RED

By Rachel Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

Chapter 17

PART TWO

They are looking for me.

But they are looking for me on the streets of Britain’s biggest city during its busiest weekend, so good luck to them. And, frankly, if I can’t disappear now then I hardly deserve to. Won’t be much use if I can’t move through a crowd without accidentally sharing my location on Maps or Facebook or something ridiculous - I’d be snapped up as quickly as if I was sitting on the Jubilee line with explosives taped to my forehead. Not that I have any interest in blowing something up.

I missed my DVT yesterday morning. My twenty-four hour grace period to check in for an emergency Test with an explanation and evidence expired a few hours ago. It’s an impressive crime for a first. I wonder if I’d be managing the dry throat and irregular heartbeat better if I’d worked my way up from thieving food from the school lunch hall, or plagiarising a few essays at university. Probably not. I doubt those kinds of crimes make you feel about as anonymous as a wolf among sheep. But even wolf isn’t right; I am a shepherd among the flock, spied by the wolves’ unseen, inhuman, bodiless eyes surrounding the pen. I threaten the food chain - trained or not, I must be removed.

A bead of sweat rolls coolly down my lower back and gathers with all the other terrifying pellets of truth that stick in the curve of my spine. We are all sweating as we march with frolicking feet yet heavy sight through the twists and turns of our beloved capital. We are a made-up, costumed, revelling mockery of the regimentation that conversely marches us through the other days of the year. This weekend, we dance and sing to celebrate the great nation that provides us with exact days to dance and sing so that prevailing order may maintain a Great Britain to be proud of. It is Great, so we are great, is what we are conditioned to parrot mercilessly in our brains. And the voices of its people are too hoarse after a weekend of screeching to whisper aloud, even if only to themselves, the flood gates: Is it not great because we are great?

In the depths of the crowd the heat is overwhelming, and the roar that pulses through it is monstrous and giant, filling the space between our heads and the perpetual sunrise they have projected in blues and reds and whites, so I’ve gathered. The noise could not be louder or more threatening if I had my head between the jaws of a lion. It makes spasms flash from shoulder to shoulder across my chest like an electric current, and each jolt brings my gaze past those canines and into the belly of the beast; that’s why I am smiling in this jumbling pack of tie-dyed swans.

I was a child when the news was released that National Pride could be seen from space with our best and most expensive orbiting cameras. Since that headline each year had grown more ostentatious, more ridiculous, more feverish with pride. The costumes had become wilder and more fabulous to the extent it is now an easy and highly profitable commercial trade in the run up to the festivities, with brands deploying Pride costumes onto their shop floors.

This year is no different - I see nine-foot high Big Bens, flowing robes of the House of Lords, floats of giant whisky bottles, group costumes making up to-scale Rolls Royces, a girl in a London Eye suit cheerfully knocking into those around her whenever she turns and, in the distance, an Angel of the North strapped to the back of a brutish man, its ten foot wingspan hovering well above the heads of the crowd.

Beside me is the sweetest thing, violently thrusting her fist in the air and stretching her smile to the edges of mania. Kathy’s results were excellent (she had texted me immediately after her DVT) and so she had spent her week off designing costumes for the two of us with as much glee as a young child determined to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus in the middle of the night.

I can’t understand why they took her all week because they’re pretty bloody dire, but there’s no denying Kathy’s majesty as she parades along dressed as sugar, with cubes of polystyrene glued to her mostly naked body. I am her accompanying milk - I threatened to abandon the partnership when she suggested simply glueing empty milk bottles onto my own nakedness and so she grudgingly agreed to sew plastic pockets onto my running gear. It’s perfect. Very soon I’ll be ripping the bottles out of the pockets and fading into the shadows. One day I’ll have to thank Kathy, especially for the long, white wig (‘Your milk flow!’ ‘My what?!’) that’s covering my new, unrecognisable hairstyle.

As everyone around me chants and flashes their phones in the air to capture the sea of people, I put my own fists to shoulder height and dance to the faint music wafting along the top of the mob; I’ll be damned if I don’t squeeze something more than necessity out of this freak show and so I lose myself among them just as they will lose me.

I close my eyes and hop on the balls of my feet, wiggling my torso as the music gets louder and louder, bumping into the lump on Kathy’s left shoulder every few seconds to keep my bearings. Then the chanting starts to fade against the booming songs, like a river in its final moments before rushing over the edge and becoming a waterfall. I feel the crowd begin to break and shift and sway with the music as laughter and babbling rolls and bubbles over our heads until we are at the edge.

I snap open my eyes and, as it does every year, my jaw drops at the cacophonic sea of greys and blacks and whites convulsing below. We spill into Trafalgar Square with tens of thousands of others. Teenagers whoop and delight with spasmodic delirium, upturning vodka bottles into their ecstatic faces beside children teetering on the safety of their parents’ shoulders.

We stumble down into the square, slipping past those on the slope stopping to take selfies with the crowd. It is still too loud to talk but we silently agree to push as far into the square as possible. Caught in the wavelengths of everyone else quacking at head height, I put my arms in the air and swing my hips in an aggressive dance to shimmy through the thick mass of bodies. Kathy is leading the way now, but she turns to flash a beautiful grin with her scarred lips and I can’t help but laugh with her as she raises her own arms up to mimic me. My god, she’s perfect, like a racehorse, and I can almost smell the lightness of her being caught in her dark skin and gleaming like coal. For me, all of Kathy’s beauty is marked in those two small imperfections on her bottom lip. Those two crevices that speak of nature, not perfection. I wish I could remember how they felt when I kissed her.

She manages to haul us over the street and up to the paved area of the Square itself. The crowd is denser here, causing everyone to sway in unison to the music blasting from the speakers atop Nelson’s Column, much like a rhythmic rush hour on the tube. On the roofs of the buildings lining the square are bands feeding into the speakers, one at a time playing from the set-list of ‘British music’, whatever the hell that is. But the mob is infatuated with the noise and so they forgive our sharp elbows and forceful shoulders, as long as we dance with them when we fight past.

We reach the edge of an expansive pool, in the middle of which sits a colossal fountain. To me, the water is the one clear thing in the entirety of London that suits its transparent nature and my heart spouts with its crystal jets. I grab Kathy’s hand and leap over the edge, splashing through the wet and giddy masses, laughing madly, stretching my other hand out to stroke the sparkling curtain that falls into the water, kaleidoscopic in the brief moments the sun streaks through the smog. As we run, I slyly reach into my back pocket and pull out my phone, dropping it into the water.

When we get to the other side of the pool, wracked with joy, I grab Kathy’s arm to pull her up short.

‘Kath!’ I screech above the human thunder. ‘Stop! Wait!’ Kathy smiles heedlessly as I pat my pockets. In her high, she barely registers the fake concern on my face. ‘Shit! My phone - I’ve dropped my phone!’

‘Shit!’ Her head whips up and balks at the sight of the thousands of feet no doubt trampling it into oblivion.

‘Damn! Listen, if we get split up just go back to the flat with people and I’ll meet you there, ok? OK?!’

‘OK!’ Kathy’s nod is cartoonish in its huge movement, grateful I’m not trying to drag her back across the pool and streets to look for it. Good - I’m relying on her to fill my place with people and fingerprints and delete some of the traces of my own.

I grin at her and point straight ahead. She claps her hands together and crows before pushing up onto the stone lip of the pool and then diving back into the crowd. I follow, holding tightly onto her forearm. All it would take is a split second apart to be lost to one another for the rest of the day. We grunt and strain as we heave ourselves through the compact coffin of bodies.

The crowd is thicker here, like wet sand. People get pissed off but we only push harder, ignoring the threatening warnings and squeals of discontent, and raising our spare middle fingers to direct insults. We squeeze past a Cadbury chocolate bar and a cardboard telephone box painted red, I can only assume. Someone in a flag minidress tries to push me over but the wall of people on my left keep me steady.

It takes us fifteen minutes of shoving and the occasional apology to the rare, older citizen to cross the twenty metres, but finally we are standing underneath one of the magnificent, giant black lions that guard Nelson’s Column. They lie, outstretched, one at each of the four corners, their bronze jaws slightly parted and manes tumbling from their ears down over their paws twelve feet below. Elevated six feet above everyone, on the same stone platform out of the centre of which the column thrusts fifty metres high into the air, people are scrabbling at the stone to clamber up to them. Kathy spies a weak member of the herd - a small man with glasses and skinny arms - failing to climb up. She wades towards him and taps him on the shoulder, dripping a smile onto the crown of his head and complimenting his black cab costume. He freezes, gaping up at the half-naked goddess swaying above him before stepping out of her way. Kathy grabs me and digs a foot into the small stone lip that sticks out at knee height, gracefully pulling herself up and over the edge. For a second, she teeters, almost pushed back by the crowd on the platform into the tide below, but she recovers and sends an arm over the side to help me up.

We are at the rear of the lion and fight our way to its tail, leaning round each side to spot any gaps in the fifteen people already mounted on its back. Suddenly, Kathy is yelling ‘GO!’ in my ear and shoving me up the lion’s arse as two in the front drop off and the fifteen shuffle forward like a centipede. I clamber up, only narrowly beating a young guy on my right, and throw a leg over each side of the incredible beast’s haunches, using my palms to drag myself forward as Kathy hops up behind me with far greater ease. Then her knees are behind mine and one arm around my middle. I feel her nose nudge through the fibres of my white wig.

‘We did it!’

I squeeze her one hand clamped on my ribs as she shoves her phone to the side to take a photo of us both looking over the crowd. The waves of people are relentless, their pride fermenting and turning rancid in the carbon dioxide released by their starving lungs. They are like one organism belching their approval and delight over one another and shuffling to the music with enough space only to move their hands about like the mad and the depraved before a full moon sacrifice.

The cells of the organism are not just of London, but made up of the many other Brits that descend on the capital like bats to celebrate in the pistons and valves and pneumatic cylinders of this nation’s beating heart. Everyone is delirious and righteous. The people on the lion shake as if their limbs are made from balloons. My eyes narrow looking out onto the grey swarm that have covered their beautiful, differing flesh in pathetic costumes the colour of dust. I used to think there was something erotic about all of these bodies pressing and moving together, flesh on flesh, sweat on sweat. Now, all I see are the blind foetuses of rats falling over each other, unknowing of their brothers and sisters, of even their own form. I can feel my tongue pushing against my bottom teeth in its silent, swollen scream. The scene before me is a mass grave.

Shouts rise up from below the lion’s flanks. Everyone wants to ride the soul of the giant, bronze beast. I grip it with my thighs, thanking its sacrifice before twisting to look at Kathy.

‘Come on! Let’s dance!’

‘What?!’

I point to the ground on my left. ‘Let’s dance!’

Kathy pouts, but then one of the bands starts playing something she loves and she points to the sky in glee, her fingers sticking up in the air like pistols. Still watching her from over my shoulder as she tilts her head back with her eyes closed, I’m wounded by her open and honest laugh as it peals through her manic expression, like a child giggling through a Halloween mask. And, suddenly, beneath the whoops of delight she locked away when she was eight years old, I hear the secret tears that lubricate her body in shame.

I freeze as she swings a long leg over my head and slides down the left flank to the thin stone ledge below, my wide eyes locked where she had sat. For all the colours in the world, I couldn’t see my best friend’s pain. The air pops around me as I inwardly curse my blindness, gripping the beast’s back with my shaking thighs as the epiphany moves through me.

Kathy’s having the affair with Bateman.

The young guy hops up into Kathy’s space, breaking my trance. I glance down at her. She’s standing on the edge with her back to me looking out onto the crowd with her arms outstretched as if she was hanging from my easel. She is heavenly. I send apologies from my pupils into the back of her head for everything I have done and everything I am about to do. She ignores a gust of wind that viciously beats her with the polystyrene lumps that flap about her body and I wish my brave friend all the love he will never give her.

I’ll never understand her decision. I don’t have the time to try. The time for understanding and justification has passed. I have already left that world.

Before Kathy turns to look at me I slip down the opposite side of the lion’s flank and allow the pit to swallow me up, like water coming together over the body of a corpse as it sinks to the depths of the unknown.

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