I thought kindness had vanished, prey to the desperate. I scooped the snow with my pitchfork hands. It would be enough to trick the jaw and stomach as it would not melt even as it rolled down my throat, cheating the pain of death.
They nearly left me there, this man and his son, and I would have known no different. My neck hairs felt them first. The young boy stretched his arm out with a thumb-sized offering of stale bread. The father made no attempt to stop him. I am not your son. Why risk his life for mine?
He nodded ahead, into nothingness, endless hills, bare hedgerows, villages of children frozen in their sleep. I don’t have long, I told him. He kept walking.
Silence walks beside us. I can feel it – her even – to which I feel the bread in my stomach turn sour. Family feels like a strange feeling. I sometimes catch the child’s sunken cheeks, the cheekbones almost shooting out from the skin. I know that is how she went.
I couldn’t bear the slope, as if I was hauling someone else’s legs, which knotted and twisted as I climbed.
I was fine to fall asleep with my face in the snow. I had even forgotten what cold feels like. The ice was warm to my face.
The child’s shadow grazed me, and everything I had achieved, fought for, was beneath him. He, whose skin could barely cover his bones, would outlive me?
The cold relieved me of my body, of its afflictions, enough to deceive myself into a dream of the past. I’m in bed. Tomorrow, we’ll go shopping. Tomorrow, is my Birthday. Tomorrow, I go to college. Tomorrow, I’ll go read beneath a tree.
The boy’s footsteps shocked me awake. The father hauled me up by my shoulder, which was sure would pop out.
– Just a few more steps and we’ll rest.
They helped me reach the top of the slope, and stopped at the sight of the Great Western Mainline. It has been the first sight of home I have had in months. To die so close to home would be shameful.
They were soundless, still, frozen in its sight. I felt ashamed at the smile it gave me.
– We’ll go back
I knew the answer. The answer walked with us.
The Mainline can not bare to be without me. Every direction leads us straight into its path. I could go on and on about destiny or vocation, but I am not sure if these are the words of a sane man. We keep turning back. Blackzones fill the inner country for miles. Our best bet is to stay close to the Mainline. There is just no way for us to live away from it.
– We have to pass
– We’ll be going in circles for days.
I obliged. There wasn’t much I could do. I am a weak man, and these two keep me going. I can give them nothing.
We walked on for another mile when his son threw himself to the ground. I feared that the stretched provisions would show my burden.
– Just a little further. See those trees. We’ll go there.
He looked to me for approval. I nodded. I felt strong again, but I know he is stronger than me.
I picked up branches as we walked, for I am capable of exerting any more energy than our long treks. The kid’s tiredness was a close call. It can’t be far from the man’s thoughts to be rid of me. I needed to show my worth before they abandoned me here. We made a small fire and ate the last of the bread, which I swallowed whole, cutting the thin lining of my throat.
I laid on the moss, which was nicer on my back, but still I felt the ground, the slightest root, digging into my bones. Through the branches of the silver birches a violet sky, and flashes of white dart across it. My family or friends rarely dominate my thoughts. Moments – happy and sad – can make me smile. Even the prolonged hours, where I cursed the world and my mother, and felt descend upon me this feeling of inescapable emptiness, seemed sweet.
– We’ve never really had a chance to speak.
I raised my head. The father had laid near me.
– I’m sorry about earlier.
– That’s okay. I trust you.
– I wouldn’t. Should you trust the judgement of a man that keeps someone like you around. We could probably live for longer without you.
– That’s fair.
– I am too nice. I’m lucky to have survived this long
– It is not luck
– Yeah. I. am. lucky.
He savoured this thought for a while.
He was lucky. The perfect target. My lies were weighed by fear. At any moment we would be hunted. We were both the targets. And I shall not let his congenial attitude deceive me of where his loyalties laid.
The son is my saviour. He pointed out a silver flashing in the morning. The father told us to stay where we were, but I jumped to my feet, sickened at feeling infantile.
– Stay here. Let me.
I found a cache, a supply box laden with supplies for weeks. I searched through every tin, reminded of those large buildings of long aisles, so neatly packed, bountiful, and uniform. I went to stand, to wave to them, call them to our treasures, but I heard a crunch beneath my foot. I picked up a white twig. I twisted it between my hands inspecting the smooth side and then the jagged yellow end.
I chucked it away, and that was when I saw a beret peaking through the snow.
No one thought it worth speaking about.
– Sometimes I wonder how long we can keep going on.
– One day, there will be plenty.
– You think?
– Yes. Well, I know. London’s greed will not last.
His laugh was sharp and brief. He spoke no further and would not even look at me. It hurt me, but I could see he wanted to speak no longer. A raging indignance took hold of me facing his denial. Everyone was betrayed.
There it was the Mainline again. A brown line that divided the land.
– We have enough, now. We can cross. There will be no one for miles.
– And why not?
– I’ve told you why. We are not going anywhere near it.
– So we’ll die then?
– We’ll live.
How ignorant can they be? The World Has Changed. This is the truth. Hard, but so very real. I’ve tried to tell him. I’ve tried. He retreats into his small head, and blocks my words. My blood rushed. The world swayed like schooner in a gale.
If I stay with them, I’ll die.
– Look, you can do it. I’ll give you a quarter of what we found.
– A quarter?
– It’s only fair. I have a son.
I never knew their names.
The weight on my back has made traversing the deep snow difficult. I have been consuming double what I should. The snow cocooned me as I walked, grating my skin raw. My left big toe has been throbbing for days, making every step a mile. My sock felt soaked for the first few days. It’s dry, now, and it is easier to walk. I fear to look at my feet.
For months, I have travelled with many like the man and his child. None dare to go near the Mainline. They all speak of him. Tales of the Lord of Swindon, which shock and disgust me.
I found a commune, who refuse to steal. They let me in, fed me, cut off the gangrenous toe. They all told the same stories:
They brought tears to my eyes. This could not be the truth, but I could find no part of my soul that could doubt it. A part of my torso had been ripped from me.
For the first time in years, my libido was stronger than ever, and it was nauseating. My head was light, floating on the air, rocked by the haunting stories.
I took many into the forest, men and women, and we laid on the moss nude, nuzzled next to each other, filling the forest with our worries and sorrows, the foxes responded to our calls. We rested and slept in the forest in each other’s warmth, plucking the splinters from our palms, until the rosied yellow sky of daybreak.
Night after night, story after story, I followed the same routine, taking my giddiness out on others. We all did it for different reasons, but it was the only way to feel normal again
On my way to camp, one fella looked at me sincerely, I could see the lines around his eyes, and wondered if he had aged in his sleep. I told him it was loneliness. The lie was barely enough to cover the screaming and pleas. I wondered if he heard it too, as he frowned and spoke no further.
I have spent the last month in a commune to the North of Didcot, gaining my strength, foraging for fungus or firewood. But the time came to leave, when I felt ready to show myself again in Swindon.
I avoided the Mainline. Even I feared the Lord of Swindon, for he had become something greater than myself.
I lost myself through endless streets of houses with faint candlelight, where ripped, patchy curtains were hung to hide the cowering life inside. I walked as if my unconscious memories had wrapped a rope around my waist and were tugging me home.
I stand atop an old rusted bridge, rocking in the breeze, where my father sat me on his shoulders to watch the trains. He would point toward Signal Point, the bland office building of shattered windows covered with plywood.
– Look here comes one.
The yellow face of a HST would spring from the shade into the sunlight. I waved. I wanted the driver to see me. They always saw me. They sounded the horn, which sounded like a Hello.
Now, they only sounded for help when being held up. And I knew it too well.
I hated that sound.
Down Station Road, Signal Point towered more and more into the sky. I thought about those I had lost: Sean, he used to be a lawyer, eloquent, never raised his voice. We grew up together, through all this, and we fought together, against London. Many were bewitched by our tales.
– London saved itself. They left us. Those fat useless politicians we elected to represent us. They Left US.
He always came in, composed, to temper my anger on cue. Together, we worked well, but he was always the more likeable. They looked to him as their union leader. That was his problem. He was stealing them from me.
My commune at the Mechanic’s Institute is dead. I am not sure why the rows of empty sleeping areas surprised me. I laid beneath the light blanketing the ballroom from the large window above the balcony. The scarlett paint on the walls was flaking like dry dead skin. The breeze’s howl through the corridors made it feel less lonely.
I lit a fire in an oil drum, the flame flickered, too shy to rise above the rim.
They looked to me right till the very end. You always have a plan, they thought, you always have a plan. I watched them all with the very same face, placed in front of a wall, and their heads falling to their knees. I can taste the gunpowder, now.
I shall go out sometime to start again.