Deadline approaches, so here is the short story I am submitting for the MA. Some of you will have read parts, if not all of this, but not as one story. I thought it would be helpful, since so many people arrived at my site via ‘After The Fall’, to read it in context with the bigger story. I hope you like it, I’m quite proud of it. I know I said I was going to write some Alfie Twitch today, but a certain football team is playing a certain football match in an hour and the butterflies in my stomach are puking.
‘Truman, you can’t expect a crushed child on your watch to go without consequences.’
Derek Granger gulps down his Coke and burps.
‘People pay a lot of money to leave their kids here. It is supposed to be a safe environment, away from the Horde. They don’t expect to turn up in the evening and find little Jacob’s crushed torso at the bottom of the ballpool.’
I nod. He’s right, but I cite Katie from Big Slide Security in little red shorts as mitigating circumstances. He concedes my point with a nod of his own.
‘But this is your second death,’ he says. ‘Although I admit the first one was probably for the best.’
Derek walks around from behind his desk and stands over me. His tie pinches at his neck and dangles too long in front of my nose, tapering over his groin. I crane my neck. Sweat pools on his upper lip.
‘I also appreciate the sacrifice you made in helping me become regional manager.’ His words hang in the air. ‘So I’m not going to fire you, or even tell Clive.’
Clive is former IT consultant who has found a new lease of life as a Command Compliance Agent; one of thousands employed after The Fall who ensure nothing runs against State interests. Clive combines Kidsafe with three other businesses and the four apartment blocks in the square.
‘But I can’t cover for you forever, and you can forget about promotion,’ says Derek, flicking the ring-pull on his Coke as he walks back behind his desk. ‘You’re on Sanitation for a week. As long as no kid falls down the shitter in the next seven days I’ll consider you for Farmyard Beckett.’
Farmyard Beckett: Sitting in a wheelchair feeling sorry for myself while an oversized rooster called Clov clucks around me. It’s depressing and I’m not sure what the kids get out of it apart from a vague recollection of the days when we could all eat chicken.
The problem with Sanitation is there is now way to hide from Evie the fact I’ve been knee deep in kids faeces all day. She’s going to know I’ve let someone else die and been demoted and she’s going to ask questions about how we are ever going to get a room of our own if keep being such a dispirit.
‘Please, not Sanitation,’ I say. ‘Anything but Sanitation.’
Derek lobs the Coke can toward the bin, misses by a mile, and says ‘no can do’ in a weird American accent. He tells me to start by cleaning out little Jacob’s body before his parents arrive.
Evie and I live on floor 43 of Tower Three on the south side of Central Square. We share our room with a couple called Amy and Graeme. Graeme used to be a fitness instructor and DJ. He talks about football as if it still exists.
‘You Arsenal then?’ he asks when we first move in.
‘Of course,’ I say.
I’m not Arsenal. I’m the opposite of Arsenal. Had Graeme been the perceptive sort, he would have noticed a hint of a beat of a pause before my reply.
Our room faces Central Square, where Kidsafe lurks in the shadows of the four monoliths that surround it. We’re lucky. Those who face outwards have a permanent reminded of desolation beyond the city and get regular jumpers past their balconies. People don’t jump on our side. No one wants to land on a kid and have that on their conscience too.
Three weeks ago while walking a lap of our floor, I found a young boy about to jump. He was wearing his coat like a cape with the hood on his head and said he was ready to fly to freedom. I spent a few minutes talking to him, but that just seemed to make the situation worse, so I grabbed him and pulled him off the ledge. He spat in my face before et police cuffed him and dragged him away. three days later he stabbed his parents and jumped anyway, so I guess the point of this story is that I don’t have a great deal of truck with people who say ‘everything happens for a reason.’
When I get back that night, Evie is sitting in the corner of our room in the dark. She flicks the lamp on as I walk in. Once upon time, she found it cute how I sneezed when we turned the light on in the morning. Now, she resents it, calls it an affectation, a substitute for character. I just think we’re lucky to have electricity.
‘But that’s your problem,’ she says, standing up, hands on hips. I’m pretty sure she’s a bona-fide mind-reader. ‘You think we’re ‘lucky’ to have electricity, as if everything happens by magic.’
I don’t say anything, my eyes just dart around searching for something to hold on to because this is going to be a rocky ride.
‘The reason we still have electricity is because some people in this block have done something about it.’ I think she’s talking about herself now. ‘They have adapted, to help us survive.’ Yes, that’s definitely her. Evie used to work in a library, but is now a covert female self-defence instructor operating out of the basement of Tower Two. ‘They haven’t carried on living in dreamland, as if nothing has changed.’ I think she’s talking about me now. ‘You do anything for a quiet life.’ Told you. ‘But there is no quiet life now. The world is different. Look at Clive.’ Here we go. Clive comes up in conversation a lot more these days. ‘He was a loser before The Fall. Look at him now.’
Yep, a real winner. Snitching on neighbours to Command. Evie sees my look.
‘I know what you’re thinking, but at least he’s got a house. A house with running water, Truman! It’s amazing.’
‘It might not be amazing,’ I say. ‘It might be a depressing two-up-two-down with a damp problem.’
‘It’s not! It’s spacious and warm and safe.’
There is a charged silence, our breath held. I think of Derek and his tie dangling over his groin and my own, private sacrifices. I think of our son, Joe, who deserved better than us and I move to say something, but my mouth goes dry. Evie spins back towards the window and folds her arms.
‘Some of us are doing what we have to to survive.’
I walk towards her, my footsteps loud on the bare floorboards, but she stops me dead with a raise of her hand.
‘Don’t. Just go.’
Amy and Graeme wave silent, sympathetic waves from the corner of the room and I walk back down the 86 flights of steps to go sleep with the Outcasts in the abandoned Morrisons. I lie awake thinking of Jacob and his crushed torso, but fall asleep and dream of Joe.
Derek fires me the next day, says he has no choice, says Clive somehow found out about Jacob. Derek swears it wasn’t him, asks if Clive could have found out any other way. I imagine Evie curled up on his sofa telling him aaallllll about me, shake my head, then Derek’s hand and walk out. I have nowhere else to go but back to Morrisons so I find a spot in the baby aisle to make my own.
That night, one of the Outcasts shakes me awake. He tells me his name is Norris and warns me there are some bad people in this Morrisons who will make my life Hell if I don’t do as they ask. I tell him my life isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries right now anyway and he says that doesn’t matter, I will need protection. I say thanks for the advice and next time don’t bother waking me unless I’m on fire.
He then lays down next to me and puts his arm over me, whispers it’s nice to see a new face around here, at which point I get up and walk out of the abandoned Morrisons. I steal a sleeping Outcast’s coat on the way out.
I spin around. Evie is staring at me, smiling. She reaches out to feel the sleeve.
‘It’s very, purple.’
‘I feel like Grace Jones. Found it in a skip,’ I lie.
‘How are you doing?’
‘Well, I haven’t been sexually harassed for 11 hours.’ Evie nods, non-committal. ‘I mean, that’s a good thing. It’s progress.’
‘Good. Well, good.’
She avoids eye-contact, but it’s really on her to end this humiliation. The thing is, I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t want to live with someone who can’t keep a four-year-old alive.
‘Actually, I’m glad I bumped into you,’ she says finally.
I look at her cheekbones and the two dimples that appear when she smiles a genuine smile. It’s her tell.
‘Oh,’ I say, trying to sound hopeful.
‘Yes, there’s a job going with the Agency and Clive mentioned you might want to apply for it.’
Clive. It seems to me some people are finding life a whole lot easier since The Fall. After all, everyone’s just doing what they can to survive. Do a shitty thing, blame it on our collective plight. The thing is, I was pretty good at not doing the right thing before it all went south. Like when Joe was born. He was a good kid, but he was boring. Little kids are boring and I’d do anything to avoid playing trains with him, because he’d make me do the same thing over and over and over again and I didn’t mind it for a while, but Christ kid, let’s mix it up a bit. But what was I doing instead? Looking at shit on my phone mainly, and now phones don’t exist and neither does Joe, so all I have are memories of me trying to ignore my son.
So when Evie smiles at me and offers me a way out of another night with Norris in the baby aisle, something inside stops me from saying yes.
‘Great,’ I say. ‘I’ll think about it.’
Evie looks me up and down and snorts.
‘Well, I’m not sure what you’ve got think about.’
‘We always have choices, Evie.’
I pull my coat up around my neck.
‘Fine, do whatever you want. I said I’d ask. Your funeral.’
She walks away.
Morrisons isn’t so bad. Norris is clean at least, and each time he touches me I get to say sorry to my son.