By Nick Frampton
Text copyright © 2017 Nick Frampton
All Rights Reserved
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Also by Nick Frampton:
The River (Book One of The Cities of Life and Death)
Your Big Adventure: An essential guide to travelling, backpacking and gap years
It’s hard not to think of Ella. As I lie awake listening to the gas junkies in the flat above kicking six grades of shit out of each other it forces my mind to wander. I find myself beside a dark lake rippled with moonlight, whilst long brown hair wraps around my shoulders. The broken curfew is electric in the air and only the looming storm of dawn dampens the mood. But thinking is one thing and dreaming’s another; one helps, the other only hurts.
These nights she seems to creep in no matter what, rising above the yells of the petrolheads as they argue over who had the biggest huff, until the thought of her is everywhere.
4am hits and the junkies’ cries are replaced by the waking screams of the kids next door. I lost count at seven, fuck knows how many of them live there now; ten, eleven, twelve. It’s bad enough having to walk through the filth of it every day; the soiled clothes and gnawed to the bone chicken wings that spill out in to the corridor. But I can’t imagine living in it; all those bodies crushed together in the one room, trying to scrape a life out of the dirt. I wonder how they do it, I wonder why – why they’d bring others in to the world we’ve been left.
Maybe they think one of them will make it…have enough children and one’s bound to cross the line. Perhaps they’re hoping that one lucky kid will drag the rest of them out of the gutter in the process. Mum, dad, brothers and sisters all hanging on to their ankles as they claw their way to the Heights. But if one of them really were to escape, who’s to say they wouldn’t just look back at all the shit they left behind and just be glad to be free of it, family and all?
I drag myself from the sofa and shove the bedding to the floor before opening the window. It rained overnight, so at least they’ll be enough water to wash with this morning. I pull the bucket inside and dip a finger in to the half full pail, recoiling with distaste at the biting cold.
I could heat it up – and for a moment I close my eyes to imagine it: warm water running over my skin. And I could do it; there’s a little fuelscrap left, enough for a fire at least. But then the fear sets in, the thought of being without. Always there is the worry of getting sick and not being able to work. Fevers swarm the Zone; plagues and viruses sweep through us like rats aboard a freighter. You can keep your distance; sidestep the coughs, the sweating brows and the blackened fingers, but it’s always there, waiting in the shadows, stalking the corridors and worrying the streets. So I leave the crumbling block of fuel where it is, slowly reducing to dust, praying that when I really need it there’ll still be enough.
I step in to the bucket, toes curling against the soles of my feet to squeeze in to the cramped space and crouch in the freezing cold. If nothing else the water wakes me up. The shock of icy fingers raking my skin drags the sleep from my aching limbs and forces me in to morning.
It’s been days since it rained so much and my relief at being able to clean myself so thoroughly soon turns to disgust as I watch the water turn grey beneath me. A layer of mud and grime films on the surface and already I feel dirty again.
Shivering, I stand for a moment wrapped in the threadbare towel and wait for the feeling to return to my fingers. I should savour this moment and enjoy the sensation of cool, clean skin. In an hour the sun will be up, burning us all under its rays and bathing our clothes in sweat. In a few hours I’ll long for this moment and the memory of icy feet and shivering limbs. But for now all I want is to be warm and for the icy chill to leave my chest before it can take hold. Nothing lasts in the Zone, feelings are fleeting and we never want what we have.
My thoughts return to Ella as I dress. It’s impossible not to wonder which of my threadbare clothes will impress her most; which shirt is least faded; which shorts smarter. In the end I opt for a crisp black tabard style top with a low collar and high cut sleeves. I know I’ll regret it and that the dark material will draw every last ray from the sun and trap its heat against my blistering skin. But vainly I put it on, knowing that the black will frame my dark hair and chocolate eyes, just as well as it masks the bruises on my arms and the scratches on my neck.
In the corridor I pass one of my neighbours. A tired rim of black soot frames each of his eyes, but he still smiles at me as he runs through a familiar routine.
‘Evening,’ he says.
‘Morning,’ I reply.
I knew his name once, but now it escapes me, buried under the dirt and grime that fills our lives. But still I’m glad of this, whatever it is; this nod to some shared history when one of us must have made this joke for the first time. Now only this fragment of conversation remains, a remnant moment that slipped through the cracks and gained permanency.
Morning, evening – who knew what it was…who cared? Whether we worked through the day or the night it was all much the same. And if we weren’t happy there were plenty of others who would readily take our places.
‘Best hurry. Transporter’s shut.’
‘Shit.’ I hadn’t planned for that…hadn’t allowed the time. ‘Why?’
‘Some Zoner took a shine to this old lady’s necklace last night. Snatched if from her at the station in the Heights and jumped straight on to the transporter. Never found him or the necklace.’
‘You believe that shit?’
‘Don’t matter if I do. Gotta walk all the same.’
He was right, maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t – maybe they just wanted to make it that little bit easier to keep us out. Either way I had a six-mile walk ahead of me, and time racing away faster than moonshine in a lockdown.
‘Stay safe out there brother. It’s going to be a warm one.’
‘You too,’ I said, my pace already quickening as I walked away.
The streets are busy, even more so than usual. The news that the transporters are down again has filtered through to the tired and the weary forcing them from their beds even earlier. The pavement disappears beneath a sea of workers, all of us hurrying; all of us worrying about what it will mean to be late. For once those that work in the Zone are the lucky ones. They would have been on foot anyway; no transport out here except to the Heights. One way in, one way out.
Olivia throws me an apple as I pass her stall. The long arc of her arm is an unexpected splash of colour in the grey of the Zone. She has always been like this; clothes stained in the rainbow coloured juices of oranges and blackcurrants, strawberries and limebeans. But more than this her face sings with light, giving off a rare vibrancy that seems out of place here. I manage a smile in response and shout a ‘thank you’ as her bright features disappear in to the crowd. ‘I’ll give you a credit next week I promise.’
‘Sure, and I’ll be living in the Heights by then.’ She laughs good-heartedly, knowing that the credit I promise her is the same as I said I’d give her last week and the one before that.
This payment that’s never made is a legacy and one I should never have started. Once, years ago I foolishly smuggled her back a rose from the Heights. I remember carrying it back with the carefulness reserved for newborns: the petals cocooned beneath my jacket. I presented it to her knowing she’d never been to the Heights and never seen gardens overflowing with flowers. It was snow white; a single stem crisp and new, the petals still rigid, and its sweet perfume momentarily eclipsing the stench of the street.
I regretted it as soon as I gave it to her. Her smile told me it meant more to her than I imagined. That’s when the apples started: twice a week, every week. I should have said no the second time; once would have been ok – a favour for a favour. But now I’m in debt to her, and every week the burden grows.
Now the rose has become something heavy and dirty. My regret over it is another thing I can’t tell her, just as she doesn’t know that in the Heights the orchards are so full that apples fall to the floor and are left to rot in to the grass. Nor do I tell her that there are days when I’ve loaded sack after sack with them just to throw them away and all the time my stomach is rumbling and empty. She wouldn’t understand. Instead she pays a fortune for the worst of the harvest, walking each day to the gates and handing over more and more credits each time for a smaller and smaller hoard of fruit.
I kissed her once, before the rose and the apples and the growing debt between us. At least that was how it started. Of course it ended up being more than that, it always did. But it’s the kiss I remember, the rest fades in to the sweaty haze of youth; of beer soaked lips, hitched skirts and alleyways. But the kiss was different; unexpected, unfamiliar…unwanted.
She had broken rules she didn’t know existed and it was hard not to resent her for it. It’s bad enough having nothing, worse still when someone expects something from you and you’ve nothing to give. What could I offer her? A stolen rose, a few scraped together credits and the same dream that everyone else in the Zone had; that one day we’d get out, that one day it’d be different. But it never would. There’s too much in a kiss, too high a price to pay.
I know I’ll be late and that each minute will cost me. But if I turn up sweating, clothes wet with exertion and brow dripping with the ugliness of my exhaustion there’s a chance I’ll be turned away altogether. So I settle on a loping jog as the pavement grinds upwards in to my ankles and the heat comes down to push upon my shoulders. Already my knees hurt and a spike of pain snakes up my calf. Not for the first time I wonder if something is torn or broken; if some part of me is already wearing away. I try to push the thought from my mind. Already it’s so hard, day after day and I wonder how it will be when I’m 30, 40…50; how long before it breaks me, how long before I fall?
It takes me twenty minutes to reach the first checkpoint. Mick is on and already he’s waving people through without even looking at their papers.
‘Keep it moving people,’ he shouts. ‘Come on now.’
‘What’s the queue like at three and four?’ I ask.
‘Three’s a bitch, four…you should be ok.’
He buzzes me through and I walk through the gate. One checkpoint passed but still in the Zone. The whole thing’s a joke, I know it, Mick knows it, every fucking idiot in the Zone knows it. But they love it in the Heights, they lap this shit up like its cokedust; getting high off the gradual distancing of the Zone. [_More checkpoints, more control, fewer migrants. _]I’ve seen the headlines, it’s hard not to. They’re plastered on every billboard and transporter station from here to the top. And [_migrants? _]Just who are they kidding? How did walking across the city you were born in make you a migrant?
Of course there are protests, every time a new restriction is added the riots sweep the Zone. But nobody listens, the suffering shout over the suffering and the wealthy respond with sympathetic deafness. Only when the rebellion ends do they act; disorder has its price and the noose tightens a little more.
At the second checkpoint the rigours of the latest accords start to bite. Some new guy fresh from his training presides imperially over the littered floor and pummelled fencing. His uniform is still crisp and clean, temporarily free of spit and shame.
‘Name?’ he barks.
‘Adam 0532’ I answer, gritting my teeth.
‘Unit 798, Outer Zone.’
‘Reason for entry?’
I don’t answer, just silently hand them over and wait while he looks me up and down.
‘This is a transporter access pass?’
‘’You can’t be serious. Look around you – half the Zone’s here!’
‘Are you raising your voice to an Official?’
‘What was that?’
‘No, Sir,’ I repeat, the words creeping quietly from my lips.
He presses a button and the plastic cylinder in front of me swivels to reveal an opening. I step inside and am immediately hit by a wall of stale heat and body odour. The once clear plastic is scored and scratched and clouded with unknown body fluids. A fly buzzes angrily back and forth, the humming drone magnified in the small space of the tube. It lands upon the curved plastic in front of me and then propels itself agitatedly around the confined space before landing on my face. Six legs briefly crawl upon my cheek before I can brush them away. And then the door opens and we are both expelled in to the cooler air of the greenbelt. The fly disappears but I can still feel it on my cheek and I rub anxiously at the spot where its legs rested.
Someone shoves me from behind urging me away from the gate and I carry on in to the strip of undeveloped land that acts as a buffer between the Zone and the Heights. I move on, but a part of me is stuck in the gate, gasping for breath in the suffocating heat, the dirty shadow of the fly creeping across my face and infecting my thoughts.
I see the queue for the third checkpoint long before I reach it. An angry snake of Zoners spreads outwards from each gatepost like a dark vein endlessly feeding the Heights with fresh blood.
I pick the wrong queue, but it’s too late to change by the time I realise who lies in wait. His name is clearly printed on the lapel of his uniform but no one uses it. He’s got more names in the Zone than the rest of the guards put together.
Best just to stay silent, head bowed and teeth gritted. He doesn’t ask questions, he isn’t interested in what we have to say. His hand brushes my cheek as he reaches for the collar of my shirt. His fingers trace a line from just below where the fly landed to the nape of my neck, his thumb gently padding at the curl of hair on the nape of my neck.
He runs his fingers below the collar, lingering on my shoulders and the rising slope of muscle at the base of my neck bone. What weapon I could possibly conceal here escapes me. But security isn’t his real interest.
Next he moves on to the arms; feeling the bicep and leveraging his touch between the shirtsleeves and my skin. I tense the muscle to block his explorations, but it’s not enough, if anything it spurs him on.
He takes advantage of a missing button on my shirt and slides his hand into the opening. He suddenly races, excitement barely contained as his fingertips hurry across the soft down of my chest before stopping at my nipple and flickering back and forth across the hardening tip. I cough quietly, hoping to draw the attention of one of the other gate staff, but all eyes are downcast. The guards aren’t interested, and the other Zoners are only grateful that it isn’t them.
I can’t look at him, even though I feel his hungry eyes trying to catch mine. He regards me with the same misplaced lust of a Zoner on their first trip to the Heights. He shows no shame or guilt, there is only the thing he wants and the knowledge that no one will stop his pursuit.
When he finally withdraws his hand he pats down the material on my shirt as if chastising me for the missing button…as if it is my fault. He doesn’t check my sides; doesn’t feel for holstered guns or strapped on knives. What does he care if I blow the brains out of some entitled Heights guy later that day? Plenty more of them, even more of me.
As he traces the lines of my abdomen his grubby thumb edges beneath the waistband of my shorts and I think of Ella again. Where the guard’s hand is rough and selfish hers was so tentative, so unsure. Her eyes wide open in wonder, a warm mouth upon my neck.
The guard roughly swings me round, away from the waiting queue so my back is to him. He presses his body against mine and his flabby belly pools in the small of my back. His crotch, aroused and urgent presses at the seat of my shorts. A hand reaches round and plunges beneath my underwear and he grabs at me, fingers greedily pawing the soft skin.
A shout breaks out from the queue. I don’t hear what’s said; whether solidarity or impatience has saved me. Shame mutes the world, it is all encompassing. But whatever it was it does the trick. A moment later a firm shove ejects me from the gatepost and in to the waiting reach of the Outer Heights.
My skin feels as if it’s on fire, loathing eclipses the sun, the heat: everything. Waves of rage crash over me and threaten to break me apart. I feel like I can barely contain them; that if for a moment I let go everything will come crumbling down around me. And so I press on, eyes locked to the floor, head bowed beneath the beating sun, because to fight is to fail and none of us have energy to waste.
Beyond the checkpoint the streets open in to wide tree-lined plazas. These are not like the scant bushes of the Zone. The trees here serve no purpose, they yield no fruit and I have never seen a single one felled for fuel. They are simply nice to look at; broad branches dripping in oversized leaves reach skywards in an ordered line of colour. And that is enough here. Beauty is prized and cherished in the Heights, even on the fringes.
The space given over to a single tree is at least as big as my apartment, double if you consider its height. Yet nobody lives here. The wide marbled squares and streets are nothing more than a pleasant backdrop for those in the Heights unfortunate enough to have to trade with the Zone.
All along the border fence there are hatches where white-gloved hands can place boxes of food, clothes, tobacco; anything that has value in the Zone. When the required payment of credits is placed in the adjoining hatch the transaction is complete. The seller from the Heights can then retreat to their tree-lined boulevard never having fully interacted with one of us. Their final act is to stop at one of the coin cleansing stalls and all unpleasantness is washed away from their day with the filth of the Zone.
‘Morning,’ I say, as I pass intentionally close to a stout man waddling hurriedly away from his sale, his hands laden in credits. In response to my intrusion his bulging legs swerve sideways and he silently flicks the lapels of his suit jacket upwards like a shield. He eyes me with a mixture of disgust and fear, and a fresh trickle of sweat snakes its way down his glowing brow. I smile, ensuring my mouth remains pleasantly upturned and my hands visibly at my sides.
‘Lovely day,’ I add.
He lollops a little faster, tottering yet further away from me on stubby ankles, his breath racing ahead of him. I keep pace effortlessly, unburdened by the years of honey-roasted peacocks, truffle stuffed lemurs and sugar candied saffron cakes his corpulent body has had to endure.
‘Good to be in the Heights on a day like this – soak up the sun, breathe in the clean air.’
He stays silent but something in his demeanour changes. He stops and mops his forehead with a yellowing handkerchief and then snarls raptor-like in my direction: ‘I don’t know what you want you grubby little shit, but if you don’t stop hassling me I’ll have your pass revoked. I don’t care who you work for or why you’re here, now fuck off!’
I stop, feet rooting firmly to the floor as I watch the man retreat in to the distance. The tailored leaves of his suit flap comically behind him like the flippers of an enormous pinstriped walrus lolloping towards the safety of the sea.
Such little rebellions feed my grumbling heart like the bliss of sleep to an aching limb. It is a rare moment, savoured and sparingly taken. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the checkpoint I wouldn’t have taken the risk, but today I need it.
The final gate is the one that really matters; a refusal now will mean a wasted morning and another day without wages. For a moment I worry that the sweating walrus of a man will have reported me. I envisage hours of questioning, during which as many punches as enquiries are thrown my way. But how would he report me; what would he say? He doesn’t know my name; my number; my employer or my address. To him I am just another grimy face, a vermin upon the crisp white streets of the Heights, indistinguishable and disposable.
So I take my place in the queue unchallenged, lining up with all the other flotsam and jetsam to wash up upon the shore of the Heights.
I’m eventually greeted by a heavyset man in a finely pressed uniform and neatly trimmed hat. A cloying waft of cologne creeps through the holes in the scratched plastic wall between us and claws at my throat. We go through the same tired routine, the answers springing from my lips without thought as I reel off the numbers and addresses that define me. But beneath this my mind roams, seizing upon the inevitable question of who he had to screw or kill to make it this far. Because despite his finely manicured nails and the tailored satin shirt that clings to his growing frame he still reeks of the Zone. You can see it in his eyes; the awe, the gratitude – he wasn’t born in to this life. To his own continued disbelief he made it through the gates and he’s not about to let the rest of us follow without a fight.
He hangs a heavy chain round my neck with the words ‘Day Pass – Inner Heights’ in thick black type. For good measure he thumps a well-inked rubber stamp on to my right hand causing the skin to blush red with the impact. When he pulls the stamp away I see today’s date clearly marked in blue ink.
‘You know the rules, you go directly to your place of work, you don’t beg, you don’t engage in any unnecessary contact, and you make sure you’re back here by 8pm. Removing your pass; entering any premise except your place of employment; or failure to show by 8pm will result in detention and a punishment to be determined by a jury. You understand?’
‘Yes boss,’ I reply impatiently.
Finally he is done with me. The barriers lift and I am admitted to the Inner Heights.
I give my interrogator a cheerful wave and then flick him two fingers as soon as his back is turned.
Temples of excess line the streets on either side, credits flowing like sacrificial wine. The door to a patisserie shop opens and two children run out to the sound of a chiming bell. Their tiny hands are laden with towers of cakes, macarons, and wedges of chocolate gateaux, all packaged up in neat white boxes. The girl; the younger of the two drops a large box and it spills its load on to the street; red jam streaking the white marble floor as the cooled dessert explodes upon the sun-baked pavement. But she doesn’t cry. She doesn’t even look back to see the greasy stain of melting cream blossoming on the side of the discarded cardboard. Its loss is nothing to her.
I wonder what it would taste like and how much I could eat before the dense excess of cream and sugar proved too much for the bland walls of my empty stomach. But I don’t get the chance to find out. A well-dressed woman follows the children and laughs as her Pomeranian laps at the puddling cream, clumps of it staining its glossy brown fur.
Beyond the patisserie lies a sweep of pristine boutiques. The crisp windows brim with brightly coloured leather bags, shiny shoes with white-gemmed buckles and a clutch of mannequins draped in fox red furs. I imagine Ella strolling from store to store; her pale fingers drifting over ball-gowns and handbags with equal disinterest.
It is a safe and well-worn fantasy; me watching from behind iron rimmed glass windows as she picks up a blue dress that perfectly matches her eyes. She holds it to her breast; brown hair swimming over the sleeves as she inspects herself in the mirror. Perhaps the dress is to wear at a concert or play, or perhaps just for around the house. Or maybe she works in the shop; hands idly inspecting the goods as she waits for a customer to arrive.
I am reminded once more how little I know of her and how distant she has become. I don’t know if she works, or where she goes when she leaves my watching eyes. Beyond the confines of the house we are nothing to one another. The moment either one of us pass through the rolling grilled gates we are lost to the other until such time as we both return. Except Ella is never truly absent, never completely gone. I carry the memory of her with me wherever I go. She is unbound, free to come and go as she pleases.
It is some time before the sprawling stores give way to even larger houses. The homes of the Heights occupy the very centre of the city, commanding a view over all the rest. From here the outer ring of the Zone is just a distant smoggy cloud of black upon an otherwise pristine landscape.
Closer to home emerald green lawns and sapphire blue pools flank enormous white detached properties that gleam in the sunshine. From behind the finely clipped hedges of the wealthy comes the buzz and hum of a legion of drones mowing, watering and weeding the expansive lawns. But from the wealthiest mansions there is only silence; occasionally interrupted by the rising bubble of laughter as an heir or heiress escapes the playful eye of an au pair or nanny. Here the drones and robots lay idle while an army of men and women clip and preen and rake and wash. This shift heralds my arrival as I walk in to the world of the employers; the benevolent keepers of men who extend the hand of work to the Zone.
I’ve heard a hundred reasons why they employ us and turn their backs on the expensive gadgets that could do the same job. From generosity to tradition every possible explanation has been provided. But for all the drones and robots a homeowner can have, the greatest sign of wealth is showing you can buy a man; bring him to his knees day after day and still have him return for more.
The Fairwater’s house is enormous. From the road all you can see is a wide golden gate and the beginning of a sweeping gravel path that bends out of sight behind a towering laurel hedge. I ring the bell and wait patiently for the arrival of Griffin; the Fairwater’s live-in manservant. He is a short man with soft features. Twin green eyes lie beneath finely plucked eyebrows and his brown hair spikes upwards to the sky, streaked with the dyes that are so popular in the Heights. Today he sports a splash of purple, mixed with a subtler teal. His uniform – issued by the Fairwater’s to all their permanent staff – is customarily brief. An open necked shirt reveals a downy sweep of trimmed chest hair, the one anomaly in his otherwise androgynous look that enables him to flip flop so seamlessly between the bedrooms of the lady and master of the house.
His gleaming white shoes softly press upon the gravel pathway. He walks tentatively, being careful not to disrupt the freshly raked stones. At the gate he observes me quizzically as he waits for me to explain myself.
‘The transporter was broken; I came as quickly as I could.’
He pointedly looks at the watch on his wrist and then slowly steps forward, placing his chin upon the leather rest just below the retina scanner. The gates chirp and bleep in to life before swinging outwards, forcing me to step back in to the road to avoid their advances.
‘You’re two hours late.’
‘An hour and twenty minutes,’ I say, correcting him.
‘You’ll be docked two hours.’
‘Are you serious? Do you know how long it takes from the Outer Zone without a transporter?’
‘No. I don’t. And it’s of no concern to me either. Two hours…unless you’d like to finish up for the day now?’
‘No. Thank you. Two hours it is.’
He signs my work papers with an exaggerated flourish and then tosses them in my direction. Throughout, the fixed look of disdain upon his face never fades. I feel like reminding him that the only difference between the two of us is that they make me wear a sign around my neck. The moment he becomes too old, or puts his back out, or some expensive ornament takes a tumble to the floor they’ll kick him back to the Zone so fast he’ll get whiplash. It almost makes me feel sorry for him; this strange man that has been groomed and trained into domesticity but will one day be cast back in to the wild fully unprepared for what he’ll find beyond the barriers.
We skirt around the house, being careful not to stray beyond the crisp neat lines of the path at any point. With every cautious footstep the soft crunch of stones triggers a visible wave of panic as each worker discreetly raises their head to check who approaches. Their relief when they see Griffin and I is palpable and they return to their task in the knowledge that they have escaped scrutiny a little longer.
Griffin deposits me at the rear of the house as he pauses to inspect the work of one of the new girls who is frantically scrubbing the alabaster tiles surrounding the main swimming pool. His tirade of abuse fades in to the background as I continue on through the garden alone.
One of the gardeners; Sam or Simon or something like that is already at work pruning a hedge that seems to run for miles. His shirt is dark with a thick channel of sweat running down his spine. I can almost smell his fear. He makes slow, cautious movements, trying to keep his body temperature low. The sickly-sweet smell of sweat belongs in the Zone. It’s the stench of hard work, the crush of too many bodies in too small a space, of writhing dancers pressed up against the wall of an underground club, hips and tongues twisting to the beat of the music. But there’s no place for that here, here it’s unsightly – here it can get you fired. When he sees me approach he risks a flap of his shirt as he tries to generate a breeze in the stifling heat.
‘Who’s in today?’ I yell as I pass by.
He knows what I mean by ‘in’; he’s been well trained to think with deference. He doesn’t tell me about the cleaner, or the caretaker, or the cook, or the housekeeper, or the pool boy, or the tennis coach…because whether we’re here or not doesn’t matter.
‘Just the lady of the house and Miss Ella today – the Master and the little’un have gone up to the lakes to escape the heat.’
I can’t help but smile at the news, not only that Frank Fairwater is absent today, but even more so that Ella is in. I slow my pace a little; savouring the hope that today she’ll finally come in to the garden.
‘You should ease up,’ I say to him.
He mutters something in reply and waves me on through the garden, anxious not to be seen to be shirking. Not that I blame him – if he were to be taken on permanently a gig like this could set him up nicely. The grounds are big enough that by the time he’s finished once, everything will have grown up enough for him to start over.
I turn around just before I reach the path and already he’s returned to work, head bowed slightly from the sun as he scrabbles to catch every falling twig before it dirties the immaculate white gravel yard.
It is towards the edge of the property, beyond the pool and barely in sight of the house that I reach my own labour: the path.
The path was meant to be a small job – three, maybe four weeks at most. Anyone could see it was nothing more than a folly, a metre wide strip of brick that stretched from the far corner of the garden, past the pond and through the orchard before slowly creeping towards the back door of the house.
I started on it in the late spring. When I was handed the design I thought it was a joke. It was a child’s drawing – a yellow and red scrawl of crayon on a sea of green – the work of Ella’s younger sister Faith. My customer wasn’t the master of the house, nor his wife; but a three year old with a blank sheet of paper and more money at her whim than I would ever see.
If I could afford to be proud I would have turned it down. Instead I resolved to finish the job as swiftly as possible and move on. And that was how it began. I started at the far end and worked quickly, making good time. Each day I advanced closer and closer until the house finally came in to sight.
But when I neared the swimming pool I saw her: Ella Fairwater standing at the window brushing her hair as she surveyed the family estate. At first I didn’t recognise her, but there was something familiar in her strangeness. Her body was tall and slender, and in her mid-twenties she hadn’t yet developed the paunch of the Heights that comes from years of rich foods and fine wines.
In the days that followed I saw her again and again, moving through the house, invisible until she appeared in a different window – like a ghost drifting between worlds. And then the ghostly figure walked its way in to my dreams, gathering memories to it…and I remembered.
From then on my work on the path slowed. I started watching for her, trying to anticipate her movements and where she might be at any given time. Her appearances became more frequent, her presence ever more lingering.
It was only as I grew close enough to see her face that I realised she was watching me too.
I take up my usual position on my knees, cement trowel in hand and a pile of bricks by my side. Ella is in the bedroom window with a book, the pages surreptitiously unturned. I start working; smoothing the ground before placing a warm ochre brick in to the path and removing the excess cement. I can do this in my sleep; the simple rhythm is so familiar now that I don’t need to pay attention. Instead I can focus my attention on the window: on watching.
Twenty minutes pass, maybe more, before I’m interrupted by the jolt of a water bottle thumping in to my side. I bolt upwards, leaping in to anger, but the gesture is one of camaraderie rather than dismissal.
Boltz stands over me, his t-shirt streaked in gold paint and his face splashed with silver.
‘Griffin give you a hard time?’
‘Yeh’ I reply. ‘Docked me two hours.’
Boltz hisses a string of abuse in Griffin’s direction; some words I recognise, most I don’t. It’s worse when he’s all riled up like this, and curses are the hardest to untangle. He spends most evenings on the gas getting off his tits on the cheap stuff they use for knocking out pigs in the abattoirs. So now he speaks like a junkie, made-up words slipping seamlessly in amongst the real ones, unable to determine which the rest of the world knows and which are only recognisable to his equally gassed up mates.
‘You ok Boltz?’
‘Just grikes me, jumped up little Colikoko. Who does he think he is?’
‘How’d you get in so early?’
‘Blikko, works on the transporters. Told him yesterday not to come in.’
‘Yesterday? I heard they shut it down due to a robbery last night. You saying otherwise?’
‘Told him yesterday – that’s all I know cuz, bunch of Yininikkers knew yesterday. They fuck you over cuz, I tell you: they fuck you over!’
Boltz is growing animated, his voice escalating perilously.
‘Show me how it’s going then,’ I say, trying to steer the conversation away to less dangerous territory.
He smiles and leads me out of view of the house to a large tree with a paint-stained ladder propped against the trunk. Overhead the leaves are slowly changing to silver as Boltz, methodically transforms each one using a tiny brush with bristles the length of eyelashes. A can of gold paint is propped amongst the branches and a shining apple glistens golden in the morning sunshine.
‘Looking good my friend! Looking good!’
I clap Boltz amicably on his back and for a moment the two of us stand observing the beautiful pointlessness of it. Neither of us know why he’s painting the tree, or how Boltz came to be there. Presumably at some stage Boltz knew, but the answer is lost in a haze of gas and weed and the huffed up meth bags he steals from the rehab centre. Somehow it doesn’t matter, in some way the planets have aligned and as unlikely as it seems this chemmed up junkie from the Zone is a genius with the paintbrush. Every line is perfect and not a single blade of grass beneath the tree is splattered with paint.
‘Smoke?’ he asks and proffers something that looks like weed and smells like asphalt.
I take the joint and Boltz lights the end, sending a puff of red smoke in to the air.
‘What is it?’ I ask. But Boltz just shrugs in reply.
It’s good stuff and I can feel the corners being shaved off the morning and the ground smoothing in to pillows. It would be good to take a break; a proper one, and for a moment I think about joining Boltz and just kicking back amongst the trees. But then he takes the spliff from my lips and the buzz recedes sharply.
‘Easy cuz. It’s not one for greeners.’
I’ve smoked enough of Boltz’s rollups to heed the warning and exhale deeply, leaving the rest of the joint in more experienced hands.
‘Should be getting back anyway.’
‘Sure cuz, don’t wanna miss her do you?’
Boltz laughs and picks up his paintbrush, joint firmly planted between his lips.
‘Ain’t nothing comes between you and that girl is there?’
The morning passes slowly and the fug of Boltz’s smoke fails to lift until well after Ella disappears from her room for lunch. At 1pm Griffin calls us all together, lining us up around the poolside. There are twenty or so of us; mainly permanent staff but a few like Boltz and I employed on some temporary need. Griffin smiles, revealing a rarely seen sweep of bone white teeth that erupt like gravestones from his pale gums.
‘Wait here,’ he commands gleefully, before disappearing in to the house.
There are many reasons why Griffin calls us all together, some more sinister than others and instinctively I worry which end of the spectrum we’ll be subjected to. After five minutes or so he returns. He walks ceremoniously, left hand raised as he gently guides Mrs Fairwater across the lawn. A white tunic with gold leaf trim stretches tightly over her generous frame, failing to conceal the many feasts and banquets that linger on her ample hips.
Griffin helps her in to one of the pool loungers and then waits whilst drinks and parasols appear from the house; the inside staff briefly crossing over in to the outside domain.
Cassandra Fairwater speaks, revealing a small wobbling voice that creeps from behind her jowls like a mouse.
‘Inspection,’ she says.
The coolness of the word strikes through the heat of the afternoon. Inspection – such a bland word, but in the Fairwater house it has much meaning. Clothes are swiftly peeled off, shirts clinging briefly to sweat kissed backs before being placed without fuss on the poolside floor.
Shoes and boots are set aside before shorts and underwear are removed,
A quick glance around reveals a sea of uniformity. The permanent staff unveil a set of hairless torsos, all hints of pubic fuzz carefully removed. Only those of us on temporary work placements stand out; unruly patches of wiry hairs signifying us as clearly from the Zone.
Ghosts appear at the windows of the house; silent figures that watch this parade from behind glass panes. The world of the inside staff is as alien to me as ours is to them. I hurriedly search the windows for some sign of Ella, unsure whether her appearance would stir excitement or shame. But as ever, when one of her parents’ inspections occurs she is absent.
We are called forward one by one, Cassandra casting a butcher’s eye over us all. Here she compliments a breast, there a thigh or a particularly appealing rump. Occasionally she will nudge Griffin and whisper in his ear.
When it comes to my turn I walk slowly round the pool before coming to a stop immediately in front of Cassandra and Griffin. Two pairs of eyes watch as I slowly turn; lifting my arms and flexing my muscles as I expose pale flesh to the sun.
‘Next,’ Griffin calls and I take up my position on the other side of the pool. At the end of the inspection a few are called back for further consideration until a young woman is selected. I recognise her as the one who was scrubbing the poolside when I arrived.
She looks nervous as she’s led away towards the house. I know exactly what she will go through. But I also know that strange feeling that will follow afterwards; not relief, nor shame, nor even contempt, but disinterest. Perhaps it is because it is so different here; so far removed from the Zone where sex is immediate and urgent; where bodies contort and writhe in equal energy. But in the Heights their bodies; their mannerisms, their innate entitlements are so alien that it is almost impossible to recognise the puffing, roll of gluttonous lust that falls upon you as sex.
I smile at the young woman, hoping to reassure her, as if my smile might convey that lesson learned that it doesn’t matter. They can’t take any more from her than they already have and soon it will be over, and when it happens the next time it won’t be so bad and one day she simply won’t care whether she’s picked or not, it’ll all just be part of the job.
I smooth the crumpled fabric of my shirt back over my torso. An unruly crease has appeared; an unsightly ridge of fabric that feels enormous beneath my fingertips. I glance up at the house and there she is, walking slowly back to her room and taking a seat at the window.
Ella’s movements through the house are like a stone falling in to a pond; the ripples expanding and spreading. As she settles the rest of the house staff disappear from their vantage points and those of us in the garden return to our work. But Ella remains, watching, always watching.
I rub a firmer hand over the crease cursing my misfortune. My hand rises; teetering on the edge of a wave but I manage to withdraw in time. When something happens; a wave, a conversation…a kiss, I want it to come from her.
I pick up a pile of bricks and slowly place one in to the sunken earth. I am so close now: the house looms over me carrying its cargo of men and women as we grow nearer with every brick. Still she watches; a book lies idly in her hands, the pages unturned.
I’ve become much braver in these past few days. The growing closeness of the house should deter me, but if anything it spurs me on. If ever there was a time she might recognise me; might remember – it would be now. As the chasm between us narrows I hold her gaze; allowing my fingers to wander over the bricks unwatched; feeling for them by touch alone. Any number of the staff – inside or out – could see, but I do nothing to hide the disinterest in my work. After all these years we are so close again; so close that I cannot do anything but watch; watch her watching me.
It must have been five, six years ago – I was barely nineteen, Ella maybe a few months younger. I’d been dared to cross the fence in to the Heights. Security was looser then, the chokehold of the accords having not yet tightened around us. Then it was still possible for a boy to cross in to another world and find a girl standing by a lake.
I think she knew as soon as she saw me what I was – that I didn’t belong. Beside hers my best clothes looked like rags. Her porcelain skin shone in the moonlight whilst mine could only manage a dull lustre. It must have been so obvious where I was from, and yet she didn’t care. She looked as miserable in the Heights as we were in the Zone. And just as eager to escape.
She let me sit with her and offered me a sandwich. I tried not to eat too quickly but the bread was so soft; the lettuce so crisp and the chicken…real chicken; it tasted incredible.
‘I’ve never eaten meat before.’
The admission blurted out of me unbidden, taking flight in to the evening air as I rushed to fill the silence.
She laughed; ‘Of course you have! You could have just said if you wanted another one you know!’
The laugh hurt more than her disbelief and more even than knowing it was true. I ate the second sandwich, and a third, the embarrassment growing with every bite. And yet I couldn’t stop, I knew that every mouthful might be the last time I tasted tomatoes so juicy, or butter so smooth, or that it might be my last ever bite of chicken.
We talked for hours, each of us bewildering the other with stories we couldn’t imagine. When I said I’d never been in a car, or that no one in our family had ever finished school, or that I’d never drunk milk she looked at me as if I was mad.
I couldn’t tell her that half the things she spoke of I didn’t even understand.
At some point she must have told me her name…and yet I don’t remember those words: ‘I’m Ella, Ella Fairwater,’ she must have said. But the memory of it escapes me. Instead I remember the feeling of grass beneath my feet; soft and strange. I remember her laughing – kindly this time – a rich bubbling sound that filled the night with warmth.
‘Tell me about life in the Zone,’ she said. And I did, except I left out the worst of it; the crowding, the noise…the stench associated with too much life.
‘Well the moonshine, that’s like nothing I bet you get here – booze so strong it’d knock you out for a week if you didn’t water it down. And the parties – when it’s past curfew there are these places you can go; kind of like bunkers – never in the same place two weeks in a row so the Zone-guards never find out.’
‘That sounds exciting, nothing like that ever happens here.’
‘You must party though, you know all rich kids together.’
She didn’t answer. Now it was she that was uncomfortable. The more I spoke the more her eyes widened in disbelief as the unfamiliar world of the Zone came to life in front of her. I grew bolder, bragging of all the freedoms she imagined came with living in captivity.
Suddenly the time for talking came to an end, suddenly it was me that was the more experienced. The Zone is no good for a lot of things, but life there is short and you live it while you can.
She kissed me back, her lips soft and wet as they traced a line from my lips to my neck and down towards my chest.
I remember the taste of her, how she felt; her body light and delicate, the fine strands of her hair shining silver in the moonlight and the heat of her breath warming my neck. Those memories remain printed forever on my mind even if time has taken the detail; so that the colour of her eyes, the sound of her voice, the name falling from her lips are all forgotten.
Her hair is so different now: Ella’s. It’s so different from that of the girl by the lake; in length, in shape…even colour. And for all the privileges of the Zone she looks older than me now, taller too. She watches me with strange distant eyes that show no sign of remembering, and yet there is something there; a desire behind the gaze.
The book falls to the floor and she doesn’t even stoop to pick it up. Her eyes rest on me and I wish I knew how to reach out to her; what strange language would bridge the divide between this Ella and the girl of all those years ago. I search her eyes again for some glimmer of recognition; some sign that I’m more than just an idle amusement for her, a pretty trinket to pass the time. But there’s nothing.
I place another brick in the path; another step closer to the end. Another day nearer leaving and time is running out for her to remember. They look so alike; the girl in the window and the girl by the lake. They have the same eyes; the same hunger, only the girl in the window never smiles, never laughs, never asks my name. And soon I’ll have to walk away from her and it’ll be as if I never existed. Another nameless face will step in to fill the void. And so I linger, delaying the inevitable, putting off the end. Waiting for the girl in the window to come outside. Because why won’t she; this girl who must once have stood by a lake and kissed a boy. But I’m still waiting for her to tell me she remembers: to tell me I am someone.
Thank you so much for downloading this short story. I hope that you enjoyed it and if so that you might consider leaving a review. As a self-published author your support means a lot and I would love to hear from you.
Adam 0532 is and always will be a free title – a thank you to those who enjoy my writing and for new readers a taste of the type of fiction I write.
If you enjoyed this book you might also like my novel – The River, an epic fantasy title available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more…
You can even read the first four chapters of The River right here, starting on the next page.
Goodreads: [+ Nick Frampton+]
By Nick Frampton
From the first day we were told to view the struggle for life with detachment. I remember clearly that being the word the Sister used. When she had finished speaking she must have seen the blank stares looking back at her. ‘Oh, of course, detachment – well it means distance, separation, perspective.’ More blank stares as three more unknown words were used to explain the first.
It was like that a lot to begin with, the frustrations of teaching language to newborns was permanently etched on the faces of the Brothers and Sisters. They would pour new vocabulary in to our waiting minds as we sat upon the cold stone floor until our heads were full to the brim. Words were given to us like shiny trinkets, every one beautiful and unique. But often their meaning was lost to us; such was the urgency, the rush to hurry us through our education. There were so many of us, and there was so little time to learn.
Words came upon us like snowflakes in winter, falling in great dizzying flurries of new experiences. But as soon as we reached out our hands to hold them they were gone, melted in the spotlight of our gaze. We saw the snowflake, but we couldn’t understand the snow.
I felt the frustration of the Brothers and Sisters grow and saw them tire and wane in their efforts. It made me sad, though I didn’t yet understand what that meant. All I felt was the emptiness in my stomach, the sweeping malaise as it stole across the room worrying at our brows and drawing the strength from our limbs. We were a disappointment, and it hurt.
To me words were like dewdrops on spiders’ webs. Look at one on its own and all you see is a drop of water, but connected they become something else – something wondrous and meaningful. Tie them together and you begin to learn.
The Sister tried again: ‘It would be best for you, for everyone if you try not to get too upset by what you see, if you learn to accept it and not to fight it. Not yet anyway. For some of you the time will come when you can and will want to fight, but now, now you must learn. You must focus on learning, listening, reading, talking, discussing. Do all that you can to find out about the world around you.’
There was a mixed response this time; a dangerous realisation that we were not all the same. Some of us comprehended more and were catching on quicker. Suddenly I began to compare myself with others and to worry about where I stood in the field of learning. I understood the essence of her message; the idea, but it still didn’t quite make sense. It didn’t marry with the images that reeled in my mind. Flashes of swirling waters dragging me down to breathlessness, a woman; her brown hair tangling around my fingers as we grappled for life, the shouts of soldiers, arrows singing, swords cutting, and bloodied bodies scrambling for safety. All of these were sad, all of these difficult to accept on the first day of our lives.
When days later I did finally come to stand on The City’s walls and look upon the River as it carried its tide of human bodies, I was reminded of the Sister’s word. Detachment. I tried above all else to hold that word in my mind in the hope that it might take root. I planted it like a seed and nourished it with willing, praying to the River that it might yield fruit. I said the word aloud, but once wasn’t enough and so I tried again.
Detachment. Detachment. Detachment.
But as much as I said the word the feeling never followed. I felt anything but. As I watched the bloody beginnings of human life, I wept freely. I was not detached.
Even then I could recognise the heretic in me, the stirring of emotions against rather than for the River. Seeing our god bringing us in to life, spewing us from its source in to crowded waters thick with the dead I wondered if it had to be this way, if birth had to be so hard.
I saw men like me, women too, struggling, clawing at one another in their desperation to be free of the drowning tide of the River. My tears fell for the ones who lived just as much as the ones who died. For the living are forced to make murderers of themselves in their first moments of life just to survive. I am living. I have killed. A strange bargain the River makes us strike so soon, before we can understand our actions.
Even those that escape the River’s clutches and make it out on to the broad sweep of the plains are not spared. There the killing moves from the watery might of the River to the hands of men. The swords and arrows of Rebel fighters pluck survivors from life and cast them instantly back in to death.
Of course there are some that run this gauntlet of bloodshed we call birth and survive. Some like me that make it all the way through the gates of The City. Like me they are called Riverlings: men and women born from the River, sons and daughters of The City of Life.
But we are not detached.
The cornerstones of our understanding were simple; the River was good; our god loved us and had given us life. The Rebels – who tried to kill us even as we took our first steps – hated us and wanted to take that life from us. But there was a third, another who held sway in the court of our existence: The City of Life. As unrelenting as the Rebels and as wondrous as the River, The City gave itself willingly to all. It was a haven, a place of safety that we had miraculously stumbled into. Its doors were permanently open to receive runners from the plain day and night. We were shepherded in by its faithful army of soldiers and watched over by the Brothers and Sisters of the Order of the River. The River may have given us life but The City and the Order sustained it.
The members of the Order devoted their lives to keeping us safe from harm and sharing with us the beauty of the River’s love. Good and bad were laid out for us as plainly as day and night. But of everything else we knew nothing. We had been born in to the world ignorant and blind to all the wonders the River offered us and the Order opened our eyes.
My thirst for knowledge was stronger than I could imagine. It consumed me, outstripping all other needs. Questions fell from my lips like rain, tumbling out of me in huge downpours of enquiry. But the answers came slowly, pooling at my feet in a slow drip of understanding. Each piece of knowledge sparked in me more curiosity. I wanted to know everything, but I had no idea how to prioritise my explorations. The truths of the world were laid out for us like paths in a wood; convoluted and crisscrossing and I was at a loss for which way to turn. That was how it felt, like running full pelt down a myriad of trails seeking information. But my actions were chaotic and my footsteps always favoured the less trodden routes. So I would deviate and twist and turn from my course to begin another in the hope that it would yield something bigger and better. I wanted to be the first to unearth each new treasure, because sharing my finds was as rewarding as the discovery.
We took our lessons in blank colourless rooms, with no windows and only a simple stone floor to sit on. There must have been seventy or more of us, crammed in tightly, knees touching as we sat cross-legged in rapture. But there was calmness in those surroundings, a bland comfort in dirt-brown walls and grey flagstone floors. It was a stark contrast to the vibrancy of the outside world I had fleetingly glimpsed. There a blazing orb of yellow had burned so brightly it hurt your eyes. A carpet of green grass was scarred by spewing tears of earthy brown and littered with the fallen; their bodies slashed with vibrant red. There was a safety in blandness and a danger lurking outside in the bright colours of morning.
In the safe haven that the Brothers and Sisters had built for us we learnt many things. Some things came in their proper place and some were thrust upon us unbidden; a cough from a Brother that had to be explained, that urgent confusing need for the bathroom that swept across the room like a plague and the sounds of battle drifting in from the world outside.
I marvelled at how easily some problems could be solved. When hunger first bedded itself in to my stomach I grew fearful of the dull rumbling ache inside of me. But then food followed shortly after and not only did it calm my restlessness but I found I enjoyed it too. Bowlfuls of pillowy white rice were passed round, threaded with succulent green beans and a juicy yellow corn that burst in your mouth. Each bite brought new textures, new tastes and I ate hungrily until a comfortable contentment fell upon me and the bowl was passed on to the next.
But for all the marvellous discoveries of that day it was the singular truth of the River’s generosity that was most clearly bestowed upon us. The River, our god, had given us our life, but more than that we had been gifted life immortal – blissful agelessness free from death.
‘Riverlings,’ Brother Matthew began. ‘Our lives are a unique gift from the River. We are not like the trees, the plants, the birds or animals we have spoken of. You will not age or grow weak with time. You have come to us fully formed, stepping from the glorious River tall and strong limbed and you shall remain like that always.’
I looked around and found he was right. A sea of toned, tall and flawlessly skinned men and women surrounded me. And from the oldest member of the Order to the newborn next to me there was no way of telling that they were separated in age by many revolutions of the sun. Except maybe there was something in the eyes – not a sign of age as such, but the members of the Order seemed to lack the wonder of us newborns. They had a look of experience and of life lived about them that we couldn’t yet echo.
So that was what the Brothers and Sisters shared with us: the gloriousness of our life and the knowledge that we would not age or succumb to death like the other creatures of the earth. We would not line, or wither, or slow in to ancientness. There was no reason we could not live for scores of revolutions of the sun, forever even. Time’s rigours meant nothing to us and the River’s gift came to us without conditions or terms.
Of course we were not indestructible; I knew that, we all did. That was our first lesson, we saw it before we even entered The City; we learnt it on the plains. It seeped in to our consciousness with our first clear breath of air, the knowledge that we could die. Although we didn’t understand what was happening we could see that those of us who fell, whose insides spewed out of them red and angry, didn’t get up again. The same could happen to us, arrows and swords could take from us the gift of life so recently given.
Our lives should have been a charmed existence with no sense of ending, but it was the Rebels that made us vulnerable. They had brought fear and death to our race. Because of them we could be killed, because of them we could die.
Sometimes the path of enquiry was clear, it was wide and well trodden and it was a journey we all needed to make.
Why do they kill us?
A universal look of sadness from the gathered Brothers and Sisters followed. Our suffering pained them – you could see that. It was easy to forget that they had once been Riverlings, that many revolutions of the sun ago they had been the same as us and had sat on the same stone floors asking the same questions.
Why do they kill us?
There was a moment of silence, a visible deference. It was not a question that could be answered by all. Sister Sandrine eventually spoke, serious and stern – a little less warm than her companions.
‘They call themselves the Rebels, the ones you saw on the plains. They are men and women that mean you harm. They do it because they have strayed, they have wandered far from the River’s love and now they have only hate. They kill because they hate The City, they hate us for helping you and they hate you for being born – for accepting the River’s gift of life. They would guard life only for the living, they do not wish to share the earth with newborns.’
It was so difficult that first day, so much was not understood, there were so many new words and changing tones of voice. I think I grasped what was being said, if nothing else that day planted the seed in my mind that I was to live by; the Rebels hate; they kill and hate and that is bad.
The crowd seemed placated, and after all it made sense; the soldiers of The City had led us to safety and the Order of the River had fed us, clothed us, sheltered us and shared with us what they knew of the world. We needed little persuasion that they were good and that those who sought to hurt us were not. The Rebels were the sole obstacle between us and life without end; they had already tried to kill us and would try again.
The air was thick with the weight of lines being drawn and positions taken. My stance was no different to that of my fellow Riverlings; it was clear which side we were on. What troubled me was the River’s part in it all. Was the River really so different? It wasn’t just the Rebels that took their share of Riverling life – people died in birth, I had seen it myself. Riverlings were dashed and broken upon the rocks, or drowned in the very waters that moments before had given them life. But I kept my doubts inside, locked in a dark and ugly chamber at my core. I joined my fellow Riverlings in kneeling, head bowed in supposition and repeated the words of the Brothers and Sisters as they prayed.
O River, god over all. Giver of life and guardian of men. Protector of your people and custodian of the earth. We give thanks for this day and for the gift of eternal life that you have bestowed upon us. We pray you keep us safe – let us walk always in your wake and keep us far from Rebel harm.
I spoke and even as I did I found I didn’t believe, not truly. I could feel it bubbling inside me; a seething mess of ingratitude and faithlessness that I wished would leave me. I didn’t want it and yet I felt it growing, gathering dark ideas to it and sowing in me the seeds of heresy.
The lessons continued, veering haphazardly from one topic to another. The members of the Order tried admirably to guide our chaotic quest for knowledge but with little success. We didn’t care in what order things were learnt, only that they were.
We accepted their words like truths without challenge. Their teaching became the foundation of our world, the stones upon which all else was laid. When later we made our own experiences they were cast in the image of those beginnings. The light the Brothers and Sisters brought to our understanding was the torch by which all future discoveries were illuminated.
It never occurred to any of us that there might be other truths; that knowledge could control as well as inform. They had the power to make us believe anything they wanted. The River may have given us life but it was the Brothers and Sisters who shaped that life, they gave it direction. They set us on a path we would follow all our lives.
At the end of the first day of our lives we were taught about sleep. Three of the Sisters led us to a dark room that they called a dormitory. It was simply decorated with stonewash walls and bare wooden floors. A dusty picture rail skirted all four walls and on each hung an embroidered scene of the River. In one a male Riverling stepped proudly on to the banks, the water behind him conspicuously calm. In another a Sister knelt beside the flow, a warm glow of serenity surrounding her as she bowed her head in joyous worship. A third panel simply read Praise the River, and finally, The River – life giver. It struck me how sanitised the scenes were, stopping short of the full truth. There was no drowning or fear, no Rebels or bloodshed. And there was no recognition that whilst the River gave life, it took it from us just as willingly.
The rest of the room was given over to curious wooden structures that we later discovered were beds. Each dormitory had forty bunks in it. We were given our choice of bed and shown how to wrap the mattress and pillow in sheets. Blankets were then folded in to a kind of envelope, which we would lie in for warmth. I chose a top bunk and once I was comfortable I readied myself to learn what this new experience might be.
The lesson didn’t go well. However much the Sisters tried to explain sleep they failed to make themselves understood. It seemed like we had been given everything in the space of a day; life, speech, taste, food, water and that in sleep all that would be lost. Overwhelmingly the response was one of suspicion and fear. It felt like a sacrifice was being asked of us. A rippling tide of rebellion swept across the room. Whispers of refusal could be heard passing between the Riverlings.
To us that day was everything. It was the sum total of our experience. To the Sisters however it was just another day and we were just another group of newborns; yet more of the endless progeny of the River for whom they were responsible.
Sister Hanne was the first to surrender and murmur exasperatedly that it was always this way. She concluded that we could sleep or not, it was our choice. Her confidence unsettled me.
It was the mechanics of sleep that really worried me. How would it work? How long should I sleep for? What would it feel like? How would I know when to stop? I must have worn these questions like a mask, covering my face in anxiety. Before I could even think how to give voice to them Sister Loro came and sat beside me.
‘Don’t look so worried,’ she smiled kindly. ‘You’ll sleep well enough, the River will see to that. And you’ll wake up tomorrow and wonder what all this fuss was about.’
I could see it in Sister Loro’s eyes; how fiercely she believed, how her faith brought her comfort and certainty. She gave her assurances like gifts – freely and generously. But in my hands they were like blunt tools, I lacked the faith to make them keen. I prayed my faith would come.
Irony was a word we had yet to learn.
Sister Kelo spoke the last words of that day, in a gentle soothing voice that seemed to draw sleep to us.
‘Young ones, before you sleep you should understand what it means to dream. A dream is a wondrous thing. In dreams you can have adventures you thought impossible. As you sleep the River will show you far off places and fill your nights with marvel. Dreams are a chance to live without limits; a place where anything is possible and waiting to be experienced.’
‘That sounds exciting. I want to dream.’
‘Well, I’m sure you will, if not tonight then the next. But remember they are not real. When you wake everything will have returned to normal. If you have a bad dream you need only wake and the shadows will disappear. You probably won’t even remember them.’
‘There are bad dreams?’
‘Well yes, sometimes. But you shouldn’t worry about them. There are many, many, more good dreams than bad ones.’
‘But how do we make sure we only get the good ones?’
‘Dreams cannot be controlled or chosen. They come to us, like life flowing from the River – a gift beautiful and pure. We should be grateful for dreams, even the bad ones, for in them we might learn something.’
‘Sister Kelo! You’re scaring them.’ Sister Loro interrupted. ‘Dreams are to be enjoyed! I myself had a quite lovely dream last night – about steaming hot fig pudding and sweet honey sauce, all washed down with cloudy apple juice from the orchard. Now there’s nothing to be worried about there!’
A quiet murmur of agreement rippled across the room that Sister Loro’s dream did indeed sound wonderful.
After a few more questions the Sisters left, extinguishing the lanterns as they went and plunging the room in to darkness. I closed my eyes, trying to imagine the hot fig pudding Sister Loro had described. But I realised I didn’t know what fig tasted like, or even honey – only that it was sweet, and so it didn’t really help at all. Instead I kept seeing Sister Loro’s face – the moment before she told the story – a mixture of concern and frustration directed at Sister Kelo. And as I drifted off to sleep that was the question that kept rattling around in my head – what was it about bad dreams that Sister Loro was so worried about?
The world had been remade in swirling waters. There was no city; there were no Sisters, no Brothers, and no soldiers to set us free. There was nothing except darkness and pain. Always the River dragged me down, tumbling and roughhousing. Whenever it felt like I might break free, watery arms pulled me back under. If a bubble of light broke through the murky black it was snatched from my eyes a moment later. Nothing was given freely. Life was not a gift.
Time was different there; moments spanned whole revolutions of an absent sun. It seemed impossible that my breath would last until the next surface breach. It felt as if I was being pushed further under with every movement, even though I fought with all my might to move upwards.
Limbs grabbed at me, mortal arms and legs scrabbled for a constant in the ever-shifting maelstrom. Fingers scratched, legs kicked and fists punched. I found my own body responding in kind, felt the yield of soft flesh and saw grey waters turn pink.
A woman’s face came in to focus. Her long brown hair was tangled and knotted like a net. Her hazel brown eyes were open, darting left and right. Slender fingers reached out to me but I pushed her away, down and down in to the bottomless darkness. She started sinking, the ground opening up beneath her. Gnarled tree roots ripped through the Riverbed and wrapped around her pale skin. Weeds meshed with knotted ribbons of hair and dragged her down further. The River was pulling her in, reclaiming her for some unknown purpose. And I was helping it, pushing and shoving at the woman, ignoring her pleas for help that escaped in desperate bubbles of air rising through the water.
But instead I pushed her further down, kicking against her flailing limbs to drive myself higher and higher. I surged through the water, chasing a cracked shard of light until I broke the black surface. I pulled myself desperately to the bank but it crumbled beneath my touch, the soil breaking in to fingernails and teeth, the tumbling rubble of the dead.
Without a foothold I fell backwards, plummeting back in to the River. I sunk rapidly, spiralling downwards like a stone, chasing after the body of the woman I had cast in to the depths. The world span around me; tumbling and falling. I opened my mouth to scream but there was nothing, just the quiet whisper of my frantic last breath as the River rushed in to fill the void.
I’m not sure if it was my own screams that woke me, or the cries of others. The dormitory echoed with the broken wails of Riverlings. The Sisters had promised us dreams but only nightmares found us; flashes of terror forged from our memories. And at their core, the darkest heart of those remembered horrors wasn’t the near drowning, or the murder that survival forced us to commit. The terror that gripped me was the fear of losing myself, of returning to those first few moments of life when I had no words, no thoughts and no voice, when I was just a nameless, empty body in the River. My nightmares were a prison of nothingness, an all-consuming darkness from which there was no escape.
Enjoyed this sample?
The story continues in The River, Book One of the Cities of Life and Death series.
In a ruthless world where even being born comes at a price, Ryan finds sanctuary in The City; a protected haven guarded by soldiers and governed by a religious order devoted to the River. There he joins the army; running the gauntlet of the plains, shepherding scared newborns in to The City and holding off the Rebel attackers. But as the bloodshed continues Ryan starts to question the war. And when long-held beliefs fall as quickly as dying soldiers, Ryan finds he is fighting not just to uncover the truth, but also to save his life.
The River is the first book in The Cities of Life and Death series – an epic mix of classical mythology and contemporary fantasy. Spanning worlds and lifetimes, the series tells the story of gods and heroes, lovers and warriors.
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Nick Frampton lives near Exeter in Devon, England and his debut novel The River was published in 2017.
As well as writing Nick loves getting out and about on the beaches and moors of Devon, attending food festivals with his baker-husband and is overly fond of watching 90s/00s verbose American high school dramas.
Nick travels whenever he can and wrote an early draft of The River whilst backpacking. The spectacular scenery of New Zealand inspired the landscapes of the novel.
Just before publishing The River he co-published a guide for anyone planning a gap year called Your Big Adventure.
In the future of the Heights the greatest sign of wealth is showing you can buy a man; bring him to his knees day after day and still have him return for more. Adam is caught between worlds, a daily migrant between the overcrowded poverty of the Zone and the wide tree-lined streets of the Heights where he works. To the Fairwater’s he is just another labourer, indistinguishable and disposable. But to Adam the memory of Ella Fairwater is the one thing he’s holding on to in the hope that she’ll remember a man who wasn’t always for sale. Adam 0532 is a dystopian short story of around 9000 words and includes a sample of the fantasy novel The River.