The wait was agonising. Ninety-two minutes and seventeen seconds to be exact. Her body was heavy, and a cramp persisted in her left foot. She swapped the soggy toddler sleeping on her hip from one side to the other, careful not to wake him and be forced to endure the glares of the dangerously over-heated strangers surrounding her as he invariably shrieked in dissatisfaction. If she had known then, what she knew now, things would be different, wouldn’t they?
The toddler on her hip squirmed and opened his eyes, they were vacant with sleep but seemed to look right through her. It had always disturbed her, the way the child looked at her. She looked away from him but made gentle shushing noises. The damp, lumpy man standing in front of her made it impossible to see how far away she was from the counter, she strained to peer around him, desperate to see if the line was moving at all. She was unsure how much longer she could stand the weight of the child. Every muscle in her back screamed, searing like an unsheathed wound, but her face remained passive. She wondered if she could place the boy on the floor, but she knew he would likely wake and that would unravel her entirely. This queue was her last option. Her last resort. Slowly, achingly slowly, the line shuffled forward, inching towards the last person who could help her. She stared at the ageing fan swinging monotonously above her head, it was all but useless against the debilitating heat of the building. She remembered how these hot days were once revered in Britain. Of course, that was before the union fell, and before the war. She remembered her grandmother telling her we could all do with a bit of warming up. The sweat stung her eyes now and she internally berated those who had the chance to change things but had ignored the facts, content instead to live in a bubble of ignorance.
‘Ma’am, please step aside.’
Emily snapped out of her thoughts and surveyed the woman in front of her, she was badly wrinkled from the sun and looked almost wilted in the harsh lighting of the building.
‘You got your proof on you?’ the wilted lady asked her.
‘Yes, of course, one second,’ she reached into the back pocket of her faded jeans and pulled out two pieces of worn paper, ‘the top one is mine; the other is my brothers.’
She scanned the papers that Emily handed her, squinting at the dates.
‘Where’s your mother then? asked the wilted lady, her leathered skin reminded Emily of the lizards that scuttled over pavements, seemingly the only creatures still happy to bask in the sun.
‘She’s at home, she’s not well today.’
Emily tried to look into the wilted ladies’ eyes and convey a sense of truth.
‘Can’t help you, sorry, you have to be over eighteen to apply for a passport, unless a parent is present. Please remove yourself from this queue.’
The people standing around her shot her looks of suspicion and shuffled a few inches away from her, as though she may taint their own wait.
‘Please, I turn eighteen in three days. I need to go North tomorrow, please is there nothing you can do?’
She grabbed the lady’s arm, her eyes were wild, the child slipped down her hip and came dangerously close to falling, his eyes shot open and the piercing wail that escaped his small mouth was almost immediate.
The wilted lady snatched back her arm and spat back at her, ‘Get out before I have you removed,’ she glanced at the screaming child, her distaste obvious, ‘If I were you, I would leave before I get this vermin investigated.’
The venom in her words burnt into Emily’s skin as she recoiled from the haggard woman. The boy’s screams pitched to an ear-splitting crescendo. It took everything she had not to collapse with grief and anger. The strangers in the queue looked restless now, angry, the lumpy man standing nearest to her shoved her forcefully away from him and Emily fell to her knees, managing, only just, to keep hold of the wailing boy whose screams pitched once more and penetrated every nerve in her body. No one helped her up, no kind hand came down to soothe her. Instead, she summoned all her effort to stand again, turned on her heel and headed outside onto the scorching London street.
She was momentarily blinded by the sun and put the wailing toddler on the ground, the hot concrete scolded an exposed piece of skin near his ankle and he screamed louder still.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck! Please Ben, be quiet. I need to think!’ she grabbed a handful of dry leaves from a planter and shoved them into his hands, ‘Look, Benny, aren’t they pretty, please, please stop crying.’
The boy regarded the leaves, almost mournfully, but his wailing dimmed into a snotty, blubbering whimper.
‘There we go, good boy. I just need a second to think.’
The sidewalk was filled with sullen, sweaty pedestrians, some skirted around her and the, now mercifully silent, boy while others stared in unashamed disgust. She knew how it looked, she wanted to yell and fling herself into someone and tear their eyes out. Instead, she pulled the boy gently off the ground and walked towards the underground.
The station was all but deserted, it was hotter than the seventh ring of hell but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She pulled out a small bottle of water out of her backpack, there was scarcely more than a drop left but she drew off the lid and tipped the water down Ben’s throat, he pulled at the neck, trying to squeeze more out, he screamed when none produced. He was thirsty, she knew that, because her own thirst gnawed at her throat, he’s just a baby, he doesn’t understand. She wondered if she might cry, the tightness in her throat suggested it, it choked her until she prayed for the sweet release of the tears her dry, raw body refused to produce. The train sawed through the tunnels, too loud and too fast. The small window above her head, although closed, spewed a trail of dust through a minuscule gap further polluting the thin air in the carriage. Each breath grew tighter than the last until her world felt the size of a pin. She had failed, Ben would die, she would die, everyone would die.
The child threw the empty bottle quite hard and it hit Emily directly on her nose. The shock brought her back to the train, and despite herself, she laughed. The laughing, in turn, set Ben off and the two of them sat in fits of giggled punctuated by bouts of dry, barking coughs until they reached their stop.
Click here for Chapter 2 - https://www.integralfiction.com/post/chapter-2-after-the-fall
Copyright © 2019 Katy Moran
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and coincidental.