Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Waiting Door

Every day the disease crawls closer.

At first it nibbled on the edges of the town, taking a bite out of the slums here, licking at a street there. For a time it stopped at the river, baffled by the water barrier, unable to cross the bridges guarded by police with barricades. But, in the end, it found a way to get across.

Now it slithers along the streets, each day coming closer. Sometimes it leaps whole sections of the town, as though it were a fire carried by the wind. At night one can almost hear it growling.

Each day, the city is emptying out. Those who the disease hasn’t killed are leaving, ignoring the government’s orders to stay. At first, the police blocked the roads out, and then it was the army. But the disease has moved closer, and the police and the army have broken and fled as well. And it has been many days since anyone has heard anything from the government.

I would leave if I could. At night I lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling, waiting to feel the disease touch me, too, my limbs rigid with fear, until I manage to fall asleep. And then I have dreams so awful that lying awake would have been better.

I am afraid to stay awake, and I am afraid to dream.

Yesterday, I had risked going out to find food, for there was none left in the house. The night before, the horizon had glowed red, and there was a pillar of smoke still rising. The smoke had come from the old part of the city, near the river. What it meant, I had no idea. Perhaps a fire had run out of control because the fire services no longer exist. Maybe there was looting and rioting, though what the point of that would be at this stage I couldn’t say. As long as the fire wasn’t coming my way, that was all I was concerned about.

There was a mad old man standing at the end of the street, slashing at the air with a walking stick and muttering to himself. I’d known him for years without ever talking to him, and thought I’d be able to get past this time without drawing his attention, either. I’d been mistaken.

“You, boy,” he’d called. “Can you hear it?”

“Hear what?” I’d asked.

He’d peered at me, thrusting his face forward like an elderly vulture. “Teeth, boy.” He’d dropped the stick and clawed his fingers to demonstrate. “Teeth, eating the town. Eating the world. Can’t you hear them?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. He looked really bad, older and frailer than I’d ever known him to look, but it wasn’t the illness. I knew he didn’t live alone, that his daughter stayed with him and looked after him. I’d seen her many times, a dumpy woman of early middle age who’d come hurrying to chivvy him back home, but there was no sign of her. “Shouldn’t you go home? It’s cold out.”

He’d ignored what I’d said. “Another day, two days, and this town will all be eaten. You’ll see.” He’d bent to pick up his stick, and I’d hurried past.

There was a corpse lying by the roadside outside the market. It had been there long enough to swell up and turn grey, flies buzzing in clouds over it. I averted my face as I walked past. It wasn’t the first corpse I’d seen lying in the streets since the disease started, and it would likely not be the last. Not all of them were killed by the illness, either. After the police had disappeared, there had been days when nobody had been safe outside, where a man could be killed for his shoes or a woman for the gold-plated chain around her neck.

The market had been deserted, the rows of stalls empty. I wasn’t surprised, of course. If anyone had been foolhardy enough to try and sell anything, he’d have been stripped by looters long before he’d even reach the market. And how many still remained in the city to buy anything, anyway?

Still, the market was the one place I could expect to be able to find something, unless I was willing to break and enter houses, not knowing what I’d find. I went through the stalls, peering under counters and behind curtains, and in the end I’d found a few dusty cabbages, a bag of withered carrots, and a small sack of wheat. It was better than nothing. It would keep us going for a few days.

I saw the pack almost too late. They came around the corner of a row of stalls, about six or seven of them, armed with machetes and iron rods. They were young, all of them probably still in their teens, and they were thin and ragged, but that didn’t matter. They were simply dangerous.

They had a woman with them, pushing her ahead. Her head was hanging, the hair falling over her face. She was almost naked, her hands tied with a nylon rope, and it was only because they were all looking at her that they didn’t see me.

I just had time to push myself into the narrow space between two stalls, crunching myself down into the tiny space available as they passed. They came almost within touching distance. I could hear them, the chatter of the pack and the dry rasp of the woman’s breath. I could smell them, too; the stink of dried sweat of the pack, and their excitement. I could smell something else, though, from the woman. It was the smell of death.

The rash had already appeared, the first reddish patches visible on the pale skin on her legs. Soon, if the pack left her alive that long, they’d darken and begin to spread. Of course, they’d have got it too, by then, though they wouldn’t know it. By the time they’d discover they were ill, it would be far too late.

It had taken me a long time to nerve myself up to come out from between the stalls after the pack, and their victim, had gone. Even then, I’d found it hard to make myself walk the way they’d come, as though the germs could have migrated into the earth from the soles of her feet and then through my shoes into my blood.

But then perhaps they could. Nobody really knows much about how the disease spreads anyway. There have only been rumours – so many rumours – but nothing more.

At first there had been doctors, and scientists. I saw some of them myself, in white suits like astronauts, their faces covered by transparent plastic sheets. They seemed to be extremely conscious of their own safety, I’d thought, though not much about ours. They poked and prodded at us, and then went away to their mobile laboratories, big white vans with their own police escorts. What they found, we never learnt.

And then one day they were gone, but we were still there, and so was the disease.

When I’d got home from the market – the old crazy man was gone, I’d no idea where – I’d taken my shoes off and left them outside, at the foot of the stairs, taking the chance that they could be stolen. I’d had an almost irresistible urge to throw the food away, too, but somehow I’d fought it down. We needed the food.

She’d been waiting when I entered, sitting in the big old chair which had been her husband’s once upon a time, her eyes anxiously fixed on the door. She’d heaved a sigh of relief.

“What are you doing out of bed?” I’d asked. It was surprising enough that she’d got out of bed, but that she’d dragged the big chair to where she could watch the door was so astonishing that I didn’t mention it. “Are you crazy?”

“I was so worried,” she said. “I was sure something would happen to you.” Her face, pale as porcelain, had relaxed a little, the lines smoothening out. “If something had happened to you I couldn’t have forgiven myself.”

“What do you mean? How could it be your fault?”

She’d sighed, watching as I’d dumped the food I’d found on the table. “If it weren’t for me, you’d have been able to leave long ago. I’m tying you down here.”

“Don’t be silly.” The cabbages were tough and leathery, but I couldn't afford to throw away even the outermost leaves, so I washed them the best I could. “You aren’t tying me down.”

“I am. Every day I want to tell you, forget about me and go away. I’m old, I don’t have long to live anyway. You still have a life ahead of you.”

“Don’t be silly, grandma,” I’d repeated. “I’m here with you.”

“It’s just that I’m selfish,” she’d replied. “I’ve watched you grow up...I’ve taken care of you after your parents, you know...” She’d paused for a minute. “I just don’t want to spend the last little bit of my life without you beside me, that’s all. Otherwise I’d ask you to go.”

I’d stopped washing the cabbages and kissed her. It was like kissing a doll, her cheek fragile under my lips. “I’m not going anywhere,” I’d told her. “Don’t worry.”

Now, though, the first light of dawn filters through the window, and I lie in bed, looking up at the ceiling, and I’m scared. I’m terrified. How much longer can we stay like this? How much longer can I find food? What happens when it all runs out?

I get up and go to the bathroom, wiping myself down with a wet towel instead of having a bath. The water in the pipes has stopped, and all we have is what’s left in the tank on the roof. Once that’s gone, I don’t know what we’ll do.

There’s a sound in the distance, an engine, growing closer. For one wild moment I’m hopeful, thinking it’s perhaps the army or the police, back again. But from the bathroom window I catch a glimpse – a dull red car, windows gone, an arm waving an iron rod out of the window. It vanishes round the corner.

It’s not cold, but by the time I get dressed again, I’m shivering.

Somehow, I must get through this. I try a smile in the mirror before going to her. It looks like a rictus. No smile, then.

She’s sitting up in bed, and I know something’s wrong the moment I see her. Her face is drawn in lines of pain.

“I’ll be all right,” she says, when I ask. “It’s just a little twinge in my back.”

The damned chair, the one she dragged yesterday so she could keep an eye on the door. I want to smash that chair. Swallowing hard, I fight down my anger.

“I’ll get you a painkiller.” I have no idea how I’m going to manage for medicine, either. She needs medicines for her diabetes, for her blood pressure, blood thinners to keep her arteries from clogging, calcium to keep the brittleness from eating away her bones. Maybe I can raid a chemists’. Surely all the stock can’t be gone.

And even if I do find the medicine, how am I going to feed and find water for us both? The question jumps up like a grinning monster, and, behind it, another, larger monster, one I don’t want to see.

“I’ll do what I can,” I mutter, addressing the smaller monster.

“What?” my grandmother asks.

I run my fingers through her hair, so thin and grey, and she rests her head against my hand. “Nothing.”

We’ve just finished our breakfast of boiled cabbage when there’s a knock at the door. It isn’t a hard knock, just a diffident tapping. I twitch aside the corner of the curtain cautiously.

I’m surprised. It’s the crazy old man’s daughter on the steps, her hand raised to knock again. When I open the door she looks at me warily, as though I were a wild animal.

“Hello. Could I come in? I won’t take much of your time.”

I stand aside to let her enter, and look over her shoulder. The street is empty; there’s no sign of the old man, her father. I’ve never talked to her before, and I don’t even know her name, but it doesn’t seem to matter now. “I thought you’d left.”

She swallows. “I did. But I had to come back. The army’s set up barricades on the highway. You can’t get through without a permit.”

“A permit from whom?”

“I didn’t ask.” She shrugs. “Does it matter? There’s nobody left to issue permits anyway.”

I wait for her to tell me what she really wants.

“I heard there are boats to get across the river,” she says. “The bridge’s been demolished, but if we can get across, we might be able to move across country to somewhere safe. There must be somewhere safe, mustn’t there?”

“You want to get across the river by boat?”

“Will you come with me? With us?” She blinks, remembering her old father, whom she’d left behind earlier. “I can’t manage a boat by myself. Once we’ve got across...” She looks at me, her eyes wide and fearful. “I’ll give you whatever you want,” she says desperately. “My money, whatever I have...my body, if you want it.” Her fingers fly to the buttons of her shirt, undoing them to expose the pasty flesh of her breasts. “You haven’t had a woman yet, have you?”

The larger monster, the one that I’d been trying to ignore, pushes forward, like the red rash crawling along her skin. Can she have not seen it, realised she had the illness? Can she have simply hoped it was something else? My throat is dry. The walls seem to be squeezing in. “Go away,” I tell her. “I’ll have to get ready. Come back in a few hours.”

I can’t stay here. I can’t stay here one more instant.

My mind races. If I can find a car, if I can get my grandmother into it, and we can get to the river, and if I can find and use a boat, get across...

Who am I fooling? I can never do it, not with my grandmother along.

If I am going to leave, this is the last chance I’m going to get. And if I’m going to leave, I have to do it alone.

My grandmother calls from her bedroom. “Are you going?” Somehow, she knows. “Come and say goodbye before you go. Hold me one last time. That’s all I ask.”

The room spins around me, my heart beating so loudly that it thunders in my ears. My hand reaches out, picks up the heavy brass vase on the end table.

I do not know what I will do. Will I stay? Will I go? Will I set her free?

The bedroom door is a hungry mouth, waiting to swallow me.

One wooden step at a time, I move towards it.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2016


The Good Little Girl

There was once a good like girl called Goody.

This wasn’t her real name, of course, but she was such a good girl that nobody called her anything but Goody.

She was very sweet and obedient, and did her homework on time, smiled and was polite to everyone, never made a mess, and ate whatever was put in front of her without a word of protest. When she played – after finishing her homework, of course – she played very quietly, and went to bed right on time without ever having to be told twice. Oh she was a very good girl.

She was such a good girl that she drove everyone who knew her up the wall with irrational anger. Wait, that wouldn’t be irrational anger – that would be quite rational and justifiable anger. Goody was so good that she was absolutely insufferable.

Soon enough so many people were furious at her that her parents decided something needed to be done. “If she doesn’t stop being so good,” her mother said, “someone’s going to murder her.”

“And she’ll probably forgive him on her deathbed,” her father added gloomily. “It’s enough to make you sick. She’s enough to make you sick.”

Goody’s mum couldn’t really disagree with that. “It’s not her fault,” she said defensively.

“I know,” her father said. “She doesn’t have any faults. None at all!”

“We’ll have to ask her not to be so good,” her mum decided. “That’ll save her.”

So they asked Goody to come and listen to them for a minute, and of course she came. “Now, Goody,” her father said, “we want you to do something for us.”

“Can you do this for us, Goody?” her mum asked anxiously.

Of course Goody was so good that she agreed immediately. “I’ll do whatever you want,” she said.

Goody’s mum heaved a sigh of relief. “We want you to stop being so good,” she said.
“All right,” Goody said equably. And then she went back to being just as good as ever.

Her parents called her back. “Didn’t you understand what we said?” they asked. “We told you not to be so good.”

“I know,” Goody replied. “So I’m not obeying you. That’s being not so good, isn’t it?” And she continued to be exactly as good as before.

Goody’s parents were in despair.

“There’s only one thing to do,” her mum said. “We must go to the Witch on the Hill and ask her to use her spells to make Goody not so good.”

“Are you sure?” Goody’s father said doubtfully. “These spells...nobody really knows how they might turn out.”

“Do you have any other suggestion?” his wife snapped. “Or do you want our daughter to have her head bashed in any day now?”

Put in those terms, there wasn’t much Goody’s dad could do but agree, so the next morning, after Goody had gone to school, her parents both called in sick (they weren’t good and didn’t care about lying and other things that weren’t good) and went to see the Witch on the Hill.

The Witch on the Hill was short and fat and cheerful, dressed in business power suits, and in general didn’t look like a witch at all. She listened to Goody’s parents and smiled.

“Oh, I’m sure I can get around that,” she said. “I’ll send a creature round this very evening to take care of the problem. It’ll frighten her into being not good.”

“I do hope she won’t be traumatised or something,” Goody’s mother said. “I don’t want her to be traumatised.”

“Of course not,” the Witch on the Hill assured her, and turned to her laptop. “Each of my creatures is very closely matched, by a computer programme I myself devised, to the subject, so that it can influence him or her without the slightest bit of trauma. You’re in safe hands. Now, I’ll need a few details about her. Her name and age to begin with.”

That evening, just as Goody had finished her homework, which she had of course done perfectly, as usual, there was a mighty rustling and rumbling and the Witch’s creature appeared in the room. It looked like a bear standing on its hind legs, but it had long fur the colour of straw, and teeth that stuck out at all angles.

“You,” it rumbled. “Little girl. Is your name Goody?”

“Yes, it is.” Goody looked at the bear. “Poor thing, do you have any problems with your fur all tangled up like that? Let me comb it for you.”

And, before the bear could respond, the good little girl had taken a comb and began brushing its fur, and brushed and brushed it until it lay thick and soft in rich waves on its body. “What about your teeth?” she said then. “I don’t know if you ever brush them. They’re in a quite shocking state. Wait a moment.”

So she fetched a toothbrush and paste and brushed the bear’s teeth until they sparkled. “Isn’t that better?” she asked. “Don’t you feel so much better now, bear dear?”

But apparently the bear didn’t. With a hollow groan of despair, it slunk off back to the Witch, utterly defeated.

“What can we do now?” Goody’s mum asked her father.

“There’s only one thing left,” her father said grimly. “I wish we could avoid it, but we can’t. We’re going to have to call in the Wild Warlock of the Waste.”

“Not the Wild Warlock of the Waste!” Goody’s mum gasped. “He’s horrible!”

“You were the one willing to subject her to the Witch,” her husband pointed out. “And we’ve seen how that turned out.” So he went off to telephone the Wild Warlock.

Scarcely had he put the phone to his ear that the Wild Warlock himself arrived in the room, and he was awful. His head almost touched the ceiling, his beard almost touched the floor, his eyes were pits of the deepest black, and his face...what could be seen of his face...was like jagged glass.

“Girl!” he shouted, and the ceiling and floor quivered. “How dare you...”

“Please,” Goody said, “excuse me for interrupting, but could you please not shout so loudly? The neighbours have a new baby. Please don’t disturb them.”

“Don’t you dare order me not to shout,” the Wild Warlock of the Waste screamed, drops of fire spilling from his lips. “I’ll shout if I want to. I’ll...”

“You’re not very nice,” Goody said. “I won’t listen to you if you’re going to be like that.” And she turned her back on him.

With a demented howl of fury, the Wild Warlock of the Waste turned himself into a dragon, which breathed a long plume of smoke and fire at Goody. But the flame was cut short by the fact that the Wild Warlock of the Waste had asthma, and after all the screaming he was a bit out of breath. Noticing the heat and flame, Goody went to the fire extinguisher on the wall, and, just as she’d been taught, used it on the Wild Warlock’s mouth. There was a glubbing sound, and the flame went out.

With a moan of anger, the Wild Warlock then turned himself into an immense bat, and flapped towards the girl. But his wings smacked into the furniture, and he toppled on to the floor, where he lay thrashing helplessly for a moment.

“Oh, poor bat,” Goody said compassionately, for of course she was kind to animals. “Have you hurt yourself?”

With a baffled hiss, the Wild Warlock turned himself into a snake which struck wildly at the girl with its fangs. But he’d forgotten, in his anger, to turn himself into a poisonous snake, and his fangs made only harmless little gashes in her skin.

“What’s wrong with you, snake?” Goody asked. “I haven’t done anything to hurt or frighten you, so there must be something wrong for you to try to bite me. Are you ill? Do you need me to take you to the vet?”

Then the Wild Warlock of the Waste, howling with hate, turned himself back into his own shape. “Listen here,” he thundered. “I will not be defied like this. Either you do as I tell you, or I shall reduce you to a lump of anthracite.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like that,” Goody said. “What would you like me to do?”

“Stop being good,” the Wild Warlock bellowed. “Stop being such a little goody-two-shoes, at once!”

“All you had to do was ask,” Goody said. “Of course I won’t be good if you don’t want me to be. But I’d need some help.”

“Of course,” the Wild Warlock said in a much calmer tone. “What help do you need?”

“How much less than good do you want me to be?” Goody asked.  “I could be very bad, or only half bad, or just a quarter bad, or even less than that. How much would be all right? I don’t want to be too bad, or too good, because that might upset you, and I don’t want to upset anybody.”

The Wild Warlock of the Waste scratched his head. “Um, well, let’s see...”

Goody waited patiently.

“This is going to require some thought,” the Wild Warlock said. “I shall have to do some research.”

“Of course,” Goody said politely. “In the meantime I shall stay just as I am, shall I? After all, I don’t want to throw off your research findings.”

“Yes, yes,” the Wild Warlock said hurriedly, with a hunted look around. “You stay as you are and I’ll be right back.” With a moan of wind, he disappeared, and of course he never came back again.

And so Goody’s parents gave up the attempt to make her less good, and somehow she escaped being beaten to death by anyone, and grew into a very good woman, who dripped sweetness all around her. She was so good that when there were wars where people hacked off each other’s heads, they sent her there to mediate, and her extreme goodness meant that the combatants threw down their knives and embraced each other.

And then she left, whereupon they took up their knives and began hacking each other’s heads off again.

Then one day Goody was travelling by ship to an island where she’d been asked to inaugurate a new school, because she was so good. But there was a storm, and the ship sank, with everyone drowned except Goody. Somehow she found herself afloat on the sea, clinging on to a piece of floating wood.

And then a shark came along and ate her, wood and all, without even asking her permission first. Because sharks have no manners. But, as the shark affirmed afterwards, she tasted really good. However, she was so sweet that the shark got diabetes, and had to take insulin for the rest of his life.

Somewhere far away, the Wild Warlock of the Waste married the Witch on the Hill, and there was one topic they never, ever spoke about.

And when they had a daughter, they made sure she wasn’t good at all.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Monday, 17 October 2016

Orange Stuff

It was late when Mrinal came back, well past dark, and the Flīr was squatting above the gate.

Mrinal stopped for a moment, watching it from under his lowered brows. It was enormous tonight, almost at the edge of visibility, its blue and violet lights pulsing in and out of existence like a beating heart. Its tentacles, tubes of greenish-silver, fumbled at the air along the tops of the wall on both sides of the gate, to which it clung by its many needle-clawed legs. It looked like a great swollen tick, feeding.

“Keep moving,” part of Mrinal’s mind urged him. “If you dawdle, you’ll draw its attention.”

“I’ll be fine,” Mrinal muttered, under his breath. “I’m not even looking at it directly.”

“As though that makes a difference,” his mind replied. “You’ve seen it hundreds of times anyway. Why are you goggling at it tonight, of all nights?”

“I’m not goggling,” Mrinal replied, but he put his reluctant legs to walking, carrying him under the Flīr and through the gate. One of the thing’s tapering tentacles swung down through the air towards him, and he tried not to flinch. But the tentacle passed by above his head, leaving nothing more than a charge of static electricity strong enough to make his hair stand on end.

The streets of the town were even more deserted than usual at this hour, not a thing stirring except the furtive scurrying of a rat nosing at a garbage pile. Mrinal risked a quick look over his shoulder to ensure the Flīr wasn’t watching to see which way he went, and then entered a lane on the right. Like all the lanes it was narrow and unpaved. Fortunately, this was the dry season, so the ground underfoot was dusty and not clogged with glutinous mud. Except for the green-violet glimmering of the Flīr, dimly visible over the rooftops, the only light apart from the distant stars was the wan light of an oil lamp, occasionally leaking through a door or window left carelessly ajar. From here, within the walls, the lights of the mine weren’t visible.

Mrinal stepped into the mouth of a narrow alley, where the shadow was so deep that he couldn’t possibly be seen, and watched to make sure he wasn’t followed. Then he moved on quickly, keeping to the deepest shadows, trying to make himself as close to invisible as he could, suppressing the desire to touch his belt to reassure himself that the object stuck under it was still there.

“First you try and draw the Flīr’s attention,” his mind jeered, “and then you try and hide.”

“Shut up,” Mrinal muttered through clenched teeth. “Just shut up.”

He went down a long flight of stairs, lined on both sides with houses, even shabbier and more crudely built than those he’d passed before. With one last look at the distant glim of the Flīr, he tapped on the door.

It opened just as he was about to tap again. Over the stub of a candle, a pale face looked up at him.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” the woman said. “I thought you wouldn’t come at all.”

“I couldn’t get away earlier. The overseer put me on extra duties.”

The woman didn’t seem to have heard, or didn’t care. “Have you got it?” Her voice was thick with urgency. Her pointed tongue licked her dry lips.

“Here.” Mrinal took the small packet from under his belt and held it out. She snatched it out of his hand and ripped at it with her fingers, almost dropping it in her haste.

“Can I come in?” Mrinal asked.

The woman stepped back, her eyes still on the packet. “All right, but you can’t stay long. I’m expecting someone later.”

It sounded like a lie, but Mrinal nodded and entered anyway. The room was small, and most of the space was filled with a wooden table and a bed against the wall, which was heaped with crumpled blankets.

The woman put the candle down on the table.  “I suppose you’d better sit down,” she said, her eyes still on the packet. She’d finally got it open, and put a finger inside. It emerged coated with a brownish-orange powder. “Is it good?”

Mrinal remained standing. “The best I could get. It’s never very good these days. The overseers control the market, and adulterate the leaf.”

The woman didn’t bother to nod. It was obvious to Mrinal that she didn’t quite believe that he wasn’t doing the adulterating himself. “As long as it does some of what it’s supposed to,” she said.

“It will.” Mrinal hesitated. “How is he, Suman?”

Suman glanced at him over her shoulder. In the light of the candle she looked very young, the flickering flame smoothing away the lines marking her face. “How do you think he is? Why do you suppose I need this stuff anyway?”

As though in response, the heap on blankets shifted and groaned softly.  Suman went quickly to the bed and pulled some of them aside. The face that was exposed was yellow and skeletal. Only the black eyes moved, slowly and dully. The mouth opened, a red gash in the yellow face.

“Look at him!” Suman said bitterly. “Remember what he was like before?”

“Of course,” Mrinal said. He watched as Suman dipped a tiny spoon in the packet and dropped a few grains of the powder in the red mouth. The dull black eyes slipped shut and the man lay back with a sigh like a distant wind. “He needs more than before?”

“The old dose doesn’t work anymore. I have to give him nearly twice as much as I used to.” Suman had her back to Mrinal, but he saw her fingers fumble at her mouth quickly.

“And you’re taking it too?” he asked.

She put the packet on a shelf and turned to him defiantly. “How do you imagine I could stay like this?” she flared. “Do you think I don’t think of running away every day? Do you suppose that I like being here...” She gestured at the tiny room. “With him like that?”

Mrinal glanced quickly at the bed, but the eyes in the emaciated face were shut, and the bony chest rose and fell regularly. “You can’t just leave him,” he said.

“Don’t you think I know that?” The blood was rising in the woman’s pale cheeks, so that she looked almost beautiful. It was just the powder, of course. “I tried to leave, three days ago, after the last packet was finished. I simply couldn’t take it anymore.”

“But you came back,” Mrinal said. “You knew you couldn’t just run away.”

“No such thing,” she snapped. “I was going to go, but then I saw that...that thing.”

“The Flīr?”

“Yeah. It was sitting on the gate. I couldn’t bear to pass it, so I came back.”

There was a short silence. Mrinal didn’t know what to say.

“I wish he could just die,” Suman muttered.

Mrinal was shocked. “You can’t say something like that!”

“Oh, can’t I? You try to be in my sandals and see how it feels.” Sonam’s bony shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “Yes, I know what you’ll say, that it isn’t his fault and he probably wishes he were dead too. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Mrinal told her. It was of course not all right. He hesitated, not knowing how to broach the subject.

She understood anyway. “You want payment.”

Mrinal nodded. “It’s been a long time.”

She sighed and walked over to the inner door, over which hung a green curtain. She raised it and looked over her shoulder. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”

He went, of course. Nothing was free, and it had been a long time.

Later, when he was about to leave, she caught at his sleeve. “I’ll need more next time,” she said. “I can’t risk running out again. I’ve no idea what I’ll do if that happens.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her the truth, that he was already taking more risks than he should, but he glanced at the bed against the wall and nodded heavily. “I’ll see what I can do. But I can’t come again this week.”

She looked up at him, terrified. “I don’t want you to come this week,” she said quickly. “Next week, or the one after that. Not this week!”

That probably meant that she had other men bringing her the powder, who had been promised her company, and her body, for the other evenings. He realised that he shouldn’t have been surprised. If she, too, was using the stuff, the packet he’d brought wouldn’t last any time at all.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he repeated. He hesitated at the door. “Bye, then.”

She didn’t reply. His last sight of her was of her bending over the figure in the bed, smoothing its brow like a mother over her son.

The man in the bed had done the same to her, when she was a child, years ago.

*******************************************

The overseer’s name was Sailo. He was built like a compact bull, and had a head so broad that his features looked tiny. The neurowhip at his waist, the badge and weapon of his office, curled and twisted.

“What do you want?” For such a heavily built man, he had an absurdly high pitched voice. “It’s not time for your break yet.”

“I’m not asking about a break.” Mrinal tried to sound humble and cringing. Sailo liked that. “I need to buy...you know.”

Sailo’s tiny eyes glanced around quickly. Around them, the mining machinery turned and roared, dragging lines of cars loaded with the violet, glittering ore out of the ground. For over a week now, Mrinal had been put on the mineshaft top team, which was easier in terms of work than the underground mining parties, but made it much harder to find a little privacy for transactions. Mrinal had waited, hoping for a transfer down underground, but the week had passed, and when the new rosters had come up he was still on the top team. He couldn’t even ask for a transfer down without raising suspicions because top was a sought after post, and he couldn’t afford suspicion.

Besides, if he voluntarily gave up the top team position, he might never be posted up top again. Mrinal had spent far too many hours of too many working days lying on his side in a tiny space, hacking at the ore with a cutter held over his head while moisture dripped off the rock on to his face, to ever want to do that again. So he’d waited, and the days had passed, and he couldn’t wait any longer.

Sailo nodded to the dark bulk of the nearest winch assembly. The lines of lights on beams spilled around it, leaving a cone of darkness. Mrinal followed him there.

“How much do you want?” Sailo didn’t look at Mrinal. Even in the shelter of the winch, his eyes were constantly roving around, looking for eavesdroppers. “I can give you fifty grams.”

“Fifty grams?” Mrinal repeated. “I need half a kilo, at least.”

Half a kilo?” Sailo was so astonished that he turned to stare. “Are you running your own distribution sideline, maggot?”

“No,” Mrinal said quickly, eyeing the neurowhip. “Not at all. I just need it.”

“Really?” Sailo thrust his heavy face close to Mrinal’s. “You’re using that much, are you? Strange, I don’t see any of the signs.”

Mrinal couldn’t answer that. “Can you sell me half a kilogram?” he asked.

Sailo shook his head. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t. I don’t know what game you’re playing, but it hasn’t anything to do with using the stuff yourself, and we both know that.”

“All right,” Mrinal said desperately. “I’ll buy the fifty grams.”

“You’ll buy nothing,” Sailo said. “Get yourself back to the shift. I’m cutting you off. Not that I need you anyway. I’ve got other customers, plenty of customers.”

“But...” Mrinal forgot himself so much as to protest.

The overseer’s thick hand fell to the neurowhip. “I’m warning you for the last time, maggot. Don’t try my patience again.”

Mrinal hastily left for his station. Sailo’s eyes followed him all the way.

*********************************************************

The mine had its own separate black market system, of course, one not run by the overseers. Mrinal waited till the end of his shift, when the underground teams were changing over. It was a simple matter to go down with the new arrivals. Nobody gave him a second look.

The mine’s passages felt especially small tonight, constricted as some small animal’s burrows. The lights hurt his eyes.

He went all the way down to the ninth level, and along the right hand side passage to his old workstation. In the week and a half since he’d last been here, the niche he’d been cutting had become a small tunnel of its own.
               
The man he was searching for was bent over a cutting tool held against the ore face. The saw-toothed blade chewed at the dark violet seam of ore like insatiable jaws. One of the new arrivals – barely more than an apprentice – pushed the ore into a cart. He already looked exhausted, his face streaming with grime and sweat.

“Need a break?” Mrinal asked the boy. “I’ll take over for a bit if you want.”

The young man looked at him gratefully and squeezed past into the main level passage. There was only space for two people at the ore face here. Mrinal would be able to speak without being overheard.

“Hello, Alam,” he said.

The man at the cutter glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, without any pleasure. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were posted on top.”

“Came down here to help you,” Mrinal said, stuffing ore into the cart. “You don’t mind, do you?”

                                                                                                                                                 
Alam’s bearded face grimaced. “Come off it. You’ve never helped anyone except yourself.” The cutter blade ground and whined. Ore fell to the tunnel floor in a trickle like congealing blood. “What do you want?”

Mrinal abandoned finesse. “The orange stuff,” he said. “I gather that you can get it.”

“The orange stuff,” Alam repeated. “Why come to me? Everyone knows that you buy yours from the overseers.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

“I have my reasons,” Mrinal said. “Can you get it? I need half a kilo.”

For a little while there was only the whine of the cutter. Alam seemed not even to have heard. Finally, he switched off the motor to unclog the drive chain.

“I can get it,” he said. “But it’ll cost you.”

“How much?” Mrinal asked.

Alam named the figure as he set the cutter going again. Mrinal’s mouth went dry.

“That’s more than...”

“You make in a month,” Alam agreed. The cutter growled. “But if you want it, you’ve got to pay for it. Besides, this is the pure material, not the adulterated crap the overseers peddle. I can guarantee its purity.”

“I don’t need a hundred percent pure...” Mrinal began.

Alam pushed the cutter into the seam. “I don’t care what you want with it,” he said. “If you want to mix it with dried leaves and dilute it, that’s your privilege. But if you want to buy from me, you get the pure stuff, and at the price I’m quoting. After that it’s up to you.”

“I can’t afford it,” Mrinal said. “Surely you must know that.”

“Of course you can’t afford it,” Alam agreed. “But you’ve got to see my position too. I have my own expenses, including expenses involved in getting hold of the stuff.”

“I’ll pay you in...”

Alam cut him off. “No instalments. If you can’t get hold of the cash, though, there’s another way you can pay.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the apprentice wasn’t back. “Favours. You understand?”

It was on the tip of Mrinal’s tongue to refuse, but he remembered the skeleton in the bed and the woman’s smoothing hand. His lips moved, stiff as chips of wood. “What favours?”

“You act as a courier. Pass on messages and things I give you. Agreed?”

Mrinal felt as though he was standing on the brink of an abyss. “Agreed.”

********************************************************

Most of the mine workers were addicted to the orange stuff to some extent, of course. The management was perfectly well aware of it, and tacitly approved of it because it kept the workers going. Mrinal had often thought that the management itself was behind the market in the drug, using it as a method of taking back part of the miners’ salaries, and keeping them working just to feed their addiction.

Of course, it was officially contraband, and getting caught with it was a criminal offence, but Mrinal had never heard of anyone actually being punished for it in the mine.

Outside, in the world outside the mine, though, it was a different story.

The Flīr was nowhere in evidence tonight when Mrinal came back through the gate, but he still hesitated, wary of any possible watchers, and made his way round several back alleys before finally arriving at Suman’s house. She only opened the door after he’d knocked several times.

“I’ve got it,” he said, holding out the packet.

“Oh. Thanks.” She snatched it from his hand. “That’s great. It’ll be a big help.” She looked down at the foot with which she was holding the door open. “Well. Come in if you want.”

He entered. “Be careful of the dose. This is the pure stuff. You don’t want to give him too much...or take too much yourself.”

She looked at him scornfully as she put the packet on the table. “Have you ever tried it? No, right? So don’t advise me what to do, you know?”

She was clearly in a mood, her eyes dark and flashing. He glanced at the bed. “How’s he?”

“Do you care? All you want is what’s between my legs. The rest is just an excuse.”

A retort trembled on Mrinal’s lips, and he almost demanded she return the packet. But, as though a switch had been pressed, her mood changed again.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a rough day. It’s been a rough time.”

He nodded. “I can tell that.”

“Can you? You probably can.” Suman took a tin mug from the shelf and poured thick white liquid from a stone flask. “Here.”

Mrinal sipped the liquor. It was viscous, sour, and caught at the back of his throat. “I meant it about the powder being pure,” he said. “You need to be careful how much you use.”

Suman nodded. “It probably cost a lot. Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.”

He caught her bitterness, the self-hate in her eyes. “I’d better go,” he said, putting down the mug, the liquor barely tasted. “I have an errand to run.”

She tried, but failed to conceal, her relief. “Next week, then?”

“I can’t get you any more by next week. It’s too soon.”

Her mouth twisted. It was only intuitively that he understood she was trying to smile. “I didn’t mean bring me more by next week. I just meant come see me next week.”

“Yes. I’ll try and come.” Before he was out of the door she was already lifting the mug to her lips. Her eyes were on the packet on the table. She looked like a condemned prisoner looking at the noose.

Outside, on the staircase, Mrinal took a deep breath. He hadn’t been lying about the errand. The other package Alam had given him lay against his thigh under his jacket. It was heavy and angular.

“Make sure you deliver it tonight,” Alam had instructed. “If you have to wait, you wait. I don’t care how long.”

Mrinal had to walk all through the town to get to the address he’d been given. All the way, the empty streets seemed filled with hidden eyes. The address he’d been given might have been a duplicate of Suman’s house, only even shabbier from the outside. When he knocked on the door, it opened a crack and an eye peered out at him, silently.

“I’m from the mine,” Mrinal explained. “Alam sent me.”

There was a brief pause and the door opened. The room inside was much larger than Suman’s, and there were five or six men sitting on chairs. They all watched him with cool hostility.

“I’m looking for Arnab,” Mrinal said. His heart was hammering. Something was very wrong here. Whatever these people were, they weren’t any casual group of drug consumers. “Alam sent me and...”

One of the men stood. He was very short and very stocky, with a face that looked as cratered and pitted as one of the mine’s walls. “I’m Arnab. Have you got it?”

“Yes.” Mrinal handed the packet to him, so hurriedly that he almost dropped it.

Arnab took it, his eyes still fixed on Mrinal. “Wait.” It was a command, not a request.

Mrinal waited. Arnab put the packet on the chair on which he’d been sitting and undid it. The others crowded around, looking. There was a murmur of evident satisfaction. Arnab turned back to Mrinal.

“All right,” he said. “You can tell Alam that I’ll be waiting for more, as early as he can arrange them.”

“What?” Mrinal asked.

“None of your business. All you have to do is pass on the message.” His craggy face stared up at Mrinal’s. “You can go now.”

But Mrinal had already caught a glimpse of the thing on the chair, lying on the cloth in which it had been wrapped. Even though he’d never laid eyes on one before, he knew a gun when he saw one.

************************************************

Mrinal lived almost within sight of the gate, in a room he shared with another miner. They were on different shifts and rarely met.  Today he had the room to himself.

All the way back home his mind had been in a whirl. He’d never seen a gun before, but he’d heard whispers about them being available to those who could pay the right price. 

Who’d want to buy a gun, though? There were only two answers.

The first was criminals, but he was sure the men he’d visited weren’t criminals. Criminals didn’t sit like that, openly conferring, and they didn’t, he was sure, need more than one gun. Besides, while violence in the miners’ town was tolerated and even encouraged by the authorities, it didn’t need guns. Guns attracted attention, and a knife was always good enough. That left only one other possible solution.

It was the Resistance.

For years he’d heard mutters and whispers about the Resistance. Nobody knew who they were, or anyone who knew who they were, but there was always talk about how they were planning and plotting to attack and overthrow the mine administration and the other authorities. Most people either hated them as dangerous potential troublemakers, who would, if they ever did anything, would bring down hell on everyone’s head. Mrinal himself had long since decided that they didn’t exist, and that stories about them were just tales spread about by the mine administration itself, like the orange powder, to keep people busy.

It appeared he’d been mistaken.

The question was, what should he do about it?

Undoubtedly, the best thing he could do, the safest thing, would be to forget he’d seen anything, to erase it from his mind. It was the safest thing, but it was also the one thing he couldn’t do. He still owed Alam for the drugs, and he’d probably be owing more as time went on. Besides...

...besides, the realisation that there actually was a Resistance filled him with excitement. As he lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling, he became filled with restless energy. He wanted to go back to that house, to talk to Arnab.

What about? What would he say to Arnab, if he met him?

He didn’t know. He’d find out when the time came.

It came much sooner than he’d expected. The very next evening, Alam’s assistant, the young man, came to him as he was going off work. “He wants to see you,” he said. “Will you  come?”

Mrinal followed the boy to the maintenance shed. It was loud and noisy and brilliantly lit, and quite crowded. He wondered why Alam would want to meet him here. Then he understood that in the noise and activity there wouldn’t be anyone noticing them in particular.

“He said he wants more, as soon as you can manage it,” he said as soon as he met Alam.

The heavy bearded face didn’t change expression. “All right. Tonight you go back there, and collect the packet he’ll have for you. And Allah help you if there’s anything missing from it.”

So it was payment for the gun, and that in turn meant that Alam wasn’t part of the Resistance, just a supplier. Mrinal was glad he hadn’t given in to his first impulse to blurt out questions about the Resistance. He turned to go.

“Wait,” Alam called. “When do you want more of the orange stuff?”

Mrinal blinked. “Not just yet,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”

Alam grinned, a very wide and very mirthless grin. “I’ll have as much as you want,” he said. “All you have to do is pay for it.”

Mrinal felt a shiver run down his spine. “I know.”

*****************************************************

Well,” Arnab asked impatiently, “what is it?”

Mrinal fingered the packet uneasily. Now that the moment had come he wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject. Tonight there were just two people there except for Arnab and him, a man and a woman, neither of whom had so much as glanced around. There had been another woman, but she’d left when Mrinal had arrived. “I thought...”

“Yeah?”

“You’re the Resistance, aren’t you?” Now that the words had come out there was no taking them back. “I want to join you. I’ve always thought that there must be something we could do, to make life better. Can I join you? Please?”

Arnab stared at him. His eyes, black stones in the lamplight, were unfathomable. “You’re a miner, right? You work in the mine itself?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“We’ll think about it. We can always use more members, but we have to make sure they’re all right. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course. You’ll find that I’m well known. Alam will...”

“I’m not interested in what Alam has to say. We will make our own enquiries. Now, I think it’s time you left.”

Mrinal nodded and turned to go. To tell the truth, he was more than glad enough to go, anyway. It had taken a great deal to nerve himself up enough for this, and he needed a little space to breathe. And the light in Arnab’s house was far too bright. It hurt his eyes.

He was out in the street before he realised that the light was still far too bright. And it was the wrong colour.

Against his will, he looked up.

It hung above the street, flickering green and violet and blue. The legs on which it balanced on the rooftops were almost white, and the tentacles were raised, poised to swoop down.

The Flīr. The Flīr was here.

Mrinal ran. He ran as he’d never run before, legs pumping, throwing himself into the alleys and gaps between houses. He sprinted, fleeing into the shadows, seeing them disappear around and before him as the violet glow followed.

The Flīr was locked on to him. It was following him. That was something, at least. It hadn’t got Arnab and the Resistance people. He was less important than they were.

But he was important, if only to himself, and he had to get away – if he could. It would not be easy.

His leg muscles were screaming at him, and he could feel a pain in his side, like a burn. He couldn’t run much longer.

He saw a light, a door ajar in a house he was passing. He rushed inside, slamming the door open, a woman turning from a fire, a ladle in her hand. He pushed past her without apology and through into the second room. A couple of children jumped up, screaming, and then he was squeezing himself through the back window and out into another alley.

It was totally dark here. The violet white glimmer was to his right and far away. For the moment, he was safe.

Pausing to catch his breath, he wondered what to do now. There was no way he could make his own house, across the open space near the gate. He’d be seen at once. Nor could he keep running through the streets.

There was only one place he could go. Suman’s home wasn’t far away from here. Once he was in her house, he could think of what to do next. He began trotting, imagining the Flīr just behind him, gaining on him at every step, its flickering glow dimmed somehow so he couldn’t see it. Soon, he was again running as fast as he could go.

She didn’t come to the door at once. He had to pound on the door several times before she opened it.

“Mrinal? I told you don’t come this...”

He pushed inside past her. “I’m sorry, but this is an emergency. Are you alone?”

“Well, apart from...” Her eyes went to the bed. “There’s nobody here apart from us.”

“I have to hide.” Mrinal threw himself down on the chair. “Shut the door, quick.”

“I don’t understand.” Suman sat down opposite him. “Mrinal, what’s going on?”

He told her in as few words as he could manage. “It’s after me,” he finished. “I have to hide here for the night.”

“And then?” Suman’s face was like a mask in the candle light. “What happens after that? You can’t go back to your regular life, can you?”

Mrinal blinked. “What do you mean? The Flīr can’t follow me all the time. It has to go away after a while.”

“You think so? You really think it won’t have made a note of who you are, what you look like, what your electromagnetic field is like? The moment it sees you again, it’ll recognise you, Mrinal. Besides...”

She was silent for so long that he glanced at her. Her face had gone very pale.

“Besides?”

“I hope I’m wrong,” she said. “But I don’t think I am. Show me that packet.”

“It’s Alam’s,” he protested. “I’m supposed to give it to him.”

“Don’t you understand yet? You haven’t a chance of getting to the mine to give it to Alam. It doesn’t matter if it’s for him. And it’s not as though I’m going to take anything from it. Just let me see inside for a moment.”

Frowning, he handed over the packet. It was just an envelope, sealed inadequately with gum and with a piece of cord tied around it. Suman’s fingers worked at the knot, and then pulled the flap away from the envelope. She looked inside and sighed.

“I suppose I knew it as soon as you told me. But I was still hoping it wasn’t true.”

“What are you talking about?”

Silently, Suman pushed the envelope back across the table. He looked in it, and his mouth went dry. Instead of money, it was filled with pieces of paper cut to size.

“This means...”

“Yes, that your friends had no intention of paying Alam. Which also means that you were set up for the Flīr.”

“”But how?” And then Mrinal remembered the woman in Arnab’s house who’d left as soon as he’d entered. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“Why?” Suman stared at him. “Maybe because you were a potential problem, someone who knew who they were, and they thought they’d better get rid of you. And perhaps they decided to call in the Flīr because it’s on their side. Perhaps the whole Resistance is a fiction, meant to make people feel good, give them the hope that some kind of retribution will finally happen to the mine administration. There are so many reasons.”

Mrinal looked at her and down at the envelope. “What can I do?” he asked, not expecting any answer. “Maybe I should just go and give myself up. And I thought,” he added bitterly, “that I’d been heroic, leading the Flīr away from Arnab’s house. I should have known better.”

“Give yourself up?” Suman shook her head. “Don’t be stupid. We aren’t going to give up now.”

“We?” he echoed.

“We,” she said. “You are sure, aren’t you, that nobody knows that you visit me?”

“Yes, as I told you, I’ve always been careful to make certain nobody saw me come here, ever.”

“Good, that means your friends Arnab and Amal can’t track you down here or tell the Flīr about you.” Suman got up and pulled plates off the shelf. “Let’s have something to eat. You look as though you’re about to drop.”

“Why are you helping me, exactly?” Mrinal asked, after he’d had some of the glutinous stew she’d put on his plate. “It’s not as though you love me, or even like me.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” She chewed for a while, considering her answer. “But there are more important things. My father...” They both glanced involuntarily at the bed. “You know as well as I do how my father came to be like this. The damned mine administration. And that’s why I stuff myself with drugs and whore myself out – because I have no other way to keep going. You know that.”

Mrinal nodded.

“And there’s the other thing. You think you’re alone, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others who’ve been through the exact same thing with your friend Arnab and the Flīr – people whose lives have been ripped apart by them. Stopping them is important, isn’t it?”

“How do we stop them? There isn’t a real Resistance movement, is there?”

“No, there isn’t,” Suman said softly. “But there will be. In fact, as of this moment, there is one.”

Mrinal gaped. “Just you and me?”

“And my father. He isn’t always under the drug and sleeping, you know. And there must be others. We’ll find out. Even a Resistance of three is better than one that’s not real at all, isn’t that so?”

“And then what?” Mrinal asked.

“And then, my friend, we will see.” Suman got the packet of the orange powder from the shelf. “Let’s start by setting ourselves free.”

With a smile that held some emotion Mrinal couldn’t identify, she went into the inner room and tossed it on the fire.

Only later, when he’d seen it more times, did he realise that it had been a smile of dawning hope.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2016