You Can't Get Attached to Numbers
Two has gone out to find somewhere to piss. One is still asleep. On a normal day I would scold him. When the sunrises, you rise, before they find you. I can’t do it, not today. I don't want this to be their last memory of me.
I’m not a risk taker, not with One and Two. They are my sons, at least that's what they would have been called once. Children are a luxury we cannot afford in this world. If they call me mum, I remind them. I repeat it again and again. Now I have no name to them.
For the eight short years of their lives, I've been preparing them for today. It’s the day The Great Ship arrives and along with it the only risk worth taking. I’d caught news of it weeks ago from the Old Man with three shoes. He was an eccentric character, but one of the few people I trusted with One and Two.
On that last night, as he slept, I took everything he had. An old kitchen knife, three shrivelled apples, a tattered packet of cornflakes and... I couldn't believe it when I'd found it.
£20 of old currency. It was our ticket out. For a minute all I could do was stare, the mud-stained face of a long-disposed of monarch, poised, dignified, staring back, triumphant.
Then I slipped away, One and Two close behind. I left the Old Man with one final act of kindness that trainer. The third shoe he loved so much. He said it reminded him of another life time, one where running was still done for leisure. He was a sentimental guy. Besides what use was a worn old trainer to me?
Three weeks later and here we are. Two comes back into the garden shed that we set up camp in. I know he's coming. I recognise the erratic patter of his footsteps from a mile off. They are not quiet enough.
“Do we have to go? All we ever do is walk.” Two whines.
His little face screws up in a ball so tight you can barely see his features.
“I told you. Today is the last day. Go wake up One.”
The kid trots over to his brother and flicks him. At first, there's no movement.
Eventually the sleeping bag starts to rustle and out emerges a matted mass of hair. I can barely see through but it's One, sullen and tired. The walking has affected him. He’s not as strong as Two.
I prepare them a luxurious breakfast. A sizzling hot rabbit, caught two days ago in the dying city, the rest of the Old Man’s stale cornflakes and something really special. A Twix bar. It could be the last one in existence and they get to have it for breakfast.
One and Two stare at the food. They follow my hands' movement, as I split it carefully between their rusty metal containers. A deadliness glimmers in their wide childlike eyes. They are two young predators about to spring.
I hand the first to One. He thanks me. Two snatches the second off me, scurrying like the rats you get in this place into the corner.
“No.” I snap. “Today we eat together.”
My voice is raised, taut, before I can stop it. He looks in my direction. Two is afraid of me. Reluctantly, he comes back to join us. We sit cross-legged in a triangle and I watch them eat in silence.
The air outside is wet and seeps into my disintegrating jacket. One shivers, clutching at his ribs. His face contorts as he attempts to adjust to the cold. He has the warmest jacket of us all, it’s reassuring. He is not like me, not like Two, he cannot survive out here.
We make our way east, walking behind rows of derelict suburban houses. It’s a pain. After the death of this population, an ocean tide, relentless and always rising, storm after unforgiving storm... some of these garden fences have the audacity still to stand tall. They mock me and my efforts to keep One and Two alive.
There's a picketed fence ahead. One sees it, his little shoulders droop down. He's already given up. I sigh, leaning down to help hoist him over. A sharp pain shoots up my bad arm, but I hide it. One is over, Two has already made his way to the adjoining garden, so I climb up after them.
We continue like this for three more hours. Each time we reach the end of a block, I scout the road, my well-trained eyes and ears sensitive to the slightest signs of human life. Gangs control the road. One woman and two kids, we are easy prey, walking meat to be carved and served to the alphas.
The morning wears on. Two starts to moan. I'm scared they'll hear us and I don't have the energy left to argue. I haven't eaten for days. My fall in the dying city has aggravated my wound. For once, I give in to Two’s impatience. I pick a house in the middle of this abandoned block.
They have one hour. One hour exactly. It might be our last resting hour together. They sit down and huddle up while I explore the house.
The rooms are vast, although most have been stripped bare. I enter what looks like the master bedroom. To my surprise, there's an old wardrobe mostly intact. I approach for a closer look.
Running all along the right hand rim are nicks in the wood. I’ve seen this before, the traces of uninvited guests hacking at furniture for firewood, but something has distracted them. The job isn't finished.
I run a finger over the wardrobe’s jagged edge. It leads me to the handle. It’s almost comical, unusually ornate in this brutal setting. I pull on it and the door falls off.
Inside is a heap of stacked up crap. I rifle through. Anything of use is already taken. House-scavenging died out as a form of survival decades ago, but it’s instinctual to me. I can't help it.
My hand closes on what I think is a piece of paper. I swivel it out. It's an old photo. Part of it has been ripped or chewed, but the fading image is still visible. There are two boys about the same age as One and Two. Cheeks flushed, pink faces, they're laughing.
It's been taken in a beautiful stately garden, probably of this very house. There is a set of swings in the photo and both kids look ecstatic. Kid number one sits on the swing’s seat, stubby legs kicked out to gain momentum. Kid number two stands hands on hips, invincible in the moment.
I hesitate. Then pocket the photo. I’m done here.
I search through the other rooms, the entire house. Only when I'm sure there's nothing left do I join the kids back downstairs. One looks at me reproachfully.
“I'm cold. Why did we have to leave everything.”
He means our sleeping bags.
“You won't need it anymore.” I reply.
I study them both. Even Two's tantrum has subsided, he looks sad, wilting into the kitchen tiles. I relent and sit down too. I put my one and a half arms around their bodies, rubbing their shoulders in an attempt to create warmth. It doesn't work.
“This is pointless. Let's move.”
They won't budge, so I have to coax them up. What finally works is the story I tell them. It's the same story every time. The Choosing Ceremony:
‘There hasn't been one in England for more than a decade, so it could be fate. When they reach The Great Ship a Seaman will spot them. I’m certain of it. There aren't many children left.
They will board The Ship. A wealthy family, whose ancestors had coughed up billions for a cabin, will take them in.
They will have a mother, maybe a father too. They will eat real wholesome food and forget the meaning of hunger. If they're really lucky, there might even be skateboards and swings on deck, waiting just for them.’
One's face lights up, his eyebrows soar into his bright red hair. His pace quickens, his little legs now carrying him surprisingly fast. Spurred on, we make good progress.
As we get closer, I begin to feel a change. It's what I’ve been dreading the most. The ocean. It's stench clings to the shrinking air. I can barely breathe. Soon enough we can see it, a menacing boarder on the horizon. The afternoon skies are blue, but the ocean, expanding before us, remains an impenetrable grey.
The Old Man is the only person I know who read books. He told me the ocean's history once. How it was pulled, ripped, stretched to its limits, forced to rear it's ugly head. Now it seeks revenge, eating away at our remaining fragments of land.
I do not feel fear, but the sight makes my stomach churn. I force myself to keep walking. Each step never ending, feels like I'm peeling my right, then my left foot off the ground. Even One notices. He puts his scrawny hand into mine. I move to let go only to find myself clutching tighter.
We are approaching. I search up and down the land's unnatural curve. Then I lock onto a structure. It's The Ship.
I can't help it. I laugh. I pick Two up, followed by One. I hug them so tightly that they think I've gone mad. I grab One's hand and make Two hold onto my coat. We hurry along faster, no longer able to say a word. Hypnotised, we watch The Ship's angular form grow larger and larger.
People emerge around us.
At first, I push the kids behind crumbled walls, terrified they will be hurt, but I realise that none of these people care. They are all looking in one direction, at The Ship. Most of them are young men, they walk alone but defiant.
I feel uneasy. I’m not used to so many unfamiliar faces, but One and Two adapt to the situation quickly. Two stares at The Ship, gawping he presses forward. One studies everything around him, his gaze follows theses passing figures, his eyebrows knitted in curiosity.
We are only one road away now. Our necks crane up, mesmerized by the bold metallic structure. I have never seen anything like it. It's taller than an eight-storey building, grander than the skyscrapers of the dying city.
We get closer, but the crowd has come to a halt. Hundreds of people packed together. Then I see them, swarming the place. My stomach twists. It's the most dangerous gang in the country.
They are all men, scarred, tall and bodies imposingly strong. I recognise them immediately, their parkas are a mix of violent reds. They wear their colour with pride. On their faces, cut finely into their right cheek is the shape ‘L'. Every living person knows it stands for London.
London has ruled for over 100 years, reinforcing a reputation built on brutality and blood lust. If they’re not manning the dying city, they’re here for one thing alone. Passage on The Ship.
The people around me are less defiant now. They cower away from these prowling men, some turn back.
It's clear why we haven’t passed any Gangs up to this point. No-one is stupid enough to challenge London's authority. They have ancient weapons, real ammunition, it's how they came to monopolise these lands.
I haven't come this far to give up. We press on, filtering our way further into the wavering crowd. People stare at us, we stand out. The Gang has barricaded the road ahead, yet we push forward in a disordered mass. It's moving, they must be letting people through.
Two tugs at my coat.
“I need to pee.”
Is the kid serious? I ignore him.
“I need to pee!” He says it louder this time.
“Be quiet. Play it right and you might be pissing in a real flushing toilet tonight.” I growl back.
He shuts up and I've done it again.
The sun begins to sink into the ocean grey. I worry that The Ship will leave, but we are inching closer and closer. I can see what the Gang are doing from here. They're exchanging passage for goods. The man at the front hands something over, it's hard to make out through the darkness. They let him pass.
It’s been another hour. We are next in the queue. Two is dancing on the spot, desperately in need of a piss. One stares at the man standing in front of us. The man holds out an empty 500cl bottle of vodka and the rotting meat of a wild cat. I can tell it's bad, the smell is pungent.
Three London Gang members stand at the front. They inspect it.
“Is this all you've got? Search him!” The one in charge commands.
The other two strip him down. They pull out a rare solar powered device. I recognise it. It's a calculator. I’d found one once. Excited, I’d taken it to the Old Man, who told me it was used to figure out numbers in The Old World.
The man holding it eyes it up greedily. The one in charge says.
“Ha! Look what he's been hiding. What is it? A weapon?”
“No no. I swear. It's a gift. It belonged to my family.” The poor man stutters.
“It's mine now.” The man in charge barks out.
It happens in a second. He pulls out his gun. There's a loud bang. The poor man keels to his feet. The blood, oozes out of a small round hole in his forehead. The thick magenta liquid shines in the emerging moonlight.
“Move the body... and give me that.”
He snatches the calculator out of the other man's hand. That man starts hoisting the body away, tugging at it from the dead man's boots. It trails along, limp, while the blood seeping from the bullet hole traces one long line as the body slides out of sight.
I have wrapped my fingers around One's clenched fist. He knows what this means, be smart, stay brave and think on your feet. We are next in line.
The one in charge is huge, a foot taller than anyone around us. He turns to face me, his expression impassive for a second. He has only one eye. His left one, the functioning one, darts over to One and Two. It glimmers as a smirk surfaces on his lips.
“What do we have here?” He says.
I feel One shrink further behind my leg. I move in front to protect the kids and look him straight in his eye. I refrain from spitting at him, instead thrusting a hand in my pocket and pulling out the £20.
“I have money,” I say.
The one in charge looks at the other. His eye flickers. Suddenly, they burst out laughing.
“That's no use to me.”
I frown. I don't understand what he means.
“They accept this on The Ship you know.” I say to him, keeping calm.
“You think we're getting on that ship?”
The confusion must show on my face, because he elaborates. He thrusts his thumb at the ‘L’ shaped scar on his blotted cheek.
“This is a Londoner’s mark,” he explains. “When we join the oldest Gang in the nation, we make an oath. The dying city... London... was built on land. That’s where we'll stay. And where I’ll die. We're here for the goods.”
My heart plummets. My face remains impassive. I can't gauge what they'll do next. In compensation, I play out every possible scenario and how to react in fast forward. I have one chance to get it right. The one in charge finally speaks to the other.
“Keep her. She's kept two kids alive this long. She could be useful.”
The man’s smirk twists into a grin. I can smell raw meat on his breath.
“Oh and I like her,” he rasps.
“What should I do with the kids?”, the other says.
“Do what you like. Feed them to the dogs for all I care. The woman is mine.”
Suddenly One screams. It’s so shrill, the lone voice of a young child piercing across the air, cutting through the low grunts of men. Everything stops for a second. Then, the man in charge feels for his pistol. The other man grabs out at One.
A memory flashes through my head. It throws me for a second. I can't shake it. I'm somewhere else. It’s three years ago, the Old Man is younger. He can still run if we need to and hasn’t started carrying that battered sports trainer around with him.
It’s our last good memory together. The Old Man had gone out house-scavenging. He’s stubborn like that, doesn't believe in hunting. I come home with two young rabbits and a seagull with a faulty wing. He comes back with no food and a childish excitement. His wild hair flops up and down. It’s not grey yet, still fox red like One and Two's.
“Look what I've found for my two favourite grandkids!” He says, as he whips a skateboard out from behind his back. I've never seen one, but if it doesn't line our stomachs or block out the cold, I don't care.
“It's stupid,” I reply.
The Old Man brings it to them. One and Two are confused at first, but he perseveres, determined to put this relic to use. He shows them how it works. Two, excited, gives it a go. He falls over his legs flat onto his face. He tries again, the same thing happens.
For a second I'm startled. My head darts around, trained for danger. There’s an unfamiliar sound. It takes a second to adjust, to realise it's laughter. I can’t stop laughing, neither can they. The sound sits strangely in the air.
I turn to my other kid. One watches Two. He waits. He isn't as good at practical things, but he studies Two's attempts carefully. Then, it’s his turn. I clap my hands together at once. One soars over the ground. It’s effortless, it comes to him more naturally than his own two feet.
I’ve never seen them so happy. Maybe it’s because it's the first time they’ve played a real game, but that was in the past. I try and pull my mind back to the present. I remind myself, those are glimpses of something that don’t belong here, which can only ever be fleeting.
After that day, the coldest winter set in. The Old Man gets sick. He sheds his beautiful red hair and gives in. He becomes a burden and another mouth to feed. My number Three.
By the end of that year, I will realise something important. One, I am the only person who can keep these kids alive. Two, for it to work I have to do it my way. And three, I will get them out of this place at all costs. They deserve more.
I know what to do now. I hear One's shrill scream clearly as it continues around us. I focus.
I pull the Old Man's knife out of my trousers and stab the man in charge. He blunders back before he can reach for his gun. Then I turn to the other one. He's got his hand on my kid, so I plunge it into him next. I twist it as deep as it will go. The blade embeds in his gut.
“Run.” I shout at One and Two.
They stare at me blankly. The man with the knife sticking out of him lunges at Two. I pull the man back by the coat. Two gets the message, he grabs One's hand and they run in the direction of The Ship.
“Run.” I shout again.
I’m telling the crowd to run this time. Not because I care, but because if everyone goes, One and Two stand a chance. They hesitate for a split second.
Then a short stumpy man, with an open wound which licks the side of his face, darts forward. He has nothing to lose. Suddenly, a wave of people gushes out towards The Ship, enveloping One and Two. The Gang has lost control. It might buy enough time.
London start firing shots. One and Two are not safe yet. I push past the outbreak, running faster than I have ever done before. I can’t breathe. The Ship is so close, the crowd pushes forward. A few more Gang members have woken up to what’s happening. They shoot somewhere to our right, but it’s too late.
We are there now.
The faces of the Seamen stare out at us. They are so healthy and well-fed. Their canons poke out of compact windows, spaced evenly along The Ship’s wall. There is a line of armed Seamen at ground level too. The Gang will go no closer. Their ancient weapons are no match against this technologically superior breed.
I push through the thronging crowd. The Seamen are holding it back, but I manage to reach the front of the line. I can see One and Two to my right. My heart reaches out to them. I can't get to them.
There is more movement. I turn back to The Ship. People dressed in costumes, bearing colours more vibrant than I knew could exist, are descending. They move graciously, slow, at a pace that is odd to me.
I catch sight of a man in a deep purple tuxedo. A beautiful young woman hangs onto his arm. She looks out at us from a sequined coat, which trails along the sea-stained ground. We startle her. She whispers into his ear. The man chuckles, patting her on the shoulder. They look important. They approach the line.
“Sir! Miss! Please. I have children. Take One and Two, please!” I shout.
I wave my arms up and down. The woman catches my voice through the crowd. It stands out amongst the men. The desperation so clear, I can barely recognise it myself. She turns in the direction I am pointing.
“Look James. That woman has little ones.” She says.
Her voice is elated, like she's stumbled on something rare. She rushes over in One and Two's direction. Two is jumping on the spot. He’s doing what I told him. The woman rests a hand on the Seaman blocking their way.
“My god. Let them through. They can't be older than five.”
The Seaman goes red and steps aside. One and Two are past the line. I sink to the ground. A gut-wrenching feeling rushes over me. It's like a limb has been ripped out from me, but I know how that feels. This is worse. It's mingled with something else. I hate myself for it. I'm relieved.
“Should we take the kids’ mother?” I hear the man ask.
I perk up in shock, the thought has never crossed my mind. It’s too good to be true. The woman snorts.
“Are you joking? Did you see the state of her? The Captain won't accept that on board. Besides, I don't know if you heard. I think she called them One and Two. What kind of mother doesn't give her own kids real names!”
“You're right.” The man replies.
They turn back towards The Ship, ushering One and Two along with them. One stops. Wide-eyed and hesitant, he searches the crowd. He's looking for me. Two is doing the same. Stop it you idiots! You need to leave! Their eyes lock onto mine. I stare fiercely back.
“Mum?” One calls out.
Don't even think about it. I told you never to call me that. I turn away and submerge myself in the crowd. The last thing I hear is...
“Oh James! Did you hear that! Yes. Yes. I'm your new mummy now. Come on then!”
Like that, One and Two are out of the my life forever. I wonder aimlessly back up the road.