‘Lily, you awake?’ Emily’s voice came out no louder than a breath.
Lily mumbled a sleepy yes.
‘What do you think is coming?’ They had discussed the letter at length over the past days looking for every clue from the letter. It was clear that he couldn’t say more, they supposed the mail was being checked for warnings of the upcoming event, but his meaning was clear, they had to leave, and soon.
Lily listened for a moment to ensure Ben was asleep and sat up, ‘I don’t know Em, I wish I did, but I’ve heard officials have been leaving London over the past few days, so it can’t be good.’
Emily spoke quietly, her voice cracking slightly, ‘Listen, I’ve been thinking, you should take Ben up through the border, take the first train tomorrow, you’ll be there by evening. You can hide him and get through on your papers. I can’t risk anything happening to you two.’
‘Jesus Em, do you really think I would do that?’ She was angry now, ‘I’m not leaving you behind. We’ll find a way.’
‘How? I’ve been over it in my head a thousand times, you know they won’t let me through, the border will be crawling with guards, they’ll kill me, and Ben too.’ Emily was sitting up too now and the yellow glow from the streetlight outside illuminated her face, it was clear she had been crying.
‘Just be quiet, you’ll wake Ben. I have a plan. That guy you saw today, his name is Noah, he is part of the National Guard, I think he might help us.’
‘Oh come on Lily, why would he help us? You know what a risk it would be.’ Her voice was raised, and Ben stirred.
Both girls stopped and looked down at the child nestled between them. Sometimes he was the only reason they didn’t rip each other’s throats out, they both loved that boy so much, imperfect as he was.
‘Look, just let me speak to him in the morning. You carry on with the plan in the meantime, pack the bags and get everything ready, and don’t say anything to anyone. I don’t want to hear another word, I’m going back to sleep.’ Lily turned and punched her pillow before lying down again, leaving Emily staring at the back of her head.
By five it was no longer possible for Emily to stay in bed, the sweltering night held no relief, and she could feel the sweat soaking her sheets, the baby was like a hot coal pressed against her and she rolled away from him seeking reprise but finding none, she had heard Lily get up around twenty minutes before and pretended to sleep while she washed in the small basin in the bathroom and dressed in the near dark room. It was only when she slipped out the door that Emily opened her eyes. How were they going to get through this safely? If their interpretation was correct, whatever was about to happen, it was happening tomorrow. She slid out of the covers leaving Ben sleeping peacefully and went to the kitchen to start on breakfast. The cupboard was almost empty save for a small packet of oats and dried fruit. She filled a pot with water and set it on the stove. It would be the last meal in this house, she wouldn’t miss it, there were no good memories here, only pain.
She wondered how long she had until Ben woke up, she desperately hoped for a while longer, she had a lot to do before they left. She shut the blinds of the window looking out onto the road and opened the cupboard under the sink, pulling out an old worn backpack. Just like their days under the oak tree they had squirrelled away as much food as they could spare. She stared down at the sad pile, willing herself to feel more optimistic. The bag contained three pears, already mottled with age, a packet of walnuts, five Nutri-bars (which tasted like cardboard) that were given out as rations when the union fell, three packets of crackers and a large water bottle. They had hoped that their trip North wouldn’t be more than a day, maybe two, but now that she had no papers, it would likely be much longer than that.
Lily snuck a look behind her to make sure she hadn’t been noticed. The road was quiet, a few pedestrians walked sluggishly, bodies drooped listlessly in the early heat of the day. They weren’t looking at her, but still she drew the hood of her grey jacket up, covering her head. She was still on edge after her late-night conversation with Emily, the truth was that she was worried. She had no idea how they were going to pull this one off, the weight of it was almost too much to bear. She had her own memories of their childhood under the tree, things she had worked hard to hide from Emily, she needed to protect her. She thought again of Chris, as she had so many times since the letter had arrived. There were secrets there too, ones she couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone.
She slipped through the door and stopped in the lobby of the cheap hotel, it wasn’t modern, or even clean for that matter. The reception was empty, and she made her way down the dingy hallway. In truth she had no idea how Noah would react when he saw her, she knew nothing about him except for his name. She had searched his pockets while he was using the bathroom in the small flat and in it she had found a key with a tag from the hotel, a faded nine inscribed on it. As for being part of the guard, she had stretched the truth a bit there, she had assumed he was, all the others had been.
She approached the door and knocked. A few seconds passed, and she pressed her ear to the door. She could hear loud banging followed by heavy footsteps heading towards her, the door swung open violently and she found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.
‘Fuck, don’t shoot!’ Lily was trembling slightly but managed to hold herself together somewhat acceptably.
His eyes focused on her, as if seeing her for the first time since opening the door. He was dishevelled, standing in an old pair of boxers, his lean torso exposed.
‘What are you doing here? Did they send you?’ His voice was cracked and angry, and he did not lower the gun.
‘Hey, just relax! I don’t know who they are, but I’m not with anybody. Clearly this was a mistake, I’ll go.’ She turned and walked as slowly and calmly as she could back in the direction of the reception.
Noah stepped out of the doorway and grabbed her arm, pointing the gun against the small of her back.
‘I don’t believe you,’ he whispered in her ear, and pulled her into the room.
By nine, Ben had woken, and Emily sat him in the high chair to eat his porridge, he babbled quietly to himself, flinging the, now cold, sticky oats off his spoon and giggling. For once Emily did not mind the mess, it wouldn’t be her having to clean it up, as usual.
She set about gathering the last of their belongings, most things would be left behind, cooking apparel, furniture and the likes wouldn’t help them now. it’s not like they had much to begin with, their move from their sprawling house in Berkshire had been quick and severe, their father had barely waited until Mum was in the ground before packing all he could fit into their car and leaving for London.
She left Ben in the kitchen and walked into the small bedroom. On the bed, she had laid out a pair of hiking boots for her and Lily, and a small pair of tattered trainers for Ben, along with enough clothes and underwear for three days. That would fill the second backpack, they had resolved to pack as little as possible, to avoid suspicion.
Emily traced the wooden bed frame with her fingertips, stopping at Lily’s draw. She was forbidden to look inside, Lily would kill her, she creaked it open anyway. The letter from Chris was carefully folded, she picked it up and smoothed it out on the wooden table. Her heart warmed thinking of him touching the paper, she held it up to her face, hoping to find some scent still lingering on the thin paper. Under the letter was a small tin, Emily pulled it out and gently pried open the lid revealing rows of tightly rolled £5 notes, she was unsurprised by this, Lily had always found a way to make money, even if she didn’t agree with her methods. She noticed something else right at the back of the drawer, the white corner poked out of the top of the only book they still owned, she slid it out and stared down at a picture she didn’t even know existed. Staring back at her was Lily, smiling as if lit from within, looking down at the tiny, blood-soaked baby in her arms, Emily lay behind her on the bed, eyes closed, sweat covering every inch of her beaten body.
Lily watched the dusty fan rotating perilously from the roof of the dingy room, dark sheets repurposed as makeshift curtains hung over the window, with sharp shards of light cutting through the corners. The fan provided little relief from the heat, which compressed the air intensifying her claustrophobia. She refused to let the fear that radiated through her body reflect on her face. The ropes that bound her wrists behind her back cut into her skin.
Noah stood in front of her, gun still pointed between her eyes, ‘What do you want from me?’ He looked exhausted; circles so dark they looked like bruising shadowed his eyes.
Lily met his gaze, ‘I came to ask for your help, I know I don’t know you well, or at all even, but I was desperate. Please just let me go, I have to get back to my sister.’
‘How did you know where I was staying?’ I know I didn’t tell you, and I don’t know where you got the impression that I would be the kind of person who would help you.’
Lily looked away, ‘I went through your things and found the keys to your room, you are part of the Guard, aren’t you?’
Noah laughed, ‘I am definitely not part of the Guard.’
Lily’s stomach dropped, it was dawning on her rather suddenly that she was trapped in a room with a person she knew absolutely nothing about, and not a single person on earth knew where she was. She berated herself for not leaving a note for Emily.
‘What do you need my help with anyway? It looked to me that you were doing pretty well for yourself.’ She could hear the judgment in his voice, she had heard it many times before.
‘I don’t think I need to remind you who paid,’ she sneered back at him, ‘you certainly weren’t complaining yesterday.’
To her surprise Noah sighed, he looked much older than he had the day before, ‘Listen, just tell me what you want from me. I’m not running anymore’
Lily was confused by his response but took the gap, explaining about the letter, and their interpretation of its contents as quickly as she could, ‘We need to get north of the border, my mother was born in Scotland when it was still part of the union, I have my papers, but Emily can’t get hers until her birthday, but it will be too late by then. We think whatever is happening, it will be tomorrow. I thought,’ she faltered slightly and looked down at her feet, ‘I thought that if you were part of the Guard you could help us.’ Lily’s voice fell flat, she seethed at having to ask for help.
Noah walked behind her, not lowering the gun, Lily squeezed her eyes shut, hoping he had believed her. Her heart was hammering uncomfortably against her ribcage. She felt the ropes around her wrists loosen and she sagged forward, relief sweeping her body.
Noah sat on the edge of the bed, gun resting loosely in his lap, ‘I don’t know how he got that letter out to you, post has been suspended for weeks now for those of us who know.’
Lily’s head shot up, ‘Know what?’
Emily watched the clock silently, it was past twelve and Lily was still not back, the heat was swelling to its midday crescendo and the road outside the flat was all but deserted, the heat at this time of day could be deadly. Emily had checked and rechecked all of their supplies, making sure she had not missed anything. Ben was napping on the beaten sofa, sweat glistening on his brow. The heat often tired him out, and today, Emily was relieved. She had always found it difficult to put aside her feelings and amuse Ben, even when she had the will to do it, she maintained it was better for him to grow up knowing the truth, that the world was a cruel and unrelenting place, the sooner he learnt that, the better.
She looked away from the clock to the map in front of her, it was old, and the ink was faded in places, she was marking with a pencil their route through the country. They would leave tonight, after dark, and head Kings Cross Station. There they would catch a train to Manchester, it was as far as they could get without questions about their reason for travelling. No one was allowed further than that without a passport or a government stamped letter authorising them to travel unrestricted, neither of which they had. From there they would get a car and drive through Yorkshire, her pencil was poised above the Kielder National Park, it would be their best bet way in. Her head ached and her eyes blurred as she stared down at the map. She needed to drink something before she collapsed, they had only half a cup left for the day, the rest was packed in the backpack. She poured the water into a glass and stared at it for a second. She had heard rumours that there was plenty of water in Scotland, how lovely would it be to drink with no worry of where your next glass came from. She heard Ben stir behind her, she turned to find him sitting up looking at her, his eyes thick with sleep and neck flushed with heat. She walked to him and handed him the glass which he drank all in one long gulp.
Lily sat silently watching the words pour out of the man in front of her, she could hear the pain in his voice.
‘I was born in Berlin, just after the third world war, my father was a General and we were evacuated after the US waived the treaty on weaponised uranium. My father was placed in England as a spy, since they had left the union distrust had gathered amongst the EU leaders like a plague. Before the fall, we were in the Midlands, a military base that specialised in developing genetic diseases. As time went by and tensions rose, we were relocated to the South-East, the water sanctions had just been put in place and there was talk of an uprising, my father was told to keep it under control,’ Noah stood and paced the small room, barely taking a breath, ‘turns out, it wasn’t so hard, people were already listless. They didn’t argue or fight back. I guess when deprived of basics for so long you lose the will to live, still my father enjoyed punishing anyone who exceeded their rations, he liked watching the flame in their eyes flicker and burn out. It was him that ordered further cuts on water rations last year, the truth is nothing had changed, there was still enough for full rations,’ Noah looked away, disgust marring his face, ‘I became part of my father’s guard when I turned eighteen. I was perfectly positioned to spy for Berlin, I had been here for so long that I lost my accent entirely. It was easy for me, I got double rations and we never went without luxuries or extravagant parties. Anyone who tells you the government is suffering along with you is a liar. No one suspected me. Even I was unsure at times whether we were the good guys or the bad guys.’
Lily sat forward, forgetting the fear, ‘so, what happened? How did you go from all of that to this god-awful hotel?’
Noah paused, ‘I hadn’t heard from my Berlin commander for a little over a year, I was young and cocky. I had met a girl, the daughter of another minister. She was beautiful and smart, kind too, like her father. Sometimes I thought they were the only ones working to rebuild England and work towards a better life for the people,’ his voice broke slightly, ‘Berlin got word that I had close access to her father and that is when I got my assignment, I was ordered to kill him, make it look like an uprising,’ Noah closed his eyes, ‘Then I heard they were going to purge the South-East, decimate everything, another move to reshuffle the deck. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill him, I was a coward, I fled.
Lily stared at him, so their predictions were right, they were all going to die, and for what? A war they had never asked for. She was angry, ‘So this is how you make up for it? By sitting in this disgusting room, and threatening anyone who knocks on your door? Well, good luck with that.’ She stood and turned her back on him, heading towards the doorway. She was shaking, the confirmation of the attack had rattled her, she had been so focused on their plan that she hadn’t allowed herself to feel afraid.
‘Wait,’ he called after her, she paused at the door, not turning, ‘You don’t understand, I’ve been trying! For weeks now, I’ve been looking for ways to stop the attack, but there’s nothing I can do, it’s over. That’s why I was with you out yesterday, I gave up.’ His voice cracked and she could hear him break into quiet sobs.
She turned, standing in the doorway uncomfortably, not quite knowing how to deal with this breakdown. It was hard to be angry with someone who had tears streaming down their face.‘Then help us, you have the information that we don’t have. You may not be able to help anyone here, but you can help me.’
Go to Chapter 5