The wind blew. With it came the whispers of long forgotten things and snatches of an acapella cover of Only You. Cold crept around Melissa’s teeth like ants made of eternal light as she skinned a fox in the yard. Smoke rose on the horizon. The south was burning. Well, not all of it. Just the parts the government did not want; or rather the parts that it did not have an electoral majority in. It was happening again. She had been expecting it. What took them so long?
Blood dribbled down the tarpaulin draped over the bonnet of a rust-eaten late-noughties Range Rover. Fresh crimson starbursts joined the low-toner imprints of old drops on her boots. She would find a use for the fur. The meat was a case of waste not want not. She uncoiled the wire that had broken the animal’s neck before cutting off its head. Its skull would be put on a stick to join the others marking the far edge of her land. It did not belong to her of course, and although the deed was once in her grandfather’s name no one knew who had actually inherited the place. But it was not like anyone was going to show up and challenge her occupation, there was no one else around to claim ownership. Not anymore.
Mellisa could not recall the last time she had been in direct contact with another person. That is actually having interacted with them, not just eyeing them from a safe distance like a startled feline, hearing them in her memories or feeling them in her dreams. At least that was the case for the living. If she wanted to see death, she would not have to walk very far. She finished with the fox corpse, wiped off her knife and fought to stop herself from looking towards the nearby motorway. What was left of it. Most of the surface had been ripped up and tarnished razor-wire coils were almost indistinguishable from knots of gnarled brambles. Cars had been dragged into position as make-shift barricades. The owners who had refused to surrender their vehicles to the military were either scattered on the ground like crumpled paper or entombed inside their own cars as a reminder to everyone else of the penalty for disobedience. Not that there was anyone to be reminded. Except her. That was the main reason she did not go near any of the local roads unless it was absolutely unavoidable. It reminded her that she was alone and worse, that she was alive. Unlike so many others that she had once known.
And yet...looking back on it could she really have said that any of them had been truly living? Well, that all depended on how one defined it. Had they been living like decent human beings, or were they like the fox she had just butchered? Whether they were Red or Blue the answer was the same: it was down to how much money they had. Money. Everything always came back to that. Slips of paper and discs of metal assigned arbitrary values by banks and politicians that took away the value of a man and gave him a price instead. The result was stability, of a kind. Except that was where it all went wrong. The value was never up for negotiation, but the price always changed and with it people’s perceptions of those who earned less than they did. That was what had started it and that was what was going to end it. Soon.
Already the strain had begun to show and cracks had formed in the very foundation of society just like they had in the barn/workshop near the house. Not that they had not always been there of course, it was just that in recent years they had not been quite so easy to hide under layers of social policies that were the equivalent of layers of Polyfilla and off-white emulsion. As wages dropped so did expectations. As expectations dropped so did aspirations. As aspirations dropped so did hopes. When all hope vanished everything else went with it. No one worried about getting a job because being on benfits was more profitable. When the benefits were taken away but no more jobs existed no one bothered with anything. There were no more families, no more children. The North became a wasteland, a direction hastily and incompletely scratched off of road signs. Where the people who lived there went the government did not know, nor did it care. Whether they died or were absorbed into the great amorphous mass of the “prosperous” South was neither here nor there. All that mattered was that they were gone.
Pumping water was something that Mellisa had got used to, as was the idea of having to work in order to avoid dying of thirst instead of walking into the kitchen and turning on a tap. There was a reservoir not far away but she did not trust it. She had no way of knowing what had been put into the water by the utility company or the government, but she had a feeling it might have been the place they dumped the bodies of collections officers who failed in their duties by pitying the people they were paid to harass for money they did not have. Besides she had rather come to enjoy watching the frigid liquid slosh out of the blue-grey mechanism even if the peeling paint gave her blisters. It was as though she were trying to catch crepuscular rays in a bucket and succeeding. But she always over-filled it and ended up having to hobble back to the house with the bucket held by both hands to one side. The broad flagstone doorstep received an unexpected dousing as a murder of crows took raucous flight from a copse near the converted barn. Could they smell a feast on the wind? Could they hear the last spluttered words of the dying? Or could their avian eyes, black as spheres of polished midnight actually see what no living eye was ever meant to see? Whatever the answer, one thing was certain: they had work to do and they knew it. They wheeled once...twice...three times overhead before they hurtled off into the murky distance where the tell-tale persimmon smudge of flames crowned the horizon as yet another town became a victim of war. There were times when she almost forgot about the fighting, and as she put the bucket down and closed the door behind her she admitted to herself that there were also times when she deliberately ignored it.
Melissa’s dreams left her slowly. They slipped away reluctantly through a scorched earth policy which filled the world with remnants of things half imagined and remembered as though they were loathe to relinquish their dominion over her mind. But they did. They always did. She woke up and the bedroom was cold. Its bare walls, which were cracked and scarred like the inside of an old mug, echoed with the sound of her first waking breaths. Ash stirred in the fireplace as she prepared herself for the day. Although of course she wondered why she bothered. There was nothing to do. Well, nothing beyond the simple routines of staying alive or rather of keeping her heart beating. Not that it would twitch and skip for much longer anyway. But as with so much in life, willing something to just stop was far removed from the act of making it do so. Where there was the will there usually was not a way, and where there was a way there often was not the will. It took a mighty effort for her to get dressed, let alone look at herself in the mirror without catching sight of the regret in her eyes.
A tub of water had been kept over a low fire all night and only slightly made her wince when it came into contact with her skin. She scrubbed her face as though she hoped to erase any sign of herself from it. How much simpler life would have been if she had always kept her features blank and expressionless like the concrete floor of a petrol station forecourt, and allowed them to convey nothing but a desire to comply. The days would have been much easier and yet even more pointless than they already were if only she had not wasted so many years trying until she accepted that she had already failed before she had even begun. It was not her fault, she knew that better than anyone, but that did not stop her from blaming herself for everything. After washing, Melissa rubbed the mouth of an old perfume bottle on her neck and savoured the final traces of scent as they faded away on her flesh. She placed the bottle back in its place of honour on the windowsill and paused to watch it glitter like a capsule of crystallised gloam light. Outside in the early morning sky the last stars twinkled like segments of a warning sent in an interstellar semaphore message that no one was paying attention to.
If people had been paying attention maybe it would have made a difference, but that was incredibly doubtful. Nothing really made a difference. Not anymore. They had made sure of that. All they had to do to protect themselves was rattle off a swift invocation of national security or a recitation of the names of the 7/7 victims (even though that had been so long ago) and presto chango, Bob’s your uncle they could get away with anything they liked. They already had and they would continue to do so. Not because there was no one who wanted to stop them, but because there was no one who could. No one, Melissa whispered to herself as she dismissed darkling ghosts at the front door with a wave of the net curtain. After all the evacuations, forced relocations and general migrations of people looking for jobs that they would never get and were not even there in the first place there was no one left in most of the country. As more and more houses were snapped up by “investors” from the southern counties and rents skyrocketed due to artificially inflated demand, local residents found themselves unable to afford even the most basic of accommodation. Consequently the majority of them eventually became homeless, and drifted from place to place trying to find something to call a roof to hold over their heads. But they failed. The only success to come of the buy-to-let boom was the self-satisfaction of wealthy strangers, who took obnoxious pride in their property portfolios even though most of them owned nothing more than one or two derelict terraced houses in streets that their gluttonous pursuit of profit had rendered uninhabitable. Had the big society stepped forward to do anything about it like an avenging giant roused from its slumber? No. If anything it had only proved how insignificant it really was and the economic “miracle” started by the iron lady turned out to be an iron-clad, lead-lined coffin three decades later. Not only that but as Melissa sat in the dust-draped living room she realised that the world around her had become a vast, bottomless, open, untended grave around which children took turns at being martyrs and corpses.
The clock chimed. At least it would have done if it were still in working order. The low metallic grumble of its mechanism like God playing with a pocketful of his lucky, destiny-deciding coins was just an echo heard in her head of a simpler, better time. Although it had not been so of course, it just seemed that way. The grass was not just always greener on the other side, it was positively luminescent. Which was more than she could have said about the lawn out the back of the house. It was faded and dun-coloured in places and almost impossibly verdant in others. She tried to keep it in good shape but there was so much else that demanded her attention, so many little, insignificant things. Just like the letter on the floor in the hallway. Freshly stamped and sealed, recently dated too. Had it only been a shadow in her mind’s eye at the door earlier? Or had it been something else? Someone else rather. Another person. No. That was impossible.
Well, not impossible exactly. Just improbable. The only other people she had seen around those parts were not who she imagined to be the sort kind enough to post a letter without first either opening it and censoring the contents (although most employees in the security services were too lazy to bother with letters, it was just so much easier and less time-consuming to click through and alter emails) or crushing it in the mud out of spite because it was not addressed to them. There were a few inhabitants still around even if it did not seem like it, but they were mostly stragglers trying to escape the area with what few possessions they had regardless of the fact that it was obvious that they would have to abandon most of their belongings if they wanted to reach their destination. Others were not so pathetic yet amiable; not being able to access the internet or get the latest model of smart phone had driven them quite mad. Deprived of their technological luxuries they lost all connection to reality and found in themselves a savagery that eclipsed all memories of civilisation. They were former wannabes, the kind of people who talked and acted like they were big shots in London but actually worked for minimum wage as cashiers in a branch of Barclays or in the marketing department of a local office supplies company. She had met plenty of people like that in her time and was able to recognise their kind without a second glance. That was the case with many things since she began her self-imposed exile in the wastes of her former world, but the handwriting on the envelope...she did not know it. Truth be told she was not certain if she wanted to. But in her experience, the truth was not something that held sway for very long. It was never allowed to.
She could have read the missive. But she did not. The stirring of memory she felt at the shape of the letters in her name did not make her curious enough to want to open the envelope. Whatever it was she may once have been she had no intention of ever becoming again and words had a habit of dredging up things that she would rather stayed forgotten. A spider’s corpse tumbled from the top of a bookshelf as Melissa slid the potentially offending document under a row of split-spined pulp paperbacks with pages coloured a rich roast chicken skin brown by time and finger grease. If she ever forgot about the letter then that was the last place she would think to look for it, those books had belonged to her grandparents and they had once used them to help wile away the hours as they waited for the inevitable. It had always bothered her that she had no idea if they passed away peacefully or with their heads full of stories so convoluted that it was as if Jack Bauer had crashed a Mills and Boon marathon with hilarious consequences, naturally.
The remnants of a magnolia tree tapped against the living room window. Long dead border shrubs clutched at the base of its trunk. Men with maps and guns hovered around her in the dust motes. Their faces came and went as fast as sand sculptures in a rising tide. An image of her child-self plonked on a chair and shown how to use a radio scanner barged through the spectral diorama like a remembered slither of an Enimem lyric. The kettle boiled. Its sound took everything with it as though someone had closed the web browser on a half-streamed film. Melissa looked up at a decorative plate hanging on the wall. It was so old that its cracks were actually holding it together. How many times had it been flung at someone in rage? How many times had it been stuck back together only to be used as a projectile at a later date? Too often or not often enough. She vaguely remembered picking it up once. It broke clean in half along a hidden fracture. There had been no shock or drama about it. But there never was with such things. The glue was brought out and it was stuck back together. Forget and carry on, it was just how things were done. The government found ways around the opposition and managed to sell off all the forests so that when their “enemies” fled the towns and cities there was nowhere for them to hide. But also so their corporate buddies could profit from replanting grants and annual subsidies from the European Union. Gang injunctions had been used to criminalise groups the authorities or even minor celebrities did not take kindly to. Terms like “flexible labour” and “transferable skills” translated into minimum wage zero-hour contracts that could be terminated without even a moment’s notice and citizens who knew nothing other than crunching numbers and keeping their heads down. No, she could not forget. No, she could not carry on. There was no way she could have done so when the smallest flaws had become the biggest divisions and there was no way to repair them...except one.
But that was why she was at the house in the first place. She was not hiding. At least that was what she tried to convince herself as she poured the last sugar packet into a mug of tea made with a bag that had been beyond the point of having any taste a week ago. The implications of the word “hiding” were too simple. But then, what was she doing? No one knew where she had gone; she had made sure of that. She searched for an appropriate word for her actions in the broken skin of hard water on the tea. She was...waiting. That was it. Yes. Waiting. In that context though she could not explain a letter addressed to her turning up at a house that as far as anyone else knew had been abandoned for years. She had no idea what to expect next other than if she did not calm down then she would probably bite through the skin of her bottom lip. On a scavenging trip to an abandoned sink estate a feral dog charged at her out of a house so overgrown with marijuana plants that it could have been a still from a Miyazaki film. The dog had twitched as it bled out on the ground amongst a pile of discarded suit cases and a bullet-pierced car door. She could not remember being as anxious as at the moment the canine sprang for her throat until right then as she sat on that threadbare sofa sipping rancid tea, waiting.
Melissa was in the barn. It was flanked on three sides by vegetation grown wild beyond taming and on the fourth by the last slabs of a concrete drive in the latter stages of decaying into a muddy track. The end of the building farthest away from the house had once been part of a church. Most of the steeple was intact and made for a passable crow’s nest. From there she used an old stargazing scope she had found in the house to keep an eye on the surrounding landscape. There was not much to see though. Dark plumes of smoke still mingled with cloud on the horizon to the south and made the sky billow like a ripped and filthy cotton sheet. Fields of crops that had to fend for themselves stretched right out to the edges of towns that had been reduced to little more than clusters of grey and brown rubble that made the world look like its textures were being displayed at the wrong resolution. Pastures and wasteland had run rampant and liberally splashed the area with patches of soggy green. The animals that had once grazed on them had either been transported elsewhere or culled to avoid media firestorms over diseases that may or may not have existed. In the corners of enclosures there were still a few mounds of bovine and ovine corpses, at that point not much more than tattered scraps of skin and bone that clung together like reliefs from a hellish frieze. That was all that remained. Everyone and everything else was gone and had left the place feeling like an afterthought about an empty gesture. She knew that she kept her vigil in vain, but that had never stopped her. Someone out there might have needed her help. Someone out there might have been coming to help her. She had to watch. As much out of morbid curiosity as genuine hope of being...rescued, she supposed. Whether from herself or from the world around her she was not actually certain. Perhaps it was enough that the longing was there. Maybe not.
The air still clung to the chill of night and shreds of mist faded from the canopies of nearby groves as though the world itself was taking down its white flags after having realised that there could be no surrender, not that would be accepted. Patches of moss on the old stonework glistened like clutches of gems in a watch that cost more than most people earned in years. How much time had she spent up in that tower staring into the heartless nothing of the wilderness? How much time had she spent alone for that matter? She had lost track. Not just of the passage and almost the very concept of time, but of all that she had once considered even vaguely important. Her family. Her friends. Her loved ones. Her career. All gone just like everything else because of what she had refused to not do. Life had not found a way. It never would. Not for her, not for anyone else unless they could afford the price of admission and all the fees and hidden charges that went along with it.
Just as she thought about heading back down into the house and getting on with the rest of the day, she caught sight of something that she had hoped never to see again. A black car with no number plates was making its way towards her. It crawled along the stone-strewn track that ran up to the house like a flesh-eating beetle through the jowls of a severed head. She had concealed the entrance to the back roads. Obviously not well enough. No one else had ever disturbed her because if they were out there they knew better but also more likely because there had been no one else out there at all. Until right at that moment. She looked back to the house and considered running, but there was no way she would have been able to get all her stuff together before the car arrived. Besides she had nowhere else to go other than out into the wilds and for all the skills she had taught herself she did not have the cunning to survive where the earth was a brutal master and strange things lived in the wind. Even if she managed to get away that would not have been the end of it. They did not want her free or “at large” as they no doubt claimed in their news bulletins and press releases. They would never give up. There was no escape, the rattle of the telescope collapsing in on itself reverberated through her bones and confirmed that she was resigned to that fact. The wait was almost over.
Aldous looked at the dashboard clock, then at the driver and then at the handcuffed man in the back seat. They had been on the road for hours, although the actual roads had ended many, many miles ago. None of them had said a word. Aldous because he had learned it was generally wiser not to speak. The driver because judging by his service record his idea of a conversation involved his fists and someone tied to a chair. The passenger had been ordered at gunpoint not to talk; it did not matter that the weapon was no longer aimed at his face, the memory of staring into that silent hole was enough to keep him close-lipped. Anyway there was no need to talk. They all knew where they were going. And why.
It was getting on for mid day, but Aldous felt his five a.m self in the seat like a grimy doppelganger pressing itself against every inch of his skin and lurking in the folds of his clothes. He hated the countryside. Not just the thing itself but also the very idea of it. It served no purpose, you see. In the city everything had its place. Everyone acted and operated according to certain and specific rules and regulations. Most of the time. If anyone failed to do so then they paid the price. Literally in some cases. Those without connections and the means did so with prison time; those with either or both were directed to the department of government that would be bailing them out on that occasion. Was that right? No. Was that wrong? No. It was just the way things were and belly-aching about it was not going to make the slightest bit of difference no matter what some people wanted to believe. There was nothing that could stop the endless march of the city. Not even the black bloc could prevent every street (at least the ones with a decent profit margin) in the country from being paved with golden arches. The ones they did manage to save were just left to rot by local authorities too worried about having their stationary budgets cut to actually take care of their communities.
That was if there were such things. From what he saw through the windows of the car there was little evidence to support that there had ever been much of anything in the area. Perhaps there had been and the budget cuts had more far reaching consequences than most people in a position to do something about them cared to believe. The shadowy, cracked-rib stubs of buildings in the distance and the hushed quivering of vegetation in the fields made it seem as though he were on a planet with inhabitants that had long abandoned reason. Yet there was a reason, the oldest reason: progress. Progress for those who matched the appropriate profile. As for those who did not meet the requirements...well, they no longer mattered. That was not to say they were not cause for alarm, if they were not then men like him would have been out of a job but as far as the rest of the country was concerned they were unimportant.
Melissa stood on the porch and watched as the car pulled up outside her house, against the foliage around the yard it might as well have been a banshee preparing to scream. Both front doors opened and men in overly neat suits stepped out. One remained where he was with his gun holster showing under his jacket. The other walked towards her in a pacification stance. The idea of trying to escape was absurd, she knew that and so did the agent but she supposed he had to follow his training, his programming. She gave the visitor the same look she imagined that her great-great-grandmother had given a man she would have described as being of Ottoman-extraction when she saw him repeatedly running over a hedgehog with his Mercedes. There was another man in the back of the car which was strange because these people usually in operated in teams of two. Stranger still was the fact that she knew the third man. Everything came to her in a burst of thought like the flashy level-up lighting effect in an MMORPG. It was Colin. He was hunched and grey-faced like he had just been dropkicked back into Kansas. He did not look hurt, just broken. Cogs turned behind his eyes but they were not connected to anything. All the mechanisms of his self had been dislocated as though he were an expensive piece of hardware the couriers had used as a football before delivering it. The letter! He had sent it. Whether willingly or under duress the result was the same. Somewhere in Colin’s lack of expression she was able to find guilt, and the ruined remains of his love for her caught in the creases around his cheeks. He had given her up. The letter had been a courtesy, one that she had not even taken the time to acknowledge by reading it. Instead she had put it aside like the rest of her former life; just another sacrifice she had made for a cause she was not sure still existed.
Aldous saw that the woman was not going to bolt. She was unarmed, although a large knife was stuck in the dirt not far from her right foot. He picked it up and threw it into some bushes. He sized her up as he reached for his cuffs and asked, 'Why didn’t you run?'
'Would it have made a difference?'
'Then I’ve saved us both some time.' Melissa said as she offered her wrists for cuffing.
She was taken to the vehicle. When the door slammed shut she ran her fingers over the window. She imagined clawing her way out but she soon found herself waving goodbye. To the house and to herself. To all she once was and to everything she would never be.