'Now here's something I think you'll find very interesting,' announced the salesman with a well-practiced but increasingly tired flourish. The tall thin one folded her arms and pulled the same, underwhelmed expression.
'It's not really…' she began. The salesman knew not to try to finish her sentence, whilst her partner – the short, dumpy one – also knew not to interrupt. 'It's not really saying anything to me,' she announced.
'That's because it's a fucking fridge!' Robert wanted to scream but instead he selected face number eighteen: sympathetic understanding.
'Hmm,' he said as though considering an interesting piece of philosophy.
'Is it the size? The shape?' he ventured.
'All of it. I want,' she began before remembering her partner, 'We want,' she corrected herself and the Dumpy One smiled pathetically, 'industrial: post-modern. I know the vogue is Art Deco but that's just so bourgeois. It's too,' she struggled with the great problem of expressing her massive intellect: 'It's too finished.'
'Indeed,' said Robert, second name Patterson. The woman hadn't bothered to ask either despite her stealing the best part of two hours of his afternoon. On the other hand Robert knew she was Annabelle Rogers: self-made businesswoman, gallery-owner and collector of Rare and Ancient Artefacts. In her spare time she painted (well, obviously – having had a minor 'show' of her own, presumably at her own gallery) and concentrated on looking 'fifteen-years younger'. Robert guessed at sixty. He had picked all this up without particularly trying. And particularly trying this particular customer undoubtedly was. But he'd damn well make a sale if it were the last thing he did.
'We haven't invested in all that space just to have it look unoccupied and redundant. What's the point if you don't fill it?' she was expounding – yes that was the word, expounding – to her companion. 'Objet d'art, not just furniture but statements – they need room to breathe, Miriam. You need to consider our home a gallery: everything has to earn the right to be there. This would be lost – lost!' And with that Annabelle stalked off towards a pair of huge arc-lamps leaving Robert and Miriam exchanging looks. For a second the salesman wasn't sure whether to offer a look of condolence but then to his surprise she gave him one instead. He stifled a giggle as she mouthed the words: 'Bigger fridge.' He nodded and the pair set off in her wake.
'We'll take these,' she was saying as they caught up. Excellent, thought Robert, who had been trying to get rid of what he considered monstrosities for months. Oh well – the world would be awful if we were all the same…
And that was when a thought struck him. Of course! Why hadn't he thought of it before?
'Erm?' he started to gain Annabelle's attention. 'Back to the question of a fridge: I do have one thing you may be interested in, if you'd care to follow me?'
The main showroom of Mainwaring's was big enough but it was only when you entered the storage area, usually hidden from customers that you realised just how much stock they carried. The Mainwaring brothers bought compulsively, so much so that Robert and co-salesperson, Marie, found it extremely hard to keep track, especially given the lacklustre record keeping. End of lines from manufacturers, uncollected bespoke designs, indirectly from house clearances – mainly high-end though, no terraces in Eastbourne. But where on earth they'd found the object he now stood in front of God only knew.
'It's East-European, we think Polish. Late-forties: possibly early-fifties. You can see a maker's mark on the side: Wiedkin. If true then there were three brothers all making electrical goods around that time. Karl specialized in fans, the fifty-two models being highly sought after – you've probably seen them. But they could turn their hands to anything – cookers, radiators, mixers, radios. Very minimal styling: influenced a number of later German and American designers. Their earlier output is just now coming to prominence – the basic, functional style being very much en-vogue, as I'm sure you're undoubtedly aware. And this – well this is unique. It predates their later output and is, we believe, the only one of its kind in existence.'
Annabelle paused. Robert stole a glance at Miriam who was biting her lip. Behind his back he crossed two fingers.
'I love it,' she said. 'When can you deliver?'
In the event the door gave easily. With barely a groan a sliver of darkness appeared, blinking in the cold light of the morning. Keith gave a hard shove against a mound of unopened mail and the hallway yawned in their faces.
'Bingo!' he said then disappeared inside.
It was a standard early-thirties three-bed semi: stairs straight-ahead, living room off the hall to the left, kitchen-cum-dining room to the rear. Upstairs there would be three bedrooms and a small bathroom off an even smaller landing; out back there might be a walk-in 'pantry' or possibly a toilet if it hadn't been fitted upstairs when built. Most retrofits had to be appended to the rear as the bathroom was too small.
'Smells bad. Did she die in here?' asked Ricky, pushing the living room door open.
'Sure did. An' it was a month before they found 'er,' replied his colleague.
'Argh, Flubber! You never said that! She must have been…!' exclaimed Ricky.
'In fact, my dear Ting, they say her cats found her first…'
'I certainly do. They say she was missing her eyes, her ears, her nose and eight fingers.'
'That's 'kin horrible!'
Keith 'Flubber' Fubstein laughed as he looked round the kitchen.
'You were kidding, right?'
Flubber turned, grinning.
'Nope,' he replied. 'Now come on – get the stuff out of the van.'
They split the work between them: Ting brought the tools, the bags and the packing while Flubber toured every room - appraising. The house was, if summed up in a single word, full. Everywhere there was 'stuff': cupboards, boxes, chests of drawers, stacks of papers. There were cheap electricals, ornaments, sheets and towels. Why, he wondered, did old folk do this? He picked up a framed sepia photo of a smiling soldier being mobbed by what looked like prison camp inmates. Was it the hoarding instinct from the war? The make-do-and-mend, it'll-come-in-handy-sometime mentality? And it was dirty: they seemed to have their own standard of hygiene. He himself wasn't known for his cleanliness, indeed Val often had a go at him for it but this… Even allowing for the fact the woman had been dead for a month. Had no one thought to clean? Flubber thought of what he was doing and stopped being sanctimonious; ultimately it would help their cause.
'What's the verdict then?' asked Ting out of breath when they met back up in the hall ten minutes later. Keith screwed up his face unenthusiastically.
'Meagre pickings by the looks of it. Bit of jewellery, an ornament or two: some military medals – husband was in the war. Might be some good furniture – we'll take most of it. No electricals and no cash under the mattress more's the pity. Not lifted the floorboards yet of course.'
'So what are we talking?'
'Hmm: three, four grand?'
'And how much do we pay?'
'Look – never you mind: I do the numbers. Come on - let's get started.'
'Mind the damn wall!'
'Sorry!' came a voice from behind the bulky object slowly making its way up the stairwell. Annabelle walked back into the apartment shaking her head. Miriam pursed her lips in shared despair.
'It's going to look wonderful!' she said, hopefully.
'Provided they don't destroy the whole bloody place in the process then yes it should, my dear.'
It took four delivery men half an hour to man-handle the fridge into place, a blessing being Annabelle's absolute certainty of where it should be located.
'Never seen one like that before,' commented one of the men as he wiped his brow and lingered for a tip. 'Where's it from, an abattoir?' His colleagues laughed. There was no tip.
'And good riddance,' said Annabelle as Miriam closed the door five minutes later with an apologetic smile. 'There's simply no excuse for surly work-men! Not in this day and age.'
'Are you happy with it?' she asked tentatively. Annabelle turned abruptly.
'Of course we are, dear: look at it - it's magnificent!' Miriam looked slightly less sure; but Annabelle thought it was, so that must be right. How would she, Miriam Laithwaite describe it? Well large, certainly. The abattoir quip wasn't that far-fetched: it was seven feet tall, three feet wide and at least three deep. It certainly wouldn't have fitted any normal kitchen, but then very little in their East Hampstead apartment was 'normal'. It had been a warehouse of sorts that had fallen into a state of disrepair: there had even been pigeons in the rafters when they'd come to view it. Annabelle had had the vision – had seen the potential that she would never – could never – have had. Open plan, polished cherry floorboards throughout. Twenty-five foot ceiling; glass gangways. Freestanding shelving with carefully selected works; huge industrial lighting and radiators. Much of the original, heavy-duty heating pipework remained, suitable polished. It looked something like a Bond villain's lair and Miriam even referred to it as such to Trinny and Cath, her only two independent – i.e. not-shared-with-Annabelle - friends. Yes, the fridge fitted right in. It was an unprepossessing yellowy-brown colour: the surface rough and aged. The shape was geometric: none of the curves and automotive detailing that came with fifties US-style appliances. It was stark and functional: brutal, in fact.
Annabelle strode upstairs and paused half-way to look back.
'Yes – perfect. It has real presence, doesn't it?' she said, her voice echoing in the cavernous living space. Without waiting for an answer she disappeared into her study.
Miriam stood by the fridge and reached a slow hand out to touch it. She recoiled, knowing it was just her nerves, then reached out again and caressed the solid, gunmetal handle. On an impulse she opened it and was amazed at how easily the huge door opened. It swung like a well-oiled bank vault and she had to tug to stop it. Inside was somehow less impressive, apart from the size. There was definitely room inside for a dead body, she grinned. A second later the interior light came on and made her jump. Faulty wiring she thought. The intense cold radiating from inside only surprised her when she realised it wasn't yet plugged in.
Miriam gave a puzzled shudder.
By twelve they'd filled six boxes and three bin-bags from upstairs. No sheets or towels, and only a few clothes, but there were thirty or forty collectible crystal figurines still in boxes.
'Not exactly Antiques Roadshow but still,' said Flubber. Next came the bedroom suite: bed, wardrobe, dressing-table, chest of drawers; all polished, art-deco style teak. Worth a grand according to Flubber. After this they treated themselves to lunch, Flubber insisting they drove a couple of miles to find a chippie. Ting said nothing, but a slow, troubling thought was forming.
It carried on forming in the afternoon when Flubber bundled him inside the house as a mother came up the path next door with a toddler and a pushchair. The woman called half-heartedly but the door slammed after just one try so she couldn't have been that bothered.
'Why d'you do that?' asked Ting.
'What?' asked Flubber.
'Push me inside?'
'Need a fag, din' I?' He went to stand on the back step, puffing a John Player Special into the autumn afternoon while Ting made their fifth brew of the day.
'Sad, init?' said Ting, staring down the garden a short time later.
'Yeah,' replied Flubber absent-mindedly. 'What is?'
'Well: old woman, dying on her own like that. No one around to see her.'
Flubber slurped his tea.
'Yeah, yer right. Where was her family?'
'Or the neighbours,' he said raising his voice slightly and peering up at the boundary wall which divided the two. 'Hope I never get like that'.
'You'll be dead by the time yer fifty the food you eat,' Flubber grinned. 'Come on, back to it,' he said grinding his cigarette beneath the heel of a Caterpillar boot.
By two-thirty the living room was done. Another tea break later Flubber was disappointed by an ivy-covered shed hidden behind some seriously runaway rosebushes. A seized-up seventies model Qualcast Concorde, a variety of rusty garden implements; stacks of flower pots, bags of soil; a gardening pinnie with long-faded flowers, a straw hat and gloves. Nothing remotely of value.
Four o'clock brought a deepening gloom to number eighteen Russet Avenue. Items of value removed, remainder shoved to one side Flubber and Ting started to roll back the carpets.
'We're not supposed to be here, are we Flubber?' said Ting out of the blue. The cogs only rotated slowly but they usually got there eventually.
'What do you mean?' asked the larger of the two without looking up.
'You haven't paid for the house clearance, have you? We're robbing it.'
Flubber paused, crowbar in hand.
'Yes, Ting,' he replied, then hit one end with a rubber-headed mallet. A floorboard screeched drily into the air. Flubber pulled at it then did the same with the next.
'Oh,' said Ting. 'I thought so.'
'Problem with that?'
Ting thought, openly.
'Well, I just think…you know.'
Flubber thrust a torch through the gap, examining the under-floor cavity which in these properties could be quite sizable in his experience. He'd once found a bicycle beneath one.
'No, I do not know, Ting,' he said switching off the torch and looking at his workmate. 'Feeling guilty? Robbing a lovely old lady?'
'Firstly, she ain't here: she's gone to meet her maker and harsh though that maybe it isn't our fault. Point is she isn't needing anything down here no more. Second, there aren't exactly a plethora of relatives queuing up. And there certainly wasn't any before she died. A month, and no bugger came to see her! Even if she had left stuff to anyone,' he paused while he lifted more boards in another part of the room, 'I don't think they deserve it, do you? No, course you don't. We're here doing all this work. It all has to go – ultimately we're doing whoever a favour. And who else gets it all if there's no one to leave it all to? Eh? The council, that's who. An' they definitely don't deserve it, the shower of…' He shone the torch into another cavity, seeming to hurry. 'And finally,' his voice echoed beneath the floorboards; h switched off the torch then raised his head to face Ting. 'There's sod all here anyway.'
Ting followed Flubber through the house, taking up carpets, checking nooks and crannies. When they ended up in the kitchen half an hour later they were empty-handed and the light had begun to fade. The electricity had been disconnected.
'You looked in there?' asked Flubber, gesturing towards the red pantry door.
'Nah – just food an' stuff in there.'
'You never know.' Flubber unhooked the latch and shone his torch inside. The bright yellow cone illuminated a cobweb-encased u-bank cleaner, several brushes and a couple of tea-towels that looked like they'd been dug up on Time Team. But pride of place went to a huge, square-outlined object, seven feet tall and three feet wide. It was like nothing Ting had ever seen before.
'Bingo!' said Flubber.
Thursday 24th June
My Dearest Ludmilla,
I am writing to let you know that I arrived safe and sound! I know you will be relieved as I know how you worry. The journey took eighteen hours by coach – why they would not send us by train I do not know.
I hope you and our dear children are well. Did Lina's chickenpox clear up fully? She looked so sorry for herself when she said goodbye – I was not sure how much was me going and how much her feeling under the weather!
Speaking of the weather it is pleasant, much like at home. It is sunny as I look out of the bedroom window though yesterday it rained somewhat. I have not required my overcoat as yet but I shall wear it if it gets colder if only to ensure that you, my love, do not worry. My room is modest but has a small kitchen area so I am able to cook – yes, I cook, Ludy! – but there is also a canteen in the basement. Talking to the other residents many have travelled as I have. There are carpenters and metal workers, at least three doctors and even a chemist! Why they need a chemist I cannot imagine.
The work is interesting and varied as I had hoped. I have been given a well-equipped workshop and a helper named Jakob who is less than bright but he is pleasant, helpful and most of all competent. I said they had money but dear me they have no electrical understanding! The wiring for the new complex was completely inadequate! I had to start from scratch. Luckily funds do not seem to be an issue and they want only the best. But of course this is why they sent for me over such a great distance! Do not laugh, my dear Ludmilla!
It is not easy being separated by so many miles but three months will pass quickly, my love. I will write regularly, please write back. Hug Piotr and little Lina tightly for their Papa, and do not worry.
God bless us and keep us safe.
Your loving husband,
In the event the evening was a disaster. Disaster that is in the sense that Annabelle thought of it as such.
'Call that fusion? Of what: leftovers and dog food? I mean for God's sake. And those waiters! Tramps from doorways the lot of them!' She stormed through the flat hurling the Longchamps bag Miriam had got her for Christmas at the far wall. 'Get a bottle out, Mizzy,' she said disappearing upstairs to get changed. Miriam watched her go.
'Okay,' she said to herself, taking her shoes off and sighing. So many people didn't understand her Annie. She switched the TV on and walked through into the open-plan kitchen with its aluminium work surfaces, huge brass taps and pendulum lamps suspended from the twenty-foot ceiling. At five-foot-three Miriam was already on the small side but this kitchen made her feel like she was back at her Mum's baking on a Monday afternoon. She even had a small step so she could reach. She took two Villeroy and Boch glasses from the cabinet then had a momentary crisis: red or white? White: definitely white: Annie got morose on red as it was. She climbed down and headed for the fridge. Yes, Annie was tough - she had had to be. She could be abrasive, certainly; Miriam couldn't deny that, after all! But people rarely took the time to dig beneath the surface. To see what she saw: to see the vulnerability, the uncertainty. To see the girl dressed in women's clothes. She smiled and reached for the brushed steel handle.
Zip! A small shock ran up her arm and down her right leg. She gasped, more with surprise than pain. Tentatively she reached out to touch its cold sheen again. Nothing: must have just been static.
'Silly thing,' she said, wrenching the fridge door open and marvelling once more at the smooth, balanced action. Immediately she was hit by a massive burst of cold air: it was quite overwhelming. She basked in it, allowed it to creep inside her blouse, to soothe her face and prickle her scalp. It had had a few hours to settle and was doing its job on nothing more than a few bottles of white and a large Tiramisu. She'd been given the task of stocking it properly tomorrow while Annie was out at a meeting. She didn't pay much attention – she had her own social circle. Limited was the word Annie used; Miriam preferred 'select'. After a few seconds consideration she grasped the Pinot Grigio and was just about to withdraw when something caught her eye. There was a crack in the bottom left corner. No, not a crack: a gap between two ancient panels. And there was something sticking out of it – something old and yellow and papery. She reached her hand inside but was nowhere near. Bottle in one hand she leant down and reached again, fingers clawing as she turned her face away so she could get her shoulder deep inside the fridge. A distant memory told her to be careful, that people got trapped in fridges on rubbish dumps. It was happening all the time! Her fingers clawed cold air before finally she touched it! Felt the dry papery surface…
'Where's the plonk, Mizzy?' came Annabelle's voice. Miriam hesitated then climbed back to her feet.
'Coming, dear!' she said brightly: investigation postponed.
'A fridge? Why would we be interested in an old fridge?' asked Ting.
'It's the old part that's the important bit,' replied Flubber, running his hand along the ruler-straight top edge, getting his fingertips smeared in grease and fluff for his troubles. 'People like old. Or classic. This is a classic, Mr. China. I don't know exactly what it is but…' He trailed-off, looking down the sides for bumps and marks. 'Straight as a die,' he said. It looked in remarkably good, if very mucky, condition. 'Get it cleaned up, bit of Brasso,' he grinned. 'A grand here, maybe two.'
'True as I'm ridin' this bike!' laughed Flubber, not taking his eyes from it. 'I seen a programme: people love old shit like this. It's not one of them American ones I don't think, but it looks…' What did it look? It lacked curves, any semblance of accommodation to its purpose or surroundings. 'Industrial.' He liked the sound of that. 'Yeah - industrial. Like it was originally in a works or a factory or something.'
'Is that good?'
'Posh people love it: bit of retro, vintage, all that. Oh I don't know, do I: but it's got to be worth sommat.'
'Will it fit through the doors?'
'We'll make it fit. Might involve a bit of woodwork but the place'll have to be renovated anyway.'
'But…' said Ting.
'What?' asked Flubber sharply. 'Don't go getting no conscience on me, Ting, not you. I can't afford one and I know you can't – three small mouths to feed and all that. You want to walk? Then walk: I'll get someone else to lift. Cos that's all you have to do: lift.'
Ting was quiet.
'Good. Now start getting all this shit around it shifted.'
There was an awful lot of 'shit' and by the time they – or rather Ting – had finished it was pitch black outside. Flubber had measured the doorways, checked the space on the van and reckoned they could move it tonight. Leave it till tomorrow and the thieving locals would have it, he said.
'What about inside?' asked Ting.
Oh crap: Flubber hadn't even thought about that. He reached for the handle: maybe she wouldn't have much in, living on her own and all…
The smell hit them on both cheeks, stinging their eyes and taking away their breath. Ting gagged, Flubber threw himself at the door.
'Get a winder open, quick! 'Kin 'ell!' Ting pulled his jumper over his mouth and flung a window wide as Flubber unlatched the back door.
'Dear God in heaven! What on earth is in there?' he screamed as they scrambled outside. 'Has she been freezing cat turds?' Ting laughed, catching a lungful of the offensive odour in the process. This made him gag so powerfully that his lunch made a repeat appearance all over the bins, which in turn made Flubber howl.
'Who's that?' came a voice over the wall. Flubber clamped his jaw in an attempt to stifle the laughter but succeeded only in emitting a sound rather like a steam kettle. Ting, still spitting, made his best cat noise.
'What the fuck was that?' hissed Flubber, tears streaming down his cheeks.
'Cat,' replied Ting, straight-faced.
'Doing what? Being stuffed?' Now Ting laughed too and Flubber clamped a hand over his mouth. Over the neighbour's wall they heard a door close.
'Right come on, must have cleared a bit by now.'
It hadn't, so with a scarf and a t-shirt tied round their respective mouths they approached the fridge with bin-bags and trepidation.
The fridge was, like the rest of the house, full to overflowing. Despite its size and only three shelves it seemed the old woman hoarded food too and they were faced with a wall of packets, containers, tins and plastic packaging. And none of it looked fresh.
'God, look at that milk!' said Ting, reaching for a plastic container filled with a solid mass of yellow. 'Best before August 25th. Nine weeks ago! Bloody hell!' He gingerly lifted the container and at arm's length dropped it into the black bag being held open by Flubber.
'Hurry up for Christ's sake! Stop bein' so bleedin' prissy!'
'You do it then!'
'One of us needs to hold the torch, idiot!' explained Flubber. 'Just 'urry up.'
A second milk container appeared in the pool of torchlight, then a lump of cheese which – rather worryingly – looked okay.
'Dares yer!' said Flubber over Ting's shoulder.
'Bugger off!' said Ting laughing before stopped abruptly. 'You hear that?'
'Noise – sounded like it was round the back of the fridge.' Flubber pointed the torch, their sole source of illumination, down the narrow gap beside the metal box. A mass of cobwebs faced them.
'Maybe a huge massive spider, Ting, ready to come an' eat yer face!'
'Not funny: you know I hate spiders.'
'Come on – prob'ly a mouse. Get on with it.'
Sunday 11th July
My Dearest Ludmilla,
Your letter was wonderful! We should write more often even when I return home if you are going to write such heart-warming and funny stories! The picture of Piotr, the cat and the coalscuttle is making me smile even as I write!
Tell Venka Morska – who I remember crying in the corner of the school yard – that I will pay in full upon my return. If he doubts my credit he can check at the Employment Registry in town – if he dares! He will not for he is a coward. Let me know my dearest if he continues to pester you – I will tell the Captain here – I am sure he can get word (and more!) back if required. I am a selected tradesman. No –I am an artisan! We shall enjoy a more exalted position when I return and the likes of 'Porky' Morska will bother us no longer!
But I have much to tell of my own. I have been working non-stop! In truth there is little else to do as the village is far from anywhere. There is one public house (into which I have ventured only twice, my love!), a shop and a blacksmith's and that is it! But I am enjoying the work: I have never been so challenged! The things they ask! I tell them what it would take and miraculously the materials appear. I am thinking of making things up just to test them!
I do miss you, that is the only down side. Would that this work could be done closer to home but alas that would be wanting the best of both worlds. I shall complete my contract and with the money I shall set up a business and I shall create the finest electrical devices in the whole of the country. No, in Europe! Once all this nastiness is done Europe will be a more stable place for entrepreneurs such as myself with all that I am learning. I shall open a factory, employ apprentices and… But I am getting ahead of myself. I need to concentrate on the job at hand. Grildenhalle – the plumber next door - has gone, I hear, after falling out with the Captain. His work was shoddy they said and next thing his bedroom is empty. He was gone so fast but then they are paying us well so they expect the best. I am glad my work is good enough – could it be anything else? (I am laughing at my own joke – writing sarcasm is very difficult I have found).
Be good and keep safe, my lovely Ludmilla. Kiss our children – is Piotr still crossing off the days until I return? It is good practice for his counting!
God bless us and keep us safe.
With all my love, my love.
'You don't say that! You never say that!' shouted the old woman as the boy disappeared into the kitchen. 'If your grandfather could see you now…!' An angry tirade of Polish chased him to the back step, 'All human – no-one not human…!' And Jeff was glad of her immobility. Then back to English: 'Every life is worth the same…!'
'Stupid cow,' he muttered.
'I heard that!' replied a younger voice immediately followed by, 'Ow!' as Jeff clipped his younger brother round the ear.
'Keep this,' Jeff pointed at his nose, 'Out!' He grabbed his coat and stalked off down the path that led to the gate at the end of their narrow garden.
'Where you goin'?' asked Ian, 'Can I come?'
'Up to you,' replied his older brother not turning and Ian scurried after him. Grey clouds quickly blotted the occasional ray of sunlight and Ian quickly wished he'd brought his coat too. They were obviously headed to the tip.
Still no answer.
'WHAT?' shouted Jeff, shoulders hunched, without slowing
'What is a Nigger?' Jeff stopped and turned, looked carefully at Ian, then clipped him round the ear again.
'Ow! I'm only saying what you said!'
'Yeah well – you shouldn't.'
'But why?' Jeff had started walking again. 'I've heard dad say it too. Does it mean those immigrant people with brown skin?'
'Sort of. But it's not nice. So don't say it.'
''K,' replied Ian. 'Why does Gramma not like you saying it though? She's not brown?'
They reached the lane that led between the garages. The ground was strewn with rubble and rusting bits of car.
'She's Polish: some people call people from Poland names too.'
'Oh,' said Ian, staring at his feet in thought, having to run every third step to keep up. 'I get called names. I get called weed.'
'Yeah well you know why that is?'
''Cos you are one.'
'Are. You're tiny – small and weedy!'
Ian's bottom lip jutted forward as the pair emerged onto the tip.
Marsden Brook, or rather its valley, had separated the suburb of Blinkley from Marsden itself for living memory. V-shaped for most of its length the meandering Brook had opened it out into a huge bowl some half-a-mile across. It was this that had appealed to the council looking for a solution to its waste management problems; consequently the Brook now ran through a series of concrete culverts and the bowl itself, formerly a riot of colour and wildlife, was now half its former depth with a floor of human detritus smelling of decomposition.
'Where we goin'?' asked Ian as they stumbled onto the outer rim of the tip. The area had been fenced-off but in places the eight-foot barbed-wire and concrete had been breached. Jeff climbed through one such opening and headed along the narrow path between the fence and the drop in an anti- clockwise direction.
'Are you looking for something?' Ian asked trying a different and more optimistic tack. Maybe Jeff had forgotten about the argument and was now on one of his quests. Ian was jealous of Jeff's quests: no matter how old he got he never seemed to do any of the cool things Jeff could do. When Ian was five it was cool to be seven. But when he reached seven it was obviously cooler to be nine like Jeff. Even at twelve Jeff – much taller, much stronger and finding things such as TVs and bikes in the tip - was immeasurably more impressive. Not that Ian would ever admit it out loud.
Ian looked up at the sky: rain was coming. He tried to turn his t-shirt collar up but without success. And that was when he saw the boys.
Thursday 5th August
My dear Ludmilla,
I hope you are well. The weather here has been unexpectedly hot and work has been tiring. Is it the same back home? Your letter was very welcome and brought me cheer when I was feeling a little low. To think of you and the children in our little house and playing on their bicycles is a picture I shall keep remembering in the weeks that remain.
I said I was feeling low: nothing to worry about but we have had a reminder of the importance of our work. A spy was discovered – a man I had talked with but luckily no more! I did not suspect but the Captain and his men have ways of detecting them and he was removed quickly and with little fuss the day before yesterday. The Captain then gathered all of us together and reinforced the importance of our work to the war effort; of how we had to be careful as spies may be anywhere. I did not like the way he looked at us all but I suppose this is part of his training.
The good news is that the work proceeds apace: I have completed thirty pieces of equipment – or rather the three men under my supervision and I have. I have a team, Ludmilla! It will be good practice for the factory! We are producing quality items I can be proud of. The Captain emphasized we should be careful what we write in our letters as it is possible these may be intercepted. I had not thought of this and will be wary, but you know my wares – and everyone has been tested! I am proud to put my name against them as you have always advised. Imagine my name as a signature of quality on my appliances for years to come!
With this comes a little bad news, however. There is more work to do and the Captain has advised that my contract has been extended – until November. But this will mean more money so please do not cry! Remember what to do if Herr Morska comes knocking again.
In any event I shall be home for Christmas and what a Christmas we shall have! Kiss the children for me and write again soon.
God bless us and keep us safe.
They were shouting, or someone was: it was difficult to tell at this distance. The bowl was irregular and the path around its edge ducked in and out of clumps of trees. He could see the group maybe two hundred yards away but their route would take longer.
'Ignore them,' said Jeff as he bent to peer at something half way down the slope to his left. 'Here,' he said, 'hold this.' He gave Ian his jacket as he gingerly stepped onto the loose soil. Ian watched Jeff struggle down to the – whatever it was – but his gaze kept retuning to the group of boys. They were partly obscured by trees but it looked like a scuffle was developing.
'Here, give me a hand idiot!' Jeff was reaching up towards Ian and Ian was only too happy to be needed.
'What's that?' asked Ian peering at the mechanical device in Jeff's hands. It looked broken whatever it was: wires and pipes and cogs jutted out and led nowhere. It was also rusty and had dirt lodged in its innards. Jeff looked down at it.
'Dunno – but I want to find out what it does, don't I?'
Ten minutes later the object had been discarded for some altogether more interesting ignition-sparking devices. 'Great for electrocuting people at school!' announced Jeff, filling his pockets, and they came upon the boys unexpectedly, the shouts having died down.
'…no, no! Leave me alone!' a small voice whimpered. Ian and Jeff emerged from the trees to see a boy lying on the soil, his face a mix of dirt and dried blood. He was a similar age to Jeff, his captors a year or so older.
'Shuttit Gypo!' shouted one and kicked the boy in the ribs. Ian saw blood run from his mouth. Then the larger boy saw then.
'Alright lads – just keep movin': nothin' to see here.' Ian stood wide-eyed, unsure what to do. He looked at Jeff and saw he was doing the same. This, Ian wasn't used to – usually Jeff knew just what to do.
'Is he alright?' he asked almost as a reflex.
'He said,' said another lad – tall, muscular, 'move on: nowt to see. So do it!'
Ian saw Jeff look down at the bloodied boy, then up at the path. Then round at Ian.
'Come on,' he said and started past the boys. Ian felt funny. He passed the group, feeling slightly scared as they towered over him by at least a foot. He looked at the boy on the ground. The boy's eyes stared at him: they didn't cry, neither did they ask for help. All he saw was hate. His stomach settled: the boy must have done something bad. It was okay – he probably deserved the beating.
They walked on and behind them the shouts re-started.
'Bloody gypos,' muttered Jeff.
'Yeah!' joined in Ian, glad they were back on the same side.
'Bet he's one from the camp up near the railway. Probably thieving as usual.'
'Yeah!' said Ian again. He felt better already: life was always easier when he and Jeff were getting along. He knew he could be annoying so he had the good sense to keep quiet when disagreeing might cause an argument. Or get him a dead arm.
They were about to round another shoulder of the rim-path when Jeff stopped and turned to look back. Ian did likewise. The boys were still there as was their quarry, only now he was standing, his back to the slope down into the tip. He looked very small.
'They're going to put him in that!' said Jeff, pointing to a large white box. Looking closer Ian realized what it was.
'It's a fridge.'
'Yep – ha! Dirty scummy…' he said but Ian thought he sounded a little less confident than usual, like when he argued with Dad. Ian shielded his eyes against a sudden glare of the sun.
'What are they going to…?' Ian started but then events overtook them. One of the larger boys opened the fridge and the younger boy was pushed inside and the door closed against his obvious resistance.
Jeff bit his lip.
'Come on,' he said, and started walking away. Ian waited. A cold breeze blew across his face and light rain peppered his cheek.
The boys were laughing now and beat on the fridge with their fists and their feet and then with sticks. Ian imagined the darkness and the cold and the feeling of being trapped. Suddenly this thought brought a tear to his eye: alone, waiting for help. Why did that bother him so much? His mind seemed to tick-over in neutral: he tried to tell his feet to move – he wanted to move, but the lower half of his body was saying 'no dice'. But he couldn't do anything: he had to… And then he heard Jeff again say:
They worked in pretty much the same fashion for half an hour, Ting lifting – and occasionally ripping apart – items from the fridge while Flubber encouraged him to work faster. In each case the sell-by dates grew older. 'July 28th!' 'May 18th!' 'Christ! This ham – I think it's ham – March! Jeezus that's got maggots!' But at the end they seemed to have barely made a dint.
'Maybe we can just pull the shelves out, leave it on the floor? The place has got to be cleaned up anyway.' But the shelves were fixed, and the food – or what had been food – was in many cases welded together. Packets had burst, oozing liquid that may or may not have originally been a solid, which had grown a grey-blue fur. This fur coated not just the packets and containers but the shelves themselves. The torches lit it like a Martian landscape and as Flubber's hand shook so it seemed to move and creep. It grew colder and Ting grew less and less happy.
'Can't we just come back in the light, Flub? I mean – this is going to take all night!' he moaned, delicately removing an open Heinz tomato soup tin overflowing with black mould and wishing for the umpteenth time that he'd brought some gloves.
'Come on – not far. We must be nearly halfway by now.'
Ting disagreed but kept his doubts to himself so as not to ruin the prevalent optimism. An open sardine tin showed no sign of anything resembling a sardine: perhaps they had evolved and departed, thought Ting. However far in they were it was getting more difficult to remove the food. For one thing he had to reach quite a way inside now – how deep was this thing? – and for a second the mould was getting worse. He was taking things out now that he couldn't even recognise the packaging of and he had the constant urge to retch.
'Whassat d'you reckon?' he asked, holding up a misshapen mass with ridges of mould and fur that had hardened into a structure not unlike the imitation rock on model railways.
'God knows. Lump of meat? Cabbage?'
'Oh shit!' shouted Ting and dropped it like it was hot. 'It's got eyes! The fuckin' thing's got eyes!' Both men jumped, Flubber dropping the torch, Ting sending brushes and various other items flying across the kitchen. When the pair came to a halt, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, the only light came from inside the bin-bag.
'Oh shit you dropped the torch in the…'
'No it bloody didn't Ting, it's just…'
But then he stopped because he wasn't sure. Come on Keith – you're not afraid of the dark, pal. Pull yourself together Keith.
'Pull yourself together, Ting. You'd shit yourself at the sound of your own fart!' This broke the atmosphere and both laughed. 'And look: it was a cauliflower. Eye my arse!'
Was it the wind? She freed herself of the notion when she recalled the huge steel window frames and triple glazing. There it was again! Miriam suddenly became aware of the bedclothes which enshrouded her.
'Annie?' she whispered, straining her ears for a reply. Despite the speculation of friends they did not share a bed. That was not to say they didn't share other things, but beds were strictly personal space, and Miriam agreed with her on that. Her eyes and ears strained in the darkness.
There! It definitely sounded like a moan. Cats sometimes sounded like babies crying, but this wasn't like that.
'Nnnnn!' It came from inside the house. What to do? Miriam stole herself, drew back the covers as quietly as she could then tip-toed to her half-open bedroom door.
'Annie?' she hissed. No answer, so she stepped across the corridor to her partner's door. It too was open; she looked inside and saw the bedclothes were thrown back. Miriam froze for a second then moved quickly into the living room. It was filled with a yellowish glow coming from the kitchen area.
'Annie!' she called.
'Nnn!' came the reply. Miriam saw her at once, sitting beside of all things the open fridge. In the darkened room she was bathed in its pool of light. Another pool glistened darkly on the floor beside her.
'Annie!' she screamed and ran over to the fridge. The figure on the floor turned in horror and raised her hands as if to ward off an evil spirit.
'Nnnnnnnnn!' she wailed. Miriam collapsed into the yellow light beside her and held her friend in her arms. There was blood: lots of it; but she had no idea where it was coming from.
'Annie! Annie! What's the matter what have you been doing?' Miriam closed her arms around her partner, aware of the sweat that drenched her. 'Why are you here? What is all this…' she paused, realized just how much 'this' there was: '…blood?'
'N-no!' Annabelle managed. She was shaking furiously, her hair slicked back against her scalp with sweat, her bony hands clawing at Miriam's shoulders. Her frantic eyes were wide.
'No!' she wailed, as if something precious was lost. Miriam held her and looked at her, trying desperately to take the situation in. There was blood all over her face but most seemed to have been smeared from her hands. Her hands! Beneath a thick coating of blood the skin was peeling, burned or flayed off. Her outer forearms too wore bright-red wealds as if she'd been pushing against a scalding hot surface. What had she been doing?
'Annie, Annie! Have you been cooking?' Thoughts of a drunken cookery session filled her mind but the Aga slept, as did the rest of the flat. Annabelle shook her head with slow, deliberate movements.
'Nn!' she said, turning her head to the fridge.
'The fridge? What about it?' asked Miriam, confused. Or maybe Annie was confused – she seemed in shock, as well she might from her injuries. 'Come on – let's get you up into bed where I can take a look at you…'
'NN!' said Annabelle, gripping Miriam with renewed fervour.
'What?' replied Miriam, 'Can't you move?' she looked down and saw yet more burns on her feet. She looked back at her face, realized she could only see one side. She leant slowly round so she could see the other. Miriam nearly retched at what she saw. The whole side of Annabelle's face was red-raw; worse, the cheek from eyebrow to jawline was torn with ragged holes through which red-tinged drool dripped onto her shoulder.
'Dear God!' she cried, tears welling. She made to get up, 'I need to phone a doc…' But Annie pulled her back, her grip vice-like.
'But Annie – you need help! I have to get you some help!' But Annabelle's eyes were wide in panic. 'What is it?' Miriam tensed: there must be an intruder – who'd these terrible things to dear Annie? She looked round - through the gap in the units into the living space then back towards the bedrooms. The phone – where was the phone?
'Is someone here, Annie? Is it a burglar?' she whispered. But Annabelle shook her head and again nodded sideways at the fridge. Miriam saw pain in every movement and they hurt her too. Now the tears were flooding down her cheeks and chin. 'I don't understand,' she sobbed. Annabelle squeezed her weakly then reached slowly into the fridge. Her hand groped but she did not – could not, Miriam corrected herself – move her head to see what she was doing. Miriam saw what she was doing and grabbed it for her.
'You're hungry? I don't think that's the best…' but another grunt silenced her. Annabelle took the ham, fumbled with the packet, wincing at every jerking movement, then grabbed the whole lot in a tangled mass. She looked up at Miriam.
'Nnh!' which Miriam sensed meant 'watch'. She raised the empty piece of plastic packaging in the air and threw it across the floor. It hit the white marble tiles just at the outer edged of the pool of light thrown by the fridge and slid another foot so it came to rest in the shadows just beyond.
'Come on, we'll get help,' said Miriam, figuring Annabelle was delirious. But the latter grabbed her once more, and this time raised the ball of ham in her hand and threw this the same way as she'd thrown the packet. It arced upwards then – ZPP! As it began to drop there was a sudden sizzling that made Miriam jump. The ham seemed to hang briefly in the air before dropping to the floor right on the outer edge of the pool of light. Miriam watched in horror as the ham, already charred in places, continued to cook as it sat on the tiles. Smoke rose into the air and as the smell of roast meat reached her nostrils she let out a fearful cry.
'No! But I don't…' she started, looking from Annabelle to the ham and back, and then to the fridge. 'The light…is it the light?' Annabelle nodded grimly. 'But how? What…?' Annabelle curled up the unburned side of her lip: no idea that curl said. Miriam stared into her eyes. 'You poor thing! Oh dear God you've been burned – you're trapped. And now so am I!' And beside her on the floor Annabelle, the only important person in her whole world, nodded sadly.
Thursday 9th September
My dearest Ludmilla,
I was saddened to receive your letter coming as it does upon worries of my own. I must be careful what I write in case of interception but all is not well. More of which later.
Firstly my love you must not cry, all will be well come the autumn. I shall be back before the snows and in the meantime seek out Lavik: he is a good friend and will help with the rent and any other matters.
I wish I also could seek you out as your advice would be of use on an ethical matter and you always did know what to do in difficult situations. As you know we have all been building equipment in our workshops to fit out the new encampment not far from here – I forget the town's name. We have not seen it as it was still under construction but now it is complete and we have still not visited – they keep us away. A group of locals is trained to fit the equipment up: my electrics, Gustavo's waterways and plumbing, the pre-fabricated aluminium sheds. But we have heard rumours – rumours which must be untrue and yet… A number of us are disquieted. Gustavo asked the Captain and was taken into a separate room for a heated discussion. He has not spoken since and I am worried. I may approach the Captain myself – he must clear the air to maintain morale, especially as the weather turns in the next few weeks.
I am sending a battery-powered novelty for Piotr's birthday. I am sad to miss it but will be home for Lina's, possibly sooner if I decide to leave early (I have already earned enough money that that would be quite possible). Don't forget to bring in the plough from the lower field – it took me weeks to clean the rust last year.
God bless us and take care of us.
Take care my dearest
Love, Karl x
'Let him out,' said Jeff. He didn't shout, but neither was he asking.
The boys stopped throwing their stones.
'Thought I told you to sod off?' The larger boy wore a brown leather bomber jacket and a pair of green suede Adidas trainers. 'This is none of your business, mate.'
'Just let him out,' Jeff repeated. Ian shrank behind the tree where Jeff had instructed him to stay hidden when he, Jeff, had turned back.
'Walk away, little boy – just walk away,' and the group turned their backs on him.
'What's he done to you?' asked Jeff again and Ian couldn't wait to be fourteen so he could be as cool as his big brother. The boy started speaking before turning round.
'He's a gypo and deserves everything that's coming to him – they all do that lot,' he said as if this were self-evident. 'They don't work like we do, pay taxes. So they have no rights – they're scum. Worthless.'
'No they're not,' replied Jeff looking the larger boy straight in the eye. 'No-one's worth any less than anyone else.' Ian gulped, expecting Jeff to get a fist in the stomach at any moment.
'And what are you, a gypo lover? Alright gayboy – well how about you join him then?' And with that the boy in the green Adidas grabbed Jeff's shoulders and dragged him towards the fridge. Jeff struck out, catching the boy on the nose. There was blood but the larger boy didn't flinch.
'Right.' He just said. 'Get him inside! And the other one!'
There was a commotion – the smaller boy had managed to escape as soon as they re-opened the fridge. Ian saw him stumble down the slope into the tip and start clawing his way across the metal and the wood and the rubbish.
'Leave him, he'll keep. I want this one instead now…'
Ian's kick caught the larger boy in the groin and he immediately went down on all fours. He got a second less effectual kick in (accompanied by a shout of 'you f*cking tw*t!') before he felt his arms pinned by his sides and he was lifted off the ground. Still kicking and screaming he found himself bundled inside what was a surprisingly large fridge. Jeff kicked and punched but the pressure of the door was too much and as it closed into darkness Ian and Jeff paused for breath.
'Shit!' said Jeff. 'Shit shit shit!'
Outside there was laughter.
'Right – let's see how you like it then!' they heard from outside.
The drumming started loud and grew. Sticks, stones then what sounded like boulders. Ian half expected the walls to collapse but it was made of solid stuff – much larger and thicker than the fridge at home. It was a good eight feet tall and three feet square, more like a phone box but without the windows.
Then the noise suddenly stopped. Ears still ringing Ian listened.
'Why've they stopped?' he said.
'Shh!' said Jeff.
Ian strained to see but no light entered the fridge. The door seal was tight and there were no gaps. It was light-tight. Which of course also meant…
'We'll suffocate, Jeff! That's what people do – they tell you not to mess with fridges!'
'Yeah,' he heard Jeff whisper, 'people are supposed to take the doors off so kids don't get trapped.'
'But I'm not that stupid – I know…'
'Yet here you are, stuck in a bloody fridge! I told you to stay where you were, I told you! You could have gone for help!'
'But I came to help! You were getting hurt! I came to help!' protested Ian, panicking, crying, wishing he could go back an hour and not leave the comfort of his bedroom. Yet here he was.
'Sorry,' said Jeff and for a moment that in itself startled Ian. 'It's not your fault.'
'Not yours either,' said Ian, puzzled.
'Didn't say it was. We tried to help, the lad got away: we got into trouble. Doesn't mean we shouldn't have tried.'
'Will he get help?'
'Dunno – maybe; maybe not.'
'Bloody gypo…' muttered Ian.
'Don't say that,' said Jeff.
'Ian: stop doing stuff just 'cos I do it. Doesn't make it right just cos I do it, any more than it is just 'cos Dad says it, or anyone else. I say some stupid stuff, like before in the house.'
'Gramma started to go red in the face,' said Ian, remembering.
Jeff let out a giggle.
'That was pretty funny. Come on – I think they've gone, let's try the door.' But the door was solid.
'And of course they don't put handles on the inside,' he said almost to himself. 'Grrreat.'
Ian suddenly found his throat thick and he struggled to swallow.
'So what do we do, Jeff? If we can't get out? We're trapped! How much air…?'
There was a shout, a thump, and the fridge began to wobble.
'Oh shit, Ian. Hold on!' shouted Jeff.
Friday 22nd October
My dearest Ludmilla,
I write with shaking hand. Dark thoughts fill my mind and in my isolation I struggle to dispel them. I have received no letter from you and hope this is not a sign of anything amiss but that you are busy preparing the winter stores. But others also have stopped receiving mail so maybe it is the mail service to blame. Maybe three letters will arrive tomorrow!
I went to the Captain and asked about the rumours and wish I had not. He did not answer my questions but looked at me as though I was not there. He then demanded I oversee the construction of more equipment – ovens, refrigeration units and a new super-high-voltage system. I am at a loss what can be the use for them all and in that void my mind builds nightmares upon the rumours. I am unsure whether to comply until I know for sure – I could not bear the thought of any of my proud work being used for ill.
Gustavo has left. I want to believe he took his money and even now is on his way back to Prague but part of my mind will not allow it. I asked about him to one of the guards – for that is what I now realize they are – and was told not to ask questions, that they know where my family live.
And that is why I shake my dearest Ludmilla: the thought that you may be in danger. Trust and money are opposing forces and I feel I have been gripped in their vice. Oh that I could go back and turn down the offer of work, though I suspect I may not have been allowed to. Yes, I suspect that very strongly.
Do you remember the stream? Our picnic all those years ago? Trying to knock each other off the stepping stones; watching the dragonflies and the bees drone in the dry air, then hiding beneath the stone bridge when the rainstorm hit. We giggled and watched it pound the fields, watched it muddy the waters and held each other tight when the thunder rolled and we thought it would never end. But it did, the sun came out and I asked you to be my wife. I need you now to cling to: I hope this thunder will pass.
Keep thinking of when the sun comes out, my love. Then we shall be warm.
God bless us and take care of us.
Hoping this reaches you soonest with all my love,
'Time is it?' said Ting.
'Can we have a break? Me arm's killin'.' Ting's voice echoed inside the fridge.
'Nah come on – must be nearly there now. That's three bin-bags full.'
Flubber's torch lit the interior surprisingly weakly: he'd expected it to flood it. He thought the batteries were going but when he shone it round the kitchen to test it ('Oi! Flub! What the fuck are you doin'!') they were fine. It was like the light was being absorbed by the fridge somehow.
'You are never going to believe this: sausages – last October! A year out of date! They're like jelly! Jeez!'
Flubber heard the mouse again but didn't tell Ting.
'Yoghurts – burst. Last January! Christ what flavour was that?' Flubber almost thought Ting was enjoying himself.
'Just keep it coming.'
'Hang on – what's that?' Flubber peered at where he was shining the torch. Ting was now fully inside the fridge, leaning along the middle shelf itself two-feet high. The sight suddenly reminded Flubber of the fools who went pot-holing and got stuck. Had Ting got stuck?
'This…I moved that and…' he trailed off as he turned and tried to slide back out along the shelf. He managed it with some difficulty and when he emerged he had something in his hand. It was a box.
'Eggs. Dated July 26th. Last year! What d'you reckon a year-old egg smells like?' Flubber had been right: he was enjoying this. He wouldn't do when he told him about all the scrunching noises he'd heard from behind the fridge.
'Stop arsing about.'
'Come on Flub: where's your sense of adventure?' and he crashed the box lid shut with a crunch. The smell was immediate and intense.
'Kin ell!' They both staggered, Ting falling into the fridge itself, wedging his rear-end between the half empty second and third shelves. Flubber dropped the torch which landed on the floor where it spun round illuminating their feet.
'I can't get out…!' began Ting before Flubber stopped him.
'What was that?' he hissed, putting a hand out to Ting's shoulder in the near darkness.
'I'm not falling for that again!' said Ting, trying unsuccessfully to haul himself out of the fridge. 'Hey, I really am stuck here.'
'The bag!' hissed Flubber, and Ting looked down at the bin-bag. It rustled and crumpled, and as the torch rolled to a halt behind it they could both clearly see the silhouette of something moving, something with arched limbs. It was small and it was slow, but it was definitely alive.
The pool of light formed an eight-foot semi-circle around them and there were two odd things about it. Firstly, as she'd noticed when Annie had thrown the ham, it ended rather abruptly. Not in a definite line, but instead of fading gradually as you would expect it faded over a distance of only about six inches. Inside this it was bright, yellow and stark. Beyond that it was almost totally black. By rights the fridge should have illuminated the whole room – the bulbs were almost certainly bright enough. Yet the light seemed unable to penetrate the gloom; or unwilling. The other odd thing – and this was even odder – was that where the pair of them should have thrown deep shadows, there were none. It was as if the light, instead of moving in straight lines as every school child knew it did, flowed around them like liquid. She shivered, not because of the cold, but at the thought that they were somehow surrounded.
She searched the perimeter of the light, looking for a gap or weak spot. ZPP! She drew in her burnt fingers, instinctively looking down at Annabelle's reddened tips realising that she must have done the same thing. How long had she been here?
She could remove the bulb – that would stop it. She looked inside: there were four (incredibly dangerous!) naked bulbs of an unusual, angular design. Were they screw-in or bayonet? She tore a strip off her PJs and wrapped it round her hand, then reached inside. The heat of the bulb was sharp as she got closer. But then the light flickered, and as it did so she felt heat stab at her face and Annabelle screamed, and it was this that stopped her moving further. Coincidence? She moved her hand towards it again and again all four bulbs flickered. Zp! Zp! Zp!
'Nnnnnnaahhhhh!' wailed Annabelle and Miriam stopped: she'd felt it too. It was like hundreds of electric shocks. And if it hurt her it must be crucifying Annie. With horror she realized that the fridge had a defence-mechanism.
'Do they hurt much?' asked Miriam. Stupid question, she thought, expecting one of Annabelle's withering looks. Instead the eyes were old – tired. Loving. 'We'll get out of this, Annie. We've dealt with worse!' she said, trying to think of an occasion. 'That time coming home from the theatre – those lads. Do you remember?' Annabelle's face was blank – her eyelids drooping. 'You do! You saw them off! 'Dirty fuckin' dykes!' they shouted! 'Can we stick our fingers in?' Thought they were so funny. Their faces when you hit the one carrying the knife – right hook, beautiful. Do you remember what you said? Do you?' Annie nodded and Miriam thought she saw an attempt at a smile. ''Come back when you've grown a dick'! God how we laughed! I tell people that story all the time!' and she laughed now, a laugh of relief and release. 'We'll get out of this too. I swear.' And she kissed Annabelle on the forehead.
Think, Miriam, think! Phone, where's the phone? She looked up at the worktops: other end – too far. Damn! There were no other units, drawers or appliances within the pool of light – no access to anything of use. No mobile in her PJs – obviously. Shouting wouldn't raise anyone – top floor, lower one unoccupied. Annabelle was shaking uncontrollably. Her nightgown was soaked in blood and sweat; blood smeared the tiles around them. How much blood had she lost? What would happen if she passed out?
A trickling sound came from the fridge: whatever liquid it contained running through its pipes. For the first time Miriam thought about the light: how on earth could light form a barrier? Was the rest of it dangerous? She looked inside it for the first time having only thrown the contents in quickly before leaving earlier. There were seven shelves and an aluminium tray at the bottom. No plastic. The shelves themselves were made of thick gauge steel rods as though designed for some heavier purpose. Thin metal pipes ran down the inner edges connecting with small metal boxes; all were lightly frosted. A thin mist swirled lazily round the interior. Miriam shook her head: never mind the damn fridge: what on earth was she to do? It was a quarter to three, Miriam cursing the horribly impractical Nuno Teixeira pendulum wall clock.
'Next time we get a clock I can actually read!' she said, looking down at Annie's cradled head. It was all the older woman could do to look up, but she smiled, weakly. Miriam stroked her head, wiping damp hair from her eyes. 'It's okay, sweetheart, it'll all be okay: I promise.'
Three o'clock became four. When would the postman call – mid-morning? Would he hear them? Would she hear him and know when to shout? What if there was no post! Miriam looked at the sleeping Annabelle doubting whether she would make it.
There came a sudden crackle from inside the fridge followed by a pop. Miriam screamed. One of the bulbs blew and the light dimmed. At the same time Miriam felt a searing pain in her foot. She screamed louder and drew her foot towards her. There was a large fresh burn across the toes that burned like a furnace. She screamed again, waking Annabelle. She held the foot just above the damage. It had broken the skin and blood trickled onto the marble. The pool of light had got smaller – not dimmer, but smaller. Her foot had been right on the perimeter. She looked round just in time to see the hand she was leaning on slipping towards the border. The tips of her fingers singed as she drew it in to her chest.
'Cuddle up, Annie, we need to cuddle up!' she said, ignoring the pain that must be nothing beside what Annie was feeling. The tears came and Miriam let them.
She awoke with a start: a thought was niggling. Something about the fridge. Her foot throbbed. Annabelle was asleep again. She turned carefully to look inside – there it was, the paper sticking out of the gap. She reached inside: the cruel light showed up all the imperfections. Her fingers tickled the shelf and she pulled herself further in (but not fully inside!). Nearly, nearly…there! Her fingers touched the paper. She tugged, but it was stuck fast. She pulled a second time, and after initial resistance it gave way. A metal panel popped open with a squeak and the paper slid out. Miriam drew it to her and opened it carefully. It was just the instructions, and the lead language was of course foreign: German; or had they said Polish in the shop? Fancy it still having the original instructions! Aha, but here also was some English – down at the bottom in tiny letters in a very old type-script. But no – not typed, it was hand-written. This thing must have been really exclusive. But would instructions be any use? Would it say anything about faulty lighting?
'Dear owner,' it began. How very formal, thought Miriam. 'It is all I can do to say I am sorry, so very very sorry. I had no idea to what purpose my efforts were to be put, no clue as to the horrors they had planned. But for my family I should have scrapped this vile device; but for them I should have cut off my evil hands lest they should be pressed into further dark services. But again I say I did not know! No one did, nor could have dreamt. Yet all that is academic now: it is done, and will be done. I write in the hope that even now I can be of use, that I may offer help when it is needed. If you are not in need and are laughing at this foolish man then so be it. I envy you! Go and laugh into the world, you have no use for me. But if you are in trouble and need help, then allow me to offer some. There are angels and demons in this world, and I pretend to understand neither. All I know is what the good book tells us: He is waiting for those who have hope, for he is the light of the world.' Choose who 'he' is, but hope, and light will be upon you. Fare well, may my god forgive me. KW.'
Miriam blinked: what an odd note. She turned to Annabelle. Was she sleeping? Miriam was suddenly certain she had died – died while she just sat beside her!
'Annie!' she called, 'Annie!' rocking her shoulder as strongly as she dared.
'Nnn…' murmured Annie without opening her eyes.
'Thank God for that! Stay with me, Annie. Please stay with me!' and she kissed her damp hair.
'He is the light of the world' – how did that help? God, Jesus – she was no longer religious but she'd try it if it might help. Miriam leant her head back and closed her eyes: she hoped joining hands wasn't a pre-requisite.
'Oh Lord,' she stammered uncertainly. 'Forgive us our sins, and bear in mind we don't think the way we are is one, just so we're clear on that point. We're pretty good people – we give to charity, we're kind. We're friendly. Okay so Annie can be a bit,' she looked down, 'Prickly? But she's got a heart of gold. Please Lord help us out – I have no clue what is going on, I pray first of all that this is a dream and that we wake up. I pray second of all that there's a way out. Because I have a nasty feeling that those bulbs won't hold out forever, and I think that as the pool of light gets smaller we'll fry and all they'll find is some turkey-twizzlers.' She grinned: how could she joke at a time like this? 'So how about it, hey? Anything – just give us hand.' The fridge hummed, but nothing else changed. Miriam opened her eyes and let the cold air swirl across her face. Well, it had been worth a try she thought as she stared at the inside of the top of the fridge.
And there was a switch. A small blue toggle switch, hidden inside the outer lip of the door. In fact it would be impossible to see unless you were actually inside, as she more-or-less now was.
'Why?' she thought. But only briefly. Annabelle cried out as the light flickered once more and another bulb failed. Then fire: a burning river flooding up her thigh. Pushing into the diminishing pool of light she looked down at the pool of blood seeping through her nightshirt. Annabelle's face looked up at her, pleadingly. Do something Miriam, it said: please.
'Oh Annie!' said Miriam. She flicked the switch.
After crashing heavily backwards the fridge first slid then slewed and finally, agonizingly, it started to roll down the incline of rubbish. Flashes of light accompanied each impact as Ian's head bounced off the cold, hard metal. The noise was tremendous but the fridge held firm. He was vaguely aware of Jeff who spun and flailed and slammed against him. The two boys crashed helplessly into one another and the image of Mr Stalker's Jack Russell violently attacking its rag-doll toy fleetingly passed through his brain.
Ian waited for it to end but the tumble refused to comply. Over and over they went and now he was getting bruises on bruises. His head became numb: his limbs grew distant. He couldn't shout, couldn't see and he was about to give in to the wave of darkness which threatened to engulf him when all of a sudden it all stopped. A clatter of stones against metal followed and when even that ceased there was only a thunderous, all-encompassing silence.
'Jeff?' No reply. Ian lay still, senses alert, trying to evaluate what condition he was in. His head throbbed massively, he had bright pain spots all over his body, his stomach felt like he'd been subjected to one of Jeff's punishments and he thought he could feel blood trickling down his cheek.
'Jeff?' he tried, a little louder. Were the boys still outside? Would they chase them down the hill?
'Ng.' Jeff was alive at least. He coughed: the air was stale and dusty.
'You okay?' he asked his older brother weakly, still not moving.
'No. Think I've broken my arm.'
'Yes really, dipstick.' Ian smiled a little: Jeff was okay. Or as okay as he was at least. He tried to shift his position and found he couldn't.
'Yeah – that's my arm. Let me see if I can…Aaaargh!'
'Is it bad?'
'Course it's fuckin' bad! Jeeeesus!' Ian frowned again: Jeff didn't usually swear out loud. He knew the words – he'd taught Ian – but in a quiet subversive way like shared contraband, not actually using them for real.
'Can you get the door open?' Jeff asked. Ian moved his head and found he'd twisted his neck badly. Gingerly he looked round but in truth he had no idea which way the door was, or even which way was up. He said so.
'Well it's here somewhere: search with your hands – come on!' Five fruitless minutes later the pair admitted defeat: still none the wiser as to which was the door, none of the walls gave even a fraction to their kicks and there was no sign of a handle or catch.
'Well just kick then – come on.' The two boys kicked, then started to shout. For ten minutes they hollered, occasionally stopping to listen for any answer, but it was no use.
'Time is it?' asked Jeff.
Ian checked his watch.
'Seven. But my watch might be broken. So it could be later,' he added sadly.
'Be getting dark. No one comes down here in the evenings. Not sure we'll be heard from the top. Come on – one more go.' The pair shouted for all they were worth. Ian's feet ached from kicking, his palms bled, but still no one came. And the air was getting noticeably stale.
'Right – we should conserve oxygen,' said Jeff and, scary though that thought was, Ian was glad that he'd taken the lead. Ian relied on the fact of life that older brothers always knew what to do.
'How much do we have left?'
'Dunno – this thing can't still be airtight after all these years but it won't be letting much in so we'd best stay still. It's starting to get stuffy in here – you know, like our room on a sunny day if the window isn't open.'
Our room: the two shared – and at this moment there was nowhere Ian would have rather been, farts and all.
'I want to go home,' he said without thinking.
'Shurrup you baby!' said Jeff angrily, and Ian did so. They lay for some time, listening to the wind. It seemed distant – like hearing it outside a large stone building rather than just a fridge. Only this wasn't 'just' a fridge, was it? This was industrial – like something in a factory or a kitchen.
'Maybe that's what this was – a kitchen fridge, you know, like in a restaurant?'
Ian started searching the metal walls again: there had to be something, anything. His mind drifted: he thought of home, the argument before they came out. Of the boy being beaten up on the path. Had he escaped? Or had they got him anyway? Had them getting involved made any difference? Other images drifted through his head – school, Mr. Stalker's dog next door; Dad's car. A jungle film he'd seen on TV that he couldn't quite remember the name of…
'Ian? Ian? Wake up man – come on don't go to sleep.'
'You were going to sleep – first sign of oxygen deprivation.' Ian felt hands grab his shoulders and shake him: 'Whatever happens, you mustn't go to sleep.'
'Alright, alright,' replied Ian a little bad-tempered.
Had he been? Suddenly he was very scared – not for what his parents would say when he got home, like when he tore his new pants or crashed his bike. This was officially Serious Shit.
'Are we going to get out of here?' he asked quietly.
Jeff didn't immediately answer and for a moment Ian was afraid that now he'd gone to sleep and soon would be dead and without him Ian would sleep and no one would ever find them and…
'Course we are mate – course we are. Don't you worry, we'll get out.'
The switch was blue. Even in the darkness, somehow Ian knew. A medium, slightly dull, old blue. It was one of those long, pointy switches you saw on old films, switches for machinery that did exciting things. Without thinking Ian flicked it: and a light came on. But it wasn't inside the fridge: it was outside. And the outside it illuminated wasn't what they expected.
Saturday 13th November
My dearest, sweet Ludmilla,
It is very cold. Snow has fallen every day for three weeks and we have to clear our path to the road each morning. They come to collect us in an armoured truck. We travel in silence to the workshops and from there in smaller ones when we need to go to the camp. I hate going – I make excuses and send the others but for some of the connections and repairs I must go personally and they will not take no for an answer.
They beat us: Jakob is dead. I am being honest, my dear, as we have never had any secrets and because it does not matter now. Now I know that you will never read this. I am writing to myself but I pretend you are there my love because if you were not I would go mad.
The things they do: we have seen them. I am ashamed that such ingenuity, such talent is being wasted on such barbarity. The cause of war can be purposeful, I am not naive. Sometimes the enemy must be vanquished through whatever means but here there is no enemy: just people, defenseless, blameless people. They herd them like cattle, treat them like dogs and kill them like insects. Gustavo's showers – I am glad he did not live to see. As for my work – I am only glad I am not there to see the electrodes being placed, the ovens being filled. And the refrigeration units: now I know why they wished them so large, why they wished for glass doors. But it is too much. They are not punishing: they are experimenting. Oh my dear how can such things exist in the same world as our stream and Warsaw and the music of Strauss?
I drink to drown the screams. They are in my head I know but it does not make them less real. Because the reality must be many times worse. Voices tell me to help – to leave a gap here, fit the regulators incorrectly, one told me to install a switch for help but…
They tell me you are safe, that if I continue I will still be allowed home and that you will be there and we shall once more be together my darling. Forgive the smudges, I have no more paper. I do not care who reads this, I just hope against hope that it finds you somehow and that you know I am thinking of you and that I did not do what I have done willingly.
My heart is heavy, but know that I love you, will love you.
My God, my God.
Looking forward to holding you again.
'Aargh!' screamed Ting, 'It's got me!' and he scrambled madly in the darkness trying to find a hand hold.
'It's in the bag!' yelled Flubber at the same time moving back from the bag and unwittingly falling against Ting just as he managed to get to his feet.
'Where is it?'
'Is it still in the bag?'
'Where's the torch?'
'I'm stuck again…gerrof!'
'Shh! Be quiet.' The pair were still. The sound came again. Looking down, the torch having rolled another quarter turn, they could no longer see the silhouette of whatever was inside the bag.
'Come on!' shouts the man, grabbing Ian's arm, pulling him through the door. Without thinking Ian follows and beside him he senses Jeff do the same. It is night-time. Ian blinks. Around them he senses figures but they are hazy, indistinct. In the light of a powerful torch they see their guide, a short stocky man who leads them to a wooden door with a glass panel. He scurries through – hurried yet careful: the boys follow.
'You alright?' Jeff asks.
'Me neither,' replies Jeff. 'Just come on!'
The laboratory is quiet: through windows they see floodlights in the darkness. One sweeps, searching. The man shouts something Ian cannot understand. Ian panics – then realises it is not English.
'Hey!' he shouts: the man turns without stopping. They follow: down a corridor, past rows of doors – doors with bars and toughened glass. The man mutters, anxious. Keys rattle and Ian realizes he is searching. There is a shout; a 'shush'. He looks through windows, opens doors. He shouts a word that may be a name then a second and a third time with no reply.
Ian turns and is surprised to see more people behind; people who are thin and hollow. Ghosts in hospital gowns and rags.
'Jeff?' he whispers, heart racing.
'But Jeff – who are they? Where are we?' His head spins; he has long since learned to tell reality from dream - though of course in the latter you think that too, he remembers. He feels tears for reasons he cannot express. He must move – fast yet silent in the darkness. They will come – they always come…
'I dunno, now shh!' Jeff answers the question he can't remember. Through windows he glimpses beds, tables in the strobing torchlight and searchlights that pierce the windows. A flicker of crimson; red liquid in a huge jar. And his stomach sinks, it aches. More broken people: where are they coming from?
A shout ahead - a squeak as a door opens and the man screams and now he's fighting…no, hugging: he is hugging a figure in white: a woman with long hair. The pair run, the torchlight grows distant. Ian runs to keep up and realizes he has lost something.
'Jeff!' he shouts. A hand grabs his sleeve and a familiar face is briefly lit and it is okay again. The pair follow the torch and now there are figures between them and the figures are carrying sticks – eight, ten. Painfully empty yet full of intent.
More shouts: a gunshot. Ian cries in fright. The group push forward and the boys are swept along beside them. The man is at a door and as they pass he forces it open and inside are two small children, tears streaming down their face.
'I didn't know!' he hears in words he cannot understand. Around them stick figures push and jostle. There is an explosion: shouts, more gunshots. An alarm sounds. Suddenly the corridor is illuminated by a powerful light. Frozen in the glare stands the man and his family: a single, unmoving fixed point amid the chaos. They sob, he clings, face buried in his wife's hair. He raises his head and Ian meets his eyes.
'Go,' the eyes say.
'Ian!' shouts Jeff again and Ian turns to see his brother holding an arm bent at an unnatural angle. 'Think it's…broken,' he manages before falling against a wall. Ian panics: he turns, unable to take in where he is and what he should do. The tip – the fridge – the laboratory. Those eyes.
'His eyes,' he mumbles before taking a deep breath. There is a door – a blue door. And suddenly the next step – just the next one – is clear. He turns to the man now ready to escape.
'Go,' those eyes say and this time he smiles. 'Go!'
Ian kicks in the door and the wind blows him off his feet. He falls heavily beside Jeff, a freezing blast of air making his eyes sting.
'Help!' he calls, unable to stand, the wind now a hurricane. He hears a door break, wood splinter. Running footsteps, metallic clicks familiar from films. He turns to Jeff and through tears he sees his brother's own.
'Sorry,' he mouths, legs too shocked to raise him and…
…and suddenly he is standing. Something is supporting his weight and that of Jeff; something is propelling them towards the doorway just as the running footsteps come closer and the cold air threatens to stifle their lungs. The alarm is getting louder, Ian gulps, finds no oxygen and is about to pass out when…
'What the hell was that, Flub?'
'Probably a rat.'
'That was no rat!'
'Course it was,' he said, but Ting didn't think he sounded convinced. 'Right – if we move to the left we can creep round the bag.'
'What if it gets out?'
'Then give it a good kick. Come on Ting, get a grip.'
There was silence as the pair didn't move. The bag rustled again.
'I think I can reach the torch…'
'Don't!' said Ting.
'Yeah I can,' said Flubber and in the darkness Ting sensed him bending down ever so slowly. 'Just stay where you are, Mr. Ratty,' he whispered. 'Stay right where you…Argh!'
Flubber stood up, hissing, but the torch came with him.
'Bastard thing bit me.'
'Alright, but now we have the torch,' he said swinging it round the kitchen to reassure himself it was still there. 'Right – let's see what you are my little friend…' and he shone the torch down at the black bag splayed at their feet. But there was no sign of the rat. Slowly he crouched down and reached out towards the bag with the end of the rubber torch. 'Come on…I'm ready for you this time you little…'
It moved fast. A dull brown shape shot up the stem of the torch, slim limbs clutching with blunt fingers. Flubber fell on Ting, raising his arm aloft in a paralysed attempt to keep the thing and the torch as far away as possible. For an instant the thing paused on Flubber's hand and both men saw the creature clearly.
It was six inches high and its skin was muddy-yellow, the colour and texture of solidified cooking fat. Five thin, crooked limbs protruded from a central congealed mass the upper part of which could have been a head containing as it did a series of asymmetrical black and red dots. Through its centre a black vein pulsed rapidly. From each limb a mass of fingers sprouted, all blunt, ending in what looked like sucker s which flexed and swayed as if in a breeze.
'Fnnnnn!' the thing screamed and then it was on Flubber's face. The suckers burned: he felt one enter his eye socket, felt a wet 'pop' and hot moisture on his cheek. He screamed, scrambled to get away but succeeded only in pushing Ting further into the fridge. Now it was Ting who screamed.
'It's got me! It's got me!' shouted Ting feeling something going on behind him. Red-hot fingers touched his lower back and burned through his jeans. He screamed.
But Flubber was too busy trying to rip the creature from his face. He succeeded in moving one of its limbs but felt blood spurt as the thing removed a layer of dissolved flesh as it went. The limbs moved across his face, systematically removing his features.
'Tiiiiing!' he wailed just before it reached his lips, but by now Ting had his own worries. Something was sliding up his back and down his trousers. Something was eating into his flesh, carving deep trenches up his spine and down his buttocks. Now he could feel it reaching round his hips and the same pain ripped up his chest and down into his crotch.
'Keith!' he screamed as a fire erupted in his balls and a second later he felt his buttocks stretched wide and set alight. Tears ran down his cheeks as the fire clawed up his neck to meet them. His fingers clawed desperately at the doorframe, trying to resist the pull of whatever it was but it was no use, it had a good hold, and Flubber still flailed and pushed back from the front.
Ricky China, 'Ting' to his friend, felt his fingers slip and now he was sliding along the shelf, back towards the final layer of food and detritus and mould. Whatever had evolved inside the fridge was taking him into its lair. In front he saw Flubber's head loll to one side. From his mouth he heard a gurgle – a word lost in liquid – then from the side of the neck a dark probing finger poked through, then another. Blood spurted and above his pain and failing vision Ting just had time to hear Flubber's final pained scream, and to think how cold it had become.
At first she thought her head had exploded: the light was immense, filling her mind and burning eyes too slow to close. Still clinging to Annabelle she squinted: the light flooded from the inside of the fridge: not just from the bulbs but from the metal walls and between the panels and…and flooded the room. The whole room was bathed in light of such brightness that every object and item of furniture stood out as though in a showroom. There were no shadows, no darkness, only light.
Slowly Miriam relinquished her hold on her loved one, but Annabelle clung petrified to her arm.
'It's okay, it's okay.' Did she believe that?
The first fire ignited on the curtains over the alcove, then a bookcase went up, paper and card fizzing as though under a blowtorch. Miriam screamed. The light shot out in ever-moving beams, and whatever they touched turned to flame. The sofa: then the rug.
'We need to get out. Can you stand?' she cried. But Annabelle's gaze was distant. With her bandaged hand she managed a weak shoo-ing gesture. 'No: you need to get up!' she shouted, burns screaming at her to desist. Annabelle's body was limp: the fight which had always been one of the things Miriam loved had gone. The older woman shook her head once more as if to say 'no more'.
'I'm not leaving here without you!' screamed Miriam as much an instruction as a declaration. 'I love you – there is no point in anything without you!' Around her the flames had taken hold and were seriously threatening her passage to the front door.
Annabelle's broken and burned mouth opened but no sound came out above the roar of flames. Plaster fell from the ceiling, the huge Sandinian mirror dropped from the wall and shattered into a million pieces. Miriam bent to listen.
The words came slowly.
'You are…my world,' said Annabelle.
Miriam placed one arm beneath her rear, her head across Annabelle's chest and heaved the larger woman onto her shoulders.
'And you,' she said before taking a breath and kissing her tenderly on the forehead, 'are mine.' And she started to walk.
…the fridge door bursts open and Ian crashes down onto a painful pile of metal and rubble. The air is cool, near-dark and rain falls on his bloody cheeks. He lies still.
'Bloody hell! But the fridge survived?'
'Looks like it,' replied the other man, carefully easing the trolley down the last three steps. 'Bit battered and black but otherwise…' he said, looking it up and down. They came to a halt in front of the truck parked on the double-yellows. Pete, the larger man, looked back up at the blackened window of the third-floor apartment.
'People will go and buy all this old electrical shit though. Shabby-chic this and vintage that. There's a reason the world's moved on.'
'Very true, Nige, very true,' said the thinner man, only half listening. 'Are they sure it's for the heap?'
'Yep. I checked and double-checked,' said Pete, activating the electronic lift that would haul the fridge up onto the back of the flat-bed wagon.
'You don't think we could, erm, you know: divert it, do you?'
'What – nick it?'
'Nah. They've asked for a certificate from the dump. What they do with it is their business,' answered Pete firmly bolting the rear flap.
'Shame,' said Nige, throwing the trolley on board as he headed for the driver's door. 'There's money in old shit.'
'Amongst other things,' said Pete, moving to the passenger side, 'amongst other things.'
There is no ceremony, no final words. One minute the fridge is there, sitting battered where it lay; the next moment Jeff connects the wires that lead to the car-battery and the fertilizer and then shards of metal fly thirty feet in all directions. Jeff pulls Ian behind their makeshift shelter just as fragments fly over their heads. As the explosion rings in their ears and with a small plume of black smoke rising from between open petals of steel Jeff turns to his brother and smiles.
'And that's that.'
The house is silent when they return for the second time. Jeff's arm is cut and twisted but not broken; Ian has cuts and bruises. The pair take off torn and bloody clothing, throwing the worst in the bin, then creep upstairs to wash. They're slow, tired: pre-occupied. Ian looks at his face, his familiar face and for a second there is something about his eyes…
'Good job we found that switch. The exit switch.'
'Hmm,' replies Jeff still tending his wounds. Ian thinks, frowns: looks at himself again in the mirror.
'I dreamed - when we were inside the fridge.' Jeff looks at his younger brother but where Ian expects a look of disapproval he sees curiosity.
'What about?' he asks, drying his face more slowly.
'About a man and…and we were in a laboratory…and there were people shooting at us.'
'Why would anyone be shooting at us? What did we do?'
'Must have been the lack of air, mate. Come on, just get to bed.'
'Yeah.' Ian dries himself and the pair go out onto the landing.
'Why would a fridge have an exit switch? Who'd put one of those in a fridge?'
Jeff just shrugged.
'Someone who knew silly pillocks like us would one day get trapped inside,' he said, grinning and Ian grinned back, thankful for the normality.
It was about an hour later when Ian crept into the kitchen and opened the fridge in search of milk. Light flooded out into the darkened kitchen and he'd just grabbed the bottle when a voice made him jump.
'He made fridges, you know.'
Ian turned sharply, nearly dropping the bottle.
'Gramma?' he whispered and in the pool of light he saw the old woman sitting at one of the upright kitchen chairs. She seemed smaller than she had that afternoon: more wrinkled, more frail. 'What are you doing up?'
'Ah – at my age you no good sleep. If I nap I up half the night.'
Ian stood nervously fidgeting.
'Who made fridges?' he asked.
'Your grandfather. Very clever man – make anything. Furniture, pipes, electricals. And he make fridges once – he have factory after the war.'
'I didn't know that,' answered Ian disarmed by this gentler Gramma.
'Yar, yar,' she replied and for a second Ian thought she had drifted as she often and increasingly did. 'You not a bad boy; you nor your brother. You need learn – but many people do. You need learn the lessons.'
'Lessons of past. Lessons we should not forget. Lesson of warm and cold.'
'I don't…I mean I'm not sure…'
Suddenly Gramma grabbed Ian by the arms and pulled him close. He could smell her breath, see her whiskers. Her grip was surprisingly strong and Ian found he was suddenly slightly scared of this frail, wrinkled old woman.
'Your brother he listen – listen to ignorant people. Ignorant people think others not human and then is easy to hate. No make too easy to hate! Terrible things done when people make easy to hate. Everybody same: feel! Everybody warm everybody human, boy: everybody same number degrees!' Wide-eyed Ian was frantically looking to check if she had anything sharp within reach.
'Gramma…can you let go?' She did: then smiled. She stared intently at his face and he felt himself blush.
She took a deep breath. 'No one better than any other – remember this. As soon as you think others not human then is okay to be cold, is okay to hurt and kill! Compassion is warmth, Ian: remember that. Keep warm – always keep warm!'
Ian suddenly remembered to breathe and then about the cold bottle in his hand.
'Can I get my drink now?'
Gramma smiled again but did not let go.
'You have his eyes, young Ian: you have your grandfather's eyes. Hazel in colour: warm, always smiling. See?'
And she pointed at the old picture in the simple frame on top of the fridge; the one of Gramma, Great-grandfather and their two children taken a few years after the war. Behind them was a factory with foreign writing and his name above the gate.
Ian froze, suddenly realised where he'd seen the man in his dream before
'Your Great-grandfather had warm eyes: he came for us, Ian. My Karl - he came to rescue us.' A cold finger drew a line down Ian's neck. 'Don't allow yourself to get cold, Ian. Always keep warm.'
Friday 21st January
This letter will be short but I must write it even though I now know you may never read it.
We have a plan. I could not sit by and watch as these things happened. I went to the camp – saw for myself. I cried and my teeth cut my mouth and my nails drew blood but I forced myself to watch, to see what was being done with our intellects. Forced myself so that my resolve would not fail me.
The sabotage has been set – it matters not who reads this now for by morning it will be done and either we shall have succeeded or…or then it will matter not.
Gelignite is easy to come by – the consequences severe but if you care not, if the enterprise is do-or-die, then that is no persuasion! I speak freely for the first time, knowing my design. Knowing that tomorrow it will be decided. We set the fuses for two o'clock just after the guard change: Radovny said we could not afford any later. The laboratories will be ablaze when we scale the fence, distracting and providing light! Gone – our shameful contribution to this horror will be brought to nought – will be the downfall for there will be guards and – I cannot call them 'doctors' for butchers they are, no more. The pipes and electrodes and the ovens and the freezers and refrigerators – all will be wiped away! One day I will create more and better to better purpose but none of that matters for of course now there is a greater aim.
I saw you today, behind the fence. You were so painfully thin I nearly did not recognise you, but the eyes were those of my dear Ludmilla. And Piotr and Lina! All three! At once I was stricken and yet comforted. I cried – how I cried. You are all so close! And soon we shall be together again – I promise it my love! Together as it should always have been.
We will travel – set up our factory abroad. A family business with our children and our grandchildren and we will make great things and our name will be famous! When all this is over – as it will be soon. I will keep you warm forever after, my love.
Keep strong, my love, and we will be together by morning.
My love always,