The Marsh People

Chapter 1

 

Scummo curled up tighter under his dirty blankets. His hair itched, and the sour smell of stale damp bedding made his nostrils widen. It was barely light but already the dog warden was doing its rounds. He heard the rattle of the creature’s nails on the gritty concrete outside as it sniffed at his door. He threw a shoe at the door, recklessly. There was a loud growling from the other side and then a frantic scrabbling as the animal tried to get in. Scummo had nailed a piece of tin over the lower part of the door. The dog retreated, and he could hear its paws padding away down the landing.

A child screamed loudly. Minna’s daughter, Kelpin, Scummo guessed. Well, she shouldn’t be out on the landing at this hour. He heard more barking and the sound of doors slamming, then it was quiet again. Scummo reluctantly pushed the blanket to one side, sat up, swinging his pale legs over the end of the mattress, and scratched his dry wiry hair. The apartment was cold, and Scummo lost no time in pulling on his second pair of felt overtrousers before making some brew. The large dried leaves wilted under the water from the hot kettle and the rust-coloured liquid began seeping into the drink. Scummo drank it slowly; it had enough caffeine in it to wake him up, but there was no nourishment in it. He investigated his cupboard, searching for the remains of his biscuit ration. There were several broken pieces at the back of the shelf. They were soft and stale, but better than nothing. His ankle tag chafed his skin as it always did. He ignored it.

He listened to make sure the dog warden wasn’t waiting for him, then opened the door cautiously. The early fog hung like a blanket over the dingy City. Opposite him across the rubble-strewn courtyard someone was beating a mat on the balcony wall, and a woman was pegging out faded washing on a line strung along the narrow walkway. He gazed down.

This building, with its tiers of walkways and identical doors, was like an amphitheatre. The remote-controlled truck that collected the night’s accumulation of dirt and debris was doing its rounds, and there were sharp beeps as it changed direction at different points, reversing rapidly as it navigated sharp corners.

There was often cleaning up to do on Firstday morning after the trials in the arena below. There were bits of clothing and hair, stuff that had been thrown from the balconies, dried splashes of blood to be mopped up, teeth to be swept. His eye picked out the discarded bits of metal or wood that had served as weapons. These would find their way back by some mysterious process, into the Apartments. Only the bodies of the dead and wounded had already been dragged away. Disputes in the blocks were sorted out in trials in the arena every week. Nobody questioned it. Once the aggrieved parties had their names put on the board with the challenge, the fight was on, and the whole population became spectators at this bloody and lethal duel. The Masters had got the idea from somewhere called Rome, Scummo had heard, and adapted it for their own use.

Warkin, who had been one of Scummo’s neighbours, died only last Sevenday in a duel with Beeza, who had the apartment above. Scummo had wanted to ask him some questions; it seemed as though Warkin knew the answers. Now he was gone.

Scummo saw that the food wagon hadn’t arrived yet. The mobile cook-house that came every morning and evening to Broilerhouse Four always parked in the centre of the arena. Every resident had a rations tin, a metal container with a compartment for dry food that slotted in under the lid. Scummo’s tin dangled from his fingers as he waited. Lining up in order of apartment number, residents often swung their tins from their handles, removing the tops and covers when they got to the front of the line. The sticky field-bean stew, turnips or porridge allowed that day was ladled into the bottom. The tray fitted in above it neatly, with a metal clunk, and some dry biscuits or a portion of dried gabbo leaves were placed above it before the lid was put down. The dogs saw to it that no one had more than their fair share. Dropping the inner tray or its contents meant being badly bitten trying to retrieve it. The food wagon came in now as he watched, gliding silently into the arena, and he hurried down to take his place in the queue.

The dogs, heavy unintelligent mastiff cross-breeds, herded the residents as they might sheep and were only directed by whistles inaudible to the human ear. The Master in charge of the food wagon ladled each portion out with precise movements. The featureless oval of the face registered only what it needed to: the number of the resident. Numbers, thought Scummo. That’s all we are, numbers. His own number was above the door: SCUM04. He took his ration into his flat, noticing that the woman next door had not been behind him in the dinner queue. Her door was shut. He didn’t have time to worry about it. Rinsing out his ration tin, he heard the sound of the transit vehicle approaching and ran down the concrete stairs before he missed it.

Scummo waited by the transit area for the float to come by, a large conveyor platform on which workers had to jump as it passed on its way to the factory. Several others from his block jumped aboard. Scummo fished his identity tag out of his felt trousers and slipped it into the transit machine. A click told him it had been accepted. The conveyor platform bobbed its way along between the Apartments, picking up workers as it went. Scummo knew his allocation. It was in the clothing plant, feeding discarded rags into the shredder to be processed to make the coarse material he was now wearing. Nothing could be wasted. His trousers, made of coarse and scratchy felt, had been recycled several times already. The work wasn’t hard but it was physically tiring. Scummo had extra rations once a week to help keep his strength up. Last week it had been a carton of mashed turnip, and he’d been glad of it in the chill of his room, but this week it would probably be boiled potatoes, or if he was really lucky, field beans. These were usually cooked to a mush, and gave him indigestion, but he welcomed the small amount of extra protein they gave him. Kelpin, his neighbour’s daughter, had a ration of dried milk and water handed to her every day from the dispenser on the landing. The Masters used electronic surveillance to ensure only those entitled to the milk received it, and the few children who were eligible on each balcony lined up and drank their quota every morning under their watchful electronic eye.

Kelpin must have been hungry and come out onto the landing earlier than she should to collect her ration, Scummo thought. The conveyor platform slowed and stopped. He jumped off and went into the factory.

The noise was terrible – whirring, ripping, clacking and a high electronic whine all formed part of the sound background of the factory. A bitter smell hung in the air, the smell of synthetic fabric being shredded, and it never failed to make Scummo sneeze with an explosive effort to expel the dust that threatened to choke him.

He noticed that Posa from Broilerhouse Five was missing. Posa usually acted as maintenance man for the machines and positioned his plump body next to the door so that he could report any problems with machines to the workers as they came in. In his place sat a skinny lad Scummo had never seen before, shifting his feet back and forth in the dusty debris with bored resignation.

‘Where’s old Posa got to then?’ Scummo wanted to know.

The skinny lad shrugged. ‘Probably a cull,’ he offered. ‘I was just told to report here this morning. By the way, there’s a problem with your machine. One of the blades has snapped. But I think I fixed it okay. Any problems, give me a call.’ He began to sweep the factory floor, thin rope-muscled arms wielding the scooper-pan like a weapon as he swept round Scummo’s feet. Scummo knew he wouldn’t be seeing Posa again. A cull was serious. Certain individuals’ names were drawn in a lottery every six months, and the list was pinned to the noticeboard in every block entrance two days before the cull. Scummo could picture it. The notice would have been very upbeat:

 

‘The following members of Broilerhouse Five have been chosen, by reason of their hard work, effort and punctuality, to go on an extended vacation to Jamarama. All those chosen for this trip of a lifetime should wait with their belongings at the entrance to Broilerhouse Five at 11 a.m. on Secondday. Happy holidays!’

 

There followed a list of names in alphabetical order. The chosen ones waited on the appointed day with their bags all packed by the Apartments entrance for the special wagons, brightly painted with Holiday to Jamarama in loud splashy colours on the side.

No one saw or heard from them again. The idea that this was, in fact, a cull was slow to emerge. It was Warkin who had first expressed the thought, in the food queue one cold morning. Scummo had been standing behind him, arms folded across his chest to keep out the cold, and in front of both of them was Randis, a Geld, whose plump body shook a little as he held out his food tin. Scummo noticed that he was served double portions of something that wasn’t the normal ration of beans and mashed turnip. Randis held his tin carefully as he turned back towards them, smiling all over his face.

‘Special rations,’ he confided. ‘They’ve awarded me a holiday; I’ve just had the notification.’

Warkin turned to Scummo and whispered out of the side of his mouth. ‘Special rations my arse. It’s another cull; they always take the fat ones. Poor bugger thinks he’s going on holiday.’

Scummo was shocked. ‘A cull?’

Warkin nodded sagely.

‘You mean? They pick some of us out to . . .’ His lips could not utter the words his mind was thinking. ‘To get rid of?’

‘Well, have you ever seen any of them again? No, because wherever they go after they get on that bus, none of them ever come back.’

‘They might hear you,’ Scummo hissed urgently. ‘Keep your voice down.’

It was true. Scummo knew it. How had he never noticed it before? The routines that held their lives in place were fixed by fear: fear of the dogs, fear of not getting enough food, fear of the invisible threat that constantly hung over them all. Their lives had become so controlled that they no longer dreamed of escape. Unspoken rules and edicts from the Masters governed their lives from the moment they rose in the morning until the time they went to bed. Nobody flouted the rules. Having total control, the Masters could put in place any number of cruelties, knowing that dependence breeds apathy and the need to survive ensured the maintenance of the status quo.

Scummo brooded on his existence after this. What if Warkin was right, as Scummo was sure he was? Did that mean they had no free will at all? What would he do if his name were chosen for one of these ‘holidays’? He felt acute despair gnaw at his heart. Later, the idea of a cull slipped into the collective vocabulary as though it had always been there, with some people arguing that it was for the best, that some people needed to be taken out of the system so that others could have a turn. Others merely expressed indifference. Close relationships that grew despite the Masters’ efforts to put a stop to them often ended with one of the pair, usually the fatter one, being sent on an enforced holiday, from which he or she did not return. There were stories about these people. They had been chosen for a better life elsewhere. They had been seen elsewhere outside the Apartments. They had escaped, been carried up into the sky by the Masters, been forced to donate eggs and sperm, been rewarded in some unspecified way, or been boiled up to use as soap. This last suggestion came from Arisa, a busybody of thirty-one who lived below Scummo. Maybe she was right.

Scummo remembered with distress the recent fight to the death between Warkin and Beeza from Kincaidy Building. Warkin was tired of Beeza leaving his tap running and flooding his bedroom, and Beeza was incensed that Warkin should bang on his ceiling with a broom to stop him. Before they had time to sort it out any other way, Beeza and Warkin had their names put down on the challenge post and a bloody fight ensued. Beeza, who was not noted for being rational at the best of times, favoured a knife, while Warkin, who was short, armed himself with a homemade spear. Fending off Beeza seemed easy enough to do, and the crowd loved it. But then Beeza threw his knife, missed, and in the ensuing confusion grabbed hold of the spear and snapped it in two over his knee. Warkin aimed a kick at Beeza’s head; Beeza clobbered him with the dropped spear-end, missed and staggered.

Finally, Beeza sagged to the ground like a sack of cabbages, holding his head, and blood trickled in a dark line from his ear. Warkin was victorious. It was then the crowd took over and hurled whatever they had picked up from the streets – most had no possessions to throw – at the victor, who fell to his knees as a stone smacked him in the centre of his forehead. Scummo had seen the stone-thrower and marvelled at the precision of the aim. It was his neighbour, Andalou. As soon as the fight was over, the dog wardens came out and tugged away the bodies and the big cleaning machines swept up anything that remained the next morning. Newcomers, driven in by the Masters in small trucks from the clearing-houses where they had been waiting, took over the flats occupied by the unfortunate tenants immediately. At lunchtime, Scummo sat in the yard in the shadow of these flats and allowed his mind to wander.

***

He could just remember a time when life had been a little better. He seemed to remember trees, real trees, and eating some stew his mother had cooked for him on a trestle table somewhere in the sunshine. That was before the Masters had extended their activities to the countryside.

First there were disappearances. His father, whom he could just recall, left the house one evening to attend a meeting. He heard angry shouts in the street and saw how his mother clung to his father’s arm, not wanting to let him go. His father had gently removed her arm, kissed her on the cheek and picked up his tattered coat.

‘I won’t be long, Ruga,’ he told her. ‘Stop worrying.’ And he was gone. It was after his disappearance that the dogs started prowling after dark and nobody dared to leave their houses. Then the orders began to come from loudspeakers on high platforms erected overnight at the four corners of the village. The orders were strange, as they gave people permission to do things they had already been doing for years.

‘You may now leave your houses,’ boomed the loudspeaker. ‘You are permitted to tend to your animals between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.’ At first, the people ignored these messages. Then came more directives.

‘Meetings held for any purposes must take place in the designated meeting house. Repeat. All meetings held for any purposes must take place in the designated meeting house. No other venue is permitted at this time. Failure to comply will result in severe penalties.’

The people found out what these were when the store shut and the food distribution point failed to open for two days. The Masters had started supplying them with free food during one hard winter, and now they were dependent on it.

Protest was useless; there was no one to protest against. The people who used the meeting house for group activities were angered at the actions of the few who wanted to hold secret meetings away from the venue that they were sure was bugged.

‘Why are we being punished for things you lot are doing?’ asked one man. ‘We’ve already had to manage without food for two days; who knows what else might happen? Just do what they say and we’ll all be all right. Why do you always have to make trouble?’

The Masters had never interfered with their lives before, though officious messages had frequently appeared on the noticeboard by the food distribution point. They had got on with their lives, tending their hens and cattle, growing their vegetables, mending their houses. Social life was based around the meetinghouse the Masters had built. The village people wanted to help in the building of their meetinghouse, but were not allowed. There were rumours that the Masters had cameras and surveillance equipment hidden in the walls. Scummo’s father, rebellious by nature, organised meetings for the people in the open air, at the back of the barn where winter fodder was stored, then later organised the building of a shed where meetings could take place, although the space was limited. They searched it thoroughly for hidden cameras or microphones but discovered nothing.

When his father had not returned home, his mother went out looking for him, despite the danger. He had gone, and with him had also gone many of the younger men from the village. The shed had a notice on the door: Premises now closed until further notice. The faceless, unreachable Masters – how could you ask them what had happened? Who was accountable?

The pressure on them grew. Scummo’s mother was not the same after his father left, though she did her best to see he was cared for. Life became harder and his mother more worn down by the relentless quest for extra food and her allocated work in the fields.

He watched her grow thinner, until her ankle tag drooped over her foot and rubbed a raw spot on her heel. He hardly noticed his own.

Following the Herdings, he saw no more of his mother after they were shepherded along the narrow lanes leading from his village. The last he had seen of her was her arm, waving goodbye to him before they were separated forever by the tide of people surging around them. The dog wardens were snapping at their heels all the way to the City, as the Masters in their spy posts watched and gave orders. People no longer talked about the Herdings, but they remembered them all too vividly. Some still had the bite marks on their calves as a permanent reminder. Every day was a struggle to get through. Get up, collect a food ration, go to the allotted workplace, return to the buildings, collect a ration of food, prepare for the visit of the dog wardens by being safely indoors at eight thirty, sleep. Every day was the same except for Sevenday. He never heard anyone complain openly. Minna down the landing managed to conceive Kelpin despite the social restrictions, but Scummo didn’t know how she’d done it. The Masters did not encourage procreation, and the children who were born were given only slightly better treatment than their parents.

Scummo returned from work that evening tired and hungry, clutching his food ration to his chest. His feet automatically trudged up the stairs to his landing. Then he stopped. The door to Minna’s apartment was open and a small shadowy person was in the doorway, crying. Kelpin. Cautiously, Scummo moved forwards. He squatted down to the same level as Kelpin, by instinct.

‘What’s the matter?’

The little girl turned a tear-stained face towards him. ‘She’s ill.’ Kelpin pointed inside. Scummo stood up and took her hand, feeling embarrassed as he did so. Together, they went into the flat. Minna lay on the grey blankets of her mattress, and it was clear to Scummo, even with his limited knowledge, that she was dying. He suddenly realised he hardly knew her. Yet she had been his neighbour for seven years. She had appeared one morning, her grey felt jacket and trousers flapping around her thin body, scurrying along the landing towards her new flat with the dog in hot pursuit. Where had she come from? He didn’t know. People were pushed into the Apartments to be processed. The flat she was allocated had been inhabited by a large, pale man with a consumptive cough who never spoke to Scummo but spat vigorously over the balcony as he entered or left his apartment.

Over the months, as his health declined, the phlegm had turned the side of the balcony a sickly green where he had missed. One day he was there, a sickly, consumptive presence; the next he had gone. Scummo presumed that something had happened while he was at work; the Masters usually made sure that people coming and going and any other major changes happened at times when the Apartments were empty of workers. Possibly there had been another cull. He had ceased to be surprised by any changes. Nevertheless, he registered Minna’s arrival, while ducking indoors quickly to avoid the snarling beast barking and nipping at her heels. He looked down at her, helplessly. Her pale, cold hands seemed devoid of any life when Scummo felt them and her breathing was shallow. She was unconscious. He ushered Kelpin from the room. She put a finger in her mouth and looked at him with solemn eyes. The dog wardens would take care of the body.

Back in his own flat, he made Kelpin sit down while he thought what to do. As he sat there, head in his hands, Kelpin edged along the mattress until she was within reach of him and laid her head on his arm. The soft black curls were limp, and Scummo could see the thinness of her shoulder blades under her shirt. Something inside him was moved, and without thinking, he placed his calloused, work-stained hand on her back. This act surprised him. Every day was a struggle to survive – only just enough food, only just enough heating, only just enough of anything. There was nothing to spare. Yet something in him remembered his mother’s love and responded to this little girl, so young, so vulnerable. Almost at once he felt angry with himself. It was hopeless. She’d be taken away; of course she would … yet for an instant a notion had flicked across his mind to care for her. He knew that young children without parents were put into the compound, where they quickly succumbed to illness and lack of care. He had only just survived himself. He had seen pinched little faces and bony fingers of very young children through the railings when he first arrived in the compound near the hover-platform. Although this compound was now shut, the memory still haunted him. He himself had narrowly escaped being taken there by being bigger than the other children of his age. He had never seen his smaller classmates again after the Herdings. Allocated a flat and made to work, he had accepted his fate, seeing no way to escape from this new and dreadful life.

Officially, he was now supposed to report to the buildings office to tell them what had happened and ask what should be done with Kelpin. She had curled up, leaning against him, her legs snugly tucked under his blankets, half asleep. He knew he had to make a decision. He thought about the way his life was. It had no purpose, no love and no beauty. The excitement of the savage battles in the arena on Sevenday were the only opportunity anyone had to show excitement, cheer, clap and throw stones. A ritual bloodletting, it was the only safety valve on offer. Even sex, that most urgent and primitive of drives, was dormant in them. He never worked out whether there was some chemical in the rations they were given that dulled their appetites, or whether the senseless, ceaseless grind with no opportunity to socialise simply left them with no energy to spare for it. Across on the other side of the central arena were the Apartments of the plump, sexless men that lived all together in one block and had special rations, the Gelds. Scummo could only guess what had happened to them. Sex was not on the menu for any of them. All the more surprising then that Minna had conceived Kelpin, no doubt by accident. Poor little Kelpin. His thoughts returned to the predicament he was in and he looked down at her trusting little face and knew he couldn’t let her go into the compound. At the next cull, if not before, she would surely perish.

He could hide her, but the dog wardens would be sure to smell her. He had an idea. In three hours’ time, the wardens would be out doing their rounds. He could take Kelpin back to her own flat, take Minna’s body out and leave it on the landing for them to find and hide with Kelpin in her flat until they had gone. Minna’s body should prove enough of a distraction for them. He hoped they wouldn’t realise he was in the flat with Kelpin or they’d start howling and scratching the door. He went back to Minna’s flat. Kelpin was asleep on his bed and he left her there. He’d carry her round in a minute or so.

Minna’s body was cold. He put a sheet around her and lifted her lightly off the mattress and out onto the landing, then he put her down at the top of the stairs where the wardens always came in. He went back to his own flat and lifted Kelpin, who opened one eye sleepily and put her arms around his neck.

‘Close your eyes,’ he instructed her, whisking her past her mother’s body and into her flat. She obeyed him.

They packed up some of her pathetic clothing in a bag, found a few rations Minna had hoarded and ate those, then waited for the dog wardens. Scummo put chairs and a table in front of the door, jamming them tightly. The door to his own flat was locked securely. Soon there was the rattle of nails on concrete and a growl as the body was discovered, followed by excited barking and the feet of many large animals pounding along the landings. Then there was growling, snarls, whines, snapping teeth and the sound of paws scrabbling to get purchase on the blood-slippery floor. He could picture the bared teeth and bristled fur.

He held his hands over Kelpin’s ears and wished he didn’t have to hear it. They had all heard these sounds before, many times. Too often, he thought. Suddenly he was overwhelmingly sickened by his life, their lives, the lives they all had to lead now that the Masters were in charge.

He wondered what had happened to the land he grew up in, all the fields and rivers. Who was in charge of it now? The future held nothing for him or for Kelpin, except work. If Kelpin were put in the compound, she would die, he was sure about that. With him, with the two of them together, they might stand a chance.

Who was he kidding?

Suddenly, he made up his mind. Yesterday, this morning, he had been alone. Now he had a child to look after. She had clung to him; she had slept in his arms. He could not abandon her. He waited until it was nearly midnight, wrapped Kelpin in as many sweaters as he could find and, holding her hand, tiptoed out of the door. Putting his hand over her eyes, he turned her away from the inky stickiness of the blood still spreading over the landing. At least there was nothing else. The wardens did this job efficiently. Turning their backs to it, they slipped down the back stairs and out into the night. Gorged to capacity, the resident dog warden slumbered happily as Scummo and Kelpin moved quickly and silently away from the buildings and vanished into the Old Quarter.