Splashes of bluebells line the way to the crematorium. They were Mum’s favourite, so I pick a handful for the plaque, though their petals are browning. If I had my way, there’d always be bluebells for Mum. Everything flowers earlier each year, and there can’t be many anniversaries left until they’ve been and gone when the day comes around.
It’s exactly two years since the attack. The press like to call it Twenty-four/ Four. An ugly name, but it’s a tradition from way back when people started naming these events for the day they happened. God knows how many more there’ve been since then. I’d have thought they’d run out of dates to use by now. I try not to pay attention.
At the iron gates, I swipe a hand over my clammy face and enter the merciful shade of the crematorium. It’s so much greener here than everywhere else, they must irrigate the grounds in the dry spells, though they’re not supposed to. Perhaps the ashes keep the soil fertile.
I approach the black marble of the plaque—donated by the survivors’ fund—with shaky legs and dry mouth. Like it’s a wild animal I’m forced to sit and pet.
Their names and dates glitter in embossed gold:
George Glass (1985—2033)
Alice Glass (1985—2033)
Willow Glass (2010—2033)
Darya Glass (2019—2033)
That’s all of them. My whole family.
Beautiful as it is, the alignment of the four 2033s is stark and goading. I close my eyes, imagining my name among them.
Essie Glass (2016–2033)
To distract myself from the barb in my throat, I pull at the crispy weeds criss-crossing the plaque. They come out of the earth with a dry snap.
I lay the wilting bluebells on the marble, and wipe my eyes with gritty fingers. There must be something more I can do to mark the day, but no ideas come to mind. I have no words.
What did I do last year?
The first anniversary is an angry blur. I was drunk through most of it, trying to unwind my twisted guts. It didn’t work. I’ve dim memories of my flat, dark and stale, Maya hugging me for hours, whispering. Later, long, sweet messages from FractalEyes. But I recall nothing from the crematorium. Why can’t I remember?
Taking a last look at the plaque, I turn away and begin the sweaty walk home. It seems wrong to leave so soon, but the tightness in my chest lifts a little all the same.
A breeze eddies towards me along the lane. My phone buzzes with a text.
It’s Maya: Hey lovely. How crappy is this year’s Crappy Day?
Essie: Crappy. How was the audition?
Maya: Crappy. Though obviously not in the same magnitude. Sorry I couldn’t come to the crem.
Essie: I understand. You’re busy. Post-audition shag with [insert current boyfriend]?
Maya: His name’s Lawrence. And we’re at it right now.
Essie: You disgust me. Impressive multitasking, though.
Maya: Thank you. Just wanted to say don’t be a masochistic moron today. Stay off those ranty forums, OK?
She means PolitiWorld. And she’s right. I was headed straight there when I got home. Maya gets me like no one else. Or not, but she’s an actress, and she does a fair job of pretending.
Maya has texted again: Anyway, you in work tomorrow? I wanna talk to you about an idea Lawrence and his mate have. You are gonna LOVE it.
Maya: Wait and see, my lovely but deranged bestie.
Essie: Okayyy. Is it a bank job or a killing spree? Both?
Maya: Let’s just say, it’s right up your street, my crazy but righteous revolutionary.
Essie: Come to the Braai at 12. Leave your sense of humour at home X
Maya: See ya tomoz, freak. Don’t wreck your head X
Face-to-face, I'm not a confrontational person. It's just sometimes a good argument is better than silence. I need to fill the void the crematorium left in me today.
On the PolitiWorld forum, this evening’s top thread is on fire. They’re blaming immigrants for the bombings. Again. Today of all days, I can’t resist. Taking a generous swig of cider, I bash at the keys:
Stop spouting pointless slogans from the headlines. You know nothing. Most of the attacks are by English people.
Everyone knows PolitiWorld isn’t the underground movement it used to be. When the government discovered it, instead of banning the forum, they twisted it to their own advantage. Typical subvert and control.
I grab my faithful, rickety old laptop from the Twenties, and type again:
It’s all about the Good Citizen points with you lot, isn’t it?
That stirs the hornets’ nest, but it’s true. They all chase the credit because higher GC points mean a better life. Who wouldn’t want that?
As I field the worst of the online abuse, a private message pops up.
FractalEyes: Hope you’re not winding up crazies again. Don’t poke the bear.
Corny as ever. I roll my eyes, spark up my last cigarette, and reply as my persona, Vixie44: What are you, my grandad?
Another forum post—a suggestion that if [MaskedSession1343] likes immigrants so much, they should screw them all.
I can’t help it: Yeah, why not? Wanna join us?
FractalEyes: Seriously. Do yourself a favour. Go out clubbing or something. Celebrate life.
Vixie44: Your timing could be better, Fracster.
He doesn’t deserve that, but off it goes into cyberspace. There’s an awkward, over-long pause.
FractalEyes: Oh god. Sorry. In my defence, I am a complete idiot.
Vixie44: Don’t stress. I’m just a bit edgy.
I should say something more meaningful, make him feel better.
FractalEyes: You okay?
I can sense the mortification in his typing fingers.
Vixie44: I’m fine.
FractalEyes: Must have been a rough day. I’m sorry. Do you need anything? Need to talk? Or just swear at me? I’m here for that.
I can’t help a smile. Maybe the swearing would help… but the black knot inside me has to stay tied for now. Vile-Forum-Man is back with more poison. Tired of anger, I slam the laptop closed. It emits its disappointed shutdown whine as I grimace at my improvised vegetable curry. The sight of it makes my stomach clench.
I switch on the TV, which goes exactly as expected. The reasons I’ve been avoiding it all day beam back at me. Head shots of the victims indecently juxtaposed with mug shots of the perpetrators; it’s like the pictures of the wreckages are piercing my chest. I don't know why I'm shocked to see a clip of myself included.
The editors have chosen to show footage of sixteen-year-old me scurrying away from a horde of ravenous reporters, exposing themselves as the predators they are. Inside the TV, I mutely repeat the phrase, “No comment” as the present-day newsreader recites from the autocue. My solicitor, a square-shouldered, ex-Navy guy in a blue suit, swats the microphones away to clear my path to a black cab. That was the day of the inquest. I know that for sure because it’s the first and last time I wore that dress. It was blood red and too far above my knees, which didn’t go unnoticed in the gutter press the next day. Like my dress was the most important thing about that circus. Makes you sick.
The newsreader drones on from her heavily glossed mouth, “… took place on this day in 2033. It was the largest and most coordinated terrorist attack on English soil. The attacks, at seven locations across–”
I turn it off.
Pacing round my flat doesn’t take long. It’s a shabby, ground floor one-bedroom box, all frayed threads and vintage Swedish flatpack. Brown lounge, beige kitchen, magnolia bedroom, white bathroom. That’s it. The letting agent reckons it’s 40 square metres. I think that’s a lie, but when the social worker found it for me I was in no state to argue.
Our family home had to go when they all died. The insurance companies wouldn’t pay out for an incident on that scale. The government felt bad for us—just not bad enough to help. We had their thoughts and prayers and deep admiration for our dignity, all 11,000 of the bereaved and injured. But deep admiration didn’t pay the mortgage.
Text from Maya: Essie you’re Masking, but I can tell it’s you ranting on there. Get off the forums!!!
Essie: I’m off now, okay, Mother Hen?
Maya: Good. Now stay off!!
I send her a thumbs up and a heart, then pull back the purple curtains my social worker bought me as a moving-in present. I’m not sure what she was thinking, buying velvet in this unrelenting year-round heat. Did she think it was all going to stop? But I suppose she has to clutch a nugget of optimism to her soul in that line of work.
I’ve kept the curtains up, though, because they’re about the only thing in this whole place that isn’t broken or worn out, or both. They remind me that life isn’t universally crap, and that my social worker—with a caseload of maybe a hundred screwed up teenagers—thought to remember my favourite colour.
The window is open but there’s no breeze, just a heat so intense it feels like a fever on my damp skin. All that reaches through the opening is the hot oil stench from the chippy over the road, and that makes me queasy.
I shouldn’t have cut FractalEyes off like that. He meant well. And his messages have seen me through some dark days in the last two years. There are times I wonder if someone up there sent him to me. He came just when I needed him, like a guardian angel.
We don’t use real names, just handles. What I think of as the Second Level of security clearance. There’s Level One: MaskedSession, which I use for the forum nuts; Level Two is Vixie44, for him. You have to know me personally for Level Three—just plain Essie. I'd recommend this approach to anyone, it works for me.
Should have stayed online and chatted, though, eased his guilt for overlooking the day. Sometimes even I forget it happened. Not today, though. Not a chance.
The next morning, the sun is already blistering through the taupe haze on River Street. There’s no hint of the freshness of a new day as I walk to work at Bri's Braai. Instead, it feels like yesterday is still breathing its sweaty fog over me. Two lads of about fifteen are sitting on the pavement, backs against a charity shop window, one smoking. A pocket of air wafts from their vicinity and the sweet, emetic smell tells me it’s not a cigarette. I’m guessing their parents have high GC ratings if they can afford weed these days. I’m pretty sure these kids set a pile of empty boxes alight two shopfronts away: no one else is here. The cardboard crackles, expelling acidic smoke.
There’s a lazy hostility in the boys’ eyes. Wanna make something of it, babe? they seem to say.
I move on without comment, side-stepping the bonfire. The drones will pick them out if they hang about long enough. I’d give them half an hour tops until the next one. Though they’re likely too stoned to notice.
I have to be at the Braai for seven to open up. We start trading at seven-thirty, but I need to get the fresh stuff prepped and make the sandwiches. Brian tackles the more exciting dishes. I’m a decent cook, but his bobotie is better than mine.
The early start doesn’t bother me. I’ve never been a late sleeper, and it’s the coolest part of the day, which I like. The gangs of listless adolescents and short-tempered men are mostly off the streets by early morning, and the walk helps get my head together. I can get some work done before Bri's kitchen gets too steamy.
On my right, Bank Lane descends towards the river. A gentle breeze picks up from the water, cutting through the haze. People complain about the smell of eggs, but it makes me think of wild, unsuppressed life. Down there, away from the fierce heat and trade, all the sleeping bags lie huddled with the discarded humans inside. When I was younger, I used to hate coming here. Too embarrassed to make eye contact with the people, and ashamed when I didn’t. Now I’m so close to being among them that some are my friends.
There’s no movement in the sleeping bags, so everyone must be asleep. The heat will wake them soon enough. Or some soulless idiot will flick a cigarette at one of them.
A soft, sniffling sound draws my eye back there. A man with dark hair and a coarse ginger beard huddles in the sleeping bag nearest to the junction, sobbing. When a filmy brown eye pokes through the red hair, I realise it’s not a beard, it’s a dog. The man cries out and squeezes the dog into a hug. From the stiffness of its posture, the dog’s dead.
Oh god. Poor things.
He lifts his head from the tarmac. I know him a little: his name’s Merrie. Maybe that’s not his real name. There’s an upended, empty vodka bottle on the floor by his arm. My face grows hot as his eyes shoot a spark of recognition at me. All I have is a wonky smile. On the way home, when everyone’s awake, I’ll come back to see if he’s okay.
Fifty yards past the junction with Bank Lane sits Bri’s Braai. The customary scowl at the Unity sign must be observed. Why did I get a job right opposite one of these things, with its deceitful ‘hands of kinship’ logo? They’re meant to represent two hands clasped in support, but to me they look more like they’re holding some poor sop below the waterline. This morning, for Merrie’s dead dog, I add an extra one-fingered greeting to my sneer at the sign. I’m brave enough when the drones aren’t about.
Right on cue, I hear a blue-bottle whine, and squint up to see one of the hateful things hovering twenty feet above, its triangular beams casting a spindly shadow against the pavement. They’ve painted the underside with a smiley face. With a poorly stifled grimace, I unlock the door and slip inside the café.
How you experience the Braai depends on when you come in. Early in the day, it’s a generic coffee shop on the approach to the station. Two mornings a week, after nine, it’s more like a soup kitchen. Tuesdays and Thursdays, Bri does a free breakfast for the rough sleepers.
Come in at night and you’ll find it a hedonistic carnival, with abundant wine, dancing and experimental music. Sound bounces off the rough plaster walls, dancers bounce off the dark-stained wooden floorboards. Angled lights pick out the many framed photos on the wall: landscapes and street scenes of the South Africa of Bri’s youth.
Brian arrives about nine, with a pale grey face behind his craggy beard. I give him a few minutes, then follow him into the kitchen.
My eyes slip past his bulk to my drawings. About six months ago, he ‘borrowed’ two of my sketches—a sample of the happy ones. There's one of Maya reading a script on my sofa, and one of the river. He framed and hung them on the kitchen wall, by the door where the steam doesn’t reach. There was no persuading him to take them down.
“Bri… can I have the early break? Maya’s coming in.”
“Don’t see why not. It’s worth it to gaze upon the Asian goddess again. Anyway, I’m not doing hot lunches today—got no bookings, and this headache is a mother. Can’t face the oven.”
I can’t believe he’s still in business.
“Asian goddess?” I say with a squint. “Bit racist, or not? Also, creepy. She’s half your age.”
“Not racist.” He winks at me. “You’re jealous. How sweet. Don’t worry, you’re still my crazy, flame-haired princess.”
The fact is if either of us ever came on to him he’d freak out. He only says these things to bother me. Like the flame-haired thing. He knows I’ve only ever wanted dark hair. But short of dyeing myself head-to-toe it’s never going to work. Maya says I’m all pale and English freckles on the outside and dark-hearted emo on the inside. I always reply she’s the opposite.
There’s a mid-morning trickle of coffee drinkers, but it’s otherwise quiet. Brian makes more sandwiches for the lunch trade. Maya’s late, which is annoying because I only get half an hour’s break. She bounces in, with sleek black hair and lip gloss. No sheen of sweat on her face, unlike me when I walk through the same door. Which is incredible because she comes in on a waft of steamy heat from the street.
“Hi Bri,” she calls through to the back, and he blows her a kiss.
“You’re late,” I say as we hug, and she follows me to a window table.
“Sorry. Lawrence’s fault.”
I don’t pursue that. Brian brings us coffees so fast they must have been meant for customers, and flashes a smile at Maya.
“Also, the trains from Worcester are all cancelled.” Maya beams her thanks at Brian. “Something about melted lines or some other garbage.”
“No excuse. You could have got a DEV car.”
“Don’t trust them,” she says. “My sister got stuck in the Birkenhead tunnel in one of those. It ran out of charge and the helpline was out of service. She nearly pooed her pants. They thought she was setting a bomb in there. I mean, they shouldn’t operate driverless when the helpline’s down and the power’s out half the time. I heard they’re gonna ban them in Worcester–”
“So anyway, since we’re short on time…” I say. You have to cut off her stream before it overflows.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “Get this: Lawrence wants us to join his gang. Well, me really, but I persuaded him to include you.”
I blink in the pause. “His gang. Maya… is he five?”
She laughs. “Not like that. It’s not the Secret Seven. He’s into…” she looks around, ducks low and drops her voice. She’s enjoying the performance, and I tap my fingers on the table. “… activism.”
Not what I was expecting. “Okay. What kind of…” I mimic her spy moves, “...activism?”
“The good kind.” When I frown, she says, “The kind you’re always muttering about. Climate change and such. He kept on about me joining up. Said it would be great to have a famous actress involved. Give them an air of legitimacy. When we can come out in the open, obviously.”
Where to start? “Maya, you’re not famous.”
She shrugs and stirs her coffee. “Yes, well, I might be. One day. And then we can bring the argument to the mainstream, he said. It’s the long game.”
“Well, he is a genius. If only someone had thought to bring the argument to the mainstream before. It’s not like it’s illegal or anything. ‘Out in the open’? Are you mental?”
Maya presses her lips together and pulls her head to the side. “Come on, Ess.”
I try to soften my expression into a grin. “Sorry. Been a tough couple of days. But it’s still illegal.”
She nods slowly, twisting her hair, but then it seems she can’t help buzzing again. “So, will you come?”
Brian hovers in my peripheral vision. My break is over. To Maya, I must look blank at her words.
She rolls her eyes. “To the meeting? Friday night? It’s at the church hall. Seven-thirty. We can meet you outside if you prefer.”
“I don’t know, Maya. I mean, political congregation and all that… Wait… at the church hall?”
“The cleric’s a friend of Lawrence’s. He’s cool with it.”
“How’re we going to get past the Neighbourhood Watchers? And the drones?”
She holds up her hands. “They have a plan, Ess. They’re not that naïve. Anyway, Watchers and drones don’t bother with the church. It’s all Unity, isn’t it?”
I purse my lips at her.
“Ess.” Brian points at his watch.
“I’m done,” I say to Maya.
“Please.” She takes my hands in her own. “Please come. Please, please.”
“Maybe.” I sigh, getting up from the table. “But if I’m not there, just pop in and save the world for me. Promise I’ll bail you out if it all goes to hell.”