(Shortlisted for Land Rover/GQ/Soho House 2011 short story competition, published in ‘City Stories’ collection. )
The stars twinkle, smudged, like cat’s eyes in the road. I’m standing in the doorway, looking out.
“I want to go home”, Jane says behind me, same as every night. “I want my things. I don’t want to live in a shitty leaky shed for the rest of our lives.”
“This roof doesn’t leak.”
“It leaks when it’s not even raining. Please can we go back? Just to check everything’s alright and pick up a few bits. We’ll be fine. Looters don’t come out in bad weather.”
“What bad weather?” I say, but then it starts, suddenly, like someone threw a switch, and I come back inside, and she’s proved right about the roof.
We’re sleeping on the floor of an abandoned pitch and putt shop, just off a roundabout on the way to the M1. No-one’s used the course in years, and the bunkers are grown over with grass. I used to come here with my older brother and dad as a kid. This is one of the places where London stops, becomes lumpy, unused land, stretching out into Middlesex and Herts. Before the war, there were plans to build a Tube station across from where we are, extend the Northern Line out to Bushey Heath and spread the city further. All that’s there to show for it now are two brick stumps in the middle of a field, unfinished viaduct arches, covered in graffiti.
I’ve seen campfires out by them at night, but not mentioned them to Jane. I don’t trust anyone but her now.
When the government finally ran out of money to service the cities, we went to work until there was no work to go to. Then, days, we’d walk for hours, looking for anywhere still open that sold food. Negotiating the garbage, knee-high in the streets. Hurrying home before sunset, and the riots. Nights, we stayed in our flat, listening to shouts, bangs, car wrecks, trying to guess how close they were. “We’re in the suburbs,” Jane would tell me. “How bad can it get?” When the sheltered housing block next door was burned to the ground in the middle of a blossom-blowing Sunday afternoon, we locked the front door of our flat and set off with whatever we could fit in the boot of our car.
We were carjacked before we’d gone five miles. There’s never a policeman around when you need one nowadays, not since they stopped getting paid.
The pitch and putt is meant to be a stop-gap measure. Surely this can’t last forever. We paid our taxes, did what we were told. The government owe us. This is the first world.
Jane, formerly a recruitment consultant, has started trying to catch the rabbits living on the course. I’ve never seen an office worker move so fast. For all her efforts, though, our clothes are hanging off us. I watch her running between the bunkers, and, if I didn’t already know who she was, I wouldn’t recognise her. I’m not even sure I’d recognise which century she’s from.
This morning, for once, I didn’t start with a shout. I tried spooning against Jane but she began stirring and muttering obscenities so I disengaged myself and have come outside. When she gets up, we’ll set off for the flat, but I may as well let her sleep while she’s able.
A milky mist is filling the air and with the sun behind, it seems lit from within, soft and yellow, so it’s hard to tell how near or far anything is.
I walk out to the edge of the road, sticking close to the shrubbery to not draw attention from the traffic crawling past.
There’s activity out by the viaduct stumps. Tent cloth flapping, I think. Smoke.
I want to see more, so step out, between the cars, crouching low, down by the bumpers. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because his wife was having a lie-in and he was hungry and bored.
I’m across the two lanes. Over the crash barrier, into the field.
The last time another human being who wasn’t Jane spoke to me, they dragged me out my car and beat me half to death, I remind myself. On the other hand, we’ve not eaten in three days.
I squat with a spiky bush against my back, watching the mist thin. Wondering if Jane’s up yet.
Thinking of turning back.
Thinking of going forward.