12 November 2016

We were househunting/jobhunting in Blackpool during February half term and visited the Illuminasia exhibition, housed at the Winter Gardens. Yes, we seriously considered moving there after I...

Boat 110. The Resistance

Where the shingle bank to the north of Goodfleet peters out into dirty sand, a high concrete wall marks the southern boundary of the switching station. Both Dad and Adam have done stints of guard duty down there but neither would talk much about it. “It’s a dark place full of secrets, a focus of colossal power and mystery,” is all Dad would say.

The station was built a few years before the Great Death: thirty acres of towers, transformers, capacitors and switchgear, sited far enough from the sea to be protected from the worst fluctuations of the east coast climate but close enough to offer a view of its reason to exist.

“I want to come this time.” Rob was busy putting away plates and wiping down the worktops. He hung the dishcloth over the rack next to the Rayburn and took off his apron. Flopped in his usual armchair, quite unperturbed, Adam continued to read the town newssheet. “Please?”

At last, Adam looked up. “Since when have you become interested in army training?” he enquired. He’d lost count of the number of rants he’d sat through, with Rob offering anyone who could be bothered to listen, his views about Adam playing at soldiers with the Major and his men.

  “Since the bloody invasion, of course! It makes a difference, you know.” Rob unrolled the newspaper parcel in front of him, reached into the drawer for a sharp knife and began gutting the dozen mackerel he’d laid out on the chopping board.

“I can’t see Twiggy being too interested, to be honest, Rob. What do you have to offer? You didn’t even complete boot camp, as I remember.”

Rob threw a gutted mackerel into the frying pan and reached for another. He slit it open expertly, removed the guts with his index finger and dropped them into a bucket on the floor.

“You could tell her he’s good with a knife,” Terry said, looking over her book.

Everyone laughed, apart from Rob. “That’s enough, Terry,” Alice scolded mildly, and regarded Rob’s unhappy face with unease. He looked desperate enough to do something foolish, and she racked her brains for a way to calm the situation. Then a brainwave struck her. “You’re the best shot of anyone in this room. That’s the truth, isn’t it, Adam?”

Adam too had noticed the strained atmosphere and happily confirmed Alice’s observation. “You’re quite right, Alice. I’d forgotten about that because it’s been such a while since we’ve gone out lamping on The Downs. You’re excellent with the night sight, aren’t you? No rabbit was safe last time we went up there with the .22 rifle. Do you remember?”

Evidently, the emollient words had the desired effect, for Rob, who had now finished gutting the fish, opened the window and laid half a mackerel on the window ledge for Raffles. After washing his hands, he opened a hot plate and began to fry the fish while whistling something nameless, every so often glancing over at Adam, waiting for him to respond.

It was the girls’ turn to replenish the log basket and they left for the wood store, leaving the boys alone. After a long silence, Adam carefully folded the newssheet and slid it into a pocket on the side of his armchair. He regarded his brother thoughtfully and considered his response. Although only four years different in age, they were a mile apart in physical and emotional maturity. Adam was nearly a man – lean, muscular, tanned, learning a skilled trade and, before the invasion, with every prospect of becoming a figure of respect in the town. Rob, with his hairless, indoor face and long hair, looked like a schoolboy. A wrong word from Adam and it would be tears, probably, and the nearest handy object flung into the fireplace. Adam closed his eyes briefly, and then replied, “I can’t say whether or not you’ll be accepted. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, I get that. But you said yourself they need more people, reliable people. I’m reliable, you know. I’ve done boot camp with the Major and I did OK, didn’t I? At least they should give me a chance. I’m not scared, you know, Adam. I’m not a coward. I want to play a part.”

“I know all that, Rob. Nobody thinks you’re a coward, by the way. We’ve talked about this loads of times before. And you do play a part, a big part. You keep this place going for a start. You run messages after curfew and that’s vital, dangerous work. Nobody could ever say you didn’t contribute or that you were chicken. Every one of us is scared, mate, and if you aren’t, then maybe you should be.”

“But I want to fight! When the time comes, it will be them or us. I don’t want to be one of those marched into the street and shot like a dog. That’s what Mallick and his gang have planned, I’m sure of it.”

Adam slipped his feet into his boots and began to lace them up. The back door opened and Alice and Terry entered, struggling with a large canvas bag filled with chopped firewood. Behind them, a rosy sunset had already conceded the sky to darkening twilight. “Rob’s coming with me tonight,” Adam said matter-of-factly.

Terry opened her mouth to speak but immediately Alice let go of the bag, which landed with a thump on Terry's feet. “Ow!” she whined loudly and glared up at Alice but said nothing more, although her expression was plain to read. Terry had perceived exactly why it had happened, and added no more than a half-hearted, “That hurt, Alice Seamarsh,” and dragged the bag the remaining distance to the log basket.

“No, it didn’t,” Alice replied. “Put the kettle on when you’re finished, will you?”

“Why yes, your royal highness, and shall I iron your knickers as well?”

Adam had already slipped away. Alice put on the light and pulled down the blinds. Then she crossed over to Rob, who was pulling on his black balaclava, with its sinister eye and mouth holes. He slipped on a pair of black gloves and was about to pull up his hood when the girls took his arms. Terry clung on tightly as always, and Rob pulled her head into his side, where she rested quietly. Alice linked with Rob’s other arm and kissed his neck. “Have fun,” she said lightly, as if he were about to leave for a picnic by the river. It was time to go. The girls released him and he left, closing the door quietly behind him.

The curfew was a lark, like a game of ‘it’, with the whole town as the playground. However, if you were caught, you didn’t become ‘it’; you became dead. In the first few days, there were two woundings and one death as the enforcement of the curfew was tested. Many had been fired upon since then and several had died, but none had ever been caught alive. The wounded always quickly found shelter in a house, there either to be patched up or read their last rites.

There were enough alleyways and back entries to ensure that Adam and Rob could arrive at The Lamb without meeting any patrols. A large Victorian corner pub a few streets from the Seamarsh house, the Lamb had once been a swanky hotel, the favourite meeting place for the Rotary Club and the Townswomen’s Guild, and a popular choice with holidaying gentlefolk and sales representatives. Today, it was no more than a well-used drinker for the town’s workers. However, beneath the public façade the pub held a secret.

Adam and Rob crouched in the back alley where, during normal pub hours, men would tumble out of the bar for a quick round of fisticuffs, or to enjoy a moment of bliss with one of the town girls. The pub’s cellar doors were shut tight but a coded tap on an iron hinge led, after a few moments, to the slow raising of one flap. Without hesitation, Adam slipped through the crack into the blackness and was lost from sight. Rob knew he must do the same. As he slid his legs through the gap, he could just make out a dark face. Its eyes were startlingly white, staring and unfriendly. Before he could slide further in or retreat a hand grabbed his trouser leg and yanked him downwards. He landed with a thump on the cellar floor, his fall broken by a layer of giant straw-filled cushions, used in the old days to break the fall of full beer barrels dropped into the cellar from the street. Adam’s face loomed close to his, an index finger planted vertically across his lips. He pulled Rob to his feet and guided him forward between the racks of beer barrels. The place felt even chiller than the cool evening air outside and smelt of dampness and stale beer. At the far end of the room, a candle illuminated a door standing ajar. From the adjoining room Rob could hear the faint murmur of adult voices.

Rob allowed Adam to pull him along by his sleeve, even though his eyes had now adjusted to the gloom. They crossed through the doorway and entered a larger space, its whitewashed walls lined with sparsely populated bottle racks which, Rob guessed, must at one time have been the hotel’s wine cellar,. A rectangular wooden table some eight feet long, ancient and tall enough to be used while standing, filled the centre of the room. In a huddle at one end sat four figures perched on bar stools, each of them nursing an ale glass in differing states of emptiness, or fullness, as the first speaker reminded them when he spoke. “Well, Twiggy,” a large, balding man dressed in combat fatigues said to the only woman in the group, “are you a glass-half-empty kind of girl or a glass-half-full? Now me, I’m a glass-completely-empty kind of guy and I’m going for a refill. Anyone care to join me?” Twiggy and the two others drained their glasses and the man gathered the empties on a tray.

The others chuckled and let the man squeeze past. As he passed the boys, he clapped Adam on the shoulder and winked at Rob before leaning forward conspiratorially, his face close to Rob’s. “Good to see you, son,” he whispered jovially. It was the Gaffer: Adam’s boss, the man in the Town Hall who had stood up to the Commander. Even if the room had been pitch dark, Rob could have identified him from the rank body odour alone. The Gaffer returned shortly with filled glasses, accompanied by the landlord who also carried a glass of dark beer. “I’m going to leave you gents,” the landlord said, and then looked over to the woman officer and theatrically saluted. “And lady, of course. Let me know when you’re done. It’s been so quiet in the evenings since the curfew that I’ve taken up reading again.”

On a bench against the wall sat two of Adam’s friends, Ollie and Sam. Both worked alongside him at the refrigerator works. Third along the bench from the boys sat Maisie from the Library. All had done their basic training ‘boot camp’ with the Major in the same year and had kept up their combat readiness with the annual refresher, run each summer in the grounds of Whitegates, the Major’s headquarters: three hard weeks of fitness routines, weapons training and initiative tasks interspersed with long marches and, of course, drill. Basic training had never been compulsory for girls, as it was for boys, but Maisie had tried it and had loved the whole thing, which explained her presence in the cellar, ready to fight alongside the others, to the death if need be.

Rob looked at the others with a sinking heart. Suddenly he understood that a willingness to fight wasn’t going to be enough on its own. Plainly, even from a brief appreciation of their tanned skin and trim bodies, these young people spent a lot of time outdoors, probably pursuing wholesome activities like running, swimming, cycling and team games. Cycling, Rob could manage – it would be awkward selling bikes if you couldn’t ride one – but the others? No, thank you. Rob had never been able to see the point of physical activity for its own sake. For Rob, getting hot, sweaty, and tired happened in the garden as something you put up with in order to grow food or chop firewood for the stove. In contrast to the other candidates, he was unquestionably an indoor type – his pasty complexion and puffy face told his story plainly – and yes, he was a bit flabby these days and not in great shape. However, it wouldn’t take long to fix that, he would tell them, if only they would give him the chance.

The interviews were brief and gave the impression of being more or less a formality, with each recruit called in turn to the bench where the hushed conversation frequently erupted in laughter. Personal details were checked against the existing records and finally each of them swore an oath of loyalty. As each recruit finished, they saluted and left the room, nodding to Adam and Rob as they passed. Maisie even kissed Adam and whispered something that made him snort. The Gaffer followed each of them, to lift the cellar flap and allow them to disappear into the night.

Then at last, it was Rob’s turn. With a pat on the shoulder from Adam, he rose from his seat and approached the table. The officers would have been blind not to notice his nervousness, and at one point, the Bearded One asked him to stand still and stop fidgeting if he wouldn’t mind, as if he were addressing a ten-year-old.

It didn’t go well. The Gaffer was the most sympathetic of the interviewers, but in the end even he had to shake his head, glancing across to Adam with a solemn look that sealed Rob’s fate. The Thin One even said bluntly, that in his opinion Rob would be more of a liability than an asset and might actually put the lives of others in danger if he were allowed to take part in any operations. After a brief conference of close whispers, Twiggy gently broke the news. His request to become an active participant in any military initiatives was turned down unanimously. Adam felt deeply sorry for his brother. He hardly dared to imagine how this would play out after they had returned home.

When they did arrive back at Number 38, Adam made sure he got inside first. On entering the kitchen, he immediately signalled to Alice with a face that articulated the entire story. He looked pointedly at Terry, who was still absorbed in her book, then back to Alice with an imperceptible shake of his head. Rob had stopped off to light the night heaters in the tomato house, as a clear, starry sky forecast a touch of frost, and that gave Alice her chance. “Gosh is that the time well I think bath and bed are in order young lady let’s go,” she said without a pause and practically pulled Terry out of her chair.

“What? It’s only just gone ten,” Terry protested, looking around the room for anyone who could be roped in as a supportive witness. Then she noticed Adam’s grim expression and quickly changed her mind. “Well, I guess you’re right, but I can walk by myself, thanks,” she said, wriggling her arm out of Alice’s grip to walk in an exaggeratedly dignified manner to the door.

“You can spare yourself this if you’d rather not,” Adam said as Alice paused in the doorway.

“That’s OK. I’ll come back down. The crockery might suffer less if I stick around and he gets it off his chest tonight. I don’t want to be looking at that moody face in the morning, thanks.”

“You asked for it, Sis. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I’m simply glad Veer isn’t here to see all this going on. God knows what Rob would do if those two met tonight.”

“Oh? Some friction is there?” Adam added lightly, and grinned. “You know what they say – every silver lining has a cloud.”

Alice feigned a scowl and threw an oven glove, which Adam quickly retrieved from the floor and made to return but caught Rob’s reflection in the kitchen window. “Watch out, here’s here,” he said. “Brace yourself.”

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