Thursday, 19 August 2010

Journey VII – Caste

Considering the places a lot of the populace seem to tolerate living in I suppose I haven’t done too badly. My little chamber is at least fairly private. Although it has no door, hardly anyone ever finds their way this far through the tunnels so I have the place to myself. Or, rather, we have it to ourselves.

When I was arrested and taken to administration the only question they asked me was what use was I. I didn’t know what they meant at first but then the administrator, a tall, worried looking man in what appeared to be a suit made by someone who had not seen a suit for a very long time, gave me some examples – was I a cook? a leather worker? a musician? I told him I had been a student and hadn’t really had a job before, as such. ‘A student of what?’ he said irritably. I told him art and he tutted and wrote something down on the top sheet of a pile of papers. Then he used a rubber stamp in what I can only describe as a blur of rubber-stamping and I discovered he’d given me a cleaning job.

My job is to sweep and generally remove the clutter from a sector of the lower tunnels running underneath the main chambers. I don’t think there was anything personal about this choice for me. It was simply a matter of giving me whatever was next on the list. The tunnels in question are rather low ceilinged and are close to the main drain where it joins the river that runs under this place. It’s stinky and damp but relatively cool, and the residents are withdrawn to say the least. Nobody much bothers me down there.
In return I get this room and a few coins to spend on food and whatever. My room turns out to be one of the sheds I’d seen set into the hillside as I arrived but it’s more like a second world war bunker, made out of some sort of concrete. I’m told nobody else wanted it because it’s too cold in winter and plants and animals tend to creep in but I don’t mind. I’m used to that sort of thing. Mostly I’m glad of the seclusion and the fact that I can easily climb out onto the surface and look at the view, which is stupendous. Miranda comes and sits with me when we’re sure nobody’s looking and actually it’s quite nice. I like us here like this, sharing a place together. She seems more relaxed now but a little tetchy. Her wounds healed quickly and I’ve erected the tent on the floor of the chamber so she can move about in there without worrying about being seen. I still don’t know what’s going on with her. At first she seemed to think I’d settle here and she could move on and do whatever she had to do. I don’t think she was particularly looking forward to that but she wanted to ‘get it over with’. She seemed surprised at first when I told her there was no way I was going to be stopping here once the spring came. I think she’d assumed I’d be happy to stay anywhere if there were other people around, but after giving it some more thought she could see what I meant. In truth I think she was happy to have an excuse to postpone our parting a bit longer.

Actually, I don’t mind the squashed, lightless, airless feeling of the main chambers either. I like the heat and the stench down there and the noise and the fact that there’s always something going on – maybe a fight or a show, or just somebody slaughtering a goat and dismantling it to sell the parts.
Occasionally a noisy and colourful entourage of people who seem to think themselves very important passes through and everybody does their best to make way although these dignitaries seem to take delight in deliberately veering off into the crowd so that, if they’re not quick enough, people get all their belongings trampled into the floor. I never saw anyone complain openly but quite frequently fights break out afterwards as everyone squabbles over the spoils. Everyone seems to carry a knife or a cudgel of some sort. I stay out of the way as best I can but the carnage sometimes is disturbing. There’s a lot of nasty wounds and sores about too I note, especially in the less salubrious precincts, which is interesting. I wonder how they got them. Fighting maybe.
There don’t seem to be any women about either. I wonder why.

It’s actually a fascinating place but I don’t know how they all tolerate living like this all the time. I have to go outside regularly even if there’s a frost or rain. The old chap in charge of the vegetable plot above my room is friendly enough but doesn’t say much. I share my beers with him sometimes and he offers me his pipe. I take it as I don’t want to be impolite and actually it’s quite nice but Miranda said ‘Don’t even think about taking that up as a hobby’ – like she’s my wife or something. She is funny.

It is an extraordinary place though, the whole settlement I mean. I commented on the amazing feat of tunnelling involved in making it to one of my colleagues (ostensibly my superior) and he told me rather tersely that the whole thing had been built, not tunnelled out. He told me this in a tone of voice that suggested that he thought the idea of hollowing out a hill would have been rather a primitive, vulgar thing to do, whereas erecting this, from scratch... well... I had to admit it was impressive. I asked about the building material and he told me it was all a kind of clay, collected from further up river and fired by building a pyre within each new chamber. Finally he told me that a whole new layer of chambers was going to be added to the western flank in the spring. He then gave me to understand that I should stop asking questions and get on with what I was supposed to be doing. I mused for a while on the structural implications of all that extra weight being added year after year and I wanted to ask how they worked it out and if there had been any major collapses but he was gone. He wouldn’t have been interested anyway probably. Nobody is much interested in talking about anything apparently. I imagine that everyone here must have come the way I did at some time, must have died and crossed the ocean and trailed all the way to this place, to make a settlement and... and then what? What comes next. This can’t be it, can it?
I asked Miranda about it and she asked me what I’d expected eternity to look like. The gardener told me, with some deep satisfaction that ‘Everybody here knows his place. It has always been this way’ and he implied I should not think of rocking the boat, or there would be dire consequences. He looked, on closer inspection (he pulled up his shirt and lifted his hat to show me the scars) as if he’d endured a few consequences himself in his time so I didn’t argue.

Come the spring the word went around that they’d be clearing the area for the new chambers to go in soon. They’d be needing a lot of labour and already, it was said, the more ‘purposeless’ citizens were being rounded up in case they made a run for it. I’d noticed there were a lot less down-and-outs in the usual places. I never found out where they’d been taken but I feared I might be next since I was so near the bottom of the heap, and the newest arrival too. I watched the barges drifting down river, laden with the clay and I couldn’t help notice the increased security on all the exits. It really felt like it might be a good time to move on and Miranda agreed. I looked at the tent. If I took it down someone might notice and would know I was intending to leave. Maybe I should leave it behind I thought. I looked at Miranda who looked back at me and we wondered what to do. I pointed out that surely she could leave whenever she wanted to but she just said no, that wasn’t going to happen and carried on with whatever she was doing.
A few days later a heavily armed ‘functionary’ delivered me a call-up notice.

I should consider myself relatively lucky I suppose. I only had to work part time. They said they needed me to carry on with my normal duties while the construction work went on, but I was told I’d have to get them done in the afternoon because I’d be labouring every morning. Even that didn’t sound too bad – my normal duties were fairly minimal and I was usually finished by early afternoon (Some of the other cleaners seemed to take a very long time indeed over their chores). Nobody ever checked up on me.
Nevertheless, emerging into the early sunshine that first morning on site, the prospect was not encouraging. All over the hillside, people were milling about with spades and picks, baskets and barrows, carting soil from where it was being stripped, onto a gigantic pile to one side, ready to be put back once the work was completed. Allotments and dwellings were being cleared away and the bare superstructure underneath opened up and emptied. In some places it looked as if people had been taken by surprise and not had time to pack their belongings. ‘The purposeless are always getting in the way’ said one of the men in my group, a tall, muscle-bound and intensely grimy man who was obviously used to this sort of thing and rather enjoyed it. ‘They never learn’ he added contemptuously as a small woman in her nightgown stumbled past, clutching a picture and a pot plant and a bundle of clothes to her chest. I learned that the women were all kept hidden in their chambers ‘until required’. I never did find out what they were ‘required’ for. Here and there stood the tall, bulky security men in their black body armour and with their batons at the ready. A cordon of them stood at the perimeter. Clearly nobody was getting out unless they said so.
Finally, after much standing around, a functionary came up and indicated we should head off up the slope. Another man pointed to some baskets and directed us to go further along. Once we were there an obese man in nothing but a pair of shorts but with a big stick in his hand shoved and tugged us into position and then, with a signal, baskets full of soil and rocks and weeds began to be passed along to us, and our empty baskets were passed back to be filled. We did that more or less all morning without a pause. I couldn’t believe it. Why did everyone put up with this? I looked around at the workers on either side of me in the chain with an ironic, disbelieving expression on my face, hoping for a little acknowledgement of the absurdity and injustice of the situation but all I got for my trouble was a sneer and a slap.
When I left early to begin my cleaning shift I was tripped and spat on by some of the others. They didn’t like part-timers.

I put up with this for about a week I suppose. I was sick of being literally pushed around. I didn’t understand why our supervisor had to physically push and pull us about instead of opening his mouth and just speaking to us. What was wrong with him? It wasn’t like he was any better than us. He was on the same pay and the same hours. It was just that he’d been given a big stick. Everybody hated him but secretly coveted his job. I just wanted to get out.

On the third day I sustained a deep cut in my hand from a carelessly wielded spade and Miranda bathed and wrapped it for me. I wasn’t allowed to take any time off but already I’d become worried by of the number of injuries that were being inflicted daily up there. Nobody seemed to be being very careful and in fact it often seemed like some of the ‘more experienced’ workers were deliberately taking their frustrations out on the rest of us. And frustrations there were. Without much in the way of shelter or breaks, everybody was short tempered and clumsy by midday. ‘Accidents’ happened all the time and new labourers had to be drafted in continuously. Whilst going about my cleaning duties, patrolling the normally crowded lower tunnels with my barrow and shovel it was obvious that the place was already a lot quieter than usual. I wondered how many inhabitants the colony housed all told. It had to be thousands – tens of thousands. There was no way of telling. I kept my head down and got on with my job.

At the end of the first week (although time was not measured in weeks – it just trailed on and on) I told Miranda I had a plan and she said ‘Oh thank goodness for that.’
There was no time to waste. I collected all our belongings together in my rucksack, keeping her safe in my overall pocket and hid everything in my barrow under a lot of trash and with my broom and shovel on top. I took it down by my usual route to the lower tunnels and stood there beside the river, looking as if I was starting work.
Once my supervisor had wandered off I put the pack on my back, grabbed the shovel and dropped off the edge into the water.
It was as simple as that.
I kept the shovel because I thought I might need a weapon or a tool. I expected at least some sort of guard at the outflow and at least some bars or a grating. If that was the case I wasn’t sure a shovel would be much use but I thought, well, what else have I got? I’d tried to take a pickaxe off site but they made me leave it behind.
As it was there was no guard and no grating. The river flowed, dark and malodorous out into the valley unimpeded and we drifted, underwater (since we didn’t need to breathe) out into the countryside once more.
A little further on, when we were out of sight I hauled us out onto a muddy slope and we sat and looked about for a moment, checking to see if we’d been followed, or if maybe there was a patrol out here or something. Miranda jumped out and pointed out that there were other fresh footprints in the mud. Somebody else had had the same idea apparently. Well good for them. Perhaps we’d meet up with them later on. I felt amazingly elated. It had been so easy. Why hadn’t everyone done the same? And why weren’t any of the guards coming after us? How stupid were these people?
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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.