All entries for Tuesday 16 November 2004

November 16, 2004

4.6

The next morning, she woke to the sound of birds outside, just audible through the muffling effect of the double glazing. Sitting up, she listened for a while, immobile, waiting as the sunlight scanned across the room from the thin slit in the curtains, plotted by the marching sun. When at last it moved over the blankets, brushed against her brow, she decided it was time to get up.

Brushing her teeth, and running the hot water for the bath, she looked out the window into the street below. She had woken later in the day than she had intended. The rush hour was now over, and the flow of traffic had waned to only the few, hurried, desperate commuters, who dashed across on beetle-like auto mobiles, their IHs forcing them to stay just within the legal speed limits. The sky above was blue, without any shred of cloud. Not even a trace of smoke, definitely no forms of inky blackness hovering overhead.

The bath was ready. Painstakingly, she stripped off her filthy clothes, and testing that the water was fine, lowered herself slowly in, barely managing to suppress a low moan of pleasure at such a simple luxury. The water became brown and muddy around her as she scrubbed herself, so that even when she had finished, had attempted all the exorcism of dirt she could bear, she felt still somewhat unclean. But still, it was a lesser state of uncleanliness than before, and she lay in the bath for a few more moments, submerged in the warm water, feeling it swilling around her when she moved. Only reluctantly did the world come back to her, and so gradually, she began the drawn out process of getting out, grabbing a towel, and vigorously drying herself.

Constance had left a set of clean clothes hanging on the banister of the landing outside her room. Mumbling gratefully, Sandy picked them up, smelled them for freshness, and eagerly began to put them on. They were good enough clothes, decent enough to wear. Out of fashion perhaps, but who would care?

Now what?

The house, when she descended the staircase, was found to be empty. Bored, she switched on the television, browsed a little through the multitude of channels. Seemingly all of them showed the same thing. The typical mix of soaps, talk shows, DIY programs, motivational films and so on that made up morning TV, just as she had expected. There were no wanted notices, or anything like that. Either they thought all the rogues have been caught already, or the one they captured simply weren't talking. It was as though nothing had happened on the night before, as though the plan, the rebels, the attack on the Wall, as though all that had never even existed.

And it did never exist.

Who decided reality, but they? Who was she to say that she remembered differently, out of all the millions, billions of people for whom what was said was a clear and obvious truth? She trembled suddenly, and the birds outside fell quiet. Suddenly self-conscious, she wondered if they would care about the fashion thing, after all. The clothes she now wore were uninteresting, true, inconspicuous, even. But wasn't a young woman like she expected to wear bright, shocking clothing? Was she again drawing attention to herself, simply by trying not to?

No, she wouldn't allow herself to get into that again. Insanity lurked in that direction. She had to live, to survive, to act naturally, casually. The rules ordained that she should do so.

The crunch of asphalt as a car rolled up on the driveway. Constance was back. Opening the door, Sandy rushed out to help, smiling and waving with all her might. There was little to help carry back – a few boxes of milk, some eggs. Barely worth going shopping for. But the old lady valued her aid, and Sandy was tactful enough not to comment.

They went inside, and helped stock the cupboards in her kitchen. A slow, laborious task, as always she was watching where her host's hands went, following the flow, the pattern as the various supplies organised themselves on the shelves. She had to be sure. Safety was paramount.

And then they sat, and stared at each other through the foliage of dried out flowers that lay, potted on her coffee table, each sipping a little lukewarm tea. Either waited for the other to speak. Constance out of courtesy, perhaps. Sandy out of fear. She clutched the handle of her mug hard, and wondered if Constance had seen anything on her shopping trip. Like a poster of her face.

"How was shopping?" she asked, biting her lip to punish herself even as she spoke the words.

"It was quite good, actually. Do you know they cut prices on milk again? It's the lowest they've ever been, it seems. I mean, as far as I can remember."

But Sandy remembered that last week… No, it didn't matter. She nodded, thoughtfully, hoping that Constance would continue, so that she would not continue to betray herself with her own words.

"Really, though, the shops were more or less empty. A bit unusual, really."

A switch clicked in her mind. Sandy gripped her armrests firmly, fingernails digging into the fabric, a pale, taut expression on her face, mouth slightly ajar, breathless. Her heart pounded.

"Unusual," she gasped. "How so?"

"Well, normally, there are more people hanging around the shopping malls, especially on a Saturday morning like this. People getting their groceries done, and so on. The weekend shoppers who take this one single opportunity to get food for the time… ahead."

Sandy shook her head furiously.

"No, I mean, what do you mean by unusual?"

The old lady stared back in stark incomprehension.

"Well, unusual as in not normal. As in, unexpected. Why? Does the word have a second definition? I mean, I was never very good with English at school. Never really top of the class, or anything. Completely failed to distinguish myself academically. Bit sad really…"

"Can you repeat that, again? That today at the mall was out of the ordinary? Not something big, something abrupt, but just a volume of people around in the place that was not normal?"

"I suppose you can put it like that."

She ran to the window. Saturday was officially a work day, but outside about half the doors on either side of the street, cars were still parked. Newspapers lay, uncollected on doormats. A black van moved through, paused now and then. A few men got out, pulled out a short list, and walked up to a door to knock. She drew the curtains and walked backwards away.

Constance was still talking. "I suppose it isn't that unusual. I mean, what do you expect people to do, after that thing with the Wall…"

Sandy snatched the remote control and turned the TV on. She flipped through a dozen channels, a blur of lit patches, incoherent flashes of conversation. A blitz, a procession, a collage of people, places, shapes, colours.

"What do you see?" she asked, frantically. "Can't you see? There is nothing about an incident regarding the Wall. Nothing at all. But you remember the Wall. Don't you know what that means?"

"Well, maybe they have bigger news. Or maybe its over now that everybody is caught…"

"Bigger news? What bigger news is there? But if you don't believe me, look at this. Don't you know what that means?"

She pulled out a news sheet from the fake-mahogany paper stand, tapped on it so that the smart inks gelled and the unit powered on, stared like at the blur of text which scroll rapidly across the surface.

"Do you see anything about the Wall? Anything at all?"

"I suppose not, but…"

"Look in the archives. Look in yesterday's edition. Is there anything about a Wall, then? Any reports from immediately afterwards?"

"No…" Her host was looking increasingly confused. Slowly, they both sat down, their feet lifting off the carpet.

"Doesn't that strike you as rather… strange?"

"I suppose it does. I mean, how could they lose that article? I distinctly remember reading one about it…"

And again, Sandy could do nothing but stare, and shout out in incredulous frustration.

"Don't you see what it means? That you remember when the television, the newspapers do not?"

She didn't. Only looked back in a mixture of confusion and consternation, like an animal, cornered. Sandy looked on, trying to empathise, trying to understand.

"I also… had a thought last night about the certificate you mentioned. And yes, it does seem odd. And I looked for the person on it, and there were no records, no sign of his existence at all. And so many other things seem strange to me…"

Could it be?

Sandy scanned her eyes around the room again, a last moment of indecision. No, this could not be a trick, like it was with… No, they could have been so fortunate, and just happen to have chosen the correct old lady off the street. No, it must be. It must be real.

She jumped up off the chair, grabbed the lady's hand hard, tightly, and pulling her, almost pulling the arm out of its socket, made for the front door. Constance protested, tried to wrench her arm free, fingers trying to hook beneath hers, to twist free of her grasp. But Sandy was having none of that. Swiftly, she grabbed what supplies she could, and ducked down by the wide wind pane next to the porch, so that she could look out, and not be seen.

She glanced back at the old lady. Constance had gone pale, and was reaching, in a laughable attempt at stealth, inside the pocket of her blouse. Out came a small, black, plastic object. Instinctively, Sandy knocked it out of her hands, kicked it until the plastic shattered and the green-silver innards of the personal alarm spilled across the ugly brown-red carpet.

"Don't do that," she said. "Or I'll kill you. I would think twice about it, and no-one, nothing will stop me? Understand?"

Constance nodded fearfully, and was dragged along like a rag doll as Sandy took her out of the house, and then next to the waiting car. A fumble for keys, and they were inside, the doors firmly shut, the engine started, and loud country music blaring though the stereos. Checking again her surroundings, she saw that the area was empty, that the black vans which parked up on either side were uninhabited, their engines switched off.

"Where are you taking me?" Constance pleaded. "I have no money… If you want the car…"

"Shut up," Sandy snapped.

Switching up a gear, she misjudged the manual transmission and the engine stalled with a stuttering sigh, fading into an empty silence. Cursing, she restarted the engine, hands in frantic motion, but because she didn't reset the gear, the car jerked forward, shaking them from their seats, and then stalled again.

"Damn, damn damn…"

"Please let me go…"

Sandy forced herself to calm down. Plenty of time, plenty of time. Slowly does it. Down with the clutch, down with the gear shift. Turn the key, the engine starts… Good.

She mumbled to her passenger. "Don't worry. I am doing this for your own good. You'll thank me later."

She half expected a response, an outburst of outraged protest. But she did not really care, only steadily rehearsed the actions she need to do in her mind. Right now, she needed to presse down on the clutch again, shift up on to first gear, gently up with the clutch… a little gas, and then ease up on the clutch a little more…

The car began at last to move. She steered it, pausing to wipe the sweat that leaked from her palm, moving it into regulation normal driving position. There was still no reaction from the world around here. So she shifted up another gear, went a little harder on the gas, and was away. The world behind her did not change, even as she glanced back through the rear view mirror again and again and again, watching for some reaction from the receding scene.

They were out, they were safe. And she knew where to go. A safe house, on the outskirts. A place where people went when they had nowhere else to go. A dead-end where you can only sit and pray no one followed you. Perfect for the job.

*

They would be alone there, she had anticipated. But instead, the windows were lit, stencils for the rich light which poured outwards, and she could hear the sound of talking from within. Stalking close to listen, Constance having now been pacified into mute submission, she heard what they had to say.

"... I suppose there are still some positive aspects."

"Yeah. We now know who did it."

"Damn that bastard, damn him!"

Without wasting time to announce herself, she strode in. They turned to look at her as she entered, with a combination of surprise and alarm and joy.

"You're here. You've made it…"

"Call me Sandy," she said. There were so few of them, clustered around a fire, the flames lighting their faces but leaving all else in darkness. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Because you are the only person to survive the attack on the Wall. The only good person."

"The only…"

They nodded grimly.

"What about…"

"All heroes, all lost."

They shook their heads, and she felt at once humbled by the hallowed, dignified subtlety of the ritual, and angered at their attitude. It was the way their heads were bowed, the longing, hungry way with which they looked into the fire, at the sticks which crackled, burst and disintegrated in the conflagration. She felt sickened at how they pronounced the word hero, the look of veneration that told her they wished to be among that number, to be dead and perhaps buried instead of alive and faced with choices.

In fury, she shoved Constance forward, unafraid that the old woman may fall and injure herself.

"Here!"

"Here what?"

"Here is our hope. Here is the flaw in their program, the chance we must exploit."

Their eyes opened widely as gradually, they understood.


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