wondering if it is their turn next.

Interspersed throughout the crowd are the thugs that work for Cleaver. For the most part, they are watching proceedings, enjoying the atmosphere and having a good time whilst good times can be had. They sit near their tents and drink.

The bins haven’t been emptied for weeks now, and the smell has driven Cleaver’s men deeper into the crowd. They are given a wide berth. Even the police avoid them. Reflective jacket-wearing wardens patrol the groups of people, checking in on everyone, making sure nothing too bad is being done.

At the back, it is almost impossible for people to hear anything but beats and rambling. A thin line of occupiers divide the crowd from the riot-gear suited police. There is an anticipation present on both sides, concern that something big might be about to happen. The road that runs around the square is left empty. Cars have been diverted and the police are lined up on the far side, a wall of hardened, faceless warriors. A day or two ago they were wearing their usual blues and mingling with the crowd. Now they stand apart.

Hostility floods the air. News reaches the protesters that the official blame for the explosions has been placed on ‘Every Body’, a well known charitable organisation that supports Nobodies. They have been arrested and imprisoned without trial. A statement has been read in parliament condemning the group and their terror acts. The Crier has hastily put together an article on the charity and its anti-government activities that, whilst proactive, have never been violent. Their work has been building momentum, especially against the government. Not expressly linking the actions to the current situation, the article certainly leading readers to the conclusion that politics is involved, and a cover-up.

Once a good portion of the crowd discovers the news, they turn away from the music. Songs are replaced by the rumbles of angry murmurs. Finding themselves no longer facing the police and instead a battalion of riot-gear clad officers. Soon after that, they realise they are surrounded.

The crowd shrinks back and surges forward. Intimidated waves fall back to the centre of the square, looking for a way out. Others, presented with a challenge and ready for a fight, make their way to the forefront and square up against the foe, unperturbed by the forces against them.

Deathly silence, the kind that can only be heard in a city. Nothing. Nothing man made, nothing natural. Even the wind that usually whips the tops of buildings has died away. The air is filled with absent birdsong. With so much quiet, hearts begin to race, and suddenly their own heartbeats become the only sound to break the voiceless anger and fear.

Neither side moves.

A barrage of insults are thrown one way, a chorus of angry rants rise up, but they land on deaf ears. No matter how aggressive the mob gets, their opposition stands firm, an unmoving wall that takes in everything thrown at it. They don’t need to. The usual tactics have become unnecessary. The crowd is already contained, there is no need to move them. The dogs have been sent for just in case a full riot breaks out. Most of the officers remember the last riot, the juvenile rage against the machine. This time feels little different.

Or at least it did. There are some things that the higher-ups hadn’t taken into account. This isn’t a recreation of the last riot, it is a continuation. There may have been a period of peace but nothing has been forgotten. The tension has been left unrelieved, a wound up people have been left tense. In the moments that have passed, the people have been reminiscing about the last time, how good it was before it wasn’t. The children have grown up and discovered that the world is exactly what they thought it was. They are where they are and there is no chance of change.

Unspoken secrets are revealed. Truths that have been noticed. The life expectancy gap between the Shambles and the richer areas of town has been growing. The paint is flaking. The schools, those attended, are understocked and crumbling. Last year, three rows of housing were pulled down to expand the complex of high-rises on the border between this borough and the next.

These were the warning shots, though no one knew it. The issues bubbling beneath the surface, and never quite making it up and out through the cracks.

People wanting to join the protesters are stopped in their paths by the police. A second occupation flares up some 500 yards down the pedestrian zone near the shopping centre. They keep in touch with the mother-occupation online, but a dead zone is soon put in place. New officers arrive from other cities, armed and ready.

Charlie and Nina are called back to the relative safety of the safe house. Jenna waits for them at the long side of the dinning table, reading through the transcript in her hands. This is it, she will do something that will be remembered for generations. Her mark on history. A scuff, she knows, but a mark nonetheless. The feels the shallow pitting of the paper on her hands, the quality reaffirmed in it’s steadiness. She has already sliced her skin with it’s corner. The tear in her skin is dry,

Emily puts Micah to bed. He has been moody today, taking in the emotions from all those who’ve been in. The few customers who have been in have been much quieter than normal. Whereas a couple of days ago there had been open gossiping, people seem to have lost their nerve. People still bring in the news with them, eagerly letting Michael know everything that’s going on.

Since they got back from the detention centre, he has acted differently around her. After they close up at night he pours them both a drink and they sit and talk. He doesn’t tell her everything he’s thinking but it’s still enough to worry her. Mostly, they talk about the riots. Emily’s memories are distant. It was the first time she had lived on the street and she didn’t understand any of what was happening. She kept out of the way of the looters, but she remembers the violence and she remembers being afraid. The men in black armour rounding people up, and her, little her, finding the smallest of cracks to hide in.

Michael remembers the anger he felt, and the betrayal.

He doesn’t drink at work, but these after hour drinks are knocked back in quick succession. Some of the stories he tells her each time he gets drunk. Repeating them again and again. Each repetition unveiling new truths. She drinks and listens, and she tells him that what’s happening now is different.

“Yes, it’s different,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’ll end well.”

An hour or so after closing, they go upstairs. Michael sleeps in Cleo and Maxine’s old bed, Emily sleeps in Micah’s room.

Micah is finally settling down. Emily leaves him to sleep.

Michael is waiting for her. “Go upstairs and pack a bag, only what’s necessary.”

Emily frowns.

“They’ve started taking Nobodies away,” he says under his breath. “They’re taking them away. I’m looking for somewhere for Micah.”

“You’re sending him away?”

Michael shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do.” He isn’t looking at her, his eyes are set on a group of people near the window. “There are rewards for information.”

“You think someone’ll dob him in?”

“I think it’s a lot of money,” he says. Emily goes back upstairs. She does her best not to wake her brother. Micah murmurs softly but doesn’t open his eyes, already fast asleep. She takes a couple of pairs of trousers, a few t-shirts and jumpers, his spare pair of shoes and several pairs of underwear and socks. She places the photos of their mother in an envelope and into the bag. She puts in his favourite teddy and his book.

She packs a bag for herself and Michael and places both bags on the floor under their coats.

It’s getting late, she goes down and helps turf out the stragglers. Michael grabs a bottle of gin and pours them both a glass. He lies down on the bench for a moment,, covering his eyes with the back of his arm. Emily sits down on the chair opposite and takes her drink.

“You going to tell me what’s going on?”

His arm falls from his face. The last few hours have been playing heavily on him. He refuses to admit defeat. He doesn’t want to leave; he likes it here.

“They’ve started taking people, Nobodies, out of the houses. They’re arresting people harbouring them, and,” he can’t find a delicate way to put this, “executing the Nobodies.”

Emily takes a drink.

“Where would we go?”

Michael’s mouth opens and hovers there for a second before closing. “Any ideas?”

Emily lets out a breathy half-laugh at the absurdity of him asking her. She shakes her head, “no.”

“Locals are holding them back, but it won’t be long before it gets worse.”

“But people are standing up for us?”

“Kind of.” Emily looks at him questioningly. He sits up and faces her. “Some of them are just up for a fight. Others just don’t like the cops. They’re using it as excuse. The looters are out and they want to get their hands on everything first.”

“How long do you think we have?”

Michael shrugs. “I honestly don’t know,” his hands close round his glass. “I can’t think of anywhere we can go where Micah would be safe.” He stares at the drink. “You should probably go. You’ve got a card, if you stay away they probably won’t arrest you.”

“And where would I go?”

“A friend’s.”

Emily laughs. “Nobodies’ don’t have any friends.”

Michael smiles crookedly. Emily has a prickly enough character at the best of times, add that to the natural distrust she’s acquired and it isn’t any wonder she doesn’t have friends. He wonders if they are friends, and if she considers them friends.

“Well,” he says. “You’ve got me.” He drinks and pours himself another glass.

“Michael?”

“Yes?”

“Why did you take on Micah?”

He should have prepared an answer for this question, it was bound to be asked at some point. He could tell her he only did it to get the bar. She’d accept that as an answer. That Micah’s a good kid and deserves some happiness on this earth before he’s inevitably taken from it.

“He was nice to me,” he says. “And he didn’t ask for anything in return. He was just happy to with me. I don’t think anyone’s ever treated me like that. So when they asked me, I said yes because this is the only place I’ve felt happy in a very long time.” He tops up his glass. “How come you stay here? Cleo and Max said that you hardly ever stayed over.”

“I didn’t use to.”

“Why not?”

“They took on Micah, no one had ever mentioned me. They didn’t know I existed until I turned up for Micah’s birthday.”

“They told me about you. Cleo asked me to look out for you.”

Emily hums. “Did she?” Michael nods. “I didn’t know that.”

“Did you not?” She shakes her head. “They did care about you, you know.”

“I know they did, but,” her heart sinks. “they loved Micah.”

Michael knocks back his drink. “Siblings, eh.”

She smiles. “I’m off to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.” She takes her glass to the sink.

He nods. “Na-night”

The rapid knock at the door comes as a shock, but also relief to Leela. She opens the door and welcomes Cerys in.

“Where’ve you been?” She asks forcefully.

“We’re fine. Kit’s bringing him,” says Cerys, as the technician pulls the doctor up the stairs. Cerys dumps the bags on the floor by the kitchen table and helps the technician lift Rrawley’s body onto the table. His left arm ripped open and held together by blood soaked bandages. “You need to get him a doctor.”

Jack takes out his phone and makes a call. Leela gets out the first aid kit and starts cleaning the wounds. She’s talking, but her face is turned down. Kit answers and Cerys goes off to the next room. There is a cut on her forearm she wants to deal with before it turns. She picks up a bottle of vodka and gently pours it onto the cut. Her nose turns up at the pain and she sucks in air between her teeth. She finds a needle in an old Quality tin, picks out the bits of dirt before dipping the thread in the vodka and stitching up the skin. She takes a t-shirt out of her bag, cuts a long strip and wraps it round her arm.

She takes a swig from the bottle and sits down on the sofa.

“The doctor’s here,” says Jack. “Do you want him to have a look at that?” Cerys looks at him but doesn’t answer. She is aware of a big discussion going on in the hallway. They have suddenly become animated, more so than she has ever seen. Something someone said, or did, something that has made both Leela angry. Something that shocks Kit. He has been taken aback by what they have said. Leela is holding a pen drive, but with her back to her, she has no idea what the woman is saying.

She lies down on the sofa. Now’s as good a time as any to sleep. She’ll be woken if someone needs her.

“What are you going to do about it?” Kit asks.

“We…” Leela can’t get out what she wants to say. The idea has been in her head from the moment that she was given it. Describing what she intends to do with it is tantamount to treason, it is a direct attack on the government, but there is no doubt in her mind about what has to be done. After this there is no way back. “There is a TV and radio tower just south of here. It could be broadcast to the whole region from there. Copies have already been made and the other cities will be doing the same thing.” She looks up at the technician, her voice gentle but persuasive, “Is it something you’d be willing to help with?”

Kit nods in contemplation, repeating the last few lines in his head and marking each on with the dip of his head. “Have you got a plan?” he asks directly.

“We’re working through it now. Charlie Wassman and Nina Feeney are putting together a statement, and we’re gong to put it out under the The Crier’s title, and we know one of the guards so getting in shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”

“Who’s the guard?”

“Benny Swinholme,” says Jack, folding his arms.

“And he’s definitely on your side?”

“We don’t have any reason to doubt him,” says Leela, looking at Kit with a renewed suspicion. Narrowing her eyes she considers his relationship with him. She hasn’t looked at him with these eyes since he started working with her. She doesn’t trust anyone in the beginning. He doesn’t like the distrust in her eyes. It makes him feel more guilty. He nods as if to agree with her, and goes through to the lounge where he sits down in armchair and considers his actions.

Jack and Leela stand in the corridor silently for a moment. The doctor arrives, knocking on the door and taking them by surprise, but saves them from an uncomfortable conversation.

The doctor takes a look at Rrawley Howe.

“Why did you bother calling me?”

“Eh?”

“Just stitch him up.”

“He isn’t waking up,” says Leela. “He was in that explosion last night.”

The doctor frowns, gives him the quick once-over and shrugs. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you there’s nothing wrong with him that I can see. I can make him comfortable and I can stitch him up, but there’s nothing more that can be done.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look,” the man says pointedly. “I can only do what’s within my limits. There’s not much I can do for this man. There’s not the medicine.”

Leela nods and provides the doctor with towels and warm water. She considers sending a note to the Criers, but decides against it. What would it change, anyhow? She busies herself with the assault on the radio tower. She is fortunate enough to have the floor plans for the tower, the rota, and more than enough information to keep them all safe, though she hasn’t told Jack where she got them from.

The boys remove themselves from the room as soon as the cutting begns. Leela stays to stem the tide.

Kit leaves the house and heads back to his own flat. He needs a break from everything. Things are moving too fast and he isn’t sure what he should do. He needs to contact one of this superiors and ask for advice. They will probbly tell him to continue with Leela’s plans, as they seem to fit in with his overlords own plans, but he doesn’t wish to step on toes. He runs the mission she wants to send him on in his head. He is committed to their ideals, he always has been, but he doesn’t want to put cart before horse and run away with the idea.

No. It is better to wait for orders.

He flicks on the coffee machine and brews himself a long one. Dark, rich, and kicking with power he downs it before sending a message. What that guidance will be, he cannot say. But he hopes that there will be something positive he can do to help. That he will be able, in his small part, to do something great.

He hears a beep in the living room and goes in to find a man sitting in the armchair.

“Hello, Christopher,” he says, fiddling with his cuff links. A compass with two arrows that move independently sometimes pointing up against gravity for an unnatural amount of time before swinging down and pointing in another direction.

“Hi Dad.”

“I got your message,” he says holding up his phone. Kit sits down on the chair opposite. “I understand that the months have got their hands on some information.”

“And?”

His father looks at him. “And, it must be made public.”

Kit regards his father with the same anger he felt when he left. Always giving orders, always preparing for what’s coming, and never giving any hint or clue as to his reasons. “What do you expect me to do about it?”

The man looks at his watch, stands up and does up the button on his jacket. “Do what you’re asked.” And with that, he leaves, closing the door firmly behind him. Kit waits a moment, his hand gripping his mug, until he can be sure his father has left the building. He arches his arm back, and with all his might, he throws the mug at the wall with an angry roar, then watches as the dark splatters on the wall drip down to the carpet. He grits his teeth and waits for his jumping heart to calm.

He never gets a reason.

The Watershed [chapter 11]

Jenna enjoys the change of pace in her work. Although everything is being hand-typed on old typewriters, and the clacking is driving her insane, she is finding everything they are doing to be gripping her in a way she hasn’t been for years. She used to love her work. The speed that was necessary to maintain a good paper. But this pace seems to suit her better. There is an exciting quality to the work they are doing now. She likes how it’s nothing like how they used to work, running off the same old drivel as usual, they are producing true quality, telling the whole story with out fear of reprisal.

Except that every so often there is punishment. People disappear, they are taken under cover of darkness, never seen again. Friends of the paper have been taken, people without whom it would be impossible to maintain a high output. Lily Howarth, for example, who worked as a curator at one of the city museums, has been arrested and locked up without trial, suspected of supplying them with typewriters. Helena Wilson, who works at a paper factory in the northern quarter, disappeared a week later. Paul Calvert delivered papers for them. Samantha and Noah Kirby were picked up after they spoke with a couple of bent coppers. Don Furness, Bill Turner and Max Lowe, among others, were taken after they were found reading and openly speaking about it.

The list goes on.

Jenna has already released an article about the indefinite detentions, to write anything more specific would be to condemn her friends. They can’t stop. To stop now would be to give permission. They have made an agreement. If taken, they keep quiet for 24 hours, after which they can answer any questions. They don’t know each other’s names, so there is little risk of exposing others to the same treatment. They check in every eight hours and only Jenna and Nina know where the next place will be. They have a white van man on standby to move all of the equipment.

Jenna, Nina and Charlie sit down on the kitchen floor. There isn’t any table space for them to talk in private, the kitchen is the only room where nobody works. They have to decide what’s next. The piece on Zoe is spreading well. Everyone in the Shambles has read it, half of the city is talking about it. Word has reached them that even within the hallowed walls of power hushed discussions are held in quiet rooms. Fancy parties are plagued with Shamble gossip. They have engaged the city in chatter. There are plenty of people who disagree with the papers, but Jenna is glad that there is discussion, however much it has to be hidden.

“The Halfers. The Nobodies,” says Charlie. “That’s what we need to concentrate on next.”

“I never knew you were keen on Nobody’s rights,” says Nina. Charlie throws her a glance.

“It fits with the paper.”

“I’m not sure we know enough people to write that article. I’m not even sure that we know any Nobodies.”

“Who do we know?” Charlie asks.

“There’s Amy Doran, she works at the university. She works as an advocate for Nobodies. Runs a couple of charities that provide for them. She’s written a lot as well.”

“She’s also the most outspoken. We interview her, and they’ll be able to find her straight away,” Nina says, opening a packet of crisps.

“What about if we only quote from her published work. Stuff that’s readily available.”

“It could still get her into a lot of trouble,” says Jenna. “We’ve not got many friends left.”

Nina sips her tea. “It already has got her trouble. She’s been held and questioned. She’s already been arrested for her work. She’s already well known…”

“Why was she released?”

“She’s high profile.”

“She’s got family, is what.”

“And everything she’s written has been read before.”

“Fair point.”

One of the typers comes through to get a glass of water. Noticing the silence, they gulp down their water and scuffle out quickly. They need to talk to some Nobodies, find some Nobodies who are willing to talk.

“Is there anything we can do for Lily?”

Jenna shakes her head. “No one’s sure where she is. I’ve asked, but I can’t find her. She could be in a dozen or more places, and who knows how many others that I don’t know the name of. ”

“So what can we do?” asks Charlie,

Jenna sighs, “Nothing. There’s nothing we can do.”

The man sits awkwardly in one of the booths of the pub. He has noticed Micah and although he isn’t saying anything he is clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Conditioning has left him fairly clear about what should be acceptable and what isn’t. Yet, he finds himself here, against his better nature, with people who aren’t supposed to be here. He keeps glancing over at the boy sitting on the stool. Michael hands him a pint of water and sits down opposite him, eyeing him suspiciously. Having the law inside this establishment is making him weary, usually they are not so bold to wander this far into the Shambles, especially alone. Responding to an off-duty officer who is going against everything he should stand for.

Michael wants to hide Micah away somewhere safe and quiet, away from chance.

“I was asked to come here.”

“By who?” Michael asks, concerned about what is about to happen. Maybe the man is working for someone else, maybe there is something bigger going on. Whatever is happening, he doesn’t want any part of it.

“Emily Keville,” that was not the response he was expecting. “She was picked up the night before last. She’s in the detention centre on the way to Hartnell Bank.”

“She was taken in?” they aren’t usually so merciful.

“Yeah. I took her in,” he says, apologetically. He stops himself saying something else. “She was being attacked by a couple of big blokes that were camping with the occupiers. They were really laying into her. We took her away.”

“You know who they were?”

He nods, “They work for Frankie Cleaver.” Michael looks confused. “I don’t know why they were doing it or why Cleaver would want her killed.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” Michael asks. The man shakes his head, taking a sip of water. “Is she going to be executed?”

The man sighs and repeats the old mantra, “You can’t execute something that doesn’t exist.” His head falls forward. He rocks back into his chair. “She has a couple of days. They need to process her. Check she’s Nobody.”

Michael looks up at Micah, running his toy car along the bar, swerving to miss the droplets of beer and skidding to a stop when he can’t reach any further, turning back and zigzaging back to him. Micah stops and lies his head on the bar. His eyes staring at Michael, a silent plea. Feeling grit in his stomach, he asks “Is there anything I can do?”

The man takes a card out of his pocket and places it on the table. It has Emily’s name and photo on it. It gives her an identity. The man gets up, says nothing, and leaves.

Michael takes the card and flips it over in his hand. It feels real. “Why are you helping?” But the man has already gone.

Everyone is ushered out. The doors swing closed of the empty place and are locked. The lights are turned off. For a moment he hesitates about what to do with the boy. There is always a risk if he’s left alone that there might be an accident, something might happen, someone might find him. The only thing he knows for sure is that if someone finds Micah, the game is up. There is no way of getting him back. Some things are impossible to hide. He closes Micah’s door, leaving the boy with a game to play and promising that they will all sit down and play together later. He pulls on his jacket as he sets out in the rain.

It is a long walk to the detention centre, the single story prefabricated building on the outskirts of town. The building is surrounded by nine fields. Eight of them have different lengths of grass, the ninth is barren with long tranches. The centre itself is surrounded by two barbedwire fences. They are electrified, patrolled and monitored day and night, keeping the scared and vulnerable within their walls. Those that should never have been born are locked up away from the world.

People of all ages shuffle round the yard, unresponsive to their circumstances. All hope lost the moment they arrive. No one escapes and no one survives. There is no comfort, not from the staff or from the fellow inmates. They have been abandoned by the outside world, no one is coming for them; it is too risky to be seen, to be associated with this circle of criminals. Cries of small children come from one of the windows, some will have been brought in by their own families. Toddlers call out for their mummies. Children don’t play, adults don’t speak, they all stand in the inner courtyard and feel the wind against their skin for their last few moments. This is hell’s holding cell.

Michael walks down the path between the two fenced off areas. He is still jumbling together a lie, practising his manners, checking dates in his head, and the new names of old friends. He looks out for Emily in the crowds. He wants her to see him.

He isn’t sure what he expected from the building, maybe something more impressive, or more substantial. It looks so small, so unsubstantial, compared to every other official building in the city, this is nothing. Not worth the concrete it takes to build a monstrosity. It doesn’t need to be terrifying from the outside, no one wants to be here anyway. People talk about this place like it is the true abyss.

The entrance is one small door. No guard on the outside, and only one signing people in at the front desk. He hands over his identification card as he signs his name in the inkless book. He hands over Emily’s card and watches as it is scrutinised. The security checks are as rigorous as the ones he went through in prison. He was expecting panic, but it never arrives. His heart seems to slow down. The calm keeps him rooted to the ground, and time moves at an even pace. He answers their questions, giving the most reasonable answers he has prepared.

There is a moment he worries that they have sussed him out, his fists clench, his legs tense and he is ready to run. The walls are the same institutional colour that has weighed down every cell he’s ever been in.

An hour or so later, Emily is brought through to the office by a woman in a uniform.

“Who is this?” she asks Emily.

He hadn’t expected them to ask her any questions. He has presented her identity card. He has given them everything they have asked. She looks at him. He hopes to God she can read the answer in his face, “It’s my uncle,” she says.

He smiles a little and she realises that she’s answered correctly. They can both go now, having satisfied every request.

Neither of them speak until they walk out of the gates. They could still lose everything. The wrong move could land them both in trouble and leave poor Micah alone. They are walking down the road back into town. Emily turns round. There is nothing behind them. No one is following them.

“How did you do that?” she asks him.

“A policeman came to the Wayfarer’s. He told me where you were and gave me a card for you.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Michael looks unsatisfied with his own response. “How were you taken?” Emily shrugs. “No,” he says, his voice sharpened at the point. “Don’t shrug. Tell me what happened.”

Emily watches the ground pass beneath her feet. “I took a note from the Angle to the occupation. The guys I gave the note to came after me. They got hold of me. Then the cops got them off me and brought me here.”

“What did you do to anger Cleaver?”

“I don’t know.”

“Emily?”

“I really don’t know.”

They walk in silence. The sludge-filled road disappears round the corner and they have another few miles before they reach somewhere that even resembles civilisation. The dread that has been building up inside of her the past few days comes out through shakes in her arms. She begins to lag behind. After a while, Michael waits for her to catch up. She stands still for a moment.

“That was too close.” Emily nods in agreement. “Don’t go by the Angle any more.” She looks at him and nods sincerely. “You don’t do anything for him any more, do you?” she shakes her head. He sits down on the drystone wall just off the road. Emily sits down next to him. He rubs his temples “Look, are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she says. “Are you ok?” He is digging his fingers into the skin. He doesn’t answer her. “Michael?” He stops rubbing and wipes his forehead. He shakes his head.

“Come on,” he says, and they walk back into town.

In the safe house, the scientist reads his interview in The Crier. It reads well, no one can argue with that. The facts are all there. Everything he said has been faithfully reworded. The writer has done well to hide him, but the people who know his work will see him in it anyway. It won’t take long.

He wonders what will happen to him. His work will be denounced, he knows that much. They’ll find some convincing hack to disprove him: truth being subjective. If they find him, will they kill him, that’s the real question. A trial is doubtful. If they find him, they will execute him. He feels a cold stab in the back of his head.

He reads the ending again. He disagrees with the conclusion the writer has come up with. It is biased, an opinion based on emotion tagged to the end of the column, one that Rrawley is not convinced by. He doesn’t like opinion interfering with the science. The work is being judged, pure science is placed under an ethical slant.

No. His work should be outside of morality. The real world should have nothing to do with this.

But it does. He can hear a barrage of arguments against him. He has heard people talking in the streets below his window, they don’t realise how far their voices travel, especially up. He has seen the way April and August talk about his work. Snide remarks hidden in the corners. They don’t understand so they cannot appreciate. It irritates him.

“What do you think?” Leela asks from the doorway.

“It’s not bad.”

Leela crosses her arms. “What don’t you like?”

Rrawley looks up at her and sighs. Sometimes Leela is spot on about things, yet at the same time she is completely clueless about everything. Frustration at how unconscious someone awake can be overcomes him. “The ending,” he says.

She frowns. “I’m sorry.” He doesn’t understand. “I’m sorry it is what you expected. I hope you understand why it was written like that.”

“I understand, but I don’t agree with it.” He places the paper on the table and leaves the room. He has more important things to do than try to explain the ins and outs of his thoughts.

His guardian slips in through the bathroom window. It’s back to work for all. She catches Leela’s eyes as she walks through to the kitchen. As soon as the central heating surrounds her, and the last gasps on wind from the window disappear, she is no longer free. She is stuck inside this airless hole. She half-wishes she had the capacity to endure confinement like the man she watches, but she doesn’t have the patience. She spends the afternoon watching him sitting still and reading. Hour after hour after hour. She finds herself idly daydreaming herself stabbing him, if only to make move. A spurt of blood erupting from him and sending him pale. What would he do if she set the place on fire? If she got a gun and threatened to shoot him in the face?

At least the daydreams pass the time.

The technician arrives in the early evening. They are testing Jack again; they are doing it once a fortnight now. There is a draw in the kitchen with a dozen or so of them. They are blank except for the date and cause. The technician has carefully made a note of the date the test was taken. Cerys suspects there will be another card today. She has time enough to puzzle it through. Either the cards are wrong, Jack is wrong, or something bigger is at play. She tries to work out a conspiracy that fits, but she has never been very good at chess. She is a reactionary, not a strategist.

The cards move back and forth among future dates. He has been given as much as twenty years and as little as three weeks. So far, each time a date has passed has been marked with a search through the obituaries for similar deaths, and, finding them, they put together as much information as they can find on the poor souls and search for a link between them and Jack.

A new test, a new card, just as Cerys suspected. One for a years time, a little over sixteen months ago. He throws the cards into the draw and goes home.

“Can I get a coffee?” the technician asks her.

“Yeah,” she says, and leaves him too it.

He follows her through to the lounge. “You don’t like it here.” She waits for a question. She finds his conversation curious at best, but she likes how close he is sitting to her and the broadness of his smile. His mouth is moving again, but she isn’t concentrating and doesn’t know what he’s saying. Breath warms her skin, and sings to her. She savours his scent, he smells warm and salty.

Still talking, he hasn’t noticed that she’s not paying attention. He angles himself towards her. He lifts his hand up, the sudden movement brings her out of her stare, but she isn’t concerned, his gestures aren’t threatening, neither are they too gentle. He moves with a strong grace that captures Cerys.

She takes hold of his hands. He doesn’t pull away like she expects him to. Slowly, looking at his mouth and holding his hands to his chest, she straddles him. He looks up at her. Their noses touch as she leans in to kiss him. He slips his hand out of hers to feel the soft of her cheek against the rough back of his hand. He leaves a burning trail of kisses from her lips to her chest. It knocks the wind from her. The top of his head bristles as her nails gently run through his hair. His hand, up the back of her shirt, runs from the blades to the small in long strokes. His other hand is tucked behind her knee, keeping her close to him.

She unbuttons her shirt, he follows her lead, and soon they are surrounded by discarded clothes. His hands hold her head still for a moment, for a brief moment he looks questioningly into her eyes, but the moment passes. He takes in all the scars she has been keeping under wraps. Her arms snake around his shoulders, bracing herself against him.

Their two worlds collide. They grasp onto each other as the world around them rushes away and dissolves into darkness. Every slight twitch echoes between them, every shudder works from soul, through skin, to soul. Each bump and rise is met by another in turn. Moans meet together in song. His head nestles in her throat, her chin rests on him. She gasps as he groans.

When the waves have died down, and the rush has left her, she stands up and picks up her shirt and knickers. He catches her hand before she can leave.

“You’re going?” he asks. She shakes her head. No, of course she isn’t going; she works here. She takes her hand out of his and goes through to the kitchen to pick up her cigarettes. She opens the kitchen window and sits out on the windowsill to smoke. He stands behind her, but makes no attempt to join her outside. She offers him a cigarette. He takes one from the packet and she lights it for him. She turns, resting her back on the window frame and bringing her legs up to the windowsill.

“People are singing,” he tells her. She looks out into the streets, but she can’t see anybody. His hand rests on her shoulder and he points towards the main square. “The occupiers are singing.”

“What are they singing?” She asks.

He strains to hear them. His teeth dive into his lip and a look of deep thought draws his face together. His collar is skew-whiff, it irritates her so she corrects it.

“Left in Shambles,” he tells her, folding his arms and leaning against the other side of the window to the point that he is completely reliant on its support. His head tilts until it knocks on the wood. He looks shattered.

“I don’t know that one.”

“It’s the one where the man walks round the home he grew up in and it’s falling apart.”

Cerys shrugs. She has never found music to be interesting. She likes the thuds, the beats, but as for the melody, it means nothing to her; she has never met it.

“Why don’t you wear aids?”

“I don’t need to,” she says. “And I don’t like them.” She takes a long drag on her cigarette. She feels a tug on her hair. It is him taking out a tangle. She doesn’t mind the sudden contact. She does wonder what it is that interests him. She has never considered the opinion of someone else, it has never interested her before. As they sit in the window she thinks about each time they met and what he was doing. She doesn’t know anything about his thoughts, she has only every seen him work. She isn’t sure if his beliefs are compatible with hers, but then again, she isn’t entirely sure all of her ideas are set in stone.

With the distraction pulling her into the past, she doesn’t see the warning signs coming towards her, and only feels the brunt of the blast.

The Watershed [Chapter 10]

The screens turn blue. People are cut off. They don’t know it yet, but the people who joined them in the living room in the evening to deliver the news calmly and strictly are at this moment being marched off to a holding cell. They took a stand and are paying for it. A hard stance is being taken by the authorities, any whisper is quickly stamped out.

It is sharp and effective, people go back about their business and the blue screen is quickly replaced with classic repeats that go around the clock. The radios only play music, nothing off the middle of the road. The sets are quickly turned off. The only time an announcement is made is when people are at work; when they don’t have a choice but to watch the carefully worded bulletins.

At first, there were some doubts as to the authenticity of the articles written by Nina and Jenna. People doubted they were written by ordinary people, some doubted that they were telling the truth, and some people just doubted everything. But after a while, after some of the things were proven correct, the papers, the news channels and almost everyone began reporting the articles.

The national papers are no longer delivered and at first the city thought it was just them, but slowly the word came that other cities were blocked as well.

The self-published, shoddily typewritten circulars on rough, recycled paper are the only source of information, and they are devoured mercilessly, passed from person to person and recopied. Jenna names hers The Crier. She and Nina write the majority of the articles, whilst Cadoc and Douglas makes carbon copies. Other pop up soon afterwards, all playing to their niche.. The Revue turns every issue into a political conspiracy, writing dry pieces about politicians and court cases. The Holler, as it’s name suggests, lays out its opinions in clear and concise ways, always knowing who to blame, and is only a topless model away from being a cliché. The Call challenges the people to revolutionise, giving lessons from history with bold statements, short biographical pieces about unknown revolutionaries. If someone collected and binded it, it would make a pretty good factual book. But it is The Crier that is most respected, their word is gospel.

Leela has been reading almost everything. Jack finds the paper clogging up the flat annoying. The rare trips they make outside are for Leela to scavenge the street for new sheets. Usually they are heading over to see the scientist and see what he has found in his findings. Although Jack enjoys getting out, and finds Rrawley good enough company, he is beginning to get cabin fever. He doesn’t like to talk to new people, not that he meets many, and he finds himself getting irritable when he talks to Leela.

“There’s going to be another riot soon,” says Jack looking out of the window.

“No. It’s a peaceful demonstration, and that’s how it’s going to be. It is going to be a smooth transition from how it is to how it will be,” Leela doesn’t even believe what she’s saying. She sits flicking through the files that the woman she knows as June gave her, trying to understand what is going on.

“I’ve read those papers too, Leela, I know what they say. People are going to die.”

“And you’ve also read that article about Mr Adler, haven’t you? Not everything is set in stone.”

“There are hundreds of files there, June said there were thousands more. One man may have changed his fate, but thousands?”

“It is possible, so it must be possible.”

He turns round and rests his hands on the windowsill behind him. “Are you feeling guilty yet?”

She looks up at him. He’s always been able to read her mind. He also knows how stubborn she is. She will change it. She is fiercely determined, and she has found that that will make her persevere. There is a niggling sensation in the back of her mind that she can’t help but think that maybe the deaths are necessary, or that even peaceful protests may end with a heavy hand. She pushes the thought away, and concentrates on the ‘ends’.

There is a symbol that she doesn’t understand. She has seen it before, but never in this context. The triangle made up of semi-circles. She is certain that there are religious connotations to it, but can’t see how they would fit in here. A few of them have died already, and she has already set people she knows onto their trails.

“Jack?” she says, placing her hands on her forehead. “Would it be wrong to…” she trails off. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Have you found mine?” He asks.

“No,” she says. She looks up at him. “What are you thinking?”

“I think you’ll find Adler’s name in those files.”

“You think they knew? That they knew and they gave him another fate?”

“I think people wouldn’t be protesting if they knew they were going to die. Even though that’s when they should be protesting.”

Leela leans back on the chair. She isn’t sure what he means. He is hinting at some sort of conspiracy, but he doesn’t seem to know what he’s thinking either. “Why would someone do that?”

“I’m sure that we’ll find out soon enough.”

“How can you be so relaxed about what you’re saying?”

“Because I don’t feel the need to control everything.”

She stares daggers at him. She doesn’t like him in this mood; he is running out of patience.

“We need to find some of these people, find out what they think their deaths are.”

“And what’ll that achieve.”

Leela bites her tongue, “you might be able to sit here and do nothing but I can’t.”

“Is that what you think? You think I want to sit it out? You were the one that wanted me to stay out of sight,” he moves the documents from the chair and slaps them down on the table. Sitting down, he rests his arms on his knees. “There’s something you’re not considering.”

“Yeah, and what’s that?”

“It takes more than one person to do all the work in front of you. There’s people here from up and down the country, not just the Shambles.”

“Your talking like a paranoid person,” she shakes her head. “You think this is some sort of political conspiracy.”

“If you take away certainty…”

“Then governments fall,” she scoffs. “Only if the conspiracy is never discovered.”

“A social conspiracy, then.”

“Social?”

“Why bother overthrowing a government if you can overhaul a society.”

“Well, that’s a bit far-fetched, don’t you think.”

Jack shrugs. “Is it really that ridiculous? A few decades ago there were a whole host of groups against the machines, where are they now? Did all of them get turned? Did they go underground? Did they die out? Where are they?”

“They grew up.” Jack sighs and flumps back into the chairs.

“You’re not that naïve.”

“And, again, you’re not normally this paranoid.”

He closes his eyes and tries to blank out the soft shift of paper. She turns over his words in her head. She hates the idea; conspiracies are unclean. They are the last refuge. If she entertains the theory she’ll be surround by crackpots and eccentrics in no time. That said, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

“Do you really think there is some sort of conspiracy here?”

He opens his eyes, “Yeah, I think I do. What’s more, I don’t think it’s going to mean what you think it is.”

“Have you seen this?” the worn out punter chucks across an official paper. “What utter nonsense.”

Michael picks up the paper, “You shouldn’t bother reading any of it, Tosh.”

“Read on a bit. Heartless bastards aren’t even going to bury their own daughter. They say she was a murderer and an agitator.”

“I’ve read it.”

“Heartless. Not burying your own daughter, it’s heartless. Who do they think they are!?” Michael pours the man another pint. “Think they’re better than everyone else, that’s what. Is this the sort of people we want in power?”

“They’re industrialists, not politicians.”

“What’s the difference,” Tosh shrugs. “No, I’ll tell you what, these people are the real power; they pay for all those billboards that plaster faces across the roads. They’re the ones who’ll hold onto power even when the politicians are off and gone.”

“Talking like a radical, Tosh.”

“I know how I’m talking. I’m not an idiot,” he sips the head off his beer. “What I’m saying is that this is something we should be talking about. It’s an unevenness. We are supposed to be equal, different but equal. How can we be equal like this?”

Michael says nothing. There’s been a change in the air the last week. People have been talking. They come in, and instead of ordering their pints and retiring to a chair to drink in peace they are talking. They are getting riled up by what they are reading, and what they are not reading, by the way people seem to be and by the way they are. They are getting angry. Michael can see it in the shifty glances they make: the people are getting angry.

“They are blaming us, you know.”

“Who is?”

“Whoever’s writing this paper.”

“What are they saying?”

“We’re a borough of ‘hysterics and upstarts’, no good will come of us.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it’s not.”

There’s never a good time to find out you’re being blamed. Ignoring it won’t do any good in the long term, but Michael can’t think of anything else to say.

“Read somet else.” Tosh frowns, walks off and finds someone new to talk to.

Nina takes the paper and reads right through it, straight past the words into the soul of the writer. She sees all the nuance, all the masters who had their input, all the incendiary language, the twisted logic and spin. She finds emotions, omissions and agenda. There is an ideology presented that is somewhat terrifying, the misrepresented history, out of context quotes. She picks apart the fallacies and reads a whole other story.

Someone is scared. They are scapegoating the people here, and they are creating enemies. It is underhand and it is fear-mongering. Nina doesn’t like it. There is a whole country of people reading this and believing it, and without any intention on their behalf, the next time they hear anything about the Shambles on the news, whenever they see a halfer or a young person who might become a halfer, they will shy away from them, and they will remember, on some level, snippets of a hack’s work.

Cool air sweeps into the bar. The wind is strong enough to ruffle the edge of the paper and make Nina recoil from the cold. Charlie comes in and sits next to her. She chucks the paper at him and motions to the girl behind the bar; holding up two fingers and tapping her pint glass. The girls nods.

“Shit,” says Charlie as he reaches the bottom of the page. “Shit.”

“Yeah.”

Emily brings their drinks over with a bowl of nuts. Nina takes a handful.

“We need to write something,” Nina says. Charlie hums in agreement, his brow furrowed. “Charlie!”

“Yeah.”

“We need to write something.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Zoe.”

Charlie is paying attention now. He

“Nina, we’ve just buried her! Can it not wait for a day or two.”

“They named her in the article. They actually used her name. I wasn’t even that close to her, and it makes my blood boil.”

Neither of them speak for a moment.

“How was the funeral?” she asks. Charlie rolls his eyes. “Did any of them turn up?”

“Her brother,” he nods.

Nina doesn’t want to come across as callous. She is well aware that she sometimes comes across that way. She prefers to think of herself as ruthless professional, but in this case she feels awkward.

“Charlie,” she searches for a way of phrasing it delicately. “Charlie, you need to do this.”

He nods. It’s too soon, but it’s something that has to be done. He would prefer to farm it out to Nina, but in actuality he’d rather it was written without any exaggeration. An honest look at everything. No pomp and ceremony, no Hollywood love story. He likes Nina’s pieces, but he should do this by himself, for Hal if not for anyone else. The two of them stood together today and buried her. He has to make sure it’s written properly.

“How was the Lakes?” Nina asks Charlie shrugs, what does it matter now. “Did you love her?” He doesn’t say anything, but shakes his head. “Then why…”

Charlie’s beer sits in his hand. The perspiration runs down his glass and he feels the drops run round his fingertips. “Because she was nice. And she was scared. And she didn’t deserve to go like that.”

Nina waits a moment before putting a section of the paper in her bag. “You surprise me, you know that.” Charlie smiles humourlessly. “Where are you staying?”

“My place. There’s nothing in my name and no one knows I live there, so.”

She checks her messages.

“Jenna wants me to go meet someone,” she says. “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Chin up, eh.”

Charlie nods.

Nina heads across town to the meeting place. She isn’t entirely sure what to expect. Jenna told her she was meeting a woman called April and it would be the most important interview of her life, though she didn’t say what exactly the interview would be about. Something ground-breaking.

At the flat, she meets a woman at the door, and is taken through to a barren living room. She sets up her stuff on the table next to a huge pile of documents.

“What are these?” she asks.

“Evidence.”

“Of what?”

“We’ll get to those later,” says the woman pouring each of them a glass of water. “Firstly, I think we should start with the ground rules. We are going to tell you some things that are top secret, things that are very dangerous, and we want you to produce a circular to let everyone know.”

All three of them are sitting down opposite her now. They are apprehensive. Even the one covered in tattoos looks nervous. The other an doesn’t even look at her, he seems uncomfortable with the whole situation.

“Ok,” she says.

“You will use the code names we give you, you won’t give us any physical description.” Nina nods. “We won’t tell you anything that could lead to our identities,” she says motioning to herself and the uncomfortable man. “This gentleman will be identified by what you write, but he is under our protection.”

“What kind of protection?”

“There is a specialist that works here who knows nothing about what we are going to talk about today. A hired sword, so we don’t tell them anything about what is going on. They have the day off today.” Nina nods. “Very reliable, just not entirely trusted.” The woman takes a sip of water. “There is also a technician that we collaborate with, but apart from saying that, we will say nothing more about them.”

Nina crosses her legs, and rests her notebook in her lap. “What do you here?”

The woman turns to the tattooed man. He leans forward and prepares his throat for a speech.

“A decade ago, a group of scientists decided to track the soul after death. Since the death is known about for years in advance it was easy to find people to take part in the experiments. The first few dozen gave us nothing. You see, they weren’t sure what they should be monitoring and so monitored everything, which was a huge drain on everything. I was first introduced to the lead scientists when I was working as a lab assistant at a research centre. My old professor was one of them and he suggested me for collecting data.”

“Where are they now?”

“The other scientists?”

“Yeah.”

“Where do you think,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “The first lead scientist died, we knew it was coming, he died in the chamber we had built to monitor the body and collect data. The second lead scientist disappeared. So did the third.”

“What do you think happened to them?”

“They were hidden away.”

“Why?”

“Hollowing out was first brought to the forefront maybe fifteen years ago, about six years ago the first serious attempts were made to achieve a transfer. It didn’t work. But three years ago there was a successful attempt using rats. There’s more money in hollowing than in souls.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugs, “The rich want to live forever, they don’t want to know about the souls of the bodies they take,” he smiles wryly

“You know what happens to the soul after death?” she asks. “You have proof?”

“Yes.” He says. Nina’s mind goes blank for a moment. The scientist goes on, “nobody wants what we discovered to be known by the public. Businessmen know it’ll be bad for them, it will make it difficult, though not impossible, to sell hollowing. The church knows it will be bad for them, it would challenge whole sections of their beliefs. The politicians haven’t worked out what they think about it politically, but, what does that matter, they all want to live forever.”

“That’s a bold statement.”

The scientist laughs at a joke that Nina clearly doesn’t understand, “maybe.” He leans forward. “But that’s nothing. The reaction of the everyman? Halfers? The research shows exactly what happens to the soul, and it has implications on the body and hollowing.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I honestly can’t tell you what it would feel to wake up with your conscience in different body with a different soul.”

“The soul stays with the body?”

“It stays in the bones.”

Yet again, Nina is left unable to form comprehensive thoughts. The scientist leans back.

“How about a break,” says the woman. Nina nods. “This is August,” she says introducing the man on her right. “He should have died eighteen years ago, seven years ago and three days ago.”

Cerys sits on the rooftop of the building facing the court house. The mess of tents below has been growing in the past few days. There are all sorts of people below. Made up mostly of students, the old hippies, and (late to the party) the disenfranchised, who are afraid that what little they have left they could lose. Locals turn up during the day and they go home at night. They bring flasks with them, others have set up stalls to provide cheap food and drink, turning a small profit and enjoying the festive atmosphere. People are playing music, they are discussing politics and society, arguing, sometimes loudly, about how to right the world. There are artists and graduates studying the scene. There are radicals and extremists from both wings. There is a whole section of people making signs. People are knitting socks and gloves.

Cerys takes a sip of her bottle beer, and lies back on her deckchair, out of the wuthering. She watches the corrugated metal shack on the rooftop waver back and forth, and raises her hand into the wind to feel the blow against it. This is the first day off she has had in a long time. The first day that she can stand where she wants to and be where she wants to be. She scrambled up the side of a building a few streets away and clambered her way across to the square. She likes this rooftop, nobody else ever comes up her. She brought up the materials to build a little shack a year or so ago. It took a while to get all the pieces up, but it was worth. This is her holiday home. It’s somewhere away from the maddening crowd.

She likes the view. She likes walking along the top of the Shambles and watching people. She likes going over the edge and seeing how she survives. She enjoys the adrenaline, the bitter taste, her heart thudding against her ribcage, and the air shredding her lungs. She has been waiting for a fix for some time. Getting angsty and irritable. She has been grinding her teeth and itching her skin, scratching at the walls in that tiny flat.

There is a change in the air. She can’t place her finger on it, but there is something different about the smell or the strength of the wind. She gets up and has a look over the edge.

People are standing up, they are facing the court rooms and there is a person shouting through a loudspeaker. The people have their fists in the air, they are standing very still and they are shouting. She liked it better when they were silently protesting, now she has no idea what’s going on. She suspects that they might not be as loud as they look; she can’t feel them through the building.

She sits back down and pulls on a jumper. She sips her beer and enjoys freedom. Her phone buzzes in her pockets, a message from April. She doesn’t even open it. She puts her phone back in her pocket and closes her eyes and pictures the future. She sees something riling up the protesters into a full blown riot. Blood in the street, probably a few deaths, if not more. She has seen the arguments between April and August, disagreeing on what they should do, the reaction of the public and the very nature of humanity. People are getting angry, that’s true, but the dark underbelly is the people who are preparing and determined to make a profit on the back of a rebellion both politically and financially.

Cerys considers her part in what is going to happen. Whereas April is dead set on maintaining a calm and progressive revolution, Cerys thinks less of people; she knows how they think, she knows how to wind them up and she can see that they are almost there already. She may not know exactly what April has planned with the scientist, but she suspects a backfire; April doesn’t know what she has and neither does Cerys.

Down below, weaving through the crowd, Emily takes a note through to a group of people in a tent near the tree. She recognises the people from the Angle, some of Cleaver’s staff. Out of the way, they aren’t standing up, they aren’t joining in the shouting or the chants. They have carved out their own space, surrounded it with tents and set up seats in the middle. Accumulated rubbish from the last few days lies abandoned around them. Cans, tins and food wrappers, cigarette buts and empty packets. She hands them the note and leaves.

She makes her way to the back of the crowd and goes to buy a jacket potato from one of the stalls. She layers it with butter, salt, baked beans and cheese, then cradles it in her hands to stave off the cold. She takes a fork and digs into it as she heads back to the Wayfarer’s, tracking each piece with its warmth.

She is grabbed from behind, her food spills onto the floor as she hits and kicks whoever is behind her. They lift her clean up off the ground, the one behind her taking her under the arms whilst another grabs hold of her legs. She struggles against them, her body twists up into the air. She calls out, but her cries are muffled by a hand across her mouth. She scratches at their arms and faces, striking at them with everything she has, but it’s not enough to get away from them.

“Hey!” a couple of men shout, running up to them with their batons drawn. “Put her down.”

“Fuck off, this is none of your business!”

“Put her down!”

The men clearly realise the situation they are in. They could probably take the policemen, but what’s the point. Her legs are let go of, the man turns to the officers with his hands open.

“She’s a nobody, mate, we’re just helping you out with your job!”

His friend has hold of her by the shoulders.

“give it me, and I’ll deal with it,” the officer says, taking out a pair of handcuffs, “you two can go.”

The two men look at each other. They want to get the job done themselves, nice and clean. Take back proof to their boss and get paid. Saying that, taking out police officers this close to a huge group of witnesses, some of whom must have seen them leave straight after the girl, is not clean either. The law can deal with her, it’ll all end the same.

They push the girl onto the floor. The shock on her knees is enough to stop her running. They crack as they hit the ground. The men leave, and the police cuff her.

She cries. She’s done for.

The Watershed [Chapter 9]

Chapter 9

The funeral is a fabulous affair. Celebrities and débutantes have travelled far and wide to reach the pinnacle of this season’s social events. The service is held in the chapel at the top of the hill, decked out in white flowers and drapes. The priest welcomes everybody. All of Lola’s descendants take up the first six rows. Hal cut his honeymoon short to be there, his new wife is not happy. He has promised her a second honeymoon later in the year.

Zoe has brought Charlie. She needed someone to be there for her today, and he is the closest thing she could find. Her friend Hanna is a couple of rows behind her, being Lola’s great-great-grandniece through one of her brothers, and her other friends are near the back, being, as they are, from prominent families in the community. They have been looking over at Zoe and trying to get her attention to ask about the man she is with.

Lola is brought into the church. A photographer snaps away at the procession. A journalist scribbles down notes.

“Vultures,” Charlie whispers in her ear. A small smile spreads across her lips, and she rests her head against his for a moment, before they both turn towards the altar.

The priest spends some time solemnly describing the old woman’s life. How her celebrity status was solidified when she was carded. How her compassion and forward thinking made her popular. How even though her death wasn’t unexpected, we are still shocked and full of grief. There will soon be a new oldest person, and everyone will be able to follow their life, and their example.

Zoe listens on. She knows all these stories, she’s heard them all before. She remembers her great-grandfather telling her them. He would sit her on his lap and start each story with a ‘Well,…’ and whenever it came to the turning point he would take a moment with the word ‘so’, drawing it out over several syllables, in a long, melodic, outward breath. His stories had always been about his life and his mother’s. Lola, even then, even well into her centenary, was always out and about at some fundraiser or other. Her great-grandfather was more into staying at home. He didn’t have long left when Zoe was young, but he seemed very happy with his life, and spent the last few years playing with Zoe and Hal, and telling them stories.

The family has always married young, born a few children each, and left the caring to the retired generation. Every so often someone married within the family, it happened frequently enough and at a distance such that no one battered an eyelid. Illegitimate children were everywhere. Zoe and Hal suspected a few of their peers to be their half-siblings, though these suspicions were never answered. There may be a few of those bastards sprinkled about the service today. Not family secrets and not quite embraced, they hold menial positions within the businesses. Directors and chairmen of various organisations. For all Zoe knows, every single person in this room might be descended from Lola or her brothers.

Asha isn’t here. Her absence is conspicuous. The days between Lola’s death and funeral include more than a few changes to the line up of the estate. Asha has been dismissed, and her whereabouts are unknown. There are rumours it was her time, and rumours it wasn’t. Zoe’s father has moved in his mistress, her mother has been passed out in her half of the house for the last week.

Charlie gets a phone call from Jenna shortly after the service warning them that somebody has been in the office, Herrick and Dun have been arrested, and the whole area is being watched. Jenna and Nina are in hiding with Cadoc’s old army buddies. They are looking for anybody connected with the prints they made about the occupation.

Charlie hurriedly whispers in Zoe’s ear, explaining to her their future.

“Hal?” Zoe calls him as she reaches out to pull him out of the stream of people heading to the wake. “I need your help.” Hal looks confused but goes with her inside. He kisses Rosemary and she goes on ahead without him. Charlie waits at the kitchen door as Zoe and Hal go upstairs.

“We’re going away,” she says. “I think Jenna has been planning it for sometime, and I don’t think I’m coming back.”

“What are you on about?”

“I don’t think I’m going to see you again,” she says quietly, her voice barely making it to his ears. Her bottom lip trembles, she grips it between her teeth and squints her eyes shut, forcing tears into her eyelashes. Hal pulls her in for a hug. She refuses to cry. She pulls away from him. Shaking her head she says, “I’ve got some clothes in my room, but I need some stuff for Charlie, it’s too risky for him to go back to his flat, and we have to go.”

“What have you gotten yourself in to?”

She shrugs, “They wrote a story about me. They wrote it down and published it. They’ve published other things, things that people don’t like.”

“Ok. Well, you know, you don’t have to go. You could stay, we could do something, I could do something.”

Zoe shakes her head. She could stay. She could use her family to get out of it. But in all honesty she doesn’t want to stay, she would rather distant herself from her family. Her parents she couldn’t care less about, they have abandoned her and she refuses to think about them, though it hurts her sometimes to think how easily they’ve cast her aside, but she has just made the quickest decision of her life; she doesn’t want Hal to see her die.

“No,” she says. “I have to go.”

“Ok,” Hal replies, seeing the resolve on her face. He puts an arm round her shoulders and pulls her in tight. “Let’s go.”

She searches through the boxes in her room and picks out a bunch of dresses and folds them into a backpack. She finds a pair of shoes, and pulls on a coat from her wardrobe.

Hal comes back into the room with a bag full of his clothes and all the money in his wallet. It’s all he’s got on him. It isn’t a lot, but he’s added the money that their father keeps in his study, and he hopes it will be enough.

Zoe gives him a last hug before she takes the bag from him. “Goodbye,” she whispers, and leaves, unable to say any more. He says goodbye too and squeezes her arm, but cannot think of a single comforting thing to say. He watches her leave the house with Charlie from the window. He takes a deep breath and goes down to the wake.

Michael sits at a table with Micah, a jigsaw puzzle and a copy on the contract. The pub is quiet. Max has gone through for a lie down in the back and Emily is cleaning glasses. He has accepted Cleo’s offer and has spent the day coming through the paperwork. It didn’t take him long for him to make his decision. To be in control of his own life and not have to bend to the whims of others. He has already quit his job and has told his landlord he’s moving out at the end of the month.

Frankie Cleaver’s reaction to his resignation surprised Michael. He can’t understand why Cleaver’s reaction was so extreme. The man roared in Michael’s face, throwing a massive fit, causing the whole of the underground to shift in their seats. It was as if Michael had done something personal against Cleaver, something unforgivable. He had to fight his way out of the nightclub.

Michael is still turning over the events in his head when he is waiting to go through the business with Max. He sits at the table with Micah. Poor Micah who has become so withdrawn he hasn’t said a word since Cleo died. Every so often, he bursts into tears without any warning. The only person who doesn’t seem any different is Emily. Michael notices that she is the same as she was when he first met her. He has been filled in by Max about Emily’s past. She has told him about their family. He wonders if she has ever been a child.

There isn’t much time left for Max. She has told Michael that she will be leaving in the next few days so that she can say goodbye to Micah; she doesn’t want to die anywhere near where home. She has decided to go back to her mother’s home town to die. She still has someone there and she hopes one of them will claim her body. She has enough money in her account to pay for her own funeral, she has left instructions for that.

Michael has to keep reminding himself to take deep breaths.

He is distracted by the rush of people going past the windows. Emily has noticed it too, she has already put down the glass and cloth she was cleaning and is walking over to the windows. Michael joins her, and the two of them watch a crowd of worried Shamblers hurry through the streets.

Emily goes out,

“Micah, stay here,” says Michael stepping out onto the street.

He catches up with Emily at the square. People are milling about. An electric murmur runs through them, setting everyone on edge. Nobody seems quite prepared for what is happening. People are crying, wailing. Nobody is able to process what it is they are seeing. Neither Emily nor Michael can even guess what it is that is causing so much distress to so many people.

The body, strung up on the railings surrounding the tree, is rotten. It’s skin is discoloured, clumps of soil cling to it’s hair. It is bruised and bloated, infested with the insects it was buried with, and the smell carries a mile downwind. It is disgusting.

Michael’s heart skips when he sees the sign next to it,

This is Tommy Adler’s body. He will die in six years.

Adler’s fate is attached to it for confirmation. Emily understands that this means something, something that she isn’t able to relate to. Fates are no longer secure and the future is not safe.

She knows the body, she has seen it alive, not that long ago. She walks away frowning.

Nina has snuck out to see what all the fuss is about. She reads the sign and takes a photo before calling Jenna.

“Something massive’s happening, you need to find out everything you can about Tommy Adler,” she looks carefully at his body, ignoring the stench. “I’m guessing mid-twenties, average height and build when he was alive. His fate is for six years time.” As she hangs up, a helicopter starts circling above the square. Armed police are moving in to cordon off the area. It’s time she should leave; she already has the next story. She slips off down a back street.

They are live on television. Work has stopped, every person in the country is glued to their set. The image of the police setting up a tent around the remains. The broadcaster is commenting on what can be seen, but isn’t able to say for sure what is happening, only that something has happened. The scene is set for those listening on the radio. There isn’t yet a reporter on the ground.

The newsreaders on some channels begin to speculate what is going on, laying blame on the occupation of the Shambles, the conditions of the Shambles, and the people themselves.

The first journalist that makes it over to the Shambles is held back by the police. No one is allowed in, no one is allowed near the body, and no information is given out.

Nina takes the stairs at a running jump, Jenna lets her in at the top.

“What have you got?” she asks as Nina comes in.

“An impossible dead body,” Nina says, her face lit up. “Have you found out anything about the person.”

“I’ve got his work, address and fate, and I’ve got a couple of people who knew him pretty well,” she says. “ And, I’ve put a new ribbon in the typewriter.”

Nina starts writing immediately. She sets the scene and writes about everything she has seen today; the people, the body, the officers coming in and taking over the Shambles, the reporters being kept out. Jenna starts making phone calls. She has found out where Adler lived and has made some fairly accurate assumptions about his lifestyle and work. She is calling the agencies he might have worked for. Within a few hours she’s spoken to half a dozen people he worked with, lived with and knew.

He wasn’t exactly clean. His friends describe him as a bit of a loser. The people he lived with barely knew him, except that he brought girls back every weekend. His colleagues paint a picture of a loner, few could even remember having a conversation with him about anything other than work. She can only find a single person with a nice thing to say about him; he was a fun at a rave.

She looks up where the next Trap rave will be and finds a good picture of him from his work records. Jenna and Caddoc will all head down to the Trap and see if they can find some people who knew him better, whilst Nina gets on with her report.

This week’s Trap is in an old crypt underneath the church Cleaver Junior threw himself off of. Although the music is nothing more than a faint thudder, the ground is pulsing. Jenna worries that they will stick out like a sore thumb, but instead they are swamped by a jumping rabble of drunks and druggies. Asking questions is nigh on impossible, showing the picture isn’t much better. They explain the situation, blurring a few of the details, to the woman on the door. She remembers the boy’s face.

As the people go in and out Jenna shows them the picture. Caddoc sits in the pew and calls Nina to see how she’s getting along. It’s all done, she just needs to background to bulk it out a bit, then it’ll be ready for copying.

At about three in the morning, a group of people emerge from the dark. Jenna shows them the picture and they nod. Out of their heads, all they want is food. They head done the street and round the corner to the inn with the best food available at this time in the morning.

They order pints and bowls full of dumplings, potatoes and kebab. Emily brings their food over. She keeps an ear on their conversation.

“Yeah, I knew him,” says one, picking at the potatoes with her fork. “We’d hang out, he was pretty funny.”

“I liked dancing with him. He was fun.”

“Did you see him on the tree?”

“Yeah,” says one. “I saw him.”

There is a deathly silence. Everyone stares into the bottom of their glasses.

“When did you last see him?”

“A few months a go, we were at the Trap, it was in the old factory they’re doing up. We came here and he went off with a girl.”

“Who was it?”

“Tigerlily,”

“Tigerlily?”

“We don’t know her real name, we didn’t know his full name til you said.”

“Do you know each others’ real names?”

They shake their heads. “Tigerlily’s pretty short. I think she’s a nobody.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Just the way she was.”

Emily slips through into the back. That was the last time she saw him. She doesn’t feel right. She isn’t able to describe the sensation. There is a rush inside her. Her hair stands on end. She wants to throw up. She wants to run away.

“Are you alright?” Michael calls back to her.

Run. She has to run.

“Emily?”

She looks over to the table of ravers. She should run. She should go. Whatever they are talking about is not good. She was stupid to try and make friends.

He notes the look of fear in her eyes and follows her gaze. “Stay there,” he says calmly, and continues serving pints and taking new orders. He writes down the order on the pad of paper and hands it to her. “Go in the kitchen.”

The freezer is full of food. She heats up a portion and passes it through the flap to the bar. She takes a new order and continues.

Michael takes the food over to a table near the interview.

“No, we didn’t know…”

“How could we, he never told us!

“Did he seem different that last time you saw him? Act differently?”

They shrug. “No.”

“Did you know it is thought he had another six years before his fate?”

Their faces change. Whereas before they had been a mixture of strung out sadness, now they look confused and repulsed. The idea that their fate might not be accurate makes them physically shake with fear and anger. The thought sends a sudden chill up Michael too.

Michael kicks them out at closing. Emily has already started cleaning up the kitchen.

“You want to talk about it?” he asks her as she makes her way upstairs to bed.

“No,” she says and walks up. He doesn’t push it any further. She doesn’t want to talk and he still needs to count up before he goes to bed.

In the lull between the hills, where the fences meet the dry stone walls, Zoe wraps the blanket tightly round her. The cold is beautiful. The crisp, clear frost that settles in every morning when the sun comes up creates a glistening landscape. The trees have lost their leaves, leaving only a skeleton to live out the winter. The ice covering the lake is not thick enough to support any weight, but birds skid along the surface. The warmth from the houses around the lake turns into wisps of smoke.

She rests her head on Charlie’s shoulder. He rests his head on top of hers. She feels the warmth of his breath on her forehead. The two of them are then out on a hilltop, wrapped up against the elements and waiting. Every so often, Zoe starts to cry. She doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t try to communicate at all, but she can’t stop crying. She feels scared and alone and very, very sad. That word seems to barely seems to scratch the surface, but she isn’t depressed, she is just so very sad. She hasn’t been here long enough and she doesn’t know where she is going. The idea of death and afterlife feels like a cosmic joke she’s too young to understand. The whole world seems to have conspired against her. She wants to wake up. She wants everything to disappear, to end. She wants her mummy.

“Talk to me,” he says.

“I don’t want to go,” comes through the tearful howls. Charlie is finding it very difficult. He isn’t sure what to say or do. She gets upset, angry even. She bawls, she lashes out. “It’s not fair,” she mumbles. “It’s not fair.”

Last night, they watched a TV programme interviewing halfers about their short lives and their acceptance (or resignation to fate). That had set Zoe off. She had screamed at the TV, shouted at the people, blamed everyone from the technician upwards, and then settled to weep. Her death is avoidable. It is preventable. And no one will do a thing to help her.

Things settled down after Charlie found the paper about Tommy. He called up Jenna and let her know how far the article has spread. Zoe read it and found herself hopeful, strangely. Surely if someone could die before their fate someone could die after it. Maybe the technicians had made a mistake with his, maybe they have made a mistake with hers. It is possible, now that it has happened once, it is possible. Her mood is lifted and she begins to talk to Charlie about her death.

“There is medication, maybe if I live out tonight they’ll give it to me. You know, attacks are brought on by stress and exertion, so I remain calm and we don’t do anything energetic and I make it past midnight. And if I don’t you have to do something about it.” Charlie feels panic. You have to keep by breathing beyond midnight, you have to keep me going.” She places her life in his hands and hopes to God that he will be able to do something about it. He nods, he’ll do what he can. They stand up and walk back down the small slope that goes back down towards the village.

They quietly drink tea in a cafe. They share sweet kisses throughout the day. They play boardgames and remain calm.

They hear about the deaths of the others fated to die today. With every one, Zoe feels her heart quiver, the stone in the pit of her stomach grows. She thought being here would take her away from all that, but instead it is thrust in her face. When she hears about the deaths, it is with a matter-of-fact deliverance that is difficult for Zoe to process. The village is a haven for death, people come here from all over to die, and the people are used to it. They barely even bat an eyelid when it happens.

They have their tea at a restaurant, a delicious meal of course upon course of delicate tastes and small delights. She tries food she has never had before, and orders some of it to eat again, aware that even with the possibility of surviving she is not going to risk losing out on the finer things in life. Charlie’s heart sinks throughout the day. He drinks a little more than he should, he tries to not let it show, he tries to keep on the mask he has built up over the past few weeks, but it is slipping and Zoe can see it. As soon as they finish their pudding, she walks out on him as he pays the bill.

“Zo?” he calls after her. “Zo? What’s up?” She is pacing back and forth in the hallway. Her breathing is frantic, tears are streaming down face, her hands are clenched up into balls. “Zoe, you need to calm down. You’re angry, you need to calm down.”

“Yes, I am angry!” she doesn’t mean to shout. “I don’t have to die. I don’t want somebody to be going round in my body. I want it to die with me.”

“I’m not going to let anybody take your body, but Zoe, you have to calm down. This isn’t good for your heart.”

“They are going to wait until I’ve gone and then they’re going to put someone else in, and I don’t want to die. Why can’t they put me in someone else’s body? It’s not fair. It’s not fair!”

“Zoe, please!” he begs, “You have to calm down. You have to stop.”

Her legs crumple beneath her, and she sits crying on the floor. She steadies her breath. He sits beside her and warps his arms around her. She mumbles into his shirt,

“I’m sorry I’ve been horrible, don’t remember me like that. There is just so much I wanted to do,” there is something in her words that sounds so final. She shakes her head and becomes very still and calm. Tears have burnt their way into her face leaving crisp edges. He holds her hand and for a moment, they sit together out in the hallway.

“Do you want to go back to the room?” he asks. She shakes her head. “Do you want something else to eat? Or we could go get a drink?” she shrugs. He helps her up, wrapping his arm around her waist. They go back into the bar. Zoe sits at a table as Charlie gets some drinks for them. Zoe sighs, her head falls forward, she slumps in her seat and dies.

It takes a moment for Charlie to notice. As soon as he does, he runs to the table and gently places her on the floor to begin mouth to mouth. The people standing around him see a desperate, delusional man who cannot accept fate. The hotel staff have seen this before. They pull him off of her and hold him back. He tries to fight them off but there are too many, they drag him off into another room, whilst the retrieval unit takes Zoe’s body away.

She is dead, and now there is nothing he can do.

The Watershed [Chapter 8]

Chapter 8

Cerys skips along the street. She feels light and happy being away from the safe house. She likes the amount of space above her head and the amount of air she can finally breathe. The sky is her favourite grey and every so often she can feel a tiny splatter against her skin. It feels beautiful, like she’s part of the world again. She walks across the square towards the court house with her head held high.

She finds the dress suit she is wearing a little uncomfortable, a tightness she isn’t used to. She hasn’t walked in heels for a very long time, but finds that little extra height boosts her confidence to enter this building. She looks the part, and that’s what matters right now.

She climbs up the steps to the open doors. The reception is empty, a board rests against the desk declaring the place is still open for business. The judges are still in session, lawyers are still wandering through the corridors, and the plaintiffs and the accused are still here. The lack of people makes her job far easier. She can walk down entire corridors without seeing a soul, and no one is there to ask her what she is doing. She opens doors into empty offices and no one chases her out.

The courts are rarely used as such, the people here don’t have enough time to make any worthwhile complaints and they usually deal with matters in their own way, but they are entitled to a resident judge and legal advice. So, the court buildings are used to house all the birth and fate records in long rooms filled with the last hundred years in paper. After a hundred years they are moved down to a secure basement.

She finds the office Leela told her about, and tries to enter it. It is locked, but she swiftly deals with it without anyone seeing. She enters the room and places a chair against the door. The long, windowless room is filled with filing cabinets labelled with future dates. She isn’t sure what she’s looking for, Leela wasn’t specific; she was only passing on a message.

It would take too long to search through every drawer. Instead she scans the names of the drawers past, present and future, and it becomes apparent very quickly that some drawers are missing; this year and next’s. She wonders if they have moved them somewhere else. But there isn’t even a space that they would have been moved from. She goes to the nearest date, a little over eighteen months from now and pulls open the drawer for the first three months of the year. She isn’t sure what she’s looking at. The deaths are not natural, they all seem to be a delayed response, succumbing to injuries, and most of the people seem very young. She hasn’t anything to compare it too so she takes a wad of sheets over to the desk in the middle of the room and photos them for the others to look at and understand. She pulls out another drawer for the second three months of the year and finds they are almost identical.

Swiftly drawn in biro, a triangle knot made of three semi-circles has been drawn in the corner of some of the papers. She has no idea what they mean. She checks a few other cabinets and finds no symbols before this but hundreds afterwards. She checks her own death and finds the the slip of paper with her real name on it and death in the drawer with no marks of any kind. She finds it strange to see her real name written down, somewhat unsettling; this hasn’t been her name for a very long time. She folds it up and puts it in her pocket.

There is nothing more she can do here.

She moves the chair away from the door and opens it enough to peek out before taking the leap, striding out and closing the door behind her. She walks down the corridor and notices two men deep in a hushed conversation. She can’t stop or follow them. She keeps walking and follows their lips.

“You can have as many as you want.”

“They really have no idea?”

“I think we’d know if they did.”

And with that they have passed her. She memorises everything she has just seen and walks down to the front entrance.

“Excuse me, miss,” a young man in a suit takes hold of her arm. She turns to face him. He has violated her space, he shouldn’t be touching her. “Mind yourself out there, there’s a mob growing. They’re occupying the square.”

She nods and leaves. A group of people have gathered with blank placards. She frowns and walks off down a side street.

In the midst of the crowd, Nina and Jenna are interviewing people. They are almost unrecognisable. Both are wearing extensions, different makeup and clothes that they would never normally wear out.

“So, what statement are you trying to make with these signs?” Nina asks a woman next to one of the tents.

“No one’s listening to us, no one ever listens to us,” she says. “It wouldn’t matter what we wrote on these signs. There have been many protests and them up on the hill always ignore us. Our rights are being taken away, one by one, and someday soon they will take us out of our own bodies’. We don’t even belong to ourselves any more. We are treated like nobodies.”

“Some social commentators are saying that the group protesting here don’t have a clear agenda and so can’t be reasoned with. Is it true that there isn’t a leader here and you have no list of demands?”

“You’ve worded that very nicely, I’ve seen some horrible things being said. Some people have called us anarchists and others have called us Satanists. We are neither. It’s true we don’t have a leader, we don’t need one, we are the masters of our own destiny. Yes, we are fated and are halfers, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t real people. We don’t need someone to speak for us. What we are asking for is nothing more than our rights as people, that we determine our lives, and we are able to live out those lives with dignity and in safety.” She thinks for a moment,

“Look,” she continues, “we’re only demanding that our rights remain the same. The Shambles has been left to rot. Crime is rife, as is disease. Education is nigh on non-existent. If you’re born here, you’ll likely die here, too. When I was younger people would move into the Shambles, like that girl in that paper, but nowadays people’ll keep their families together and hide their ’embarrassments’.

“No one is looking into the falling expectations in the Shambles. We have by far the lowest life expectancy for newborns, and why? Cos no one is willing to put money into health care here.

“It’s disgusting how we’re treated. We are hard workers and we have every right to be treated with dignity.”

Nina keeps recording, but stops listening the woman is getting into a rant and will soon be repeating everything she has just said but with a little less eloquence. Jenna seems to be having the same trouble, without a central figure, these people’s protests will simple peter out.

They’ll have to do something about it. Jenna considers using the best speaker as a spokesperson for the group. Not a leader as such, that would ruin the community thing they’ve got going for them, but a voice to unify everyone. To create a unified force. It is something of a lie, but then again, why not boost this group of do-gooders. She can create a real sense of injustice with what they are saying. She is going to make it work for them. She is determined to go out on a high.

Her fate has been looming over her for some time now. She still has a way to go, she’ll outlive poor Zoe, but she has had the urge to define her life in some way. To give purpose and meaning to her life. In the past few months she has given herself to recklessness. She feels guilty for putting the others in danger, but she is going to die soon, and she needs her death to have meaning. For her life to have meant something. But this all pales in comparison to the desire she has to be remembered. For people to know her, even if it is by a different name, he work will live on and inspire.

A hefty mission she has set herself, and in the end she will never know if it has worked, but living in a state of semi-denial is all it takes to convince herself it has to work.

Nina comes over to her. “Well, I’m done,” she says placing her recording equipment in her bag.

“They do go on a bit.” Nina smiles. The two of them leave the occupation and head off down a narrow street that doesn’t have any cameras, into a laundrette to get changed and out the back door before they head back to the office. It is probably unnecessary, there are plenty of other reporters about, but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. It is better for them to just disappear. It’s cleaner that way. Jenna doesn’t want the business coming under suspicion, she needs everything to be separate. Separate and safe.

They are greeted by Zoe at reception. She came in early this morning so she can leave at lunch time to see her family. She leaves them to type up their interviews. She isn’t entirely sure what’s going on. She knows it’s not legal, but it is necessary. Charlie has tried to explain it to her, but she hasn’t been able to concentrate for long enough to understand. Her mind begins to wonder when anyone starts talking to her. She can count the weeks she has left on one hand.

When she reaches the canal, she takes a taxi up to her old house. The door is locked but her key still works. She enters and goes through to the kitchen. She half wonders where her parents are, and Asha.

Zoe wanders upstairs and finds herself going into rooms she hasn’t been in for years. Normally, the heater would be on and she would never notice the late autumn weather, but today the cold air bites her. She hasn’t taken her coat off the chill is that bad.

She goes into her brother’s old bedroom. Everything is where is ought to be. The bed is made. The wardrobe still has his clothes in it. The desk still has bits of papers and little knick-knacks he has picked up over his life. He has been preserved. It makes her sad, but she doesn’t cry. She is proud that she doesn’t cry; it makes her feel like she’s growing up.

She wanders through to her parent’s room. They’ve redecorated. She’s goes through to Nana’s room.

It smells terrible, like an unwashed bathroom. There must have been a spill. Or, maybe there was an accident and they’ve taken Nana to the hospital, or they are cleaning her up.

Nothing could have prepared Zoe for what she is about to see. She could never have guessed her parents were so cruel. That they would do something like this makes Zoe angry. Angry for Lola and angry for herself. Their neglect has reached a point that she is so disgusted. Why hadn’t her brother noticed? Why hadn’t Asha done anything about it?

All alone, shivering from the cold in her flimsy nightie, Nana Lola cries in her bed.

“Nana?”

“Who’s that?” she cries out, covering her face.

“Nana? It’s me, it’s Zoe.”

“I don’t know any Zoe,” she says, her voice carrying terror. “Please, please leave me alone.”

“Nana,” Zoe begins. “Lola, it’s ok. I’m here to help you. Come on. Let’s get up.” Nana whimpers. Peeling back the sheets, Zoe finds a mess. Her eyes burn with anger. She helps Lola into fresh, warmer clothes and takes her through to Hal’s room, to sit in Hal’s bed whilst she throws out the sheets. It’s soaked through to the mattress.

“I want to die,” she says when Zoe goes back into the room. “Why can’t I die?”

Zoe take a tissue and cleans Lola’s face. She shies away from the physical contact. Zoe tries to calm her.

“It’s ok, Lola, I’m here.”

“Please,” she begs Zoe. “I want to die. Why won’t anyone let me die?” She cries. “I’m cold.”

Zoe gets her a blanket and wraps it around her body, she sits in the bed with her and wraps an arm around her. Lola falls into her tears, and Zoe rocks her gently.

“Please,” she cries. “I don’t want to live any more.”

Something switches in Zoe’s mind. An acceptance to the situation she finds herself in. Instead of rejecting the notion of death, she holds her frail, ailing and suffering ancestor and decides to end it.

She helps her nana lie down. “Would you like some music on?” Lola nods. Zoe finds some music from her nana’s youth, a beautiful piece that Lola used to sing to her when she was little. She puts on a heater and makes the room comfortable. She finds a photo of her great-great-grandfather, Lola’s husband, and Lola clutches it to her chest.

“I haven’t seen him for forty years. He had a good, long life.”

Zoe finds photos of Lola’s children, the last passed away twenty years ago, most of her grandchildren too. Lola talks to each by name.

“It’s time to close your eyes Nana, and go to sleep.”

Lola looks up at her. She sees her guardian angel standing above her, shrouded in light. She closes her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispers. Zoe picks up a soft pillow and places it over Lola’s face, holding it there. Lola doesn’t fight it. Her body tenses after a minute and relaxes a moment later.

Zoe places the pillow on the chair and strokes Nana’s hair out of her face.

“I’ll be there soon,” Zoe promises, and leaves.

The Watershed [Chapter Seven]

Sunlight bursts into the room along with the smell of dust after the rain. The air seems clearer, like a fog has been lifted. The tension in the air left with the storm.

The two of them lie awake in bed, unwilling to roll over and accept the day. Both have been crying, tear stains soak the pillows on both sides of the bed, but neither reached out for the other during the night.

Denial is the only thing left on their side.

The coughing stopped during the night, as though it were the only thing holding back the illness in the last few months and had given up, and their night was peaceful. This is one of the reasons Maxine is unwilling to look at her partner; she might have gone already.

Cleo finally places a hand on Maxine’s shoulder and they decide it’s time to go down to breakfast.

Max went out to the shops yesterday to pick fresh fruit an flour for this morning’s meal. She makes a dozen strawberry and banana pancakes and enough smoothies for everybody in the Shambles. There is a vase on the table full of her favourite small blue, white and pink, five lobed flowers. Her favourite tea is poured into her best teacup. Instead of the usual mid-morning easy listening radio, a selection of well loved records lean up against the player.

Every small gesture for her partner is an attempt to express a lifetime of love. Their love was never star-crossed or filled with turmoil, but they have weathered their own storms, and today is the last day of it: the last storm. Max refuses to leave Cleo’s side for a single moment today. She won’t let her lover die alone.

They have discussed what they would like to do on their last day together. And after a lot of ‘um’-ing and ‘ar’-ing about fantastical adventures they could have today, about places they could go and things they could see. And, somehow they settled on this, a day at home, with their family, and the doors locked. To spend the day smiling.

Micah comes down the stairs and takes his seat at the table, tucking into the delicacies.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” says Cleo, kissing him on the cheek and resting her head against his to breathe in her son’s skin. The two of them sing along to their favourite songs. He still doesn’t quite get what’s going on, though they’ve explained it to him several times.

“What do you want to do today?”

“Play games,” he says. Max smiles and takes the boardgames off the shelf and places them on the long table. She needs to keep it together, she can’t be weak today. She goes upstairs to wake Emily, hoping that she hasn’t skipped out in the early hours. The poor girl has never settled down living here. If Micah weren’t here, she would have left years ago.

She feels somewhat guilty about how things turned out. She knows it’s not their fault, but still, somewhere deep down that niggling pang of guilt eats away at her. They could have done more. She decides she will do more.

In the bathroom, Emily is already up and dressed and staring in the mirror. She has taken one of Max’s bottles of concealer and is trying to clear up the scrapes and scratches from last night.

“Emmy, love?”

“Here.”

“Would you like some breakfast? I’ve made pancakes.” Emily nods. “Do you want hand with that?” Max walks into the bathroom and takes the concealer from her. “Do you want to talk about what happened?” Emily shakes her head.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I know you think that but it really does.” She doesn’t push the matter, but makes a mental note to talk to her about it again. She helps her cover up the bruise on her right cheek and they go down for breakfast.

Michael is awake. He is sitting eating pancakes and playing dominoes with Micah. Maxine finally sees what Cleo has been saying for the last week. It’s him. He is Micah’s next family. The two of them look completely at piece with each other, comfortably playing their game. With his actions last night, they might have found a good man to take over from them.

Emily goes behind the bar and grabs herself a bottle of Bathtub and a tumbler. She pours a good measure and pinches a few pancakes before sitting down at one of the smaller tables.

“Good morning,” says Cleo.

“Morning,” Emily replies. “You alright?”

“Fine. Are you going to stay with us today?”

Emily scratches her bruise and instantly regrets it, “Are you going to get angry when I get drunk.”

Cleo chuckles, the sudden jolt of her chest sends a shooting pain through her, her hand goes straight to her chest. It was just lightening; the pain goes as suddenly as it came. She sighs, “not today.” And has a drink herself.

Emily nods through a shrug. “What are we doing?”

“Micah wants to play board games.”

For a few hours all five of them play the game; happy, smiley people having fun. Max has hung a sign on the door explaining the situation so they aren’t disturbed.

It gets a little too much for Cleo after lunch. She doesn’t want to go. She goes and sits on the stairs for a break. Max kneels down in front of her. Emily and Michael watch the hushed conversation from their table. Max wipes away Cleo’s tears and holds onto her hands.

“What are they talking about?” Michael asks.

“Probably Micah.”

Michael frowns.

“Max’ll be gone soon, so no one’ll be here for him.”

“He has you.”

“I don’t know how to look after him,” she says, rolling the dice and moving her counter. “Plus, I can’t take over this place. Not legally. And I don’t get a fate, so I couldn’t prepare for when I’m gone.” She takes a card. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“Not ’til later.”

“So you’re gonna hang out here, then?”

“Is that alright?”

“Not up to me.”

Michael notes her cold manner. Every word she says is bitter and angry. Micah begins his turn.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she says, ignoring him.

“Emily?” She looks up at him. There is something almost defiant in the way she looks at him. Daring, even.

“It’s your turn,” she says and looks back down at her cards.

Max comes back to the table. “Who’s winning?” she asks.

“Me,” says Micah. Max isn’t surprised; Emily is distracted.

“Michael?” Cleo calls.

“She wants to talk to you. I’ll take over here,” says Max quietly.

Michael takes the last sip of his drink and pulls himself out of his chair. Max keeps watch out of the corner of her eye.

“Hello, Michael.”

“Hi.”

“Michael, I’m going to be very direct right now, cos I could literally drop dead any second.” This takes Michael aback. “I want you to have the bar and to look after Micah.”

“I, um…” he doesn’t get the chance to say much more, Cleo cuts him off with,

“I’ve gained a certain amount of clarity in the past few days. Maxine and I have been asking people left, right and centre if they’ll take it on, and no one’s said yes. She’s not got long left either and she’s worried about Micah’s fate. We both are. We need someone to take care of him.”

Michael shifts uncomfortably. He doesn’t like this pressure she’s pushing on him, but her voice drops in pace and pitch to a calm, but brittle, patter.

“It’s not a burden, I promise. His mother’s family used to own this place. Max was a friend of hers and she gave us the bar. We promised to pass on the bar when we left so Micah would be safe.”

She stands up, “You don’t have to answer now, have a think on it. She has a month, so there’s still some time.”

The whole conversation takes less than a minute. It is the only time Michael and Cleo have ever spoken, and will ever speak together. A desperate plea wrapped in a confident, yet faltering, demeanour. This place could be his, he could own it all. It is something he has never dreamed of, he has never dared to; he’s not sure if it’s something he wants.

Startled, he rejoins the others and they finish the game together.

At about four in the afternoon, violent coughs begin to hack at the back of Cleo’s throat. She chokes up thick blood clots and begins to gasp for air. Emily and Michael take Micah out of the room as Max rocks her lover to sleep.

Their tea is left to ruin; no one is up to eating anything.

Jenna labouriously clacks away at a typewriter she’s managed to borrow off a friend who works for the Museum of Science and Engineering and got a few of them out of storage for her. She is typing up Nina’s interview.

It’s good. It’s really good. But, she worries that printing it in the paper will have consequences and she’s not willing to risk anything for it. Stuffed into the paper feed are several sheets of low quality white paper with carbon paper slipped between. Her first set of papers kept jamming, but now she has worked out the optimal number she is whizzing through it.

She likes the sensation of typing, there is something almost therapeutic about it. There is also no trace of it. Nothing is copied for some fifth columnist to read. There is no evidence. Unless someone was to walk in right now and catch her red-handed no one will ever know.

She reaches the end of the page. They managed to whittle down the interview to certain key points on a single page. They’ve been careful not to use her name, though, of course, most people will know who it is.

She pulls out the paper, splits the carbon from the copy. She places the copy onto the pile and quickly thumbs through it to count how many she’s done. She’s reached fifty and feels half done. Nina and Charlie are in their own safe places typing too. Jenna prides herself in having selected an excellent staff, one which she trusts implicitly.

At least, some she does. She hasn’t asked Cadoc to do a set. She reasons with herself that it isn’t that she doesn’t trust him, per se, just that she’d rather keep it to a core group that have nothing to lose. Cadoc has a wife and children, he might talk if pressure is applied. Nina is so focused on being a great writer, she’d rather write something fantastic and no one know it’s her than have some crap under her name. Charlie is so antisocial that Jenna doubts he has any friends.

She has noticed something between him and Zoe, though she doubts it’s serious. They don’t flirt openly in the office, in fact they rarely seam to chat at all, but they have walked home together on a few occasions and they always sit together at lunch, though they don’t speak then either.

Regardless, it can’t last.

She has lined up the next set of papers. Paper, carbon, paper, carbon. She taps heavily on the first few keys and checks that it has gone all the way through to the last sheet. Satisfied that is has, she continues at an even pace, careful not to jam the keys as they fling up to strike the ribbon.

She smiles; sometimes the old ways are the best. She imagines herself in a long line of writers to have disseminated their work like this. She sees the broad scope of society and her place within it. She hopes the message comes across and isn’t lost to the weaker readers, she always fears people won’t quite get what she’s trying to say, but Nina’s work is usually understood. She has clear expression and rarely has to spell it out.

It’s not right.

It’s not right and it’s not fair.

Nina is in her flat typing away. She is only doing two copies at a time, even though Jenna suggested doing more than that. She doesn’t want to rush it, to have pages almost unreadable. She’d rather do it slowly and accurately, than risk typos and errors.

This is her fourth hour at it. Her neighbours are having a party so nobody can hear her. She is proud of her work. She falls into a daydream about her other pieces and tries to find a way to tell the research without giving away that she is writing it. Unfortunately, using the interviews from the prisons are all on record. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to track down some former inmates and re-interview them. Maybe they would even be a bit more open and honest, though she is aware they have no incentive to talk to her now.

She stops typing for a moment and writes down the names of the people she can remember interviewing.

Evan Hughs. Peter McLaughlin. Michael Fuller. Rosie Parl. Carrie Nichols.

That’ll do for now. She can start searching for them in the morning. She is excited at the prospect of writing something else and returns to her typing, wallowing in the warm hubris glow of creating something truly wonderful.

Charlie is probably typing the slowest. He is well aware of his tendency to make mistakes and is trying not to mess up Nina’s work too much. He is enjoying working on the typewriter. The heavy mechanical sound and elegant simplicity brings out the poet in him. Every hammer strike against the paper is musical. He likes the metal against his fingertips and the way everything fits together so effortlessly. He likes the way the machine is a few hundred years old, but has been kept in such good condition that he is able to use it for the same purpose it was created.

He then hates it; nothing has changed.

“What you doing?” Zoe asks from the bedroom doorway.

“Typing up Nina’s interview.”

“Mine?” She asks picking up the top copy. He watches her sit down with it, taking in every word. “It sounds weird when it’s written down.”

It’s not untrue, but to Zoe it doesn’t sound like her own life. It’s more like a biography from a heavy-handed fan. All the facts are there, everything happened just the way it says, and the gist is right, but someone else’s ideas are their in her thoughts and actions. The reasons are all wrong. She places it back on the table and goes back through to the bedroom and gets under the covers. Charlie doesn’t notice; he is concentrating too hard to notice her.

Morning comes and the troops assemble, paper in hand. Between them they have made a few hundred untraceable, identical documents. And now it’s time to distribute them. They’ve called in reinforcements: the nobodies are here. Half a dozen scratty, little waifs have been promised a fiver each to hand these out in certain working men’s clubs, pubs and down in the market. Hand them out and make sure they’re read.

It’s been a while since a circular has been handed out this way, and some people are unsure what it means, but some of the older nobodies, who have good memories, pick up the ones thrown away and sit down to ponder them. Their calm interest sparks curiosity in others and by the end of the day there are whispered conversations in every nook and cranny of the Shambles. People are reading, and what delights Jenna more is: people are thinking.

They go for a pint. They don’t normally go out together on a Monday, but all of them had decided individually to stay out tonight and bask in anonymity. Their section of the long table is quiet, though the edges get dragged into conversation with their neighbours. They play dumb, trying to get as much information as they can out of their acquaintances. Inside they are full of the glee that can only come from knowing a secret.

Nobody doubts the paper. Someone passes them a copy to read, and they secretly toast their new creation: The Crier.

Up in the circle, Micah sobs. He is sitting with his sister. There is a puzzle book on the table but he isn’t even looking at it. He hasn’t been able to stop crying. Emily has brought him here to try and cheer him up, thinking that if she could get him away from Max he might calm down a bit. But thinking about it, she might have done the wrong thing; maybe the two of them should be crying together. Maybe the funeral was too much for him and he should be at home in bed.

She feels more uncomfortable than usual in the pub, more unwelcome. She knows what Cleo asked Michael. She isn’t sure what to make of it. She’s never been very good at sorting her emotions, putting words to them. There’s a nauseous twinge in the pit of her stomach, but she can’t tell if it’s hope or fear. She knows she’s frowning, she can feel her browns coming down to her eyes, and she suspects she has a surly expression, but today she couldn’t care less. She’s doing her vest not to snap at her young brother.

She picks up a pen and draws a line on one of Micah’s puzzles.

“Stop it, that’s my book,” spits an angry Micah, and he wrenches the book away from her, ripping the corner off, and stuffs it into his bag.

“Micah!”

“Stop it. My book. Stop it,” he bursts into tears again.

She’s glad there aren’t many people up here tonight, and those that are don’t seem very interested in a crying boy. There’s a vibe running through the Shambles today, though she can’t quite put her finger on it. Every single person is talking but it’s so much quieter than usual. The Angle is usually rowdy at this time of night, but tonight there are dozens of huddled chats going on all over the place. The waitresses aren’t paying attention to their sections. When she walked passed tables earlier, people went silent. Something is not quite right.

The Unions meet and decide something must be done. News filters down to the streets that a general strike has been called. This time there will be no dialogue with the powers that be, there will be no intimidation and backing down. This time they are just going ahead and doing it.

Tomorrow morning no one will go into the state-run factories, offices or institutions. There won’t even be a walkout, people will simply not show up. The Shambles will not be owned.

At 6am the strike is made official. The unions tell the government their demands and ask all their members to stay at home today.

That Which Is [Chapter 6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hal puts an arm around her shoulder.

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

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

Nana Lola?”

With Asha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t want me here.”

Hal does.”

Mum and Dad don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asha rolls Nana Lola beside Zoe.

Hello, Zoe,” says Lola.

Hi, Nana.”

She chuckles to herself.

What’s funny, Nana.”

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

Zoe smiles.

Where are you living these days, Zo?”

In the Shambles.”

What you living there for?”

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

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

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

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

This startles Zoe, “Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie?”

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

I think someone’s following me.”

Are you sure?”

I think so.”

What do they look like?”

I don’t know, I can’t see them.”

Where are you?”

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

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

Thanks Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you think they were?” She asks.

Hmm?”

The men who were following me.”

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

What would have happened to me?”

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

What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

Is there a drug that can rot your skin?”

You what?”

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

Have you heard of Lizsud?”

No.”

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

That’s not why I asked.”

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

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

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

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

They will have to bury him.

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

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

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

Go home,” he shouts.

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

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

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

She nods and takes him into their apartment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He falls to the side.

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

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

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

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

I said, are you alright?”

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

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

Who are you?”

I’m nobody. Who are you?”

Come on, then. Let’s get you home.”

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

The Wayfarer’s.”

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

You’re hurt.”

Who are you?”

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

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

Wayfarer’s”

Oh.”

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

What happened?”

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

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

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

I don’t have a home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we?”

We’re in the Wayfarer’s.”

Are we?”

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

The colour drains from her face.

Are you going to throw up?”

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

You hot?”

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

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

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

Emily nods.

Speak to me, Em.”

Yes, it hurts.”

Have you been drinking?”

Yes.”

Do you remember what happened to you?”

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

What have I told you, eh!”

I hit him.”

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

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

In here,” says Max.

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

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

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

You need to sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerys leaves them to it.

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

They don’t knock. She lets them in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, she can be difficult.”

She’s not normal is she.”

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

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

How is the research coming along?”

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

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

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

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

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

You agree with Hollowing?”

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

Cerys climbs back through the window.

Ah, June. Did you have a good walk?”

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

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

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

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

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

What’s to say that’ll happen.”

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

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

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

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

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