by Aliya Whiteley
My real name is gone, so far in the distance that the thought of it coming up fast behind me seems an impossibility. Age, however, has displayed no such qualms; it has pounced, shaking me between its teeth, until my skin sags and my gums flap.
But I have decided to not dwell on the things that have happened and the marks they have left. It is enough to have my place in the biodomes. I am now a product of my situation; that is, the forcing of life into forms and shapes it would never assume if left to its own devices. But it must be made to fit the space that is assigned to it, and the truth is there’s not much space left.
We are squeezed together, the melons and I.
‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil. I should be paying attention, but instead I’m chewing over the fact that he started off as a worker too, and now I must call him Mister while he uses a nickname for me. ‘How’s impregnation going?’
‘Areas twelve to twenty-two are done.’
‘Good, good. Anything you need?’
A fresh life, Mr Cecil, I should say. ‘No, thank you.’
‘I’m off to Courgettes, then. Shout if there’s a problem.’ Off he goes, in his little motorised buggy. I watch it recede along the rows, and then the calm of the melons reasserts itself. No sound. No sound at all.
Home grown, the labels will say. Organic home grown cantaloupe melons, low carbon emissions, no pesticides, 100 per cent UK workers, and they will cost more than an entire synthetic pig, but that’s fine. Some people are rich, and they spend their money on the strangest things without ever once finding a space in which they fit.
Today is impregnation day, in twenty areas. The paintbrush must be dipped into the male flowers, so that a dab of pollen is collected. This is an orange powder, so bright, so fine. I use a sable brush so I can see the pollen clearly. I like to know exactly how much I have collected; I would hate to waste this precious stuff. It has the most important job in the world to do. Here it goes – I take it to the female flower, and stroke it inside her opening.
Do you know how you tell a female flower? At the base of the petals, she bulges into a ball, a perfect sphere, a promise of intention. If she receives the pollen she will continue to swell to giant proportions, long after the pretty little flower dies and drops away. Instead there nestles a monster, and the stem thickens to support it. A melon grows, to the size of my head, larger. I will put it inside a net that hangs from the pole structure to which the plants cling. Inside each melon lurks so many new seeds, to start the process all over again.
This is my favourite part of the job.
Communal dinner hour is five to six o’clock. Some complain about the earliness of the hour for the final meal of the day, but it suits me; I’ll be asleep by nine, after spending a little time on my slides. I don’t know why everyone enjoys complaining so, or how they have the energy for it. None of us are spring chickens any more. Chickens in spring, scratching and pecking and laying their eggs. Apparently they still do this, in the Livestock part of Blossom Farm that I have not seen. Imagine – spring chickens. Their tender drumsticks must fetch a fortune.
I’m eating a cheese-flavoured sandwich when Lonnie and Jim carry their trays to my lone table at the back of the dining room. They take the seats opposite me, and continue a loud conversation. I get the feeling I’m meant to overhear it.
‘It’s always the same in Strawberries,’ says Jim. ‘Too much temptation for us old ‘uns. That sweetness takes years off you.’ He smacks his lips together, under his white moustache. How is it possible to have that much hair on your mouth and none on your head? The shiny, greasy expanse of skin hanging loose on his skull is too much reality for me. I put down my sandwich and sip my water instead.
‘Mmmm,’ says Lonnie, shaking her head. Her cumbersome earrings jangle. The lobes have been stretched to incredible proportions over years of abuse in the name of decoration, and now she must always wear big earrings or leave her ears flapping in the simulated weather of the Satsuma section.
I’m cruel, I know, I know. I am a cruel old lady, and I am no less ugly than they are. My distaste is centred on them only because there is no mirror here with which to catch my own reflection.
‘Out in the cold,’ says Jim, mournfully. ‘Straight out, with nothing but a coat and that collection of teddy bears, stuffed into two bin bags.’
So now I know who they’re talking about. It’s Daisy. Daisy has been caught stuffing her face with strawberries stolen from her area, and has been kicked out of Blossom Farm.
This is why Jim and Lonnie chose to sit here. They know about Daisy and me. She had such fresh blue eyes, even though she was older than many here. And a laugh! A laugh I loved.
But that was a long time ago.
I wonder what made her eat those strawberries.
‘You knew Daisy, didn’t you?’ asks Jim.
Why does he want a response from me? What possible entertainment could it give him?
‘No,’ I say. ‘Not really.’
I feel another little part of what is left of my emotions shrivel up and crumble away to dust as Jim and Lonnie exchange glances, then change the subject to that old favourite, the weather.
‘Minus ten out there today,’ says Jim. ‘Not bad for the time of year. Wind chill will take it down, though. Northerly, isn’t it? I checked the board first thing.’
We have all become expert meteorologists, and our habit is fed by the board, updated daily, with information of what blows and falls outside the biodomes.
They talk on, and my thoughts turn to those teddy bears. Daisy loved them so, making them from scraps of clothing that you would have thought unsalvageable. If you had a shirt you thought beyond stitching she would bother you for it, offering to fetch you a replacement from stores, and the next thing you know it would have been turned into a cheeky little fellow, fuzzy and friendly and determined to make you smile. She kept them all in her room, and gave them names, at least three syllables long and sounding like they belonged in a world of stately homes and tea parties. Peregrine. Terpsichory. Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third.
Enough. I get up. I leave behind my sandwich, and ignore Jim when he calls, ‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ to my back. I walk through the dining area, with its bright white lights shining down on the stained table tops, and then I walk through the communal area where mismatched armchairs and sofas jostle, each one bearing knitted covers courtesy of the workers, and down the corridors that lead to my room.
We all take up our spare time with these silly obsessions. Antimacassar making, or putting boats in bottles. Teddy bears from scraps of material. And the scraps of my memory lead to my obsession: the slides.
I paint a moment of my life on each glass pane. The good moments stay in my room, where I can see them often. The bad ones go elsewhere.
The glass comes from the very beginnings of Blossom Farm, when tomatoes were grown in greenhouses rather than the biodomes. I remember a greenhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. I can see it standing at the bottom of an orderly garden, behind the tall, tied sticks around which peashoots twirled. The strange thing was that the little building did not seem to be made of glass. It was so full of grapevine, cuttings, and plants just starting their growth that the whole space within appeared green to my eyes, green to the point of bursting forth and overrunning the structure.
I used to be a little afraid of it, and of the bottom of the garden.
My grandmother, I have never remembered as clearly as the greenhouse. I would like to make an image of her face, but we don’t choose what we remember, do we? And I only have space in my head for emotions, not people. It’s the fear I paint.
My room is small and safe. I work for a while, stopping whenever somebody stomps down the corridor outside, on my painting of the greenhouse. I have only black paint, left over in metal pots from when the farm had a Welcome sign out front, but that is good enough; why are so many people unhappy with what they have? It must be made to suit, and that is all. Mr Taylor, the forerunner of Mr Cecil, gave me the code to the old storeroom, where all obsolete things lurk. He was very kind to me, in many ways.
I pack away my paintbrush, stolen from the task of melon impregnation, and evaluate the black lines that make my greenhouse on glass.
‘It’s nothing to be scared of,’ said Nane.
But Flori resisted. She didn’t want to go inside, no matter what her grandmother said. The earth, the smell, the brush of damp leaves, the touch of tendrils.
‘Come help me with the plants,’ said Nane, and pushed her inside.
It was a different, denser world in there, and hardly had room for the little girl. And what was that sound? She crouched as the low thrum of a wasp manoeuvred around her head, driven dizzy by the sweetness of the grapes, and then it was in her face, zipping and dipping, and prickling her ear.
Nane said, ‘Stay still. Stay very still.’
I don’t remember what happened next, and I’m too tired to care. My little bed calls to me. I stack the latest glass pane under the bed, with the others, and then turn out the light.
I can’t hear the wind, but I imagine it’s blowing. I can’t see the snow, but I can picture it piling high, drifting and blizzarding, blanketing the biodomes throughout the night.
Somewhere out there are two binbags filled with teddy bears. Goodbye, Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third. You were, once upon a time, my favourite.
Mr Cecil likes to talk about yield. He manages a team of five, and insists on making a presentation for our weekly meetings. It was his big innovation, upon taking over from Mr Taylor, two years ago. How much will each section yield? He doesn’t seem to remember that the growing of plants is not a matter of them yielding to us at all. One of these days they will grow so fast and so free that they will dominate once more, and that is how it should be.
He provides his estimates in brightly coloured bar charts that he prints out on paper, and hands around the meeting room. What a waste. Well, not entirely a waste; we save up the sheets for Brian from Peppers, who creates very amusing wordsearches on the reverse. Brian has a knack for resurrecting the past in bite-sized, bittersweet chunks that don’t choke us. The wordsearches hide within them makes of chocolate bar; names of English counties; types of car. It’s amazing how much we remember about things that are gone, and how little we want to retain about our here and now.
Mr Cecil has reached melon yield, and I don’t care. Just let me be amongst them, warm and safe. Just let me be. Still, I’ll make my polite face, and the others are doing the same thing. Melons. Peppers. Chillis. Courgettes. Butternut Squash. We’re an odd group, I’ll give you, lacking the obvious coherence of berry fruits, say, but we rub along. Mainly through the mutual bond of Brian’s wordsearches.
Suroopa – Courgettes – looks tired this morning. Usually her clothes are clean and pressed, and her short black hair brushed well, but today she yawns and her face is as crumpled as her shirt.
‘Are you not feeling well?’ Mr Cecil asks her, after a particularly large yawn. ‘You look all at sea today, Suroopa.’
She reassures him that all is well. What an expression. All at sea. It reminds me of old rhymes, sailing away to the Land of Nod, owls and pussycats and beautiful pea green boats. But they didn’t sail, did they? Not in reality, not when they all left, and took the fairy tales with them. They sailed, on one of the last ferries; I watched them go from the bus.
‘Mel,’ says Mr Cecil, and his voice cuts through my dreams, and brings me back to the here and now. ‘Don’t tell me you’re busy woolgathering as well today?’
‘No, Mr Cecil,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry.’
He carries on.
Where does he get these ancient expressions from? He must have a thesaurus tucked away in his room somewhere. He probably reads it in bed every night, looking for another obscure thing to say, thinking – that’s an interesting one, oh yes, I must use that.
Today, in sections five to fifteen, I must take soil temperature readings. It can be hell on the back, all that stooping, so my first thought when the alarm bell rings is annoyance. Not another drill, not today. I really can’t be bothered to hang around for hours pretending to care.
I look at Mr Cecil’s face, and that tells me something I don’t want to believe. This is not a drill.
He doesn’t know what’s happening.
The alarm whoops, a long wail that climbs up and falls down, over and over.
I stand up.
‘No,’ says Mr Cecil, putting up his hands, ‘It will stop, it will stop, it’s just a – a problem with the -’
‘A malfunction?’ says Gregor, who is small and well-muscled for his age, and looks like the sort of man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone when alarms are ringing. He stands up too, and then so does Suroopa, and Brian, and Zena. Mr Cecil, in the face of overwhelming odds, changes his tune.
‘Adopt lockdown procedures,’ he calls, and then he leads the way from the meeting room, out into the curved corridor where the alarm is louder still and others are scurrying to their own positions, their faces scrunched up with surprise and fear.
Mr Cecil sets a fast pace, and we move as a group, single-file. My body aches but it’s a pain I’m used to, and I’m better off than Brian, with his chest complaints. I can hear him wheezing behind me as we make it back to Sector K.
At the entrance to Sector K, Mr Cecil turns and waves us all through. We know what happens now. We will all be locked inside, with the plants. Something in me says this is a really good idea today. You don’t live as long as I have without getting a gut instinct for things.
I wait until the others are through, and then call back to Mr Cecil, who looks up from fumbling with his utility belt.
‘Mr Cecil,’ I say. I can tell what he’s thinking. He means to stand outside, break protocol, and I have to shake that thought from his head. I know why this system was set up. I’ve seen the reason why.
‘No, I think, today, I should…’
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No.’
But he says, ‘Stop fussing, please, Mel,’ and closes the door. Through the safety glass panels of the door I see him type in the special code to shut down the door, and then he disappears from view.
Brian wheezes on. Suroopa gets him seated in Reception Area, at the orange plastic table and chairs next to the water dispenser. The others stand around, staring at him.
Reception Area K reminds me of a hand. There are five walkways leading off, like fingers, from the square palm of the main room. Beyond lie the areas, segmented parts of our dome. I want to go into mine, and start work, alone and safe.
‘Breathe,’ Suroopa tells Brian. ‘Breathe.’ The others watch, spectators to the private battle. Is he losing? No – he nods, nods, and there, he is controlling his lungs, mastering his body.
‘Well done,’ says Suroopa, patting his arm.
The alarm winds down, slowly falling in pitch until it cuts out and leaves an eerie silence. It has never done that before.
‘Right,’ whispers Zena. I don’t know why she’s whispering. ‘Someone page Cecil and get him to let us out.’
‘Not yet,’ I say, and am surprised to find it comes out as a whisper too.
‘I don’t think we should wait,’ says Suroopa. ‘Brian needs to see the Doctor.’ She straightens up, and pushes the button on her pager. We all listen. There it is; the tinny sound of his pager, from the other side of the door. Then it stops. He must have turned it off.
Someone walks past.
‘Who was that?’ says Gregor, and then says something in his own language. He moves to the door, and puts his face to the glass, then retreats to behind Brian’s chair.
‘I think it was Jack from, ah…’ says Suroopa.
‘No,’ I say. ‘It wasn’t.’
There are voices outside, voices I don’t recognise. This is a secure compound, there are many guards, automated systems in place, nobody gets in without permission. But I don’t recognise those voices.
Mr Cecil replies. I can’t make out the words, but his voice is high. He has been trained for this sort of situation. He has a weapon, that he carries on his utility belt. I’ve seen it. A taser. Has he drawn it? Does he have it ready, in his hand?
Shouting. It builds, it is loud.
Then everything goes quiet.
They will make him open the door. They will force him to, and I would not blame him, not when I think of all the things they could do to him. I know the things pain can make you do. I would open the door too.
No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open the door. I would protect my safe place, my growing plants, because there is nothing else left.
The silence stretches on, and it is long enough and deep enough for doubts to form. Is this an elaborate part of the drill, just to check we won’t open the door under any circumstances? The relief I feel at that idea is crazy. I want to cling on to it. All we have to do is hold on for a few more minutes, and then Mr Cecil will appear with a wink and tell us we did well, as if we are children who have been left unattended in a school room.
I’m lost in this concept when a face appears at the safety glass.
It’s a man. A very young man, with a beard tinged with ice, bluish lips buried deep, and red-rimmed eyes. I had forgotten how beautiful young men could be. The chill of ice is stuck fast to his skin.
An outsider, that’s what springs to mind, and Suroopa wails behind me. He looks at us, in turn. His eyes linger on Brian, who is still slumped over in his chair, but breathing regularly. The man can’t hear that, of course; as far as he’s concerned Brian might be dead. His eyes don’t register any emotion. He points downwards, I’m guessing at the keypad for the door.
I shake my head.
He doesn’t seem bothered by my refusal. He points again, but none of us move.
He walks away.
If he can’t get in, if he’s relying on us to input the code, then it can only mean one thing – Mr Cecil is incapable of giving him what he wants.
‘Don’t let him in,’ says Gregor, and Zena says, ‘What does he want? What does he want?’
Brian sits up and wheezes out the thought that has invaded my mind. ‘Agro-terrorist.’
Please, no. The destruction of the good things to eat that only the rich can afford, in the name of fairness, for the idea of making this a natural world once more. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘No matter what happens, we can’t let him in. The guards will sort this out, but we need to be strong. We’ve got water, and food. It’s an emergency – they’ll understand if we eat a bit of the fruit. We can stay here for days, and keep the plants, and ourselves, safe.’
‘Days?’ says Suroopa.
‘It won’t take that long,’ I say. ‘This place is top security. They’ll get it under control in no time.’
‘Where’s Mr Cecil?’ says Zena. ‘Should I page him again?’
Gregor and I exchange looks. If I’ve thought about Mr Cecil’s chances out there, then Gregor has done the same, and has come to the same conclusion. That’s how his mind works.
‘No,’ says Gregor. ‘Do not page him.’
‘He’ll be busy,’ I say. ‘Negotiating.’ It sounds official. It’s the right word. The others visibly relax.
‘Sit tight,’ wheezes Brian. He manages a smile.
I look at them. Four old, scared people. And I make five. How quickly things change. Ten minutes ago I was thinking about my soil samples, and my problems were molehills, but I didn’t know it. I thought I would have my melons to care for, and my slides to paint, and that would be enough for the tail end of a beast of a life. But although I was done with difficult times, it seems they are not done with me.
I can wait this out. I can survive, and so can my plants.
‘We’ll take it in turns to see to our areas,’ I say. ‘There’s no reason to let the plants suffer, and it will keep our minds off -‘
A new face appears at the glass. Not a new face. An old face.
Her eyes are blue, bluer than ever before. Then I realise they only look that way because of the blood on her face. It’s so red against her white skin, and her eyes are translucent, but they see me clearly. They focus on me, and hold me close.
The blood is a smear that stretches from her forehead to her cheek, daubed on, like warpaint. She puts the back of her hand to her face, and wipes it, and that’s when I realise it’s her own blood. She’s daubing herself in the blood that is coming from her heavily bandaged fingers. Ripped material has been wrapped around and around, and it has soaked through, turned bright red.
Not good enough for a teddy bear, Daisy, I want to say. Not even you could salvage that old rag.
She looks so tired. No, that’s not it; she looks destroyed. Worn down to pieces that are somehow still managing to move around. Her mouth is forming shapes.
Open the door, her lips are saying, without sound.
Mel. Open the door.
I don’t move.
Please open the door.
Gregor comes to stand behind me, so light on his feet. He says, ‘Don’t open the door,’ and I feel his hand on my back, just a slight pressure. But he’s too much of a coward to do anything to stop me. I’ve seen him cover his face when one of the supervisors shouts; he’s trapped in some past that will keep him forever fearful.
She looks as if she’ll die, right there. She died once already to me, only a few days ago. This time around I have a choice. I don’t have to let her die alone.
I move forward, to the door, and put in the key code. The lock releases. I step out into the corridor and take Daisy in my arms.
‘Everything will continue as normal,’ says the man. This is another new face amongst many, but this one is definitely in charge. He carries it on his shoulders.
I look around the refectory and find the face that first appeared at the Sector K door. He is eating a plate of beans, not far from me. I take care not to stare, but observe him from the corner of my eye. He shovels the beans in with a spoon as if hot food has not passed his lips in years. Maybe it hasn’t.
‘There is no need to worry. All we need is your co-operation,’ says the man in charge. He stands in the centre of the room, on a table, so we can all look up to him. He is a little older, but still so many years away from becoming like us shrivelled wrecks of workers. There are about thirty young people among us now, and they are joined in some purpose that is about to be passed down to us like divine wisdom. We’ve seen it all before.
‘The food you are producing will be given to those who need it, not those who can afford it.’
Ah, I see. This is a zealous enterprise. They are fighting the good fight. No doubt they, above all others, are deserving of my melons.
‘Keep fulfilling your duties, and you will be fed and watered as usual. Nothing has changed for you, that’s all you need to remember.’
Jim, sitting next to me, raises his hand. Is he asking permission to speak? I can’t help but despise him.
‘Go ahead,’ says the man in charge.
‘Where are all the supervisors? And the guards?’
‘That’s not something you need to feel concerned about.’
‘Blossom Farm won’t let you get away with this, you know,’ Jim says, quickly, then sits down and crosses his arms.
The man in charge ignores him.
‘My name is Stephan,’ he says. ‘If you want to talk to me in an equal and open way then I am here. But I’m not here to answer stupid questions. Try to remember that we are all in this together now. Enjoy your lunch.’
All in this together – he’s as bad as Mr Cecil. What a fatuous phrase. If we’re all in it together why did the newcomers, his merrie band of men, get fed before us workers? People always say what they think will bring them an easy life, and others believe it for the same reason. But not me. Not this time.
We queue up for our beans. I take an extra plate for Daisy, ignoring the stares of those around me. There is no guard to stop me now. I carefully manoeuvre around all the extra people who fill up the space, and carry both plates back to my room.
Daisy lies still in my bed. I stand for a while, beans in hand, and watch her. It’s years since I’ve seen her this way, in sleep. Safe. But here’s the thing. Her skin is waxy, and her breathing is fast. As I look down on her I can see that she is not safe, not really.
I put the plates on my small table and carefully lift the blanket to look down at her body, still bundled up tight in her clothes. If I was to remove them, I think I might find patches of black. Black toes, black fingers. If there are any fingers and toes left. The bandage around her hand is useless now, and the blood is seeping through to my mattress, but I can’t unravel it, and face what is underneath.
She coughs, a weak rumbling at the back of her throat. ‘Be up soon,’ she says, ‘Strawberries. Doctor?’
I tuck the blanket back around her and sit on the side of the bed. I put my hand to her forehead like a professional. ‘No doctor, I’m afraid. Nobody’s seen her since your friends arrived. But you’ll be up and around in no time.’
She seems to come back to herself, blinking, as if clearing her eyes from sleep. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says, in her usual voice. ‘I thought we were all done.’
‘Apparently not,’ she mimics. How cruel she can be. ‘Still better than the rest of us, aren’t you?’
I wish I’d never told her a thing about me, not one real fact that she could use as a weapon. I should have told her I was once a farmer’s wife, or a baker, or unemployed, in a council flat; some simple thing she couldn’t find fault with. Not a schoolteacher to the privileged elite; somebody who came to this place through having connections. I had never suffered the right kind of suffering for her.
‘Why did you help them?’ I ask. ‘They’ll destroy the domes.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘No, they won’t. They want a better world, Mel. They deserve their chance to fight for it. Don’t you remember what it was like to want to fight?’
‘I never wanted to fight.’
‘No.’ She coughs again, a softer sound. ‘I believe that.’
How do you say to someone – I think we should make up now because you’re very probably about to die? I sit quietly, my hand on her head, and try to think of a way to work that particular sentiment into the conversation. How very controlled I am.
‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I tell her. ‘For everything.’
‘It’s like that, is it?’ She nods her head on the pillow, seeing right through me, as always. ‘Thought so. They found me too late, I suppose. I had the bears with me, and I lay down with them in the snow, that was all I wanted, and I could still taste the strawberries. But then there was this young face in front of my eyes and all the bears were gone. I don’t know where they went. All gone. The young man said – help me, help us, help us get in and take what should belong to everyone, and it just seemed so sensible, Mel. Not that it should belong to everyone. But it should belong to them, to the young. To the kids who grew up without ever tasting a strawberry. That’s not right, is it? That’s not how it’s meant to be.’
She stops talking. All her energy has been sucked up by that speech. I get the feeling she’s been saying it to herself, over and over, in her head. Her reasons for getting them in.
I lie down beside her, and she doesn’t have the strength to tell me to go away.
‘I loved you,’ I tell her.
‘I’m not going right this minute,’ she slurs, but she turns over towards me and puts her good hand, in its thick mitten, on the old, loose curve of my breast. How could she have given up on me, on this? How could she have told me that she wanted to sit at a different table for every single meal, and never hear my voice again?
I lie there, trying not to breathe, until she falls back into sleep. Then I peel her hand away and stand up. The two plates of beans have congealed, but I don’t care. I eat them both, passionate for their flavour, their scent, their taste. I’m alive, and I eat for both of us.
It comes to me, as I work through the afternoon under the guise of normality, that I’m not just alive, not in the same way I was before. I’m more alive. Every breath sings in my chest. Every time I stoop to take a soil sample the pain in my back is an epiphany – a promise that I hurt, I hate, I love, I live.
The feelings swell as the hours pass. I don’t care whether the others are working, or what happens outside my area. The feelings swell to the point of bursting open.
I hear the approach of Mr Cecil’s buggy.
I feel hope with the sharpness of citrus in the mouth, a long-forgotten taste, but when I turn around I make out, behind the wheel, the face of the man who stared at me through the glass panel in the door to Sector K, and I remember that Mr Cecil is probably dead, and that I never liked him much anyway.
The buggy comes to a juddering halt a few yards away – he needs some driving practice – and he climbs out, a smile set in place, as if we’re about to be introduced at a garden party.
‘Mel?’ he says.
I don’t answer.
His lovely face has lost all signs of the cold, and his beard is brown, and dishevelled, a sturdy, thriving mess of hair. How tall he stands. No softness to his body at all. And he has left his thick coats elsewhere to reveal strong arms the colour of milk. He must be boiling in this sudden change of temperature.
‘I’m Lucas,’ he says. ‘Has Daisy talked about me?’
‘I found her, out in the snow. She’s in your room, right? The others said she’d be with you. How is she?’
It surprises me, that what felt like a lifetime for me was obviously just a blip to the other workers. Mel and Daisy – still a couple in the eyes of the biodomes, intertwined like the roots of the plants that surround us. That’s how it appears, if you’re outside the experience.
When I still don’t respond, he changes tack, and his smile drops away. ‘I’m going to be looking after Sector K,’ he says. He has a strange accent. ‘We’ll be working together.’
‘Good for you, young man,’ I tell him, trying to remember my schoolteacher tones. ‘Now let me get on with my job.’
‘Daisy said you could be difficult.’
‘So you know all about me, do you?’ I don’t care if he’s in charge, or if he killed Mr Cecil himself, or even if he kills me, just so long as he goes away.
‘No. And you don’t know me.’
‘No, I don’t.’
He looks around at the high, curved dome of white, and the orange globes amidst the tall, curling tendrils. Can he recognise paradise when he sees it, or is it just an asset to be jotted down on the plus column of what he feels he is owed?
‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I need to see Daisy.’
He swipes at his forehead with his palm. ‘You should stop asking so many questions.’
‘Actually, I don’t care for what I should or shouldn’t do.’ I turn around, and pretend to be absorbed in the plant growth behind me. But he moves around to stand my eyeline once more, and now he’s wearing a deep frown as if he’s only just realised that this place is unfamiliar to him.
‘She’s dead,’ I tell him.
This piece of news doesn’t change his expression.
‘Come on, then,’ I say. ‘Let’s go and see her. Since you don’t believe me.’ I march past the buggy, toward the sliding door that seals up tight to keep in the moisture. A moment later I hear him reversing the buggy, and then following along behind me.
‘You can ride with me,’ he says.
‘That’s for management.’
‘I’m not management.’
‘I thought you said you were in charge of Sector K?’
He doesn’t respond. I walk the entire way. At some point, in the corridors, he abandons the buggy.
I don’t like the way Lucas holds Daisy’s bandaged hand, as if he had a right to touch her, and she would not have minded. The fact that she is dead does not change my feelings about this in the least; to touch someone, you should definitely have their permission.
He stays very still, sitting on the side of the bed, just as I did a few hours earlier. The empty plates, stained orange with bean juice, have a strong smell that fills the room. I wish I had returned them to the refectory instead of leaving them on the small table.
‘At least she didn’t die alone,’ he says.
‘We all die alone.’
‘I’ve seen a lot of deaths, and some of them were better than others.’
‘Then you weren’t seeing them properly,’ I say. ‘Are you trying to thank me for staying with her? Or blame me for going back to work afterwards?’
‘I’m not saying either of those things,’ he said.
How incredibly easy it is for him to make me feel angry. What makes a good death, and what makes a bad death? Who is he to decide?
‘I think you should go now,’ I say. He looks up at me as if he might refuse, but then he puts down Daisy’s hand and stands up.
‘I’ll get a crew to come by and take her – the body – away.’
‘No hurry.’ I step back as he passes by me, folding my arms over my chest. I’m determined not to look at his face, but I can’t help myself – I need to see what’s there. The rough surfaces of his cheeks, the plain of his forehead, and more; there is something I recognise in his eyes, and in an uncontrollable instant I feel my expression change to mirror his. It’s a great task, then, to hold on to my emotions until he’s gone, but I manage it. And then I’m alone.
The sound spills out of me and uncurls to fill all corners of the room. It’s a deep, low growl – the equal and opposite of the alarm that led to this moment, but it means the same thing. Danger is here. It is breaking down the doors, ripping its way through my warm, safe places, bringing an icy wind.
God. Now there’s a name that has not graced my lips for many years, but the concept comes back to me easily, and I curse it. God, fate, everlasting life, whatever: I curse it all, in my head, while the sound coming from my open mouth winds down to nothing.
I get up. I pull the blanket over Daisy’s head, taking care not to look at the mouth that I am not allowed to kiss.
How long will it take Lucas to come back, others in tow, for disposal duty? I’m not sure. I have the feeling that time isn’t running right anyway. Outside the bedroom it is sprinting in circles, hands around the face of an ancient and unstoppable clock. But not in here.
I kneel down, and reach under the bed for my stacked glass slides, carefully searching through them until I find the one I want. Four black lines topped with a curve for a handle. A paint pot. And underneath, one word: Eurydice.
The arrival of new workers always upset her.
They had been given fresh clothes, but they still wore the outside world in their expressions, and what Mel saw there was pinched, and cold, and desperate. But those expressions never lasted too long. They all sank into the stupor of the warm, and the fed. The mind was always so keen to forget.
The new ones were dotted between the familiar faces in the common room: Miriam and Barry were doing a jigsaw puzzle, and Gareth was strumming something cheery, using big open chords, on his battered guitar. He had attracted a crowd, as usual, who mumbled through the familiar lines of the few songs he was able to play. I Want to Break Free, which might have had some meaning in this place if everyone didn’t sing it so happily and without a shade of self-consciousness. And that song Ironic, ironically. Like rain on your wedding day, they all sang, and all angst disappeared, and soon everyone would go off to bed with a smile.
Mel sat alone, digging the dirt out from under her fingernails, and considered what to paint next. She painted many aspects of her past, capturing a range of experiences, trapping them on glass so that she did not have to feel them any more. She never wanted life to feel fresh and newly opened again; she didn’t want anything else to happen that might take her attention from the past.
She thought about being left with only melons to paint, and the idea made her smile. To paint a melon – yes, she should do one, at least. A big, round, juicy one, for posterity. She got up and left the noise of the common room behind, taking her time down the dimly lit corridors, the floor level solar lamps glowing so yellow that they reminded her of candleflame. A real fire – that was another thing she should paint. A fire like her father used to make. How easily subjects were coming to her tonight.
The corridors were empty apart from her. They curved around the domes to link everything together in loops and twirls that had once made her dizzy. It had taken her months to learn the patterns of the pathways, but now she did not need to think about the route to the storeroom. She could have found it with her eyes closed.
Mel reached the door, and entered the code on the keypad. It clicked open, and the drop in temperature hit her as she stepped over the threshold, into the darkness, where the metal shelves ran in rows, high, holding crates and containers that were once essential to the running of Blossom Farm. Signposts, stacked in the far corner, back when the place had wanted to be found. But the only thing that interested Mel was the paint. The tins filled up the shelf on the back wall, and she was always relieved to see so many of them, like a promise. And in this place, where only a wall separated her from the outside, she could hear the wind. It howled with lonely pleasure, and she felt she understood it.
Outside a woman was waiting for her. She was round and creamy and gave the impression of being filled with something heavy. None of the shock of the new sat upon her, although Mel had never seen her before. She felt certain she would have remembered somebody who seemed so much more real than the rest of the place.
‘You’re from up north, right?’ the woman said.
‘No,’ said Mel.
‘I saw you in York. That meeting. You spoke about fuel prices, and then it all kicked off. Twenty years ago.’
‘No,’ said Mel again. ‘I’m from Portsmouth. I was. From Portsmouth.’
‘That’s only down the road.’ The woman looked at the paint tin, and Mel decided to answer no more questions.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, and the woman said, at the same time, ‘I followed you.’
‘From the main room. The jigsaws, the guitar. You slipped out. You looked like you were going some place better. You should cover your tracks if you’re not meant to be in there.’
‘I am allowed to be in there. I have permission.’
‘Great! Good for you. Privileges.’ The woman reached into the pocket of her knitted cardigan, no doubt made by the endlessly creating brigade of Sue, Poppy, Alicia and Geoff, and produced a small stuffed bear. ‘This is Eurydice.’ She made four syllables of the name.
It was the mixture of accusation and charm that befuddled Mel to the point of actually smiling. ‘Hello Eurydice,’ she said, taking herself by surprise.
The woman leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘She can’t actually speak,’ she said. ‘Nobody gave her a mouth. I made her when I was a little girl, and I didn’t think she needed one back then.’
‘You could make one for her now.’
‘Oh no. I don’t think she’s actually that bothered. There’s nothing that facilitates the abdication of responsibility so much as not having a mouth in the first place.’ She said this long sentence in one breath, like a well-rehearsed speech, and Mel felt a sudden bond, as if she had more in common with this person than with anybody else she had met in such a long time, even from before coming to the farm. If those words were a test, Mel felt certain that she wanted to pass it.
‘Have you been allocated an area yet?’
‘Me, or Eurydice?’
‘I’m assuming your beautiful lost soul of a bear will get to be a lotus-eater.’
‘Yes, you’re probably right. The winery, they said. But no room allocations yet. We’re meant to bunk down in the big room tonight.’
‘The common room,’ Mel said. ‘You won’t get any sleep in there. Come on. You can stay with me tonight.’
‘Will you tell me what that tin is for?’
‘Nope,’ said Mel, and the smile she received in return was an affirmation. Yes, she passed the test. She passed the test on that day, at least.
Three of them come for the body. They are two men and a woman, and Lucas is not among them. They have a dirty trolley that usually takes seedlings from the nursery to the sectors, and they lay her on that, keeping my blanket over her. It’s fine. I don’t want it any more anyway.
When people die here –
When people die here there’s a process, but that seems to have been overturned. I didn’t give it much thought before, except that the process made sense. Everything worked in a certain way. But these new young people know nothing of it, and don’t care to ask. They set off down the corridor with Daisy, and I follow along behind until one of them turns around and says, ‘Get back to work. There are mouths to feed.’
He’s a tall man, bone thin. The other man and the woman both stop walking and stare at him. Something tells me this is the first time he’s assumed such a level of command, and he’s enjoying the sensation. They look at his enjoyment, and they say nothing.
The only replies that come into my mind are pathetic variations on, ‘You’re not the boss of me’ and experience has taught me nobody emerges from such statements with any dignity. In fact, there’s no dignity to be salvaged here at all, no matter what I say or do. There are words that this man would be happy to throw at me; there are labels that would begin to define me as less than him. I need to keep myself free from such words, but I also have to know what they’re going to do with Daisy.
I choose my words so very carefully. ‘I just need to see her laid to rest, please.’
‘Want to sing a hymn or two, do you?’ He laughs, and the woman lays a hand on his shoulder from behind him, so gently. Ahhhhh, I see what this is: he has had such a hard life, she is telling herself as she touches him. He’s only known the toughest way to be, to survive, and he can’t express himself any other way, but he means well. She’s determined to back up his pain as the most important in the room. Oh, the difficulties of being such a strong young man in charge.
‘Fine,’ he says, and the woman smiles at me, as if she’s done me a favour. She’s hardly more than a teenager, and she’s already well practised in feminine idiocy.
We start moving again. The woman checks a piece of paper as she pushes the trolley along, looking at a map perhaps, and we cross through the sectors, working our way out to the grapevines and the winery beyond, which would be a perfect place for Daisy. The corridors are mainly empty – it’s still working hours – and everything looks quite normal, apart from one buggy that has been overturned, right on to its roof, like a practical joke, without explanation. The men and the woman steer the trolley around it without comment.
We pass through the winery, where the large wooden vats stand and the smell is sharp and sour. Green bottles sit on a long trestle table, each one bearing a label that says Blossom Farm’s Finest Table Wine in curly letters, and a picture of a bunch of beautiful grapes. The workers take care to not look straight at us, and the way they know to avoid their eyes tells me that there have been quite a few trolleys passing this way.
Beyond the winery there is a place I’ve never visited before – a corridor, crates of bottles piled against the walls, that ends in a door. The lock has been prised free, and dangles loose on two electrical wires. This must be how these agro-terrorists got in here, away from the cameras and the guards. An emergency exit, of all things, forgotten about. Except that Daisy found it, once upon a time. She did always love to explore.
‘Stay,’ the tall man says to me.
‘Let her say goodbye?’ says the woman, and when he doesn’t reply I think he won’t mind if I touch Daisy one last time. But here’s the thing; I don’t want to touch her, not here, not in front of them. Besides, I tell myself over and over, she’s dead, she’s dead. What does flesh on a trolley mean? It means nothing at all. Whatever happens next, it doesn’t matter.
‘No, it’s fine,’ I say.
‘Let’s do this quick,’ says the other man.
The woman pushes the door, and when it doesn’t give the men join in, all three straining until it moves, and a drift of snow tumbles in to the corridor, along with the freezing cold. Outside, I can see only white.
The men take either end of the body, and carry it out.
‘Why out there?’ I say, to the woman, who stays behind, wrapping her arms around herself as she watches them.
‘The snow will cover them,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, the ground’s too hard for a proper burial.’
‘So they’ll just leave her?’ I come and stand beside her, and look out at the afternoon, the sun already low in the sky. It’s not snowing right now; the drifts stretch away, so beautiful, and the cold is a hammer to my chest. I gasp, and look around, and see the men, not far away. They are already coming back, leaving behind my blanket, and the body wrapped within it, lying in a dip between two mounds of snow. In fact, it’s a field of these regularly spaced mounds. Bodies, covered in white. Many bodies, making hillocks. The guards, the supervisors, and now Daisy.
The woman grabs my arm and pulls me back.
‘Why?’ I ask her, knowing I have only moments before the men return and she will no longer speak to me.
‘Why what? I told you.’
‘No. No, Don’t you understand? We’re not important. It’s the plants. You die, and you go under the ground in your sector. To feed the plants. Out there -‘ I point at the broken door, the way outside that is swallowing our heat so greedily, ‘- is no good to anyone. The plants need the nutrients.’
‘You bury people under the plants?’
‘Of course. The nutrients. That’s where Daisy should be. In Strawberries. She worked Strawberries, in the end.’
The man return, and slam the door shut, then kick their boots against the corridor walls, flinging around snow. ‘It’s strange how quickly you get used to the warm,’ reflects the tall one, and then he remembers me, and assumes the tone of command once more. ‘Off you go, then,’ he says. ‘Work.’
And off I go.
There is an hour left to the day. I return to Sector K, and find Lucas there, standing on my soil. He touches the fruit with his fingertips.
The rage that comes over me can’t be contained, even though it is dangerous. I walk towards him with the plan to slap his face, for something I can’t define. He sidesteps me, and then I’m deep in the tangle of the plants, and my leg is caught. I fall to the earth. It’s easier to hit the soil than to hit him, anyway. It gives under my weight. It understands me.
Lucas stands over me, hovering on tiptoes, like an idiot.
‘Go away,’ I tell him, when I have enough control of myself.
‘Are you all right?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Can I help you up?’
I don’t take his hand, and after a while he squats down next to me. Here, in the green, it’s harder to hate him.
‘They put Daisy outside,’ I say, to his knees. ‘It’s a waste. Tell them. Bodies go in the ground. Here.’ I pat the soil, and then meet his eyes. His youth, his newness, is so alien, like the wings of an insect or the bright yellow beak of a bird. ‘Here’s where I want to end up. Right here.’
‘You’d give everything to Blossom Farm.’
‘Not the farm.’ Don’t they see it? They all act as if there are only institutions in this world, and nothing else worth talking about, nothing else worth saving.
‘They don’t care about you,’ he says, and I know he hasn’t understood.
‘Neither does your lot.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘You’re probably right.’
He sits down next to me. After a while he says, ‘This place is too beautiful to survive.’
‘It’s the beautiful things that live on.’
‘Not any more. Not out there.’
‘We’re not out there.’
He shakes his head. ‘Daisy said you came in here before it got bad. That you were working in a private school and there was a special arrangement, friends in high places…’
‘Daisy said an awful lot to you considering she hadn’t said a word to me in three years.’
He laughs. His smile is clear and strong. ‘Maybe she’d been saving it all up, then. Her need to talk about you.’
Think clearly, I remind myself; this is no time to fall back in love with youth. ‘Please leave me alone,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll take care of the melons. You can have the fruit, eat it, give it to orphaned children, dance round it in your underwear, I don’t care. But please leave me alone, and don’t come into this area again.’
‘What are you afraid of?’ he asks, and that undoes me. I put my dirty hands, fresh from the soil, over my face and whisper, ‘It’s not always about being afraid.’
‘Isn’t it?’ he says, reflectively. When I take my hands away I see, in his eyes, a lifetime of being afraid, more than any fair share, more than I have felt. Fear as a default setting – not just in waking hours, but creeping into all dreams, even the good ones. I have had moments of safety, of love, of comfort, and they have kept me going through the lean periods. I’m not sure Lucas has.
‘Did you really care about her?’ I ask him. ‘Why?’
‘I don’t know. She seemed… real to me.’
‘Don’t tell me. She reminded you of your mother.’
‘She wasn’t anybody’s mother. Not like you.’
‘I never had children,’ I tell him.
‘That doesn’t mean you weren’t a mother. She told me. You loved those kids. You fought for them. To get them away.’
Yes, I did, I fought for them, and even though it sounds clichéd I can’t deny that I was all those children had in those difficult moments, and I did my very best by them.
‘It’s a good thing,’ says Lucas, ‘to be a mother. But Daisy wasn’t one. I could see that as soon as I found her. People think I’m a follower. Lucas, who does what he’s told. When she got better, she started to talk to me as if I could make my own decisions. I’ve not felt that before. It’s a different way for people to be.’
‘What kind of way?’
‘Friends,’ he says, simply. ‘We were friends.’
I feel something open within me. It is pride, flowering. I’m proud of this man, this stranger, who would call a prickly old lady a friend. A description of equal terms.
‘Help me up,’ I say.
He stands, and holds out his hands once more, and this time I take them, and let him pull me up. We emerge from the plants and stand on the walkway, side by side. The dome looks different. Perhaps the lights have started to dim as part of the cycle. Soon the sprinklers will kick in.
‘The storeroom,’ I say. ‘Why did you want to get in there?’
‘Daisy said there were materials in the storeroom.’ He wets his lips. ‘Paint.’
‘You want paint?’
‘Not a lot. Just a little.’
The way he says it tells me that Daisy has told him about this side of my personality too.
He knows that I have the code to the storeroom and he didn’t pressure me for it. Is that decency, or manipulation on his part?
Either way, it helps me to make a decision. ‘I’ll let you in. But I won’t give you the code. You only come in and out with me, understood?’
‘Certainly. It’s your space, after all.’
Does he really believe that? He’s wily enough to keep any streak of sarcasm out of his voice.
Either way, the deal is done. We walk along together, and talk of what life is like for a child on the outside. I wonder if maybe Blossom Farm shouldn’t have given their jobs to the very young, rather than the very old. But it makes perfect sense. I’m ashamed to realise that the old are so much easier to control.
I no longer have a blanket.
But this doesn’t matter, because I no longer have a room.
‘It’s a reallocation to make sure everyone gets a place to sleep,’ says the woman standing in my doorway. Behind her, another woman is sitting at my small table, polishing a long knife with a cloth, taking care not to look at me. ‘Go to the Common Room and they’ll set you up.’
‘But this is my room,’ I say. All I want is to get inside it. Coming back down the corridor from the Store Room, I was thinking only about the fact I had no blanket. What was I going to do? No warm blanket any more. It’s strange, how quickly priorities can change.
‘We all have to make sacrifices,’ says the woman. ‘It’s not that you don’t have a place to sleep. It’s just this is a big room, and we thought the original workers might want to stick together, so you’ll have been allocated a place in with your own kind.’ She nibbles her cracked bottom lip; the change in temperature must be playing havoc with her skin.
‘So off you trot,’ says the woman with the knife, who looks as clean and brutal as a teenager. She doesn’t even bother to make eye contact with me. She is a parody of a threat, like she’s practised it for hours and now is happy to seize her chance.
‘Keep your knickers on,’ I tell her. I’ve had a bad enough day to no longer care. Besides, she’s obviously all bark and no bite. Who seriously polishes a knife just to scare an old lady?
‘We could throw you out in the cold instead,’ she says. Something in her voice suggests to me this isn’t the first time she’s thought of this idea, or voiced it.
The other woman, the one at my door, says, ‘I put your stuff in here.’ She reaches around the door and brings out a white plastic sack, about half-full. I take it and look inside: my clothes, books, hairbrush, cream for my legs when they ache. Not my slides. They must still be under the bed. I can’t leave them behind. But carrying them would be a job for more than one person, and where would I put them? How would I explain them? The one with the knife – she would smash them if she suspected they were important to me. I’m beginning to recognise this look some of them have, as if the things they’ve experienced outside will justify the things they do in here.
‘Thanks,’ I say, to the one at the door. I set off for the Common Room. It’s nearly dinner time and my body is hurting. No doubt it will only get worse tomorrow. I want my bed. I want my slides, my happy places. I want. I want my blanket.
I want to see Daisy. I want her to ignore me over dinner, sitting at a different table, feeling hatred, feeling disgust, just feeling something personal and real and Daisyish at me.
In the storeroom, Lucas said, ‘Look at all the stuff in here. People get killed for this outside. Petrol. Look. Batteries. Torches. Inflatable tents. Solar warmers.’ He spoke softly, in awe, as if entering a cathedral.
‘I thought you wanted paint,’ I said, watching him from the door. ‘It’s against the far wall.’
‘Thanks.’ But he didn’t move quickly. He examined each shelf in turn: top, middle, bottom, as he walked down the rows. ‘How come they gave you access to this place? They must really trust you.’
‘I was friends with the supervisor before Mr Cecil,’ I said.
‘I thought you were… friends with Daisy?’
‘I thought you of all people would understand there’s more than one kind of friend in the world.’
Mr Taylor, I had called him, once I worked for him. Once upon a time, in a classroom not too far away, he had called me Miss Baris. He was a good boy, although he didn’t believe it, and he turned into a better man. When it all went wrong, he came for me.
‘What are these?’ asked Lucas. He touched my slides, the ones that I painted and left behind in the storeroom; the ones that I didn’t want to be reminded of so often, unless a dark mood took me.
He picked one up at random, and held it up. It was a painting of a day I never want to think about. Another day of goodbyes, years ago.
She counted them getting on to the bus, and she counted them leaving it, even though they could not have gone anywhere during the journey. Old habits. There were only five of them left. They didn’t even sit together on the thirty minute trip to the port, but spaced themselves evenly throughout the bus, leaving a pattern of empty seats. Miss Baris wished there was some way she could tell them they needed each other, but she had been a teacher long enough to know that children never, ever, believed such sentiments. They thought themselves invincible, and maybe that would be enough to get them through.
They gathered in front of the doors to Departure, the kids shivering, even in their expensive coats. A light sleet was falling. It looked like snow if you stared up into it, but on the skin and on the concrete it was grey, and wet, and dull.
‘Let’s run through it again,’ said Miss Baris, and they all groaned as one. At least they were united in some things. ‘Natalya, start us off.’
‘Number one: stay together at all times,’ said the smallest girl, so small. So eager to please with her prompt reply and her smart manners.
‘Number two: board the ferry and don’t speak to anyone except the people in charge.’ He was a pain in class, big and bullish, but if any of them had grasped the seriousness of the situation it was him, and she saw a determination in his eyes that gave her hope for them all.
‘Quentin – number three.’
The boy gaped at her. He wasn’t the brightest, but he had a soft heart and loved all animals, choosing to spend most of his time in the school stables. He had told her once that he wanted to study to become a vet, and she had told him to work hard. That was what teachers said in the face of unrealistic dreams.
‘Disembark at…’ she prompted him.
‘Disembark at Bilbao and use the Euros to pay for a taxi to the train station. From there get tickets to Madrid.’
‘Well done,’ she said. ‘Number four. Lupita.’
‘Once we arrive in Madrid get to the Russian Embassy. Ask for our parents to be contacted,’ said Lupita, in a bored voice. She wanted so much to be the ideal woman and ended up looking more like a child than any of them with her hitched-up skirt and her practised, sulky attitude. She was the weakest link of the five. If she felt the urge to wander off, she would, and the rest would fall apart in her absence.
‘I’m relying on you, Lupita,’ Miss Baris said, knowing it wouldn’t help, but unable to stop herself. ‘Five, Dimitri.’
‘Five. Stay together at all times,’ recited Dimitri, the cheeky one, working on becoming tall and handsome and trouble to the world in general. ‘Miss, why is rule five the same as rule one?’
Lupita nudged him. ‘Because it’s the most important, you moron.’
‘We don’t call each other morons, Lupita,’ said Miss Baris.
‘And our parents will pick us up there?’ asked Natalya.
‘That’s right.’ Lies came so easily to teachers. She had long since learned to ignore any twinge of conscience. She was the last teacher left in the school, and these were the last pupils. There would soon be no more food, no more light, no more heating. After the extortionate cost of bribing the official to secure five places on the ferry, there was simply no more money.
And at the other end, what happened then? She had contacted so many people, trying to get hold of the parents who hadn’t bothered to come for their own children when the gulf stream began to fail. Powerful people. Dignitaries, celebrities, billionaires. She had to hope that her failure to reach them could be put right by the Embassy. Two of the children had that nationality, at least, and she had sent them an email informing them that any attempt to split up these children would result in the press being contacted. She had an inkling the kids could also make bargaining chips against other countries, but knew next to nothing about politics.
Stop, she told herself, stop. You’ve done the best that you could do.
‘Aren’t you coming, Miss?’ said Omar, managing to look vulnerable.
‘No, I’m needed here,’ she said. ‘But you are all capable of doing this. I have great faith in you all. Just make sure you stay together.’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Off you go.’
They did. They walked through the doors without looking behind, because this was an adventure and she was only a teacher.
Back at the bus, she sat behind the wheel until the ferry had swung away from the dock. Then she took the printed email and the map from her coat pocket and read the words through again.
I hope you remember me. I was Billy Taylor, in your biology class fifteen years ago at Portsdown. You taught me about plants. I was fascinated. You made it all seem so important. I went on to study Agriculture at college and I work for Blossom Farm now. Have you heard of them? They have a series of bio-farms not far from the school. They’re employing older people, dependable people, to look after the plants, and I thought of you. You inspired me.
Would you consider coming here? I don’t know what’s happening to this country but I heard the school was closing as everyone with enough money to get away was leaving, like rats on a sinking ship, I suppose. I don’t know if you remember that English never was my strongest subject. But if you are staying in the UK and you need a place to go then you are welcome here. I’ve enclosed a map. When you arrive ask the guards at the gate to page me. It’s warm, and safe, and I can get you a good room of your own.
Miss Baris started the engine, and drove away, hoping the roads were still clear enough to make it through.
‘Is it a bus?’ said Lucas.
‘Can’t you tell?’ I said.
He frowned at it, then put it back on the pile. He carried on looking around the treasures of the store room, and said, quietly, ‘I won’t tell anyone about this place, okay?’
‘Why don’t I believe you?’
He said, ‘Something tells me you’re a scientist at heart. Don’t believe anything until it’s proved, that’s what you think. So just wait, and I’ll prove it to you. You don’t have much choice, anyway.’
‘That’s true,’ I said.
He picked up a paint tin, and then reached for the signs. ‘Can I take these too? I like to paint. I’m no good at it either. Well, I wasn’t. Back was I was little. I can remember it, a warm room, some paper, a painting kit. Colours. I’d like to get good at it, some day. Maybe we should both get some practice in.’
‘I don’t do it to be good at it.’
‘No. I can understand that.’ He was so very reasonable that it hurt.
He came back to me, at the door, loaded up with his spoils, and said, ‘I think us painters at heart should stick together.’
And even though I knew he was saying it only for his own reasons, I heard myself saying, ‘Yes.’ Yes, with the memory of another time in my agreement. Rules one and five are still in my mind, even if I don’t look at the black lines on glass that make up that bus journey. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Stick together.’
I reach the Common Room, and find it filled with confused old people to whom I don’t want to belong. It turns out the room allocations are not going so smoothly after all.
It’s not that anybody is obviously angry. Maybe you get too old to show anger, visibly, even if you’re never too old to feel it. But there are so many people in the common room who are unhappy, crying, standing around with white plastic sacks in hand, and I join them, push my way through the groups, looking for somebody in charge.
By the archway to the refectory is a cluster of young people, all women; I recognise one of them. She took Daisy away earlier. She holds a clipboard and the others are gathered around it, frowning. I notice some of them are wearing pagers and utility belts, that must have once belonged to the supervisors.
Lucas isn’t here, and neither is the leader – Stephan, he called himself. Room allocation is obviously not an important topic to those in charge. I’m thinking they must already be ensconced in the supervisors’ old rooms. No question of double bunking in those.
I watch them squabble over the clipboard for a while. This could take all night, and I’m not brave enough to approach them.
Jim is behind me, with Lonnie in tow.
‘Have they taken your room?’ He gives me a sympathetic smile. ‘I suppose that would be the first one they’d want. It always was the biggest of the workers’ rooms.’
He’s not holding a white plastic sack himself, I notice. ‘At least you’re okay,’ I say, trying to sound friendly.
‘Well, since we’re a two sharing already I expect it makes more sense to let us keep the space. But we were thinking – if you need a place to sleep, come bunk in with us. We have spare blankets and a pillow. It’s still sleeping on the floor, but I don’t think anybody evicted tonight is going to find a bed of their own.’
His generosity shames me. Of course, he wants something. Everybody does. But even so it’s no small thing to give up your personal space. And it’s the best offer I’m going to get tonight.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Thanks Lonnie.’
Her smile is a little more lopsided than Jim’s. I’m guessing she’s not quite so keen on the idea as he is. Still, she doesn’t complain as we leave the Common Room behind.
Their room is smaller than mine, and there are more personal touches evident in it, from quite a stack of books to photographs of young people, people from the past I should say, stuck to the walls and looking straight at me. The bed has a stack of crocheted blankets upon him. That’s Lonnie’s hobby. I don’t know how she could have got hold of so much wool over the years. What does she trade to indulge her hobby? I’m starting to see that my knowledge of Blossom Farm only scratches the surface. I know it geographically, and even politically; socially, now that’s a different matter.
‘You’ll be okay,’ Jim says, as he lays things on the floor: the blankets, the pillow. We take it in turns to use the adjoining bathroom, and I hate the smell of it. The smell of them, scrunched up together in their own sweat, neither of them able to tell their scents apart. Lonnie removes her enormous earrings and leaves them by the bed, ready for first thing the next morning.
Then we’re three old people in the standard green flannel pyjamas, so laughable, being polite to each other. Am I ready for lights out? Jim asks me, courteously. I tell him yes. It’s only once the dim light is out and everyone is tucked up in bed that Jim begins to speak, and say real things. This is why I’m here. So that I can’t just walk away.
‘It’s us and them,’ he says, softly, into the dark, ‘Us and them, Mel, and they want us to think it’s not, but we’re not stupid. And they say Blossom Farm has been using us, cheap compliant labour, practically slaves, but they’re no different. They’re worse, with their pretence of equality and their big statements: food for all, freedom. And they’ll just run this place into the ground because they know nothing about plants, do they? Nothing.’
‘No,’ I whisper. They know a lot about being cold and frozen inside, and about hating us. But we’re catching up fast.
‘Blossom Farm won’t stand for it. I talked to this Stephan, man to man, I said I was the representative for the workers, somebody has to be. Stephan said all the supervisors and guards were escorted away, but we can stay and keep working, that’s part of the deal. He says there’s going to be a profit-sharing agreement for a peaceful solution. But Blossom Farm would never agree to that, would they?’
So Stephan said the guards and Mr Cecil left. But I saw the mounds in the snow. I could start a war here with just a few words. If I just describe those mounds, Jim will start to mobilise us all with the righteous ire of the fed and warm and unimaginative.
Jim talks and talks and talks.
I feel a new sense of sympathy for Lonnie by the time my eyes start to close regardless of the endless sound of his voice. He’s busy talking himself into importance. Has he done this every night since the terrorists came? No wonder she looks so tired.
The sound jolts me from sleep.
At first I think something heavy has been thrown against the door, but then it comes again, shaking me all the way into wakefulness, and I realise it’s so much bigger than that. Something has been thrown against the domes.
It’s so dark. There’s another bang, and then I hear voices in the corridor, panicked, and running feet, and I feel fear like I never have, so sharp, like pain.
Not the melons, not when everything else has gone, but then someone shouts, ‘Winery!’ and the relief is so keen, like ice on a burn; I go numb, and the aches of my body don’t matter as I get up, get dressed, and head out towards the noise.
I don’t think. I just move, fast, in the flow with the others. Is Jim behind me? I hear a man shouting my name but I ignore it, I’m caught up in the crowd, young and old moving together and I can’t tell them apart any more.
The heat hits me when we reach the entrance to the Winery and the crowd panics, parts, and disperses into smaller groups as I press on past the shelves. There are flakes of snow whirling in the orange glow up ahead, hot and cold, fire and snow, mixing, mingling, making crazy patterns. The back wall of the winery is gone. The barrels are alight, and the puddles, puddles all around, burn. The hole in the wall, like a ragged mouth, is terrifying. The fire runs and roars; it is a monster.
I can’t make out faces, or understand what is being shouted, but I make out the concerted movements around me. Some people are attempting to control the blaze. The young ones use blankets, handfuls of snow, even their feet as they stamp and stamp in the fiery liquid. Stephan is there, a central point, standing tall against the blaze and facing it down with the confidence of one who is used to getting his own way. The fire will lose the battle. It begins to obey.
Someone catches at my arm. It’s Jim. I’m beginning to get sick of his face.
‘Come on,’ he says, ‘come away. They’ve got it.’ He pushes at me, and I nearly lose my balance, but he’s right; we should go. When the fire goes out there will only be the hole, and the cold pouring through it, and this section will be closed off as best as the terrorists can manage to stop the endless winter from touching our plants. And to stop up the sight of those mounds.
‘Where’s Lonnie?’ I say, as we push past the milling crowds, their mouths open, their eyes glassy. Rubberneckers, that’s what they used to be called. The desire to stare at a car crash, when somebody else’s world has gone wrong. Except this is our world – don’t we have the right to stare?
‘I told her to stay in bed,’ Jim says. ‘You took off so fast. I was worried about you.’ He holds on to my arm, so tightly.
‘I needed to know what was happening.’
‘What was always going to happen.’ The corridor is quieter; all attention is focused behind us, on the blaze. Jim slows a little, and loosens his grip. He speaks more quietly, and with well-chosen words. I get the feeling he’s been rehearsing this in his mind. ‘They’ll never hold this place. They’ll tell us all sorts of lies to keep us all working, but they have to know they have a few days more at best. This was a message Blossom Farm was always going to send.’
‘You think Blossom Farm deliberately blew up the Winery?’
‘It’s the easiest and cheapest area to replace,’ he says. ‘It’s just equipment, not even under the domes. Not organic. But it shows they’d rather destroy it than share it.’
I can’t accept it, I can’t; destroy the melons, the strawberries, the oranges, the sugar snap peas, because if they don’t own it they think nobody should.
‘Lonnie is getting more confused,’ Jim says. ‘It’s all this uncertainty. You know what happens when one of us gets confused. They put us outside. There’s no reason to keep someone who can’t work. But if I make myself indispensable, they’ll want to keep me happy, and then she’s got a chance. We have to last out this band of idiots and then, once they’re gone, the farm will need new supervisors, ones who understood the situation here and did their best to help the rightful owners.’
He stops walking and pulls me to a halt beside him.
‘Listen,’ he says. ‘You’ve been here so long, you’ve had privileges, you know how this works. You’ve got access to stuff, and you know every inch of the place. We can keep the workers together, unite them, keep them strong so they don’t help the enemy. Days, that’s all it will take until the cavalry arrives. Days.’
‘You think we should form an underground movement?’ I ask him. Is he picturing us striking some valiant blow for a business that doesn’t care about us one way or another? His desperation is repulsive, but I’ve been in love. I know what it’s like to think you’ll do anything to keep someone close. Still, I’m too old for this nonsense.
‘Listen,’ I say. I step in close to him and hold his gaze, so he can be in no doubt that I mean this. ‘I can’t help you. I’m done with getting involved. I came here for an easy life, and I just care about the melons. That’s it.’
‘You don’t get to have an easy life now, you silly old woman,’ he says. ‘You silly, silly old woman. This is going to be hard, and you’re part of it, whether you like it or not. In the morning they’ll call a meeting, wait and see. They’ll say that Blossom Farm never cared about us, and they’ll try to split us up. They don’t get it. We know we never mattered to anybody but ourselves, but there comes a point where you have to stand up for that. For meaning something, if only to yourself. And you do care, Mel. We’re approaching the moment where you won’t be able to pretend otherwise any more. Then remember my offer, and remember what you need to do to survive.’ He steps back and puts his hand on the door handle. ‘And don’t mention any of this to Lonnie, okay? She doesn’t need to be upset.’
I follow him into the room and in the warm darkness it’s possible to believe that Lonnie sleeping, her unbroken peace, is enough for all of us. I crawl back into my nest on the floor and Jim returns to his place beside her.
Us and them. Everything is us and them. Even if there were just us three: Jim and Lonnie and me, there would be the divide that splits the heart of all humanity, and if it came to it they would both turn on me.
Did Lucas mean it? That we painters should stick together? I wish I had seen him at the fire, just to see his face. But it’s so dangerous to trust. Even Daisy, Daisy who had me in her hand, could not be trusted in the end.
No, I won’t trust anyone. That’s the only way to be. If it must be us and them, then I’ll stand alone, and take no sides, no matter what happens.
Jim’s breathing slows, and I know he’s found sleep. How lucky he is, to believe in his own importance. He protects Lonnie as if he is a superhero.
SuperJim. The thought makes me smile.
Yes, he’s ridiculous, but as I lie there, feeling the inevitable creep towards morning, I loose the reins of my imagination and picture myself as a young woman, running away over the snow, flanked by the people who make me super too. We are so young and pretty and free, Daisy and Lucas and me.
It’s egg and toast in the morning, with the strange metallic taste of artificial eggs sticking at the back of my throat. I don’t know how they make them, but I always picture robot chickens sitting above a giant conveyor belt, their necks stretching as they pop out egg after egg.
Damn these stupid thoughts, and my old, sore bones, and sleeping on the floor. And damn Stephan, who looks like a proper leader as he stands on the table at the front of the room and shouts, having started softly before working himself up to a frenzy worthy of a politician. I think he’s missed his calling.
‘We offered them a good deal!’ he shouts. ‘A fair deal! Half the produce for the starving, and half for them and their fat shareholders, as long as they left us alone to form a new collective, a place where young and old could work together towards a future for us all!’ He holds out his hands and knits his fingers together. I finish off the last mouthful of eggs.
‘And this is their answer,’ says Stephan. He drops his hands and his voice. ‘They destroy. They don’t care who gets hurt. They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about the future. They would rather blow this place to hell than simply take a little less for themselves! This is the kind of thinking that got us all into this mess in the first place. No care for each other, no care for the natural world, no care for the planet. Nothing but greed. So we need to show them that they’re wrong. We won’t be scared by their tactics. We won’t give in to fear. We’ll stand strong, and take care of the plants and of each other, until they see sense.’
Does he really think this will work? He flicks his eyes over us all and I see calculations taking place. He thinks he has us where he wants us.
From my position in the far corner, I look around the refectory and see the way the young ones are spread out, sitting in twos and threes, alert, none of them eating. Stephan is a very dangerous man.
‘Now, I know that you must be feeling a lot of things about what happened last night. But now is not the time to give into negativity. Let’s all stay strong, and together we can prove to Blossom Farm that although they might have enslaved you once, they never managed to brainwash you. You will always be, in your hearts, free men and women.’
Across from me, Jim coughs, and catches my eye. You see? his expression says, as clear as day. I told you so.
In my expression I try to put the thought – don’t start trouble Jim, don’t start trouble, they’re ready for you.
‘Any questions?’ says Stephan, pleasantly.
Jim raises his hand. He turns in his chair to face Stephan, and all I can see is the back of his head, where the hairs are combed so carefully. He was in the bathroom for ages this morning.
‘It’s not so much a question as an observation,’ says Jim.
‘Please,’ Stephan says, waving a hand. ‘Go ahead.’
He stands up. ‘We’re a pretty old bunch of folks, sir. And we’re all heard this kind of nonsense before. You want to fight a war, you go right ahead. Don’t let us stop you. But I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re not about to fight it for you. Not for all the tea in China.’
‘I’m disappointed to hear you feel that way,’ says Stephan, looking disappointed and righteous. ‘I’m afraid the time has come to choose where you stand, and everybody has to make their own choice. I see that you are choosing to stand with Blossom Farm.’
‘Oh, really?’ says Jim. ‘If I’m not with you I’m against you, is that it? I’ve heard that before, son. And we’re for ourselves, by the way. You lot can be for yourselves and we’ll be for ourselves. End of story.’ He sits down. I’m so glad I can’t see his face. I get the feeling he looks pleased with himself.
‘Ah, I’m so sad that life has been so difficult for you that you can’t tell when a good offer comes along,’ says Stephan. ‘I think we can get together, man to man, and discuss this personally.’
If Jim thought this was how he would keep Lonnie alive, he’s such an idiot. I wonder if he’s beginning to realise that.
‘But no matter how you feel about us,’ says Stephan, addressing the entire room once more, ‘I hope we can all agree that the plants come first. Let’s work hard for them, if not yet for each other.’
He climbs down from the table and people begin to move, taking their trays bearing empty plates and cups to the stacking holders, and then setting off for their sectors with dull, tired expressions. Do I care for them? Will I stand with them? No, I won’t.
The man who took away Daisy’s body comes to our table, and says to Jim, ‘Wait here.’
Jim says nothing. He shrinks down in his seat and Lonnie, beside him, looks up and around, as if waking from a dream.
‘What is it?’ she says, and I say, ‘Work. Come on.’ She follows me, thank God, looking back once or twice at Jim, but she still has the sense to come away.
I drop Lonnie off at Satsumas and then lose myself amongst my melons. Some areas are ripening and I check for colour, size, shape, and write yield estimates, just as Mr Cecil would have liked. The fruits are good and heavy, but I won’t pick them, not yet.
Today the desire is strong to taste one. If I split it open it would reveal the perfect colour of sunrise. My mouth moistens. It’s wet all morning with the thought of the taste. It hasn’t bothered me this way for years, but right now my body is on fire with sensation: the aches and pains, the tiredness, only proves that I’m still alive, and grateful for it. I haven’t felt this way for so long. I can remember exactly when I last felt so glad to still have these old arms and legs, this tired and struggling heart.
I remember it, and I want to put it on glass.
When the lunchtime bell goes I pocket my paintbrush and head to the store room. The paint awaits me. It slides thick and easy over the surface of the pane.
The Reception Area of Sector K was a mockery of an earlier time, when there might have been guests to this state-of-the-art biodome complex, but the doors had been shut and the gates erected before Mel’s arrival. The orange seats, the potted palm, and the water dispenser were used only by the workers, and had become invisible, beyond comment. But the stranger looked hard at them, and Mel saw them again, as if for the first time. The orange seats were lurid and the potted palm lopsided. How ridiculous it looked.
The man’s face was slick with sweat. He wore a padded coat that was so bulky he had barely squeezed through the door. But his shoes, and his beard, were still white with snow. He sneered at them both.
Mr Taylor said, ‘Can I help you?’ His voice was very mild.
The man opened his coat. Inside was a bundle, strapped to his chest by a length of sacking material, brown and coarse, looping over his shoulders and around his waist. He unveiled himself, as if something meaningful had been revealed.
Mel thought – a bomb. A bomb. She didn’t move.
She had heard stories. New workers, arriving from the changed world outside, had told tales of separatism, agro-terrorism, people demanding to live under their own rules to make a fairer world. She had eavesdropped on these conversations with vague interest, as if it was happening in another country, far away. Outside – the foreign country. Now the outside was here.
‘Don’t do anything,’ said Mr Taylor. ‘Okay? Nobody needs to do anything.’
The bundle on the man’s chest squirmed. A small arm emerged through a gap in the sacking. It had folds of fat, chubby creases, and the fist clenched and unclenched.
The man stroked the fist, and then put it back inside the material, using only one hand. In the other hand was a knife.
No, not a knife. It was a trowel. One of the small steel trowels they used for planting. He must have come here through the nurseries, Mel thought.
‘Put the knife down, okay?’ said Mr Taylor, who had stretched out his own hands in that classic gesture of placation. Look, I’m empty handed, I mean you no harm.
The man mumbled.
‘What? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear.’
‘I need milk.’
‘You need the meat section. You’re in fruit. Fruit’s no good for a baby.’ Mr Taylor pointed. ‘Here. I’ll show you the way.’
‘Real milk. From a real cow.’
‘Yes, that’s what we do here. Real cows. I promise you. This way.’
The man watched Mr Taylor edge around to stand beside him, at the entrance. How strange, that only a moment ago they had been discussing the weather, as reported onscreen that morning. Another cold one, Mr Taylor had said, can you remember what summer used to be like? I was in the football team and we played out there in shorts.
‘How far?’ said the man.
‘Not far.’ Mr Taylor flicked his eyes to Mel. It was an instruction, so obviously; no, a plea. To do something. What did he want her to do? The man saw it, and read it quickly and completely. He raised the trowel and brought it down, that steel point digging into the space between Mr Taylor’s neck and his chest, right where the collar of his white shirt sat.
Mel looked away. She simply looked away: not there, not there, not there, she heard in her head.
When she came back to herself, she was kneeling by the entrance to her melon area and Mr Taylor was on the ground, not far away. His blood had formed a lake around him, so red, reaching the feet of the orange chairs, the colours clashing.
She crawled over to him. His mouth was opening and shutting. His eyes were on her. He looked very much younger.
‘Billy,’ she said.
There’s a cheery knock at the store room door, a young person’s knock, and I just know its Lucas. I hate myself for feeling pleased at the thought.
I put down the paintbrush and open the door. He is standing there with a big smile. I let him enter, check the corridor is empty, and then close the door. We are alone in the only space left to me. Why don’t I mind him being here? I should mind it.
‘What are you painting?’ he says. ‘Is that a melon?’
‘It’s not finished yet. And it’s not a melon. It doesn’t look anything like a melon.’
We stand side by side and stare at the black curves on the glass.
‘It looks exactly like a melon,’ he says.
I nudge him in the ribs.
‘Well, what is it, then?’
‘It’s a baby. Look, there’s the head, there’s an eye, that’s a little hand.’
‘Is that a hand, then? Not a flower? I can’t believe I didn’t see it immediately. You’re a painting genius. Look at that brushwork.’
‘Shut up,’ I tell him.
He smiles and smiles, and looks so comfortable with me, like we share something deep. I wish he wouldn’t smile. I have to make him stop.
‘A man got in here. Into Sector K, I mean. Two years ago. He had a baby strapped to his chest. I can still picture it. That baby. I only saw its hand, though.’ I shrug. ‘The mind’s a funny thing.’
At last; he’s stopped smiling. But this sudden feeling of intimacy is worse. The room is so quiet. ‘What happened?’
‘I don’t know. Guards caught him eventually, I heard. He would have been dealt with. I heard rumours, afterwards, that people outside carry babies around to fatten them up, to – eat them, later.’
‘Like a packed lunch?’ Lucas says, and snorts. ‘You don’t believe that, do you?’
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘No, I don’t believe that.’ I can see, once more, that man holding that baby’s hand, tucking it safely away.
Lucas touches the glass pane, where the paint is drying, with one finger. ‘Of course, you’ve never been out there since it all went wrong, so you don’t know. And you’re right; the mind is a funny thing. But, trust me, we don’t eat babies.’
‘Not my lot, anyway.’ He turns away from the picture, and scans the shelves.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Listen. This whole thing. You and I both know it’s not going to work.’
For a moment I think he’s talking about us, him and me, but he continues, ‘There can’t be an agreement. Stephan was wrong, and he’s beginning to realise it. He’s given the order to collect as much produce as we can and then get out of here before Blossom Farm gets tired of pretending to negotiate and sends in their army.’
‘They have an army?’
‘You really don’t get who you’re dealing with, do you? Blossom Farm has these domes all over the world now. They’re rich enough to buy people, governments, whole countries. Raising an army is not going to be a problem. All it will take is a little time, and they really don’t care if they lose the entire of this place and everyone in it just as long as they send the message that they don’t negotiate with terrorists.’
He spits the word out, and I finally see that it’s become a meaningless word, describing nobody in this situation accurately.
‘But they picked the winery as a target,’ I say. ‘They knew it would be empty, and that it’s the easiest part to rebuild. It shows they’re not totally -‘
Lucas shakes his head. He lowers his voice even though there’s nobody to overhear. ‘They didn’t blow up the winery. We did.’
‘We blew it up. To show Blossom Farm that we’re serious. Stephan thought it might make them negotiate, if they understood we have the capacity to destroy this place. And still they won’t talk to us. I’ve been out there, holding up signs, trying to get a response. It was the final bluff, and it didn’t work. So now it’s just about time. Starting tomorrow, everyone will be asked to pick their areas clean. And then we’re going to try to escape.’
‘You’ll take all the fruit? Every bit?’
He touches my arm. ‘Not the plants, though, Mel, not the plants. It can all grow again. You’ll be left in peace. Stephan can see it now – that it’s not worth the effort to try to reason with these people.’
‘You talked him round?’
‘He trusts me. And not everyone is intent on bloodshed.’
‘Don’t say any more,’ I beg. He puts his hand to my old face, and I’m ashamed of my tears, and my wrinkles. My pouched eyes, no doubt, contain emotions it would be easy to mock.
‘Are you afraid?’ he says.
Yes, I’m afraid. Of what will come next, and of what I have to do.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Lucas. ‘One day, one harvest, and I’ll be gone. Things will go back to normal.’
I’m afraid of that too.
Knowing that everything will end makes time move in a different way. I go to bed and Jim isn’t there. Lonnie says he’s at some sort of important meeting, and she goes about her business in a daze, climbing into her pyjamas and settling down into her bed. She doesn’t seem to miss him. In the silence, in the dark, we sleep.
In the morning, Lonnie and I go to the Refectory, and Stephan explains that everything will be harvested today and moved to a safe location to protect the fruit in case of further attacks by Blossom Farm. The workers nod. I see one with a bruised face, another holding his arm in an awkward position, and the intruders are no longer sitting down. They stand against the walls, alert. The illusion of working together is so thin you could blow it away with a single breath. Maybe that is why we all seem to be holding our breath, hardly taking in air at all.
After breakfast I take Lonnie to Satumas and then go to mine. Gregor is at the water cooler. His hands tremble as he raises his cup to his lips. Crates on trolleys have appeared next to the plastic chairs. I steer one through into Melons, and look around me.
I pick everything, no matter how small or green. I pick the swollen and the shrivelled, ripening or with the promise of much growing to do. The first crate fills. The plants surround me, brushing my face as I work, tickling my neck. Just before midday I reach the area where Mr Taylor was buried. I put my hands to the soil, and tell him what I’ve been thinking of since my last painting.
‘I think you really wanted to help that man. I think you were trying to tell me not to call security, that day, with that flick of your eyes. I think you wanted to save that baby. I don’t know what happened to it.’
But I do know. They did the things we don’t talk about here.
They killed it. And then I’m guessing they put it under the soil too. We are workers, and assets, and finally we are fertilizer. We are stupid enough to do it all for the sake of a hot meal and a bed, because we think that matters more than being a person.
I pick the nearest melon. It’s a good one: large, and round, and warm. I scrabble at it with my fingers, but my nails are too short to penetrate it. It won’t open for me. Then I take my paintbrush from behind my ear and stab the end without bristles into the melon.
The smell is divine. The juice drips down over my hand; I lick it off, and breathe in and out, in and out, in great gasps. Memories of my grandmother’s garden are so strong, so vibrant, in my mind. I hear the drone of bees, the weight of warm, real sunshine on the back of my neck. The things I have painted on glass are only shadows of these tastes and touches. I haven’t remembered a thing right.
I stab the melon again and again, until it makes a sucking sound, and splits into ragged pieces. My hands are drenched; the liquid soaks into my sleeves. The seeds are wet and glistening in its gash. I scoop up flesh, and eat, and eat, feeling moisture in my mouth and on my cheeks. It will stain me orange, and I don’t care. I eat.
The dome shudders. It is being hit.
I pocket the seeds in my dungaree pockets, even though they try to slide through my fingers to find the soil. I go back to picking in my melons, and I fill the crates, and listen to the strange noises that mean we have reached the end.
I work hard, and fill five crates. When I’m half-way through the sixth, Lucas finds me. He looks so calm.
I walk to meet him, and he says, ‘You need to wipe your face.’
I feel my mouth turning up at the corners, and I grin, grin like only a girl should.
He lifts his hand and smoothes his sleeve over my mouth, not gently, rubbing at the corners. ‘There,’ he says. ‘That will have to do.’
The dome shudders again. I hear shouts, from what seems like very far away, but I don’t care.
‘Are you ready?’ he says.
‘To leave with me.’
I never expected this. Never. Even when I dreamed of something like this, I knew it made no sense. I can’t think of what to say, what to do. When words do come, they are ridiculous ones.
‘I’m so old,’ I tell him, even though I don’t feel it at that moment.
‘I told you. We’re going to stick together. I know how to survive out there, and you know how to make things grow.’
‘I don’t. I can’t make anything grow. Apart from melons.’
‘You’re picking one hell of a time to argue about this.’
The shouts are louder. There’s a new sound, too, like someone tapping out a rhythm, fast, with a high drum. Is that gunfire? I’ve never heard it before.
‘Come to the winery,’ he says. ‘We can get out that way. Bring some melons. I’ll fetch some supplies and meet you there. I think we have a chance, since they’re attacking from the main gate. I’ve come up with a way to move fast.’
‘You’ve been planning this for days.’
‘Since Stephan suggested this whole thing. He said to wait for someone who could get us in, and then we found Daisy. It was my responsibility, to get her to trust us. But she made me trust her instead. And she told me that the only real difference between people is whether they’re willing to hurt others, or try to help them.’ His calmness is a mask. Underneath it I glimpse – what? Pain. Fury. And then it’s gone. ‘Listen. Stephan has ordered us to burn the place down. He wants to make some great statement to the world. If it’s not for anybody, then it’s for nobody. I don’t want to be part of his statement. Do you?’
‘No. No, I don’t.’
‘Great. Then I’ll meet you at the Winery. Say you’ll be there.’ He pulls me into his arms. I’m so lucky, I think, so lucky, when the world I knew is about to end and so many will die, and here I am just being lucky, with my boy wrapping his arms tight around me for no reason I can understand.
‘I’ll be there,’ I say.
He steps back. ‘We need to get going. Give me the code.’
‘The code. For the store room door. There’s no time for us both to go. I can move more quickly alone.’
I’ve been such an idiot. Such an idiot.
To think he could be a friend, a real friend, someone who sees past the way I got to this place, the life I’ve lived, and the wrinkles on my face.
This was all about the code. All of it.
I should hate him.
But he has been so kind to pretend this way, and make me believe it. We might both be painters, but he has a lightness of hand that I have never possessed. One can only admire the brushwork.
‘9200,’ I say. I repeat it, to make sure he’s got it.
‘Right,’ he says. ‘See you at the Winery.’ He takes my hand, and squeezes it. ‘Thank you.’
Once he’s gone, I feel very tired. Tired enough to sleep. To shrivel up, and be done. I lie down for a while, amongst my melons. For a while, I think nothing will ever make me move again.
But then a woman walks into my area. The woman who sharpened her knife at my table, and took my room away from me.
She’s holding a petrol can; it’s heavy, and it bumps against her leg as she approaches my plants. That’s what makes me stand. Not that it’s her, but that she’s brought so much petrol along to do the job.
She sees me, but doesn’t stop. She chooses a spot near the areas I have only just impregnated recently, delicately placing pollen on my brush and easing it inside the flowers. She unscrews the petrol can, and begins to pour. The clear fluid drips from the leaves.
‘Stop,’ I say.
‘Go to the Common Room,’ she tells me, without even bothering to look at me. ‘That’s where all your lot is meant to go. Didn’t your supervisor tell you?’
‘Stop.’ She ignores me. I try to think of anything I might say that would change her mind. ‘If you keep killing everything there’ll be no plants left in the world.’
‘That’s rich,’ she says, ‘coming from your lot.’
I move closer to her. The smell of the petrol is strong and sharp in my nostrils. ‘What lot?’
‘You all fucked it up and now you get to act like the keepers of the flame for some imaginary future where we’re not knee deep in fucking snow.’ She shakes her head, and then stares at me, and I see that hatred again. The unique way that the young despise the old for the things we did or didn’t do frightens me like nothing else I’ve seen.
‘So let it all burn?’ I ask her.
She frowns, and puts down the can, near the door. She hasn’t doused many of the plants in petrol. I get it now; she’ll only use a small amount in each area. Once a few plants are alight, the rest will catch easily enough. That one can of petrol could do the entire of the Farm. Who knows how many she’s already done?
‘I don’t get it,’ she says. ‘That you lot would agree to this, this hoarding, rather than try to save us all. But that’s it, isn’t it? Choices. You made yours.’
‘Did I?’ I ask. I don’t remember making them, exactly, so much as following the paths that were presented. And nothing ever quite seemed like my personal responsibility. Not in the way that these melons are my responsibility. Not in a way that I would bleed for.
‘Look what you left us with,’ she says. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a box of matches. I’m too slow and I can’t think of anything more to say. She moves back away from the soaked plants, strikes a match, and throws it.
They catch so quickly that the air makes a popping sound and within moments the flames are high and orange and flickering through my plants, touching them and making them twist and writhe and shrivel. Black smoke gushes upwards. My stomach does the same, and my mind, oh my mind hurts so much I can’t think any more, I can’t bear any more. I walk to the door, and pick up the can of petrol. I was right. It is very heavy. Then I go to her, this woman who thinks I should have solved all her problems before she was born.
She doesn’t think me capable of such a thing, so I surprise her when I throw petrol over her. I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting to happen. I’m not sure how it does, really. She turns to get away from me, and although she is not very close to the flames they jump through the air to her face, and her arms, and then she writhes and wriggles, just like my plants. She screams and screams, and crashes through the area, and feel my thoughts turning away from the horror of her. I put down the can and collect my trolley, and make sure the door shuts behind me when I leave.
I trundle out to the reception area. Her screaming is so loud, even out here. Gregor crouches behind the water cooler. He peers out at me.
‘You need to start again,’ I tell him. I suspect it’s a thought he never quite grasped. I have to raise my voice, to be heard over the screams.
Onwards, down the corridor. People run, and their terror is bothersome. I swat at them, shoo them from my path. The taste of the melon lingers.
Goodbye, corridor. Goodbye, everyone. I’ve done my best, and now it’s time to move on.
I pass into the living quarters, past my old room, where the glass plates lie under the bed still, no doubt. I don’t stop.
Around the corner there are two men in Blossom Farm uniforms, carrying guns, and they point them at me, but I put my head down and mumble to myself, and keep moving. The pretence of being a mad old lady seems to work. Who am I fooling? I am a mad old lady. I could do no harm to anyone. They lower their guns. I crab along.
Behind me, I hear a burst of running feet and then the air is hot and prickly. I smell burning meat, and I don’t turn around.
A man yells, ‘Stop!’ and still I don’t turn around.
Nothing hits me.
I keep going.
I keep going.
There is a dead body is just before the Common Room. It’s one of the terrorists. A woman. Why do people always look so young when they’re just dead? Perhaps its in the way her face has relaxed, just as Daisy’s did, and Billy’s. No more cares. An expression of emptiness only the very young would wear.
She leaks blood in all directions, from the large tear in her abdomen, through the clothes and skin, so that tubes and coils have rushed, squeezed, bubbled up. How did it all fit inside her to begin with?
I can’t get around all the blood; I have to push the trolley through it, and two red lines are left by the wheels. Between the tracks I leave footprints of clear red intent. I keep looking over my shoulder at them, but I go on.
The noise is growing again, and when I approach the Common Room archway it’s so loud. I keep moving, promising myself I won’t look up, but the flashes and the screams are impossible to resist. I freeze, framed in the archway like an actress on a stage, and watch a war. The sofas and chairs are overturned, and the strong smell of burning comes from the drifting black smoke that reveals and obscures. The two sides in this war, I can’t tell apart. There are only bodies, and glimpses of people running and crouching; how can they tell if they’re trying to kill the right people? Of course, the uniform. Only the uniform makes a difference.
I see Stephan, standing tall amongst his followers, wearing power like a warm cloak. But it’s not enough this time, it won’t stop bullets, and he crumples up, like a fallen hero from a painting. Is he dead? I don’t know. But all his magnificent control is gone, and the fight begins to scatter, and spread, and turn my way.
Someone grabs my arm and pulls hard. It’s Suroopa.
‘Come on,’ she says, and tugs at me, with a strength I never suspected she possessed, having thought of Courgettes as quite a dainty job.
‘Come on wake up wake up,’ she screams over another burst of gunfire, and I give in to her, and follow after. But I won’t leave my melons. The trolley comes too.
She takes me to the Refectory, behind the serving area, and I find a huddle of familiar workers sitting on the floor, leaning against the stainless steel cabinets. I know them all, which surprises me, as I’ve never thought of them much before, and haven’t even had a short conversation with many. But I know them, just the same.
Suroopa crouches down and moves amongst them, and I drop my trolley handle and do the same. They stare at the trolley, and the melons.
‘I couldn’t leave them,’ I explain. I don’t expect them to understand.
But then I see them reach into their pockets, or into the white sacks they carry. Sue has raspberries, and Zena has chillis. Geoff is there cuddling a cucumber, and Barry has lychees. Plums, persimmons, pomegranates, a spiky-topped pineapple. There, at the end, pressing herself into the corner is Lonnie, holding out a luminous, waxy satsuma in each hand. We had satsumas at Christmas when I was little; why has that not come to me before? I should have painted it.
The gunfire intensifies, and there is shouting again. The smoke is thickening; why has the alarm system not gone off? It must not be working. Maybe the sprinklers are pouring down on our plants, though, keeping them safe from flames.
When it goes quiet Suroopa says, ‘They burned my courgettes.’
The others nod. Someone wails, for a moment. I have things I could say, but I don’t.
‘Blossom Farm will soon deal with them,’ Suroopa says. ‘Then we’ll grow everything back to how it was. Things will go back to normal.’
I shake my head. ‘No, no, it will all burn. It will cost too much to rebuild now.’
‘No, they wouldn’t -‘
I move away from her. I’m not expecting her to believe me, but there seems no point in pretending that we can simply wait here and everything will pass us by.
It’s difficult to think in the presence of so much wealth. The leathery, crowned perfection of the pomegranates in Miriam’s lap, and the warm smiles of the bunch of bright green bananas beside Poppy. It comes to me that we can’t give up. And our best chance is not here, in the centre of the burning biodomes.
Lonnie says, ‘Jim. Jim. Where’s Jim?’
I think I know the answer to that question. And it gives me some sort of answer as to where we can go. If a place has already been destroyed, why would they fight over it?
‘I can take you to him,’ I tell her. ‘Would you like that?’
‘Jim,’ she says, and I think she’s too far gone to understand, but then she stands up and looks at me expectantly.
I say to the others, ‘We need to get the produce to a safe place.’
‘Where?’ says Suroopa, but she gets up too, and that’s enough to get them all moving.
I pick up the handle to my trolley once more and turn away from the bloody track I’ve left, leading them away from the Common Room. They trail after me. We move away from the noise of the fighting, and in my mind I hold the map of these domes, and how they link. If the plants are burning, the doors might have automatically shut and locked, which will give us a little time. Still, I can’t risk a direct route. I’ll wind around the edges, using the less frequented corridors, where you can almost feel the cold through the walls.
Whenever I look behind me, I’m surprised by the way they walk, in an orderly fashion, pairs holding hands in some cases. When I was a teacher I would have thought nothing of it. Form a crocodile, I would have said, and they would have obeyed. Another image I have failed to capture on glass, and perhaps by now all my slides have melted together as the fire sweeps through the living quarters. It will burn it all: the woollen antimacassars, the cuddly toys and the jigsaws, the board games with the plastic pieces squirming in the heat.
I lead the crocodile. ‘One,’ I say. ‘Stick together.’
We’re not far from the Winery when the alarm bell finally starts to ring. It gives long blasts. I suppose Blossom Farm must have reconnected it, and taken control back in areas. The alarm could be an attempt to summon us workers, because we all know what it means. Return to your sections. Adopt lockdown procedures. But my section is burning.
I carry on walking, and the others follow. The cold intensifies. The solar lights flicker. It must be late afternoon by now. The sun will soon set.
The winery has black walls. The barrels have warped and charred, the green glass on the shelves has produced a smooth mess of strange shapes. The smell of smoke here is older, greasier, and the snow has started the process of claiming the ground through the hole in the outside wall, where once there was an emergency exit, forgotten by everyone but Daisy. I was right; it’s getting dark out there already. Or maybe it’s just that the sun can’t shine through those huge black clouds I can see. They block the sky, and suddenly fear comes back to me again. Fear of that dark sky, the endless snow, and that huge space of freezing, dirty air flowing over those mounds where the dead live.
Lucas will be long gone by now, miles away with the emergency kit, the tent, the solar heater, all the thing he needs to survive, and I am glad.
I stop walking, and the others stop too. They look at me with such expectation, waiting to be told what happens next. All I have to do is assume that tone of voice once more, and they will obey.
But that voice doesn’t come too easily any more. I hear the crack and whine in the words when I say, ‘We need to wait outside.’
I set off again with my trolley, but I can hear they haven’t starting walking.
‘Outside?’ calls Suroopa.
I turn back to her. ‘Where else is there?’
‘Why outside? Why not just here?’
The answer to that won’t come to me. All I say is that it seems important to stand in the snow, and be outside the domes. Perhaps I want to be near Daisy again.
‘The fruits will freeze,’ says Sue.
‘They’ll be all right for a short while.’
‘No,’ says Suroopa, in sudden decision. ‘Let’s wait here.’
‘Jim?’ Lonnie’s loud voice surprises me, from the back of the group. She pushes her way forwards. ‘Where’s Jim?’
I point through the hole in the wall. ‘Out there.’
She doesn’t hesitate. She sets off, still clutching her two satsumas, and I go with her. We walk through that hole in the wall as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, to be outside once more. My lungs constrict. It’s like being clutched in a freezing fist, and squeezed, and it hurts, it hurts, but Lonnie keeps going, getting snow on her plain brown shoes, holding her satsumas before her. In only a few steps I’m shivering.
My eyes adapt so slowly to the dusk. I make out the hills beyond the complex, the lines of the fence, and I look for the mounds. But they are no longer there. The snow has covered the bodies, and made a smooth, level field of them. No trace of them remains.
‘Jim!’ calls Lonnie. She walks further out, and out of the shelter of the building the weather grows in confidence. It can claim us. The wheels of the trolley seize in the snow and they will no longer turn. I have to leave it behind as I chase after her.
I grab her, and lead her to where I think Jim’s body must be. ‘Here,’ I shout. The wind is strong and it steals my voice.
‘Jim!’ she calls. She shakes free of me, and strides away. It occurs to me that maybe Jim isn’t here at all. Maybe he’s in the biodomes somewhere, safe and warm and hoping someone is looking after his Lonnie. I go after her, but she is quick with new-found purpose, and it’s so very cold here; a cold that numbs, paralyses.
What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?
I sink down into the snow and close my eyes. Is this it? This final burst of guilt and pain, is that all I’ve been waiting for?
I want to let go. Maybe now I can let go.
I feel a light touch upon my face.
Lucas. Lucas is here, with me, and he takes his hand from my cheek, and helps me to stand. We retreat back to the shelter of the building, by the hole. He shows me how he has made skis from the signs he took from my Store Room, and he straps them to my feet, and wraps me in extra layers of material. Peering out through the hole are the others, watching these preparations.
‘Why?’ I ask him.
‘We won’t survive.’
‘Nobody will,’ he agrees, and the way he says it makes me think it’s not such a bad thing any more. ‘The trick is in how you try.’
The night is falling fast and the crackle and roar of the domes on fire is fighting against the wind for dominance. ‘You ready?’ says Lucas, and I nod.
Suroopa calls my name.
She holds out one of the white plastic bags. She doesn’t step through the hole, and her hand trembles as it emerges into the cold. I take the bag, and look in it.
A pomegranate. A banana. Raspberries, chillis, persimmons, plums, a cucumber, a courgette. A handful of lychees. It’s like one of those old still life portraits, with the fruits filling up my eyes, belonging together in a way I haven’t seen before.
‘Keep them safe,’ she says.
It’s a promise I can’t make, but I understand why she asks it of me. I hold the bag tight, and abandon my own melons, still in the useless trolley, to the cold. In my pockets sit the seeds, anyway.
I will have to find a new name.
Lucas and I head out through the snow, away from Blossom Farm, in a direction that leads to places I don’t yet know. Our tracks will leave thin lines upon the white canvas of the landscape; between us, we are making delicate brushwork.
Copyright 2016 Aliya Whiteley
Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon, UK, in 1974 and currently lives in Sussex with her husband, daughter and dog. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit’s European Monsters and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. Her recent novella for Unsung Stories, The Beauty, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a Sabotage Award, and appeared on the Honors List for the James Tiptree Jr Award. Her latest novella with Unsung, The Arrival of Missives, was published in May 2016. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.