How we came to Wales
How we came to Wales
We set out before daybreak, taking only what could be easily carried. I had a rucksack with all the warm clothes I could fit in. Huw always said we should have bought a bigger one. I left him a note to say where I’d gone. Not that he'd ever read it. I closed all the windows, turned off the gas and the water. Then I shut the front door behind me and put the keys in my pocket, as if I expected to come back.
Lindsey was waiting in the road. She had Daniel in his pushchair, the tray underneath it crammed, a bags dangling from the handles. As well as the rucksack, I had a carrier bag with all the food I had left. It wasn't much, I hadn't dared try to get to the shops for weeks.
There were no lights showing in the houses. Most people had already left. As we reached the end of our road we heard a machine gun, but not near enough to worry about. It was growing light by the time we got to the A5 and joined the stream of people heading west. I remember the quiet. The sound of shuffling feet, the occasional cry of a child. In the distance, the crump of artillery. 'Lichfield's getting it,' someone said. People pushing prams, supermarket trolleys, piled with whatever they had managed to salvage. Few cars, those mostly abandoned where the fuel had run out.
At Gailey roundabout we met a great mass of people heading north out of Walsall and Wolverhampton. They said the M54 was closed except to the military, so we decided to head down the old A5 instead. By mid afternoon we were passing through Weston-under-Lizard. I never liked that part of the road, the way it closes in on you, with the wall on the left and the trees overhanging the road. Feels like a tunnel, which is silly because it's on a ridge really. A couple of trucks were blocking the road, from one of the militias. They were stopping all the cars, siphoning off the petrol. There was one as we came up, a big Toyota, crammed with stuff. Two kids in the back, crying. The driver had got out to argue. They took no notice of us. A bit down the road, we heard a shot. Didn't look round.
We'd hoped to get past Telford before night, but word came down the line that it wasn't safe after dark. We huddled together, Daniel in the middle, in a building with a bit of roof left. It was so cold.
Telford - I don't want to think about Telford - rubble with the odd weed poking through - the smell - fireworks in an abattoir. We got through at last, carried on, the dark hump of the Wrekin on our left. We used to drive there once, walk up. You could see for miles, like you were on top of the world. Someone was up there now watching us, all the ants crawling along the road. I could feel it.
We met Olivia and her granddaughter Claire on the road. They had a trolley, but one of the wheels had come off. Claire was about fifteen, very quiet. I think something had happened to her but they weren't saying. We let them pile some of their things on the pushchair, perched Daniel on top. They had to leave the rest.
We had thought we might stop a while in Shrewsbury, find something to eat for our food was finished. Only they'd blocked off the road, so we had to go round by the bypass. The verges were covered in daffodils, masses of them, bright yellow. So pretty.
As we approached Nesscliffe more army trucks passed us. We heard firing ahead, and took shelter in a roofless building. It had been a pub, we used to pass it on our way to visit Huw's mother in Llangollen. Low, whitewashed, it looked a good place to stop for a meal, only we never did. Now we crouched behind a wall, hearing explosions, very near, very loud. When we came out two trucks were burning.
The last part of the journey I don't remember well. We plodded across the endless plain, the hills in the distance never getting nearer. We were very hungry. We reached Gobowen at dusk. The big hill fort they call Oswestry Old Town was covered in camp fires, we felt like we were back in the Iron Age. Some men, deserters, sat by a fire. They let us join them and share their food. We never asked where they got it. Everyone said the border at Chirk was closed, only people born in Wales or with family there were being let through. I'd be all right though, I had Huw's birth certificate.
In the morning the men were gone. So was Claire. Her grandmother rushed off after them, though we tried to stop her. We waited till noon. Neither of them came back so we carried on.
From the last hill, looking down at Chirk, we saw the whole valley crammed with tents; a checkpoint with the red dragon flying overhead and a long queue snaking back through the camp. We joined it.
Lindsey said if they wouldn't let her in, I must take Daniel. I didn't want to, but she started crying, she had heard there was sickness in the camp. I told her, when she got through, to look for me in Llangollen, at my mother-in-law's house. A Welsh Army officer looked at my papers. Lindsey didn't have any. I said she was my sister, but he shook his head. Then he looked at Daniel, asked if he was mine. I said, 'yes'.
I climbed the road up into Chirk, past houses with intact windows and roofs and washing hanging out. I wanted to cry. I went into a shop and bought pasties, chocolate, two cans of coke. Daniel was whinging for his mum. I'm your mam now, I told him. Then we walked on, up the valley, towards Froncysyllte.
Graham Longshaw lived with his mother; though it was not of her he was thinking as he sat on the bench by the bus stop. He was waiting for his latest subject to arrive, and if she didn’t come soon she would miss the bus. They would have to wait for the next one. She might notice him. Not that any of his subjects ever had. A man who lived with his mother was not the sort people noticed.
Ah, here she came, trotting along on her high heels, her bag clutched to her chest like a shield. Graham boarded the bus after her and took the seat behind. He wrote the time in his notebook, under the entry for Subject 13: woman, early thirties, medium height, brown hair. She had dragged her hair back into a pony tail today. It needed washing.
He pulled his hat down over his forehead. This was a battered black object which had belonged to his father, and had hung on the hall stand ever since his death. Graham wore it for luck, not that his father had ever had much. As a disguise it was a bit feeble, but at least it made him feel like a different person.
The subject was speaking on her phone. ‘No, I haven’t, not for ages . . . well, of course I’d tell you.’ She glanced round, as if checking for enemies. It was her habitual air of mild paranoia which had first attracted Graham’s attention. A woman with a secret, he thought.
‘If he bothers you again let me know ... don’t worry, I’m all right ... yes, really. Look, I’ve got to go.’
She rose and made for the exit, Graham close behind. When the bus had gone he followed her, being careful to hang back. Never shadow the suspect too closely, the manual had said, in case they rumble you. He had found the book in a charity shop, and thought, why not? Why shouldn’t he? Better than filling shelves at the Pound Shop, and that only part time. Not that he could work longer hours, with mother the way she was. She’d been worse lately. You didn’t need any qualifications, as long as you were observant. Of course he wasn’t ready yet, he needed more practice, but maybe, when mother had gone –
He halted abruptly at a corner. She had stopped halfway down a cul-de-sac, key in hand, by a door that opened straight off the street. The key turned, the door opened, she vanished.
Now what? Graham ambled down the street. At the end he stopped to write the house number down in his book. He had her address now. He could knock on her door - no, too soon for that. This was just a preliminary reconnaissance. He started back, paused at her window. It was shrouded in dingy net. He sensed rather than saw a hint of movement inside.
The door opened. ‘Who the hell are you?’
Graham stood, slack-jawed.
‘Selling something? If it’s double-glazing I don’t want it.’ She seemed bigger close to. ‘Hang on, you’ve been following me. Don’t say you haven’t, I spotted you at the bus stop. And yesterday, in the shop.’
‘I – ’
‘So what are you playing at?’
Graham swallowed. ‘I’m a detective,’ he said.
Her hand came up to cup her mouth. ‘Police? Has something happened?’ She glanced down the street. ‘Here, you’d better come in. They’ll all be looking.’
Inside, she lifted a tangle of tights and a slipper off the end of the sofa. ‘Sit down.’
He lowered himself into the space. Every flat surface in the room was covered with stuff. There was a faint smell of dirty clothes stashed in cupboards.
She picked up a mug half full of a murky liquid. ‘Want a coffee?’
‘So what’s he been up to now?
‘I suppose he’s still giving this as his address. Well, for your information, he hasn’t lived here for six months, nearly. I’m not having you tearing the place apart either, not without a warrant. And shouldn’t you have a badge or something?’
‘I’ve got a card.’ He had, too, with more at home, courtesy of a free offer on the Internet. All printed with his professional name and everything.
‘Daniel Stack, Private Investigator,’ she read. ‘Thesneaky bastard! He put you onto me, didn’t he? What does he think you’ll find – that I’ve got another bloke? Chance would be a fine thing. And what’s it got to do with him anyway? Tell him he can mind his own business.’
Her face twisted. Was she going to cry? Please don’t let her cry.
‘He’s got no right. I put up with enough while he was here, now he’s buggered off he can leave me alone.’
He felt her spittle on his face. Talk about a lion’s den. Though she was more stray cat than lioness. She had a spot coming on the side of her nose.
‘Harassment, this is, there’s a law against it.’
She waved the mug dangerously close. Oh God, she was going to throw coffee all over him, how would he explain that to mother?
‘And you can piss off as well, Mr Daniel Private Dick. Tell that creep to stay away from me. I don’t want to see him or hear him again, ever. You tell him!’
The door slammed behind him. He took off his hat to wipe his forehead. It was time he got home anyway, mother would be fretting. He walked back along the street, Daniel slipping away from him with every step. By the time he reached the main road he was Graham again. Only, as he waited for the bus, he thought, she believed I was a private detective. She really did. And in his chest there uncoiled a thin small worm of hope.
The Spirits of Christmas
The Spirits of Christmas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature – hang on. What was that?
A low moaning eddied through the darkness of Grimleigh Hall, rising to a bubbling shriek before subsiding to a whimper. It was enough to turn a strong man into a gibbering wreck from sheer terror, except that all the strong men in the vicinity were snoring like pigs.
‘I don’t know why I bother,’ said the White Lady in disgust, as she drifted through the wall into the dining room.
The Headless Horseman sneezed, and parked his head on the sideboard while he rummaged for a hanky.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘No-one appreciates us traditional ghosts these days. It’s all zombies and sexy vampires nowadays.’
A faint rattling could now be heard, coming nearer, until someone else came through the door without bothering to open it.
‘Hi, Clanker,’ said Headless. ‘Glad you could make it. Where’s Polly?’
The recently arrived spectre heaved his ball and chain onto the sofa and collapsed beside it with a sigh. ‘I swear that thing gets heavier every year. Polly will be along in a minute. She’s just giving the skeleton in the cupboard a bit of a shake up.’
The White Lady sniffed. ‘I don’t know why we keep inviting that poltergeist female. So brash and noisy. She does lower the tone.’
‘Don’t be unfriendly,’ said Clanker. ‘There’s no harm in her – and it is Christmas.’
Polly blew in to the accompaniment of plates leaping off the sideboard and the clock striking thirteen and the annual Christmas Eve party commenced.
The table was loaded with the Ghost of Christmas Dinners Past, while wine flowed copiously from dead bottles. After dinner they went through the wall into the Blue Drawing Room. Polly switched the telly on and they settled down to watch reruns of ‘Terry and June’.
‘I love a scary programme,’ said the White Lady.
Time went by in a somnolent haze until –
‘Listen!’ hissed the Headless Horseman. ‘’What’s that noise?’
‘It’s coming from the Great Hall,’ cried the White Lady.
It was but the work of a moment to relocate themselves. A strange grunting sound was coming from the enormous hearth, accompanied by showers of soot.
‘’D’you think it’s Santa Claus?’ whispered Polly.
‘Don’t be daft,’ said Clanker. ‘Santa Claus isn’t real.’
‘Well, he looks real enough,’ snapped the Lady.
A pair of boots had appeared in the fireplace, followed by a portly figure in red, clutching a large sack.
‘It can’t be!’ gasped Polly.
‘No it can’t,’ said the Headless Horseman. ‘That beard’s false for a start.’
The strange man looked around, listening, then crept towards the end of the hall where the immense Christmas tree stood, its base piled high with presents. As the ghosts watched in amazement, he began shoving parcels into his sack.
‘He’s not Father Christmas,’ said Clanker. ‘He’s a burglar!’
‘We must scare him away.’ The White Lady let out a soul-destroying shriek as she swept towards – and straight through – the intruder.
The Horseman waved his head, which was gurning furiously, while Clanker tried to bash him with his ball and a chain, but it was all to no avail. The false Santa never turned a whisker. He nicked the last parcel and added the candlesticks from the mantelpiece.
‘Huh!’ snorted Polly. ‘Right waste of ectoplasm you lot are. Leave this to the expert.’
She began to revolve, faster and faster until she became a vortex of pure energy. Strange things began to happen. Santa squawked in fright as a halberd detached itself from the wall and whizzed by his head to bury itself in the fire surround. A tiger skin rug at the end of the hall got to its feet and started to stalk him, growling. An unseen hand tugged his beard away from his face and let it snap back. Then all the buttons flew from his braces to ping against the far wall. It was too much. He dropped the sack and, clutching his trousers, fled to the front door. The bolts obligingly drew back as he approached and he staggered out into the drive where waited, not a sleigh and reindeer, but a dirty white van.
‘I think that’s the last we’ll see of him,’ said Clanker.
‘Well done, Polly,’ said Headless.
‘Good show,’ agreed the Lady.
Polly finished revolving. ‘Don’t mention it, haven’t had so much fun since the 4th Earl caught his britches in the Iron Maiden. Could do with a lie down, though. Takes it out of me, this sort of thing.’
‘I think I can hear the family stirring,’ said Headless. ‘I suppose even our lot couldn’t sleep through this kerfuffle.’
The Lady sighed. ‘Yes, there’ll be no more peace tonight. Might as well return to our graves. Still, it was a lovely party.’
‘Yes, quite exciting,’ said Clanker. ‘Ah, well, back to the dungeon.Merry Christmas, all.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ murmured the others.
And they all gently dematerialised, as the first hint of dawn crept over the horizon.
He sees it as he draws level with the town hall steps. It crouches low, flattening itself as if trying to merge with the stone. He leans forward, squinting in the dim light. Overbalancing, he lands on the steps.
‘What you doin’ here? Little frogs should be in bed, this time o’ night.’ He swigs from the can in his hand. ‘Haven’t you got a home to go to? Me neither. Chucked me out. You’re drunk, she said. Course I am. Pissed as a newt. You know any newts? You’re all amphi- . . . amphi-thingies, aren’t you?’
He drinks again, shakes the can in disgust. ‘Empty.’ The can clatters down the street, and he turns again to the frog. It has not moved.
‘Shouldn’t be here. Little froggies should be home by now. Like me. Only she won’t let me in. You should be on – on a lily pad. Yeah, that’s right. On the pond in the park. I could take you to the park, we can sleep there. Pond for you, bench for me. How about it?’
He stretches out a hand. The frog moves at last, hopping down from step to step.
‘Hey, don’t go! You’ll get trod on!’
He lumbers to his feet and follows its progress down the street.
‘Wait for me! Don’t just bugger off like she did. Thought you were my friend.’
He clutches a passing lamp post for support. The sodium light picks out the frog, a black dot against the wet pavement.
‘Hang on, I’ll sing you a song, how’d it go? Little green frog, swimming in the water, little green frog, doin’ what he oughter . . . ‘
His voice dies away. The frog hops steadily onward, towards the main road. He staggers after. At the kerb he halts. The frog is already a quarter of the way across. Headlights approach, rapidly. A horn blares.
‘No, you’ll be squashed – I’ll get you!’
The frog reaches the other side of the road and continues on its way.
Violet sees Red
The driver picked up his microphone and coughed.
‘The company regrets that there will be a slight delay, due to there being a dead kangaroo on the bus.’
The passengers groaned.
‘It’s a bit much,’ grumbled the fat lady in the green jodhpurs. ‘First we got stuck behind those flying pigs in Aldershot – now this! Some of us want to get home tonight.’
‘How come they let a kangaroo on in the first place?’ demanded the dwarf with the false teeth. ’Did it have a ticket?’
‘What I’d like to know,’ said the off-duty detective, ‘is – what did it die of?’
‘I don’t care,’ said the fat lady, ‘as long as it’s not catching. Can’t we dump it and get on?’
‘I’m sorry, madam,’ said the driver, ‘but we have to go through the usual procedures. Was anyone accompanying the animal?’
The passengers avoided each other’s eyes. No-one owned up.
‘In that case, we have to stay put pending investigation. That’s the regulations. I’m not licensed to transport the deceased, human or animal.’
‘But how long will that take?’ The fat lady began to cry.
‘Perhaps I may be of assistance,’ said the detective. ‘I have had considerable experience in solving similar mysteries.’
He made his way to the back seat, where the marsupial corpse lay stretched out on its back, front paws held stiffly aloft.
‘Let me see . . . aha!’ He reached into the kangaroo’s pocket and produced an egg. Holding it up, he looked solemnly round at the others.
‘No-one must leave this bus. I suspect there has been – fowl play.’
The dwarf took his teeth out and polished them thoughtfully. ‘And you think someone one this bus is responsible?’
From her perch on the luggage rack, Chicklit the hen watched with concern. She nudged her friend Eggwina.
‘They’ve found the egg.’
‘Oh no! We’ll never get it back now.’
‘It was a stupid idea, giving her one.’
‘I was sorry for her. She looked a bit broody, I thought it would cheer her up. I didn’t expect her to go off with it.’
The detective was listening. ‘Quiet, everyone. I think I hear – clucking.’
‘Your clucking right you do,’ cried Eggwina. ‘Give me that that egg!’
With a fearsome cackle she swooped towards him, causing him to drop the egg. It cracked, and a small chick emerged.
‘Precious!’ cried Eggwina. ‘Come to Mummy.’
‘We seem to have a case of eggnapping ,’ said the detective. ‘But have the hens committed kangacide?’
At that moment there was a load groan from the back of the bus. Everyone turned to see the kangaroo sitting up, clutching her head.
‘Bounda, love,’ shouted the dwarf. ‘You’re alive.’
‘Are you with this kangaroo?’
‘Yes. I didn’t want to say, when we thought she was dead, but she was only sleeping off a bender. Oh, the relief.’ He burst into tears.
‘In that case, no crime has been committed and we can continue on our way.’
All the passengers cheered.
‘Hang on,’ said the driver. ‘Has she paid? Because if not she can just hop off.’
The kangaroo reached into her pocket and produced a ticket.
And they continued on their way.
Violet sees Red
Violet was feeling very blue. She had been in the pink, until she saw the letter. It was addressed to her boyfriend, Matt White. She had been going through the pockets of his new indigo jeans when she found it. It was from his secretary, Scarlett, her with the cornflower eyes and platinum hair. It declared, in purple prose, her undying love.
Immediately the green-eyed monster reared its ugly head. Now Violet knew why he'd been doing so much overtime! But she rose to the occasion. Her brow black as thunder, she stormed down to his office to confront them.
They were in a clinch, but sprang apart when they saw her. Scarlett's face turned ivory pale. It was brown trouser time for Matt, who tried to escape.
"Oh no you don't, you coward," gritted Violet, crimson with rage. "I always knew you had a yellow streak!"
She pulled out a gun. "Don't mauve!" she yelled.
Matt turned puce. "But honey, I never promised fidelity," he pleaded. "At least, that's a bit of a grey area."
This only made Violet madder. "Not to me." she cried. A streak of orange fire erupted from the muzzle as she pulled the trigger.
Scarlett screamed, as blood splattered the beige carpet. "Call a ruddy copper!"
"What have I done?" cried Violet. "My only love!"
She dashed out to her gold BMW, drove straight to the White Cliffs and over the edge. A maroon summoned the lifeboat, but too late. Even the Navy could not find her. She was lost in the depths of the azure sea.
The placid waters of the lake were blue steel under the evening sky. On the end of the jetty, a large black bird perched, wings outspread.
'They say he flaps his wings every time a virgin walks by.'
'Don't be daft,' said Sharon. 'That's just the Liver Bird, innit?'
'Well, they're related,' said Wayne. 'Can't you see the family resemblance?'
The bird watched them, motionless. Brooding.
'What sort of bird is it then?' asked Sharon. 'A cormorant?'
'A shag,' said Wayne.
'A shag? You're having me on. That's not a bird.'
'Yes it is. My uncle Ernie told me. He's into birds.'
'The dirty bugger! Well, don't stand there doing nothing. Come on if you're coming.'
The cormorant (or shag) watched impassively as they disappeared into the bushes.
Twilight deepened into night. The glassy waters of the lake reflected the emerging stars. The shag (or cormorant) was a dark shape scarcely discernable against the black waters. He still had not moved.
The silence was at last broken by a disturbance in the bushes, a rustling of leaves and crackling of twigs. Sharon emerged, smoothing down her dress.
'And you needn't bother trying to see me again,' she called back over her shoulder.
She stomped along the lakeside path, muttering to herself. 'Men! Bloody useless, the lot of them.'
As she passed the jetty the black bird perched on the end stretched itself up to its full height and slowly flapped its wings.
Someone to Watch over You
An Everlasting Cold
Someone to Watch over You
The girl lay on a bed, clad only in bra and briefs. She was reading a magazine. As Roger watched she looked up, straight into the camera lens, and yawned. He waited awhile, hoping for something more. Nothing happened, except she turned a page.
He began to flip through the options. A succession of images flickered across the screen: the two women in Flat 105 were arguing again; a man picked his nose; another girl, blonde this time, slowly removed her clothes in front of a mirror. This one knew she was being observed. You could tell by the way she pirouetted, displaying her breasts. Roger disliked exhibitionists. He preferred the private, intimate moments of people who had learned to ignore the ever-present lens.
And there was always the hope that one day he might witness something interesting. There was no real risk of being caught, though of course what he was doing was illegal. The security cameras were supposed to be hacker proof. Yeah, well. There were always ways, if you could get the equipment and had the knowledge. It bothered Sue, she was always moaning on about his ‘obsession’. None of her business, she was a fine one to talk, anyway. He switched back to the first scene, but the bed was empty now, the magazine discarded.
About time he checked on Sue, she must have left work by now. He tapped in her PIN, and the screen changed to show a grid-like street map. He could see the red dot which marked her identichip, wedged in among all the other dots, as her car waited its turn to join the file heading for the suburbs. It was time to get ready.
He reached into a drawer and took out the device, making sure his body concealed it from the camera mounted high in the corner of the room. Like the program which allowed him to hack into his neighbours‘ surveillance systems, it was technically illegal, though not difficult to obtain if you had the right contacts.
It had arrived that morning in an unmarked package - an innocuous little box in grey plastic, with three buttons on the top. The computer screen was still displaying Sue’s route home. He noticed, without surprise, that the red dot had vanished.
This had been happening more and more frequently lately. The police blamed gangs of marauders, going round disabling the security cameras. No sooner would one street be repaired than another lot would go down somewhere nearby. And Sue seemed to have an uncanny ability to find these blank spots. Almost as if …
He aimed his new toy at the camera and pressed one of the buttons. The recording light over the lens winked out. A fierce excitement welled up inside him. Now he could do whatever he wanted, and no-one would see. He switched the camera on and off a couple of times, testing. Let the authorities think it was on the blink.
Strange, he thought, how quickly we’ve got used to continual surveillance. The civil liberties folk squawked a bit at first, but most people had been glad to trade privacy for safety. If you’d nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear. And crime was now practically unknown. Of course, the Surveillance Society, as they called it, had given rise to a thriving clandestine anti-surveillance industry, providing items like the one he had just bought.
Sue’s identichip dot had reappeared onscreen. She never spent long out of contact, those few lost minutes could almost be passed off as accidental, only Roger knew better. It had happened too often .She was nearly home. He waited for the chime of the door scanner, and the sound of her voice in the hall.
‘Hi! Where are you?’
‘At the computer. Had a good day?’
‘Pretty foul. And you?’
‘Okay. That Compline woman’s had a new power shower delivered.’
Sue shrugged out of her coat and dumped it on a chair. ’If you put in as much time working as you do watching the neighbours, we might be able to afford a new shower ourselves.’
‘I wish you’d hang your coat up when you come in,’ said Roger, irritated. It was true he had not done much work lately, except on his project. But that was to be a surprise. ‘Did you come straight home?’ he added.
‘Yes, of course. Why?’
‘I lost you for a bit. By Canal Street somewhere.’
‘Must have been a blind spot. Does it matter?’
‘You could have been mugged.’
‘Don’t be silly, who by? There’s no muggers left.’ She yawned. ’ I’m going upstairs to change. What’s for dinner?’
He followed her up the stairs, fingering the device in his pocket. In the bedroom he grabbed her arm.
‘What were you doing?’
‘You know what I mean. All those times when you so conveniently disappeared off the screen. Did you think I was too dim to notice? Day after day -who is he?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Is it someone at work? Or just someone you happened to meet?
‘There isn’t anyone!’
He hit her then, not too hard. She staggered back and sat heavily on the bed, wide-eyed with shock, She began to cry.
‘Oh no, not the waterworks,’ he sneered. ‘And don’t look so bloody innocent. I know when people are up to something up to something. I’ve seen enough of it. Go on, tell me.’ He shook her, terrier-like.
‘I wasn’t - stop it, you’re hurting - ‘
‘Tell me what you’ve been doing.’
‘Nothing,‘ she sobbed. ‘I didn’t do anything. I only wanted some peace. I hate it, these cameras everywhere, staring, never a moment to yourself. I needed to be alone, for a few minutes, with nobody watching. That’s all ’
‘D’you seriously expect me to believe such a load of rubbish? What sort of a fool - ‘ He laughed, savouring the fear in her eyes. Then he pointed the device at the camera, and pressed the button.
Afterwards he laid her on the bed. To the camera, she would appear asleep. He sat beside her for a few minutes, waiting for his breathing and heart rate to return to normal. He was surprised at how easy it had been.
Now all he had to do was get rid of the body. A task which should be impossible. In theory, the identichip everyone carried, embedded in their flesh, allowed the authorities to pinpoint the position of every citizen at all times. But if an identichip could be copied …
Ever since he had lost his job in the research department of the Security Service, he had been working on the problem. Now he had succeeded. He had already prepared himself a duplicate, and shielding devices had been available for years on the black market. . He would leave the fake chip in the house while shielding his own, then drive Sue away and dump her. That blind spot by the canal would be perfect. To the authorities, it would appear she had left on her own. Then he’d come home, destroy the fake and report a fault with his cameras. In a few days he could let it be known that his wife had left him.
Yes, it was clever. Foolproof, even. As soon as it was dark enough he would set out..
He was half way down the stairs when the door alarm buzzed. The view screen showed a massive, vaguely humanoid shape. Roger froze, his mouth dry. The bedroom camera, he thought, I did switch it back on. Didn‘t I?.
‘This is the Neighbourhood Watch,’ a flat, metallic voice intoned. ‘Please allow ingress. Your surveillance equipment has been inactive for 13.07 minutes. It is necessary to ascertain that all is well. This is the Neighbourhood Watch … ’
An Everlasting Cold
Of course, I should have known better. Not got my hopes up, imagining I'd find the answers to everything. But I always was curious. And I'd learnt reading from my ma, just as she learnt it from hers. In her day there was still some use in it. If you found a cache of tinned food, it helped to be able to make out the labels. Now they are pretty well all gone, you can't tell what you've got till you've hacked the tin open, but I still like to practice on any scrap of print I come across.
So you can imagine how I felt when we broke into the Book Vault. Mind you, we were disappointed at first, bitterly disappointed. We'd staked everything on finding food. We'd left our old territory as it became worked out, following the Old Devil across the ice, looking for some other likely location. We hadn't much left in the way of provisions by the time we found one. You can tell where the Old Ones built by the humps and hollows in the snow. The Dowser found us a good place to dig (they can sense them somehow, as cavities underfoot), and we sank a shaft. Terrible hard work it was. The deeper you go the more compacted the snow gets, till at the finish it's like iron, but what choice did we have? It was dig or starve.
When we finally broke through we thought we'd hit the jackpot. An echoing space filled with row after row of shelves, as far as the light from our flickering lamps could reach. We'd heard of such places, though not from anyone who'd seen them with their own eyes. Halls stuffed with treasures of all kinds, and enough food to keep the tribe going for years. Supermarkets, they were called.
I was one of the first in. I remember going to the nearest shelf and taking down one of the objects I found there. I knew what it was, even though I'd never seen one before. Ma told me there'd been quite a few around when she was a girl, but they'd all been used up long ago.
'What is it?' said Sher, coming up behind me.
The others were following behind, swarming down the rope, peering into the darkness. We fanned out, searching, the whole tribe, running up and down between the stacks, calling to each other. In the end we gathered back at our entry point. No-one had found anything to eat, only books. Thousands and thousands of books.
It spelt the end for the Old Devil. A chief is only chief as long as he can keep the tribe fed. Soon after he joined the ancestors, and the White Devil ruled in his stead. Almost immediately the gods relented, for we unearthed a store of dried food, which only needed to be mixed with water. Of course, we had to melt the snow, but now we found that the discovery of the Book Vault was a blessing after all, for we had an almost inexhaustible supply of fuel.
The tribe set up camp inside the Vault, safe from the blizzards of the surface. We cleared a space under the entry shaft, and built our fire there so the smoke would rise up through it. We sank other shafts. This whole area must have been a gathering place of the Old Ones, for it was full of the halls and dwelling places, nearly everywhere we dug we found food, or clothing, or strange artefacts from the Time Before. We settled in, and built our shrine to the great god, Tesco, and Asda his consort, and after a few weeks, the White Devil decreed that the tribe was secure enough to resume breeding.
This was good news for Sher and me. We'd been paired three years, but you can't keep a child while the tribe's on the move, finding food for ourselves is hard enough. Two infants already we'd abandoned to the snows. Now we had a chance to rear one. We made our nest in a corner between the book stacks, and lined it with scraps of cloth we found in a nearby excavation. Sher grew sleek as she began to restore the layers of fat lost during our recent wanderings.
The White Devil had big ideas. She set the strongest in the tribe to work, driving tunnels through the ice to other buried buildings, so we could move between them without having to cross the surface at all. That was where we were most vulnerable, not only to the cold, but also to other searchers. More than once we'd been driven from a find by stronger, more numerous tribes. This one, we intended to keep.
One of my tasks, when I was not out foraging, was fetching books from the shelves to feed the fire. Some of them I held back from the flames for a while, to read. As I said before, my mother had taught me as a child, and the Old Devil had not discouraged me. Not all the places we had dug into in our travels were safe to enter, many a tribe had lost members by not heeding the word 'Danger'. The White Devil, I was not so sure of - she tended to undervalue skills she did not herself possess.
Still, she did not forbid me. In fact, one night as we all sat around the fire after the evening meal, she saw me smile at the title of the book I had taken from the pile waiting to be burned, and called me to her.
There was something about the White Devil which had always repelled me. Maybe it was her white hair and pale skin, or the little red eyes. She also was pregnant, and had replenished her fat stores so effectively that she was almost perfectly spherical.
'What's the joke?' she grunted.
I showed her the gold lettering on the spine of the book. 'It's called "The White Devil".'
She laughed. 'Read me some.'
I opened the book at random. 'I have caught,' I read.
'An everlasting cold; I have lost my voice
Most irrecoverably. Farewell glorious villains.
This busy trade of life appears most vain,
Since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain '
'And what does that mean?"
'I haven't the faintest idea.'
She took the book from me, flipped through it for a moment, then with a shrug tossed it into the fire. The pages flared, the odd words standing out before blackening, fading to nothing.
'That's all books are good for,' she said.
The trouble was, she was right. When I was a kid I used to dream of finding a book. I'd never seen a whole one. Occasionally a scrap of paper, a torn page, would turn up; a few word of print, an impossibly coloured picture. We know, from the stories passed down, that once there was a time, every year, when the snow went away and the ground turned green, the sky blue. When everywhere was warm. They called it 'summer'. Only the Old Ones sinned, and the world changed.
Long ago, in the time of ma's dad's father, the tribe found a man who had lived before the Change: the last of the Old Ones. He was ancient, near death.
The Chief they had then asked him, 'What was it, the sin of the Old Ones? What did they do, to bring this on us?'
He answered, 'They switched off the atlantic conveyer'.
But no-one knew what he meant.
When we found the books, all those books, I thought, at last! Somewhere in them, there must be an answer. But it was useless. It's not enough to be able to read the words, you have to know what they mean. And somehow, through the years, we had lost the clue. Most of what I read was gibberish - what did they mean, 'mutually assured destruction', 'gross national product'?
Some of the books I could half understand, the ones with the large print and bright pictures. I did glean some information. For instance, this was not the first time the cold had come, so maybe one day if would go, and the summer would come back. But no hint of when. And none of them told me what I really wanted to know - what was the sin? Why are we being punished like this?
The only one I found which gave any clue was a thin volume called 'Freeze for Immortality'. It spoke of people before the Change deliberately freezing themselves, so that could avoid death and live for ever. Could that be the answer? They had somehow frozen the world to ensure their own immortality? Could they be lying there still, somewhere hidden under the ice, waiting for the thaw? When I spoke of it to Sher she was not impressed.
'If there are thousands of frozen people, why have we never found any?'
'Perhaps they are all together, somewhere. Plenty of places never been searched ... '
We were coming back from a foraging trip, Sher and me. A hundred yards or so from the Vault entrance we sensed something wrong. The snow was all churned up, we could see splashed of red. As we fled a shot whined over our heads.
It was the worst possible thing that could have happened. The Yeti tribe was feared everywhere. At some time they'd dug into an arms cache, now they were the only ones around with weapons. We had thought ourselves well away from their territory.
'They must have seen the smoke coming from the shaft.'
I felt sick. It was evening, most of the tribe would have been underground. Trapped. Building our camp in the Book Vault had not been so clever after all. Sher stumbled and clung to my arm, panting.
'You could go back,' I said. 'They'll not harm you.'
I hoped it was true. A woman carrying a child is an asset to a tribe. Maybe.
Sher shook her head. 'I stay with you.'
We went on. Night was falling , and the wind was starting to rise, blowing ice crystals in our faces. How could we survive, without the tribe?
We halted in the lee of a snow bank. I scooped out a hollow just big enough to hold us both, and we crept in.
'We're going to die, aren't we?' said Sher.
I held her close, and rested my hand on the mound of her belly.
'No,' I said. 'We may freeze, but we won't die. The Old Ones knew the trick of it, they wrote it down in a book, they wouldn't have done that if it wasn't true. One day they will wake. They'll know what to do. Sleep now, till the thaw comes. The ice will keep us safe till Summer. Our baby will see grass and running water ... '
She didn't answer, she was already asleep.
So, Old Ones, when the ice melts, come and find us. We are counting on you.