A different one, this, completely out of sequence from my tea sachet challenge, but still a piece composed entirely from a (relatively) random prompt.
A couple of days ago one of my favourite bands, the wonderful 65daysofstatic, released an updated version of one of their earlier tracks. A Discord discussion earlier today about this, and the sample near the start, led to a suggestion that this should be a story. And when I read the words, I knew I had to write something.
“The roads are blocked … And we cannot get through. Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month. Tonight will be the last transmission. In a dream of ropes and steel I am a feather falling endlessly, without ever hitting the ground. Christmas is cancelled.“
Now, as I’ve mentioned, this is an updated version. The sample in the earlier version, which I wanted to include as well, went like this:
“The children have escaped. Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month. Today will be the last transmission. Christmas is cancelled.”
And just to make things really difficult, a fellow 65kid added another, very appropriate sample, from a track by another favourite band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who I saw live in another life, when we were all humans):
“The car’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel.”
Put them all together, and you get this, or something very like it.
We still hear other voices, sometimes. Voices in the darkness, through the crackling static and the whine of the radio waves.
Men’s voices, mostly. There don’t seem to be so many women – and I look around our small group which is mostly women now and I wonder, does that mean our group is different to have so many? Or do the women in those other camps out there, those audio sparks in the dark night… do they just save their energy for more practical things than keeping in touch with what’s left of the human race?
I know some of the voices now as I didn’t when I was younger. The Tingler, from somewhere in central Europe. Sanna, from Norway, who just sings and cries now although I remember when she used to speak. Omar, who speaks Arabic so all we can understand is his name. Years ago it seemed normal to me that there were people talking, singing or swearing from the radio set in the corner of the big house. And there seemed to be so many of them, overlapping and competing with each other, sharing their news. Some of them even having conversations, lucky in being able to transmit and receive, where we have only ever been able to listen.
Now there are fewer voices, and they’ve settled into a routine, I suppose a bit like the radio programmes Mara told us kids about during our school time. That was when we still had school time. When there were enough children to make it worth an adult spending time on teaching us about how the world used to be.
I was sick when the other kids left, a year ago. I’d been sick for a few days, so I didn’t even hear them talking about it, but I can guess who started it. Lee was always the leader of our little gang, always the one urging us to do things we shouldn’t or that we didn’t really know how to do. Like trying to blow up the rusting car in the corner of the top field – which didn’t explode but did make a huge cloud of thick black nasty smelling smoke – or mixing magic potions out of the bright coloured liquids on the top shelf of the workshop cupboard, which put Anna in the sickbay for a week and the rest of us on hard chores for a whole month.
So when the other children escaped… I knew it was because of Lee. Recently he’d been saying he thought the leaders were just keeping us in the compound because they were stupid, or mad, or sick or something. His reasons seemed to change every day, with each new kid he explained his theory to.
“It’s because most of them are girls”, he’d said to me scornfully. “Girls are always scared of everything. The leaders have been out and seen the world and all the big machines and roads and other people out there and they’re scared and they don’t want us to go out because then they’ll have to as well, and we’ll see the world is just like it always was. There’s just us stuck in here, in this stupid compound.”
“But the radio…” I protested.
“Fake!” he screeched. “All fake, made up by the government to keep us in our place.”
“But…” In the face of such certainty I was beginning to doubt what Mara had taught us, the books we’d read. “But…we’ve been out”, I finally stammered. “We’ve seen what it’s like out there, the roads all smashed and the broken cars everywhere and all the towns burned or in ruins.”
Last winter Lee and I were both 11 and the oldest of the kids. And so we were allowed to start going out on patrols with the adults, trying to salvage anything useful that hadn’t already been looted ages before. One time we walked for five days away from the compound and still didn’t see another living human. There must’ve been some around, because we came across a car that was still burning, but there was no driver at the wheel and no sign of where one might have gone.
But even so, I couldn’t see how Lee could possibly think this was all some kind of hoax. What would be the point? We weren’t that important. Why would anyone ruin so much of the country just to keep the 40 of us in our little compound?
Lee was stubborn, though, and the other kids were in awe of how he stood up to the adults, and so when it turned out one December morning that all the kids were gone – at least all of them older than four-year-old Fiona – well, I hadn’t exactly been expecting them to do something so stupid or I’d have warned Samira or Joanna. But I wasn’t entirely astonished either. I was surprised we never got them back, though. I expected them to be gone for a few hours at most. But we’d all been taught how to operate the motorbike, and they’d taken it and the bike trailer too, so they had a good head start. And it began snowing that morning, heavy fat flakes drifting down like feathers, the thickest snow any of us had ever seen, even Joanna, and she’s ancient. So by the time we worked out they’d headed east, towards what was once a big city called Birmingham (I can’t really imagine a city, but Mara used to tell us about them, and there’s a picture of a place called Cardiff in one of our books)… Well, anyway, the roads were blocked and the search party couldn’t get through. And Samira just said she’d never send more of our people there, not after… And then she looked at me and Fiona and stopped speaking and the adults went and argued in the workshop for a long time. In the end, Louise and Diane went after their three kids, and Brendan went with them – still insisting Lee couldn’t have been involved and that it was all a government conspiracy. And Eddie and Richard went as well, but they left their wives behind. Only after a week Marie and Sara went away one night too. So now there are only 24 of us.
None of them came back. Nobody who ever goes east ever comes back. Sometimes, when I was little, walkers would come to the compound, in ones and twos – dirty, tired-looking people. We’d swap food for information, and one of them was James and he stayed, but none of the rest of them seemed to be much use and so we didn’t let them in and after a day or two they’d move on. And we’d never see them again.
So I listen to the voices on the radio, at night – always at night, they’re strongest then – and I dream of where those voices are coming from. And I’ve been thinking. We’d get a better signal if we had a bigger antenna. I reckon I could climb out of the attic window of the big house at night, onto the roof, where the antenna’s attached to the chimney. And I could fasten it to a scaffolding pole instead – I know where there is one in the long grass behind the workshop – and then I could attach the pole to the chimney and that would make the antenna loads taller. And that would be a great Christmas present for everyone and cheer them up from thinking about last year. I’ll be careful though – I’m going to tie myself to one of the steel brackets. I’ve got lots of rope.