Disclaimer.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This is an original fictional novel by the author and is subject to copyright laws and bylaws of the United Kingdom.

Keeping

A Novel by Philippa Cooper.

Chapter 1

Shadup-Shadup-Shadup-Shadup-Shadup-Shadup-Shadup-S hadup.

The G-Zero tramway is the worst way to travel in Gettlum; Worse than braving the stinking, yellow afternoon downpour. It's not the forced intimacy of bodies being rammed into the filthy cans. It's not even the stifling heat that labors every breath. These are things you can't escape no matter where you are in the Tohs.

No- It's the bleeding uproar from in and under the carriages.

Shadup-shadup-shadup-shadup-shadup-shadup-shadup-s hadup-shadup-echo-ing-until-your brain-doesn't-work!

I think they are designed in a way that carries the noise enough to drive you demented; rounded steel pyramids like dirty, great SPAM tins with room to stack two men head-to-foot on top of each other. And the barrage of screeching wheels, clattering metal, wailing announcements, screaming, shouting pervades overhead endlessly loud. And bearable if you remember that it's only so-many stops until you are your own person again.

Thing is, I am destined for nowhere. I have my head pressed against a grimy window, a bead of sweat creeping down my temple. The city beyond the glass speeds past so rapidly that it blurs together in to one yellow-grey mass. I'm willing for the noise to end; just a minute to think clearly. ; To mentally retrace my steps from here.

Our flat in Toh 4 is always a hive of activity but this day had been a morning of perfect timing. Each accident came together to form some faultless sequence. The water tank toppled, that's what came first. Tepid liquid crept over the concrete, pooling around my feet right on cue. Because there was a strange 'pop' and a warm wetness trickled uncontrollably down between my thighs. A fluttering rippled under my inflated navel and I knew it was time.

Asha started to cry, thrusting tight fists into his mouth. Sharp baby teeth were nip-nipping up through his gums and everyone was buzzing around him making a fuss. I groaned, and doubled over, an ache rolling right into my spine. Ma shot me a venomous glare; Asha's teething plight was not to be sniffed at. So I reached for the upset tank with the giggling twins scuttling around my feet and offered to take it to the filling station. The 'lost' towels, a subject of a week-long argument, were stuffed into the laundry carry-all hidden behind the loose wall panel. As was the newest sharp knife, the least rusty of Asha's nappy pins and a single, spotless, nappy sack.

I stumbled out into the street in time to see an Emergency Craft hover momentarily overhead with a harsh siren blaring.

"EMERGENCY. EMERGENCY. FUELED FIRE LOCATED. EVACUATE TOH 5. EVACUATE TOH 5."

The circular hover drives hummed and the air vibrated, whipping my shawl around my face. Then it sped down the avenue and it rounded a corner with shrieking people under its shadow; wide eyes drawn to the flames and flapping their arms like enormous moths.

I had sidled into a side alley to rest. Just to take a moment away- a moment that became another world.

My eyes close to the city beyond the glass. It is probably the very noise I am cursing, noise that shrouds the whole of my being in the Tohs, which has made this morning so ideal. So it's not so awful.

The can jolts to a stop. I'm flung into someone's broad back and my arms wrap protectively around the carry-all settled against my stomach so instinctively that it's surprised me. The tram doors shriek open and I shrink back against the carriage wall to let more noise rattle in. I flatten myself against the window away from the onslaught of new bodies reeking from the Plants; chatter about the Merch-floor, the stench of dye and pleather. I pull the carry all to my chest, burrowing my nose in the hessian so I can smell home.

The guards force as many people in as they can, then the doors squeal closed and the tram springs to life again.

I have been holding my breath. I was waiting for my name; waiting to be hauled out. Or worse, waiting for the carry-all to be snatched from my hands.

I relax into the living walls of people until they are supporting the full weight of my exhaustion.

Well, they could try. I nod to myself. Anyone dares to take You then they would be taking me too.

There is a small subsidence beside me and I am forced to stand upright on trembling legs. Strong fingers grip my shoulder.

"Annabel-"


Most children grow into their name; like a puppy will grow into a dog or a raindrop will, inevitably, become a puddle. Mary's became pompous; at least the one I knew from school. Jacobs fought with conviction and no question; well, the Jacob from the 2nd floor did.

But Annabel was no more my name than Ma was my mother or Toh 4 was my home. It doesn't belong. I'm not beautiful or graceful and I definitely don't carry the ingrained sense of purpose Annabel Leeché from my Literary 1 period does.

It comes from being an orphan of the Tohs; passed from one house to another like an unwanted gift. You're wrapped and unwrapped many times but you still receive the same look of disappointment. At first I was so small that it was every day I changed hands along the halls and stairwells of Gettlum. And for the opening years of my life I existed with names like 'Here' and 'It'. Being nameless is not a good thing. It means you can disappear far easier and, really, no one would care. And to disappear usually means you are on your way to being or are already dead. I mean, even if you share your name with a million other Mary's or Jacobs' and wear the same beige city Issue shirt and trouser; You're never the same person, are you?

It was Ma and her husband that eventually gave me a formal handle. Annabel; I knew, even then, I would never live up to it. I was 3 years old living in one of the smaller compartments of Toh 4 made by slamming up a security door over a maintenance office. I was all wistful stares and fair-haired clumsiness. Every mug I dropped or stumble over my own feet was met with the same response:

"Annabel," Ma's husband would say, chucking me under the chin with a knuckle. "Like calling the maid a Duchess!"

I guess I liked him but he was constantly working as security at the Ration Warehouse that I rarely saw him. And then he was gone so quickly that his face doesn't really stand out from anyone else's in my early memory. But his name was Alan and I remember the day he went.

All death is replaceable. That is what Gettlum teaches you. Alan, as I guess I should use his name, told me a story of a man. He was stronger than any machine and he defeated a beast with many heads; A hydra. That is the Tohs. As soon as a body is removed, three more erupt in its place as if the void has never been.

It was the first time I saw The Pickers. I was still small and drowning in my hand-me-down Issues.

It was a quick turnaround that day. No one can figure how the Pickers find out about a death so quickly. There are rumors of monitoring devices in the security system; secret testing of hairs they steal from the bathing pods. The worst is the notion that are Death itself and that they decided on a sickening whim when and whom they will take next. What I know is that one moment Ma had been crying and the next she had bounded from the bedside to slam the security door we had propped open to ventilate the sick air. There was chaos sounding from below.

"Hide!" She pulled a blanked over Alan's waxen face, greying on the pillow. The din was growing louder, heavy footfalls mounting the stairs.

"They're coming," she hissed. Her eyes were bug big. She grabbed me under the arm and threw me behind the filthy curtain covering our only window, gated with wire mesh and painted shut.

"Annabel, you have to promise me you won't move." Her voice was on a knife-edge. "Not even a blink, not one sound!"

The banging and the snarling barks of their huge dogs had reached fever pitch with the Toh joining the uproar in outrage.

"Promise me, Annabel!" Ma gave me an urgent shake. I nodded with my eyes wide and set on the door into the hall where claws were baying against the solid steel.

"Yes! Yes! I'm coming." Ma swept the curtain around me.

The intruders had become impatient. There was a pitiful beep of the security latch before she had time to cross the floor. The vault wheel thunked round full circle and then they were all inside. There were five of them with five dogs to match, all puffing and growling together like a great, dark beast; its many eyes gleaming hungrily.

The presence in our tiny flat swallowed all of the noise from the stairwell. I could just about make out what was going on through the thin curtain. Three extensions of the monster descended on to the bed and Ma looked on helplessly as they consumed the body of her husband into itself.

I only let out the smallest of cries and everything became abruptly still.

The black mass inflated, taking in all the air in the room so my lungs were caught short. It was smelling for me.

Another forbidden gasp bubbled out from behind my lips. I tried to catch it but it trickled through my fingers as easily as water.

One of their heads snapped to my hiding place. It was smooth and oil slick with a square vent, where the mouth should have been, drawing in loud breaths. It had round opaque pane's for eyes that gleamed like sunlit windows. The head cocked, keenly, to one side.

It broke away, two arms and two legs forming separate to the rest. It sprang to the window so quickly that I didn't have time to shut my eyes.

"No-NO!" Ma's cry was piercing but I only heard it for a moment, then nothing. The Picker had ripped away the curtain and was bearing down on me, its breath roared between my ears. The tang of burnt rubber issued from its body.

I have never forgotten fear. How it rooted my feet to the ground, bound my limbs to my sides, strangled me so I couldn't even scream. It tore me off the ground and the glazed eyes glared and, I mean it, I wanted him to take me; wanted Death to come just so I could be free of that terror.

But as soon as the Picker had lifted me, I fell to the floor. I curled into myself under the mess of my white blonde hair and wept, afraid that it would come back and take me anyway if I cried too loud.

I refused to move for a long time, my mind hovering above my body like a memory.

"They left you." I let Ma stroke my hair. "I guess…maybe you're too old…"

"They left you, Annabel," she wept, her tears falling softly on to my cheeks. "They left you."