Monday, 14 January 2013

Journey XIII – On the Streets

We crouch in a basement stairwell and wait, catching our breaths, clearing our heads. I notice that the bleeding stops quite quickly which bodes well for our healing. Enayat is still grinning at Nicky and bleeds from his shoulder. ‘Just a flesh wound’ he says. ‘Did you see that?’ he keeps saying. ‘Did you see what she did? Magnificent.’
Nicky shushes us and holds the gun on her lap, looking out through the railings. ‘We can’t stay here’ she whispers, ‘and we need more of these.’ indicating the gun. She suddenly rises and goes over to the cop who is groaning on the pavement. I hoist myself up to have a look. There’s a lot of blood coming from him. I watch her tear a strip off the leg of her shorts and use it as a gag. Then she searches him. She’s absolutely brutal about it.
‘Did you see what she did?’ repeats Enayat.
‘What? No, I didn’t see.’
‘She was behind him when he started shooting – I guess he’d forgotten about her or thought she was harmless. Maybe he was saving her for later. Anyway, I see her come up behind, push him over, kneel on his back and garrotte him with some wire. She almost took his head off. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
She comes back with a handgun and gives it to Enayat along with some more ammunition. I can see the bloody wire she used still in her hand and her cuffs are soaked with blood. She must have used them to protect her hands.
‘Where did that come from?’ I say, sitting myself up, pointing at the wire.
‘From their stupid piano’ she says and we all take a little time to consider how badly we have misjudged this girl. I look at her and realise she doesn’t look too good. I guess the adrenaline is wearing off. Enayat takes over.
‘We must move’ he says. ‘Can we walk?’
Muriel squeezes in next to him and says ‘Any suggestions where to, chief?’
He points to a doorway a hundred yards further along the street that seems to be ajar. ‘I’ll have a look’ she says and before we can stop her she runs sideways, keeping close to the wall and peers in. She’s gone for what seems like far too long then reappears and comes to get us. ‘It seems ok, for now’ she whispers and we all do our best to move in that direction. I’ve been so caught up in the threat of further attack I’ve forgotten to look at Shamim and her mother. They had their backs to the cop when he fired so they took most of it and neither looks well. We get them up as best we can and support them along the pavement to the door. Inside, all is in darkness and we lay them gently against a wall away from the door. Muriel says ‘We can’t leave him out there – they’ll see.’ Muriel and Enayat head back out to where the cop is lying and drag him in with us. Once in he begins screaming through his gag. Enayat calmly goes over to him and stomps on his face until he stops. Then he looks at us guiltily and goes to tend to his wife and daughter.

It’s quite some time before things settle down. We all sit in the dark in a daze, waiting to be discovered. Nicky looks exhausted and sits slumped by the wall, holding the semi-automatic like a baby. It has a silencer attached – that’s why we didn’t hear gunfire.
I sit with Shamim’s head on my lap as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The bleeding has stopped at least but I can’t bring myself to look at the wound. It feels horribly soft and baggy. Her mother is sitting up but slumped against her husband. Muriel watches the door. If anyone comes we are in terrible trouble.

Night comes. Shamim seems to be asleep. I get up and look around. Nicky looks more awake – she smiles weakly at me and I sit down beside her.
‘You’re quite scary – you know that?’ She nods happily. ‘Where did all that come from – with the garrotting and the combat training?’
‘I did a lot self-defence classes. I thought it would come in handy, you know, in my line of work... Plus I always wanted to be Buffy Summers.’
‘What’s that?’ says Enayat.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer. American TV show’ I say.
‘Oh yes’ he says ‘We used to get it on Sky’
‘He used to like Anya’ says a small voice from Shamim’s direction. I go over to see how she is.
‘What a woman’ says Enayat dreamily.
‘I’m not totally unconscious’ says his wife.
‘I preferred Faith myself’ I say. Enayat nods appreciatively.
We sit silently and look about.
‘We should move if we can’ says Nicky ‘now it’s dark.’
‘I can hear sirens and guns.’
‘They’ll look for us here.’
‘They might not look for us at all’ says Muriel. ‘I’m sure I heard the cop say he was going home after this. They’re probably not expecting him back today.’
The mayhem outside steadily escalates and we jam the door shut with a piece of wood to avoid inquisitive eyes. The cop begins to yell again and Enayat threatens him with his boot again. He shuts up.
None of us know what else to do.

Finding it impossible to sleep we discuss tactics for much of the night. Shamim moves to curl up with her mother and they watch as we attempt to come up with a plan. First, we don’t know whether we fear the cops or the street people more. At night we’ll be less conspicuous but it sounds like there have been violent incidents kicking off periodically since dusk. It’s been mostly yelling and what sounds like vandalism, but there was gunfire quite close at one point, and some pitiful pleading in a building near by.
On the other hand, by day they’ll see us walking along (if we can all walk by then) covered in blood and it’ll be obvious something’s happened. And anyway, there’s police cars cruising past and the CCTV. Anyway, we know we must move out as soon as possible, but Shamim and her mother are in no fit state to go anywhere. We discuss the chances of finding some other less conspicuous clothes, or a vehicle, or maybe some more weapons. Nicky has a wad of money she took from the cop but we’re not sure what we can do with it. Eventually the running out of ideas and the exhaustion take their toll and one by one our heads slump and we pass out.

We’re abruptly roused early next morning by the steel shutter doors opening onto the street and the light flooding in. Three men stand silhouetted there.
‘Not again’ says one of them. ‘Who left the bloody door open?’
The lights go on and the door closes. We are all sat or lying there, rubbing our eyes. Nicky grips the gun.
The man who spoke comes over and looks at us. ‘Bloody losers’ he says. ‘Minute my back’s turned... What’s that?’ One of his men is pointing at the cop lying there bound and gagged. ‘That’s all I need.’
‘One of Rit’s men’ says the second man. We look at each other and expect the worst. I wonder how many of them Nicky could take out if she tried.
‘You got a cop. What’d you do?’
‘We didn’t do anything. We’re not criminals’ I say. ‘Are you going to turn us in?’
‘You must be new here’ he says and all three of them have a laugh. ‘Cops here aren’t interested in crime. They don’t employ a single detective – you know that? No, they’re only concerned with what the competition gets up to. They’ll have forgotten about you chumps already.’ He looks down at the cop, looking up at him, gives him a little kick. ‘Put him with the others’ he says, and adds, with exasperation ‘I really don’t need all this.’
‘Won’t they miss him?’ asks Muriel.
‘People disappear here all the time, and like I say, they don’t do detecting.’
‘Where are you going to put him?’
‘Forget about him. Now, I think it’s time for you to do a disappearing act too. Get out, go on, scram, vamoose.’
We look around at each other and begin to get up. On the one hand we’re relieved to be let go, but on the other we don’t feel equipped to be out there in the street. Shamim, Amireh and I are still in considerable pain and have to be helped up and we’re all covered in blood and other grime.
‘You can’t throw us out looking like this. Give us one more day, please’ says Muriel.
‘Have you seen yourselves lately? You’ll blend right in, now go.’ And we all stagger out into the yellowing daylight.
The back street is relatively quiet but once we find our way round to the front we see what he means – the place is a mass of humanity in all life styles and incomes, from some very sharp suited business men with body guards pushing their way through the throng, down to mutilated and often naked grimy figures barely conscious in the gutter. Losers are very much in evidence, begging or queuing for work. No one notices us at all. We slowly weave our way past several hundred yards of solid, shining offices and department stores (Nicky can’t resist looking at the frocks and whimpers a little to herself). We dodge scooters and vans and buses (all massively overloaded), pass buskers, fast food stalls, and people sitting on the ground trying to sell what appears to be everything they own. We keep going. After about three miles the shops have less of that corporate sheen and more of them are up for sale. We pass slot machine emporia and fast food joints, and shops selling everything for a dollar. The towers above them are lower and older and darker and less megalithic. A mile further on and it’s a tired mixture of weird specialist shops (Cards ‘n’ Cams, Old Willy’s Latex Products, Fish for All), run down hotels, seedy bars and a range of other, even less salubrious outlets in the side streets. Nobody is well dressed, nobody moves very quickly. A lot of people appear to be going nowhere at all. The pavements are fringed with drifts of refuse and the smog seems to be worse here. There’s a brightly lit canteen just off the main drag with long yellow Formica-topped tables. We find seats near the counter and sit in silence for a while, looking at each other, at the sticky table top, at the menu, and take in the desultory company that occasionally barges into us. I look at Shamim across the table, clasped to her mother and I try to give her a hopeful smile. She doesn’t look hopeful. I reach over to take her hand but she grips mine only briefly and then pulls back and hides among the folds of her robe as if she’s cold. Amireh holds her closer and they sit together with their eyes closed, shutting out our surroundings. I know it’s selfish but I wish I wasn’t shut out. I turn to look at Nicky and she gives me a sweet reassuring smile and I see her hand move a little, as if I could take that one, but we both know that wouldn’t be right.
‘Coffee?’ suggests Enayat. He rises a little and looks over the counter. He makes an appreciative expression and says ‘They’ve got a real Italian machine over there. Someone has his priorities right.’
‘There’s eggs and beans’ says Nicky, looking at the board ‘and chips. They have chips and mayo.’
‘I don’t know about their standard of hygiene’ says Muriel, but we need something and we know it’s not going to kill us so Enayat and I take orders and head for the counter.
Back at the table, waiting for our food to arrive, the guy next to us leans in and says ‘You’re new here aren’t you’ and I wonder, if it’s this obvious, why we haven’t been stopped yet. Maybe the cops really don’t care.
‘How can you tell?’
‘Because you still look like you give a crap about each other. It breaks my heart, really.’ I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic. I suspect not actually. Nicky is nearest and turns to look at him. He’s a hunched, unshaven, unhealthy looking little man, but still takes some trouble to be civil and to wash and dress properly.
‘You’re getting out aren’t you’ he says. ‘I can tell. I was going to get out this year. I keep saying to... Oh why thank you.’ He grabs one of our coffees as the waiter brings it as if we’ve bought it for him. Enayat gets up to get himself another.
‘Where was I? Oh yes, I keep saying to myself one day I’ll leave, give it up, but then every year I think maybe this time, you know, I’ll get lucky. Ah well.’ He slurps the coffee appreciatively. The food arrives and actually doesn’t look too bad. ‘Is that for me?’ says our guest and Nicky says ‘No, but would you like something?’ and after much ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly’ and ‘I wouldn’t dream of it’ he asks for a steak sandwich and she goes and orders it for him. We do have quite a lot of money on us after all. Our main problem has been keeping that fact to ourselves so we’ve split it between us in small quantities and hidden the larger notes in Amireh’s clothes. We sit and eat and look about and the man devours his sandwich.
Once we’ve all finished I ask him if he knows the best way to get out of the city. He takes a moment, fiddling with his teeth. We all look away. ‘Keep going this way’ he says. ‘You’re more or less in the city centre here. Pick a direction and stick to it.’ Then he gets up and looks at us. ‘Good luck’ he says, and then ‘You might want to keep your women covered up more, this one especially.’ He indicates Nicky. ‘You don’t want the cops doing you any special favours, not unless you really need a favour anyway...’
‘I can take care of myself’ says Nicky, with her new quiet self-assurance.
‘I’m sure you can dear’ he says ‘but you don’t want to attract attention do you? Now you keep going the way you are’ he makes a cutting motion with his hand, following the direction of the main street outside. ‘You’ll be on the northern perimeter in two days tops, that’s where the competition hang out. You’ll need to wear something different, less, er, colourful. Once you’re on the other side they won’t be interested in you and you can just walk out. I’d come with you but...’ and he shrugs as if to say who knows, this could be his lucky year. This time next year he could be rich. We watch him head out into the street and disappear.
‘Probably gone to rat on us’ says Nicky quietly. We all sit and drink our coffees in fatalistic mood.

Apart from a sojourn in a surplus store, the next day or so goes quietly enough. We slouch along trying to look as if we don’t care very much about each other and as if we don’t have anywhere in particular to be. Shamim and her mother recover surprisingly quickly but are still in pain. I long for the opportunity to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her but I realise it would not be appropriate – indeed none of us says much to each other, even at night when we huddle together in an alley and try to look like a pile of trash, which is not difficult. The fatigues we bought are in various shades of black and brown but are too new-looking so we deliberately roll in some filth to wear them in.
On the second day the cityscape becomes even drearier, with what look like bombed out blocks and fenced-off areas, with hovels of board and tin set against the gigantic legs of flyovers and viaducts. Various industrial complexes are under armed guard and interminable lines of losers queue at the gates, all in their orange overalls, hoping for work. Buses stuffed to the doors with women carry the day’s contingent of cleaners, factory workers and shop assistants into the centre, the direction we’ve just come from. Curbs and steps are blurred by even more garbage, and, for variety, every so often a group of usually young men dash past yelling and laughing or swearing, pursued by other young men or by cops. Bricks are thrown and are answered usually by night-sticks or sometimes by bullets, occasionally by attack dogs. We cringe in the doorways and try to be invisible. At one point I’m stupidly caught in the open and take another bullet, this time in the arse as I turn and run. Once the drama has passed we gather and try to find some cover. I can’t walk until dusk and then we break into a shed where some other losers have holed up. They don’t seem that bothered about sharing.
‘How can they exist like this?’ says Enayat. ‘Why doesn’t everybody try to leave? It’s incredible.’ I look for Shamim but she is preoccupied with her mother’s wound, which is bleeding again. Nicky comes and sits with me and holds my hand. It saddens me that Shamim and I don’t seem to be there for each other at a time like this, but I soon fall asleep on Nicky’s soft shoulder.

Morning comes and we keep going. The man’s ‘two days tops’ seems a little over-optimistic. The streets are now filled with vendors of all sorts, selling cheap plastic tat and knock-off fashions, but among them we find samosas, fried chicken and refried beans for sale and eat a hearty breakfast, hoping we’re not about to be condemned. We get up and move on as quickly as we can.
Toward dusk we encounter our first muggers. There are two of them and they chat us up seedily at first, backing us into an alley (like anyone would try to stop them plying their trade in the open). Then the threatening starts and one of them sticks the muzzle of their semi-automatic in Shamim’s belly and she cries a little. I try to leap in and do the chivalrous thing but my leg gives out. I look up and the gun has a new target – my face. Then that rapid pft sound comes from behind and the muggers crumple before us.
‘There’s something ever so therapeutic about shooting bad people’ says Nicky cheerily.
We gag them as before and throw them in a ditch, still struggling. Shamim and I get their semi-automatics and Muriel gets a handgun. We go to a piece of waste ground among the ruins of some warehouses and shoot up a lot of cans and bottles, getting used to the feel of the weapons, then we move on up the street.
At nightfall we come to a place where the road begins to slope downwards and the cityscape is arrayed below us. The locals bustle about trying to get home before dark because there’s a curfew in this area for some reason. We stand and look at the rapidly dimming view picked out in streetlight and fire stretching away into the distance, and contemplate the ordeal to come next day.

It was Amireh noticed it first. The lights did not stretch on as far as the eye could see. They stopped – some miles away certainly, but they definitely came to a halt out there. And, further more, it was still possible to make out, black against darkest purple, the jagged silhouette of mountains in the distance.

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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.