The park had been here far longer than I had. I think for all the terrible things I’ve seen occur in the world over TV for the past three decades, none of it had spilled over to this small corner of the city. It had been half a life-time since I last lived anywhere remotely close to this place, but I was always glad it didn’t change. Of course, the old wooden play-structures had been torn down and replaced by garish red and green metal tubes that formulated tunnels and slides, and their exteriors were scarred by new spots of graffiti every-time the council had re-painted them, but the trees would never change. Ancient watchers that stood high above me as I strolled the empty patch of grass. The branches stood bare now, stripped by the wrath of winter, but still raised towards a sky long washed-out of colour.
The brown leaves were wet under the soles of my feet, denying me the satisfying crunch I would so often associate with Autumn and Winter. The air was steel in my nostrils, clawing at my throat as it climbed down, but as refreshing in its exhalation as letting go of a dreary thought or dream. I huddled my shoulders close together and dug my hands deeper into my pockets, so my nose dipped closer underneath my old scarf, and the cold metal faded into the musty smell of my mother’s closet. I strode the sodden grass and above the decaying leaves towards a tree that had been at times a saviour, a salvation and a sanctuary all at once.
Four trees down from the North-West entrance and three trees away from where the woods met the open, stood my home amongst the canopies. It was by no means the tallest in its line, and its trunk was not the widest, but its branches were open in welcoming, its trunk curved slightly, almost wrapping around itself in self-assertion, the perfect steps for a young boy to climb towards the sky. I stood below it and untucked my nose from the scarf, allowing myself to breath the November air in deeply, no longer a refreshing burn, now a brisk welcome home. I lost myself in the memory that no matter how old I get, or how many other trees I see across the continent, they will never match my tree’s majesty. I brought my gloved hand out of my coat pocket and rested it gently on the gnarled and ageing bark, caressing it like a long-adored pet. I brought my boot to the first foot-hold, de-ageing myself by twenty years for every step I take towards the sky.
Somethings are never lost, and perhaps it is man-kind’s folly to have decreased our agility amongst the trees, our natural bastions for millions of years, and yet, as sleek-footed as a primordial creature, I find myself scaling the skin of my nameless friend. As I reached the top, I stopped to let out my most gregarious breath of the past few months. I clambered to the top and rested myself in between the two big branches. Me and Dad used to call these the sofas, resting our backs against the trunk and staring towards the infinite expanse of the city. I leaned back just as I would those days, towards the monochrome streets, allowing myself to travel and tumble through time and space, inhabiting the body of that wide-eyed eight-year-old, before the world had turned so cold and grey. This is the only place I could visit to remind myself that the world was once colourful and vibrant. As I breathe out oxygen that tastes like steel-wool, it transforms the sky and horizon, turning it from a faded painting to a rich portrait of gold and blue, green and silver. I picture my Dad sitting next to me, and I mimic the wild smirk on his face as we stare towards our home, breathing in the warm summer air of those days. When I look at his face however, I feel something tighten in my stomach, and a diluted poison climbs up my veins. The golden sunsets and palatable air harden, and the city goes grey once more. I feel the smile on my face erode into nothing, and the steel sky stretches out like an endless sword. I wait for a few more minutes in the tree, trying to summon more memories of different times in the tree. The dates and mischievous beers of my teenage years perhaps, but they ache with every pulsating thought.
After clambering back to Earth, I hugged my fists back into my pockets and walked quickly out of the park. Now there was a dog-walker and a young couple at different corners of the park, and I no longer felt welcomed in this home. My third home, The Hammer & Anvil, was filled with afternoon drinkers huddling from the chill air. Since The Washing, the number of patrons may have decreased, but their quantities of consumption had drastically increased. We didn’t talk about what had happened in the North, of course, not anymore. Four years ago, it had been all anyone had ever spoken about, but as The Washing took more and more of the land away from us, and the seas drifted ever closer, it had become an unspoken rule not to mention it under any circumstances. I had seen it in the pub many times since, however. No matter how hushed you think your conversation about the world is, there will always be those in the pub that will hear you and condemn you, despite your stance or accuracy. For many, The Hammer & Anvil can be the most welcoming place in the world, but as soon as you stray from their path, you could never be trusted again.
I bring my usual pint to my usual table with the usual people, with the usual smell of cement and fermented piss. The brief November light had begun to fade, and the usual dimness of an English pub took its rightful place in our sight. The saturation was briefly quelled by desperate men on the fruit-machines, a dizzying kaleidoscope of colours and arbitrary noises that confused and simultaneously entrapped the lost. I was once as lost, but to get to true hopelessness, first one needs hope, and the hope of winning a round in a gambling machine is as much of a hope as any in these grey, listless times.
There is a rogues-honour amongst the alcohol dependent in a pub, that no matter how much you despise the same old faces every day, you still sit near them, you still hear their same tired, antiquated world views on everything and nothing at all, and you still buy the same round of the same drinks. Each day, every day. For us, this is the way of life, the only alternative to sitting alone in the same room at home. At least here we have the illusion of friends and of freedom, the freedom to slowly marinate ourselves in our selected poisons and the freedom to spend our money how we wish. Of course, this is no freedom, it is our prison, and we have never truly been more alone. I had always condemned the drunks in my head when I was forced to come to this very place by my father as a child, I swore I would never allow myself to be so easily swayed by the tempting taste of beer. I was going to be a scientist, then a doctor, then an astronaut, but then I was a teacher, programmed to try and train the next generation to become the very things I had since given up on becoming. The Washing had taken more than land, however, it had taken our very purpose to become anything other than debris, waiting for the inevitable tide to come.
As I leaned on the bar with heavy eye-lids, a feeling that was surely a mixture of disgust and total serenity that I obviously seemed captivated in replicating every day until the sea took me, there was a commotion of sorts. Alarmingly, it appeared to be one of rejoicing and hope, a noise and a feeling almost entirely alien to me. There were a group of the regulars, laughing and patting some hidden figure in the middle of it all. Slowly the group was pushed gently aside, and a man came towards the bar, not quite in a panicked run, but a stride too fast simply for a beer. He looked back with a half-hearted smile towards his welcome party, and a small wave to another group in our involuntary family. He wore a light grey trench-coat with smatters of dirt along the sleeves and back, over an unwashed brown suit straight from the charity shop in the middle of town, over a smart, yet un-ironed, white shirt with a speckled tie. His ginger hair was much shorter than I remember it, and his grey-speckled beard much more unruly. It had been almost eighteen months since we had last seen Fergus Shreeve in our little den, and if it wasn’t for the fact I recognised his blue-eyes shining like geodes, I might never have recognised him. His jewel-like eyes were now almost lost within hollow caverns, his cheeks were cut with age, and empty skin hung at the bottom of his chin. He was only a few years older than me, only a touch over fifty, but this was the face of a man who had weathered centuries concentrated within months and days.
I held out my hand silently, but welcoming, moving it gently towards his peripherals, but he stared ahead with blurry eyes, as if he was focusing on particular detail ahead, but perhaps the detail did not exist in this physical plane.
“Shreevey. Good to see you.” I said softly, but firmly, watching the man I might once have called a friend shake himself back to life. Here was a man waking from a coma, and his frantic looks across the pub told me he wasn’t quite sure how he got here. He rubbed at his nose and sniffed slightly, a gift from the winter air, and focused his eyes to my hand for a solid second before clasping it with his own.
“Jacko.” He said gruffly, with a grip that was almost a warning sign from it’s aggression. He released my hand and returned his gaze to behind the bar, where the silent wall of dusty and half-drunk spirits stared back. He brought his hands to the bar, and I could see his knuckles almost turn white from his grip. The new-girl returned with the last two pints to complete my order for the table, and turned towards the till.
“Oh, one for Shreevey too, please.” I called out to her. “What are you having?” I asked.
Shreevey grunted slightly, as if he wasn’t used to talking to anything other than animals.
“No, I’ll get mine.” He replied with a voice like steel-wool.
“Are you sure?” I asked, almost shocked that someone would dare to reject the normality that I had assigned to myself. He merely nodded. I shrugged to the girl and passed her a twenty, and she turned towards the till once more.
“So, how have things been going? How long has it been now?” I took a sip of my pint and studied him carefully. Of course, I knew both of the answers simply by looking at his face, but it felt like something I had to ask. Of course, he did not answer. The rest of the lads at my table had noticed, and came to my rescue, calling at Shreevey and taking their respective pints, asking him the same questions, to which he would either grunt or ignore.
“Are you still with Interpol, Shreevey?” Someone asked, as if it was a normal thing to ask. This seemed to bring Shreevey’s gaze down for a moment, and he brought it back.
“No. Not anymore.” He said without turning.
“So, what have you been doing then?” I asked, numb at the time to his defensive stance. Once more, he ignored me. The girl behind the bar had finished serving the next customer, and he waved to her.
She politely smiled at him and walked to him, and he pointed to a bottle of whisky on the top-shelf. It was almost full, only a single measure being taken out. It held a glow in its liquid, almost like gold, and upon its glass bottle was an engraving of a fish, almost changing the very way it was shaped. It was a Christmas present, according to the Landlord, from a distillery, and it held pride of place on his top-shelf, a place that also commanded a top-shelf price.
“I’ll have that, please.” Those of us in the know widened our eyes, but the new girl didn’t know what it was about, and why should she? No-one had ordered it before. The only person to have even tried it was the recipient of the present.
“Single or double?” She asked, politely enough.
“No, I’ll take it as it is, thanks.” He said, evidently avoiding the next barrage of questions as to whether he wanted any mixer. He reached into his pocket with the same aggression as when he shook my hand and pulled out his wallet, a wallet that was threatening to burst with the overflow of notes inside. From this, he pulled out about a quarter, perhaps a couple of centimetres thick. All around him, we watched with envious eyes, the kind of wild-eyed desperation that only occurs when both money and booze is involved. He slapped the notes onto the bar and pushed a number that must have been close to £300 towards the stunned girl.
“Keep the change.” He said gruffly, as if stifling a cough.
The small-crowd were stunned. It was I who broke the silence, and in retrospect, I kind of wish I hadn’t.
“What the hell have you been doing?” I said, in little more than a whisper. For the first time, he turned to me fully, and for the first time I could tell he was actually looking at me with his own eyes.
“I’ve been at The Wall.” He sniffed again, and turned briefly as the girl put the bottle on the bar in front of him. He turned towards the rest of us, watching with fearful eyes, desperately hoping he wouldn’t allude to which wall it was, but we already knew. He gripped the bottle-neck tightly and looked at me once more in the eyes.
He took the bottle and moved past us without more of a word, and found a quiet and dark corner to sit himself in, attempting to drain the expensive bottle as if it was water. I met a few of the other lad’s eyes, but no longer than for a few seconds. No-one said anything for a few minutes, and we let the sound of clinking glass and delirious beeping from the fruit-machines drown out the rest of the world.
The rest of the week passed with the same listless stasis that held the grey sky aloft. As I walked back through the empty streets towards the part, I struggled to remember the last time I saw a blue sky with my own eyes. Perhaps in July, or May, or perhaps five years ago, or perhaps only in films and postcards. I let in the November air, but it did not refresh me, it did not even chill me. It was almost like it was growing warmer, but I wasn’t sure if that was truly the case.
I hadn’t been back to the pub since I last saw Shreevey. He drained the first half of his expensive bottle in less than ten minutes, but had taken the next hour to extract the remainder. He sat in his corner, not always alone, but never looking at anyone in the eye. I doubt he even noticed me, staring at him practically all evening, as I nursed my extremely flat pint. I watched his eyes, gleaming and cold like miniature oceans, and I watched as every belt of whisky washed away the last parts of his humanity.
As I begun to ascend the final hill towards the park, I began to wonder what Shreevey had truly seen. Every person in Britain-Perhaps, the world-shuddered at the sound of ‘Fernando’s Wall’. The last bastion of humanity, some said. The line that held Britain together, organised by the brave men and women of the UN, others said. Of course, there were others who said it was a ploy by the government to keep the public distracted by fear. Others, even, said it was a death-camp for which they sent dissidents and criminals. I felt a twinge in my side as I thought about Shreevey’s place in all this. Of course, he didn’t live in the city anymore, this was merely his childhood home. It was at first a bewildering thing that an Interpol agent would spend their time with the likes of us, then it became benign, a normal job that we didn’t even think about. How an Interpol agent would end up at The Wall, that was supposedly the only thing stopping The Washing from taking over the entirety of Britain didn’t seem to make sense in a way that didn’t make me feel sick.
Some part of me almost envied Shreevey. The entire world was now standing by the precipice of the end, staring towards oblivion. The only difference between himself and the rest of us was that he stood by the very edge. He saw what was happening at Fernando’s Wall, but the rest of us had no idea. What he saw might have harrowed him beyond all concourse, but at least he knew what there was. For all of humanity who had not yet been washed away, well, we had no idea.
As I reached the iron gates of the park, I could feel something was off, already. I hadn’t quite seen what it was, but that was only because I did not wish to. My gaze was blurred by thought, obfuscated by that veil when you lose yourself in a maelstrom of thoughts, both unwanted and necessary. In that instance, I tried my best to recall everything I knew about The Washing. What I had read, seen or heard, but I found it rather difficult. Like trying to rearrange an article that had been torn to shreds. I laid my bare hand down onto the cold metal before pushing it aside. I would be lying if I said I felt the cold, but there was a disassociated kind of discomfort there that compelled me to open it, albeit slowly, and only by compulsion, the muscle memory of a thousand times prior. The gate creaked forwards with the oscillating rhythm of a grey British wave and fell back with a metallic crash.
I pushed my hands back into my coat pockets. Just what the hell was The Washing? Why was there a part of me that felt so compelled to see it? So much of England beyond The Wall had been lost, or so we had been told. Had anyone even driven up there to see? Had it truly succumbed to the ocean, or even to something else? I moved my heavy legs towards the line of trees where my old friend stood. I did not turn my attention to them, although I was aware of a brightness from the silver sky that seemed unusual for these dark days. My head slowly turned, as if the wind had solidified itself into a hand and gently lifted my sight towards something I needed to see.
The line was gone. Everyone of them. Each tree had been hacked and hewed to little more than a stump. I wanted to drop to the sodden ground. My mouth fell and a roar of anger stopped itself in my throat, and I was forced to drown it down with an excruciating gulp. My eyes were wide and disbelieving. I hadn’t even crossed to where my home within the branches lay. I couldn’t. I couldn’t look upon my old friends corpse, and yet a part of me compelled me to see it, almost to verify it was not some trick, despite the obvious fact I could already see it. I dragged my legs to where the body stood, only a part of its first step remained. I remember holding my chest, as if unused to the feelings that were developing inside. I did not cry out when they said Glasgow was gone, and I felt nothing when they said The Netherlands, Belgium and most of France had been submerged, yet the sight of this tree and its siblings decimation brought newly thawed tears to my eyes.
I sat on the flat surface of my friend. In between my red fingers I twirled a spikey Beech-nut, perhaps the last remnant of my companion. It was a light green, round, with reaching strands that I pressed my thumb and index finger into, desperate to feel something through my numb extremities. There was no longer a heavy feeling in my chest. Now, it was the numbing noise of apathy. My escape had been cut down, and I would never quite discover why. Perhaps they were turned into furniture, or perhaps they were burnt, or perhaps the neighbours simply thought they were an eyesore. That was the always the Human condition, wasn’t it? We were given a chance to live upon the Earth and thrive, but with our newfound intelligence, it was we who decided to dictate what was, what could be and what was allowed. These trees could be ancient and mighty, from perhaps long before Humans or our ancestors strode upon these lands, and we could decide that they should die simply because it conflicts with a single persons sense of aesthetics.
Perhaps this was the will of The Washing. I began to wonder if maybe there were still lands where we were told no linger lay, but maybe there was just something there we were not meant to see. My thoughts began to harden and become resolute as I looked over the identical houses and towards where my grey city lie. A sunset tried in vain to penetrate the monochrome gloom, and the sky was given an ominous glow. I think that was where I came to understand why I envied Shreevey’s horror so much. We were all preparing to be subjected to the same fate, and someday it would come for all of us, and it might even happen in one moment. Shreevey knew. He knew and it drove him to existential abandonment, but still he knew what was coming. For the rest of us, we only had the option to pretend that it wouldn’t happen, that our way of living would last forever, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I remained until the cold breeze forced me into a huddle and my breath became almost a deposition of ice. The street lamps beamed their hideous orange as the sun sank, and I found myself as shocked as I have everyday of my life, that the sun sets so early in November. I moved on with weary legs towards the only place I could or even would go. I hadn’t intended or even thought about entering the Hammer, but those blind and deaf from nihilistic fear never do. The warm air greeted me like an estranged lover, and I breathed in the stale smells as if it were the first time I had ever done so. A stench that would drive anyone else to leave, but for me it was home.
I grabbed my usual drink, but for once it was not my usual crowd. Shreevey was there, and apparently if the place had never closed, he might never have left. According to the lads, he had spent enough in the past five days to keep the place afloat by himself. Each day he seemed to be pulled down further below in the realm of un-recognisability. His skin began to take on a grey hue as his cheeks began to sag. His eyes were translucent, as if he were looking through some sort of screen door. He actually looked at us and spoke, hell he even laughed, but it was derisive and full of fear, a death rattle for himself and his race.
After his last howl of laughter I drained almost an entire half of my pint just to get away to the bar. He continued to talk, and as I looked back I saw my friends hide their gazes, trying to pretend that perhaps he wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t help but ruminate on how he did not wish to speak to us on his return, and now we could not get away from him.
The evening grew livelier, however, fairly busy for a Thursday night. Although there was a part of me still in mourning, I felt the warmth of the world that night. The air seemed a little brighter, and I even allowed myself a laugh, although I did not enjoy how it felt on my tongue. Shreevey had spent the evening staggering between groups and cliques, the usual suspects that every pub is usually subjected to. We all felt a relief when he left, but even more so when we would turn to see him laughing with people who were not us, and the genuine smiles they reciprocated. Pub cultures are a strange family for those who insist on constant frequentation, you get used to the same faces and the same voices, even if you do not blend the groups often. Shreevey, however, seemed to be blurring the line, and for the better, or so it felt at the time. The problem with being used to the same faces however, is that when a new iteration joins, it immediately creates sucpicion.
There were perhaps only six or seven of them lounging by the pool table, young lads, no older than nineteen, some were probably not even legal, yet that didn’t matter in these dying days, so long as they behaved themselves. They were of course almost identical, as is the fashion for young people. They had the same trendy haircut, the same tracksuits that contrasted with egregiously expensive designer shoes. We looked upon them with a mixture of envy and pity, each of us remembering how stupid we used to look when we the same age in our own way. In some ways it was nice to see a reminder that the world was continuing in its ways as it had for decades and centuries. The old drink themselves to death, and the young take over. Even still, it is hard to trust new faces in a world where you rarely see them.
I turned my attention back to the remnants of my pint, and by then my vision had begun to find difficulty in focusing on the static glass. My friends still laughed and spoke, and I pretended to understand with a lazy grin. There was a din growing behind me, but I was unable to determine from where or even why, until there was a sound of breaking glass and shouting. My friends whirled their views towards it, some of them were even standing up, and the voices began to rise, and some uncomfortable feeling forced the hairs on my neck to harden. I turned slightly slower than my friends to the group of young lads, who were now surrounding a strange figure, so drunk he could barely stand.
The tallest of the lads puffed his chest out like some ridiculous toad, seemingly forgetting his eyes did not possess the ability to drill through the back of Shreevey’s skull, yet trying his best anyway. He quickly but harshly pushed at Shreevey’s chest, sending him stumbling towards the lads behind him, spilling their held pints as well as his. Upon noticing that his nectar had been spilt, Shreevey spent a while staring at the carnage that spilt over his hand, apparently feeling that sense of mourning I had only a few hours prior. Finally he dragged his gaze back to the tall youngster and spitting a foul curse through his teeth as if it tasted horrific. He threw his glass onto the floor by his own feet and lunged at the boy, hands outstretched towards his neck. The entire group seemed to move as one, like a school of fish, shifting and imploding upon Shreevey who tried to tighten his grip and bring the boy down. The others fell upon him, pulling and swinging at him, but he was lost to rage, and then the world blurred.
From behind the bar, the new girl screamed, me and my friends surged to the group, pulling at limbs, lost in a haze of overpowering aftershave mixed with strong but cheap cider. I grabbed at Shreevey’s shoulders, throwing all my weight into pulling him back, but he was stone. Something swung into my ribs, but I did not feel anything at that moment except a driving push. Shouts and screams, hands and fists were all that existed now. I had Shreevey grunting, pushing forward to the ground with the lad still in his hands, his back was now on the carpet, his hands similarly around Shreeveys neck, but impotent and feeble. Rage was glazing the boys eyes, but they were a simple veil over the true fear. Finally Shreevey’s body relaxed, jerking as I held it, and he called out in a muffled way. I was still pulling with full force, and he fell backwards into me, landing on top of me. The girl screamed again. Shreevey was heavy on top of me, but he was growing lighter, as if he was slipping off of me. I grabbed at his shoulder still and tried to manoeuvre myself away from him. The girl kept screaming, only now it felt like it was in the real world, and not through a screen or wall. Shreevey’s eyes had closed, and his filthy white shirt was now pooling with crimson rapidly, there were several tears and rips in the fabric by his stomach and chest.
Panicking, I slipped myself from under him, staring into his purple eye-lids, but unable to touch him or even shake him. The screams bored their way into my brain. The whirlwind of movement continued around us, we were in the eye of the storm. My drunk friends had no idea what was happening, they still wrestled and struggled with their own adversaries. The lad Shreeve had been throttling stared at me, the veil of rage had fully broken. He sat up on his elbows, as one of his friends grabbed him by his arm, trying in vain to shift his weight back up. A flash of silver steel mottled by blood fell to the ground as he grabbed his friend on the floor by both hands, urging him to stand. The lad on the floor finally found himself back in the room, having realised what just happened, and grabbed at his friend, pulling himself up.
Horror and rage filled me, a white noise drowning at the girl’s screams. I roared, or perhaps I shouted, or perhaps now sound left my teeth at all, but I was no longer in control. I was watching my body as a marionette, propelled forwards, falling onto the two lads who tried to shuffle themselves to the door. I feel upon them with a new forged strength that allowed me to land my elbows onto their backs, keeping them bowed, forcing them out into the dark streets, where obstinate orange light tried in vain to dispel the winter gloom. As if in unison, my friends in combat did the same, forcing their opponents out into the cold, November air. The fresh air bit into my lungs as I tried to throw the lads onto the concrete. The lad with the knife resisted, but the one who had been throttled fell like a stone, unable to determine how he had come to rest here on this cold street.
The lad still standing looked at me, and then at the situation. There was no malice or anger in his face, but pure realisation. His body trembled, his mouth was agape. As his friends were tackled to the ground, he turned, fleeing into the darkness, disappearing into the night. His friend on the ground turned and watched his friend flee, all hope draining from his face. He reached out a weak hand but he did not call out. I fell upon the boy, ungraceful and numb, rage draining me of all conscious strength. I held the boy under my weight, I felt him shift and struggle, but not enough to overthrow me. It seemed a courtesy for us both. I had no reason for within myself to hold him, and he had to seem like he wanted to flee, but the reality was neither of us had the strength. We were here because of other people’s actions, and now the consequences would be ours. I risked a glance back to my friends, who were in similar positions. Some of them had lost the lads they were battling and were standing around, panting and furious at the recent exhalation of effort. I involuntarily felt something close to pride wash up through my oesophagus, and a cruel smirk lined my face, a realisation that there was strength in us yet. Of course, the smile and pride both faltered as the lights came upon us.
The haunting blue of the police force, no longer a colour I associated with safety, instead some kind of instinctive fear drilled into us through centuries of society. Even before the black silhouettes came for us, I knew I had made a mistake. I could not open my mouth to even think of a protest before strong hands lifted me off the boy, paralysed with fear. Now I began to understand why. My shirt, coat and hands were stained with the spilling of Shreevey’s blood. I felt my body stiffen, a premature Rigor-Mortis the living rarely feel. I was little more than a corpse to be hauled away, thrown onto the ground, cold shackles applied to my wrists as my cheek was forced further into the concrete. Then the world turned to darkness. The last thing I saw was the population of the pub spilling out to watch the commotion, an audience watching the march of death before the black veil was passed over my eyes. A bag of some sort, stifling and musty, the stench of the breath from a thousand others stained the fabric as I felt my body lifted into the van, my bottom roughly hitting the seat, my hands already aching from the bondage. My breath was ragged in the complete darkness. I could hear through the bag, but none of the sounds seemed to be able to allow themselves to be associated with anything else. Shouts, protests, grunts of pain, begging through tears. These were shards and snap-shots into the lives of others, they didn’t seem to matter to me or belong to anything else. For moments I sat there, blind and impotent. Perhaps I could have shouted or screamed, but I didn’t. This was justice, perhaps. perhaps I need only explain my situation, and all will resolve itself. Other figures were bundled in with me, their appearances unknown to both them and I, they bumped into me out of nowhere, yelps and genuine gasps of fright. How many there were, I would never truly know, for no-one said a thing. If they were my friends or newfound enemies, we were now submitted to the same black fate.
I couldn’t tell you how long we were in that moving blackness. The shackles bit into my wrists, my breath was short and sharp, stifled by both the vacuum I now existed in and the fear that now sustained me. The air was damp in that containment, and after what could have been hours or years, an unmistakable smell of piss began to emanate and fill the container. There were stops, and the light dared to perforate my veil when the vehicle halted. Hope strengthened and sobered me, but hope is the chief fuel for despair. I knew I could not be the only one to dare to lift my body slightly, but every time I was pushed down by some bumbling figure as more and more were added into our entourage of the blind.
Knowing what I know now, we must have been in that shuttle of the dammed for six hours, and there must have been close to thirty people packed into this tiny space. We could have been brothers, closed in this stinking, damp artifice, preparing to be born again, but we weren’t. we were alone in our own separate hells. No-one said a word, which to this day surprises me. There were no pleads of innocence or begging for a lawyer. Instead, there was gentle sobbing and whimpering. We had already been condemned for death, and there were no judges, juries or executioners to plead to. No-one told us where we were heading, but we all knew. No-one had ever said that this is what had happened to the judicially judged, but perhaps it was the secrecy that fuelled our suspicions.
No matter how I shifted, wriggled or stretched, I was always brushing against someone. My head was clearing from the mist, but a storm began to take over as the alcohol withdrew itself from my system. My abdomen had daggers piercing through as I resisted the urge to wet myself, not as a favour to the others, but as the last heirloom of my own integrity. After perhaps a half-hour since the last pick-up, the vehicle stopped for the final time. We knew as much from how the door was not immediately opened. Instead, the vehicle did not move, but the engine did not die. We sat there as the seats below us gently vibrated, until the engine was cut. A dreadful silence fell on the world. I could hear the shifting of fabric and gentle murmurs from all around as the confusion began to dissipate, and the realisation tore down all walls of hope and fantasy.
Voices raised outside, as several authorities communicated with one another, the gaolers from another plane debating how best to bring us into hell for all I knew then, but the truth was much worse, for we had arrived at Huddersfield.
The doors burst open, and a roar of noise forced itself into our safe but dank container. One by one we were pulled out in the burning grey sky of the new morning, as the sun lazily dragged itself upwards and vanquished the safety of the darkness. The pathetic light was blazing through our masks as I was pulled onto my atrophying feet and onto soft ground. I felt people bumping into me, and in my blindness I fell towards the man in front of me, helpless as I was to recoil from the smell of shit and lager he possessed. The van had been sweltering to the point of madness, but it was a safe feeling. Here the Northern air bit and cut into my flesh, scraping the very surfaces of my bones. We shook and shuddered, almost huddling back towards each-other despite the horrific smells in a formation of safety against unknown threats. The coldness threatened to explode my bladder, ease the pain and warm myself up, but I refused. Surely, whatever authority that had ordered me to be arrested without interview, trial or even washing my friends blood off of my hands could not be negligent enough to deprive a man of using of using the toilet for close to seven hours, I kept telling myself in a pathetic, asinine way.
Eventually, we heard the doors shut behind us, and the van that had carried us drove away, returning to perhaps where it had picked us up, to round up another load of unsuspecting goons to throw into this cold abyss. The noise was catastrophic now; all around me were men shouting, vehicles to and for, and always the melancholic and monotonous thrall of the waves, washing and retreating, washing and retreating. Two men had come up the line, and before I knew what was happening, hard hands grasped me, pulling me this way and that, one undoing my cuffs, the other pulling the mask from my weak and inexperienced eyes. The grey light burned, and I am sure the man in front of me recoiled from the sight of my grizzled and chapped skin, the harrowed sore eyes. He wore a bright blue helmet and army fatigues, with a dark complexion, and a demon in his eyes. I was not a person or even cattle to this man, I was a commodity. I was just mortar for The Wall.
In amidst the chaos, the one thing I remember is the smell of salt and spray. Of course, in the old days we would never associate this part of England with the coast, but as my eyes melded with the light, it was all I could see. We were here, at Fernando’s Wall, we were by the new sea. The soldier with his bright UN helmet and uniform quickly shuffled off, and behind my hands were freed from their containment. Instinctively massaging my eroded and raw wrists, heavy hands shoved me forwards, and I was compelled to keep moving, following the line of fresh-meat in front of me. I heard the rustle of movement behind me as the soldiers moved up the line, and on all sides of me the same thing was occurring. Prisoners, disorientated and alien, were being freed and moved onwards to the front of something, towards the always crashing sound of the waves.
There were soldiers everywhere, but I only briefly caught glimpses of the men who had abducted me, dressed in black uniforms and caps, with their gleaming high-vis vests, like Gestapo agents in a building site, the last bastion of the British guard. The rest were foreign soldiers, and their strange dialects and uncommon languages were disorientating. Before the sun had set I was comfortable in my pub, my clothes were not stained, and there was only one death on my conscious, now the sun was steadily rising through the steel clouds, I had been taken to an alien world, full of fear and pain. I tried not to think of Shreevey, but now that I was here, it was hard not to wonder what piece of the puzzle he was. Surely he couldn’t have been one of the abductors, as an Inteprol agent, he must have been here as an objector and protestor, that must be what drove him to drink. Then again, how well did I really know him? He was only a drinking buddy, and he had been away for almost two years. I had every faith that whatever his part was, here at Fernando’s Wall, it was for the right reason, but it was never my place to know what that truly meant.
The lines of convicts, innocents and Christ-knows-who-else were squeezed into one line as we pushed forwards, compelled by the strange shouting and force of people behind us. Now I could hear others begging and pleading, some seemed to cry. We were funnelled from our depot past looming metal fences that channelled us towards us. There were more soldiers on high buildings, watching us to make sure we moved forwards, towards some inevitable fate. The faces of our sentinels were stone, and the muzzles of their guns were bright. The faces around me were grey and grim, we were all reflections of each other. I could feel always someone brushing against me, either at my side or behind me, but a strange compulsion I had not intended forced my head to glance behind me. There, only a few paces behind, was the lad who had squared up to Shreevey, the one I had thrown myself upon. He was no longer tall, imposing or even young as he was before. He was like me, grey, broken and compelled. His gaze was to the ground, and his movements were not his own. If I even knew his name, I doubt he would have recognised it if I called to him. He was a corpse pre-emptive of his own execution.
Finally, the death march in front of me reached the end of the fences, and we were led to the open, under a bridge of more watchful guards, and out into the open, where the concrete expanse laid open, and the churning teal sea, laid out towards the edge of the world. The endless, angry sea lay in unnatural sleep, a submerging void that was yet not an unnatural beast. It was a primordial yawn, a step back into the natural world from where everything came. It was there I understood that as easily as the Earth was born from the sea, so easily could it be taken away, and it was there I stood before Fernando and his great Wall.
He was straddled upon a horse like some Napoleonic general, a peace-keeper built for war. His navy overcoat rustled restlessly in the wind, his short brown hair was flecked with shards of frost. His steed was upon the dunes, between the chain-link fences and the outreach of the sea and it’s newly formed beach. There was a smattering of UN soldiers around him, but he was above them and us. He was a grandmaster, moving his pieces forward, and when one or several fell, he merely moved them aside and enacted his next manoeuvre. His hands gripped the stirrups of his stationary horse, almost silently willing it to be still despite the crashing noises and frantic movement. Surely he had been here since the inception of the wall, here at Huddersfield perhaps almost a year, yet his gaze did not drift from the endless ocean. There was an enemy beyond it that no-one could see, I could tell instantly.
I felt almost unworthy to be looking at him. He was tempered steel in a field of wheat, the reaper’s scythe in human flesh. I never met his gaze, but I followed it to The Wall. I felt something drop, and looking upon it made me want to sink to the floor, but the forces behind me compelled me to keep moving. Perhaps it was the lad behind me, or another stranger convicted to this strange, freezing fate. There was a new noise, almost so overpowering at first I could not discern what it was. There were several people along the beach, which reached far to the horizon. I could see that this new beach reached into what used to be the centre of the city that was now half submerged, and before it were more men in blue helmets, shouting through megaphones.
“Keep looking.” They shouted, somehow a perfect blend of hysteric and serene. “Keep all eyes beyond the sea. It cannot move when it has been seen by human eyes.” The figures shouted, and on repeat, over and over again. Once more I found myself looking towards The Wall.
The Wall was not made of bricks and mortar, and it was not on the beach. About ten foot into the ocean, waist-deep, unbroken and uniform, was the line of men, standing firm against the surging tide. An endless line of men, each with another straddled on their shoulders, all heads and eyes were forced onwards, towards the otherworldly horizon. They stood but struggled under the weight and rushing waves. The prisoners on shoulders were linked by arm to their neighbours, all struggling to support one another. Some fell and took their neighbours with them, crashing into the freezing drink. A series of soldiers in their sky-blue headgear stood in the waves with batons in their hands, and when someone fell, they surged towards them angry hornets, forcing the fallen up, threatening them but not bringing their clubs down. I felt a weakness in my legs, a reckless shaking form my knees, and my bladder crying out to release or explode. We were forced into the waters, to join this endless water, and were immediately met with wrath. The waves broke upon us as trespassers, violent and freezing. The spray splattered across my face, and my bladder immediately released itself, the uncomfortable warm battling against the fury of the freezing waves. The waves hit hard against the bricks in The Wall, each ebb and flow breaking like a course of fists against their still bodies. More and more fell, some with a shout, some with a broken curse caught in their throats before falling backwards into the hungry maw of the ocean.
Some struggled against the grasp of the determined soldiers, but weakened, sodden and freezing. Some were strong enough to rebel, pushing away from the imposing brutes and sprinting through the freezing shallows towards the false sanctuary of the beach. One of them fixed eyes with me, desperate and empty, as he struggled past. I made no effort to help, and I made no effort to follow, or even to stop him, yet I followed him weakly, and he greeted the wet sand like an old friend, sinking into it, yet more soldiers converged. He must have been at his limit, yet somehow more strength was summoned to his body, and he scrambled towards the fence, towards some unknown sanctuary, yet it was not found. I turned away before the shouts silenced, and the gunshot rang out.
I was hollow and frozen, devoid of purpose except to be handled by the soldiers by either side, shouting at me in what might have been English, forcing me to fill in the gaps. The waters sank me in up until my waist, dampening my stained shirt but not clean it. I was stood next to two others, each with a man on their shoulders, all of us trembling and skeletal. Hands were forced onto my shoulders, and the officers either side lifted a heavy figure onto my shoulders. I grasped at their legs to steady them, and they stabilised themselves by holding people to their other side, yet we all swayed and pulled within rhythm, the waves slamming against my lungs and heart with icy malevolence. I was now a link in the chain, and the soldiers behind me moved, perhaps to shepherd the rest of the new recruits.
I never knew the name of the man above me, or the ones to either side. The soldiers didn’t reiterate what we had to do, it was almost instinctive. We were to look across the vista, and the world needed every set of eyes. There was some kind of resolve within me, perhaps the others felt it too, that we were firmly part of The Wall. We were no longer men, we were bricks and cement, the last line between whatever was at the core of the sea. What it was we had to look at, I would never know. Perhaps the world never would find out, but as far as I could discern, whatever was out there could not move so long as we stood and stared. So that’s what we did. We stood, we stared, towards the edges of infinity.
The sun was far behind us, but it’s dull glow still reached towards the ends of the ocean. My body had eroded to nothing, I was a spirit frozen in place, an entity of ice, no past no future. All me and my new brothers had was to look forward, to stare, to protect the world. As we looked onwards to where land used to reach out for miles and miles, a part of me thought I saw a light, golden and terrible, a new sun growing from beyond the womb from where all life once emerged. We were the eyes and The Wall, there was something that could not bare be to seen, The Washing, terrible and constant, and it stopped before us.
Read the rest of the Weird Dreams series here!