Losing a child is hell. The ache doesn’t go no matter what you do. The only escape was in sleep. When she could. But when Emma woke up, her baby still wasn’t there, and the pain would hit like a blunt chisel at her chest.
Emma remembered when Sarah used to wake her by launching herself upon her. Peter had taught her that – how to sneak and then how to shriek when her small body landed. As her husband would look on, breakfast tray in hand, smile on his face, Emma would hold Sarah’s giggling body off, half feeling, half feigning irritation. Ah, but to get that back, even for a moment. She’d pay anything. Any price.
But still, she’d preferred it when Sarah was a baby – when she used to call to her mother from next door.
Emma would hear Sarah’s mewls and they would pull at threads that had mysteriously become twined through her heart. Emma would always seem to come awake just before the first, hesitant sounds escaped from her child’s mouth. She would just know. It felt like chocolate melting in a pan.
When Sarah had begun to sicken, they thought it was just a cold. She’d had a bit of a fever and a sniffy nose, but don’t all kids get that? Just a bug going round, she told herself. Just a something that’ll pass. But a week later she was tossing in the bed like it was burning her skin.
Five years old and she’d been boiled down to nothing; fried until she was just skin on bone. Couldn’t even raise her own head to take a spoon of soup. Didn’t even know there was a spoon most of the time.
They wished, prayed, that it could have been medicine on that spoon, but there wasn’t the money. Even if they had pawned everything they had left, it still wouldn’t have been enough.
The nurse … yeah, a bloody nurse – they couldn’t even get near a doctor; the nurse said they needed the latest antibiotic, the one they developed north of the fence. Said that what she had wasn’t treatable by the old drugs anymore. Even had the cheek to say that they were lucky they couldn’t afford to take her into hospital as weak as she was. The bugs there would have stripped her bones.
Two days later, Sarah was taken from them anyway.
They’d been slapped, punched and kicked to the ground by a regime that could give them so much, but chose not to – a society that had rejected them; but this was the last piece – the final humiliation. They wouldn’t allow those people to get away with it. It was time to show them what pain was. Time to teach them about loss.
Where have all the Contrails Gone? Long Time Passing
Months later – planning done and time come, Emma locked revenge away for a time and gazed into and beyond a sky that seemed washed of all cloud and sense. This was the kind of sky she used to paint at school when she’d mixed blue with more and more white and then just painted across and across, getting lighter and whiter towards the line where the ground began. She’d done it just like Miss Fletcher had told her to.
Strange to think that she should get her idea of what the sky should look like from a woman whose hair came from a bottle, body mass index from McDonald’s and memories from a time long before all the clouds disappeared.
A dark speck against the blue. She tried to follow and lost it. Probably just another piece of dust in her eye. She was getting more of those as she got older and her eyes became more like dried riverbeds. As the land had parched under the relentless sun it had taken to the air, her hair, her eyes.
No – there it was again – definitely a bird. She marvelled for a moment, thinking herself back home, then remembered where she was. Remembered that she was in the North. Birds were more common here. And not just the ones that fed on flesh. On carrion.
She followed its motion as it coasted in the wind-lanes. Probably searching for lunch. Insects? Small animal? Or something worse. As she thought of food, she felt, rather than heard, the trail of gas rise in her stomach and was disgusted by her body’s reaction. Roadkill and hunger were not natural companions for her. Not as natural as they had become for some of her friends, and even her own family.
As the bird swooped downwards, she lost it among the trees, some of which were still in their green overcoats, as they’d been all winter. Others were just rising from sleep and still getting dressed. The warmth of the day was encouraging and they had already put on their filmy underclothes in various shades of green.
She searched the boughs for nests, but couldn’t find any. But they wouldn’t risk nesting here surely. Too close to man the hunter – still close to the top of the food-chain, but for how long? A wry smile.
Her eyes climbed through the nearest tree. Down along the branches until they met the trunk, and then clambered down the bark until they met the ground. Dry earth. Too dry for spring. No promise for the grass gathered there with the moss. Green now, but like a vehicle without fuel, it just wasn’t going to go far. More’s the pity that it was even trying. She felt obscurely sad for the grass. It had no idea what was coming.
It was a bright day. A good day to be alive. A day to celebrate and dance. And yet her thoughts turned again to destruction, darkness and death. That anchor still on her heart. That weight taking her down. She shook her head and raised her eyes back to the sky. Still blue. Still empty. Stilled, like her heart.
Why do you Build Me Up Buttercup, just to Let Me Down?
As she looked up, a building over the river caught her eye. It was constructed in a style that her mind still insisted on calling futuristic, even though nano-architecture had been around for at least two decades. It was just more economical to let this technology construct these self-repairing structures that seemed to defy the pull of the ground.
This one looked just like a mushroom – if such things could be eight-hundred metres tall and blue. She knew that semblance to be an illusion. The walls, invisible at this distance, were actually made of polarised nano-glass that absorbed and reused solar energy, storing it for use in the night. It was, in fact, a greenhouse, not accommodation. She could see the residential blocks further off – blighting the skyline like mould creeping up a wall.
Between the trees, the mock-Tudor mansion, its white walls framed with timber, drew her eye. What the heck was that doing there? It must cost a fortune to keep it in shape. The bug-buildings, as they’d come to be known, cost virtually nothing to upkeep, but this thing would need cleaning and painting every year.
As she watched, the double-doors opened and a river of red and gold began to flow out. She could hear them from where she stood – a chatter of voices and laughter. She didn’t need to look closely to know that this was a Chinese wedding party.
Like hawks aloft the camera drones captured every angle. Intelligent and virtually silent, these devices synched with the party as it emerged. They would cover everything with pinpoint precision and stream it to whoever chose to register for the private feeds, but Emma still noticed several of the guests taking out their own devices to supplement the already ample audio-visual feast.
Well, that explains why that building’s still standing, then. Weddings, particularly involving the growing Chinese community, were big business. With the biggest economy in the world, the tiger wasn’t just roaring – it was starting to feed.
She calculated her own angles and coverage as she watched the Chinese party spread themselves around the gardens. Some of the more adventurous were straying into dangerous territory but most of them would get away unharmed.
Her eyes closed and she thought of home. She thought of the arid wastes. The ruined land. A country that was once so fertile, now reduced to a near-desert. The soil – salted and spoiled. Scorching heat turning temperate areas to an unliveable inferno. What choice did they have? The dispossessed – starving and shunned by the thriving northern nations. Old grudges used as excuses for immoral behaviour.
But they would not get away with it. There would be a price to pay. Emma’s lips cracked as they curved into a smile, but this didn’t dampen her anticipation.
People, People Everywhere and not a Blooming Heart to Spare
She felt the eyes of the gift-shop assistant on her back. He had watched her carefully as she’d entered the foyer of the museum, his blue-ribbed jumper giving him the look of a security guard. She knew that was just for show. He was not armed.
Despite the thudding of her heart, she had ignored him, walking slowly past copies of the museum’s exhibits on sale. Plastic had given way to items crafted from more sophisticated materials, but it was still faux. Still fake. Nothing was real anymore – not the consumer driven rubbish, nor the hearts of those in power.
She had gone straight to the window that gave the clearest view of the museum gardens and had been stood there for the past half hour – barely moving except to ease her posture and the ache in her legs. She watched. She waited.
As the morning went on, the spaces outside had begun to fill up, as she’d known they would. Tourists mostly, but also locals on a break from work – they strolled aimlessly, or took up position on benches in shady corners.
That guy in the casual suit reminded her of someone she’d seen on the internet the previous week. He’d been ranting about the latest cutbacks in hospital budgets. What a loser, she’d thought as she’d clicked on another link. Hospitals are for those who want to be sick. Give people a quick ending and they’d be no need for a health service. Even the name was a joke. It should be called the sick service.
She followed him with her eyes until he walked out of sight, still munching on the apple he’d taken from his bag. He must be pretty well off to afford an apple. Maybe it was his birthday. Huh – some celebration.
A young girl in a flowery dress made her heart bump as she ran into view. She could have been Sarah – her daughter. Grief rose from her chest like a gloved claw and dragged at her mind, pulling her down.
Her eyes blurred as the girl ran up to a man and was swept into his arms. He held her above his head then swung her around, easily able to bear her slim form with his well-fed frame. Easy and free to celebrate their health and vitality.
She sniffed noisily and looked away. A couple caught her attention. Dark skinned with sunglasses, their gait marked them out as visitors. Probably from deeper Africa. This was a rare sight. Money had dried up as the Sahara had swept southward, eating trees and livelihoods with a voracious appetite. The people had flooded south, pursued by the sands. Taking what they could with them, and whatever they could find as they arrived.
A man walked into the centre of the garden, stopped and faced the museum. Her eyes went to his instantly, and Peter’s locked on hers.
At last. It begins.
Not Everyone Wants to Stay
When Sarah was taken from them, it could have torn the tissue of their marriage. But instead of flying apart, they found something to bind them: the monster under the bridge – the eater of small children – for what is a troll other than that? Revenge became the meaning of their lives. And everyone knows that lightning frightens trolls away.
‘But where are we going to get explosives?’
It was a mute conversation. Written in notebooks. Destroyed soon after by fire.
‘We’ll make them. Darknet cookbooks.’
‘Yes, but what to lose?’
‘Nothing. We have nothing.’
‘They need to pay.’
They made love that night with a passion that startled her. He was ardent and she felt the response in her body and through her mind – like rain washing the streets clean after a powerful thunderstorm.
Even getting everything North, through the fence had been easy. The cookbook knew ways. Sure, they had to have tracking-nano inserted into their bloodstream, but that didn’t matter. They just wanted to make a point, and then … then, they didn’t care what happened. The world would listen. The world would have no choice.
She slipped between elation and despair on an hourly basis.
One morning, she woke with the dawn to find a mist hanging over the garden. Trees, still drowsy with sleep, morose and shadowy, swayed with a life of their own. She stood, t-shirt grey against her body, watching the grey curtain holding down the grey grass and wondered how the branches could move and yet the fog stay still.
After several minutes? hours? of this, her husband’s hands – warm and solid, grasped her shoulders and her body came to the rest that she’d not realised she didn’t have.
Breakfast filled her with such energy that she emptied everything out from every cupboard and scrubbed every shelf. She washed every plate, pan and can, then set about packing them back. She got less than half way through before she collapsed into a chair, head on the table, where she remained until lunchtime. Raising her head, she surveyed the objects before her wearily.
The only time Emma didn’t miss her little girl was when sleeping. She longed to dream of Sarah, but couldn’t find her beneath the layers of self-pity that controlled her like a heavy blanket and yet even this couldn’t stop her from tripping on rocks that jerked her from sleep into terrified wakefulness.
Beware of pity, her husband told her. It will be the downfall of your heart. She wanted to ask him what he meant but was afraid of what he would say, so she waited in silence for the day when everything would be ready.
And soon, it was done. The substances were packed, messages primed, fees paid, paperwork complete, transport arranged and the knives in their minds sharpened to a finely honed edge.
Such sweet pain.
Let’s Get It On
She stood in the museum. Looking through the dusty glass. Looking at Peter’s eyes locked on hers. So much love. So much pain.
Then he does it.
In the first moment, no-one reacts. She sees them, out on the edge of her vision. They seem to freeze, as if playing statues. As if someone had turned around, trying to catch them in a guilty act.
They react after a moment. Spin towards the sound like actors in a puppet show. Heads and bodies swivel towards Peter’s tall figure. Eyebrows raise. Mouths open. Arms arrange themselves in case they had to fight. Legs make ready to flee. If need be.
She thought that they would scream.
She had been a spotty English teenager when the Scots had turned down their chance to leave the UK and she remembered thinking at the time what cowards they were. They’d fought battles, a war even, to try to wriggle out of the yoke of Sassenach Rule.
She knew that. She’d seen Braveheart.
Two years after that, she had been old enough to add her voice to those eager to leave the EU. Old enough, and proud to do it. She’d show those damned Scots how to live. How to stand on their own two feet.
A small minority warned that it would make the UK into a pariah. A hated race. The kind that turned their back on a friend in need. But most didn’t care. They reassured themselves with the thought that the country was strong and united – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – big and strong enough to take on the world.
They were wrong.
The second Scottish Referendum ripped the country’s head off, and the sudden collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet punched an isolated England in the guts. She never recovered.
England, along with all the Southern European nations, was tossed into the sea – her lands salted and made barren. And what was not drowned was burned by pitiless sun. The worst of the scientist’s predictions came true and, like a dying phoenix – global warming came home to stay. The only safe haven in the UK became Scotland. And they didn’t want any dirty Southern economic refugees within their borders, taking their resources, using their new-found prosperity.
They put up a fence just to drive their point home.
‘Give Scotland back to the English!’
She heard him roar the slogan. Felt pride sing through her body at the sound of his good, strong English voice. A voice to rally to.
Someone giggled nervously. Damn them.
She watched Peter take a knife from his sleeve and slash once over his cheek. As the blood began to flow, he smeared it once across his face. As more spilled out, a vertical stripe completed the red cross. That was her idea. Sod William Wallace and his crappy woad – this said something real – something vital.
This was a real man. Standing tall and strong, a good blade in his hand, shouting for his country. Taking a stance for his family. For Sarah. It was Scotland’s independence, their refusal to help that had killed their baby!
‘Give Scotland back to the English!’
He roared his defiance, over and again, his wife exulting silently as she watched. You are my God. I love you. I love you so damned much. A fierce craving to crush him in her arms. Yet still, she stood. Watching. Waiting.
It wasn’t long before the police arrived.
Police Don’t Stand so Close to Me
Peter continued to shout out his defiant message in a voice filled with passion. Ah, such a beautiful man.
The blood from his cheek ran down his neck and began to soak into his white shirt. Red and white. England the Brave!
Emma was overcome with that delight you find when an age of worry comes to an end and things unfold exactly as you saw them. When all you have to do is watch the screen as the movie you recorded yesterday is played out before you today.
Emma had been taken to see a ballet as a child. It had been a magical experience. She was enthralled once again, today, by the feats of strength, agility and grace she saw before her now. The way her husband moved. How he dodged and mocked the blue uniforms that buzzed around him like wasps on honey.
They were a danger, but Peter spurned his advantage by stabbing the blade down into the earth and leaving it there. Emma gave an affirming nod.
As he stepped aside from it, towards the spectators gathering – they too drawn to the honey of his performance, she allowed a slight smile to gather the corners of her eyes. As he clenched his fist and shouted a challenge to all comers, the beat of her heart sounded in her ears and seemed to fill the museum.
She knew that adrenalin would be ripping through his body now. His bursts of speed as he dodged and ran inside the closing circle of watchers, evading the desperate attempts of the police to catch him, lent him the air of a gladiator.
Despite the bulk inside his clothing, carefully strapped and hidden, he vaulted over one man, ran around another, and still had the energy to bellow out their message. Loud and strong.
‘Give Scotland back to the English!’
By now the drone mounted cameras were following his every move. Some unknown controller had diverted them away from the wedding to the far more entertaining spectacle here.
But, like all good things, it couldn’t last forever.
One misjudged turn and they almost had him. He wrenched his arm free, but he was thrown off-balance, his momentum lost – a giant falling slowly to earth.
A club lashed out towards him and caught him on the shoulder, then another on his leg. He stumbled, caught himself and almost got free. But by now there was nowhere to go. The mass of blue-clad bodies was too much.
Clinging on to his limbs, they brought him down. An antelope under the weight of a lion. Proud freedom taken down by feral beast.
As the blows rained down on his body, still struggling, still crying out defiantly, Sarah began to move. The crowd gathered to watch this unequal struggle had swelled as more and more people had entered the park. To one side, the Chinese party continued to talk and laugh loudly as if nothing unusual was happening. Good for them.
As one mass the gathering mob jostled forward, just watching on as if this was some kind of blood-sport.
Perhaps that’s all that it was to them.
Not one of the onlookers raised a hand to help this man. Not one called out for the brutality to stop.
But it was now time to call a halt.
As she stepped out from the museum and began to walk towards the crowd, she whispered a name.
‘Sarah, we’re coming, my dear. We’re coming.’
This Is What We Came For
Slowly. Step by step. Savouring each breath, feeling the sun on her skin, a stray breeze raising the tips of her hair and caressing her cheek like a lover. She walked with all the love she could muster, arms swinging. At ease with herself. At peace with the world.
A screech of brakes outside the gardens and an image flashed into her mind. Monkeys. It suddenly seemed important to remember the name of the kind that took beatings from bullies, but didn’t fight back. Instead they waited – five minutes, an hour, a day – it didn’t matter. Sooner or later, they would lash out at a weaker relative of the bully – right there in front of them.
Macaque monkeys – that was it. As she remembered, she realised why it was important – revenge isn’t something evil. It’s built into nature. It’s the way creatures organise their society.
Today she was to be such a creature.
She headed for the thickest part of the gathering – just one more body in a crowd – pushing to get a better view. As she broke into the clear space around the still moving mass of blue uniforms, her husband’s face appeared in a gap between bodies.
Bloodied, beaten, and yet still defiant, Peter’s grin broadened as he spotted her and he relaxed so suddenly that those holding him stumbled.
And then they noticed her.
Like a many-headed mythical beast, turning to meet a challenge, the pack turned towards Emma. She felt their eyes. As she strolled closer, hands in pockets, she felt and smelt their fear.
A hush. Closer now – daring them to respond. Daring them to stop her.
As if on a signal, they parted. She was surprised, and yet pleased. To touch him just one more time. Maybe to hold him.
She crouched. Stretched out a single arm. Touched his face.
‘I love you, Peter.’
‘I love you, Emma.’
He nodded slightly, love flowing and joining. A trifling Eden – but enough for them both.
Her finger. A slow release of pressure, and she knew only light.