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A Cry in the Crowd

by Steven Hemming

part 1 of 3

“Sure is a lot of blood for such a small body.”

The rookie was new to the job. He was proud of his badge and was seen to buff it with a frayed cuff when he thought no-one was looking. He had muttered the words under his breath, through a fog of condensation, with his shoulders hunched and with the hairs taut on the back of his neck.

He’d seen bodies before, and bloody ones at that. But whether caused by the plagues, or by violence, or even (lucky escape, or what?) by natural causes, they all had one thing in common: they were usually sticking halfway out of ripped and re-used body-bags bouncing about on the back of the corpse-car.

There used to be a lot more lying about in the streets but not so many these days. Thirty long years after the plagues began it was now possible to decide for yourself where it was your bloodless and jellied remains might be found and scooped into a sheath of soiled plastic.

It hadn’t always been that way.

In the beginning your mouldering remains might be left for days on end until you seeped with the rain into the gutters and drains. Or you might leave an indelible stain against the walls of anonymous alleyways, or on the curved sides of sewers where you’d crawled with your last dying breath.

Two large figures disturbed the rookie’s reverie, barging him aside as they passed through into the room. The rookie was jealous, wanting their calf-length distressed-leather dusters and matte-black half-face motorcycle helmets. But more than anything he coveted the sawn-off over-and-under shotguns which each of them wore strapped to their thighs, the handles and triggers exposed through cut-away pockets.

With as much reverence as they could muster Senior-Constables Peter Jude and Mark Bartholomew skirted the crusty lake of blood. The body of the child lay in the centre of it. There was too little emotion left within them for it to be a source of sympathy or sorrow any more. They’d seen it too many times before. They each of them looked at the rookie as if they’d heard his utterance, and he looked with guilty eyes to the floor.

He took a small step back, but only a small step, as if the girl’s blood was still fluid and hadn’t yet congealed. In the flickering light from a few meagre candles scattered about the floor in wax-encrusted saucers it shimmered like black ink. Alarmed by their presence, a horde of flies buzzed in the air while tiny, shelled insects skittered about.

Mark Bartholomew crouched down next to the body. Blood had poured from every orifice. He pulled a dented pewter flask from his pocket and felt the burn of poteen low in his throat and the soporific effect of it, and he reached out a hand and stroked the poor girl’s ash-blonde hair. Dead to the world and yet, in a few hours time, he might be inhaling the very essence of her carried on funnelled winds through slate-grey streets.

As their eyes adjusted to the gloom they began to make out just how sad and desperate the poor girl’s existence had truly been. Most poignant of all were the dozens of post-it notes with curled corners stuck to the walls, covered in childish drawings of stick-people. They were all of a shorter figure with scrawled yellow hair holding hands with taller figures alongside. None of the taller figures had drawn-in features. It looked as if she’d been imagining parents or siblings. As though she’d heard of them but had been unable to fill in the details.

“Okay,” Mark said quietly, “take her away. Rookie, whatever your name is, go have a look around, see if there’s anyone else living here.”

He coughed into a balled fist and wondered for the umpteenth time how long it might be before he, too, caught the bleeding disease. Nobody wore masks any more. Each day was a weary plod of expectation, waiting for that first bloody cough or the cramp in the stomach. It could be smoke inhalation, or a touch of consumption, or even, quite simply, hunger. But more often than not it was the beginning of something far worse.

While Peter Jude began the onerous task of arranging for the unnamed body to be transported to the vast pyres which burned continuously beyond the city walls, Mark stared out through a grimy window.

The city festered beneath a pall of wood-burning smoke. Through drifting smog he could see half a mile away in the city centre the tops of office blocks lit by artificial light. Electricity was reserved for the elite. There were those who were left who had once commanded respect like councillors, bankers and businessmen. But they were the ones who now had to buy respect by promising electric light and heated food. High above the streets they felt safe in the false hope that elevation would somehow spare them from the airborne spoors of contagion.

As if? Mark thought.

Mark knew full well how useless it truly was. He had attended too many deaths in those gilded eyries. Infection did not depend on relative wealth, nor was it barred by dirty double-glazing or rusted steel shutters. Blood merely flowed. It soaked whatever it touched, whether it be a cache of redundant pound notes or a hand-made necklace of platted twine with a carefully filed triangle of bright yellow glass nestled in the hollow of a dead girl’s throat.

On the rare occasions he agreed to climb the many floors to the top of a high-rise, he felt far removed from the plight of these privileged few. For all he cared, they could fester where they fell. Let others discover their mouldering remains, let them loot and rob, and fair play to them.

Once he’d felt envy, a long time ago. No more.

He looked down at the cracked tarmac three stories below, seeing shadowy figures like disembodied wraiths huddled in rags around softly glowing braziers. Long-abandoned and cannibalised vehicles were slewed this way and that. Rust and jagged shards of metal, scattered chunks of masonry, pitted glass spiked into the gaps between paving-slabs and lying in the gutters like discarded zirconium.

Below in the filthy streets the population had fragmented into dozens of fortified fiefdoms with blockades of barbed wire and stacked furniture turning streets and estates into impoverished ghettos. Begrudgingly, and with little respect, Peter and Mark forced a stamp on this fractured community.

“No neighbours,” said the rookie. “Thought I saw a couple of ‘spring-heels’ head up to the roof but they were long gone by the time I got there.”

Mark winced at the euphemism. That had been him once, not so long ago. A ‘spring-heel’. It wasn’t the rookie’s fault, he didn’t know. Despite this wretched existence the rookie had known his parents, had been brought up by them in the worst possible conditions. But he’d known them. Mark had never known his parents, had survived those same conditions by wits and guile alone. Because he’d had to. Because one by one everyone he’d ever known had died of the bleeding disease.

It seemed a lifetime away now but was as strong a memory within him as anything which had happened since; and with it a deep divide of recollection which often left him pining for the simplicity of it and yet appreciating the stability of what he now had.

He watched with sad indifference as the corpse-car was pulled to the front of the tenement. He stared at the half-dozen manacled prisoners straining at the straps.

The only reason for a man to be shackled to the corpse car, and for others of his ilk to be consigned with the task of pushing stiffened bodies into black plastic bags, was that they had committed a crime within the walls which even by the base standards of the day society could not tolerate. But still he winced as he watched the small bundle being swung by two felons at each end once, twice, three times before landing atop the dozen or so others already collected from the neighbourhood.

He’d once asked Peter what the point was of using body-bags, why not just throw the rag-ridden and bloodless corpses straight onto the back of the car? It was the one and only time Peter had looked at him with anything but compassion and care. It was, he said, their duty to protect the dignity of the dead, no matter the circumstances. He’d snapped at him: “We have to have standards, you stupid twat! We’re not bloody savages.”

Mark was reminded of this as he watched the corpse-car trundle away.

“Time to go, Mark,” said Peter Jude, and he looked at Mark with cold, grey eyes as he rubbed his hands habitually down the sides of his calf-length brown duster as if by doing so he could erase the touch of the dead.

“I’ll be right with you, Pete. Just give me a minute, okay?”

Why had nobody tidied the place up? he thought. Even a little bit. Maybe swept up the glass, or pulled a few weeds. It was just another body, he told himself. No different from all the rest. So why did he feel so empty this time, so gutted? Was it because she’d been a child, although God knew he had seen enough dead children in his time? Or was it the realization that he was becoming just a little too blasé about it all?

Far below, at the end of the street, he spied a figure dressed in shadow hunched over and bedraggled beneath the lop-sided and crumbling arch of an old grocer’s doorway. Mark had come across him many times, wagging a finger at him, telling him to move on. His ragged suit and half-mast trousers were thirty years old, and his long and gaunt head continually bobbed from side to side. His eyes were bulbous and flitting like those of a chameleon tracking the path of a darting insect. He was harmless, but he annoyed people. He was Teacher Bill, and he espoused mathematical monologues dedicated to a distant past. Beyond remembering, Mark thought, because remembering sometimes hurt more than the terror of today.

And he thought then of the rumours about how the plagues were levelling off, that the birth and death ratio were roughly equal for the first time in thirty years. Of course it was only conjecture. How could anybody know for sure? Were there people with clipboards and questionnaires wandering between walled cities and motte-and-bailey towns compiling statistics? Did they cross the makeshift drawbridges of ring-ditched villages or infiltrate the scattered bands of nomads who roamed the countryside?

Of course not. It was just the rumour-mill of whispered guesses passed between the walled cities by the likes of the ‘barter-lords’. Or by the troubadours, who had once been actors in a previous life, who now plied their trade with acrobatics and juggling and sometimes by reciting long-forgotten tomes to audiences at first bemused then rapt with amazement.

Mark and Peter stepped out into the street. Mark glanced up, saw a shadowy figure leap from one building to the next. As the figure disappeared he saw an anchored pole spring back, held taught by a length of rope, gripped, then released. In quick succession small, ragged shapes, held for a moment in flashing silhouette, disappeared into the darkness of an adjacent crumbling rooftop.

‘Spring-heeled jacks’ or ‘roof-skimmers’ had once been Mark’s brethren, his saviours. Mark’s band had been called ‘The Broadgate Urchins’, his family, becoming more important to him in his early years than any of the relatives who had reluctantly taken him in.

He’d learned how to steal. To fight. And in the fullness of time how to kill. But the ‘roof-skimmers’ were fiercely territorial. They fought constant running battles for control of their lofty world, rarely venturing down unless forced to by hunger or disease. Eventually, at the age of fifteen, he’d been shot and stabbed, and his attempt at escape on a thin pole between chimney-stacks had been ill-timed and he’d plummeted.

They passed by the gate at the foot of which Peter had found him all those years ago and he fancied, as he often did, that he could still make out the stains of his impact, imagining his blood splashed up the rough wood and corrugated-iron structure.

They passed a litter-strewn alleyway and a freshening breeze brought the stink of stagnation to them. It was a familiar smell, coming as it did from the filthy canal that ran choked and clogged by debris behind crumbling tenements.

A familiar smell because it had been the first thing Mark had smelt all those years ago as he’d regained consciousness lying on a threadbare sofa in Peter’s flat. Occupying the top floor of a small abandoned newsagents it overlooked the canal which travelled in a straight line between a melange of multicoloured home-made tents thousands strong which lined the towpaths on both sides for as far as the eye could see.

Sometimes when the weather was good and if the wind blew the stinking smoke of the pyres away from the city Peter would carry Mark up to the roof. He’d built a ramshackle aviary and had lured pigeons and other birds with scraps of food. Mark soon realized that this was a special place for Peter, a place where he always seemed more relaxed, where his thoughts could escape from the horror below. Where a kind of peace could settle upon him.

It was here that Mark first heard the truth about a distant life. A life full of wonderful banalities. Mark could allow his imagination to take hold and for a few precious moments be transported to a place far away from death and disease.

Birthdays and Christmases. Being tucked up in bed. Things Mark had never experienced. But the way Peter told them Mark could close his eyes and find himself transported to that warm bedroom, with the sun shining. Could feel the lingering touch of a mother’s hand as she palmed away the fringe from his eyes, the soft feel of her lips on his forehead

They moved on into a fog of wood-smoke. Oil lamps were extinguished and doors creaked open as hollow-eyed residents emerged. Some would head to the gates with a few meagre possessions to await the arrival of the ‘barter-lords’, while others carrying hoes and spades headed off to the polytunnels to tend and harvest what little could be grown within the city.

They passed a derelict car park. Flaking scabs of rust hung from the abandoned hulks of skewed vehicles. Doors creaked as shadowy denizens emerged from within into a miasma of drifting smoke and grey, watery sunlight. There were squabbles and short, vicious arguments all around them.

But there was order too. A woman brushed dust and debris away from the front of her house Two neighbours chatted amiably as one tried vainly to scrape a crust of soot from cracked windows held together with cellotape, while the other washed ragged clothes in an ancient tin bath.

They passed the ruins of the old Council House and he imagined how those who had once worked here must have felt as they watched their city disintegrate around them. He recalled what Peter had told him long ago: how, in the beginning, some dedicated scientists had tried vainly to find reasons for the plague, struggling to understand why it seemed to be mutating, and why, as a consequence, it became impervious to antibiotics until it got to a point where medical science was rendered inept. How, when the disease turned pandemic, it soon became clear that no solutions, let alone a cure, could be found in time. The only hope for the rest of the world was isolation.

Next had come a nightmare of chaos and anarchy. From the highlands of Scotland to the rugged coastline of Cornwall, the insulation of a nation in crisis manifested itself in cruel barbarity. The darker aspects of the human heart became a precedent unequalled in the history of the world...

“By ’35,” Peter told him one day, gently wiping away the sweat of fever with a damp rag, “those cities which had not been razed to the ground or abandoned began to exist autonomously. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the world had a bit of a bash at helping us poor, disease-ridden ‘Brits’, but it didn’t last long. I was young back then, but I remember parachutes coming down with food and medicines, but there was just never enough.

“And anyway after a few months it all dried up. They starting dropping leaflets instead, giving us advice on how to help ourselves. How to grow crops, form an emergency government, all that sort of bollocks. And all of it written out in detail by so-called experts who know sod-all about what it’s like to slip back five hundred years in the time it takes to take a dump.”

Ancient afflictions such as smallpox, rickets, tuberculosis, even leprosy, swept through major cities. Infrastructure collapsed. Riots ignited spontaneously. The British Armed Forces could do little to help, having been stretched to breaking point across half the globe. The small contingent of regular troops of all the armed forces which had not been deployed along with a mass call-up of territorial army members did little to quell the rising tide of insurrection. Armed gangs hundreds of thousands strong descended on London to demand action from the government. But there was no action. No solutions.

So the Houses of Parliament burned.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Steven Hemming

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