The scratching was getting louder. It wouldn’t be long now. I looked at the mixture of aspirins, anti-inflammatory tablets, the remnants of the antibiotics. I should have invested in more morphine before the pharmaceutical centre closed down, before everything collapsed. I should have thought ahead. This was all I had. It was the pain in the end that I feared most.
When Steve had first walked into our clinic in London and looked me over more than once, I saw the potential. He had just got back from a long stint in Saudi Arabia and looked tanned, taut and a presentable fifty, but I knew from my experience at the clinic he was probably over seventy. He had come to us for the smile enhancement treatment, my guess being he had had the full dental work done some fifteen years previously and needed a top up. The other signs were there, he had had cytokine injections, skin replacement around the jawline and, judging from his animated demeanour, hormonal biotherapy. I had a good eye for these things; it was my job. Back then I guess I was on the look out too, I needed a way out.
Jobs were scarce unless you were born into the higher echelon and even then, for well-educated people like myself, they were mostly in the aesthetics industry or in government research. My parents had been in the government research department and I abhorred it, so here I was in aesthetics, and here, I knew, was a man desperate for a taste of home comfort. I was twenty-two, getting a bit too old to get by on the body and looks I had been blessed with, even with the free treatments I was entitled to. Soon, very soon, since I was on my own there was the risk that I could be out there in the plebs zone, scrabbling for hand outs and toiling away endless hours in a thankless job, scouring out the waste facilities, oiling engines, stripping down the infected wards in the hospital zone. Plus there would be no security, since I didn´t belong to any family or clan out there. I would be swallowed up at best. Or worse left unprotected and a target for the devices of the untouchables, that criminal, raceless underflow that lived in the abandoned tube stations and hid in the sewer systems, people who would not think twice about stabbing you in your sleep.
So I flashed my own recently perfected smile (part of the bonus scheme) at Steve each time he looked my way and eventually I was able to engage in small talk with him and found out that he was on his way to the Iberian peninsula to oversee some sort of industrial mould making plant out there on the coast. As soon as he mentioned the area I remembered my great -grandfather and the photos he had taken of my late grandmother Bruna there, the ones she had posted on her blog, and I knew I had to go. I was determined. One thing led to another, I was very careful about getting it right. That evening I was eating oysters with him at a fancy riverside spot and by the end of that week I had packed in my job, left my deluxe apartment and was on my way to the back of beyond.
The announcement of my departure called for a celebration of course. The next evening I was out cable hopping the rooftop bar scene that dominated the city centre. My grandmother would have been shocked at us floating around in the night air from venue to venue, champagne in hand, with the same ease she had mounted the cable cars on the ski slopes.
“You must be mad to leave all this!” Ana shouted, pirouetting round above the gleaming city below. She was three years younger than me, a newcomer to the capital and still in awe of its elusive magic. I looked at the laser wall in the distance that encircled and protected this 500 square mile kernel from the ominous presence outside and laughed. Why be a party pooper? Reece was dancing around in the middle of the car and lifted up her top to display her full, recently enhanced breasts as a group of boys went past alongside, heading in the opposite direction. Immediately she caused an outburst of raucous roars and raised arms.
What was it Steve had said to me last night? “I need company”
That´s what I needed too, I thought to myself as I clinked glasses. Not this empty clacking of banal frivolity that I would hardly remember tomorrow.
The house they provided for Steve was built in granite and stood on its own in a patch of eucalyptus tress and dusty pines a few kilometres from the main road and about ten minutes down from a shopping hub. It was also close to the sea in the other direction. We drove to it via the sea to have a look at the coast. There was an abandoned hotel on the left, all boarded up and splashed with graffiti. The side nearest to the sea was in ruins, crumbled walls forming a shell, no roof. In front of it spread a huge tarmac park, about 300 metres square with rounded parking points at the sea edge protected by acrylic panels so you could watch the ocean without getting sprayed or blown about by the wind. There was a central ramp down into the water but it wasn´t clear what it was used for since there were no boats and very little beach. The waves licked the base of the reinforced cement walls that had been built to ward off further erosion. I recognised bits of the place from a photograph of my grandmother’s but there was something missing and it had none of the charm I had imagined.
In contrast the house was a pleasant surprise. Inside, the company Steve worked for had fitted it out with all possible modern conveniences. In the sunken den there was a smooth white semi-circular wall that was perfect for displaying satellite images so I could see to my friends back in London online moving around their apartments and they could see and talk to me here. There were flat screens and hubs for work, automatic water dispensers and cooling systems, disinfection points and temperature regulators.
More importantly for me though was the location. It was unbelievably close to the area my great grandfather had come from, a fishing village once called Fão. The village had since disappeared to be replaced by a mega-shopping hub. The photos I had of my grandmother were nearly all of holidays she had spent on the exact beach in front of the abandoned hotel, at the beginning of this century when she was a just little girl. The images told stories of a kind of holiday that fascinated me, a type of holiday now long gone. Nowadays people of our echelon went to purposely-built leisure palaces where the beauty and the fun were walled within the complex. Unless it could be reached by private means, the beach in most parts of the world was for plebs and the majority of them were too dangerous to go on anyway. Actually not even plebs took beach holidays in this region anymore; the ozone depletion was too high. But back in my grandmother´s day it had been different and the photos conjured up for me a magical era that I longed to rediscover.
It was July when we arrived so we went on our kind of holiday almost immediately to a fabulous new development further south on the peninsula. There were endless parties, enormous artificial swimming lakes with fake waves, under water bars serving electrically charged cocktails, top level pampering and cuisine. But we shared it with others of our own level and there was nowhere quiet to escape to, except our luxurious, characterless room. The semi isolation of the house, its quirkiness and the personal history attached to the surrounding area had drawn me in and I couldn´t wait to get back.
Iberia, as it was now called (my grandmother Bruna always called this part of it Northern Portugal when she was alive, even after it was renamed in 2060) was well known for its plentiful supply of service personnel, so there was very little for me to do at home once we got back. Apart from all the usual technical devices and equipment in the house, I had two local, elderly (or at least they appeared to be) ladies to look after it, one a cleaner and the other a cook. A wiry old man, who was probably younger than Steve but looked ancient, came round once a week to tend to the garden. This consisted of various trees, cacti and flowering shrubs, climbing plants with flora, paved pathways and a large slab stone patio all surrounded by a high voltage electronic fence. In addition we had one security guard, Manuel, surly and puny, who was the son of Fatima, the cleaning lady. Yet, even though there were people around and the house was protected by the electric fence, I was concerned. I knew first hand about the precariousness of electric fences. In contrast to London, there was a shortage of young people locally. Most young people of Manuel´s age had fled the region and gone to work in the huge industrial plants further north. This wild piece of coastline held no promise for them. On the one hand this boded well since it meant there were very few criminal gangs in the area. Basically there was nothing here of value for young people to steal from an older community of plebs. Very few people from the higher echelon lived here, except for those, like Steve, who were over on temporary work assignments so the place was of little interest to criminals. But on the other hand it meant there could be little or no effective physical support should we ever be attacked. We were stuck with just Manuel and the fence.
I had a lot of free time, which is what I had been counting on. I reckoned that Steve would last another few years maximum. Although he earned well, it was not sufficient for organ transplants or the further cell regeneration treatment he would soon need. Besides this, his years in the Middle East, plus his heavy drinking had taken their toll. Despite his youthful appearance he was ageing rapidly behind it. Consequently the sex was pretty feeble and for my part, somewhat mechanical (although nothing short of what I had expected. I had my own box of toys and my virtual partners stored for moments of desperation). He had his quirks, no doubt accrued from years with paid escorts (he enjoyed me dressing up in uniforms, covering up my face) and he had a predictable preference for fellatio, which he wanted almost every night as soon as he came home as a sort of pre dinner aperitif. It seemed to relax him in the same way a quick shower would. After that was he able to converse with me, generally about his frustrations at the plant, the difficulties of producing certain components, the inadequacy of the help, and the mentality of his colleagues. I was a good ear; I knew what he wanted from me and I from him, we had a tacit understanding. Finally, after eating, he would doze off, satisfied. Yet, although these evenings held only shades of intimacy, they were more than I had encountered at any other time in my adult life. Steve was, on the whole, kind and no less self-absorbed than I was. Ultimately I was grateful for his company.
Sex back in London had been recreational and fun but I had grown tired of it. No one wanted a family these days; there had been too many government warnings about the depletion of resources and the on-going overpopulation issue. At our level we were encouraged to save our eggs in a bank for better days, which I had duly done for the past 5 years. As a result sex had become more and more like good exercise, an after work release with little emotional intimacy involved. Sharing and having company were alien ideas. No one stayed over, no one moved in. Friends could be accessed round the clock on video screens that encircled our apartment walls. And of course anything could be done over the web. Not only could you could discuss, do business and play games, you could have mind blowing virtual sex if you put the right nodes in the right intimate places. Stimulations running through electronic waves would bring you prolonged or instantaneous satisfaction and you could choose your perfect virtual partner or scenario according to your desire. Intimate or group sex, voyeuristic sex, cross gender sex your weirdest fantasy, anything was possible. Only real intimacy wasn’t. Nor was it encouraged. It was messy, complex and far too dangerous. Plus no one was quite what he or she seemed and everyone, it seemed, had an angle.
Steve was exactly what he seemed; he was old enough to be from that bygone era. I yearned for that bygone era. I had devoured endless stories written at the beginning of the century on my satab, and I still read and re read the early blog my grandmother had saved for me, written right in this area when she was only a child. In her later years, when she had lived with us before her disappearance, she would tell me captivating tales of the adventure and passion she had had in her life and I cherished them. Notwithstanding I was no fool; I wasn´t looking for romance and passion with Steve any more than he was with me. I knew the main attraction for him was my youth and my complicity. But he was solid. His hands were workers hands; he had a skill, an engineering skill that had earned him his financial freedom and his place in the hierarchy. I had had my fill of the endless pretty boys back in England. Steve was old school and he was my link to a past that I longed to be part of.
Yet he rarely spoke of the past. Over those few months I did find out that the only serious relationship he had been in had ended in 2060 after twelve years and that was thirty nine years ago, around the time of the government propaganda to not procreate. He had had a daughter from that relationship born some years earlier but she had long since moved to the Far East and his only contact with her was via the sat. That was the most he let me know.
As I had expected we had a good lifestyle for those first months in Iberia, dining and partying out in style in renowned hot spots, always at some distance away (Steve liked to drink a lot so we often had to stay over at the weekends). My short-term plan was to weather the storm, keep out of Britain till it became safer, aggregate funds. My long-term plan was to learn self-sufficiency and to secure my future. I had to be strong enough to live in isolation and I needed ample funds for the treatment I knew would be more accessible by the beginning of the next century, treatment that would enable me to renew those parts of my body that would become eventually weaker, treatment to rejuvenate brain cells once they became obsolete or damaged. It was obvious that fairly soon it would have been impossible for me to subsist in London as I was now.
We watched the news of the capital´s slow decay. Since we were members of the higher echelon we had exclusive access to the private members news channel (although during the day I also watched pleb news and pleb TV online). Week by week there were more and more incidents, more and more pillage and destruction, more and more deaths. These were presented differently on the pleb channel which emphasised the “skirmishes” were being dealt with and focussed on the strength of the security system sustained by the heavy taxes the plebs had to pay. Even so, the real danger, although played down on the pleb stations, was apparent to me. My only protection in London had been my youth and my background, which had got me my job and a temporary safe haven. But I was sensitive to the potential of the underworld masses outside the inner city boundaries, made up of jobless immigrants and pleb rejects, those on the edge of our two-tier society. Once they were roused, the fragility of the status quo would become all too apparent. I was still traumatized by the recent butchery of my parents and the devastation of their homestead in the North the year after I had moved to London in 2095. Their electric fence had been deactivated and cut through. The guard dogs had been ineffective. The gang, three men and a woman, had shown no mercy. They had ravaged the place and left my parents bloody, battered and dead.
In London thankfully I had had no home of my own that could be considered a target for pillaging and destruction. My flat had been provided by the state and was well protected still I couldn´t have ignored the presence of an encroaching mass of hungry immigrants outside the laser curtain and it wasn’t hard there to imagine what might happen to the whole edifice should they break through definitively. The real danger of course was if they then joined with those elements of the pleb class who had not been tamed, those who were seething with hidden rage and frustration within the city limits themselves. Sensible people were already planning a way out and most of the higher echelon had one, and the means to go when it suited them. But these ways were expensive; they involved relocation to one of the lunar stations, or to the enclosed cities of central Australia. For people like me, without sufficient independent means, once you reached the age of twenty the competition for a way out was fierce. Fortunately plenty, like Anna, were too naïve or stupid to compete, temporarily anesthetized by the lifestyle. I had taken my chance when I saw Steve. To survive in the future my best bet was to buy time out here in this no man’s land close to the windy beach.
After the first few months I took to going for long walks in the afternoons. I would wrap up in my UV protective clothing and take strategically planned excursions. Back from the desolation of the main access to the sea we had visited on our first day, were a myriad of tiny cobbled paths and sandy roads through the pinewoods. My first foray was along the old cobbled coast road to the next settlement. I read and re read my grandmother’s blog where she described the place as it had once been. She had started writing it in 2012 at the age of eight. The language was quite basic but there were a lot of photos:
“This afternoon we went to my uncle’s flat near a river. There were lots of people and also my cousins Pedro and Susanna and another boy Ricardo, but he wasn’t a cousin, and there was a baby, I can’ t remember his name. The baby was crying a lot and the room was full and dark with lots of big heavy furniture. We had to take a lot of bags and other things and walk to the beach and we took a long time because my aunty kept forgetting things. The beach was long and there were lots of people. We put up some things on sticks to stop the wind and we made a space to put the towels with one on each side and one behind so we were closed in and it was warm. We had two umbrellas for the sun and iceboxes with cold drinks and yogurts and stuff. I dug a great deep hole with Pedro but Ricardo wanted to play football, so I was left alone because they didn’t want me to play. After mum went in the sea with me and we jumped in the waves.”
Underneath was a photo of my late grandmother playing in the sand under a sunshade. In the background were the dunes and my great grandfather was sitting behind her, eating an ice cream. I flicked on a few pages, I practically knew the blog by heart but it still thrilled me every time I read it.
“August 26th 2012 – We had a shower at my uncles and I had to shower with mum because there were too many of us and then we drove up a long road to a place next to the sea with lots of little huts that were restaurants and we had sardines that were huge and salty and piles of potatoes with green peppers, but I didn’t like the peppers and dad drank too much wine, so my mum drove back home.”
Here there was another poignant image of my great grandmother with my grandmother holding her hand, looking small and frail, and standing outside the restaurant on a cobbled road with a brilliant glowing sunset behind.
Although he was originally from these parts, my great grandfather had gone to London when he was not much older than me, at the beginning of the century, to join a colleague who ran a private dentist consultancy but needed someone who specialised in implants. He had met my great grandmother in London. She had been working for the government at the time, collating material for a detailed national database. My own grandmother Bruna told me about how social networking was just taking off in those days and the government had encouraged the general public to write a blog or bio about themselves (under the guise that this would open doors to more job opportunities for them) so they could collect data. They used Device names and ID´s and through an individual´s blogging and personal linking systems the government were able to access all the various paths used and create a data trail, thereby building up a strong database for each individual. In the ensuing years this was used not only for marketing purposes to target that individual but also for precise government records.
My grandmother, in her late teens, when she fully understood the scope of her mother’s work, was marked by this inside knowledge and consequently stopped the blog she had kept since the age of eight. She never got rid of it though; she saved it secretly on a portable pen drive and gave it to me when I was twelve years old. A year later she disappeared. She had been eighty-five years old at the time. Part of me believes that she went away to die, like an old cat that sneaks off to some quiet remote place to lie down for the last time. But I will never really know where she went, for the blog holds no clues. From her stories before she disappeared, it was evident that she had never settled for long in one place, in a half-hearted attempt to keep one step ahead of the data trail. She had gone on to study economy in the States and had stayed there long enough to marry my grandfather, have my mother and then leave him. She came back to London and eventually got a job in the media as a travel journalist, a job that had nothing to do with her course but probably at lot to do with her mother´s connections. It took her all over the place, leaving her mother to raise her own daughter in her absence. She had a few relationships after my leaving my grandfather but she was always too afraid to get close to anyone. I am not sure what sort of things she had access to working for the media, but she was disturbed by the control they exercised and she was haunted by what her mother had told her about the data base. Deep down she knew that she needn´t have bothered, she had been born into the higher echelon and the government were not really interested in her details, since she posed no threat. It was certain elements of the plebs they had to keep a hold on. This database would be their trump card when society was eventually divided into the higher echelon and the plebs, just before I was born.
My grandmother told me many fascinating stories about the different places she had lived in, but her stories about this area had stuck with me the most, perhaps because of the blog and the photographs on it, or maybe because of my great grandfather and the hereditary link that connected me to it. I remember her often speaking of the rough waves, the brusque wind on the sands and the windbreaks they had used to ward it off; of how they used to eat out in the evenings, often in the series of fisherman´s huts that had been transformed into restaurants and were lined up between the beach and the old road. On my satab I had managed to locate the place she had spoken of and discovered that the road to the huts still existed and was extremely close to us, the place itself being about a mile away on foot. Like most of the landscape it was a flat, straight road running behind the beach and separated from it by pinewoods on either side.
I set off. The road was curiously deserted; I noticed thick overgrown, tangled scrub and brambly bushes surrounded the base of the pine and eucalyptus trees on the right, the side closest to the sea. On the other side, pale ruined walls of what must once have been holiday villas, emerged through the tall base shrubs and dusty scrubland. I could see as I walked further along that there were more houses and villas dotted in the midst of the matted bush; most of them looked abandoned or in ruin. Further on, those still standing and more clearly visible and had a sad desolate air. I went past them quickly, trying not to look too closely lest some sandy apparition loomed up from their interior. My heart raced, I shouldn’t really have risked going out alone. It was soon obvious though that there was no one around, the houses were all in fact deserted.
There were no huts when I got to the site of course. A tin sign with faded letters advertising ice cream rattled from a tall post at the edge of road where the low dunes began, a sad relic of former times. Rubble and planks of driftwood were piled high at the roadside, broken glass and shattered bricks abounded; there were pieces of shredded black plastic trapped in the stones and debris. Beyond it I could see the sand was strewn with seaweed, great mounds of bottle green and muddy brown tendrils. The waves crashed wild and pounding onto the beach while a small cart, that resembled a miniature version of images I had seen of tractors, dragged the drab entangled mess into piles. Thousands of minute flies accompanied the movement in black clouds. I watched the cart for a while going backwards and forwards, dragging the algae, mesmerized. I realised that the cart or tractor was probably running on gasoline since there were no visible electric points out here. I had never seen anything like it before. I climbed to the top of a low sand dune to sit down and watch and I could almost taste the sea spray in the air.
I tried to imagine what a sardine tasted like. Maria, the cook I had acquired, sometimes prepared fish for us whilst I watched discreetly trying to understand the process. But the fish she cooked was bought from the fish farms, mass produced sea bass and trout bred specially and sold in the hypermarkets. Fresh fish, fresh sardines, they were a thing of the past. I wasn´t even sure what a sardine looked like. In London the clinic had had a daily buffet laid on at breakfast and lunchtime (as well as a spa, gym and massage centre), but in the evening most of us had a protein shake and some vitamin supplements. Dining was always done “out”. You didn´t dine at home, it was too time consuming and too complex. Besides I had no idea how to cook.
I looked back towards the road and spotted an elderly woman, stooped and slow, coming towards me along the road in the opposite direction. She seemed oblivious to me, her head down, her concentration elsewhere. She was the first person I had seen that afternoon, apart from the figure driving the sea tractor whose face was indiscernible from where I was standing. In a way it was a disappointment, but in another way it was comforting. I hadn´t expected to see groups of happy holidays makers; I don’t really know what I had expected. It was this confrontation with the unexpected that was so delicious. Clumsily, I stumbled on through the dunes to a higher spot, made a space to sit down out of the wind but where I could see the ocean thrashing in the near distance, opened my satab and began to read. I stayed there most of the afternoon.
In the evenings we watched the news from home. The media, in all its domains, was adept at keeping the undercurrent of pleb anger at a safe level. It encouraged family values and subtly discouraged in depth learning and analysis by providing endless visual distractions. Families were only restricted in the upper echelon. It made sense to the government that if the plebs had mouths to feed they would prioritise this first before aggregating funds to try to over throw the system. Thus their TV screens were flooded with discreet propaganda about the richness of family life, the benefits of having children. Comic diversions, inanities and colourful shows were spewed out to keep the pleb populace amused. Small-scale comforts were provided in the form of prizes, game shows would offer a weekend at one of our deluxe holiday settlements, and quizzes would offer deluxe treatments at a clinic. Incessant marketing promised that the ultimate pleasure could be found in a tub of ice cream, a fancy drink; beauty was at your fingertips in a cream or lotion, Hypermarkets and shopping hubs were endorsed as mini paradises where the plebs were encouraged to spend their free time and their hard earned money. Most were fitted with sports areas, cine and sat interactive game stations, clinics, health centres, galleries. They bellowed out promotions and discounts, saving schemes and freebies. There were nutritionists and health food “experts” promising miracles that the plebs eagerly sought out, a deluge of soft products fully enhanced by the cleverest, most personalised marketing tactics draining the pockets of the masses that visited them. Through an idea of utopia in a pill or a packet, in a device or an accessory, plebs were duped into pleasurable complacency and subsequent obedience. Those who really yearned for a way out were led to believe that a place in the upper echelon would fulfil this yearning and this place was just within their reach; if they were only beautiful enough, clever enough, if they only made the right choices. Conversely, on a daily basis, the threat of chaos and hunger beyond the laser barriers was emphasised; they were made to fear it for their children’s sake. Relative comfort softened them and convinced them that they were satisfied; our strong security systems weakened them. The higher echelon sucked their money, controlled their lives and duped them in return; carefully guarding their access to any form of training that would improve their critical faculties. Their lives were drudgery and the government, and the higher echelon they protected, merely considered them as a means to an end. They were ultimately expendable.
Recently though, as menial work became scarcer and their numbers increased, it came as no surprise to myself and others that the plebs were being influenced more and more by the undercurrent of the jobless mass outside our protected centre. There were holes in their mask of complacency; conditions were becoming too dire. On the news today the laser shield had been broken on the northern bank and some 500 people had died in the explosion that followed, in one of the tall government administration buildings. Plebs on the inside had been involved in the infraction. Anger and frustration was brewing. Something was amiss. There had been several attempts to break through before we had left; it would only been a matter of time till they became more frequent and everything exploded.
What chilled me more though was a subsidiary piece of news. There had been an attack on a seven-year-old boy by a pack of dogs in the pleb area just outside the perimeter. The boy had been mauled to death, his limbs ripped off, his bloody innards splayed on the street, like an antelope ripped apart by pack of lions. There was no report of any attempt to save him or of capturing the dogs involved. The pictures were graphic and particularly gruesome. They shot through me like an ice pick bringing back a memory of a night some ten years earlier when my parents had taken me to visit a cousin who lived in the pleb area in the north. Things had just started to go bad then and had reached a peak in that area. The hypermarkets were being ransacked, electricity was constantly failing, it had been chaotic. My father´s elder sister had died and her partner had long since left, so my cousin had ended up an outcast from our level. As a result he was living within the pleb community and working for one of the remaining the hospital cleaning corps. His circumstances were dire so my parents wanted to take him some provisions. I have a foggy image of his flat, on the fifth floor of a workers block and I remember we had to take the stairwell because the lifts were out of order. It was dank and reeking of waste. But it was what he had told us that day that had stayed, till now, locked within me. He had talked to us about the increasing number of casualties he had had to deal with at the hospital that were caused by acute mauling. Frenzied dogs were targeting the young children who were loitering round the abandoned stores and savagely attacking them. Maybe it was the smell of meat that attracted the dogs to these places. Since the refrigerators had stopped working properly people had been helping themselves to the produce, but had been leaving the refrigerator doors open. This had not only attracted vermin but also groups of vicious, hungry stray dogs. He told us of how he had treated endless children for severe open wounds and deep gashes from these dogs, cases where the children had been attacked before others had been able to ward them off. My parents were more concerned about gang attacks at the time, but I was listening intently and my twelve year old head was immersed with images of snarling black dogs frothing at the mouth. Fangs dripping with blood followed me home and I ran trembling to my grandmother as soon as I got back. To chase away my demons she had given me her blog.
In her soothing way she told me that what was happening was logical. Hadn´t my parents had to let go of two of our guard dogs since their economic situation had got worse? Guns and the new electric fences were more effective and less costly than animals. There had already been a mass government culling of unwanted pets in the in 2070 she said, after the third economic crisis. People came before pets. She told me about how, before I was born, a law had been passed allowing the Asian communities to consume those pets (cats and dogs) left unwanted. Yet, in spite of this, packs of the more aggressive breeds of dogs had survived and had appeared again years later. She also told me about the illegal fighting dogs kept by the black communities, trained killers bred to fight to their death and how many were abandoned by their owners when times got hard. Only now these ferocious breeds were joining together in packs and becoming a common threat. Later, before I moved to the protected area in London, menacing groups of large canines were spotted more and more often; roaming in hoards in the parking lots and abandoned warehouses of the North. Some of these dogs were highly aggressive; they had been trained to guard or kill and fight when they were in captivity. Now, I understood, they were fighting for survival. Age-old nightmares about them prowling round the empty streets at night and lunging at me out of the darkness unsettled me. Quivering I tried to focus on my surroundings, our new home, as I watched the increasingly bad news from London and heard about the repeated incursions on the city by organised pleb groups. I took some deep breaths and remembered to feel blessed to be in this secluded place and privileged to be able to walk about without fear.
Steve was never in favour of my walks. When he found out about my afternoon excursions, he urged me to stay home. Danger was less apparent here, he would say, but present nonetheless. There could be fugitive criminals hiding in the woods, the locals may not be as trustworthy as they seemed, exposure to the elements was to be avoided. All his warnings were to no avail. I longed for the sea air and the wilderness of the sand dunes. There was a particular route I liked best. In the opposite direction from the sea tractor, and the long gone fisherman’s huts where my grandmother used to holiday, was a series of old rough roads, back from the beach, that meandered through more pinewoods that banked the estuary. It was obvious that these roads had once been the access route to even larger summer homes that had been built there behind the dunes and this was confirmed in my grandmother’s blog which I always took with me to read again when I stopped for a rest:
“August 28th 2012 – Today we went straight to the beach in the morning on our own and we took a picnic in the ice box. Mum wanted some peace she said. I was a bit sad because I liked playing with Pedro and Ricardo, but it was ok in the end. My uncle found us and he came with another man and a woman who were not family. The man spoke really loudly and he and my dad and my uncle were shouting a lot and swearing about football but they weren’t really angry because sometimes they laughed. The man brought lots of beer with him. They had a baby and two children, but the children were really little so I tried to show them how to make a sandcastle. Then the man bought us all ice creams. After lunch my aunty came and the boys and Susanna (who I don’t like very much) with another aunty and uncle I had never seen before. I wanted to go in the sea with Pedro and Ricardo but my dad wouldn’t let me because I had eaten a sandwich and lots of crisps and an ice cream. My mum and dad started arguing because she said I could go in, but he got really angry and the other men started saying he was right and so my mum grabbed me and we went for a long walk over the dunes. We climbed up and found a path on the other side of the dunes and there were lots of beautiful big houses with long gardens and pools. We walked past them and looked in through the gates at the nice flowers and plants and saw different cars parked in the driveways. Some of them had boats as well as the cars and most of them were painted a bright white so you could see them between the pine trees. One house had nobody and when we looked over the wall a big nasty dog jumped up and barked at us and frightened me but mum told me it couldn’t get out so I was safe. I said it must be lovely to live there near the sea with all that space and my mum said it would be lovely if the people were different but she was still mad with my dad so I didn’t pay much attention. She said she felt overwhelmed by dad’s family but I don’t really know what that means. When we got back everyone was friendly again and even my dad went in the sea with us.”
Initially the houses I passed were wrecks, tumbled down defiled walls, gutted innards, skirts of shattered glass around them and choked with thick vegetation and weeds, their new inhabitants. But as I progressed in the direction of the dunes, where the land spit made an seemingly interminable triangle between the sea and the estuary, a few of the villas she had described, that were at the furthest point, were still incredibly pretty much intact although they were deserted. In spite of the paint on their walls peeling, the grass in their gardens turning brown, dried out and balding, their pools empty and cracked by weeds, their weather worn splendour remained. One day the ocean or the elements would claim them but not quite yet. Most of the ones in this condition were well enclosed, like protected relics of a former time, some by high flaking walls with arrows of broken glass set in cement along the top, others by rusted chain link railings backed by tall dense overgrown bushes. Some even had scuffed high metal fences with spikes, or a mixture of barriers toped with barbed wire to keep out intruders. But, with time, I managed to get into most of them, something my grandmother couldn’t have done. Sometimes I did it by pulling large stones and propping them up against the walls and heaving myself over or by clambering over the lower entrance gates using the dents in the metal as footholds. Then I would wander round the grounds that often overlooked the dunes and the sea below, peering in through the dusty windows. Surprisingly I couldn´t actually get inside any of them. The only parts I had access to were the ruined outhouses and garages, where the roofs had caved in or the walls had begun to crumble. Most of the actual houses, although dilapidated and bedraggled in appearance, were uncannily still impregnable and all had steel bars on the windows so that, even if a window was broken, it was impossible to get past them. Still I managed to get into the garages where the wooden doors had rotted or a wall had collapsed where shelter was provided if it began to rain unexpectedly, which it often did by October. Often I would huddle in these exiguous garages and outhouses, listening to the rain and imagining the life that was once lived around me.
And it certainly rained quite a lot on my walks so, besides my satab for reading, I always had that relic of the last century with me, my black fold up umbrella. It was on a day like this when I was wandering along my favourite path behind some of the bigger houses that overlooked the larger dunes, reminiscing about my grandmother, that I first saw them.
I was walking along the path nearest to the dunes that led between the houses in the direction of the sea, with the intention of sitting on top of my favourite dune, the one that commanded a unfettered view of the whole bay, when it started to rain. I was well acquainted with the downpours and realised that I would have to turn back and abandon my plan. As I turned the corner heading backwards, I saw a group of about three or four large dogs about five hundred metres away coming purposefully in my direction. Perhaps they had already been following me, it was difficult to tell. There wasn´t much I could do except continue walking towards them or turn back again in the direction of the exposed dune. My pulse throbbed in my ears and a trickle of sweat started to form on my brow as I told myself not to panic and chose to carry on forwards and act calmly. Perhaps this, and the fact that I had turned to face them, was something they were not expecting. Two of them hesitated a fraction. The first two were now approaching, and I could see one was a weather beaten, mangy Alsatian, the other had piercing blue eyes and matted hair, a mixture between a huskie and some kind of local mountain dog. It was extremely thin and resembled a wolf. They both trotted past without stopping but seemed to be eyeing me up sideways, their heads inclined towards me. Concentrating on my breathing I continued on my way but immediately became aware that the remaining two dogs, bringing up the rear, were of a far more menacing breed. One was black, thick set and had a huge jawbone; it must have been a cross with a Rottweiler. Standing stock still on the other side of the path was a brown, heavily set type of pitt bull, its eyes hazel slits in its huge head, bracing itself. They had both separated and were only a few metres away I could almost smell their rancid breath. Straight away I knew instinctively that the first two dogs had turned round and were waiting behind me. I had to think quickly. About a metre away on my left, almost parallel to the dogs, there was a worn foothold in the stone wall surrounding one of my favourite villas. I knew I could easily scramble over if I could just get to it. Somehow I had to get them to move back just a little to allow me time to reach it, and I had to be quick. As if by some hidden drive I reached quickly for my black umbrella and thrust it in front of me, opening and closing it as quickly creating a thwacking sound, and advancing at the same time. It worked. The noise and unfamiliar object startled the dogs momentarily and they backed off down the track buying me a few precious moments to grab my chance, press forward a few steps and thrust my foot into the crack in the wall. In a desperate rush I hauled myself up, dropping my umbrella in the process. It was instantly ripped to shreds in a frenzy of savage snarling below my feet as, shaking profusely, I heaved myself over and dropped clumsily to the ground. I sat there slumped and sodden, panting heavily, my legs twisted under me, and my hands raw from the rough stone. On the other side frenetic barking punctuated my throbbing heart and convulsed sobs as I repeated in my head: It’s all right, they can´t get in here, they can’t get in here, over and over. Eventually the barking and growling faded away; the ensuing silence was sinister. I must have stayed there a good few hours after they had left, too terrified to move. Finally, soaked and shivering and conscious of the impending dark, I plucked up the courage. Trembling with each foothold, I climbed back over and headed home.
The whole incident haunted the days that followed. Then something disturbed me in a different way. It was only a few days later, about a month before the national holiday celebrations in December, that Steve got really sick. Suddenly my thoughts were elsewhere. He was coughing up blood initially and began to swell up like a balloon. I knew then it was bad. We thought about going back to London to get him to a decent hospital, since we couldn’t risk the pleb hospitals here, not simply because of the standard of decent equipment and doctors but because the underlying resentment towards the high echelon we belonged to, was exacerbated here by the fact that we were foreigners in well paid work. If we risked internment here, the staff would be more likely to give him sabotaged saline injections than to attempt to resolve any problem he had. Sadly, flying back to London was also out of the question. Hospitals there were already being ransacked, there had been another series of outbreaks through the laser shield and the city was virtually on the brink of a civil war. There was even talk that this would have a knock on effect all through Europe and the revolutionary fervour would spread, although we had seen or heard no evidence of this here, at least not yet. Most of the people from London´s inner city were already leaving for the lunar stations; those who didn’t have the right connections were flying out to the purposely-built shelters on inland Australia. More than all this it was clear Steve wouldn´t have made the trip back, he couldn´t even walk.
From training and preparation I had done before working at the London clinic I knew that Steve needed specialized treatment, but we both understood this was impossible under the circumstances. Hyper markets were filled with pharmaceutical products of all types and access over the counter was easy. There were even trained advisers as well as special booths where you could administer your own blood tests and check the analysis. Diagnosis and prescription were computerized and issued on the spot. All this was a plus but simply getting him there was the problem, and even then the drugs sold were soft drugs and would be, for the most part, ineffectual. Deep down I knew Steve couldn´t be treated or cured. What Steve needed was morphine to alleviate the pain and relieve his suffering, access to hard drugs and antibiotics that were now kept under lock and key after years of horrendous pillaging of chemist facilities. The nearest pharmaceutical centre was fifty kilometres away and Steve was far too ill to get there. I would have to go myself and bring the drugs back.
Even though the uprisings back home were widespread, until now it had been calmer here.. The northern nucleus, where the pharmaceutical centre was, was another story though. Delivery trucks from Steve´s Company were often pillaged on route there by groups of renegade fugitives who would block the road and hijack the goods to sell them on the black-market. The drivers (and there were always a group of at least four travelling together and they were always armed) rarely survived these attacks and consequently most of the transport was done by air. As a civilian I had no access to airspace for personal reasons, even in the case of extreme health issues. I would have to drive there. We both knew it would be a highly dangerous journey. The only thing we could bank on the fact that civilian vehicles were not normally targeted. I wanted to take Manuel with me but Steve was reluctant. Later, I realised that deep down Steve had never really trusted Manuel completely, but at the time I couldn´t understand why he would want me to go alone.
We charged up the car and I disguised myself as a man. Wearing Steve´s work overalls with shoulder pads and cushions for bulk, I donned dark glasses and swept my hair up inside a cap, pulling it down to cover my face. Finally I stashed my stun gun under my papers and documents on the passenger seat and kept Steve´s armed gun inside my belt. I was adept at using both; thankfully handling guns was part of basic training and education for every member of the higher echelon.
I set off early and it was easy to follow the on screen directions. I arrived at the outskirts of the city without an incident but then began to notice the abandoned vehicles along the road, the absence of people and the stench of burning rubber in the air. In the near distance I could see wrecks of buildings and as I approached the main ring road that would lead me straight into the centre, I saw groups of bedraggled men in the middle of the main traffic island. There were perhaps fifty of them in total, ragged and dirty, individually pathetic but nonetheless threatening as a group. I kept my eyes down and drove on. The lack of traffic meant I arrived quite quickly to the centre. I had the feeling I was entering a war zone, it was so arid and desolate. The pharmaceutical centre itself was set off the road, a huge sprawling grey complex with high solid iron railings surrounding it. I was stopped first at a barrier while they checked my ID (I had videoed via sat before leaving, explaining the problem and had been told the drugs and equipment I would need would be ready to collect). The actual store had a double set of steel doors and a metal turnpike into the service area. I bought blood testing equipment, morphine, antibiotics and anti- inflammatory pills, signed out and headed off in the direction home.
The way back was not so smooth. This time I had fear locked within me because of what I was carrying. I knew that the morphine alone would make any bandit desperate. It’s value on the black market was as high as gold and I was an easy target for any group that chose to stop me. I drove with my stomach churning. I felt a desperate need to urinate and cursed myself for not having gone at the centre but it was too late now, I was already about a third of the way home and there was no way I was going to pull over on this deserted highway and pee. About two kilometres further on I could make out a make shift barrier set up across the width of the road. A lone male figure stood on the opposite side of it, peering into the distance. My left knee started to tremble. This was it; I started to calculate my chances. One against one I had the advantage. I had the wheels. But I knew in my heart that there would be more of them and, as I approached I saw another man, crouched on his haunches at the roadside, messing with something on the ground between his legs. The barrier would be difficult to charge, since it was made up of old metal drums at close intervals with wood planks between them, but it wasn´t impossible. The impact may cause a bad skid and push me off the road but I had to chance it. There would be more of them lurking in the bush or playing some game in a nearby shelter. I only had one real gun. I was alone, a woman and laden with hard drugs. They would pounce on me like predators and tear me to shreds. I slammed my foot down hard and instantly the man who was upright sprang into action from the side of the road, gun raised. I grabbed mine off the seat, slid the window down and shot first. It was a lousy shot , I was moving too quickly and I missed him by about a metre but it was enough to stun him. By now I was hitting the barrier, splaying the drums, reeling to the left and then the right from the impact, crisscrossing the road but still moving forward. They couldn´t get a neat shot at me and I was already through, accelerating now into the distance, high on adrenalin as a frenzied cocaine addict, whooping hysterically and grinning like a lunatic.
When I got home, it was to find that Manuel had gone. I ran into the house, still geared up, a pylon of nerves, waving my gun recklessly around, expecting the worse. Steve was in his usual place, in a bed we had made up in the den, drowsing. Fatima was in the kitchen with her back to me. My shoulders relaxed and I let the gun drop. A strange wail came out of my mouth. It woke Steve and he looked at me half asleep, immediately puzzled and confused. I dropped down beside him and told him that I had managed to get everything and I was just relieved to be back (I left out the part about the road ambush). I asked him where Manuel was.
Steve motioned to me that Fatima was within earshot so I bustled her off into the bathroom and showed her how to sterilize the equipment and prepare the syringes. When I came back Steve looked anxious. He told me that he had dismissed Manuel but he had already organised him a job, cleaning machinery at the plant. This was a hard sought after job and I was pleased for Manuel but not so pleased that we would be left without a security guard, especially with Steve in such a frail and vulnerable state. I told him so and he held my hand. Slowly, he explained to me that leaving Manuel in the house any longer was tempting fate. These people, he indicated the bathroom where Fatima was busy about her task, would put family first. The weaker he got the more vulnerable I would become with a young man in the house. I would be an easy target for them once Steve had gone, even before. Now that Manuel had a steady job that paid well, the temptation to steal or abscond with any valuables was lessoned; the possibility of attack was practically removed. Most importantly he was out of the house.
I listened to him and thought about my grandmother’s warnings. She had befriended many plebs in her life, cleaners, cooks, guards, but she had warned me that their friendship was tenuous. They will protect their own, she had said, in spite of our illusions of brotherhood. We are different; the superficial globalisation of her day that seemingly united all races and levels of society was exactly that, she insisted, superficial. Her trust had been broken at an early age. When she was fifteen she had been on holiday with her mother in the country previously called Turkey, which was now part of the South-Eastern European state. She had been studying for an important economics exam and had taken with her a thick volume of practice tests, which had cost her an arm and a leg at that time. The local male cleaner had befriended her and begged her to leave the book for him to study from. He persuaded her that this book could be the key to improving his life style and she had succumbed. Later she found out that he had sold the book on the black market the next day, having boasted how easy it had been to persuade the westerner to part with it. My grandmother missed the deadline for the exam and a year later, when she really needed the book, it had sold out and she only managed to scrape through the exam with a low mark. As a result her future options had been affected considerably. She told me her sense of fairness had been used and abused that first time and she was to encounter this behaviour again many, many times on her travels. Although she had tried to trust anew each time, hidden boundaries of class and race persisted. It was no surprise to her, she told me, that those boundaries that had been seemingly eradicated between nations in her youth and even between different classes at the beginning of the century, were eventually supplanted by the system of division I was born into: the plebs, the criminals and us. They are not really our friends my grandmother had said of the plebs, be careful. Now Steve was echoing her words and warning me.
Not long after this Steve went into his final decline. He was virtually housebound as a result and my only solace was my sat chats with the girls back in London and the late night sessions with my virtual sex partner Karl. Surprisingly, my friend Ana was riding the storm. I don’t think she grasped the extent of the impact the various incursions through the laser shield were having. She seemed to be living in a bubble, oblivious to all that was happening around her, but our conversations cheered me up. Reece, in contrast, was full of doom and gloom in sharp contrast to the usual bouncy self that I remembered from my farewell night out. London was a place of fear and disruption that she would be out of it in a few weeks, on her way to Australia. She kept insisting that I pack up and go with her, she could get me a place she said, she had contacts. Why was I hanging on over here waiting for the inevitable? Didn’t I realise how bad it was, this might be my last chance to get away to somewhere relatively safe. She went on and on and I knew why. If I was to go I had to move before the National holiday in December. It was actually doable and, if Steve could communicate properly, he would no doubt have sent me with his blessing. But even I couldn’t’ t just leave him here to die. There was something else holding me there too, some inner pull to some unfinished business that kept me; a connection to the sea and the dunes, to the past. Ultimately it stopped me from leaving.
The house began to smell of illness and decay. I took some comfort in the garden initially. There was a granite slab in the centre, which served as a kind of bench and I would sit on it looking at the rockery in front with its various cacti, the small bare rose garden on the left and the camellia bushes on the right. The cobbled path that led to it was lined with winter worn azaleas and the path that led back to the house had huge terracotta pots filled with barren lavender and interspersed with dripping shrubbery and rhododendron bushes. It was dank now in the winter, yet sitting there, enclosed by the vegetation, provided a calm reprieve from the suffering I had to witness inside.
Even this haven was soon to disappear. Our gardener hadn’t appeared for two weeks and eventually Maria, the cook, told me that he had damaged his back and that he wouldn’t be returning. I thought it more likely that he had weighed up how long Steve would last and had got another job. Either way the garden began a slow and steady decline in spite of the winter chill. Months from now it would be an overgrown mess of brambles and weeds and the peace and tranquillity it had offered would be replaced by confusion and disturbance. Likewise just before the National Holiday the sat emissions from London became less and less frequent as power stations were systematically damaged and the communication lines taken over by the insurgents. I lost contact with Ana and never found out what happened to her. Was her building attacked, destroyed? Reece, of course had left, and, for now at least, was no longer contactable.
Meanwhile I had my own battles. Steve couldn´t really speak any more and was permanently in a morphine-educed haze. It was all I could do to keep him clean and tended to, and to spoon-feed him the soups and broths that Maria prepared. Then she announced that she too was leaving. Her reasons were logical. It would get dark now around five thirty and Maria worked till seven. She was afraid to go home in the dark. There had been disappearances, she said, in the night. The week before two young girls, walking home late through the pine forest, had vanished. There was talk of beasts that roamed the woods. At night they could sometimes hear snarling and growling as they scavenged in the trees close to their homes. The men had found tracks, scattered lumps of flesh, gnawed bones. Last night a child had gone missing, this time a young boy, and now no one dared to go out after dark. Even the men were afraid. I listened to her story and my blood gelled. This was not superstitious nonsense. Snarling jaws ripping through my umbrella sped through my mind. I let her go.
The first thing I had to deal with was the disposal of the garbage. We had a waste disposal in the kitchen for organic waste but the bottles, cans and paper had to be taken to a centre about two kilometres away on the main road. I would have to walk there or load up the car with the bottles, cans, plastic and paper for recycling. Next, with Maria gone, I would have to try to make the soups myself. The trouble was most of the ingredients she used (onions, carrots, cabbage) came from her own garden. The mega market at the shopping hub would only sell genetically produced vegetables, which were a poor substitute. No one delivered here. I made a list. Fatima had warned me that the mega market was low on many basic supplies and that most people were stocking up in panic, making the situation worse. I decided I would have to do the same. I hadn’t relished going there before; in fact I had only been once at the very beginning of our stay. Steve had always handled the supplies before and had organised the lists with Maria.
It was a huge shock when I got to the hub and witnessed the bedlam. I hadn’t realised there were so many people around, our road was so quiet and cut off. The park was teeming. Inside the food halls it was a free for all, people pushing and shoving their carts, causing jams along the automatic tracks. Assistants were trying their best to control the pandemonium nonetheless there was an underlying hysteria. Although there were actual queues at the automatic checkouts, there were people trying to charge through all around the perimeter. Rather than have to come back any time soon I joined in the frenzy, piling the cart up mostly with tins and frozen produce, trying to look inconspicuous amongst the plebs. There was little that was fresh to be had anyway so I bunged everything I could in till I had filled up the whole cart, then I jostled through the crowds and finally, sweating and trembling, I made it outside. The automatic track took my cart straight to the car but then it was up to me to load everything in. There were no assistants available outside today and I saw groups of gaunt men lurking behind vehicles. I realised too late what they were doing. As fast as I tried to load the car, as quickly they surged forward and helped themselves, grabbing armfuls of bags and cans like wolves pouncing, wizened and beady eyed. In an instant I had grabbed my stun gun and pointed it at them, swinging round in a semi circle, my heart pounding. There were so many of them all of a sudden, and it was difficult to cram the produce into the vehicle with one hand. None of them uttered a word but they were inching forward in spite of the gun so I shot at the foot of the nearest one causing them all to spring backwards in panic. Stuffing in what I could, I slammed the boot closed, leapt into the driving seat and pushed the automatic lock. For good measure I set off the piercing alarm siren, which confounded them all for a moment. As I pulled away the one I had shot was still writhing around in their midst. They remained oblivious to him, their steely eyes focussed only on me as I screeched out of the park.
That was the last time I went to the shopping hub. After the December holiday I saw on the news that it had been ransacked by a mob from the main centre. They came up the coast in armoured vehicles and shot their way through, taking practically all the stock that was left. When they had gone, looting cleared the rest. There was a feeling of some great slow undercurrent rumbling under the surface in the days before the National Holiday but I was too preoccupied with Steve and the daily chores I now had to fully take notice of it.
Steve died the day after the national holiday and almost a week before the big celebrations for the year 2,100. The roads were still just about safe then and his Company organised cars to come and collect the body and take it to the crematorium. I couldn´t go to the service. It was too dangerous to venture out on the roads alone, even though it was considered the time of year when most people were too busy celebrating and crime levels dropped a little. All I could do was watch the funeral service on the sat. In spite of it being a holiday period the Company behaved correctly and brought me back his ashes, along with all the documentation and provisions he had left for my future, the following day. Before he died he had agreed with them that I could stay on in the house for a further six months. There were also funds, which were ample enough for me to set up my future. The trouble was, what kind of future was there? Suddenly everything had started to collapse in on itself like a flimsy old-fashioned tent in an unexpected gale force storm.
Air space was in turmoil. Rebel groups had seized certain aircraft hangers and were controlling the key routes. Even if there had been a chance of getting a flight back, where would I go? Even if I could get back, London was clearly far worse than here. Even here the sporadic risings were now having an impact on daily life and it was dangerous to leave the house, let alone travel anywhere.
After the funeral I let Fatima go. It wasn’t safe for her any more to come up to the house and besides I didn’t really need her now that Steve had gone. Before she left Fatima helped me do a thorough clean out. We got rid of the old medicine bottles and syringes, cleaned all the sheets, scrubbed the floors and collected all the rubbish into the disposal bags. We moved Steve’s things into the spare room; I would deal with them later. Then we walked to the recycling area. It was a long walk and I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched the whole time. Since my ordeal I had not ventured out for walks towards beach but even the area in the opposite direction seemed menacing now, fraught as I was with memories of my narrow escape. I kept glancing nervously into the pinewoods that lined the road as we left the house, but the trees were few and far between there and the undergrowth cropped so it was virtually impossible for anyone to hide. As I walked I told myself I was being foolish but I was glad of Fatima´s company even so and thought that perhaps I could not do this alone, I would have think of another way to dispose of waste. On an impulse I broke my golden rule of not entering into conversation with the plebs. As a distraction initially, I asked her whether her grandfather was from this area. When she told me that he was and his great grandfather before him, I pushed further and asked if she knew what sort of work her great grandfather had done. The answer was far from what I had expected. Her great grandfather had worked in the local bank in the village of Fão that used to exist by the river, the same village from my grandmother’s blog. Banks of course are now obsolete. The government deals with funds and credit, transactions are done on the web, delegates deal with stocks and shares on the sat, so I suppose her grandfather had been employed at the beginning of the closures. Smaller branches had most certainly already been closed by the time Fatima was born, but I didn´t ask about that. I was suddenly excited that I might get some more information about my great grand parents past. Eagerness gripped me and the questions poured forth: Did she know of a family by the name of Carneiro who used to own a holiday home in that same village settlement at the beginning of the century? One of the brothers was a dentist and the other was a businessman who used to spend all the summer there and most weekends with his family, I told her, even though he lived in the coastal city called Porto. Sadly the glimmer of hope that somehow she would know something about my great grandfather’s family, soon dispelled. She merely looked confused and said that she couldn’t recall anyone by that name despite my promptings. She looked off into the distance lost, no doubt in her own recollections. I think it was the longest conversation I had ever had with her.
There were tears when Fatima left of course and she promised to come and see me every week but I knew she wouldn´t because the fear was there in her eyes too as she said goodbye. I closed the front door and sat down for a good few moments. I was very still. Then I got up and took stock of how to proceed.
I watched the celebrations for 2,100 alone in the house. The sat was playing up and there was no steady signal so I couldn’t wish any of my friends a happy new century. I wasn’t even sure when I would be able to speak to them again or even where they were. So, more for comfort of the familiar than anything else, I opened the blog:
Today I went on my own behind the dunes while mummy and daddy were sleeping. I found a great big one and climbed to the top and I could see the whole beach and all the people and the dunes on the other side going far way. I lay down for a bit and looked at the sky. But then this funny mist came down and I got frightened because it was like a big grey blanket that came across the sky and all round me and I couldn’t see below anymore and it was a bit cold. I wanted to go back down but I was scared because I thought I would fall or get lost so I stayed there for a very, very long time and then a shape came out of the mist quickly and it was a big brown dog but he just went past me. Anyway I was frightened that he might come back and I shouted loudly for mummy. Then a lady came and she knelt down and asked me what I was doing there and I told her. She said that she was looking for her dog and maybe my mummy was looking for me too and I should go with her to the road and back to the steps that led down to the beach. When we got there my mummy was there in a panic with all the bags and things and she kept thanking the lady. Then she hugged me and we waited for my father to come back from looking for me. It is funny how the sky changed so quickly and everything was different”
I had finally learnt some basic cooking skills and I was stocked up with provisions for the next few months at least. I needed some time to work out my next move, put my affairs in order, and take stock of my diminished options. With Steve gone, instead of being empty, the house was perversely too claustrophobic. I paced the rooms but I couldn’t think properly. I needed to get out near the sea. I yearned to go back out on my favourite walk and sit on the windy dunes. The past few months had been crazy with hardly a moment to breathe. Now I craved the open space of the sea. I thought about what my grandmother would have done and that decided me. I put on my thickest coat and hat, took the gun out of its cupboard, made sure it was loaded and opened the front door.
I headed straight for my favourite dune. I remembered the blog and tried to imagine it was the same one my grandmother had sat on as a little girl but of course there was no way I could be sure of this. As I walked between the familiar houses at the end of the path way I had an uneasy feeling again that someone was watching me, but I ploughed on. It was a dull, cold grey day but dry and there wasn’t much wind, which was a blessing. I scrambled up to the top of the dune, my heavy coat making the climb more difficult. I was thankful I had it on though because I feel the cold more keenly now as I stood on the top looking northwards. It was difficult to see out to the end of the land spit today, so I turned round to sit facing the other way.
I bent my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them and looked down at the thin strip of beach. The waves were completely covering it in parts and I don’t think I had ever seen the sea so close to the dunes before. I could hear the waves rolling rhythmically below me, grey and turbid. I got out my satab ready to read. I must have read for a while because my legs got stiff and I felt the need to stand up and stretch them. I put my arms out wide so that my coat sleeves hung down and stretched my legs apart, my boots sinking in the sand. I felt incredibly free in that moment. Then I sat back down. The beach was completely covered, the sea was so close I could feel its spay in the air. It was getting darker and would soon be dusk but I was loath to move. I sat back down, pocketed my satab and closed my eyes breathing deeply and letting the air out slowly.
Something, a faint click, a slight rustle, made me turn round. I saw them. It seemed as if each one had chosen its own special dune to hide behind and by some instinctive synchronisation they reared their heads in unison. I counted five standing each one atop its castle, motionless, sounding me out, glowering at me. I could almost smell their fetid breath. I looked behind me and sure enough there were two more on my left hand side, closer that the others. I recognised the pit bull. I was surrounded, easy prey. On my right, below me, was the cold treacherous sea.
My hand went to my gun I had to think quickly, I had to take out the ringleaders but there was more than one and I could only take one shot at a time. Where was the huge black dog? In a flash the pit bull was lunging at me, barbed teeth barred, snarling as it leapt forward. I shot it full on, but was knocked over sideways by a powerful black form whose sharp fangs sank into my left leg right through my coat, toppling me over. I shot at random two, three times in the air as the pain seared through me. It may have halted the others, I didn’t wait to see as I rolled over and over down the dune deliberately, landing on my hands and knees in the freezing sea. I dragged myself forward and upward into the waves, the ferocious barking and snapping ringing out behind me as the dogs tumbled down in pursuit, into the water. But the motion of the waves threw them, as I knew it would. They leapt back and forth protesting furiously and only one or two braver ones advanced as I staggered further out up to my knees, pain stabbing through my legs like ice picks, my coat dragging me down, leaden with water, my gun raised above my head and my arms frantically propelling me forward into the icy depths. I pressed on, labourously, till I was up to my thighs, and then up to my waist. They couldn’t fight me at that depth and they knew I had won; the last hunter turned round and swam back. They were left behind, exacerbated shadows, yelping and helplessly remonstrating at the foot of the dunes. I turned, frozen to the bone, and waded sluggishly, for what seemed like hours, southwards in line with the coast. The cold was agonizing and my legs felt like blocks of stone. The waves hit my face, the salt water blinding me momentarily but I moved on in line with the shore. My feet became blocks of ice and my legs and arms made of weighty steel, till finally I reached the ramps in front of the abandoned hotel. I dragged myself out of the water, heaved myself onto the ramp, falling flat on my stomach and then lay there shaking and shivering, a sodden regurgitated lump of flesh.
I knew it would be dark soon and that I couldn’t lie here like this forever and that I had to somehow make it back to my home. As I tried hard to get my thoughts together I became aware of a deep throbbing sound echoing my shudders and realised I was sobbing and moaning like a baby. But no one would come for me and the light was fading. I had to act. First of all I would have to remove my coat. I eased myself up onto my elbows and peeled off the once wide sleeves swollen with water and let it drop behind me. Next were the boots, two extremities that had felt like heavy bags of wet sand tied to each leg. It took all my remaining strength to pull them off. Water teamed out of them. I tipped each one up, scooping out the sand with my trembling hands: my nose was dripping and my eyes were raw with salt. I removed my socks one by one and slowly put the sopping boots back on, I would get nowhere fast in bare feet. I eased myself to one side, shuddering now in the cold air, and fumbled in the pockets of my coat. My satab was lifeless but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I needed the keys to the house. I clutched at them, rattling them like someone with acute Parkinson’s. I wasn´t sure if I could stand, so I crouched first on all fours, then gingerly used one hand to steady myself and stand erect. The flash of pain was at once blinding and all consuming as I tried to support my own weight. Before me lay the daunting expanse of the tarmac and on the other side the road that led alongside the ruined hotel, the road that led home.
Once inside the door I couldn´t quite remember how I had got there. Some automatic radar had guided me unsteadily back. I don’t really remember what happened next except for the urge to take everything off and wrap myself up in towels. I somehow got into bed and buried myself under two duvets but I couldn’t get warm. I lay there shaking and quivering the whole night long, drifting in and out of sleep. I was confused and at times I couldn’t remember where I was. At one point I had to go to the bathroom but got lost on the way, fumbling around the room, totally uncoordinated and trembling, dragging a duvet behind me till eventually I found the right place.
It must have been a few days before I felt normal again and eventually mustered the energy to have a hot shower and prepare some food. I heaped spoonfuls of beans from the tin while I cooked, shoving them into my mouth like a wild thing till I felt appeased. Only then I sat still and had a coffee before going back up to the bedroom. There were trails of blood leading up the stairs to the bedroom, splodges of sand. I started by picking up the debris. I gathered the damp clothes that were strewn across the bedroom floor, put the torn pants, underclothes and leggings in the trash. I picked up the sat tab and the gun. Neither looked too healthy. I wandered out of the kitchen through the small glass conservatory and the French windows, onto a little stone patio with an ancient wrought iron table and chairs. I put both objects on the table in the weak winter sun and wandered down the garden to my stone bench. I sat there for a while. At least this garden seemed safe. But it was in a mess, the path was strewn with fallen branches, dried twigs and other foreign bodies swept in by the winter gales, the shrubbery was sodden. There was a general air of neglect, compounded by odd skeletal trees that had lost their foliage; the magnolia tree seemed dead, stripped; the border plants were inert, bare dried up. Who could ever imagine them having their moment of glory come spring? I will have mine I thought; I will appear fresh and new. I will be restored. This thought kept me going through the rest of the day.
There was a large outhouse in the garden, a sort of shed where the gardener had kept his equipment. I walked over to it and pushed the door. It wasn’t locked but stiff at first and opening it disturbed something immediately, as old plant pots clattered and tumbled over. An ugly white and grey cat flew past me out of the door. I had never been inside it was like going back in time there were instruments and objects I had only seen in films; pair of sheers, a trowel and spade, gardening gloves and a hedge trimmer. In the corner were rudimentary shelves stacked with tools, hooks, balls of string, tape, cardboard boxes of seeds, torches. Along the far wall were neat plies of chopped wood and baskets of pine cones. There was a stool, a stepladder and a small counter with a camping gas burner on it, an object I remembered reading about in a story from my grandmother’s blog. Next to it was a clean mug, two spoons and two jars; one containing sugar and the other some kind of pale green herb. I twisted the lid and smelled it. It must have been some sort of herbal tea. I had entered a secret hideaway, a treasure trove. Tomorrow, if it didn’t rain, I could start on the garden.
Back in the house in the den there was an old fireplace that I had always thought was meant for decoration but now I was filled with an overwhelming desire to try it out. I went back out and filled up a basket with pine cones, then went back into the house by the side door to the kitchen, adjacent to the shed. It was a door I had never used. Wooden and buckled with a gap at the bottom after years of seasonal expansion and contraction, it creaked a little and the base of it looked gnawed as if giant rats had nibbled away at it through the centuries wearing it down. Rugs had been stuffed at the base of it to keep out the draft but I had pulled them aside. I went back out again with the basket to get some wood. The atmosphere was laden with damp from the incessant rain and it seemed to soak into my bones. I was still chilled through despite my two jumpers and thick leggings and socks under my trousers, but the thought of a real fire took my mind of it. This was my first challenge, to make the fire. Of course it took me a good while. I think the wood must have been damp too, in spite of being covered, because there was a lot of smoke; either that or the chimney was blocked from disuse. Finally, after hours of persistence, I had a blaze going and it was comforting to watch. For a short respite I forgot to be afraid. I was spurred on to my next task, cleaning out the empty tins, plastic bottles and packages and other containers till there was no residue left in them and then organizing some space for them in the shed. I wouldn´t be leaving the house any time soon to take the refuge to the recycling centre for fear of what was beyond the perimeter fence, so I needed somewhere to store it. This took me a while, but I kept coming back to stoke up the fire and add more wood. After I had finished, I felt exhausted. I tried some of the herbal tea I had found and sipped it in front of the fire till I eventually fell asleep.
A strange sound awoke me. It was a low growling noise and seemed to be coming from the garden. I froze. It was already dark although I had no idea what time it was. I thought at once about the side door. Had I left it open? The ominous rumbling continued in waves. I got up cautiously and crept to the kitchen but I couldn’t see anything. I was too afraid to put the light on, but there was enough moonlight from outside the conservatory for me to make out that the side door was closed and, as I grew calmer, I realised that nothing could get past the perimeter fence anyway. I was taking no chances though so I crept towards the door, stuffed the rugs at its base to cover the gap and turned the key for safe measure. There was a wind starting up outside. The trees were swaying slightly, but it wasn’t the wind I could hear. The sound was eerie and grew louder as if rising up from the bowels of the earth. It rolled around the garden in the shadows, uncanny and menacing, as if something portentous was circling the house. Quickly I slid through the house up to my bedroom, closing the door. After considerable time lying there with my ears pricked, I managed to settle down and I must have fallen asleep again.
I heard the noise most nights after that. I knew for sure if it wasn’t just the wind moving through the eaves and that there was something more sinister outside circling the garden. During the day I tried to forget it, but it did make me more attentive about locking doors. In the evenings, I tried to watch the local news when the reception permitted. I could no longer get the emissions from London, so I concluded that the worst had happened there. Local news was sporadic but I could easily see that the whole country was in uproar. It felt strange to know that everything outside was in complete and utter chaos whilst I continued here forgotten.
Surprisingly my gun still worked, I tried it out in the garden and startled a few rooks in the process. The satab though was another story. It was useless and I really missed it. I went into the spare room, where I hadn’t been since storing all of Steve´s things in it after he died, to look for his. I found it easily and sat down at his old desk to try it out. I became distracted looking at photos and stuff on it and I stayed there a long time sorting them out and deleting things I didn’t really need. I was relieved to find some my grandmother’s blog on there too, which I had sent it to him way back when we had arrived in the area. It was whilst I was doing all this that I glanced up from the screen, for a break more than anything. When I looked up to stretch my neck I noticed the trap door in the ceiling. At once I became obsessed with opening it. I remembered the step ladders in the shed and, dropping the satab on the desk, started clearing away a space where I could put them so that I could get up there and prise the door open.
Opening it wasn´t as difficult as I had expected. I had brought all sorts of tools with me just in case but the door opened readily and I climbed up, torch in hand, to see what was there. The space was quite large, a real attic storeroom although it was cluttered with junk and full of cobwebs. I heaved myself up and sat on the rim of the trapdoor, peering round. There were old plasma screens and piles of books, mouldy cushions and even a sofa with curtains draped over it. There were broken cupboards and long forgotten lamps, old pairs of shoes and a funny metal object with knobs and switches. Once it was cleared out and cleaned there would be ample space to make a cosy retreat, I thought. I spent the rest of the weeks following doing just that.
By mid February I divided my time between the garden (weeding, clearing, trimming and relaxing) and sorting out the attic space where I would spend most late afternoons and evenings reading and writing. I had taken the cleaning robot up there and cleared out all the dust and dirt, spruced up the dusty sofa and washed the cushions. All the excess debris had been stored in the shed or the spare room. I couldn´t hear the night rumblings up there and I had, on occasion, drowsed off up there only to wake the next day. The incident on the dunes, although not forgotten, no longer haunted me in the same way. Other days I would stay in the den. I got used to the noises at night and I would light a fire and try to get some connection on the main sat from the outside world. But there was something wrong with the whole system now and after February I could no longer get any news from outside, nor any image at all.
One day, when I was busy in the garden, I noticed a burrow dug right under the electric fence. The space was small but it was obvious something had been digging a way in. I decided to inspect the whole perimeter and found there were three more. One was deep enough for a dog to crawl under. A jolt went through me and I whirled frantically round as if expecting to see creatures lurking behind the bushes. The fear came flooding back. I held my breath and moved cautiously towards the house, nerves bristling, on alert, looking at every angle. I knew they had found me, tracked me down, scented me out. They were here, close. They must have prowled the fence unceasingly, stalking me, lurking in the dark, biding their time and now they had found a way in. My heart thumped, I trembled and my breath came in short gasps as my eyes darted around. Almost at the house my legs collapsed and I had to sit down on the gravel path and try to calm myself. They had hunted me down. Soon they would come back for me.
I had to make a decision there and then. I abandoned the garden tools where they were, and, listening hard for any unusual sound, I staggered to my feet and ran the last few yards back to the house. It was too risky to go into the outhouse any more to try to bring in the rest of the wood; they could come back at any moment. I went in quickly, then locked and bolted the wooden kitchen door. Then I checked the French windows were secure, checked and rechecked the front door, sat in the den and waited.
As soon as it was dusk I heard them. They were moving around the garden; a bucket or something was knocked over. There was a dull scrapping at the back door. I was reminded at once of the gap at its base and how the wood had rotted there. I was petrified but I had to look. In the semi darkness, I tiptoed into the kitchen and there, as I passed the glass doors of the conservatory, lurked the terrifying bulk of the black Rottweiler. It sensed my presence and snarled ferociously, rearing up on its thick hind legs, thudding against the glass doors, its jaws gaping, slavering; its steamy breathe spread across the fragile windowpane. Instantly echoes of mad barking erupted from the surrounding darkness in a merciless cacophony that resounded from every corner. Eyes and fangs flashed beyond the gloom of the patio, wild and glowering with malice.
I ran to the bedroom. It was instinctive since they couldn´t get in. Yet. The kitchen side door was made of wood. It was weakened at its base. This thought kept hounding my mind like a mantra. How long would it take them to scratch their way through it? How long for their weight to force and break the glass windows
In the days that followed I piled up the old furniture from the attic against the kitchen door. They came back every night. They were unrelenting, predatory, riled. Every morning the marks of their nightly presence haunted my waking hours. Splayed mud, deep scratches and grooves on the patio windows, the wooden deck ripped up and severed in their frenzy, the stench of their faeces. I counted my tins of food, my provisions and gradually I moved everything I would need up into the attic space. Tins, plastic recipients filled with water, the camping gas, my gun, the remnants of Steve´s medicines, and the satab with some of my grandmother’s stories I had shown Steve. I tried to get used to sleeping up there and only come down to wash and use the bathroom. I tried, as best I could, to live up there under the roof because I knew that eventually I would have to. If they broke in I would not be able to come down anymore. I would have no choice.
This morning I saw what remained of the cat splattered across the French windows; guts dribbling down the smooth surface. There was a sizeable hole at the bottom of the kitchen door. Tonight they will come back, a dark cauldron of deathly hostile orifices, closing in on their prey. Me.
The scratching was getting louder. It wouldn’t be long now. I looked at the mixture of aspirins, anti inflammation tablets, the remnants of antibiotics. I should have invested in more morphine before the pharmaceutical centre closed down, before everything collapsed. I should have thought ahead. This was all I had. It was the pain in the end that I feared most.
I take comfort in my grandmother’s blog. It is my only means of escape.
August 30th 2020 My Holidays in Portugal
I came back this year ostensibly to stay with my father for most of August, although I have spent very little time with him at all. We were to stay at my Uncle’s flat in the village of Fão, about a kilometre from the beach where my father now lives temporarily since he left my mother last year. He had to come back to his roots, he told us when he left and it is clear that he is currently the village’s main attraction. He is the local boy who made it good, the one who studied hard and left to go off into the world and come back a wise and affluent doctor (dentist really, but the accrued status is the same). As he struts through the village streets with his arm around me I know he is wallowing in the nods and hat tipping adulation he causes. My uncle, the successful businessman from Porto, has been momentarily eclipsed. My uncle also uses this two bedroom flat in August, as well as often at weekends, so it is a tight squeeze fitting me in too. I have been given the sofa bed. Apart from the five of us permanently staying here this month, we are always surrounded by family and extended family and on more than one occasion I have shared the cramped living room with three or four other visiting bodies stretched out on camp beds and mattresses. I am beginning to understand what my mother meant by overwhelmed. We eat, sleep and breathe in the company of others and the roles out here are clearly defined. The women prepare the breakfast and then shop for lunch and for the stuff we will take to the beach. Meanwhile the men go out to the café to read the papers then come back when everything is ready and help load the car. We park as close to the beach as is humanely possible and make an encampment with all our paraphernalia, not too far from the central steps down to the beach.
Around 1.00pm we head back and the women prepare lunch, while the men watch TV. We all eat at a long trestle table, which is set up in the middle of the room (one of my chores is to help set and clear this table), men at one end, women and children at the other. Lunch takes forever and involves long discussions about politics or football but it is mainly the men who speak while the women coax any children who may be present to eat, or clear and fetch dishes. Then the men go to the café, where my father is the toast of the village, and they play cards. Occasionally the men stay in the flat and have a nap while the women clean everything up and prepare a snack to take to the beach later. Sometimes the women nap too and I find myself following suit. To disappear on my own is considered odd, although I have, on occasion, had to sneak out for a stroll by the river just to keep my sanity. Thank God I have my kindle with me. About four o’clock we head back to the beach and we stay there till after seven pm, then we all pile back to the house, shower and the women prepare the evening meal. I suppose if Ricardo or Pedro were here it would be different but there is no one else my age of interest. I tell myself that the point is to be with my father, and besides it is only for a few weeks.
But, since my father is always either in the café with the other men or at the other end of the table or asleep; I have little of no chance to speak with him. He rarely goes in the sea, he doesn’t like going for walks and he isn´t interested in going out for a drink in the evening and frowns on the fact that I am. Last week I persuaded him to take me to the sardine restaurant. I was looking forward to going back there, and to eat the peppers, which I like now, but the place was different. Most of the huts had closed and had been replaced by glass and chrome bars with Wi-Fi and wide screen TV´s, distracting everyone from the fabulous view of the sea. In the one we chose, the one that most resembled the old-fashioned wood fisherman´s bar I remembered, there weren´t any peppers on the menu. There weren’t even any sardines, as there had been a fishing ban all summer because of some trade dispute, so we had to have chicken, and of course everybody else had to come along too. This defeated the purpose, since I was stuck at the end again away from my father and was expected to look after two toddlers who belonged to some cousin who happened to appear that day. My father redeemed himself by telling everyone how clever I was and tried to appease me by presenting me, in front of the whole gathering, with one of his many gifts, this time the latest i tablet.
In the two weeks I have been here I have seen my father every day and he has hugged me every morning but it feels like I have said less to him that at any other time in my life. The only time we were actually alone together was yesterday when we took a detour coming back from the beach by a parallel road that winded it’s way back to the village. He showed me a beautiful stone house, hidden among the trees and nestling in the pinewood that he would soon buy once the divorce settlement had been agreed. There would be plenty of room for me to stay, he said smiling. He seems to be in his element here, glowing. I so wanted to talk to him about mum and about us but I just couldn’t get any of it out, and then the others caught up.
Some days the weather has been really bad, too windy to even walk on the beach never mind sit on it, and the first week it rained non-stop. This week it has been misty every day in the morning and this evokes a feeling of panic in me because it reminds me of when I got lost here in the dunes as a little girl. But this afternoon it cleared up so I made my excuses to skip lunch and to be alone and went for along walk. No one took kindly to this idea. It only takes one in the group to be disgruntled with an idea and suddenly the whole pack turns against you. It is your last day with your father, they chanted. But my father intervened. Go, he said, make the most of the day. He kissed me on the forehead and patted me on my back. I had his blessing; this was enough to silence them. It is more true than they realise because I will go, go to boarding school for two years in September in England and then hopefully go to the States to study a for a degree in international economics. Most likely I won’t be back for a while.
So I went off on my own and headed straight for the summer villas and the dunes. Most of the villas seemed to be unoccupied and they were not as pretty or enticing as I remembered them, but maybe it is because it is the end of the season and I am feeling low. I wind my way through them getting closer to the path that led to the big dunes and the open spaces beyond. It wound on over a protected area and petered out in the distance to a spit between the long stretch of beach and the estuary. I sat down and looked back at the people on the main beach below and then behind me to the expanse of deserted sand and dunes in the distance and felt afraid. My safe haven had been torn apart, my father was here and my mother was back in England working on her secret stuff that had little room for me. I have all this choice ahead of me, all this open space, all this stretch of unknown possibilities. But I keep looking round for the dog”
My grandmother never saw her father again. He died four years later and he never saw her graduate. She never came back to Portugal. One day she disappeared.
A day has passed. I look down in the fading light I can see five or six latent canine bodies below me, quietly deceptive now but staking me out. They are guards sleeping on their shift and I am their prisoner. Hard to think, looking at them, of their pure vicious, rabid energy when awake. I throw my bowl of urine on them in spite, and they stir and snarl, barred teeth smirking up at me as they rouse themselves and circle the putrid floor, covered with their excrement and mine. The stench is already intoxicating. Even if I close the trap door, the odour seeps through.
I have no idea how much longer I will last up here or if I will last at all. I leave this record in the hope that someone, someday, will find it and will have some use for it. I have no other legacy. I am a lone figure against the pack.