“Ah, now listen. The whole world is shaking.”
Darolin stood by the open window, gazing down into the street. Burnt cordite wafted on the air and the throttled return of gunfire echoed in the distance. In a corner of the square an old woman was standing by a mound of burning cars, warming her shrunken hands. Darolin pawed at his gingery whiskers and reached into his jacket pocket for a handkerchief. His claws snagged on the stitching of his recently looted suit and he fumbled for a moment, catching at the silk.
“The whole rotten world,” he repeated.
Three days had passed since I’d landed, but I felt as though I had always been here. I was heavy with jetlag and the sunlight seemed so dry and stale that it cut, like a trepanning bore, to the centre of my skull. A handful of my things lay scattered in a tiny suitcase open on the bed. The sudden escalation of events meant that I had been commissioned at short notice and had had little time to pack. Even so, my editor, a dependable Pole with a dreadful haircut, had managed to conjure me up a guide.
Upon arriving, all I knew was that I should expect to find him in the basement bar, nose deep in a martini. He was rumoured to be keeping the hotel running single-handed, even while each successive explosion sent the tourist trade deeper into a nosedive. I knew him from the moment I saw him: there he was, winding his tail around the leg of a BBC correspondent and whispering greedily in her ear. Suddenly she blushed and slapped him hard across the snout. She fled the bar, the sound still rebounding off the walls. I made my way towards him, picking through the empty chairs.
“Speak English?” I asked.
“Now that”, he replied, “will depend entirely on what you’re carrying in that suitcase.”
In the short time I had been here, the ordinance map I had picked up at the terminal had grown steadily less accurate. Splayed pylons had become bridges between destroyed tenements and back alleys and escape routes were now blocked by fallen masonry. Looters had trampled the shopping precincts into a hell of dropped bags and broken glass. In little time, Darolin had recommended we clear out the bar and retire to my room for the duration. Now, the sound of whooping arose from the town square. I looked across at Darolin and he raised one of his thick eyebrows sarcastically.
“The welcoming party has arrived” he said, pointing through the window.
I followed his gaze and saw a crowd pressing in from the North corner, their white scales glistening in the morning light. As they flooded the square there were footsteps in the corridor and raised voices outside. Darolin walked over to the improvised bar, a bedside table littered with empties. He unscrewed a bottlecap and lined up two glasses.
“Now,” he said, “shall I be mother?”