RED

By Rachel Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

Chapter 29

The celebrations last weeks and only become more feverish and exalted when the other two young women give birth. When Clarice brings her baby boy to one of the Seven meetings the men and women weep, while the children prod the infant with jealousy. Clarice’s can only smile that same fearless grin as her son is passed around the group who consider themselves aunts and uncles to the child, even if having never met her before. Many claim his eyes are so bright they could even see the blue bursting through the grey that had shadowed over them for generations. Like a cobalt lily with a sun at his centre, the unknowing child has pollinated the Outer Zones with enough light for the people to now watch the lonely darkness that brews in the City with sympathy in their hearts.

Six weeks after his birth our film is ready. I volunteer to take it round to Clarice’s small flat - the first portal to our vision – and show her it before it goes live.

Her son sleeps soundly on her chest as we watch, curling a fist around his mother’s jumper. When I close the laptop she kisses his soft, dark head tenderly with tears whispered on her lashes. He stirs but does not wake, at peace resting on the flesh of his world. That world filled with a far more precious elixir than her blood. Blood forever destined to be sacrificed, not spilled, as long as that in his own veins runs a brighter red than the bleeding sunset.

‘He’s beautiful,’ I say gently.

‘He is,’ she nods. ‘I don’t need colours to see that.’ I pause, looking at the woman who wanders in the fine hairs that smatter across the infant’s head. The world could fall apart around her and, as long as he lay in her arms, the glow emanating from her skin would distil the violence around them into silk.

‘Clarice, I never wanted to ask you in case you changed your mind but - why? Why did you listen to us? Why did you want to do this?’ Clarice nudges her finger into the child’s sleeping grasp and gently strokes his tiny hand with a soft thumb.

‘Everyone always talked about how it was unfair, like, but no-one was doing anything about it. I was bored of just talking when you lot came along.’

‘What about the fine? Weren’t you scared?’

She bites her lip. ‘A bit. And when that comes out-’ she jerks her head at the laptop, ‘-they’ll find me. They’ll send me packing to Nine or slap a zero on me, but that doesn’t make a jack shit of difference now. Everyone here knows me by my name, not my number. We’ll be looked after.’ She kisses him again and then looks up at me, smiling, as if having seen the secrets of tomorrow spelled out in his fine hairs.

‘You know, I think that’s the best thing we did for everyone. Numbers don’t matter here, anymore.’

I smile warmly at her and lean forward to squeeze her arm affectionately before brushing my fingertips over his tiny feet, each toe a perfect, pink bubble.

‘Still no name?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she murmurs, rubbing his back softly. ‘Haven’t found the right one, yet.’

When I get back to the maisonette I find Will standing by the window looking out onto the surprisingly demure twilight, his forearm leaning against the wall to rest his forehead on. He is as still as a lost anchor buried under the seabed becoming moss. He doesn’t move when I come in; I know he’ll have been standing there for hours.

‘I thought you were going straight there.’ The strain in his voice pops like strings snapping on a cello.

‘Forgot my cover,’ I say, walking to the table and picking up the pile of soft, black cotton resting on one of the chairs. I push it into my bag and look up at him - at his broad back, undulated like a valley, curving into a narrow waist and powerful legs sheathed in his favourite black joggers. If I were to move to him and place my lips between his shoulder blades I would see the small scar on his right ear that I left him with, white and raised like the slash on his wrist. Yet another marker of a past.

Between us, I feel the air shift like a thundering tide, but it is still around him, as if he rises out of the raging swell, firmly planted to the sand that forever shifts below my feet. The violence of the shallows terrifies me more than the sharks waiting in the depths for me.

‘You only have to ask, Red.’ He turns to me, his eyes are rocks of sapphire lava, and the silence between us roars louder as he casts out this lifejacket to me.

I shake my head, unable to coax the right words, afraid I will confuse them with drowning pleads.

‘Tell Mags to make it live,’ I say. Then I fix my eyes on the ground and rush past him as the room buckles and he lashes me with his gaze. As I break into the evening I feel those eyes embed themselves like hooks in my heart.

I wouldn’t ask any of them to come with me. Not after what I did to Harrods. I am hunted, constantly; dogs and wolves alike sniff me out for the cells, and no doubt anyone I am associated with. But so far they only have my name, my face. So I won’t ask any of them to cross over the border with me. One to Four is a different world from Five to Nine, a world we can hardly protect ourselves in let alone each other. I have to go tonight to get this video viral, but I won’t watch those I love catch fire when I set London to burn.

I hum the nursery rhyme to set a rhythm in my shaking chest as I walk quickly to the tube, pulling Alice’s hijab in the shadows. As I trot down the steps in the station my heart crashes with more force against my ribs than my feet do against the stone. The closer the tube gets to One the faster it beats, until I’m convinced its resonant thumping will give me away as I slip through the crowd at Monument and change onto the Northern line. Only after we go under the river does it shudder to a slower pace. I ignore the urge to massage my bruised chest and look around the dusty faces of those around me trying to escape the tunnel they cannot bear to wake to. If I was to unwrap my head any one of them would recognise me, but I’m not sure what they would do.

I was lambasted as a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘madwoman’ for weeks after showcasing my work at Harrods but, no matter the labelling of the artist, the work itself will always speak directly to whoever beholds it. It is impossible not to engage with art, in any form, not to invite it into some kind of relationship. No amount of ridicule or sensationalism can untangle the web of harp strings it casts around the heart, and that’s why all the photos and videos of what we did in Harrods mysteriously disappeared from the news reports after a week. My face, however, did not. I do not know how this London is reacting to my face. I know the gossip and rumour and righteousness that percolates in the arteries of social media, of course, but it is the reaction when they are alone in bed, letting the image of my phantom wash over their closed lids, I cannot fathom. I do not know how London’s hearts are reacting to my face.

The sign for my stop flashes past as the tube brakes quickly at the platform. I take a deep breath as the doors open, barely registering the automated voice thanking me for my time as my organs quake under my disguise. I have no idea how he is going to react.

The fingers on my left hand are crossed so tightly they are in danger of snapping. My tongue flattens itself like an obedient dog and pushes against both sides of my bottom teeth as I knock on the door. I don’t uncross my fingers when he opens it.

‘Can I help you?’ He curls a hand around the door and looks the person dressed in the thick, black fabric up and down, frowning.

‘I think I deserve that, don’t you?’

Robert’s mouth drops open when he hears my voice and his knuckles turn white, eyes flicking between my covered face and the dark street.

‘Please let me in,’ I try again, lower in my throat this time. His eyes round like golf balls.

‘Fuck!’ he whispers and then drops his hands and backs into the kitchen-living room. I step inside and quickly pull the door shut.

‘Is anyone in?’ He shakes his head. I dump my rucksack and pull off the hijab, throwing it over the sofa. He hisses at my shaved head and I lean into the sound, welcoming it with a smile.

’What - what the fuck are you doing here?’ He splutters, moving backwards and putting the counter between us as I step into the middle of the living room.

‘I need your help,’ I say calmly, thrusting my hands into my jeans pockets so he can’t see them shake.

‘No way,’ he shakes his head as if on a spring. ‘No fucking way. You could land me in jail!’

‘You can say I forced you, if you like.’ He flinches at that and, trembling, drags his eyes across me. When they land on my bag they somehow widen even farther.

‘For fuck’s sake, Robert, I’m not actually carrying a fucking weapon,’ I snap. He drops his gaze and blushes, pressing his lips together. Every muscle in his body hums with tension like a sprinter on the starting blocks.

‘Force me into what?’

I pick up my bag and walk up to the counter. He flinches again but doesn’t move when I swing my bag onto it.

‘I want to show you something.’

We watch the film together, sitting in silence on the sofa as we did all those months ago, but more bare and naked now than we ever were then. Although we sit at opposite ends, I feel Robert responding to the stories of Clarice, Sandra and Margeurite as the shakes of his body travel through the fibres of the cushions to meet me.

‘That’s….insane,’ he says when it’s over, puffing out his cheeks. ‘But what makes you think it’ll catch on?’

‘Simple, really. No-one likes being left behind.’

He nods. ‘And you think this is all it’ll take? To change? Reform? Everything… everything we talked about?’ His voice trails off with shame.

‘No, but I think it’s a good start, don’t you?’ I shift on the sofa and pull one leg up, facing him. ’Westminster will have to reveal its true colours after this, whether it’s the kind of government that sends hundreds - even thousands - of mothers and infants to the depths of poverty or not. And even if it does do that, I think we’d suddenly have a lot more people thinking very differently about those who run this country. Might even have an R-word on our hands.’

The room is black save for the ghostly light emitted from the screen. It wraps itself around our faces so it seems our bones are layered over our skin.

‘I had no idea you could see,’ he whispers eventually, turning his head to look at me. ‘You never said…’

’Come on, Bobby,’ I say softly, ‘are you gonna tell me I could have trusted you?’ A sad smile hangs from his lips like a retired clown’s.

‘I guess not,’ he mutters, looking back to the screen. He picks at a thread on his jeans before standing up and moving behind the sofa, leaning on it with both hands.

‘And where do I come into all of this?’

I stand too and move slowly around the back of the sofa, like a hunter closing in on a fox, pulling his gaze into me, unblinking.

‘I need the passwords for the BBC social media accounts.’

He freezes, looking up at me, and then rears up, rocking back on his heels.

What?

‘We have one shot at getting as many people as possible to see this,’ I say evenly, taking a small step towards him and pointing at the laptop. ‘If we send it out through the BBC it’ll reach millions before they have a chance to block it.’ His blinks are slow and thick, as if pulling his eyelids through toffee.

‘Please, Robert, I know you have access to the accounts, I know we can do this. And like I said, you can say I forced you. Just one login, right here, together, and then I’ll disappear and you can even call the police for dramatic effect.’ I hazard a smile and he lunges back before swinging round my body into the kitchen.

‘No,’ he chokes. ’No, no, no, no. Are you fucking crazy?! Get out-’

‘Robert, please.’ I hold my palms up and inch forward as he pants and paces, tearing his fingers through his hair. ‘I will beg - but I won’t force you. I need your cooperation in this.’

‘You and you cooperation can get the fuck out of my house.’

‘Please, Rob, Adrienne sent me - she told me you would help, like she did.’ He whips his head up when I mention Adrienne and then pitches backwards violently when he sees I’ve crept up on him.

‘Bullshit!’

’Why would she lie? Why would she danger everything we did that night? I know you talked about me!’ In the shadows I see his chest heaving and the twinkle of a ring hanging on a silver chain. He drags both hands over his face, shaking his head, and sags against the fridge. I lean against the counter opposite him patiently in the semi-dark. The impasse yawns between us.

‘I always wanted to ask - who gave you the ring?’

His hands drop to his side and the burden of our conversation hangs from his slack jaw. A hand creeps up to cover it from my gaze as he answers.

‘No-one,’ he spits. ’I got it in a market. It reminded me of one my wealthy grandmother let me play with when I was a boy, except hers had a stone set into the band. Course, I couldn’t afford something like that, could I?’ He fingers the band, trying to tug the warmth of a memory to save him from the icy depths of the nightmare I have flung him into. I see my chance in the silver glint caught beside his heart.

‘What colour was the stone?’

He looks up at me and curls a fist over the ring as his jaw clenches.

‘I have no idea,’ he whispers, closing his eyes to catch the tears. ‘She said it was blue.’

Blue. The colour of the sea. Of Will’s eyes. The colour of sirens.

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