Track 2: Welcome to Haven, Home and Healing
A/N: Sorry it's so late. I felt like I was wading on this one : (
I wake up feeling like I've been liquefied overnight and then reset in a mould of my own body. Something has been chafing at my cheek and I push it away with a squint. Wool…or tweed, something dense and smothering.
I'm in a bed not my own, not that I'd recognise my own bed for all the time I've spent sleeping under bridges, in the burnt shells of warehouses, in garden sheds, in ditches, just about anywhere really. A glance down the length of my body reveals the lump of my feet crowded up against a polished pine bed-end. Someone's tucked me in securely and my legs are so swamped in handmade blankets that it takes a while to extricate myself and sit up. That and my legs are clumsy and uncooperative.
I look down. Someone has been kind enough to dress me in flannel pyjama pants even if the hems only reach mid-calf. I run my hands over my face, trying to rub away the last vestiges of sleep.
The room itself is small, no larger than a cell, but quaint I guess you'd call it, dry and wooden, and warm with the afternoon sun flooding in through the open window. There's a rug on the floor, picked out in dusty pink and green so faded it might as well be grey, and a pink-painted dresser pushed up against the opposite wall. On top of the dresser is a pitcher of water, and propped against the peeling teddy-bear wallpaper is a bland picture of still-life flowers like the kind you used to see at the dentist's. But at least it's not one of those hideous icons -Mischling James Halder's beatific face shining out from a light-struck cloud.
Throat suddenly dry, I get to my feet and stagger over to the dresser to take a long draught of water straight from the jug. It's cool, clinical tasting after weeks spent drinking brackish water out of pot-holes and muddy boot prints. I find a pair of slippers at the end of the bed and put them on before slipping out of the door as quietly as possible. I don't think I'm at risk of any danger from someone with guest slippers on hand but I've made poor judgement calls before.
Directly outside the door is a staircase, no landing, just a long, narrow dive of drab-carpeted wooden stairs. I move as quietly as I can, my legs still a little shaky. Each step makes a loud thump and squeak as it absorbs my weight. I cringe a little but there's no sudden slamming of doors or alerted voices so I continue down until I reach the door at the bottom and push out into a dusty, sunlit room where a woman is bent over an ancient looking oven and swearing under her breath.
She looks up with a start as I step into the room and I realise she's not a woman but a young girl, bird-boned and pale with a head of long dark hair that's likely never been cut. She can't be more than 15 but something about the way she's dressed made me think she was older. Her dress looks like it was made for someone much bigger than her. And probably more Amish. And it's at odds with the huge pair of maroon Doc Martens she's wearing.
"Oh, you're awake then," she says. She's got a Yorkshire accent. "I'll go get dad." She makes to turn away.
"W-wait!" I manage, grabbing for her wrist.
She yanks it back with a scowl and then pushed her hair back from her face in a gesture like a tic, annoyed with herself. Her eyes are pale blue, fey and penetrating and I take a step back, hold my hands up in apology.
I have so many questions but I decide to keep it simple for now.
"Where am I?"
She gives me an odd look. "Haven."
I swallow, rack my brains and come up with nothing. "Haven..?"
"In Cambridgeshire," she says bluntly. "We found you just north of March."
"Oh." I'm just so slightly put out. March… March is… far too close to Peterborough. And Peterborough is too big. No, I was walking for days. There's no way I didn't get clear of Peterborough, unless I was somehow walking in circles. But I had my compass…
The girl gives me an impatient look. She has a thin set to her mouth already, which tells me she's not sunshine and schnapps on the best of days. I take a wild guess and assume she's not the one who thoughtfully tucked my feet in last night.
"I'm sorry," I say, trying some tact for a change, "I don't know your name…?"
She looks at me like I'm slow. Thin lips stretched tight, eyes narrowed. Her jaw barely moves. "Sweetie."
"Sweetie," I repeat. Well of course.
There's a loud clatter from behind me and I spin so fast my head keeps spinning a moment after my body's stopped. The other half of the room bisected by the staircase is a formal-looking living room with a round table of polished oak with matching chairs and a cabinet of display china on one side, and on the other -skirted chintz lounges, and an odd, bright spot on the wall where a TV might have once rested. A woman is standing in the doorway wrestling with a milk crate full of firewood, a few logs of which have evidently toppled off in her surprise. I know instantly that she is Sweetie's mother. She's disturbingly thin, her arms like pale twigs straining around the awkward crate. She has the same face, too serious to really be attractive, except her cheeks are gaunt and there are deep lines of consternation etched in her forehead from years of scowling. She's also dressed like a crazy person, but at least her paisley high-necked frock fits her.
She looks like she's seen a ghost. Or a wolf.
"Goodness, your father-"
"Here love," Jer says, sweeping into the room behind her with an easy smile and leaning an antique-looking rifle against the frame. It's only then that I place Sweetie's eyes, that eerie, beautiful blue. I am in Jer's home and Sweetie is his daughter. And this is his wife Hetty. I don't know how I know, just that he must have told me some time between his guiding me through the fields to the village and my unceremoniously fainting.
"Afternoon lad, I was just saying it's about time you got up," he says with a wink, brushing a kiss of greeting on his wife's cheek.
She looks worried, "Jer?"
"It's fine, love. The boy's a good sort. Them's we found out on the borders have always been good sorts, ain't they?"
"Yes, but Jer-"
"I'm sorry," I interrupt before Mrs. Jer's face can get any more drawn. "I'll be on my way as soon as I, er, find some clothes." I pick at the pilled flannel to make my point. "I'd be grateful if you wouldn't mind pointing me in the direction of Wisbech."
Each of them gives me an odd, shocked look like I've just suggested we each take turns fucking a dead stoat.
"Wisbech…" Sweetie says dryly, like she's about to suggest just how crap of an idea it is to head there. I'm not stupid. I know it's crap. Wisbech is just another market village with a Parish Church and no defensive infrastructure to speak of. But it's far away enough from Peterborough, and it's fucking far away from London. Besides which, there's a port at Wisbech. And where there's a port, there's boats… But it's not the smart thing to do, telling perfect strangers about that sort of thing.
"Wisbech," Jer says with a sharp eye on his daughter, "Is a changed place, lad. You'd not be wanting to make for it these days. And I wouldn't mention it to no one while your under my roof neither, you take my meaning."
I nod, throat dry once more. "Ah, sorry."
Jer's serious face breaks once more into a jovial grin. "No need. Het be a sweet and get that bloody oven working. I'm sure our guest is hungry."
I'm about to say I'd rather just get on the road when my stomach groans a loud approval.
"Ha! You see that Het, famished he is. Nothing wrong with a healthy appetite I say. Right, I'll go round the grocer's and see what Ferghal can rummage up for our guest, Sweetie, you be a good girl and make sure…" He looks askance of me.
"Ha!" he scoffs, clapping one big, ruddy-knuckled hand on my shoulder. It feels…strange. Like it should be comforting, but also that it's simply been too long since a hand at the junction of my shoulder and neck was anything but authoritarian. "And here we've been calling you Red."
Ha, very ha. "You can call me that if you like," I say, awkward now that it seems like I'll be intruding on their dinner. Sweetie is still looking at me like I'm some ponce an older sister might have brought home. At least her mother Hettie no longer looks like I've crawled, slavering, in through the kitchen window, but is instead busying herself with a brusque efficiency at the old-time stove, yanking at drawers full of serious-looking cutlery.
That big, capable hand squeezes. "Red it is then. Right then Red, if you'll just follow Sweetie she'll get you a nice clean drink out the well. Go on then." He half pats half pushes me for the door and I stumble past an -if possible- even surlier looking Sweetie and out onto a paved walk. It's a garden, like any you might see in the safer parts of London. A neat little box fenced in white, flower pots overwhelmed with riotous purple flowers -petunias?- a white swing-chair with a yellow and white striped canopy, a pair of pink rubber gloves turned inside out over the hose tap on the wall.
Beyond the fresh-lacquered pickets -charmingly crooked of course- is a road, and beyond that a canal, and beyond that…forest. Well no, between the canal and the tree-line there's a considerably vast clearing where some smarty pants has burnt away all the shrubbery. A field of dust and some hardy scrub, pines reduced to a few charcoal stumps. And beyond it, the ominous, impenetrable wall of trees and god knows what beyond them.
I follow Sweetie, my ill-tempered guide out through the little gate and onto the road, her feet slapping the bitumen loudly in rhythm with her clumsy gait. The shoes are far to big; they obviously used to belong to someone else, though I'm not so stupid as to ask who anymore.
There's a bridge directly across from the house, a vulgar faux-medieval tourist attraction sort of thing -before someone wrecked it, probably with dynamite. I've seen it done with dynamite before. Now there is just its foundation, the beginnings of a low wall stretching out not even a quarter way across the water. Instead Sweetie leads me at a no-nonsense pace up the street and to another bridge. This one is untouched. It spans the several or so metres of canal, and where it terminates, someone -most likely the very same smarty pants who levelled the surrounding woodland- has placed a lookout, like the kind you'd see at the beach or at te local swimming pool. It's white, wooden and capped with a gaudy lifesaving umbrella. But the man underneath it's canopy is anything but the clean-shaven lad you'd expect -this face I remember.
"Norm, this is V- Red," Sweetie says unenthusiastically. The way she says it though, with a sly twinkle to her eyes -the closest thing I've seen to a smile about her- tells me that she has some sort of rapport with my sour faced rescuer.
Norm, for all that his face becomes pinched and bitter when his eyes light on me; when he sees Sweetie, his hands loosen around his pitchfork, the sour resolve of his mouth relaxes.
"You be careful Sweetie, I don't like the look o' him," he spits and I shuffle back, affronted at his spectacular aim, "not especially now he's woke. And I don't like the look o' them trees none either. You go out to the well now and be quick." As he says this last part his eyes track out to mist gathering at the skirts of the forest. His hand strokes a large bell strung up in the rafters of the lookout. Nutter.
Sweetie walks on ahead unfazed while I edge warily past. The well may well have been another tourist attraction. It's a cobbled together thing with a wooden winch. No matching pail unfortunately, just a yellow plastic bucket at the end of a synthetic rope.
She eyes me while I drink, Norm spitting again noisily in the background. "It's not like the water in London it it? Dad says that's where you're from. London. They never got round to doing ours, but just in case, you know, in case they've done it now, which dad says is likely, just in case, we drink from the well".
"Does it taste very different."
No. Yes. I don't remember, that's the point isn't it. "The poisoned water tasted -like marshmallows- sweeter," I say, "But you're more likely to not taste it at all."
I point over her shoulder, at the village beyond the lookout and the canal. The road we walked parallel to the water was obviously much longer once, but at some point there has been an executive decision to section off a neat square of the village and demolish everything beyond that area. The broken bricks and debris of the remaining sixty or so percent of houses appear to have been swept up around the preserved, smaller town of Haven to form a sort of jagged perimeter of twisted concrete and brick-mortar. It might have taken years of work, it might have taken weeks. Small towns across England got very good at becoming fortresses overnight.
"Your father the headman then?"
She gives me a scrutinising look. "How do you know?"
"I've seen the new organisations before. Travelling." Dozens of times, and yet somehow, you always escape, don't you now Valentine. "I saw it at Cottenham. And Ely." Shut your mouth.
Sharp intake of breath. "You were at Ely?" She flushes with excitement. "My Aunt Kathy lives there? She sent me a letter just last month telling me about the books! Is It true about the books? Did you see? Do they really have a library there?" Oh yes. Lots of dry brittle books to catch like prime tinder. Fire. Ashes.
I shudder -something I need to learn to suppress. "I didn't see." Just bought provisions -some NeuroEze- and kept moving. The thought of my tabs… I reflexively dab at my right nostril but there's nothing there, no residue, no crust. It occurs to me that Jer -or gods forbid, Norm- might have given me a bath. I blush. Silly, but I'm still a bit of a prude, even with everything that's happened.
"You're not that much older than me you know."
Who cares love, they do kids the same as they do adults. "I'm 22," I hear myself say.
"No you're not."
"Well, 16 in September. Anyway dad says that's basically an adult anyway."
"Fantastic, when do you get the licence then."
"Oh fuck off."
"Your dad know you've got a mouth like that?"
"You wouldn't know the first thing about my mouth, toff."
I grin. It's been a while since I talked to someone so raw. Most types nowadays monitor what they say to a point of being damned near mute. She's cute, in an untrained, bratty, naïve way. And she's inquisitive too. Precocious girls her age where one of the great obstacles of the Consolidation. Us boys, we kept our heads down or we'd get listed. But snotty little virgins like this one…too stubborn to re-educate, too valuable to get rid of. What was it Elsbeth used to say? A womb is a womb is womb.
A woman is pushing a stroller along the canal, sweatpants on, hair pulled up in a ponytail. She's the oddest thing I've seen since the ill-fated pilot of Sometimes Human.
"So, uh, this place-"
"Haven," she corrects after a moment.
"Right. You haven't been…"
"I've never seen one."
"Oh… You're lucky."
"Dad has. He was an accountant."
"Your dad was?"
A chill strikes up out of the woods and settles into my flesh through the thin flannel. Sweetie pulls the yellow pail out of my hands and sets it in its place, tying off the winch rope with practised movements.
"It gets dark quick up here," she says with one piercing blue eye on the treeline. "Mum will have a roast on since you're a guest." She ignored my frown. "Norm will get snippy if we stay out much longer anyhow. Come on." She sets off away from me in her odd, thumping gait. I can almost place her -Frida and Lils, Annie and Phillipa -they'd titter behind their French manicures at a girl as awkward as Sweetie. I might have made a passing comment to stir them up even…
Norm and Sweetie share a few words, some ritual I'm not supposed to be witness to if the filthy look Norm gives me is anything to by.
By the time we reach the house it's gone fully dark and with an alarming shuttering noise, several spotlights blossom into life along the perimeter, their brutal rays casting everything beyond the canal in stark silver and white. The lights -they're huge, must have been filched from some rusting football stadium- are so powerful that they penetrate the treeline, at least ten, fifteen trunks deep before it blends into a thick murk of the unknown. You know how sometimes, things are so awful, so detrimental to your mental health that you can'y really force yourself to dwell on it? This is one of those things. You don't think about what's beyond the ring of light. You can't. You don't even really want to. Ignorance and a bunch of stolen stadium lights. Bliss.
There's a light on in the little window beside the door and the smell of cooking meat which you would think would nauseate me, but somehow doesn't.
"Hope you like silverside," my guide says dryly, pushing open the door.
I follow my nose to the kitchen where Mrs Jer is busy over a pot, and Jer himself is happily gathering up knives and forks and condiments for the table. It feels natural to take them from him so I do and Jer is kind enough not to ask.
The table has been covered doilies since last I saw it and sitting primly one one side are a pair of teenaged girls fresh out of a horror film. Curls, barely flushed cheeks, linen bows.
"Hello," the one on the left says softly.
The one on the right just blushes with a bob of her blonde curls but the one on the left, the one that spoke, she gives me a knowing smirk, the sort you see on women twice her age once they've sized you up. It's disconcerting.
"Did you go to see our well then?" the talkative one says.
"With Sweetie," the shy one says mostly to her doily. They share a sly look.
I'm saved by Jer. "Ah, Red, I see you've met my daughters." As if there has been some sort of cue they both stand, and with surprising grace, compared to their older sister. And speaking of sisters, poor, poor Sweetie. Where her mouth is too hard, her sisters' are dainty, coquettish bow-lips framed in dimples. Where Sweetie's eyes are too wide-set, too startling, her sisters' are warm inviting blue.
I swallow. "No actually."
"Oh but we've met you," the left says in a tone she can't possible fully understand yet. I feel like I'm being undressed -which I realise is ridiculous in pyjama pants and house shoes. They can't be more than fourteen dammit.
"Girls," Jer says in playful warning and they shoot him identical pouts. "Red, these are my angels, Milk and Honey." Oh dear lord, give me the power not to laugh. "And of course you're already acquainted with my eldest, Meadowsweet" I hadn't realised Sweetie had entered the room. She glowers, first at her father and then at me as if daring me to comment.
"Well go on, greet the boy."
"Pleased to meet you," Milk and Honey say in perfect unison. Sweetie's eye twitches.
"Right then," Jer says, content once the girls take their seats, "I suppose you've seen my town then?"
"Yes, thank you. Your village looks very safe." Bland I know, but it's all I can scrounge from the manners vault.
He beams anyway. "None safer! And would you believe, Hettie got our generator up and running while I was at the shop, so you'll be having a hot shower tonight."
Oh god that sounds…almost too much. Hot food, a hot shower, clean drinking water. If I was still able to get hard I would now I think.
"Mum is an engineer," Sweetie says.
"Your mother was an engineer," Jer corrects with a sad look.
The woman in question edges warily around me to set the cooked silverside down on the table, the juices running onto the large tray. There's rosemary potatoes too, and caramelised onions like mum used to insist on for Sunday roast. I always hated onions but my mouth his watering at the smell of these. There's even a salad, with lettuce, and lush-looking cherry tomatoes. Sure, probably grown in some hot house, but I've been eating canned string beans for the last fortnight.
Even the girls sigh at the sight of it all. Except Sweetie.
"Since when is hot water "a necessity"' I hear her mumble. "And since when do we eat cellar stock."
"You hush," her mother says with a nervous look at me, like I'm a guest to her, sure, but if she needs to put some silver in me she will. "Your father earned that cut and he can do what he likes with it. No one will begrudge us that surely."
I clear my throat. "I'd hate to be a burden."
"You'd never be a burden, Red," the one on the left -Honey, I think- veritably sighs.
I find my eyes tracking to Jer but he appears oblivious, fussing with a gas lamp in the centre of the table. Mrs Jer -Hettie- takes her seat finally.
Somehow, naturally we are all waiting for Jer to give his permission.
"Well then," he says finally, "Het love, if you'd be so kind as to poor our guest some water. Yes, ok. To Haven always being a refuge for weary travellers then. And to new friendships, new families." He gives me a wink and I shift uncomfortably in my chair.
"To Red," Honey says softly, raising her glass in toast. No one joins her but Jer giver her a warm look of approval. Milk blushes again, fingering her silverware, her other hand clasping her sister's in grace.
I look at Sweetie. She's staring hard at some point on the carpet; long, ratty hair concealing eyes burning wide with tears.
"Cheer up" I say once the others are busy reaching for their serves and making small talk, "I'll be out of your hair in no time. Two days tops."