It’s a cold bastard of a night and it’s dark, really dark. And then you knock at my door.
Can you help me, please?
Can you help me, please, who?
A game I played with my children. But you just walk in, onto my carpet, in my hall.
I have money, see.
And you show me a crumple of notes in the palm of your hand.
Please, take it. I need to rest.
I shake my head. Your hands are dirty. You smell of hunger.
You plead with your eyes; they’re cracked with blood. I take your money, take your hand and lead you to the back room. I light a candle. There are others like you there. They are quiet and one of them shuffles aside to let you in. You take your place beside him. I snuff out the candle and shut the door.
Your papers say you’re married and have three children. You looked pretty in the picture. I cut the papers and shred them as best I can, ready to put in the fire in the morning.
In the night as I lie in bed I hear your cries from below. New ones always cry but by tomorrow you will be silent like the rest.
In the morning I wash the potatoes I’d managed to scavenge the day before. I prick them with a fork so they won’t explode, then drop them in the fire.
I carry in a basin of hot water and what’s left of a bar of soap. They know they need to keep clean, so when I open the door they walk towards me in a line, and the one in front collects the basin and soap from me. You don’t join them but the man, who you’ve taken the place beside, gently pulls you forward to fall in line too. He mimics the action of using the soap. He smiles at you as he does this, and you look at him with your red broken eyes and smile too. I leave and close the door behind me.
When the potatoes are done I place them in a big bowl. The smell of burnt potato skin carries far, and when I open the door you are standing behind the man, waiting in line with the others. Each of you cups a potato into a hand and starts to eat.
I notice that the old lady who arrived two weeks ago is slumped alone in the corner of the room. Her skin is grey and her infected eyes are fluid with red and sulphur. Her time has come. After eating you will all silently hold her as she passes, and when darkness falls I will collect her body and carry it into the woods. By morning, nothing of her will be left.
It’s even colder tonight. I wish there were a blanket to pass around. I cannot risk a fire at night for fear the glow will carry. Even a candle for more than a moment can be a risk. One not worth taking, even for savouring the last book left in the house, Hemann Hesse’s Wandering. I love that book. I’ve read it many times. I think of the lines:
‘I want nothing, I long for nothing,
I hum gently the sounds of childhood,
and I reach home astounded
in the warm beauty of dreams.’
My home provides no safe harbour, nor do my dreams. My family taken, my dreams full with empty space, home a place of mere existence, scant survival.
‘The dream of death is only the dark smoke
under which the fires of life are burning.’
Life is a flicker.
In the morning there is banging at my door. It’s the sound I’ve been dreading.
The soldier is not alone. Three of them follow him inside. They search through the house. They come to the door to the back room last of all.
What (not who) is inside? the soldier asks.
Nothing, it’s a place I keep for dreaming.
He looks at me as if I’m mad and barges open the door. It’s dark. He lights a match and holds it in front of him as he walks into centre of the room, lighting more matches to search each corner. They can’t see any of you but I do, your startled eyes, holding your breaths, clutching each other’s hands, backs to the wall.
We’ll be watching you, the soldier tells me as they leave.
When they’re gone I go into the back room. The room is awash with a blazing light as if the curtains had caught fire and ripped open to the sun. It’s so hot. You take my hand and the man beside you takes my other.
They will never see what we have, so tonight we will speak, and I will learn new languages and share my stories with yours.
Citizens was chosen to be read on Word Factory’s election eve story night in 2017 and also appears on Epoque Press’s online ezine: https://www.epoquepress.com/ezine-citizens