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There is one last hill before the sea: I remember it. The engine that growls beneath me remembers too - its note deepens, my bike’s wheels are tearing into soil, flailing at sand. A frenzied shock of pain rattles down my arm and I so nearly lose control. We swerve, almost topple. I wrench at her handlebars, shouting through the blinding flash of agony it causes and telling myself that if only I can hold her straight she will bring me home as she always has; but I must keep straight! Not far now - nearly there,,,,,
I know the warm river that trickles down my side will not stop flowing, just as I know its source, a gushing spring in my shoulder that screams within me at every jolt.
The hillcrest is beneath us; the sea, the grey, grey sea, shimmers towards a distant and almost seamless meeting with a leaden sky. I gulp salt-misted air into my starved lungs but I am falling....falling.....
“Lord above, Cara! Oh, I don’t know - Pella! PELLA! Can you stand?”
Confused voices come and go. Grey mist everywhere.
“Try and support her.” Agony! To my shame, I may be crying out. “No, not that arm, you stupid, dense...look; see? Take her round her waist, there.”
“I’ll get blood all over me shift. How’d ‘er get ‘urt like that?” This voice - dark, suspicious-sounding - is from somewhere else; not in my memories at all.
“Never mind, just let’s take her indoors!”
Aroused by this summary treatment of my arm, I feel introductions are in order. “So pleased to meet you, Pella. You’re new here....so you won’t know....” Which is as far as consciousness will take me.....
I wake again with a shout of pain. “Do that again you fuck and I’ll...” My warning is reflexive, unthinking, but even as I utter my threat the cry is dwindling to an ache. Aunt Iryna is standing over me with some of me stuck around a bullet which drips from bloodied tweezers.
“I’m sorry, darling, but I’ll have to do it at least once again. Cara, only you could manage to collect two bullets in one shoulder.”
My vision is clearing. Everything about me: the great goose down bed I have been laid upon with its patchwork quilt pushed aside to save it from staining, the grey walls, the old dressing table, window to a darkened sky; all these things are familiar. “Two bullets?”
Iryna shrugs apologetically. “Two entrance wounds, not more than an inch apart, and nothing came out the other side. We’ll wait a bit. Here, have some of this.” She produces a bottle of her favourite potato alcohol, strong and cloudy. I gulp it back. “Pella? She sounds solid.”
Iryna laughs as she releases the messy missile from her tweezers and it falls upon a tin plate at the bedside with a dull, cracked sound. “Solid as a brick and about as clever. I’ve told her to make us some soup.”
“I’m sure it’ll be wonderful. You and she get on really well, I imagine.”
“I need help about the place, young lady. I can’t choose what I get. You’re no use to me. The only time I see you is when you’ve got yourself fucked up, or someone’s after you, or both...”
“Is it bad?” I ask, with a glance towards my wounded shoulder.
“Not good, is it? First bullet’s gone right through the bone....”
I quaff deeply from the bottle. “The rain?”
“Set in six hours ago. You got here just in time, woman, in every sense. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“I’ve been out for six hours? Anicas?”
My aunt grimaces: “Aye, don’t fret. Your bloody bike’s in the dry.”
“Thank you, Iryna-ba.” Wanting to hug her, I try to raise myself, but the pain is too much. So I caress her thin cheek with my good hand. She smiles.
“That’s all right, my lovely. Sometimes I think that’s what I’m here for.” She says reflectively, staring at the rain that beats upon the window and watching, perhaps, the dance of tiny electric sparks each new drop creates. “Take another swig of potcheen, Cara child. You’re going to need it.”
But my head feels light already, my vision is swerving. “Enough.” I tell my aunt. “Let’s get it done.”
It might be yesterday. I might still be that child who ran back and forward with the waves, laughing at ripples as they chased me up the beach, teasing crabs in the rock-pools, lingering for hours watching starfish on the foreshore or impatient of wasted minutes when I was compelled to shelter from the rain. But I am child no longer and the world is no longer young. Iryna, whom I call my aunt, is no more the dark-haired, lissom woman with whom I played than I am the little slip of a thing who could run naked in the sand without shame.
I watch her, my Aunt Iryna, wondering at the changes a mere handful of time may bring, as she drags heavy lobster pots from the head of the beach to a little skiff that bobs in the shallows. Twenty years is a long sentence on this crippled planet. Iryna’s hair is snowy white, her back stooped with too many cold, damp winters. Her skin is thinner, too, so the hot rain burns it. There are scars for that. But she would not complain.
“I do pretty well, Cara. Pella is a help.”
Pella? I have learned more about Pella Coleman, a young girl from a settlement a dozen miles down the coast. Short and well built, she should be Iryna’s ideal companion – a strong pair of hands. Pella came calling one day last autumn with a letter from her Surro claiming she ‘wanted to learn to be a fisher’. Well, that was OK, but Pella herself doesn’t impress me as someone who wants to be anything other than asleep.
“She’ll learn, Cara.” Iryna says. “Maybe not quickly, she hasn’t your brain, but in her own time she’ll learn.”
Me, I rather doubt it.
We have all changed since those heady days when my Surro would bring me to visit her dearest friend and we would stay sometimes for a night or two, fishing from the bay, walking in the corn fields beyond those cliffs. The house is older now, smaller and dowdier than my memory of it, but then that is as it should be. The cliffs appear lower to me, although they at least must be unchanged, mustn’t they? Iryna says otherwise.
“Remember Kyton Rock - the granite pillar that stood off the headland there, with a boulder on the top that made it look just like a seal balancing a ball on its nose? It fell in the big storm back in the winter of ’86, so all you can see now is the remains of the pillar at low tide. The waves came right up to the house, that night. I thought I’d lose everything, Cara. Such a night!”
All things must change: I, a woman now, my beloved Surro gone, died in the fields where she had worked her life away, five years since. Iryna almost a stranger, though I would love her still if I could in that same innocent child way.
Was it a mistake to come here again? Isn’t it always a mistake to return to your memories, try to turn back the clock to when life seemed better? What am I doing? Seeking safety, yes, but coming here is like crawling back into the womb: knowing there is warmth and comfort and refuge, if only for a brief while.
But there, my return was not entirely about sentimentality. I have the livid flesh of my shoulder to remind me of that. For a week I lay fighting those wounds and the inevitable infection which followed. Without Iryna’s care I would surely be dead.
Sometimes in my way of life a girl needs a hiding place where she can go to ground for a while. Matters get, shall we say, a little abrasive from time to time, people take offence and then a hidden cave like Iryna’s isolated home is just the place to be. Iryna tells me about sounds of searching in the hills - sounds which I should know well enough – that went on for days while I lay helpless; oblivious to my pursuers’ dogs baying in the distant night. But they came nowhere close: there have been no noises for more than a week now, enough time to persuade me of my safety.
I kick up the water in the shallows, an eye to the sinking sun. Five weeks is too long. It is time to leave.
Iryna helps me to load Anicas with food and my very few possessions. Anicas is my bike – I built her myself, from the parts I selected meticulously over many years. Then, when I had built her I improved her, and honed her, so she would grow with me – faster, more powerful with every year. We are soul mates now, she and I – inseparable.
“I wish you’d think again, Cara.” Iryna says as I pack Anicas’s panniers with the needs of the road. “I have so much work you could do, and there’s food and room for us both.”
I shake my head. “You have Pella: and anyway Iryna darling, I’d drive you crazy! I drive me crazy, half the time. I have to travel: I can’t explain it, it’s just the way I am.”
“Well, I think that shoulder needs more healing, but if your heart’s set? Meantime, dear, should you ever need help again remember I’ll be here for as long as I’m spared. You’ve chosen a dangerous way of life, young lady. You take care now.”
“Fair winds, Iryna-ba, and full nets, bless you.”
I kiss Iryna’s sallow cheeks, embrace her as if I would love her forever if I could. But to stay might be fatal. Those who seek me would enjoy finishing their work and I do not want to bring such danger to Iryna’s door. No, I need the protection of something or someone who has the means to protect me. I just have to be ready to pay the price.
So I set out and I admit that, though I turn back at the top of the lane for a final look, a last wave, I am glad to be leaving. From here I can see the open land and a road of kinds to my own personal horizon. Anicas burbles eagerly beneath me, begging me to open her throttle for our next adventure. Two hours to nightfall – a hundred miles, maybe more and then we can camp out, she and I, with only the wild ones for company. I ask it of her and she surges to my touch.
There are the necessary ingredients for coffee on my bedside table, alongside the usual magazines, some very tattered tourist information, and a slip of paper headed ‘house rules’. Rubbing sleep from my eyes I boil water in a tall chromed jug, tear paper tubes of sugar and brown powder, all the while studying a pamphlet from among the tourist stuff which extols the virtues of a local cheese makers’ and invites me to watch them at their work. I recognise the thin disguise: this is a hollow invitation, no more edifying than that offered by the magazines. Come, watch, pay. Leave with an over-priced inferior product which will quite possibly make you ill, were you foolish enough to ignore the smell and actually eat it.
Coffee in hand, I return to the window where my laptop remains open from the night before. While I wait for it to boot up, I rest my eyes, letting a little residual sleep drape over me. I must not doze; there is work to be done.
The knocking sounds like a kettle drum, a percussive thunder that shakes me from sleep as surely as an iron hand on my shoulder, bringing my vision back into focus with a jerk. I cross to my door, remembering my original intention was to surf for buyers in this town; a task that should be completed by now.
“I thought you might have drifted off.” My house-hostess is a toothy woman with an ample décolletage she does not believe in concealing. “I made you breakfast. It’s downstairs.”
I follow her generously-filled brown slacks as she leads the way to the stair. House-hostesses: useful people; I cultivate one in each town I visit, though I don’t always pick right the first time. I’ve stayed in some places, I can tell you. Bad food, vermin, offers of ‘services’ driven by vain hope, and insults - humiliations, every one.
This house is large: maybe eight bedrooms to pass as I make my way along the bare-boarded corridor – I will have been given the ‘best’ of course – I am probably the only visitor. Maybe the only visitor she has seen this week, or this month, or even this year - maybe the only man she has seen in a decade or longer. And I am new here, my first time in this town.
A polished pine table is laid in the ‘breakfast room’. Faded apple green paint flaking from the walls, a montage of photographs on the further wall: scenes from before The Conflict mostly. A man in military uniform – possibly army, I am not well versed in historical costume – stands out. Surrounded by random ‘views’ and family groups, he cuts an imposing figure, staring censoriously down at the camera lens from beneath his slit-peaked cap.
“A relative?” I gesture towards the picture.
My hostess smiles lipstick-reddened teeth. “Do you know, everybody picks him out? My great grandfather as a matter of fact. Killed in The Conflict, or so we suppose. Never did find him. But that was true of so many.” She sighs. “Sooo many.”
I commiserate as I have so many times with so many grieving people, because the years which should have blunted these emotions by now somehow never have. The tragedy lives with us – it lives with us all.
“I should have been checking;” I tell her as she serves me. “There must be a few co-ops around here.”
“Only three now. I can tell you where they are. Everyone asks. Caterman’s is the best, I think – they’re very fair.”
This news is at once helpful, depressing, and familiar. My van is heavy with stock, loaded with my usual zeal and optimism – I’m trying a new area, I have high hopes – but wherever I go, the story is always the same.
“What’s your population?” I ask, devouring a greasy plate of egg, sausage and bacon with superficial enthusiasm – it doesn’t do to show reluctance.
“In the town? Oh, no more than sixty. We had flu last winter.” My house-hostess smiles her sympathy. “It must be hard for you. What are you selling? Food?”
“Some.” I acknowledge. “Cracked open a new warehouse last month: some real exotics in there – guava, lychee, Indian and Thai sauces – good food.”
My house-hostess doesn’t reply. She disappears into her kitchen, giving me some valuable space in which to assail a sausage which glares stonily at me from the centre of my plate. I had forborne from attack while she was present, lest it skip mischievously free. However, when I cut it, it does at least cut. Quite nice, too.
My hostess returns. She puts a tin of guava down on the table before me.
“Traded these off a merchant, big loud-voiced woman a couple of months back,” She says. “Two tins. I opened the other one and it was a desiccated brown mass. I never got up the courage to open this one.”
I examine the tin critically: “That’ll be Hannah. She trades cheap stuff.” I tell her. “Not like mine.”
Mine are, in fact, the same brand, but if I say this I’ll never sell them in this town. Word gets around.
“We get more of it offered every week, almost.” My house-hostess tells me. “These tins are best part of a hundred years old, some a lot more. You’ll have your work cut out, I’m afraid.”
I thank her for the food, pay for my stay. I know she will not accept payment in kind and I don’t insult her by offering – currency will be scarce here. So I note her directions to Caterman’s Co-op then go to my room, putting together those few things I carry when I’m on the road, observing as I pack that day-clouds are already gathering outside. The briefly-light sky is darkening once more and the morning bright-time is over. It will rain today. Before I leave I put a five-dollar tip on the bed. One day I might be coming back, and I’d like there to be a welcome when I arrive.
My battered Luton box van is where I left it. Where it isn’t rusty, the pock-marked paint is blue, and once I daubed my name along the sides, proclaiming my profession as ‘Wholesale Provisions Merchant’ to the eagerly waiting world. That was many years ago. Dirt and misadventure have reduced the description to ‘Whole Pro Mer’. The cab, which only ever had one seat, now has only part of that, and an odd, indefinable odour I cannot trace to any source in particular.
Turning its ignition key I persuade the van’s elderly machinery to crank into motion, prompting a gout of oily smoke from its rear in protest. Then I grind through the gearbox in a quest for one of the three remaining gears, reminding myself yet again to look for a better vehicle; though I know the search will be long and I never seem to have that kind of time. Together, my ancient friend and I struggle onto the street.
Every town has a reason to be: otherwise, why would people ever choose to huddle together in one place, incubating disease, stirring up unrest? This town is a river crossing. This was where, once, the river was shallow enough for a ford so pack-horses and beasts could wade across. Now there is a bridge, or the remains of one. I approach it in my heavily-loaded casualty of a vehicle with trepidation and traverse what is left of it with breath half-held, waiting for a snapping sound, a sudden grind of shifting stone, offering a brief prayer of thanks when it does not happen. At the far side we wallow threateningly into a deep trough, lurching as the load of textile goods I have stacked in the back tumble into new order. For a moment I fear its aged mechanism will fail, but the van shakes itself off, struggles back to its knees, and grumbles on.
The road is lined by sad, deserted houses. Many with windows boarded up, weathered timber crosses nailed to their doors. No-one has repaired anything, or even swept the street here properly in more than a century.
A hundred yards from that demonic bridge I discover the crossed tee of the High Street with Caterman’s Co-operative in an old supermarket building already visible at the southern end. To get there I must first stutter and stagger between cracked pavements, past sentinel lines of gaping shop fronts which, once spruce and prosperous with shiny glass and bright signs, are now empty; cleaned neatly out, like vacant garages. On the corner of a side street there is one such unit which has been adapted, strangely, to resemble the top half of a female head: two eyes, grotesquely enlarged, form windows, one on each side of the corner, its upper lip pursed to a fellate oval which serves as a door. ‘Grace’s Place’, says the legend tattooed in black across a lumpy forehead, above eyebrows which arch in a knowing expression. However misguided the art, the dexterity and patience with which it was accomplished draw my admiration. Someone spent a long time here, moulding and rendering concrete - someone who, after all, had nothing but time.
‘Grace’s’ fish-eyes ogle an old cinema on the opposite side of the road, which, though less imaginative in its presentation, seems nonetheless to be intact for the most part. A white sheet felt-tipped with the words ‘Now Showing’ flaps above the faded varnish of its wooden doors.
I pass a woman walking, half-hurrying, her two canvas bags heavy with provisions. She may be only thirty or so, but her skin and her clothing – jeans, a hand-knit sweater - make her look older. She regards me with the usual intense interest, but a little suspicion, too. She and I are alone on the street, even though the useable part of the day is at its height. There are no groups of women talking, no vehicles – this is bad.
I have no trouble finding Anda, the buyer at the co-op. A tall, active woman with a spring in her step which belies her advanced years, she comes striding to meet me as soon as she hears my van approaching. Hers is the practised greeting of a buyer. She offers coffee in her office – I accept.
A young female guards the money-box at the door, murmuring her greeting as we pass by. I feel her burning gaze follow me as I walk through the centre aisle. Anda catches me with a quick, incisive smile: “You must get used to that.” She says.
We walk through a premises which, once a supermarket, is reduced to a barn now – there are no shelves, only stacks of goods displayed loose upon the tiled floor. Fresh vegetables in season are everywhere, all from local producers, and as the season is summer, there is variety and colour in plenty. A line of fridge units contain meat: beef, pork, some poultry. Yet in spite of the local hill-country lamb is almost entirely absent - because in these days of excess who would want to scratch their living as a hill-farmer in the face of the worst of the hot rains? There is rich arable lowland pasture for any who would wish to farm it, and few enough do, even so.
All this abundance is the subject of desultory attention on the part of maybe eight or ten half-interested women who comb through it speculatively. Loose rolls of fabric stack against the walls. One elderly dowager fingers and pulls at them, stooping to squint through thick glasses.
“Personally, I think we’re all finished here.” Anda says, contemplating her coffee-cup. “We were doing all right until the flu, but it was a real devil and it took anyone who was just a little bit weak.”
“There’s no doctor?”
“There was one in Craghead a year or so back: but no, only a quack now.”
“How many did you lose?” I ask Anda, referring to the epidemic, of course.
“Oh, near on a hundred: two thirds of us – so many friends. That wasn’t the final straw, though: what really knocked us down was when they cancelled our Invit delivery. We were supposed to get four last year, but as soon as they heard there was flu here….” She shrugs expressively. “And now we’re quarantined for five years. Five! It’s ridiculous.”
I am sympathetic. It’s another tale I hear often; of officials turning down applications for Invits at the last minute on the flimsiest of grounds. “I haven’t heard” I say slowly, “of an Invit delivery which actually came through for several years now. Some say there aren’t any.”
The lines at the corners of Anda’s eyes harden. “How do you mean – there aren’t any?”
“We’ve run out. No more test tubes, no more phials. I got told of a power failure up Cambridge way around five years back – took out two freezer cabinets apparently: I think they may have been the last.
“Same story two towns down the road: Chephard is it called? They have four prime fertiles, real child-bearing girls – the highest possible score. But can they get live eggs? They’ve applied, they’ve taken out court orders, even canvassed the panel personally, but they get nothing. Myself, I think it’s all over.”
“Well, maybe.” Anda may have heard such rumours before, and will choose for herself whether or not to believe them. “Meanwhile, welcome sight though you are I’ve got a co-op to run, man. What are you carrying? - and don’t say canned food; I’m up to my eyes in it!”
We walk back to the van and I show her some bolts of cloth – the strong-coloured stuff first, the silks and rayons; but she doesn’t show any interest until we get to cords and denims, and I don’t expect her to: no-one dresses up these days. Eventually, Anda selects some good quality brown cord and a half-roll of thirteen-ounce denim.
“Where are you going next?” She asks, as we settle up the money.
“I thought west. The map says there’s another town twelve miles along.”
“That one’s gone. Nearest now is thirty miles, up in the Mendips. Be careful; things are changing up there.”
This warning is one I hear often: “Vigilantes?” I ask.
“A little more than that, I think. We all worry. There’s one name to listen out for – Mirabelle. If you hear it my recommendation would be to run.”
“Do you mind if I leave my van here for a while? I’d like to take a look around.”
“Feel free.” Anda says. “We don’t have many tourist attractions.”
We part then, and as I pass by my van I barely notice the slight figure of a young woman who loiters there. I expect the usual open curiosity – the flagrant stare, maybe the risqué remark – but she turns to walk away from me, hand hiding her face as I pass: goatskin top, leather pants – a gypsy perhaps, or a vagrant of entirely another kind.
I go to the cinema first.
A shabby portal in a silent street – it seems no-one comes here in the morning now: through these doors of flaking varnished pine and misted glass, a foyer reminiscent of better days. It is, after all, a century old. Everything is – my van, Anda’s co-op building, the film ‘Now showing’….
She greets me here – this woman with her bright smile, her emerald eyes. Matinee? Why yes, if I want it. Why not?
I pay her – a few of the dollars Anda gave me for my cloth. This is a habit of mine: I am not really interested in her film, which will be scratched and broken, and which I will have seen before, many times. But I came to her town, I took some money from it; and so, in accordance with my custom, I will give a little back.
“I got a copy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in this week.” Says the green-eyed woman. “Enjoy what you see.”
I follow her across the foyer, careful not to catch my feet in the tears where a once red, once deep-pile carpet has rotted and failed. She pushes back the doors for me, inviting me to step into the subdued light of an auditorium beyond. Cornices in peeling gold, arches of wedgewood blue. At once my lungs fill with the musty odour of damp and, apprehensive, I scan the ceiling for signs it might become the floor at a sudden sound, or some vibration from outside; but it seems relatively free of cracks. One of the lights flickers ominously, another is extinguished altogether, yet there is light enough to see rows of empty seats and to know I am the only audience for this morning’s matinee.
“Popcorn? Ice-cream?” She has not left me yet.
“Sure,” I say. She gets me popcorn, while I find a seat with enough springs still to keep my circulation going for a while – as many springs, at least, as the seat in my van. I take my ease as best I may, settling down with popcorn in a neat china bowl on the seat next door and my feet resting on the row in front as the theatre lights dim: red plush curtains draw back to reveal a yellowing screen, and a performance begins.
It is a film I have seen often. For this reason, or possibly because of the intimate size of this little auditorium I notice the intrusive shutter sound from the projector, and maybe because I sit here alone I hear so distinctly the quiet shuffle of a seat being lowered, drawing my eye to the profile of another figure in the darkness who now sits by the far aisle.
Many months ago I first heard of him, but until today I have not seen him in the flesh. Oh, there have been tales: he passed this way on such and such, he was seen driving through. Once or twice before now I even got ahead of him. But never anything real, never anything three-dimensional: never anything I could smell, and touch if I wanted – ho, yes, if I wanted! I dare not: dare not!
But he is strange. He definitely smells different; and he’s large, like George Peppard in the film. Me, I’m more Hepburn’s size – would I act like her? Relate to him like that? It was how they did it then, wasn’t it? Not that it matters now – it’s just history, that’s all. Something from the past, when they had reason.
I saw him in the co-op first. Not expecting to, just rumours he might come this way. He’s a trader – I expected that, I suppose. The only male in five hundred miles, what else could he be?
So –I keep a watch on him. Stay close. And later, if I need, I may even make a move.
I remain watching the film for as long as politeness demands, then quietly leave, knowing the woman with the emerald eyes will have seen me go, but anxious because outside day-cloud is gathering and the street is in twilight now. The so-curious façade of ‘Grace’s Place’ ogles me with its great dish-eyes: the pursed lips, rouged in glistening invitation, beckon. Okay, but I won’t stay long, will I?
Within the door’s perfect ‘O’ ‘Grace’s’ is very much as I anticipated: a mundane cave of tables and chairs with music in the background and a strong drift of alcohol in the air: around its rough, imitation rock walls are posters and life-sized effigies of various kinds; all of male personality figures – icons of a forgotten time. They are displayed as once in our distant history men used to exhibit pictures of railway engines; each named, dated and numbered: catalogued, perhaps.
There are maybe twenty women in here, huddled about their tables in earnest conversation, playing board games, or simply sitting. Their steady current of conversation ceases - switches off as I walk through the door, so the silence hits me almost physically. I try to smile and meet the enquiring stare of all those eyes at once: try, but significantly fail.
“Hi girls!” I greet them with my customary bonhomie, to be met with a straggle of replies.
The woman behind the bar at the far end is much more forthright. “Hi beau, what are you having?”
I order a scotch, ask if I can take a bottle with me. I enquire politely, and confirm what I already suspected, that this is Grace, and ‘Grace’s Place’ is hers.
“Half the town must be in here.” I tell her. It is a compliment, meaning Grace is doing her job well.
“Think so.” She says, meeting my gaze with her green eyes, which I conclude must be a local characteristic. “We were hoping you might drop by. This is kind of a reception.”
I glance around the room, careful not to stare. Most of Grace’s clientele are middle-aged; women accustomed to working clothes who seem to have added an odd favour or embellishment to their uniform of sweaters and jeans: a sort of token ‘dressing up’. Three young girls probably not much more than eighteen sit in a far corner conspiratorially giggling and whispering.
“Hi girls!” I repeat, and this time I give a wave.
“Those three are our last-but-one intake of Invits.” Grace tells me; “Melanie, Leah and Ella-Jean. After them just one more batch of four, and one of those failed, in spite of everything we could do for her. She’d be twelve years old now.”
So they sit there, I think to myself, whiling away their time – dying symbols of a dying town. Dying like we all are, staring into a future that isn’t a future at all, because those three survivors will be the last, the very last people. And it isn’t any good imagining their final years will be a paradise, because they won’t. There is a time coming, and coming soon, when the hunters will become the hunted; when the wolves will, literally, be at the door.
I often go back in my head to the time before. I have read the books, of course, seen the pictures of what The Conflict did to the bodies of men, and that affected me – of course it did: I still cannot understand the evil that made man do that to man, no matter how deluded those people must have been. Comprehension is made more difficult, I suppose, because in the after-days there is no ‘religion’ and the concept of a ‘god’ to us is as humorously archaic as, say, the belief in a flat earth, or a penchant for fairies. We live, then we die. A light is switched on, burns until the element decays: simple.
But it was one of those ‘gods’ in a way who sealed the fate of us all. The god whose maniacs-in-waiting sent the entire middle east into nuclear eclipse: too primitive to understand what they held in their hands, they dealt a blow to all of humankind from which we have never recovered. For the fall-out from their petty act of vengeance sent a message around the world; something in the air – something indefinable. Like a decree, or a sentence; a punishment for our rape of the world. A tiny anomaly which, undetected, eliminated the male chromosome almost completely.
In the barbaric era which followed what we have come to call ‘The Conflict’ radiation poisoning claimed millions of lives. Deprivation and disease claimed millions more. Then a great majority of male survivors resorted to tribalism and wiped each other out. For those who remained it must have been unimaginable at first: the first generation – those alive at the time of the conflict – still charged with their fertility; still conceiving, still giving birth but almost always only to females, then, when the few males who were born became of age, to find that they exhibited no sexuality, no desire. That they could not reproduce and did not want to, that any resources which could be drawn from them would fail to pass on the male gene, so producing only female children.
It has taken just three generations to reach this all-female world in which around seven hundred males are the last of our gender. Most of those are now old, for the first generation of females after the conflict were those most able to bear a male foetus. Now, even if a live egg with the xy chromosome can be given substance, it usually dies in the uterus. For the last two generations we have produced new seed only from sperm banks set up before the Conflict, and that has invariably produced females, or proved useless. I am one of the exceptions, and celebrated in my way. I am a rarity, a freak: I have no libido, nothing from which society can draw. I am, I have been frequently told, a waste of space: and lately, that has become of increasing concern to me.
The young Invits, Melanie, Leah and Ella-Jean continue to giggle. Should the sperm banks ever be opened up again, and if this town survives its ‘quarantine’ these three will be candidates for ‘invit’ - in vitro fertilisation or IVF. Three women I assume to have been their surrogate mothers or ‘Surros’, sitting nearby, chide them gently.
I make conversation where I may, but there is nothing I can say which will fulfil their expectations. A sideshow, a diversion from everyday boredom, I have already played my part. I pay for my drink. Grace, wiping her hands on her sensible dress, accepts it. Her eyes, too, are a piercing green. I wonder if there is some connection between her and the woman at the cinema, something I have missed.
“You’re heading west.” She says.
“I guess everyone knows that now. Nearest town thirty miles, right?”
“If you can call it that.” Grace acknowledges.
One of the older women, a coarsely-clad endomorph whose eyes stare from her head like great quartz buttons has moved to the street door and checks outside. “Rain’s coming.” She warns.
Everybody who doesn’t want to spend the rest of their day here starts to move, and I have to get moving too, if I am to make those miles in my aged vehicle before evening. Chairs scrape. I say my goodbyes and the most forward of the young invits, a lovely, even-featured girl called Leah seems disposed to leave with me. Her surro calls her away and she catches me with an arrowed glance from intelligent, sad eyes that would make anyone want her if they could.
“Now would be your moment!” Her look says to me.
All I can do is shake my head. “I can’t help you.” I tell her quietly; “I’m sorry.”
So many apologies: so many!
There are a few more people in the street, hurrying to and fro in light which is diminishing fast. Further down towards the river I see a couple of women running with magazines covering their heads, and I start to hasten. A first few drops of rain spatter on the ground before me as I make the van, clambering inside just in time to avoid one of those stinging splashes onto my exposed scalp. Not all rain is radio-active, of course. Most is perfectly innocent: but day-cloud as intense as this carries its own warning – in all likelihood this downpour will hurt. I start the engine, sending the screen wipers scuttering over glass etched with many such rainfalls, grind in a gear I think might work, then ease my trusted old vehicle and companion onto the street.
Watching him leave: knowing he does not see me, does not know I exist –in this there is a strange exhilaration, a perverse pleasure. He drives away in his rusted machine full of ominous creaking and knocking, and I watch him.
Shuffling footsteps warn me I am not watching alone. The cinema woman stands behind me at the entrance to her emporium staring at the retreating van with a contemplative expression on her face. Across the street, a couple of women from the bar are witnessing this departure, too. They glance across at each other, these women, as if to exchange thoughts, and I wonder – is it me? – or are their eyes the same colour?
“Ever seen one before, child?” the cinema woman asks.
I think carefully about my answer. “Not for a while.”
“No, nor I.”
With the entertainment over, the cinema woman retreats indoors, leaving me alone on the wooden step. Then a curious thing: the women who were watching from the doorway of the bar seem to make an unspoken decision among themselves and cross the road, braving those first spots of rain. They acknowledge me with distant nods as they follow the cinema woman into her foyer. I can just distinguish them through the misted glass, passing in file through the entrance to the auditorium.
I am intrigued, yet I will not follow at once. I wait beneath the cinema canopy until I am sure they are settled to their meeting, or whatever it is. Raindrops fizz and splutter onto the pavement in little electric shocks, sending tiny flickers of blue through the puddles as they deepen. I do not like this rain. I remember my mother’s skin, you see -the way it was; wrinkled and dry from hours picking beans and lifting potatoes, all in the bad rain. She would chide me; I had to make a living, she said; I had to pull my weight. ‘If radiation could harm you, my girl, you’d have been dead long before now. Use the healing cream, that’s all you need do. A few scratches and a little pain, no more – a woman thing’. But I was scared of the pain, and I had seen the stinking cream – helped her make it, on too many days. So I went my own way.
I sit on the cinema step, where, as so often when I have time on my hands I drift back in my mind to those days. The days when I was an Invit child like any other, and the days when someone loved me. And yes, I’m not ashamed to admit to tears when I think of the love I lost, all because of the bad rain.
But no sound comes from inside the cinema and I am by nature too inquisitive to let such an extraordinary gathering pass unnoticed. So, very quietly – Cara the mouse! - very quietly I ease one of the street doors open and slip inside. I cross the foyer, footfall by footfall. A murmur of voices emanates from the auditorium – with my ear to the swing doors I can listen easily.
“He watched half the film.” I recognise the cinema woman’s rounded tones. “Don’t you think I would have noticed?”
“Did he eat?” Asks another.
“Well I don’t have any doubt about him. I realised as soon as he came in.”
“He’s the right age.” This is a third voice – authoritative, used to getting its own way. “The pieces all seem to be there, for the moment anyway. Are we certain he has left town?”
“Absolutely.” The cinema woman again.
“Then we know what to do.”
A fraction too late it dawns upon me that the meeting is breaking up. I pad back across the entrance foyer as quickly as I can, my ears full of the women’s approaching footsteps as I slither out between those varnished street doors. On the step outside I sit down, affecting nonchalance as the women emerge, murmuring between themselves.
They pass me without even a glance. The cinema woman is last out of the doors: her slippered feet scuff across the boards behind me and I turn to meet the suspicion in her stare. “Still here are you? You’re not from around these parts, are you girl; where are you from?”
Her green eyes flash as though they might devour me. I rub at my face, trying to look as though I have been asleep.
“I’m from Fairleigh.” I lie. “I came to buy provisions, that’s all.”
But she is not easily put off, this one. “Fairleigh’s not housed a live soul for thirty years. Who are you? What do you want here?”
“Here?” I stare her down now. I am awake, and I do not fear such as her. “I want nothing from here. You took my money to see your film; you didn’t ask questions then.”
“The rain’s stopping now. I think you had better leave.”
There is something about this woman, a resource behind that bland expression I cannot read, and so I cannot trust. She is not who she seems. I dust myself down, seek in the pocket of my leather jeans for keys. “I’m going.”
Anicas is around the back of her building: as I walk away I turn briefly, catching the apprehension written on her face. I tell her as I tell all who threaten me. “I am Cara. Remember me!”
I Am Cara is a hauntingly gritty yet lyrical book.
In a post-apocalyptic harsh world, where technology is almost archaeology and everything is DIY and back to the basics, a world reminiscent of the savage wasteland of Mad Max as well as Saba's world in Blood Red Road, the male chromosome is almost extinct.
Women are 99% of the population and some are real villains. Men are a species that is dying out, their libido long gone and only present in old world porn imagery, alongside their capacity to reproduce and with that, their feelings, passions and their thirst for physical interaction. Women, on the other hand, still feel the urge to mate, to be joined, to have babies, a needing that drives them crazy. A scary world for men, as they cannot really give them any of these.
The male writer manages to convey so lyrically the sad feeling of inadequacy, eloquently told through the POV of the 'man', whose name we don't get revealed till almost in the end of the story. Especially the scenes where the needy, wanting women are trying to get him to respond, and some times he does (not literally, but he tries his best anyway) yet he is filled with revulsion, a futuristic eunuch with a gentle soul. A surprisingly well crafted reversal of roles occurs in I Am Cara's world, with women being the bad guys, men vulnerable and victims, a commodity to be bought and sold, even as a un-functioning representation of maleness.
And Cara, the bike-riding, beautiful, resourceful and mysterious female lead, Cara who reminded me of Saba and Katniss and all the kick-ass girls we love, has a dark secret, a dangerous (for the man) secret, which we find out about towards the end of the story. Written by a male writer, the book had a slightly different flavor to it. Its almost as the male POV was so much more intense than Cara's POV, maybe a reason she was left kind of cloaked in mystery. That worked though, the mystery weaved itself into the narrative and towards the end Cara's layers were peeling and her character arch complete.
But the best for me were the scenes between them, oh there were some beautifully written scenes in really haunting settings and an almost tangible atmosphere and vibe that had me gasping, sighing and biting my nails anxiously (I ate all of the kindle e-book and my nails all in one sitting).
To top it all, the atmosphere, the poetic prose, the imagery, the narrative of the women and their various violent, twisted little communities, humanity lost in despair and nothingness, a feeling similar to MacCarthy's The Road to a certain degree. The feeling reminded me of some YA poetically sad dystopias like The Lost Girl and Wither, but with the angsty action of Kresley Cole's Poison Princess.
Well done mr. Anderson, you wrote an amazing story, rich in prose, atmosphere and feeling.
By Rhia -
Well, it was rather slow and awkward to begin, but I'm glad I kept to it as it was a great idea and as the story progressed the author grew and developed. I really enjoyed it and almost couldn't put it down. A good wee book, go for it!
Beautifully Written Suspenseful Read
A beautifully written and chilling tale of a world where the Y chromosome is nearly extinct, and the hunting of men is a sport. The reader follows Cara and the Man on dangerous journeys, full of twists and turns until the final mystery is revealed.
The author packs more in one sentence than many writers do in a paragraph, with descriptions so clear, the reader feels one with the setting. The plotting is solid, never revealing too much, leaving the reader to say, "Oh, all right, just one more page," over and over again. The characters are realistic and multi-dimensional.
I look forward to reading other works by this author.