Choice by Sarah Jasmon. The other runner-up story – “Skin” by Dan Carpenter – will be published tomorrow.
And on the hill there is a white city, and within her walls all will be safe. Except Manchester isn’t on a hill. No matter. If you go up on a roof of a redbrick terrace, out where the nights are as sharp with danger as razor blades, you can see across the plain to where the city centre sits, surrounded by her curving wall. Because Manchester was ahead of the game, guided by the voice of Flores.
Flores, the man who lit the fire of the North, lifting packed stadia to unified states of frenzy with his rhetoric; becoming the unstoppable force of the decade. The man of the people, the evangelist of change, the one who turned about the fortunes of Manchester and now lives behind the vast enclosing walls of her centre, his hand controlling the country’s media, his vision bulldozing through the wreckage of the country outside.
Even before the government of the day realised that they had left it too late, Flores had begun his pitch. And as the water began to rise around the spires of London, the men of influence forgot their distaste for the places of the North, and made their move towards the hills. Flores gathered power with the ease of a monkey picking at fleas. Inside those walls, which breathe inwards like the sides of a giant cooling tower, you can stroll down Deansgate, cool yourself at the fountain of St Ann, and then make your way to the Cathedral for a moment of thankfulness. It is as if the outside isn’t happening.
For those on the outside, though…
The insect shed is quiet, the solar-induced warmth alive with tiny increments of movement. Many thousands of legs, incessant jaws. I stand for a moment to watch the gently shifting mass behind the nearest glass wall. It is one of the ways we show our difference, by producing our own food. This room full of tanks, and the hand feeding, the sieving and preparation, the way we serve the end result in a natural form, with no pretending that it’s other than it is: this is the important stuff. Rafe once said it was the natural conclusion to allotments and slow food and keeping a few chickens. I think of the industrial plants writhing with the tonnes of miniature life needed to support their slogans. Keeping it cheap. Keeping it real. I hold my palm against the glass and imagine I can feel the movement on the other side.
I hear the heavy plastic curtain over the door being pushed aside, and Rafe comes to stand next to me. I don’t look at him.
‘Everything under control in here?
He is good at this, finding a neutral subject after upset, making it possible to feel normal.
‘Yes,’ I hear myself saying.
The man arrived last night whilst we were eating. I can picture it as clearly as if the moment had been captured in paint. Thirteen of us around the table, candles lighting our faces from beneath. He is framed in the doorway, his arms braced against the jambs. His forehead rests on the upward slant of one dirt-caked bicep. It would be in the style of Ford Madox Brown, or possibly Millais. The title, ‘The Unexpected Visitor’. You used to be able to see paintings like this in real life. Now they are behind the Wall, accessible only to those who hold an official pass. Who follow the official line.
Our visitor was gone before morning. We pass them on, these men and women whom we are not allowed to call refugees, up to the areas of Scotland where there is space enough for them to settle. A hard life, but preferable to the floating camps on the south coast, on the bite of water that lies between the Quantocks and the Chilterns. He had time to rest, eat, to bring us up to date with the latest conditions.
I can feel Rafe’s body heat as he moves behind me. I don’t want him to touch me, and he must sense this, because he stops, and I hear the rasp of his nails rubbing against his beard instead. I focus on the scraping talk of the locusts. We must go out and collect more balsam, I think. A calming thought, a normal, everyday plan. Himalayan balsam. But this in turn makes me remember Rafe leaning in to me, whispering the other names, the Kiss-me-on-the-Mountains names. I picture the man’s face from last night, the hollows, the bones, the bruises.
It was after the visitor had gone that the arguments had begun. There are those among us who want to join with the more radical of the protesters. There is a swell building, a head of steam. It is time, some of them say, to move on from our stated position. We have done what we can here, now our duty lies in supporting the movement towards action. When the united people gather, we should be there too.
But our life here is based on the absence of conflict. There is enough of that outside, and we are here to be different, to raise a voice against the senseless noise. Rafe has been our bedrock: Rafe, the outcast; Rafe, once the biggest cog in Flores’ architecture of a new world; Rafe, who turned his back on the Wall. But we have heard too many of these stories. I have tried not to listen to the others, have tried to have faith, but last night, something gave.
The man told us the usual stories. Beatings. Hunger. Men taken to work on the new flood basins. Children sent to the euphemistic Homelands. Those with power sit on the high ground and kick at the hands reaching up towards them. As this one escapee was led off to start on the next stage of his journey, I closed my eyes and a vision began to play out against the flickering darkness of my eyelids. It was jerky, a memory of newsreel: the white walls of the city rose and onto them was projected a pageant of the camps. Like mediaeval demons, the guards pitching howling refugees into a dark pit. Over and again, the forks rise, the bodies fly. Limbs tangle, water rises.
I haven’t slept. I stand in this quiet place, my eyes fully adjusted to the dimness of the light, and I know that I cannot change my decision.
‘I agree with the others.’ My voice does not waver even though I am shaking with the scope of my betrayal. I mustn’t look at Rafe. My eyes feel the scratching weariness of tears and sleeplessness, but I know I have to do this. And Rafe turns from me and becomes the absence of heat.
And I run towards the Wall as lightning flickers from the eastern sky, turning the landscape into a stop motion nightmare. I trip on boulders and taste blood in my mouth. No matter how fast I run, the Wall seems to stay at the same distance ahead. But I keep running, and around me others are running also, a creeping mass converging on the centre. Because all we have is the weight of our bodies, to throw against the Wall. We will use them to protest in front of the world that Flores is wrong. I go over once more and my face catches on the corner of a brick. My tongue snags the chipped edge of a tooth and I feel tears coming. For a moment I lie there and feel the weight of Rafe’s sadness pressing me into the ground. It is not enough to keep saying no, I tell him again. I’m so sorry, I say. And I get up and keep going on.
Sarah Jasmon lives on a boat on the Leeds/Liverpool canal. She writes all sorts, from web copy and magazine articles to short stories and interviews with authors. Her debut novel, The Summer of Secrets, will be published by Transworld in 2014. You can find out more at http://www.sarahjasmon.com.