To me, Julia, sitting in the armchair, gun held in her right hand, propped up by the armrest looked younger than she had in years.
She stared at the couple, who sat on the opposite sofa; daylight squeezing through the closed blinds, casting a beam across their ashen faces.
“What’s his name?” Julia asked breaking the silence pointing to a photograph, on the mantelpiece, of a teenager smiling broadly.
“Mark,” the man said, quietly. The woman looked instinctively towards the door.
“And your names?”
They both stared at her; disbelief, fear, maybe a touch of confusion.
“I’m just curious. We were never told,” Julia said, sending a chill of a memory through me. The sound of the doorbell, the heavy knock, the men with guns. Being told to pack, to get out. Even after 30 years that memory felt vivid, razor cut into my mind.
“Wayne and Sarah,” the man said.
“Wayne, that’s an unusual name to have around here.”
“My parents were American.”
“Do you remember my parents at all?”
“They used to live here.”
The man shifted in his seat, realisation dawning in him.
“Listen, you can have whatever you want, just let us go.”
“They were older than you, when you moved in,” Julia said ignoring Wayne’s desperate philanthropy.
I only really got to know Julia’s parents after we were moved. Before they had been cold towards me, perhaps considering me unsuitable in an amorphous way that they could never, or felt unable, to explicitly articulate. After we were forced across the border together this changed; their sweaty bodies, heaving luggage in their arms and on their backs, the day a blaze of heat, disbelief and screams. We had spent a year in a forest shelter together; sleeping side-by-side on a lice-infested mattress, kept awake by her father’s constant coughing, illness spreading like an oil slick through his body. It was in these circumstances that I had eventually won them over; probably by necessity more than anything else.
“We didn’t choose this house, it was given to us,” the man said. “What did you expect us to do, refuse?”
It was true that those who were allowed to stay hadn’t always agreed with what happened. Some even had refused, a protest whose reward was being forced over into the Greenbelt (an unaffectionate and vaguely ironic label for the cauterised landmass) with the rest of us. If I had been given the choice, I would like to say that I would have protested; but there has always been a whisper within me saying, “You would have stayed.”
“This house always reminds me of Christmas, of dad putting up the tree, isn’t that silly?” Julia said quietly, almost absent-mindedly, looking over at me smiling.
Her dad’s death had had a savagery in its visible day by day unfurling. The coughing, the blood, the pneumonia, the seizures. It was her mum that kept Julia sane throughout this; composed and dignified. And it was only three years later, when Julia found her mum’s body, lifeless amongst the bedsheets, passing in her sleep, that her rage uncapped itself; a torrent poured out of her. I was certain that she was going to join the resistance. I was certain that we were both going to end up in the camps because of her hate.
“How old is Mark?” Julia asked, refocusing.
“19 years old,” Wayne replied.
Shortly after her mum’s death, Julia found out she was pregnant. At the time I wondered whether it was a good idea, to bring another human into this. “Others have it worse,” Julia had said making me realise what a child meant to her; meaning and purpose. A child, a family, was a pressure valve, a distraction; perhaps the only way to stay sane.
Julia had a home-birth, as she refused to go to the hospital; ageing relics of the second half of the 20th century, an age that didn’t see the storm clouds circling, that didn’t even think to reach for the umbrellas. I remember the happiness I felt, at being told that my child, a boy, was healthy; that he wasn’t diseased. “I want to call him Anthony, after your dad,” was one of the first things she said to me after the birth; I had broken down in tears that I didn’t know were in me.
“Where is he?” Julia asked the couple.
“He’s at university,” Sarah said. This was the first time she had said anything, her voice hoarse as if she had been screaming for hours. “Central University,” she added.
Central University was the only real university left, as far as I knew. It was a form of academic nostalgia, selling the virtues of the past; allowed to teach subjects like politics, philosophy or history, the arts and not just technological science.
“That’s nice, what does he study?”
“What’s he going to do with that?”
“We’re not sure, we ask the same question. We hope he’ll do a computer science conversion course.”
Anthony had been talented with computers. He did every online course that the government streamed into the area. He had wanted a job at the mining labs, the only half-decent official job you could get on this side of the border; fine-tuning the algorithms that generated the power for Central. If you worked there, life would be as good as it could be in the Greenbelt.
“I’m sure he’ll do something useful,” Wayne said.
Both Julia and I looked at each other, she rolled her eyes. Our one wish for Anthony had been that he would be happy; a wish that had been torn apart just by a few moments. A moment, I had come to realise, was more than enough to ruin a life.
Burglary was common in the Greenbelt; but I never understood how they managed to get in, how they defused our security system. I was out, Julia was in. She had heard them and instead of locking the door and triggering the alarm, she had gone downstairs, with the gun I kept under the bed. They had heard her and were ready. She was flung to the ground, hitting her head against the fireplace, cracking into a pool of congealed red. Anthony had been coming through the door as they left, in their surprise they had laser bolted him in the chest. I was told it happened quickly, that he didn’t suffer.
The first thing Julia had asked waking up in the hospital bed, was “Where is Anthony?” I found myself unable to say anything, to do anything other than break down, sobbing uncontrollably. The remaining colour in her face had faded, I saw the life in her eyes vanishing.
“She needs a respirator to survive,” the doctor said, a machine that would be implanted into her, forcing oxygen into her brain. The doctor had paused, a subtle beat that I knew was the invitation for me to pull the plug. Standard procedure, if you weren’t healthy, if you couldn’t live on your own there was no point. No one had the resources to keep the unhealthy alive.
“Do the surgery, I’ll get the money.”
I had never been part of the Trade, but I’d stayed close to those who were. Back before we were moved, I knew and worked with successful businessmen and women. Even back then, some of these people had had only thin regard for the law, especially when it came to their bank accounts. Now, many of these people had taken over the Trade, turning it from a high-minded provider of medicines to a profitable narcotics distribution network. The authorities looked the other way as serotonin soaked minds rarely caused trouble.
I knew Stefan, who knew someone else, who knew the right person.
“Alright, you want to run for us?” a muffled voice said down the mobile line.
“Yes, I need the money.”
“So I’ve heard.”
And that was that. After that I ran double EE’s, selling to anyone who would buy them. And I sold crate loads. People trusted me. Maybe it was my appearance, a bookish fragility encouraging the belief that I was selling something pure.
I had told Julia everything, of course. “No! No way, there must be another way”. She’d offered to run the pills, but she was too obvious; an emaciated woman with a tube coming out the back of her head. Her illness made her look like a drug addict. She brought too much attention. She knew that. She knew what she looked like. She knew how the death of her son had eaten away at who she was.
“I know that I’m not the person you married,” she used to say in the months after the operation. I was calm under the surface, but these words filled me with rage. Rage at how we had been treated, at the loss of our son, at how terrified Julia was that I would stop loving her. “I love you,” was all I could say. And I said this over and over again, hoping the words would soak into her skin.
I wasn’t the same person she married either. The Trade became my life. I slowly reconnected with old friends and former business contacts. They needed someone like me, someone organised, educated who could think and plan things out. I stopped peddling pills and moved over to Export. Stefan and I, set up a partnership, known unimaginatively as the Scheme, smuggling in refugees from Europe; life here was harsh but still better than the bombed-out continent.
What made us different from all the other refugee smuggling schemes was that we didn’t use violence, we paid our people; from the guy who looked the other way while our boat slipped into the estuary (the only unfortified access point), to the guy who held the boat’s rudder. We weren’t greedy. That’s what made us successful.
“Are you going to kill us?” Sarah asked, giving Julia a look that was meant to convey fearlessness but was undercut by the vice-like, sweaty grip she had over her husband’s hand.
“No,” I said.
“We’re not like you,” Julia said, looking down at the gun in her hand.
At first, I didn’t mention anything when I saw Julia coughing up droplets of blood. I had hoped it was a passing illness. My silence, less due to certainty as to the condition’s transitory nature, and more down to a belief that my acknowledgement of it would make it worse. But her symptoms worsened anyway, and rapidly so, against the backdrop of my muted panic. I’d sat up at night with her, holding her hand, listening to her cough, the violent wheezing that produced glue-like reams of crimson phlegm. I felt the agony of watching Julia fade away, of these viscous coughs being the last gasps of our time together, and loneliness of the future.
“I want to die where I was born,” she had said to me one evening.
“You know we can’t.”
She had turned in bed, her eyes bloodshot and staring into mine; in that moment, I felt our memories together sealing around us, filling the gaps of our embrace.
“You get people in all the time, why not this?”
“We don’t get most into Central, it’s mainly Greenbelt, the security is less.”
“Please John, I need this. I want it to end, where it started. I want to be surrounded by the walls we first made love in. I don’t want to die here.”
I knew how to do it. I knew the second she had asked; it just took me awhile to make my peace with it.
We don’t go to them, they come to us. The Scheme had become infamous with the authorities; they had been trying to track Stefan and I down since we set it up.
All I had to do, was let them know who I was; and they would come.
Stefan understood, but he hadn’t liked the plan. For him, it was a risk. If the police took us, we were liabilities. We might tell them everything, under pressure.
“You know there’s only one way of doing this, don’t you?”
Stefan hooked us up with explosives and a camera, something that allowed him to watch. We agreed if it looked like we were about to be taken he’d press the button. His men rigged up our house, booby-trapped it. The ceilings covered in gas canisters, to take out the human enforcers. Wired walls with shock-wave lasers that would scramble the enforcer’s robot aids.
“Ready?” Stefan had asked.
“Yes,” Julia replied.
“Here goes nothing,” he said walking away to make the necessary phone calls; the news would quickly spread, it wouldn’t take long for them to get here.
An hour later, we sat in the living room, our hands intertwined, listening to the faint sounds of the front door hinges being removed, followed by soft footsteps into the house. I felt my heart beating, while Julia sat serenely calm. I adjusted the gas blocker that was lodged in my nostrils, steeling myself for what was about to come.
“You are under arrest,” a deafening bark of a voice, a giant of a man appeared in the doorway, his gun aimed directly at us. “Stand up and put your hands out in front of you.”
We started doing as they asked, but before I got out of the armchair a burst of supernova light blinded me, a second later the clatter of falling robots, the thick steam of gas and gunfire. I blinked, forcing open my eyes as Stefan’s men swarmed the room, and watched as they hauled the robots and men out the back. I knew they were going to be used as propaganda for the resistance.
Julia and I were led to the enforcement van, where one of the men was tied up in the back. ”You’re going to drive us across the border? Got it? If you don’t, we’ll kill you and your team, and it won’t be quick,” one of Stefan’s men informed the man, a knife to his throat. It surprised me, how childlike this enforcer looked without his body armour.
We managed to cross the border more easily than I thought; enforcement vans weren’t checked. The van stopped half an hour after the border and we unloaded the motorbike that had been stowed in the back. I got on the front, Julia the back; her hands around my waist. “Do you remember the time, you took me to the cinema on your moped,” she whispered in my ear. I squeezed her hands and drove us to her parents’ house. The streets were pristine and preserved; freshly refurbished in the Victorian arts and crafts décor quaintly disguising the despotism that lurked beneath.
Julia got up from the armchair and walked over to Sarah. I noticed that her walk was more fluid, less shuffling than normal.
“You want to know why we are here?”
Sarah’s eyes flicking nervously from the gun in Julia’s hand towards her husband Wayne.
“I wanted to make sure you watched us die,” Julia said.
I felt a sharp tear and sinking sensation; this wasn’t why we were here. They, these two on the couch, had nothing to do with it at all.
“I didn’t want to leave this world, without you seeing it. I wanted you to see the cost of your lives. I wanted to force you to face the truth, that without you, without your actions we would still have a son.”
She turned to me, her eyes red and watery. My mind scrambled; this wasn’t meant to be about revenge. This was meant to be about something positive, about being surrounded by memories. We had agreed that we would let them go; that our final moments would be spent laying in the bed we first made love in.
“I wanted to come here to be with you, I didn’t lie to you but there was always something else. I could never manage my anger like you did. I needed to do this for Anthony, or for myself, I don’t know. But, I do know that I love you, John. I love you.”
She raised the gun to her head and fired a shot, the mantelpiece shocked red, her body folding in on itself, collapsing disfigured to the floor.
“Get out,” I shouted at the couple, running to Julia, my ears ringing with the gunshot.
I kneeled on the floor next to her. Despair and horror etching themselves around numbness. This wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what we had talked about. I had wanted more for us. I had wanted us to hold each other one last time. Maybe she was right, maybe I was less angry than her. Maybe I had less of a need for revenge. But if that’s true, it was only because of her. It had nothing to do with my strength. I felt a widening hollowness at how I had never been able to comfort her as she had me.
“Stefan, I know you’re there. I want you to do it. No one else is going to live in this house if we cannot have it, no one can. Let it burn.”
There was a pause.
I didn’t hear the blast, I didn’t see the windows blowout, I didn’t see the roof explode shattering the rafters, or the flames licking the jagged edges of the rubble.
Tim Oke lives in London and is a writer of short stories and plays. He has had one of his play’s performed at the Edinburgh fridge, and he has been published in anthologies and magazines. Currently, he is working on a short story collection and a novella.
If you enjoyed ‘The Return Home’ leave a comment and let Tim know.
Photo by Gerd Altmann
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