Banquise

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Britain is in the grip of a glaciation. The government's solution is to deport to the north unwanted citizens...

https://www.amazon.com/Asteroid-Collection-Stories-E-Rice-ebook/dp/B06XZGQYRY/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Submitted: April 13, 2017

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Submitted: April 13, 2017

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Banquise

 

"And do you want to go instead of them? Do you want them to stay here, to groom our daughters and blow us up while you perish in the ice and snow? Do you want to die in the Banquise?"

The demagogue shouted at the crowd who slowly gathered to watch the police push back on the long queue for passports at the city's Town Hall.

She didn't know when they adopted the French word for it. It just seemed more appropriate to conditions, weightier. The ice floe turned into a glacier, the glacier spread and spread. Banquise. And now they were watching it swallow up Ireland, and Scotland, and Northern England. And it might halt, or it might not. But what it had done was encourage a great migration across Britain.

She didn't know why she had come. She had read the letter, the final letter in red capitals, and she had believed the threats. Now with this long queue, she wondered if she had been foolish, too fearful. It straggled up the steps of the Town Hall, it wound along before and behind it, it dipped at the edges of traffic. They were going to be hours.

In fact, the selection of migrants for the Banquise wasn't quite random. British-born grandparents helped, but other factors were also taken into account, such as history of welfare dependence and profession, number of dependants, non-career related skill set, contribution to the community, assets, and so on.

She had been unlucky. A letter had arrived, and she had unthinkingly volunteered her DNA identity, already stored with millions of citizens' in a hodgepodge that was in the process of being compiled into the Home Office DNA Database, and they had studied it and identified her with a group of particularly irredeemable welfare claimants. Two children were two too many dependants as well. Despite her efforts and protestations, they had kept sending her letters.

"They came here, and yes, we were very kind and generous. We let them set up their shops, and they sold us their ghastly toxic curries for dinner. And we were grateful. And then what did they do? They murdered us in the streets, and they started campaigns of suicide bombing! They raped our girls. And now look at them. Watch! Aren't they getting what they deserve for what they did to us?"

Some of the crowd - the small gang that constituted the demagogue's most fervent followers - began clapping and whooping enthusiastically.  Police stood by, some grimacing, others expressionless. The gang pooled at the foot of the Town Halls steps and the crowd that could hear the speech shuffled, as if uneasy at the sad, defeated faces of the Britons of South Asian origin scattered throughout the queue, ordered alongside others to temporarily surrender their passports before taking the transport into the heart of the Banquise. The Big Swap, they called it. Some order had to be put into the migrations to the south that were threatening to overwhelm the country.

In fact, the demagogue was very open about his campaign to ensure only non-whites were transported, with a particular emphasis on descendants of Muslim and Indian subcontinent origin, whom he detested with virulence. He argued that others deserved to savour what could be the last few years or decades of the island's temperate climate.

To avoid passport surrender, many had already relocated of their own volition, going to live among decades-old communities in the heart of the old industrial north - Leeds, Bradford, Manchester. But they all knew this would not be enough. Because even if they gained respite, the Banquise would grow. It had every appearance of it. The snows at its heart deepened, the water at its edges grew icier. From the craggy hilltops of the Pennines, it could be seen, spooling like the fur of a sleek white wolf, and the Arctic winds blew winters that were icy and harsh to the south.

Anjuman's two children moaned in the queue as they paced half-heartedly beside her. "It's cold," moaned her son, aged eight.

"When can we go?" asked her daughter, aged ten.

Anjuman watched the queue ahead. "It's moving glacially," she said. Her oldest got the joke but didn't laugh.

There were too many people and the demagogue's crowd was growing. She thought about all the contacts she had pursued, how she had tried before having to give up her job at the University, a casualty of the Big Swap. It was ridiculous. Her family were Hindu and had always been prosperous. Her mother had been born Muslim and was disowned, she knew, for marrying her father. But they had owned rental properties, and a supply chain to food factories. She was, in fact, from a rarefied, proud, and quietly endogamic cluster of Indian origin Britons.

She had been told that she could live off her family assets which, after the death of her parents, were not in her name and not in her hands.

It was the DNA of her mother that condemned her.

Anjuman broke out of the line, to the surprise of the mumbling others behind her.

"Where you going?" called one.

"He feels sick," she replied, pointing to her son.

"We're going home," she said quietly to her children.

 

When they arrived in the house that would soon no longer be theirs, she put three logs in the wood burner. Like many on her road, she had received letters about her home. It was on the list for requisition for refugees from the north. She had long since closed off the upstairs, and they lived in the rooms they could keep warm. Their shared bedroom was the grand old living room, the one with the wood burner.

Anjuman went to the kitchen to make her children an early dinner.

 

She wasn't one to think of external things easily. She lived within herself, protecting herself. But as she scraped the mud off potatoes, her mind went over the words of the demagogue who was going to mould political craze into reality. She felt a clamminess come upon her, and a kind of slack, yellow anger, akin to nausea.

She felt angriest at her mother.

Her Muslim mother, who had caused Anjuman's current problems, with her dodgy Muslim DNA and her ridiculously specific haplogroup. A small cluster of North-West Indian Muslims shared this maternal haplogroup, and it was marked as undesirable. Anjuman now washed the potatoes in cold water.

"Can I help, mum?" asked her daughter. Annika, aged ten. Her mother had wanted to name her Indira, as if to embrace her married Hindu identity with gusto, through her oldest grandchild. Anjuman had refused. She had never met her Muslim grandparents; they had died in India, aghast to their graves that their daughter had betrayed them.

"Stay warm by the fire, darling," said Anjuman. Her son would be playing by the fire on his car rug, with his colourful, tiny metal cars.

The demagogue had good reason to hate Muslims, thought Anjuman. They actually had raped children. They had thrown handmade bombs, and some had blown themselves up in hateful, vicious attacks. They had done the things the demagogue accused them of. Not all of them.  At the University, there had been some Muslim colleagues with whom she would chat. They were not to be seen now. Their hijabs had been swapped for woolly hats, and they were burning fires on the Banquise, warming their hands through rent gloves.

Perish, said Anjuman to herself. What a stupid word. Her parents had died of the cold, in the frozen wastes. Their age had condemned them. And in their case, they had no longer been rich enough to save themselves.

The potatoes were in the pan. Her mind flickered over the years where she would ignore her mother's calls, where she would carefully pick family festivals, birthdays, pre-wedding celebrations and other occasions to skip. She targeted her mother especially, but never openly. Always in ways so she couldn't be accused of deliberately trying to hurt. She picked carefully. She used work or child illness or any other excuse she could think of.  Her mother had worked hard to win her daughter over, never with success. She had chirruped over Anjuman's children when they were babies, and then toddlers, and then pre-school, and then at school. She had knitted and bought, sewn and saved, sent presents.

Anjuman leaned on the kitchen counter, a solid granite counter her husband had put in several years before. She had never forgiven her mother.

 

The doorbell went in the dead of night. It was past midnight. The children were asleep, the warmth of the wood burner still pervading the room, its embers dark orange. Anjuman sat up. Her double mattress lay between those of her children - three double mattresses snugly arranged in front of the wood burner, between the dresser and shelves lining the adjacent walls. She had grown to like sleeping with the children.

She had been dozing, a light dream about needing her passport for a flight that she had half an hour to make.

She stood up. The bell went again. She went to the door.

 

"Angie," whispered her colleague from the University through the letterbox. Jane was an almost-friend. From another department way across the University, she had always been warm and friendly, and always absolutely delighted whenever Anjuman brought in Indian snacks made from her mother's recipes. Jane was a known leftie, and popular with her students. She was one of the few vigorously protesting the state's Banquise selection policy.

Anjuman opened the door.

They stood in the freezing hall, the orange and blue mosaics of the Victorian era black and cold in the dark. Anjuman had polished them herself after the workmen had taken the carpets up and repaired the holes, the cracks, the dents. She had sourced replacement mosaic tiles from the local reclamation yard.

"What are you doing here, Jane?" She spoke quietly. She felt no dread. She had known it wouldn't be the police, even if she had returned home and not waited her turn in the passport queue like she should have.

"Can we talk in a room? Somewhere a bit warmer, with less echo?"

Jane was from the literature department. Anjuman sighed. The living room with the wood burner was warm, but she was embarrassed. The front room with the empty original fireplace and solid oak floors would do. Where the television they no longer used stood.

"Angie, listen. I know you don't like to panic, but I really think you need to think about things."

"Thanks, Jane. I have been." Anjuman eyed her former colleague without a smile. They were in the dark, and no streetlights burned behind the thick curtains, even. Used to electricity rationing, Jane switched on a small torch she had brought with her, its white light dim. She pointed it downwards.

Anjuman waited. There was little point in Jane visiting well after midnight to tell her to think.

Jane swallowed.  "Every single non-white lecturer, research student and university fellow has gone. Fled the country or been sent to the Banquise. "

"I'm not sure if you have noticed, Jane, but I was forced to leave a while ago."

"I know! I know. Listen, I want to help. I can help. But I am going to need your cooperation." Jane stared at Anjuman, trying to inspire confidence through widening her eyes and tilting her face down in the sincere way she was wont to do, even during chitchat at inter-departmental dinners and conferences. It was oddly intimate in the wan torchlight.

Anjuman waited.

"You don't have a plan, do you?" Jane asked softly. The question appeared to be rhetorical.

"My parents died in the Banquise. I have warmer clothes than they took with them."

"Children don't survive conditions there, Angie. You really need to listen to me. And do exactly as I say. If you want to save your children's lives, do exactly as I tell you."

Talking with greater authority had its effect. Anjuman began to listen.

 

The next day, Jane arrived at the expected hour. Anjuman introduced her children to the University lecturer, kissed them goodbye, and left for the address she had been given.

It was a building on the site of the University, but at its edges. At the back. Where the occasional house similar to Anjuman's own was used for study and tutorials, amongst the other broad Edwardian houses used as accommodation for students. Anjuman found the address without even looking. She rang the doorbell.

 

The man who opened the door was skinny and tall, in a thick dark blue jumper that hid the dip at the base of his throat. He was unshaven, and looked as if he smoked.

"Anjuman, hello. Come in," he said.

They went through a tight corridor to a small office at the back of the building. A narrow disused fireplace boasted an aspidistra. The building was warm, the University-paid radiators burning.

"Jane told me about you. Listen, we won't be long. Just in case. Do you have the identification numbers of your children?"

Anjuman nodded. "I don't see how this will help. I filled in all the forms already -"

"Don't worry about that. Easily solved." The man was already at a computer, searching out her children's files.

"How do you do this?" she asked.

He ignored the question. He leaned over the desk, his angular, bony torso bent, his shoulder blades jutting out, purposeful and self-contained. She swallowed. She had no idea why she had come along.

"Ok, I am about to print off the certificates you need. It seems as if you're unaware, but there's a very healthy trade in what we're doing here. On the black market, this could cost you half your house." He paused as Anjuman opened her mouth in dismay. "No, no, we don't take money. We do what we can. This government has made protest very difficult, as you know. Now, all you need to do is find your children a father. Within twenty-four hours. You have forty-eight hours at most until the data reverts. We cannot give you longer. They keep tracking us and updating their security measures."

He had turned from the desk to speak to her. His face looked kinder. Anjuman still had no idea who he was.

"I don't see why all this is necessary, or even a good idea. I only just submitted more evidence to the Home Office, and according to their guidelines, it looks pretty certain I won't be reallocated. I submitted old files, letters, everything. Everything to say my mother renounced her faith and was a practising Hindu. I listed my friends of all denominations and backgrounds, I put down a list of my parents' assets and seized holdings and shares, I wrote down all the -"

She stopped. The man was looking at her with an expression resembling pity.

"Let me show you something," he said.

On a handheld device, he let her scroll through a short series of photos.

He let her out through the back door, and she walked down a dark alley unmonitored by any close circuit television.

From there, she went home.

 

It was dinner time again. "Where were you, mummy?" asked her son. She hated to admit it to herself, but Aran was her favourite over her alert, discreet daughter. He was different to her, open and so much himself, and the difference was a tonic, as refreshing as the cool drink of sparkling elderflower Anjuman used to love in summer. He had large eyes and soft, dark brown hair with light streaks. He was her baby.

"Oh, just seeing some friends, darling," she replied. She made them eat in the kitchen these days, even if it was cold. She couldn't stand the smell of food in the room where they slept.

"When can we see our friends?" asked Annika.

"Soon," replied Anjuman. "Soon."

 

After dinner, she tidied up, her mind going over and over the possibilities. She resisted the most obvious, the most believable. She knew the most believable would be the hardest to approach.

It was ridiculous. She couldn't contemplate it. Yet the pictures kept appearing behind her eyes, and her heart sank, meeting her stomach in dread, and her mind rolled over the image of the man who said he would help her, who had promised to find the files of her children on the national database and change their DNA and who had given her the printouts that could save their lives. She hadn't wanted to, she still didn't want to, but she believed him. More than anything else, she wanted to believe he was an agitator, a fraud.

 

The next day, Anjuman took a coach with her children to the neighbouring city. There, the situation was known to be volatile. Packs of protestors banged on doors in ethnic neighbourhoods, emptying houses and packing the old and undefended onto trains to the Banquise. Anjuman knew she took a terrible risk. But she had been told clearly. The window of opportunity would not remain open for longer than two days. And Jane had helped her search.

 

It was foolhardy. Arriving at the hotel, asking for his room. He wasn't in a room, he occupied a suite. Her children were not unnoticed, but she kept her manner quiet yet firm, and the young white receptionist let her take the stairs. She had said the lift was for paying guests. So Anjuman took six flights of stairs with her silent, oddly compliant children, and knocked on the hotel suite door.

 

Her children watched television in the living room of the hotel suite. After so long, their large, unshadowed eyes held fast on the screen, their bodies hypnotised and still. She stood in the bedroom that boasted a lavish ensuite. Clearly his engineering firm paid very well.

They could see over the city from his bedroom window. The train station with its eight platforms and long, dark train tracks and dust-stained, dark red trains, the neighbourhoods of dark stone houses and grey concrete flats, some now empty.

"This is luxurious," she remarked, thinking she ought to venture a smile.

Her old university ex smiled. "On company expenses. I'm not over for long. Amazed you found me."

He slowed down at the end of the phrase, suddenly awkward.

"Rob, I need a favour," she began. He sat down on the bed, and motioned at the chair by the desk for her to sit. He waited.

"You know - well, I don't suppose you can know - I was forced out of my job. We were told to surrender our passports, the three of us. I didn't, the queue was too long and the children were too cold. I can't let the children go, Rob. I need your help."

Rob stared at his hands. "What happened to your husband, Anj?"

She cleared her throat. "He left the country when my youngest was five. Three years ago. It was supposed to be temporary."

She thought of Sunil, and how he had tried to love her. And how she had pushed him away, part of her campaign of revenge against her mother.

"Where did he go?"

"Hong Kong." She watched Rob guffaw. "He's an engineer too."

A short silence fell. She remembered that Rob knew that already.

He had never met Sunil. Sunil, the handsome London boy whom her parents had sworn would bring her eternal happiness. Sunil, whom she would push away and then allow love in a complex system of punishments and rewards, all devised by herself. One year, she had sent Sunil alone to her parents' house to celebrate Diwali. Shortly after her wedding. "I thought you'd really love to see him," she had explained to her mother on the phone, her mother whose pained voice she remembered being touched with exasperation. The exasperation had exalted Anjuman. She had felt vindicated. In scoring a hit, she felt lighter, and that Diwali night, alone, she had helped herself to a glass of champagne. A leftover bottle from their wedding. Sunil hadn't dared ask her why she had opened it.

"He didn't try to save you from all this? Save his children?"

Anjuman stared at Rob. He had broadened, his body that of a man in his mid thirties. He had more lines on his forehead, a few light lines around his eyes.

She had tried to love Sunil at points. She thought she had at points.

"Three months ago, he called me. He begged me to come, to bring the children  as quickly as I could. It wasn't to make the marriage work - we both know that it's over. He told me he was living with someone. He asked me to not tell my parents. He said he would send over money, and I went to the University to use the Internet, as our phone line was vandalised and I couldn't get it repaired. No matter how often I wrote to them. I went online to book flights, but my passport and the children's passports wouldn't go through online."

Rob waited.

Anjuman swallowed. She hated him. What did he want her to do? Beg forgiveness? Strip and offer herself? Cry?

"I need to be able to say that you're the children's father."

This time, he burst out laughing. And then he abruptly stopped. "Your parents," he began.

"The Banquise."

"Oh, fuck. I'm sorry, Anj. I didn't think -"

She had hardly ever spoken to her father over the phone. Even that last conversation, the night before their transport. Months before, her mother had stopped speaking to her in Hindi. As if to spare trouble to anyone snooping in on their phone calls. As if to demonstrate her loyalty, through accented English.

She remembered her mother's broken voice, saying that their British friends had abandoned them, and that they would be taken.

"How's your wife?"

Rob fell silent. Anjuman knew he had married a woman he worked with, one impassioned by the environment, and disgusted by the change in her country. Anjuman knew it was Rob's wife who had pressed him to leave. They lived in the Tropics, working on installations to combat the endless rain now that the Ice Age had returned to northern latitudes, and the equator's ocean currents had stopped transporting its heated waters.

She had never directly asked, but she had kept enough contact with others who would tell her.

Rob could take the children abroad. His credentials were unimpeachable. He was of the right class, the right background. Nobody could touch him. He could take them, just temporarily. His wife would accept them. She would even be pleased to do something. Anjuman knew she wouldn't be delighted it was the children of Rob's ex, but at least it would be doing something, and that alone would make her get over it.

"And how do I say I'm your children's father?"

"You have to make an Internet call. They use temporary websites, disguised to look like any where you have to identify yourself. You give them your DNA identity, and the code they have given me, and they do the rest. They placed untraceable markers on the DNA files of my children and said I had twenty-fours to find someone. Then they change the DNA files and after that we only have twenty-four hours before the data reverts. They can't leave any trace of the loopholes they use to alter the records."

She watched her ex. He exhaled as if the breath going through him was cold, and spiky.

"Your kids don't even look half white."

Anjuman remained silent. Sunil had been fair. His upper caste skin, his Brahmin origins. How delighted her mother had been. Her children were fairer than her. They could pass. She knew of mixed race children who were darker, who were safe from the Banquise.

"I might not even have been in the country when they were conceived, for God's sake."

"You were, Rob."

There was a pause.

"The Banquise is growing. It could spread all over England, including here, and further south. It's over for us in this country. That much is clear."

He shook his head. "It's madness what's going on here. Of course people can live on the ice. Eskimos and Inuits have done it. The Siberians coped well enough."

"They used to get spring and summer in Siberia."

"My point is that the political will is missing. That's because they want to divide us. Get rid of people who don't look like them and get rid of the people who might look like them but don't behave the way they want. Do you know what happened here? Two miles from this hotel, half a dozen families were dragged from their homes and thrown on the trains. I watched from this window. The streets were full of people, as if it was a carnival or procession. You were mad to even come."

"Will you help me?"

"If I get caught, Anjuman, my life would be over. I'd be thrown in prison for a long time. That's what democracy has come to here. Referenda every five minutes, the will of the people. Life sentences for people caught aiding and abetting resistance against transport to the Banquise during the worst crisis this country has ever faced."

Anjuman looked at her wrists, thin and yellowy-brown in the evening light. From the  window, she glanced at the cold evening mist beginning its coil about the city buildings, following the lines of its streets, and against the soft white of the mist, scattered, sparse streetlights had begun burning chemical, candy orange.

"So the records aren't changed permanently or marked somehow as having been tampered with?"

"No. He said they have to be meticulous to save their own lives and those of others. There are no exceptions. They can't alter any records permanently, it makes them too easy to track. That's why they can only give you the chance for a day, and in that time you have to act."

"And if they decide to do a spot-check DNA test on your kids, there and then?"

"They won't if they're with you. If you have their records with you, and your own. All you have to do is get them on the flight with you."

"Taxis aren't allowed to drop people off at the airport for the moment. Too many Asians trying to leave. I was going to make the flight by train."

She paled. Train stations were dangerous.

"I can't do it, Anjuman. I don't owe you. I don't want to go over old history and I can see you're in a very bad position. But there are too many risks."

For a moment she had been lulled into familiarity and openness, the false comfort of it, as if it were the old Rob in front of her. But it wasn't. And she remembered his face, at the end, twelve years before. How he had looked tight-lipped and angry at the end of the process she had begun slowly, the process of freezing him out once she had made her decision.

Once she had decided to not devastate her parents. Her mother who had begged her to return home. Her mother who had never wanted to know, who had been desperate to not be told.

Her mother who hadn't wanted her daughter to do the same as she had done, who hadn't wanted others to point and say that the shamelessness travelled across the generations, daughter to daughter.

"I've seen pictures of what's happening in the Banquise, Rob. Banned pictures. There's no infrastructure, there's no help, there's nothing. No government funds, no private enterprise. It's deserted, the ice is metres thick, the snowstorms endless, there are mass graves. The only thing they have spent money on is army to keep the people in line. They watch them fight over food and fire. My children will die there."

Rob got up from the bed.

"Your dad's family had lots of big contacts, didn't he? In industry and business? Didn't you once tell me he'd won awards?"

Anjuman hated herself for telling him anything.

"You're a sullen idiot, Anjuman. You always were. I bet you froze your husband out just the same, didn't you? I'm surprised you even came here. Don't be offended, but you're not known for your courage."

She blanched.

"My mother swore to me that my father was very ill -"

"It was your life to fuck up, and looks like you did. No hard feelings. Thanks for coming to see me."

She turned towards the door. Her daughter was stood behind it, listening. Anjuman breathed in.

"Do you have children, Rob?"

He paused. "No. You popped yours out pretty early compared to the rest of us, remember."

She tried to blink away tears as the pained, sympathetic face of her daughter peered at her.

"We'll take lots of coats and gloves, mum," she said, sensibly.

Rob stared at her daughter, ten years old.

He slumped a little, and a groan escaped his lips. "Fuck. All right, all right. Give me the number. Don't go, Anj. I'm sorry. Give me the details. Let me make the call."

 

Rob made them stay the night. He had given up his bed and opened up the couch. He had slept in the living room. Early the next morning, they climbed down six flights of stairs to the hotel's restaurant, where the buffet breakfast was served.

The four of them sat around a table. There were no other guests.

"I booked a flight for you as well," he said quietly as the children served themselves, looking at the stringy egg on toast before him. They had stopped doing croissants and brioche a long time ago.

"They won't let me go,  Rob."

"We can try."

"No. The kids will get through passport control a lot more easily if they're just with you."
She paused. "I can pay you back -"

"Money is not a problem, Angie."

Her children returned to the table. Annika had brought her mother two slices of toast with an egg.

Anjuman lifted her knife and fork, to cut into the toast for which she felt no appetite. She made every effort to appear refined, and solidly so. She wanted no reproach, no remark or look that would trace a lack of decorum or manners back to her skin colour or origins. She had spent her life trying.

They had been proud, too. In groups, they would tie raakis and celebrate Holi and Diwali, with bracelets of tiny buds of jasmine, and tiny red candles, and saris in orange, green, yellow, blue. How beautiful they told her she looked in a sari. How they had been celebrated and wooed by the mayor, by the local council, by the local papers, how her father had been lauded for bringing a pocket of employment and prosperity to their region. And where had it got them. Shivering around a paltry fire, shoved away from its warmth by younger, healthier refugees to the Banquise. White hairs grown overnight matching the snow. And then death.

They had thought they were so cunning. Maintaining a polite, friendly face while keeping their distance. Her parents had been horrified when a distant male cousin of hers had married a white girl. Yet they had attended the wedding, all smiles. Briefly, she had hoped. But in their tight network of extended family, a daughter marrying out of the caste was a fate worse than death to her parents. Sons were another matter.

Anjuman had told her children the plan. She promised them that after their plane ride, she would follow shortly on another aeroplane, she just had some work to finish at the University. She knew her daughter only half believed her.

"Can we fly to Daddy from where your friend lives?"

Anjuman and Rob exchanged a glance. "That's an idea for us to discuss," he said.

She cut her toast into smaller pieces. She had let her husband go and hadn't asked after him. Her parents had been heartbroken. She had ignored them. She had ignored Sunil's calls. He had allowed himself to lose his children. She hadn't needed his money.

The children still talked about him. He had passed into legend. A heroic figure, an adventurer who had gone ahead of them, ready to build a nest, to hatch a plan in the warmth and hope of another place. A city whose lights burned all night and democracy made its way, never giving up.

As they quietly tidied cloth napkins and stacked empty sachets of butter and jam, the waiter came hurrying up. He had given them full privacy until now.

"Mr. Greenwood. I don't know if you've heard, but there's just been a suicide bombing at the train station."

Dismay fell upon Anjuman, heavy as a blow.

"I strongly recommend you wait it out here. Let things calm, give it another night. If you can call your company and tell them the situation, I really would do so. We can provide you with meals and there would be no need for you to leave the building."

Rob and Anjuman stared at each other.

"We can't," she whispered.

The waiter watched them.

"If you wish to make your flight, I can loan you our hotel car. It has a pass. The details of airport designated car parking's listed on it. I strongly recommend you stay here but if it really isn't a possibility, leave as soon as you can. The radio said the police predict riots."

Rob got up from the table. "We'll go now. Do they know who it was?"

"Terrorists, they said. The bomb exploded on a platform for trains to the Banquise."

 "Do the police have the situation under control?"

The waiter looked at Rob with sympathy. He lowered his voice. "I think you've been out of the country too long, Mr. Greenwood. The police are standing by and watching the roundups. They're aiding and abetting the breakdown of law and order in this country. It's a disgrace."

He nodded at Anjuman's children. "Get them out before it gets worse."

 

They drove the back way, the main roads rammed with families trying to escape, many trying to reach the airport, white and black, Christian, Hindu and Muslim. Spain was overrun with Britons, and even parts of Morocco. Anywhere where flights were cheap and easily available. Great waves of refugees had begun wandering the world, like the earliest humans, seeking a path to wherever they could live unencumbered by either natural disaster or manmade horror.

Anjuman was silent and pale, her lower lip clamped between her teeth, the tension hurting her ribs, her throat dry. The back roads passed too close to the city centre, and the fires at the train station still smoked, visible from their drive down the city hill. When they heard a roar, she quietened her children by telling them it was a football match. Annika didn't believe her, but she said nothing.

Trains for the Banquise were still leaving.

"It's a fascist state," said Rob, his hands tight on the wheel. His face was grim. "They're stopping people flying out because they'd rather they died instead and they have the nerve to say they're not real refugees and that Great Britain protects and respects the rights of its citizens."

He'd just switched the radio off in disgust.

"I hate this country."

She didn't reply. Did she hate Britain? She hadn't expected anything of it. It had been a room that had barely registered her presence. It wouldn't miss her when she was gone. It hadn't ever asked for her to be there.

Her life had never been her own.

She had never played the central role in her own life. Always there had been other claims, other voices, other people to please or placate or pretend to, and she had shrunk, shrunk to calculated strategies and careful, deliberate manoeuvres. And small, tiny acts of vengeance.

And the result? Nobody had been happy. Not a soul. Not even her poor mother, repressed guilt buried in an unmarked mass grave. Not her husband who had gullibly, light-heartedly enterprised to marry and fall in love and produce children as required of him. Not Rob, not her children.

And not herself.

She raised her chin and widened her eyes, and it helped the tears flutter back to the ducts.

They had driven around a tight corner onto a broad commercial street that led out of the city, ten miles from the airport, through the country roads, away from the dual carriageway. It was a long road that curved into the hills, but after it, the route would be clear.

"Mum, look!" From a car, Aran could observe objects and events at speeds that always surprised Anjuman. She stared ahead. Small fires smoked at the top of the street, in the middle of the road. Some huddled, others burned random objects and Anjuman could see the glass of smashed shop fronts sparkling on the street in the new morning light. Before the car could advance any further, rioters surged around them, leaping onto the car, forcing Rob to stop. A policeman ambled towards them. An empty gun holster flapped periodically at his side.

They were forced out of the car at gunpoint.

"One of those brown nosers, Officer," leered a young man in a torn t-shirt, thick dark hair tousled on his head. Anjuman stared at him. He could have been one of her students.

She dimly became aware of the sounds of her children crying.

"So where do you think you're going, race traitor?" hissed another young man with bleached hair, ash streaked on his hands and t-shirt. He seemed to feel no cold.

Rob's jaw was set. Anjuman could see he wasn't afraid. He was angry. "I'm taking my children to the airport with their mother."

"Your children, eh? What do you think, Mr. Policeman? A likely story or not?"

The policeman eyed Anjuman's children. They fell silent, terrified.

"These are my children. I am a government certified scientist, paid by the state in a collaboration to save the -"

"Shut the fuck up, you fucker," screamed a woman, her hair dishevelled. Her clothes were blackened by smoke and streaked with grey ash. "Send them to the train station!"

"I assure you, if we don't make the flight, it is the state's money you will be liable for. I think that you will then find yourself in the shit, Officer. Trust me."

Rob's eyes were steely. He held the eye of the policeman, daring him to be a policeman of just a few short years ago. The policeman he could remember being once.

"All right, all right. Calm down here. Give us your DNA identities and we'll let you go on your way. If you make the airport, you'll be lucky."

"Those aren't his kids!" one of the women yelled, and Aran and Annika shrank as they were prodded, and a dark blonde jerked Annika's chin up the better to look at her and take in her eye colour.

"Trains are going to the airport too! He should see what they've done!"

"They're a little crowded for a government certified scientist," remarked the policeman. "He's too posh for you, Baxter. They could be his kids, Pat. We've seen all sorts in this game, love."

Rob handed over their records. They waited, all of them suspended in seconds of wait as the policeman scanned their documents.

"This woman isn't your wife. She's married to someone else! Another Paki! And these are your kids?!"

Rob paled. "We were together at university and we carried on seeing each other after she married. She remains my partner."

"You're married, you cheating scumbag! Get them to the train station!"

They were pushed downhill in a great wave, the car keys torn from Rob's hand, and the car driven slowly behind them, the dark-haired young man in the driver's seat beeping the horn with relish. Anjuman could see that they had not travelled as far as she had thought. They had been too careful avoiding the main roads. There would have been safety in numbers.

"You're making a massive error, Officer. I need to make this flight with my children. I have a car here, we mean no trouble, and I am an environmental scientist who works for the government and it is of utmost importance that we -"

The policeman stopped, and the car braked suddenly behind them. "I tell you what, Mr. Greenwood. We'll decide this here and now. According to the database, these are your children. We can't argue with that. You've been very busy with your cheating, haven't you? Not nice for your wife, I'd say. But listen, we can sort this out. Let's say these are your children. Let's say I believe you, even if they don't look a thing like you. They look full Paki, if you ask me. And their mother is half Muslim. But, let's say I believe you. There's the train station. Can you see the platforms? Eight of them, each with trains going to the Banquise. A fresh timetable's been arranged to show that terrorism isn't going to stop us. One train might take you to the airport at the end of the day, it might just after you've waved off your little family here. You could make another flight, on your own. But let me explain this. If you want to save your bastard children - accepting that there isn't something dodgy going on with the records, they have updated their security systems overnight, after all - if you do want to, here's something you can do."

They all paused. The sobs of her children were the only sound. Anjuman stared at the policeman. He was in middle age and thickset and something lay in him, something utterly unpredictable. He had blue eyes that were dry and incendiary as flint.

"Two policemen died in that suicide bombing, do you understand? Two of my men. They had children, too.

"And I think you'll find that my superiors will tell you what to do with your environmental science.

"So why don't you just shoot the bitch who made you cheat on your wife. Shoot her dead, and get in the car with your children and be on your way. There you go, can't say fairer than that."

"No!" screamed Aran and Annika, their voices hoarse as they were dragged away by the women from where Rob stood, the policeman's gun pressed limply in his hand, the policeman and the rioters now still and watching.

"You're a Nazi," hissed Rob.

They all laughed.

"I'm a Nazi who just lost two of his colleagues to a suicide bomber. Thanks to her lot."

"She wasn't there, she's done nothing! She's a Hindu! For God's sake, she's a mother!"

"Hold that gun properly. You've got two minutes. Or you wave them goodbye from the platform. Those kids look a little thin to be digging the ice in the Banquise. They're not dressed for the weather there, I can tell you."

"We'll all get the train. Take your gun."

"No!" Anjuman yelled, surprising herself.

The flight was in the evening. They had hours before the data would revert. She couldn't let her children go on the train.

The policeman looked at her. "If I was a nice policeman, I'd let the three of you onto the train, and your university squeeze could then try to get you back once he's cleared all the paperwork through the correct channels. It could be tricky, seeing as you're both married to other people. Could take months."

The gathered crowd twittered in anticipation.

Anjuman and Rob looked at each other. There was no way her children would ever be allowed back.

"She dies, you get in the car and go. One life of theirs for the two lives of my men. Fair's fair."

"Fuck you," said Rob.

The policeman punched Rob in the face.

"Pick up that gun," he said. "Hold it properly. Neil, point your gun right at his head, in case he tries something. Do the girls have their knives out for the half castes?"

"Right. All bases covered. Mr. Greenwood, we're all waiting for you to shoot."

It was said so inanely, so politely, almost. The fires burned, and a train's wheels squealed, braking as they approached the station streets away. 

"Shoot, and we let you back in your car and you get to leave with your kids. One less full-blooded terrorist. Final offer, Mr. Greenwood. You have two minutes to say your goodbyes. Cover the eyes of the children, girls."

The woman with the knife pointing at Annika's throat hooked her left arm over the girl's eyes, indicating for her compatriot to do the same to Aran. Anjuman watched her children as they wriggled and screamed, their small bodies pressed into the flesh of their captors, their little hands trying to peel each pallid, ample arm away from their faces.

Anjuman's mouth was dry. "Rob," she said, softly.

He was staring at her, his eyes wild and streaked with red.

"Rob," she whispered.

His mouth was open, his throat flat and wide, his body slackening, his whole weight pivoted about his knees.

"Rob, Rob. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought -" she stopped. She whispered so only he could hear. Almost respectfully, the policeman and rioters stepped back, their guns still aimed.

"I thought this baby, I made it. It's mine, it's nothing to do with Sunil. I was dozing, and in my dream, I was confused. And I thought, it's his. Rob's. I woke up, and I thought, he's not here, but it's his. It could be his, somehow. Somehow it is. One night I dreamed - and in my dream it was yours, I knew it was yours. In my heart it was you, the real father, not him. It wasn't his."

Rob sobbed freely, the hand holding the gun falling to his side.

The police officer jangled the car keys. They were ready to be returned. They all waited.

She stepped closer and pulled him towards her. Their hands met between their bodies. She lifted the hand holding the gun so that it touched her just below the ribs. The only sounds were the quiet blaze of the fires and her children's distant screams.

"I never let myself be happy, you know."

He was shaking his head, his eyes closed. "Stop, stop."

"You'll look after them, Rob."

She pressed on his fingers.

The bullet flew right through her. She slid to the ground, his hands covered in her blood, red and slippery.

They whooped and returned his keys. The men pulled her body to the kerbside behind the car, and the women kept the children's eyes covered until they had been shoved into the back. Seeing his hands, the man with the thick dark hair pushed Rob into the front passenger seat and taking the keys and wiping them on his soiled t-shirt, started the car and drove along the hill.


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