By Parson Thru
They watched the city burn from a grassy viewpoint on the edge of the Downs.
“What happened to peace and prosperity?” Rick asked sullenly. He was glad he had Sara beside him for company.
Sara didn’t reply. Her eyes were wet with tears – rims sore from lack of sleep and rubbing. Their clothes were dirty and torn. Only days ago they were going about their daily routine – neither aware of the existence of the other. Lives shared with family, friends and colleagues. Increasing violence was something that had been adjusted to – accepted. News media had aided and abetted the process of normalisation. The reports had become part of the cycle of newsfeeds and bulletins. Media-induced sentimental reaction and the appeals by liberal politicians and community leaders were eventually drowned out by anger and chilling threats of revenge. For a while it had seemed like it was strangers in other parts of the city dying or howling their grief – someone else.
The catastrophe in the Middle East tipped things over the edge. The sense of balance was lost. Old resentments and animosities surfaced as grief boiled over into anger. Voice of restraint became lost in the clamour for action and, when it came, for revenge. The great urban resentments were tinder-dry. When the Middle East ignited, the Western Powers had weighed in on the side of strategic allies – on the side of those who had once kow-towed, but finally gained the upper hand through an accident of geology. The urban populations erupted – first in sectarian violence; then against the authorities; finally, when faced with a backlash from nationalists, against the host population. Soon, it was impossible to identify and separate the protagonists. The major cities became a burning mess of resentments. The flames were out of control.
Rick lived with his partner and two young daughters: Lisa, eleven, and May, seven. Adele had been a teacher in a borough primary school. The school, Mawfield, had seen its share of tragedies as the violence cast its shadow on daily life, finally closing its doors after a car-bomb had been detonated outside the entrance during pick-up time. The school was an ethnically and religiously mixed primary, serving the local population. Its head-teacher had been vocal in his defence of its ethos. Nobody had claimed responsibility for the bomb, but it was thought to be the work of local nationalists. Adele had been speaking to parents at the school gate as the bomb detonated. May had been at her side.
Sara had settled in Britain from Spain. She’d worked as a nurse for fifteen years and was married to a policeman. The General Hospital where she’d worked as a Ward Manager had been burned to the ground two days earlier. Many patients and staff had died in the blaze. She had been at home in bed, hearing about the fire in a flurry of text messages. Her husband, Paul, was on night duty and had attended the scene, sustaining severe burns. In the pandemonium of the last few days, he had been successfully transferred to another hospital outside the city, but communications were in such disarray she had no idea where he was.
The scene was repeated in major cities and urban conurbations around the country. Columns of vehicles, crammed with families and escapees found themselves snarled with others emanating from cities and towns where they were destined. Fuel tankers were unable to get through the chaos and vehicles soon blocked the routes. Makeshift refugee camps emerged in the lee of woods or wherever there was shelter. Even these came under attack from the combatants, using sophisticated weapons that had been smuggled or stolen for use in the urban battles that were now raging, or primitive savagery – knife-wielding gangs moving among the camps, killing for money and food or simply blood-lust.
Rick had made his own way out. He’d left Lisa with Adele’s parents, who were hoping to make it to the coast following back-roads. There were two cars: one driven by her father and another by her sister. The young Turkish family next-door were divided between the two cars. Rick elected to take his chances alone. It would have added further risk to overload the cars. Lisa screamed for her father and mother as the cars moved off to an uncertain future along the moonlit lane. Already, they found themselves in a slow-moving convoy. Rick had watched the cars file past until he could no longer make out which were theirs. The paths out to the Downs were familiar to him. He picked up the bag containing water and whatever else he’d been able to grab and struck out into the night.
The Downs had been a favourite haunt of Sara and Paul. Once her mobile phone had gone flat, Sara had lost contact with the network of friends she counted on. Paul’s family were in Leeds, two hundred miles to the north. They had never taken to Sara, having stayed friendly with his long-term ex who lived in the same street. It was obvious from their cold-shouldering that they disliked her foreignness. Paul had made his choice as far as they were concerned. A feeling Paul reflected back to them. The Leeds branch of the family stayed away from the wedding. As far as Paul was concerned, they were estranged. With the loss of her networks, Sara effectively had nobody. She couldn’t contact her family in Spain. When the violence and the fires began to take hold in the city, Sara thought about the paths she and Paul had walked so often on the Downs. It took almost a day to walk there on foot. She’d met others with the same idea en route, but had lost faith in strangers. She heard Rick before she saw him, sobbing openly on a tumulus on the edge of an oak copse. Ten miles to the north, the city was ablaze.