'Steam coiled slowly and steadily skywards from the wet streets of London, taking in every sight as it rose over doorways and above archways and statues and pillars, until it cooled, condensed and grouped together to be blown along on the breeze to another place that was hard to imagine for those below.
Figures lay slumped in the same wet streets. The pale morning sun woke the rats that slept, burrowed inside of the warm and rotting carcasses, and they began to scurry away down the alleyways and drains, chasing after the receding darkness. The streets were silent except for the steady hum of a car alarm that had screeched out its message like a crow for the past two days. Finally, like a dying tape, it slowed, the sound becoming grotesquely distorted in its final moments, the last call stretched out for what seemed like eternity until silence crept over it and the sound was instantly forgotten, as though it had never occurred.
In another part of the city tower blocks rose, charcoal-coloured from the concrete streets. A man stood in a window, yellow light filtering though the curtains which he had half drawn aside. He stood in his underwear, proud over the empty city below. A beep of an electric clock told him the time and he shook his head irritably. He turned his back to the window, his frame illuminated in silhouette. Amongst the cigarette burns of the worn and bare carpet lay two discarded and empty blankets. The man raised a hand to his face and nails combed the greasy grey stubble.
A second form stirred restlessly on the sofa, and a thin cry escaped her lips, as though she were in the midst of a bad dream. The man walked across to the sofa and held a bottle of water to the woman’s lips. Without waking she drank and then rolled over.
The man placed a hand to her head. “Ssh,” he whispered. “Ssh.”
Elsewhere in the city, two shapes rode steadily along on stolen bicycles. A crow sat watching them from a streetlight, then hopped from its perch and flapped lazily after them, until it decided they were too big to be food.
Milky light filtered in through a pane of smooth and clear glass. Golden letters spelt something out in an arch across the windowpane, but what they said was no longer important. Dust motes cast long shadows, like spiders creeping across the smooth wooden floor. A mouse crouched perfectly still amongst the shadows and the dust and cocked its head slightly to one side, as though straining to hear something; as though it could sense something as imperceptible as the way the air on the opposite side of the glass moved apart, like a curtain, as something passed through. The mouse was certain and darted away to a corner of the room, its claws leaving tiny scratches in the wooden floor.
A slight shadow flickered across the same floor, like a moth fluttering around a candle. A spider’s web appeared in the middle of the window, a tiny network of lines that grew and spread, interconnecting. The lines spread like icy fingers over the warm glass and then, as though molten, the center of the glass web bubbled and expanded and stretched out into the gloomy and dusty room. The glass had been pierced and something heavy pushed its way through, like a pin through a balloon, and clattered and rolled across the wooden floor, sending the mouse into further flight.
After this first object came a million clear shards like drops of rain, spreading through the air like diamond shrapnel, and then the golden lettering dropped from its place, and the whole window fell and folded in upon itself like waves smashing against the rocks. The tiny diamonds and flecks of gold cut through the dust that coated the wooden floor, and for a millisecond, the air was a multitude of colours, the weak milky light reflected in a thousand angles, and then, in the next millisecond, everything fell and lay still and silent across the wooden floor, as though they had never known flight.
Michael stepped over the few shards of glass still held in place in the window. First one foot and then the other and he was inside the shop.
“You can open your eyes now,” he called through the empty window. Outside, Zanna lifted her palms away from her eyes, her lips stretched in a grin that revealed her glittering teeth.
“I had a word with the owner, and he’s agreed to let us have the shop to ourselves for a bit,” Michael said, as he helped Zanna over the shards of the shattered window.
Glass crunched under her Converse as she stepped into the shop. “Oh Michael, you shouldn’t have. What a simply wonderful present,” she cried in her best received pronunciation, her tongue poking her cheek
Her lips darted quickly to Michael’s cheek, then were gone again, gone with her into the gloomy depths of the dress shop. Michael stood for a moment, poking the broken brick with his toes, then crunched off over the shattered glass, following after her.
Outside, the sun rose higher and inside the shop the milky light became brighter; illuminating the colours of the dresses which hung on walls and rails. Michael wandered through the shop after Zanna, losing sight of her ahead as she explored the maze of fabric. When he caught up with her, he found her stood before a lone dress the colour of ivy that hung in solitude, demanding attention like something from a fairytale.
Zanna stroked the fabric. “This could be the one,” she said, searching for a price tag. She held the tag between two fingers and then pulled it off in one swift movement. “It’s definitely the one.”
She turned to Michael. “What do you think?”
“Don’t ask me,” he said, “I never was good at shopping with girls. I, I like the colour though, I think it’ll go nicely with... your hair.”
Zanna raised her eyebrows and wrinkled her nose at the compliment. “Well, we’ll see. Turn around pervert.”
Michael did as he was told. Behind him, he heard Zanna’s heavy leather jacket drop to the floor. He heard her struggle with her shoes, swearing under her breath. He heard her unbutton her jeans. He ached with the urge to turn around and pull her to him and be absorbed into her. He dug his fingers into his palms so hard that he thought he might draw blood.
He scanned the shop for a distraction and caught a glimpse of her reflected in a mirror, half hidden amongst the crowd of dresses. A golden back flexed as two slender and perfect arms raised the dress above a head of golden hair and pulled it down over the soft curve where her back melted into white cotton.
The reflection turned to face him and Michael quickly shook his head away. He took a deep breath in an attempt to calm his runaway heartbeat.
“Well, have a look then,” Zanna called.
He turned reluctantly towards her, hoping she might not notice in the still gloomy shop. The dress hung to her, holding her proudly as though she were carved from stone, her figure too perfect to be natural. Beneath a smooth stomach, the green material flowed loosely about her thighs and as she stepped forward the dress swayed and rose slightly, revealing a freckle hidden on her right inner thigh.
She stood before him, barefoot in the dust. Michael stood dumbly, unable to find words or even remember what language he was looking for them in.
“Do you hate it?” Zanna asked, her smile faltering slightly, her hands reaching behind her back to where the zip was.
“No!” Michael cried. “I mean, no, don’t take it off, you look beautiful,” he said, his attention fixed on the wall behind her shoulder.
Zanna’s smile held firm as she tucked her legs under her and bent to pick up her jacket. She stood up and swung the jacket over her shoulder, her Converse in hand.
“Michael, come here,” she said.
“What?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.
His feet took him forwards, unsure where to stop. Zanna pulled him towards her and brought her mouth close to his neck. Her lips parted at his ear.
“You’re such a wet blanket,” she whispered in a voice that made him lightheaded, and then she skipped away, laughter echoing back over her shoulder as she disappeared into the maze of dresses.
Michael stood for a few moments and then trudged after her.
Inside the tower block, time ticked slowly onwards. The man sat by the window as the light outside changed from grey to pink to red to a sallow yellow; the sun’s movements in unison with those of the clock that had slipped into double figures sometime ago. Occasionally, the man rose and looked out of the window, over the maze of the estate. He was able to make out figures moving below, but they were too far away for him to tell whether they spoke to each other or what they said.
The woman on the sofa slept peacefully. At one point in the grey dawn, a woman had entered the room carrying a suitcase in her broad hand. She smiled at the man and then knelt down by the woman on the sofa and injected her with something. She straightened up and emptied a brown paper bag onto a coffee table in the middle of the room. A collection of plastic pill bottles jumbled out.
“Make sure she takes one, two of these a day. They’re antibiotics and vitamins.” The man nodded. Then the woman picked up her suitcase, walked to the door and nodded at the man who had followed her halfway across the room.
“Make sure she gets some food,” she said and then she stepped through the doorway. As an afterthought she added, “Look after Zanna.”
Then Salema was gone.
Afterwards, David paced the room, intermittently checking on Judith. He read the label of each pill bottle twice and lined them up along the table. He began to remember his old life in London, far away from somewhere like this. He started to remember the time since he had last seen his wife, his daughter. Maybe they were alive. It didn’t matter to him though; he knew they would be better off with him dead. He would not look for them. He clenched his fists, where the hell were those kids? It was always kids causing problems.
He grew restless and began pulling out drawers and moving furniture around until he found what he was looking for. He drank what was left in the bottle in one go. He felt better now; fierce. Judith stirred but did not wake. She would be all right if her left her for a minute.
David slipped out the door and pulled it gently shut behind him, so that if anyone walked past they would not think of going in. The corridor was pitch black except for where light bled in from the open doorways that led into other flats. He picked his way carefully along the corridor, unsteady in the darkness and with the drink in him.
He found the staircase. With his left hand on the wall, he took one step after another, round, round in the darkness until the wall suddenly ended, and he staggered, blinking, into a bright corridor.
David walked steadily onwards, out of the estate. He searched about for somewhere to get food for Judith. A corner shop appeared to the right; the shutters smashed and caved in. David approached warily, straining his eyes to try to see into the shop. Black figures moved in the darkness, like dogs suddenly woken and alert. David walked on; he was not fierce. Sometimes he had had to be, but now he was tired.
He walked onwards through empty streets that were never built to be so quiet. He passed by people every now and then but most looked away when he tried to make eye contact. Some smiled helplessly and opened their mouths as if to speak, but they did not, and passed by without a sound, blown along on the wind.
“They know,” David thought to himself. “They know.” He could feel himself becoming fierce again and the next people he passed lowered their heads, dug their hands deeper into their pockets and hurried along.
He had not passed a person for twenty minutes when he spotted a small supermarket ahead, its doors wedged open with a trolley. David clambered over the trolley and picked up a basket. A rich blend of rotting aromas met him inside the shop.
Bodies lay scattered across the aisles, and David clasped his shirt firmly over his mouth and nose as he negotiated his way past. The smell seeped in through the fabric and his stomach churned until the sickly taste of whiskey came back to his mouth. Clouds of fruit flies rose from a sickly sweet pile of rotting fruit that David had to run past as something rose in this throat.
He turned down the next aisle and stopped suddenly. Slowly, he began to retrace his steps. The dog looked half-dead; ribs showed through patches of mottled yellow and brown fur and fresh, raw, wounds criss-crossed its muzzle. The dog looked as though it had had to fight to survive. It crouched there, gnawing on a chunk of meat wrapped around a bone, unaware of David’s presence. Its teeth scrapped against the bone as it ate, and the hairs on David’s arms stood on end.
Suddenly, as though catching a scent on the wind, the dog stopped its gnawing and glanced sharply in David’s direction, its neck cracking with the speed of its movement. David ran, but his leg caught on the body of a child on the floor, and he fell and landed tangled up with the corpse.
The dog was a foot away when David’s hand closed around some sort of bottle. He grasped the bottle neck tightly and swung the weapon up to meet the animal’s head, with such force that the bottle shattered and the dog fell limply to the ground as shards of glass and red wine fell on David like a blood red rain.
He pushed the child’s body quickly to the side and stood reeling, the whiskey in his system moving his head separately to his body. The reek of wine was nauseating and he swallowed quickly; once, twice, three times to stop himself from vomiting. The dog lay on its side, shards of glass protruding from its face, its tongue flapping slowly as a puddle of blood dribbled from its mouth. Its legs kicked lifelessly across the floor, the long nails scraping like nails on a chalkboard.
David took what little was left un-spoilt from the shop and ran, shaking, along the streets. His legs guided him back to Judith but his mind was not on the journey.
He passed by a primary school, children dead in the playground, no parents to pick them up. He reeled away from the scene and stumbled across the road, rolling drunkenly across a car bonnet, and dropping some of the food. He pressed onwards and found himself in a park. There was a small fountain that was still working, the clear water rising in streams and falling in slow curtains.
David stopped and stared at the way the water was being pumped round and round. He stripped off his sodden shirt and dropped the carrier bags to the floor, before clambering into the water and letting himself slip under the surface. The water swirled around him and small bubbles like the breath of tiny fish tickled his skin. He saw his daughter appear towards him from the depths and she smiled at him with her beautiful smile. He reached out his hand to hers, and then his head crowned the water, and he emerged back into the weak sunlight, rivulets of water running down his face and chest. He was breathing heavily now, but his head was clear.
David brushed the heavy wet hair back from his face and climbed slowly out of the fountain.
“I’ve been gone too long” he said to himself, and, leaving the soiled shirt where it was, he picked up the bags of food and set off back to Judith.
He found the estate easily enough and was surprised to find Judith sitting up on the sofa as he entered the flat. She squinted at the dim doorway and then recoiled at the shirtless man standing there.
Seeing the look of confusion on her face brought David back to reality. “Judith, it’s me, David.”
She squinted at him and spoke as though remembering something that happened a long time ago. “David? Oh, yes...where have you been?”
She glanced wearily about the room, as though unsure of where she was, before deciding that maybe she did recognise the place and had perhaps just forgotten. “I woke up alone David.”
David came into the room and sat down opposite her. A stale reek of whiskey filled the air. “I’ve brought you some food Judith, you’re a bit poorly. You need to eat.”
Judith strained her neck to get a better look at the bags. “Oh, ok then. Is Emily here? She will be hungry too.”
David scratched his head, and scanned the empty room for an answer, before speaking slowly. “No, Emily isn’t here at the minute Judith...She’ll be back soon though, and so will Michael and Zanna.”
Judith’s face sank into confusion, as though she were hearing two new names. “Oh,” she said, as she settled back into the folds of the sofa. “Oh, ok.”'