Toby found Percy in the refreshment tent. He wondered how much time his mentor spent in there. Percy was sitting with his friend in the large hat, and she stood up when she saw Toby.
“I expect you two have things to discuss,” she said, with a knowing look at Percy. Toby watched her leave, then slid into the seat opposite Percy.
“I can’t wait a whole week,” Toby blurted, “those cars don’t seem to train at all. They only want to look nice, which is fine, I’d like my car to look nice too, but then when it’s time for them to go on, to the real track, they don’t even want to go! It’s like all they care about is their training cars, and what they look like. Nothing else matters. I think they’ve forgotten the point of being here, what it’s all about. And one of them – quite a nice driver actually, I liked him – well, I met him yesterday and he was upset about his car being damaged in the race, and he told me that his log book must be nearly run out, which is why he entered the race, and then today, when I went to find him, he’d gone, to the real track, and his car was left behind because he didn’t need it any more and they were all. . . they were all. . . sort of. . . distraught. Yes, that’s the word, they were distraught. Over the training car. But that’s the point, isn’t it? They’re only meant to be temporary, aren’t they?”
Toby stopped, and swallowed. He had spoken very fast, the words tumbling from him in a sort of stream of confusion. He looked at Percy, suddenly aware that perhaps he was not making sense, that his mentor might have found the blurted explanation rather muddled.
Percy did not look muddled. His expression was as calm and unhurried as it had been yesterday, and he had the same smile, a sort of knowing smile, that Toby wasn’t sure he particularly liked.
“Why don’t we order some hot chocolate?” suggested Percy, waving at a waiter.
“Yes, but what about the shiny cars?” said Toby, not sure that he wanted hot chocolate. “They were chanting something weird: ‘From metal you were moulded. . .’”
“‘To metal you return,’” finished Percy, then turned to the waitress who had arrived.
“Ah yes, two chocolates please. And some of those rather delicious finger sponge cakes.” He looked back at Toby. “I will explain,” he said, “but first we drink.”
The mugs of steaming chocolate arrived. Toby placed his on the table, not at all in the mood for drinking. But Percy continued unperturbed, dipping the finger sponge into his drink and biting off the end. After a few minutes, when Toby realised that his mentor was not to be hurried, he picked up the finger sponge next to him. It was a thin blonde piece of cake, slightly dry, and perfect for dunking. He dipped the end into his chocolate, and nibbled it. The combination of softened cake, and bitter chocolate, was perfect. He dunked it again, momentarily absorbed by the delicious mixture of sweet and bitter, of hot and cold. He picked up his mug, sipping the creamy chocolate, allowing the thick, velvety texture to fill his mouth, finding it strangely comforting. He realised that Percy was watching him.
“Rather good, isn’t it?” Percy said.
Toby nodded, feeling the luxurious chocolatey taste fill his mouth.
“I find that hot chocolate has a tendency to make everything feel a little better,” said Percy, smiling. “But now, to your questions.”
Toby placed his mug, rather longingly, on the table. He would have liked really to continue drinking, and to forget all about his recent discovery with the shiny cars, but he realised that was not what he had come for. He had found Percy because he wanted some answers, so he gave one more lick of his lips, and folded his arms, waiting.
“You are right, of course,” said Percy. “The drivers of the shiny cars do tend to forget why they are here. Their training cars have become very important, and it tends to blot out the real purpose of why we’re all here. Their cars are very pretty, of course, and they have added all sorts of amazing features, so I am inclined to admire what they manage to achieve – but it’s so tempting for that to become the total aim, and as you say, the training cars were always only ever intended to be temporary. They are for us to train in, until we are ready for the real track.
“The chant you heard: ‘From metal you were moulded, to metal you return’ is all part of the same thing of course. The car, the training car, has become overly significant, so when it is no longer needed, they feel a huge sense of loss. The chant is correct, but it is not meant to be the focus. Originally, the first training cars were moulded from metal, extracted from ore in a furnace. As training cars become obsolete, they are crushed, and then melted down, back into metal, which can be used to make new training cars. The shiny cars look wonderful, in their way they are wonderful, but they are only training cars, lumps of moulded metal. The chant has become something of a lament for the drivers, hasn’t it?”
Toby nodded. “It was a bit spooky,” he whispered.
“As to your friend,” said Percy, his voice business-like, “that was unfortunate. I’m afraid that no one knows when their log book will run out, and they will be promoted to the real track. Usually it happens when we’ve been here for a while, after we have trained for several years and learnt all sorts of driving skills that will be useful on the real track. Your friend will have realised that his time was short, and that he was not as prepared as perhaps he should have been, which is why he entered that race.”
“But he still didn’t have long enough, did he?” said Toby.
Percy was silent, his lips pressed together, his brow furrowed. “That’s not for us to say,” he said at last.
Toby leant forwards and peered into his mug. There was a centimetre of chocolate remaining, so he lifted his mug and drained the last few drops. It was wonderfully comforting.
“Well, it’s not going to happen to me,” he said, his voice determined. “I’m going to be the best driver I can be, I’m not going to get sidetracked by filling my car with lots of prettiness that just distracts me from my main purpose.” He pushed back his chair and stood up, so that he was looking down at Percy as he announced:
“I am going to join the brown cars.”
For a moment, Percy was silent. Then he said, very quietly in his calm voice: “Very well. I will meet you here next week, and you can tell me how you’re getting on.”
Toby nodded, and marched away. “I’ve got this sussed now,” he told himself, striding away from the refreshment tent. “I’m going to join those brown cars, and train hard, and learn to be ready for the real track. Nothing else will distract me. I’m going to be ready.” It was not until later, that a worrying thought struck Toby. If Percy was his mentor, shouldn’t he know the best way to train? And if so, why was he still at the training ground after all this time?
Percy was standing next to his car, staring at the new dent in the wing. He straightened as Toby approached and smiled.
“Well? Did you enjoy the race?” he asked.
“Oh wow! Yes!” said Toby, “It was the most exciting thing ever.”
He looked at the dent in Percy’s car. “Can that be fixed? You must be angry with those careless drivers—will they be punished somehow?”
“Punished?” said Percy, sounding alarmed. “Goodness no! Drivers do not get punished for bad driving. It doesn’t work like that.”
Percy shook his head. “You have lots to learn Toby,” he said, “let’s get a drink.”
Toby collected his car. A woman was standing, looking at the jaunty angle and the two wheels which were over the line, but she didn’t say anything. Toby’s face was very red as he drove from the car park, and back to the refreshment tent with the striped flags.
They collected steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and found a table near the back. Percy took a sip, then placed his mug very carefully on the table and looked at Toby.
“You asked if drivers are punished,” he said. “Well, that never happens, not directly, not here. This whole place is a training ground, everyone here makes mistakes – some are tiny, some are huge – but we don’t get punished. Life goes on, the opportunity for training continues, right up until we’re called to the real track. Then it’s a bit different, I suppose, though I still don’t think punished is the right word.
“You see, we are allocated cars, and tracks, according to how well we drive. Sometimes a driver has made lots of mistakes, but has become very skilful. Another driver might have made fewer mistakes, but have learnt very little. The better drivers have the better experience at the real track. That’s all. It’s not really punishment. It’s. . . fair, I guess.”
Percy stopped talking and stared at his drink, as if searching for inspiration.
“Anyway, it wasn’t the fault of the driver who dented me,” he said at last. “That driver has a car that’s very difficult to control. Occasionally, the steering wheel simply stops working, and the car zooms out of control, right across the track, crashing into whatever happens to be in the way. We have to learn to avoid them, the driver has to learn how to use his brake and accelerator to bring the car back under control. It isn’t easy. They’ll never be much good, not here on the training circuit, not with those cars. But the skills they’re learning while they struggle to control those cars. . . well. . .”
His voice faded away, and Toby looked at him. Percy’s face had a far-away look, a wistful glimmer in his eye, almost, thought Toby, as if he’s envious of those drivers. Almost as if he wished his own car was as difficult to control.
Toby shook his head. It made no sense to him. He wanted to win races, not struggle to control an unreliable broken old car.
“Shame about that pretty car at the beginning,” said Toby, remembering the spotted car that had lost control at the start of the race. “Was that car hard to control too?”
“No,” said Percy.
Toby looked up, surprised by his mentor’s voice. But Percy’s face was closed, his expression stony. He clearly was not going to elaborate.
Toby told him about Clarissa, wanting to change the subject, not sure if he had inadvertently said the wrong thing by mentioning the spotted car.
“She didn’t seem to know about the real track,” said Toby. “Don’t all the drivers go there, after their training?”
Percy was frowning. “Yes, all drivers go there. But some of them have forgotten, or never seem to care, or perhaps they weren’t told at the beginning, like you were.” He paused. “To be honest, I don’t know why some drivers don’t seem to know or care about the real track. It seems to be one of the choices here, if they don’t want to train for it, they don’t have to. But I don’t understand why – like your friend Clarissa – some of them never seem to know about it in the first place.
“But that doesn’t concern us. Not right now,” said Percy, sitting up straight. “Have you decided? Which group of drivers most interests you? Where do you plan to start your training?”
Toby was holding his hot chocolate with both hands. He took a long drink, wondering whether Percy would approve of his choice, and if he didn’t, whether Percy would try to influence him.
“The shiny, decorated cars,” said Toby over the rim of his cup. He felt that this was somehow the wrong choice, and he was sure that Percy would, in fact, say something negative. But his mentor simply nodded his head.
“Remember that you can change your choice, at any time, if you feel the training isn’t helpful,” said Percy. “Now, let’s plan to meet again, right here – in two weeks? Then you can tell me how you’re getting on.”
Percy nodded at Toby, and stood up, then without another word he walked, slowly, away.
For a moment, Toby sat still, watching his mentor as he made his painful way out of the refreshment tent. Toby felt uncomfortable inside, as if he had made the wrong choice, but also strangely determined to follow his heart. Of all the drivers he had seen, the ones with the shiny cars, with their many accessories, was the group that most attracted Toby. He wanted to be part of that group, he wanted to look like them, be accepted by them. He grinned, his worry dissolving as he thought about the colour and gleam and novelty of what he had seen. He placed his cup on the table, and went to find his car. He was going to be the driver of one of the best cars on the track.
Toby arrived at the place where the drivers of the shiny cars met. It was a sunny part of the training ground, an area of grass and tarmac with plenty of space for parking. Toby stopped in one of the wide bays, and stepped from his car. No one looked up when he arrived, so he walked over to where a driver was busy polishing a lime green car.
“Hi,” said Toby, holding out his hand. “I’m Toby, I thought I might join you?”
The driver stared at Toby, looked at the hand being offered, and shrugged. He turned back to his car, and rubbed the yellow duster across the paintwork, adding another layer of polish. While the driver polished, he glanced several times at Toby’s car, as if evaluating it. After a while, he straightened and came back to Toby.
“Your car is new?” he asked.
“Looks in nice condition, anyway,” said the driver, nodding his head. “Okay, you can join us – at least for now. Maybe you could look into having a roof design added or something.” He returned to his polishing.
Toby stood watching for a minute, then realised the conversation had ended, and he had – he thought – been accepted into the group. He decided to look around.
One of the main features of the area of shiny cars, was a shop. It was behind the parking area, and had a tall red tower and glass doors that hissed open when he approached. Toby walked inside, then paused, dazzled by the displays. There were golden cages for holding luggage or picnics that could be fitted onto the back of cars (Toby wasn’t sure they would add much to a driver’s speed). They had slim golden bars, and silver locks and the insides were lined with plush red silk.
One wall of the shop was devoted to cans of paint: rainbow paint, sparkling stars paint, paint that would flash, fluffy paint, plus paint of every possible colour. Toby stood, staring at all the cans and displays. He realised his mouth was open and shut it with a swallow.
The middle of the shop had a display of seats. Apparently, all car seats could be replaced with sofas in various colours, or swivel seats (Toby wondered how he would manage to drive if his seat was constantly turning in circles – but perhaps it would make reversing easier.) There was a mountain of cushions, and a great stack of mats to blanket the floor of the car. Toby went across to touch a furry mat, feeling the soft fur slide beneath his fingers.
“That would be a pain to wash if your shoes were dirty,” he thought.
“Oh, but one wouldn’t wear shoes in the car, would one?” said a voice next to him.
Toby realised he must have spoken aloud, and looked down. A tiny man, no taller than Toby’s waist, stood beside him. He smiled up at Toby and held up a fluffy white mat.
“Feel how soft this one is,” he suggested, his voice silky. “Imagine it under your feet, warm and comfy, helping you to relax. See how beautiful it is.”
Toby ran his hand over the mat. It enveloped his hand, was like touching a cloud, so soft he could hardly feel it, yet warm and comforting.
“It would go perfectly with our snow range,” the tiny man was saying, leading Toby across to a display of snowflakes that appeared to be floating down from the ceiling.
“One can attach the snow-maker to the ceiling of the car, they have a special dry-melt feature, so the driver remains dry, but the temperature remains cold. Go on, touch one.”
Toby stretched out his arm, placing his hand under the stream of snowflakes. He felt the feather-light touch of each flake, cold as ice for a second, before it melted away to nothing. When he removed his hand from the flow and looked, it was completely dry.
“They come with dancing lights,” the tiny man was saying. He pressed a switch, and beams of bright light shone from one side, touching the snowflakes so they turned silver, dancing in the breeze like a thousand stars.
“That’s beautiful,” breathed Toby, enchanted.
“They can all be attached to the inside of your car within the week,” the man said. “Shall we choose some seats to match? Something cuddly I think, to make you feel cosy.”
“But,” said Toby, his forehead wrinkling, “won’t they get in the way? The snowflakes I mean. Won’t they distract you when you’re racing? Stop you seeing clearly. Won’t it be a bit. . . dangerous?”
“Racing?” repeated the tiny man, his voice full of distain. “Racing? Well, of course, if one intends to risk spoiling one’s car by racing it, risking dents and damage, worn out tyres and scraped paintwork, then this is not the shop for you!” He stood up on tiptoe, reaching towards Toby’s ear.
“But is that what you really want?” he said, his voice soft and enticing. “Do you want to risk spoiling that car. You’ve only just received it, haven’t you? Don’t you want to make it look lovely, to enjoy it for a while, to enhance it before you start worrying about racing and spoiling it? After all, you’ll probably be here for some time, you have plenty of time to enjoy what you have been given, it seems to me that it would be rude not to. Plenty of time for racing and being rough later. Don’t you think?”
Toby nodded, feeling uncertain. “Well,” he said at last, “perhaps the cushions. If I only buy the cushions, they wouldn’t distract me too much. . . would they?”
They were undoubtedly beautiful. . .
The next driver that Toby encountered was the owner of the green and yellow spotted car that he had admired in the race. He found him in a corner of the shiny car section, surrounded by a group of other drivers. They were all staring in dismay at the green and yellow spotted car, which was hardly recognisable under the dents and scratches. In some places the paint had been completely worn away, and jagged metal, harsh and ugly, stuck out at sharp angles.
“Perhaps you could get the dents bashed out and a new spray job,” one driver was suggesting, his foot feeling the curve of a particularly large dent. “If you spend enough money, I’m sure it could be repaired.”
Another driver was shaking his head. He stood very upright, with his arms folded, and Toby could almost feel his disapproval before he spoke.
“That’s the trouble with those races,” the driver was saying. “You spend time and money trying to make your car look nice, and then it’s all wasted on a single race. I told you, I told you not to enter. But would you listen? No! You thought you knew best, and now this has happened. All that time and energy wasted, and all you’re left with is this! This ugly scrap of metal.”
Not waiting for a reply, the angry driver turned sharply round, and stalked away. The other drivers followed him, all shaking their heads, all showing their disapproval.
Toby was left with the driver of the wrecked car, who looked up at him.
“You’re new aren’t you?” he said.
Toby nodded. “Just arrived. Er, sorry about your car. I watched the race, it was exciting, wasn’t it?”
“A little too exciting for me,” said the driver. He glanced towards the departing drivers, who were walking away in a huddle, their voices low, their heads bent.
“It’s all very well for them,” said the driver, his voice very quiet, so Toby had to lean forwards to hear him. “Most of them haven’t been here for very long, they’ve probably got ages and ages with their training cars.”
The driver turned back to face Toby. “The time goes really fast though, you feel like it will never end, and then suddenly you realise you’re driving one of the oldest cars on the circuit, and – ” He bent low, and whispered to Toby, “and you know what that means. It means that you might not have much longer before, you know what.”
“What?” said Toby, feeling confused. “Oh! Do you mean the real track?”
The driver’s face turned very red and he drew back a step. “Shhh! We don’t talk about that here, not so loudly anyway. None of us likes to think it could be, you know, ‘our time’. Not yet.”
“But isn’t it good?” said Toby, even more confused. “I mean, don’t you want to go to the real track?”
The driver looked shocked.
“You do know what happens to your car don’t you? When you leave for the real track – you do know you can’t take your training car with you? Surely they told you that much.”
“Yes,” said Toby, still uncertain what the driver was trying to tell him. “But you won’t need it at the real track, will you? We all get issued with a new car, a real car.”
“But that could be anything,” muttered the driver. “We have no idea whether they’ll be coloured, or have features, or anything.
“And I realise I may not have long, I realise that I needed to improve my driving a little, before I go, before my log book runs out. And so I entered that race, thought I’d give it a try. And now look, look at what happened. All I did was ruin my car. Ruined it.”
Without warning, the driver sank to the ground, put his head into his hands and began to cry. Tears ran down his face and dripped from the edge of his chin, and he sobbed great heaving noisy sobs, as if something wild was living inside of him and trying to break free.
Toby was very unsure of what he should do, so he moved nearer and reached out a hand, and very gently he patted the top of the driver’s head.
“I have some white cushions,” he said, groping for something to say. “Would you like those?”
The driver stopped crying and grabbed Toby’s hand and started to shake it, up and down, very fast. Toby worried his arm might fall off.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” said the driver, his wet face beaming. “That will help so much, can I collect them right now?”
They walked back to Toby’s car, the driver snatched the cushions from the seats and bounded back towards the wreck that he owned. Toby watched as the cushions were placed lovingly inside, positioned on each seat.
“It’s a start, it’s a start,” Toby heard, as he slowly drove away.
“What a very strange man,” thought Toby as he left. “I’ll go and see him tomorrow, and find out if he plans to race again.”
But Toby had no opportunity to see the driver again.
When Toby returned the following day, there seemed to be very few people in the shiny car area. A few cars gleamed in the sunshine, but there was no sign of the drivers. Toby parked next to a particularly pretty blue car, which had fluffy clouds attached to the roof and rainbows that shone down each door. He walked over to the shop, the doors swooshed open and Toby peered inside.
The shop appeared to be empty. The displays shone at him, tempting him inside with their colours and textures, but there were no drivers. Toby started to walk away, when he spied the tiny man, sitting behind a counter.
“Excuse me,” Toby called. “Do you know where everyone has gone?”
The tiny man shook his head, his face somber.
Toby left the shop, and walked along the narrow pathway that led to the back of the area. It was lined with trees, and Toby could hear birds singing, and leaves rustling in the breeze. Sounds of cars drifted towards him from far away, where drivers in other areas were training, or improving their cars. Everything around him was still, and Toby walked on, wondering what had happened. Gradually, as he walked, he became aware of another sound, a low murmur, somewhere ahead. It didn’t sound like an engine, it was less regular, more like the sound of an ocean, of waves crashing onto a beach. He walked towards the sound.
The noise grew louder and Toby realised it was actually several sounds, the sounds of voices and groans and sobs, all merging together to make one single humming noise. He walked on, the noise growing louder and louder with every step, then he rounded a corner, and there were the drivers.
Toby stopped. Ahead of him was a huddle of drivers – he thought perhaps every driver of the shiny cars was there. Their backs were towards him, and they were staring at something, and groaning, and humming and moaning. Some of them seemed to be crying, as Toby saw shoulders shaking and hands being placed on heads in a gesture of despair. Whatever could have happened?
Toby walked forwards, he reached the huddle of drivers, and pushed his way through, squeezing past shoulders and backs, edging to the front of the pack. Then he stopped, and stared, and felt something like horror rise up inside.
In front of him, squeezed and crushed into an ugly cube, was the car of the driver he had spoken to yesterday. It was barely recognisable as a car, only the glimpse of a twisted wheel on one side, the remains of the painted spots at a corner, the deformed steering wheel at the front, made it identifiable.
“What, what happened?” said Toby, his voice no more than a whisper.
“His log book ran out,” answered the driver next to him. “He’s gone, and this is all that’s left of his car.”
“Oh. . .” Toby started to say, relieved, “that’s really nice for him now his training car is such a wreck.” But before he could finish speaking, his words were drowned by the screech and growl of a motor.
The crowd parted, and a large truck roared through the mourning drivers, and stopped next to the crushed car. Toby leaped back out of the way, and watched as the metal cube was hoisted up onto the truck.
Toby wanted to comment, to say how good it was that there was something to clear away the broken training car; he wanted to ask if anyone had managed to say goodbye to the driver before he left—but he didn’t. All around him were sad faces and worried eyes. No one looked as if they wanted to chat.
A driver sobbed, another reached forwards, and gently stroked the jagged metal of the crushed car, before stepping back, out of the way, so the truck could roar away, carrying its load to – where?
“Where are they taking it?” asked Toby.
“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” chanted the driver next to him.
“From metal you were moulded, to metal you return,” repeated the other drivers, all speaking in unison, heads bowed, words spoken on low voices.
Toby began to back away.
“Why are they so sad?” he wondered, “Isn’t it a good thing the driver has gone to the real track? What does it matter that his car has been crushed? He doesn’t need it any more, it was only ever meant to be for the training track. . .” Toby took a deep breath. He decided that he needed to find Percy, right now. He could not wait another week, he couldn’t train with these drivers, they didn’t even seem to train, all they wanted to do was decorate their cars so they looked nice. He reached his car, jumped into the driving seat and started the engine. With a lurch forwards – he still hadn’t quite mastered that skill – Toby drove away. He desperately needed to find Percy.
Thanks for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.
Toby had almost decided to give up waiting, and to drive around the training ground by himself, when an old brown car purred up beside him. He glanced through the window, and realised that Percy, his mentor, was driving. Percy raised a hand, pointed forwards, and began to drive away. Toby started the engine, and followed.
Percy drove very slowly, and Toby was able to follow him and look around at the same time. They left the refreshment tent, with people coming and going, and drove along a narrow track that was empty of other cars. Every time they reached a corner, Toby clutched the wheel and held his breath, and concentrated hard on staying on the road, but when they drove along straight sections, it was easier to stare at his surroundings.
As they drove, Toby became aware that there were, as Percy had said, groups that were very different to each other. Along the first straight, near to the racing circuit, was a group of very smart cars. They were rainbow-coloured, and shiny, with fat black wheels and bright lights. The drivers stood next to the cars, chatting and laughing, and music floated through the window. Some were adding accessories to their cars; Toby glimpsed a golden chimney being attached to a roof, an animal cage being fitted to a boot, then he had driven past and needed to concentrate on the route Percy was taking.
There was a steep corner to negotiate, and then they passed a group of drivers, all in brown overalls, bending over manuals and looking serious. Their cars were parked, all in a line, looking as austere as the drivers. Toby saw bent bumpers, and rusty wings, and wheels where the tread had worn away to almost nothing. The drivers looked up as Toby passed, and stared for a moment before frowning and looking back at their manuals.
“Not so friendly then. . .” murmured Toby as he drove on.
The next group of drivers all seemed to be very busy. Toby watched someone struggle with a bucket of soapy water that was slopping over the edge as it was carried, and a mechanic with a large spanner, and another driver bending over his open bonnet, checking the oil level. One of them glanced up as Toby passed, and raised a hand, and the driver carrying the water nodded at Toby in a friendly way, before frowning back at the water which had whooshed out of the bucket and wet his shoe. Toby grinned.
Percy was now driving fairly fast, and Toby concentrated on keeping up. They wound their way past a garage, where several cars were being mended, and down to a refuelling station, where a row of cars was waiting in line. They doubled back, behind the refreshment tent, and up to start of the racing circuit. Percy parked his car and came up to speak to Toby.
“You park over there, in the spectator’s car park,” Percy said, pointing to a sign. “I need to get ready for the race now, so I’ll meet you afterwards. Go into the stadium, and someone will show you where to sit.
“It will be good for you to watch the race,” he added, nodding to himself. “Sometimes you can learn more by watching than by actually driving.”
Percy waved his hand, and his car glided away.
Toby lurched forwards, held the steering wheel tightly in his hands, and drove towards the car park sign. There were several spaces, and after a few shuffles, and one very near-miss, Toby managed to shunt his car almost into a space. He got out and stared at his parked car. Two wheels were over the thick white line, and there was enough room at the front to park another car. But Toby decided it was in the space enough, nothing was likely to hit it, and he walked away quickly, hoping that no one had watched him park.
He made his way to the stadium, and another man with a clipboard and long grey hair pointed to a seat, fairly near the back. Toby climbed the steps, edged into the narrow seat, and looked down. He was sitting on a raised seat, high above the race track, and the cars below looked like miniature toy cars. The sounds of revving engines drifted up. Toby stared down at the heads of the other spectators. Far below, near the front, he could see the large hat of Percy’s companion. Toby wondered how Percy would do in the race, he moved so incredibly slowly when he wasn’t in his car, it was difficult to imagine him racing.
Toby crinkled his eyes, and stared very hard at the cars near the start line. There, towards the back, he could see Percy’s brown car, waiting for the starter’s flag. There was some music playing, but it could barely be heard above the din of engines and the tangle of voices and the loud speaker, which was announcing the race, reminding everyone that this was the second training race of the season, and only experienced drivers were taking part. Toby saw the starter take his place, the large flag tucked under one arm, there was a flare, a blast of a siren, the flag waved, and they were off.
A shiny green car shot forwards, closely followed by a blue car with stars painted on the roof. Toby could see Percy’s car, it was passing several slower cars, advancing towards the leaders. A green and yellow spotted car zoomed away from the start line, Toby barely had time to enjoy its colours and the shine of the chrome, when it spun out of control and hit the barrier at the side.
Most of the cars were racing forwards, engines roaring, wheels spinning over the tarmac as the drivers fought to balance speed with control. There were a few near-misses as cars drifted too near to each other. The crowd in the spectator’s stand were shouting, some waving flags, everyone sitting forwards, straining to see.
Suddenly, a red car lurched across the track, almost hitting several other cars, spinning round in circles, crossing the lanes. It was heading towards Percy, and Toby held his breath, sure they would collide. Percy’s car braked hard, losing ground but avoiding the red car which crashed into the barrier and stopped. Percy was immediately back in the race, weaving between cars, making up for the ground he had lost. He had almost reached the blue car, when another car lurched into his pathway, crashing into his side and denting his wing. The lurching car spun three times, skidded on the black tarmac, righted itself and continued. Percy had been shoved into the barrier, but he was facing the right way; with a puff of smoke from the exhaust, he was back in the race. Toby was holding his breath, and he exhaled with a sigh, leaning forwards on his seat, his hands screwed into fists on his lap.
“Come on Percy, come on,” he shouted, bouncing on his seat.
Percy had sped forwards. He was passing the blue car, but a purple car was keeping up, overtaking on the inside. The red car had a clear lead, Percy and the purple were level as they raced after it. A brown car appeared on their tail, drew level with Percy, then dropped back as the back bumper detached from the boot and was dragged along the track, sparks trailing from it, the screech of metal reaching Toby. The brown car limped away to be repaired, the purple car and Percy were level, the red car kept its lead, the flag was lowered, the race was over.
Toby slumped back in his seat. He felt exhausted!
“Wow! That was sooo exciting!” said someone.
Toby turned to look.
The ‘someone’ was sitting next to him. She was leaning forwards in her seat, and all Toby noticed at first was a blur of pink. Then she turned to him, and he noticed eyes that danced and very white straight teeth when she smiled, and brown hair that curled to her shoulders.
“Hello,” said the pink someone. “I’m Clarissa. Are you new?”
“Yes,” said Toby, grinning back. “I’m Toby, and I just arrived this morning.”
“I thought so,” said Clarissa, nodding her head so that all her curls danced and tumbled on her shoulders. “You almost looked like you were taking notes!”
“It was thrilling,” said Toby, thinking about the race. “Who will get promoted to the real track now? Do you know? Is it just the winner or will all the leaders be allowed to go?”
“Real track?” repeated Clarissa, sounding vague. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about that. . .” her voice faded. Then she said, her smile growing, “Is your car good? Mine is fabulous! I’m still not that good at corners, but I can start and stop just fine, and it’s pink. Pink! Oh, it’s sooo pretty. Is your car nice? Is it shiny? I heard that some people are given old cars, right from the start, I’m sooo glad I didn’t get one of those. I like new and shiny. Don’t you? What’s your fun feature?”
“Fun Feature?” said Toby, “what fun feature? I don’t know what you mean.”
Clarissa looked at him and frowned. “You are funny,” she said, “it’s the best bit about the cars. Each one has a fun feature included – you know, something that serves no real purpose when it comes to the boring driving stuff, but which looks pretty, or is fun to use.”
She leant closer and said in a breathless whisper: “Mine has music.”
“Oh,” said Toby, thinking about his car, and how it had a tendency to lurch when starting. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” He frowned, thinking hard. Then his brow cleared, and he smiled back at Clarissa.
“Bubbles!” he said. “My car has a bubbles button. I wondered how that would be useful.”
“It’s not meant to be useful,” said Clarissa, shaking her head again and giggling. “It’s meant to be fun!”
Toby smiled. “Well, I guess it will be,” he agreed.
“I ought to go and find my mentor now, Percy said he’d meet me after the race, and talk about my training, you know, to help me prepare for the real track. How do you plan to train?”
Clarissa was looking confused again. “Train? Real Track?” she murmured.
“Nope, I intend to enjoy the car I’ve been given and have loads of fun. I don’t have a mentor,” she added, shaking her head. “Perhaps not everyone needs one.”
Toby felt himself blush. He wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of needing a mentor if others didn’t. Then he remembered his rather crooked parking, and the way his car lurched, and how he nearly missed the road every time he turned a corner, and he grinned.
“Well,” he conceded, I do have a bit of technique to learn.”
Clarissa was standing up, and Toby noticed a very slim waist, and a waft of flowery perfume.
“Maybe catch you later,” she called over her shoulder. “It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Toby with the bubbles button and the mentor.”
Toby watched Clarissa as she skipped down the steps. He liked the way her hair bounced, and he thought that perhaps her idea of enjoying her car and having lots of fun was not such a bad one. Then he stood, and stretched his back, and followed the line of people descending towards the track. It was time to try and find Percy.
Thank you for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow.
Toby arrived at the training ground on a Wednesday, which was rather a good day to arrive because all the drivers were preparing for a race. Toby could feel a knot of excitement in his tummy, as he drove he stroked the steering wheel of his car.
“I’ve been issued with my car,” his mind sang. “My very own car! I own a car! I have my own. . . Oops!”
Toby stopped singing and clutched the wheel very tightly as his front bumper skimmed the edge of a cone that had been placed on the corner of the road. He turned the wheel quickly and too fast, nearly driving off the edge of the road. Gasping, he turned the wheel the other way, almost driving into a long yellow car that was passing him. The driver of the yellow car honked his horn before gliding past.
Toby giggled. “Not quite got the hang of driving yet,” he whispered, “but it will come, it will come.”
The racing circuit stretched out next to the road. At the moment it was being prepared for a race, with flags being raised and seats being cleaned. Toby noticed a brass band unpacking, and a man sorting great black cables that looked like giant snakes and were probably part of the sound system.
He drove slowly along the perimeter of the racing circuit, avoiding people rolling fat tyres, and mechanics dressed in grey overalls splattered in oil, and important looking souls striding around with clipboards.
He edged his car towards one end of the circuit, where a group of people were standing together in front of some monitors. As Toby approached, a tall man with grey hair that reached his shoulders noticed him, and waved his hands to stop the car.
Toby pressed the brake, and the car stopped, but not until it was well passed the man. Toby sighed, swivelling in his seat so he could see behind him, reversing the car. He managed to stop slightly too far ahead of the man. Very slowly, his foot hovering over the brake pedal, Toby edged forwards. He stopped, with a jolt, level with the man.
“You must be Toby?” said the man, glancing towards the monitors before staring at Toby very hard with his grey eyes. A lone bubble floated in the air above him, and sank slowly out of view.
Toby looked up at the man and felt suddenly worried, aware that this man was someone important and perhaps Toby should have known that and not approached him quite so boldly. Another bubble had replaced the first, and was drifting on the air towards the man’s head. The man was still staring at Toby, his long neck craning towards Toby, his mouth a thin line of disapproval. He seemed oblivious to the bubbles. Toby nodded.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m Toby.”
“You’ve been allocated a mentor,” said the man, looking cross. “You’ll find him over by the refreshment tent; ask for Percy.”
“A mentor?” repeated Toby, confused. He hadn’t realised they would be expecting him, he had hoped to simply watch and try to work out for himself what was happening.
“Yes,” the man was saying, “a mentor.”
Several bubbles were now floating around the man, the sunlight giving them rainbow patterns as they drifted down. One landed on the man, popping in a miniature shower of soap droplets. The man glanced up, looked at Toby and scowled.
“I realise you haven’t had time to learn your car yet, but could you do something about these bubbles? Hardly the right time for them, is it?”
“Me?” said Toby, wondering why the man would think he had any control over the bubbles. Did he expect Toby to get out and start popping bubbles?
The man sighed – an exasperated rush of air – and pointed behind Toby’s car.
Toby turned, and was surprised to see a whole shower of bubbles—tiny dancing bubbles, great swollen floating bubbles, groups of bubbles that clung to each other as though in a family, lone bubbles that drifted independently—all seemingly being pumped from the rear of his car.
“That switch?” said the man, nodding towards a red button on the dashboard.
Toby pressed it, and the bubbles stopped appearing. The few remaining bubbles continued to float on the air, a lazy drift towards the ground.
“That’s better,” said the man. “Now, your mentor. Someone to explain things and help you to improve. You do want to improve, don’t you? You want to be accepted?” The man was frowning now, beginning to look seriously cross.
Toby nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. Great. Thanks.”
The man stepped back, obviously expecting Toby to leave. Toby released the brake and eased the car forwards, heading towards the refreshment tent with its red and yellow striped flags.
As he drove, Toby noticed the sights and smells and sounds of the racetrack as they seeped through his open window. On his left were the stands—row after row of seats, each row slightly raised so that the back row was almost floating in the sky. Toby doubted that anyone would see very much from the back row, but perhaps simply being there, watching the race and listening to the noise would be exciting enough. The stands were almost empty, only the first few rows beginning to fill as the spectators arrived. It was still very early, and the people arriving would have a very long wait before the race began.
On his right, Toby could see the circuit, a wide expanse of black tarmac scarred with tyre marks. There was a small white fence between the track and the small road that Toby was on, but he could almost imagine he was part of the same circuit, that he was making his way to the start-line, about to compete in his first race. He imagined the cheers, people shouting his name, the car underneath him growling in impatience to speed along the track, his fingers clenched the steering wheel, his foot hovering over the accelerator. . .
Then someone stepped into his path, and Toby had to brake suddenly, and his daydream finished.
Toby sighed. He wondered how long it would be before he entered his first race. He knew that some drivers had to wait years and years, and he frowned. He hoped he would be one of the lucky ones, and that perhaps in a few short weeks he would be whizzing around that circuit, learning new skills, testing his ability against other trainee drivers.
He was almost at the refreshment tent now. The tent had flaps that were drawn wide, revealing small round tables inside, where people rested glasses of beer and mugs of cocoa. A woman in a very large hat covered in daisies was leaving, walking carefully over the grass in her high-heeled shoes, calling to someone behind her.
“Do hurry Percy dear, or I shall have to scramble for my seat with everyone else. I do like to be settled before most people arrive.”
“Percy?” thought Toby. “Percy was the name of my mentor.”
He stopped the car and leaned forwards on his seat, waiting for Percy to emerge. Would he be very large, wearing a leather jacket and driving goggles, like drivers from the past? Or would he be in tight jeans and a tee-shirt, with long hair and a wicked smile, like some of the wild drivers he had heard about? Toby rather hoped that his mentor would be one of the wild drivers, full of skill and daring, not afraid to take risks, a little frightening but admired by everyone for the speed at which they spun corners and raced the straights.
The daisy-hat woman had stopped walking, and Toby peered round her, staring hard into the gloom of the tent. But he couldn’t see who Percy was, because there was an old man in the way, a tall thin man who walked with a stoop and leaned heavily on a stick.
Toby sighed in frustration, waiting for the man to pass, so that he could see his mentor.
The old man made his way from the tent. He walked very slowly, as if worried something might break, using his stick almost like another leg. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step.
It was almost unbearably slow, and Toby felt like screaming. He was at the training ground, and for Toby that meant speed and daring, learning skills so that he could drive even faster. It was not about waiting, for what felt like several hours, while a stooped old man inched his way closer. Toby tried to peer round him, searching for a sign of his mentor, when, horror of horrors, the old man glanced up at the woman, and pointed at Toby and said: “He’s here. Go ahead without me.”
Toby gasped. Could this old man, this slow old man be his mentor? What could he possibly teach Toby about how to get the fastest speeds from his car?
By the time the man reached him, Toby was scowling. The elderly man leant down, and peered in the window. He smiled, and Toby saw yellow teeth and watery eyes. He felt something heavy lodge in the base of his stomach, and sit there, cold and heavy and full of disappointment.
“Hello Toby,” said the old man, meeting his eyes. “I can tell from your face that you weren’t expecting me, you were expecting someone young and colourful and fast?” He didn’t bother to wait for Toby to reply, he simply smiled and shook his head.
“First lesson,” he continued, “don’t judge a driver by his appearance. I know I look old and slow. I am old and slow. But put me into a car, and I’ll leave you standing at the start line while I finish the race!”
Toby felt his face turn red. “I wasn’t, I mean, I didn’t think. . .” he began to stammer.
“Yes, you did,” said the man – Percy – but his voice was calm, he sounded more amused than annoyed, even though he was correcting Toby, letting him know that he was wrong.
Toby wasn’t sure that he liked being corrected, but there was something about the way Percy spoke, about his complete assurance, that was somehow comforting. Toby began to wonder if perhaps this driver could, after all, teach him to drive faster.
“Now then,” said the man, leaning on his stick and turning his head away. “My car is parked round the back. You wait here, and then when I come back, follow me.” He grinned, flashing those yellow teeth at Toby again. “Don’t you worry, I’ll make sure you can keep up!
“I want to take you for a quick tour of the training ground. You’ll see that there are all kinds of drivers, and all kinds of cars. No one gets to choose the type of car they’re given, but how you use it is up to you, and drivers vary in how they think it’s best to behave.
“Drivers tend to keep close to drivers who think the same as they do, so as we drive around, you’ll begin to spot the different training methods. Each type of driver has a special area, their training area. It has a training track to help drivers prepare for the racing circuit, and of course that helps you to prepare for the real track. Which is what it’s all about!”
He glanced at Toby, who felt as if he was standing under a waterfall of words, and he didn’t understand any of them.
Toby must have looked as confused as he felt, because Percy stopped talking and patted his arm.
“Never mind about understanding it all now, it will be obvious when you’ve seen it for yourself. Let’s start with a little drive around.
“When you’ve seen it all, looked at all the groups of drivers, seen how they have decided to train, I want you to choose.”
“Choose?” repeated Toby, not quite sure what he was being told.
“Yes, choose,” said his mentor. “It’s up to you, like I said, you can choose how you want to train. You can choose which group you want to belong to. You can always switch, of course, if you realise you’ve made a mistake.”
“Switch?” said Toby.
“Yes, if you change your mind,” said his mentor, nodding his head, his lips pressed together.
As if, thought Toby, he expected Toby to change his mind.
“You see, it can be hard at first glance, to know who has the best training method. Everyone is here for the same reason, we all want to be the very best drivers that we can be, and to improve our speed and skills, ready for the real track.
“No one knows for sure how long their training will be, that’s all decided by The Engineer. But everyone wants to be ready. We don’t know exactly what the real track is like, but we do know that the best drivers will get the best cars, and the most interesting route. No one wants to end up being given a bus that can’t turn corners or make it up hills! Do they lad? Think how awful that would be!”
Toby nodded, but he was not quite sure what the old man was talking about. He had heard of the real track of course, everyone had. And he did know, sort of, that he was at the training circuit so he could improve his skills ready for the real track. But if he was honest, simply arriving, and being given a car—his own car!—well, that was exciting enough in itself. That had rather focussed his thoughts on the present, on what was happening now. He had, he was forced to admit, forgotten for the moment what it was all about.
But Toby did not feel inclined to explain all this to an old man with yellow teeth. Instead, he nodded, trying to look both wise and bored, as if to show that the man was telling him nothing that he didn’t already know.
The mentor grinned, and flashed a look at Toby that conveyed he knew exactly what the young driver had been thinking.
“Now, you wait here, I’ll collect my car. We’ll have a short drive around, then get back for the race. You can watch, try to spot some of the groups of drivers, decide how you want to train. We can talk properly after the race.” He patted the top of the car, and began his slow walk back towards the tent. Step, move the stick, lean on the stick, step. . .
Toby watched him go, yawned, and closed his eyes. This was not going to be quick.
He opened his eyes. Percy had moved about an inch. Toby sighed, reached forwards and pressed the red button on his dashboard. When he turned to look, bubbles of all shapes and sizes were being pumped from the back of the car. Now what, wondered Toby, could possibly be the point of the bubbles?
Thank you for reading. I will post the next chapter tomorrow, please share with anyone you know who might enjoy a story.
It’s nearly 2021—will you be making a new year’s resolution? Is there something that you would like to change about yourself, and how will you plan for a new improved self? I guess we all have dreams and aspirations, and some of them we pursue until we reach them, and others dwindle away into nothing. To be honest, I’m quite glad that some of my dreams evaporated into nothing—especially the ones I had as a teenager—otherwise I’d be in a right mess now!
The trouble with looking ahead and wishing for things that we don’t have, is that sometimes we stop appreciating what we have right now. Maybe, instead of planning to improve things we should sometimes stop and look around at what we already have, and be grateful.
I recently found a story, which sort of links with this idea. I have never noticed it before—add a comment if you recognise where it came from. Or simply sit back with some of your Christmas chocolate, and enjoy a story. . .
Once upon a time the trees got together to choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, “Be our king.”
The olive tree answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my oil, which is used to honour gods and human beings.”
Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and be our king.”
But the fig tree answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my good sweet fruit.”
So the trees then said to the grapevine, “You come and be our king.”
But the vine answered, “In order to govern you, I would have to stop producing my wine, and that makes gods and humans happy.”
So then all the trees said to the thorn bush, “You come and be our king.”
The thorn bush answered, “If you really want to make me your king, then come and take shelter in my shade. If you don’t, fire will blaze out of my thorny branches and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.”
Bit of a bizarre story, but I rather like bizarre. Not sure why I have never noticed it before—do you know where it came from?
If you make a resolution for the new year, choose carefully.
Lena slept most of the journey to the port. When she woke, she reached again for Max and held him close, tight, as if he might disappear. She watched the scenery as it glided past the window, trees, hedges, buildings, roads stretching to the horizon.
The port was in the centre of a town, down a narrow street, past people walking, carrying on with their lives. Her time in the hospital was becoming dreamlike, it was incompatible with the normality of the life she could see through the window. The car slowed as it neared the water.
As soon as the car stopped, the door was opened from the outside and a man, who she did not recognise but who called her Lena, helped her to carry the dozing Max, took her to a fishing boat. Lena stepped from the jetty onto the swaying deck, turning at once to reach for her son. More hands supported her, guided her to a seat. There were shouted instructions, someone released a rope, the sound of a motor coughing, the breeze increased, cool wind tangling her hair. But her single focus was Max, lying half next to her, half across her, his weight heavy on her legs.
She sat on deck, shivering in the cold, spray dampening her hair, the wind blowing away her worries, reminding her that she was alive, she had survived. The motor started, and they eased away from the dock. No one had spoken, other than instructions as to where she should sit, where to stow her bag. It all happened automatically, and Lena again had a sense of being a small part in a big machine.
Max was beginning to wake. Every so often he would look at her with bleary eyes, smile, then drift away again. Lena moved her legs, trying to find a way to support Max whilst allowing her blood to circulate. It was several years since he had allowed her to cuddle him, and she savoured the opportunity to hold him close, knowing that when he woke properly, he would move away, want to be independent.
Lena looked out, across the water. The waves were high, buffeting the little boat as it rose and fell, lifted high then dipping low, over and over.
The boat crossed the narrow strip of sea to the island. John and Agnes were waiting, with Den and Lucy. They were huddled on the jetty, collars turned up against the wind.
As the boat arrived, Den leapt on to the boat, hugged Lena, wordless, tears running down his cheeks. No attempt to control his racing emotions, no desire to appear manly, strong. He had thought he had lost her. He loved this woman, with her corners and frowns and doubts. She was part of him. He held her close, breathing in her tangled hair, smelling the dust on her. She pulled away, needing to breathe, smiled up at him.
John told them to hurry, the boat needed to leave. They passed bags to the family, Agnes handing them a parcel, telling them there were sandwiches.
Lena was shaking, the cold seeping through her thin jacket and into her bones. John noticed, gave her his own coat, told her to wear it, to stay safe. Then he and Agnes stepped back, waving arms in big arcs as the boat moved away, the motor sending black smoke into the air, bouncing across the waves.
John and Agnes watched the family leave, grow smaller and ever more distant. They were glad they were safe, were looking forward to a return to normality. Yet Agnes knew that a part of her was leaving with them, she would never forget this little family.
Beside her, John waved in silence. His plans were almost complete, the family would be an obstacle now, it was better that they left, hurried to safety before they started asking questions. They had not been as compliant as he had hoped, but it didn’t matter now, the result had been achieved.
Lucy was frightened in the boat, thought they might sink. Lena was beyond being frightened of anything. She held her daughter on her lap, letting her body warm her, whispering songs into her hair. She liked the feel of the boat as it rose and fell with the waves, riding over the powerful ocean, carried along with no attempt to resist. Den held Max, took him to the edge when he needed to vomit, wound a scarf over his bare head to keep him warm.
Max was fully awake now but aware only of the immediate, the cold, the sickness, his headache. He had no idea what was happening, where they were going or why. Nor did he care. Talking would come later, he simply wanted to feel better.
They arrived on the French shore. More people were waiting, more friends who they had never met. Lena thought about all the past discussions with John; she wondered if these people too were stars—if John had counted them.
They were bundled into a car, driven through towns and cities until they reached Paris. More people, old buildings, many cars. Finally, they were left at the station, a stranger’s barcode was used to pay the fare. The family sat on the platform, waiting for the tube train that would take them onwards. At their feet were bags, donated by more unknown friends: food, clothes, provisions for the journey.
Lena wondered how big this network of people was, just how many people John controlled. She leant against Den, happy for him to be the strong one, to be able to let go for a while. She thought again about her journey, her mission. She wondered if it was enough, if she could now be counted amongst the stars. Worried that it might not be, that there was something more, something she had missed. She was still tired, groping with the thought, trying to sort it out in her mind.
Den felt her tension, held her close. “What’s the matter little one? We’re safe now, we’ve left England. No one will care about us now.”
“Den, I’ve been thinking, about the stars that John counts, the Jews and Muslims. I understand how he includes them, they are mostly born into their faiths, they practice their religions, follow rituals, believe their holy books.… But what about the Christians? How does God decide if they are good enough, have done enough to qualify as stars? How can they be sure they will be counted?”
Den moved slightly so he could look at her. He saw the clouds in her eyes, the worry that loomed there in spite of how far they had come.
“But Lena,” he said, “no one can do enough. That’s the point of Christianity. You cannot earn the right to be a star. A star is an honorary son of Abraham, an adopted son if you like. Adopted by God. None of us is good enough for that, that’s the point.”
Lena frowned. What then, was the point? Had all her efforts been in vain? Would she still be rejected?
Den continued, “When you were in the hospital, saving Max, it was difficult—wasn’t it?”
Lena nodded, remembering the pain in her ankle, the fear, the never-ending dusty vents. She thought of the armed guards with their straight backs, the impossibility of reaching the clones, then her fall from the ceiling; the agony of her ankle, the agony of indecision when injecting the clones, the agony of trying to walk back to the meeting place, the further agony of waiting, wondering if Max would arrive. Yes, it was difficult—more than difficult.
“But you didn’t do it so he would owe you something, so you would have a hold over Max, to control him, did you? And you wouldn’t want Max to go back into the hospital, to do it again, for himself, would you? To go back and inject the clones, to risk capture, so he could say that he had done it for himself? To prove he was capable of saving himself?”
“No,” she frowned, “of course not. I don’t think he could have done it anyway”. She thought of the ducts, the long crawl, the drop from the ceiling. “He isn’t big enough to have done it,” she said, feeling slightly irritated with Den now. It was a silly question. She had achieved what she had for her child, why would she want him to go back and do what was unnecessary?
“I had to do it, so the watchers would help me, there didn’t seem to be another way. I did it because I love him, I wanted to save him. I didn’t want them to change him, I wanted him to be himself, to be safe.”
Den moved his hand, stroked her hair.
“Well, that’s how it is with God. He’s done all the hard work, He just wanted to save us. We just have to let Him.”
Lena looked at him, her eyes bright with tears. She so wanted that to be true, she wanted to belong. Was it really just a case of accepting?
He bent down, kissed her nose. “You will always be the brightest star in my eyes,” he whispered.
The train slid towards the platform, hovering over the rails, the electromagnets bringing it to a perfect stop.
Max glanced at his parents, then looked away quickly. They could be so embarrassing sometimes. He stared at the train through the thick glass seal. The vacuum-enclosed casing retracted, unsealing the train, giving access to the platform. The train doors swooshed open and Max went to help Lucy lift her bags. She glanced at his bald head, grinned, but said nothing.
The train was large, tubular in shape with thick walls to keep the air inside. The tubes it travelled along were vacuums, the electromagnets allowing great speeds as it hovered above the rails.
The family climbed aboard. They were leaving, going to a new life in Asia, being guided by the stars to a place they could be free. It had been a hard journey, they had nearly been stopped many times, but they were on their way now. And they were together, they had survived. They shuffled onto the train, finding their seats, stowing their bags.
The family did not see the newsfeed on the screen behind them. It was very large, projected images of a reporter giving sombre news, announcing the death of Midra. The leader of the Global Council was dead.
Nor did they see the pictures of the man who was to be his successor, the newest member of the Global Council, the person who would decide how England was to be ruled. A young man, very tall. It was his eyebrows that you noticed first, they rose upwards, giving him the appearance of an owl. A great horned owl.
He was the last puppet in the dance.
Thank you for reading. Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Why not buy one for a friend to enjoy?
What if…you were the mother of a psychopath? The story of Joanna and her family – an exciting novel.
What if…a psychopath managed to do something good. Can psychopathy ever be a strength?
What if…a happily married woman falls in love with someone else?
This is the story I always promised myself I would write ‘one day’ while I was teaching in an infant school. A light-hearted novel about 3 teachers.
Now is an excellent time to read my travel book. Happy adventures from around the world.
Available from Amazon.
by Anne E. Thompson
Available from an Amazon near you today.
A hilarious family saga set on a farm. Being a parent has no end-date, as Susan discovers when her adult sons begin to make unexpected choices in life.
A warm-hearted, feel good novel that will make you smile.
She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .
The Dance Ends
Lena stood very still. She balanced on her good leg, putting no weight on her sprained ankle, looking at the clone. It was a boy, barely any different in age to her boy, to Max. She wondered where Max was now, if he was frightened, whether she would manage to rescue him, whether she would ever see him again. Her eyes filled with tears. She wiped them roughly away. Now was not the time for thinking, she had a job to do, she needed to be quick, before someone arrived.
Lena reached into the cloth bag at her side and felt the vials. They appeared to have survived her crash landing from the ceiling hatch, seemed to be intact. She withdrew the first one, depressed the end button and the needle shot out—long, glinting in the light, cruel. Then she looked again at the clone.
It—he— was surrounded by machines and tubes. The air was warm, filled with the noise of those machines as they breathed, cleaned, fed, the body on the bed. Lena watched the chest rise and fall. Was it a person? It looked like a boy. Was she about to murder a child?
Until this moment, Lena had not really considered what her task entailed. She wanted to rescue her son, she had been sent along the electricity ducts to the room of clones, ready to inject them with poison, to stop them functioning. But were they alive? They might be inconvenient to the plans of the people who had sent her, destroying them might improve the life of others, but did that make it right? What actually constituted a human? Just how human did someone have to be, to be counted as a person, to have rights? To have the right to live. She knew the clones were brain dead, could not function at any level without the aid of the machines, had no opinions, no thoughts, no personality. But did that give her the right to destroy them? Were they just a collection of cells, an inconvenient physical form—or were they people? When is a person a person?
Then she thought of her family. Her husband, hounded for his beliefs, her daughter, wrenched from her home, her son, kidnapped and taken for treatment on his brain. They were surely more important, the only thing she should be worrying about. Lena shook her head, reminded herself again, she had no time to think about this.
Feeling uneasy, she inserted the syringe into the neck of the clone. She shuddered as it pierced the skin, glided in. Then, turning away, not wanting to see, she pressed the second button, forcing the liquid into its—his? — body, slowly counting to five as instructed. Trying not to think. She turned back. Nothing looked different. The machines still hummed. The clone lay still, apparently sleeping.
Unseen, the poison surged through its body, destroying cells, damaging systems. Each pump of the heart sent it further, deeper, spreading its destruction. But the outside, what people could observe, would remain unaltered for many hours. By tomorrow the first tinge of grey would be visible at the extremities. By evening, the clone would be rotting.
Lena hurried to the second and third clones, repeated her injections. Now she had done one, it seemed easier, she wasted no time injecting the poison, did not pause to look at the clones. She held the three spent syringes in her hand, not knowing where to put them. If she disposed of them in the room, they might be found, an antidote used, her efforts would be wasted. The needles were sharp, she had nothing to cover them with, no way to retract them back inside the tubes. She carefully placed them back in the cloth bag; it was the best place for now. One point pierced the material—shining, evil. No, she decided, that was a bad plan, if they pierced her she might also die. She took them out, held them where she could see them. Then she looked around, her eyes skimming the room, searching for inspiration, must be quick, must be quick.
There was a medical trolley next to one of the beds. Lena swept everything off, the equipment fell to the floor with a crash, she was already wheeling the trolley, pushing it over to below the vent. She put down the syringes, climbed onto the trolley, then reached for them, threw the syringes into the vent, as far away from the entrance as she could. She grasped the edge of the vent, jumped and used her arms to heave herself up. All her muscles groaned at the effort, beads of sweat stood on her neck, she gave a small cry of frustration, kicked her legs, her ankle screamed. But she managed it. Inch by painful inch, she raised her body upwards, into the hidden shaft above the room.
The cover to the vent lay where she had placed it. She put it back into position, secured it with a screw. There was nothing she could do about the trolley, whoever arrived first would be sure to see it, would look up, see the duct, guess what had happened. But she had too many other things to worry about, she could only achieve so much. The syringes lay where she had thrown them. She picked them up and heaved them further away, deeper into the tunnel beyond the room. Then she lowered herself back into position, began to crawl, began her slow shuffle, arm over arm, back the way she had come.
It was much harder going back. Her arms were tired, her head ached, her throat was parched. She had also lost the map, had put it down at some point, was now having to remember where to go at each turning. Not that this was difficult, the fine white dust that lined the vents clearly marked her route. It looked as if a giant slug had oozed a trail, sweeping the dust in its wake. She even felt like a slug, dirty and repugnant.
Everything hurt but her ankle cried the loudest, sending heated agony through her whenever she jolted it. She clenched her teeth, determined to return to the entry point, to get back to the washroom, to meet her son. And to drink, to gulp some water into her dry sore throat, to sit and rest her tired limbs. She must keep going, must not give up.
“Don’t think, don’t think,” she told herself, arm over arm, knee after knee, slowly but surely advancing through the shaft.
Mel4 was still racing through the reports. Midra had arrived at the hospital, been examined by the medical team. The bullet had pierced a lung, they recommended it should be replaced at once.
A team was sent to prepare the theatre, another to prepare a clone for transplant. The clone needed to be unhooked from most of the machines, rushed to the same operating room as Midra. Everyone was rushing, time was of the essence. Anyone who caused a delay was likely to be penalised, this was not a patient to be relaxed about.
Two young doctors ran to the room where the clones were maintained. The first to arrive, the younger and fitter of the two, saw the mess as soon as he entered. There were instruments in an untidy heap on the floor, a trolley pushed to the middle corridor. He paused, surprised, decided the guards had been in a rush when they left, must have run into the trolley, spilling equipment in their panic. It made sense. The young doctor wheeled the trolley out of the way, gave it no more thought and began to prepare the clone.
Max was beginning to stir, the sedation wearing off. Opening his eyes was too much effort, but he could hear. Quiet voices were speaking intently, giving instruction. They sounded tense, cross. He wondered why. He was also aware that he was moving. The bed he was in was being rolled across a floor, he could feel a breeze on his head. That was odd. The bed was very soft, comfortable, warm. He would wake up in a minute, he thought, drifting back to sleep.
A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.
Lena finally reached the hatch where she had entered. She pressed her ear against the grill and listened. Nothing. She peered down, trying to look in each direction. The room seemed to be empty. Using her good leg, she stamped on the grill. It was hard, she couldn’t get high enough for there to be sufficient force to knock it from the hole. With a cry of frustration, she kicked again. It fell, clattered on to the floor. No one rushed to look. Lena pushed her head through the gap, checking the room was empty, the trolley bed was still below the hatch. She lowered herself down, fell with a plop onto the mattress. Her ankle screamed in protest. She almost cried with relief; she was out. But not yet finished, still a way to go, must keep going.
Her ankle burned. She needed to sort it before she could go further, it hurt too much to walk, people would notice her. There was a cupboard in the room and she hobbled over to it, checking first that the room door was locked, the glass opaque.
There were rolls of bandages, plasters, bottles of liquid, boxes of syringes. Ignoring everything else, she grabbed a bandage, hopped back to the bed. Removing her shoe was agony but she inched it off, then wound the bandage tightly around her ankle, tucking it beneath her heel, giving it some support, some protection. The shoe was now too small to wear on her enlarged foot, so she hopped back to the equipment, found some scissors. They were wonderfully sharp, sliced through the plastic edges of the shoe as if it were cheese. She put the shoe over the bandage. There was a plastic apron in the cupboard, she grabbed it, draped it to cover her dirty uniform, then went to the door.
Opening it slowly, she peered into the corridor. People were passing, lost in their own worlds, hurrying to where they needed to be. A nurse staring at her computer, an elderly couple—the man leaning on his wife for support, a woman and child. No one looked at her, barely seemed to notice her. It seemed impossible that the world should be normal, everyone going about their business, when her world was upside down, everything had changed.
Lena began to walk. The pain was intense at every step. She willed herself forwards, tried to ignore the pain, the rising nausea, attempting to stay upright, to not hobble, not attract attention. There was a wheelchair, waiting by the wall in a side corridor. Lena detoured over to it, grasped the handles, used it for support, let it take some of the weight away from her screaming ankle. She switched off the directional motor so that she could push it, guide it to where she wanted to go. It was heavy, her progress was slow but she was advancing, step by painful step, back to the washroom. Her safe haven. The place where she would meet up with Max.
When she arrived at the washroom, she abandoned the wheelchair, leaving it against the wall, using the door and walls as her support. She pushed open the door and went inside, looking round expectantly.
It was empty. Lena didn’t know if that was because she was too late or too early. She would not allow the thought that they were not coming at all.
There was nothing more she could do, so she went to the sink, turned on the tap. The water was wonderful, filling her mouth, cooling her cheeks, cold and sweet. She was still there, bent over the sink, drinking deeply, when the door opened.
Lena turned, prepared to flee into the safety of a cubicle. It was her guide; the nurse had arrived.
He opened the door, saw Lena and came in, leaning against the door to secure it. Arms folded he stood there, watching her for a moment. She ignored him, turning back to the tap, intent on drinking. She felt him watching her, knew he would notice her pale face, the bandaged ankle, the shaking hands. She straightened, turned to him. He was smiling: a small bemused smile of disbelief.
“You made it? Managed to do it?”
His voice was very deep. Lena looked up. Suddenly realised he was alone.
“Where is Max?”
Lena heard the desperation in her voice, felt the nausea rise again, knew she had been betrayed.
“He is safe, we have him. He is sleepy, I will bring him in a chair. Wait in a cubicle, out of sight. We need to get you—both of you—out of here quickly, as soon as possible.”
Lena acknowledged the praise, was too tired to do more than nod. The nurse reached up to the hole in the ceiling, passed her the bag, her clothes, her boots. He stood, watching her for a moment longer, as if he would say something else, then changed his mind, turning quickly to the door, leaving Lena alone with her things. She took them into the cubicle, sat, stared at them. Changing was too much effort. She doubted the boots would fit over her damaged ankle anyway. She lowered her head, resting it on her knees and closed her eyes. She may have slept. Time trickled away.
Lena realised she had been waiting for a long time. Her neck was stiff and she raised her head. She was still alone, folded over in her cubicle, dirty, tired and aching. She had no way to check the time, but she wondered what the problem was, the cause for the delay. The nurse had said he was collecting Max. Was he lying? Had he tried to and there had been a problem, had Lena’s actions caused some kind of alarm or security alert? Was Max now in more danger than when she had arrived? The questions began to whirl in her mind, now that her initial exhaustion had abated, she was overwhelmed with fear for her son.
Lena stood—sitting on a toilet would solve nothing. She considered changing into her own clothes, not sure whether they would be less noticeable than her dirty uniform when she searched the hospital. She had no plan, only the resolve that she was not leaving without her son, that if the nurse had deceived her, then she must search on her own.
For a while she hovered, not moving, groping for a decision, a place to start; she had come so far, she must not mess this up. She dressed in her own clothes, it seemed a sensible place to start, and she had to start somewhere. She wasn’t sure if she had any more resources, could summon the energy necessary to start searching, but she had to do something. Her arms were aching, protesting as she pushed them into sleeves. She felt near tears. This wasn’t fair. The boots, when she came to them, looked too much of a challenge to even attempt, so she pulled the plastic shoes back onto her feet.
The sound of the opening door disturbed her. She froze, not knowing if someone was using the washroom, or if her hiding place had been revealed. She heard her name: “Lena!” and rushed out. There was the nurse, and a woman—and there was Max, slumped in a wheelchair, pale, bald, alive. Lena started towards him, then stopped.
She took in his bald head, the hair shaved to nothing, his crown pink and round.
“Did they…?” Lena began. Was he hurt? Would hugging him cause damage?
“He’s unharmed,” the nurse reassured her, “he never got as far as surgery. He’s just sedated, sleepy. Give him another hour and he’ll be awake. He might have a headache but he’ll be fine. You need to leave now”.
The nurse reached down, picked up Lena’s bag and clothes, stowed them under the chair. He put the coat over her shoulders and she realised she was shivering, shaking, was hardly able to stand. The relief at seeing Max was immense. It took her last reserves of energy. She couldn’t move, stood for a long moment staring at her son, suspended in time, touching him with her eyes but not daring to move; while the nurse moved around her.
Then all at once the spell broke, and she fell forwards, arms around his shoulders, hugging Max to her. She breathed in the smell of him, felt his head hard against her cheek, the warmth of him. Emotions rose hotly inside of her, a great bubble of relief and tears and love that caused a shudder to shake her whole being. He was safe. Her son was safe. She had rescued Max. He moved against her, as if uncomfortable, and she loosened her grip, eased him back onto the backrest. Her hand rested on his head, feeling the warm skin, stroking, reassuring, not wanting to move away.
The nurse placed an arm under her elbow and nodded to the woman next to him. The woman secured a different barcode to Lena’s jacket, then opened the door, indicated they should leave. The group walked quickly, away from the washroom, along the corridor, out through the swishing doors. Lena let herself be led, barely thinking, unable to do more than obey their instructions. Her eyes did not leave her son for a second.
There was a car waiting. The nurse led them to it, lifted in Max, helped Lena next to him. He unhooked her barcode, passed it back to the woman. Put Lena’s bag on the ledge, where it would obscure the internal camera.
“The car will take you to the port. A boat is waiting. It will take you to the island.”
The nurse looked again at the woman and her son. Both almost unconscious. Both brave. Both had achieved more than he would have dreamed was possible. The mother had her arms around her son, holding him close, as if soaking up his warmth, cherishing his life. Her eyes shone with tears and her face was streaked with dust and water, drawn into hard lines of tiredness. Yet something about her was stronger than anything he had ever seen before. The almost tangible love of a mother for her child. He wanted to say something, to keep her for longer, to let her know how much he admired her. He was rarely surprised by anyone, yet she had astounded him. But he didn’t.
He held the barcode under the scanner, shut the door and watched the car drive away.
To be concluded on Sunday. . .
If you have enjoyed the story, why not buy a copy for a friend? Available from an Amazon near you. UK Link Here! Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson.
Thanks for reading. Why not sign up to follow my blog? anneethompson.com
Look on your device for this icon (it’s probably right at the bottom of the screen if you scroll down). Follow the link to follow my blog!
She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .
Lena heaved herself forwards. The white dust had dried her throat, swallowing was an effort. Her arms and shoulders were screaming with tiredness, her back wet with sweat. But she was here, she had arrived at the vent nearest to the clones. She sat up, glad to rest her arms, to stretch her back. Then she leant down and peered through the grill. There was nothing to see, all was white, an empty corridor. She felt into the cloth bag at her side, located the screw remover, looked at it. She had never used one before but had seen them many times. She attached the end to the first screw in the screen, depressed the ‘on’ button, felt the tiny vibrations as it did its job, watched it turn the screw, hoped the high pitched whirr would not be heard. Hoped many things.
Max was still sleeping. The nurse replaced her computer back on the stand and moved to his side. She checked his vital signs, all good. Then she began to prepare him for the operation, to sterilise and shave his head, to place protective covers across his shoulders. The boy slept on. She worked quickly, they would come for him soon, he needed to be ready.
Mel4 was pacing the room. She held her computer as she walked, eyes glued to the screen, waiting for messages from the bots, using their cameras to scan the crowd, checking for anything unusual.
She saw Midra stand, go to the podium, prepare to make his speech. The camera was behind him, she could see a bald patch in his thin dark hair, his head moving as he spoke. He was clasping the lectern with both hands, his wiry arms protruding from his black sleeves, hair speckling his wrists.
In front of Midra, she could see several delegates, their faces politely attentive, their posture rigid, their eyes bored. There was no shuffling among the seats, no checking of computers—all eyes were firmly on the global leader, even if their eyes were unseeing and their thoughts elsewhere. But that was not the concern of Mel4, she simply had to ensure his safety.
She checked the time. All was to plan. She would be glad when this was over, when her job had returned to the more mundane. Her mind wandered to lunch, she was hungry.
A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.
On the island, Den was packing a bag. The family didn’t have many things, only what they could carry when they arrived. Agnes had given him some food, wrapped in a brown paper package. Lucy was standing next to him, chattering: asking where they were going, when would Lena and Max return? Were they going by boat or tube? Could she take the models she had made from sticks?
Den told her to leave the models here. He could not answer any of her other questions. His mind was full of worry, organising, asking God to keep his family safe. There was too much that could go wrong, he knew how much he could lose.
In the channel above the hospital ceiling, the third screw was loose and Lena carefully picked it out of the hole, placing it with the others next to her. She tested the vent—was it secure or would it fall, crashing to the ground when the last screw was removed? It felt firm enough but it was not worth risking. Lena shook her head, reminded herself to be cautious. If the vent cover fell down, it would alert the guards, Lena would be arrested, all hope of saving Max would end. She hooked her nails round the edge, used her other hand to steady the screw remover, to continue unwinding the last thread. It came out easily, was put in the pile with the others.
She began to move the grill. Gently, gently, watching flakes of dust drift downwards, pausing, waiting for shouts or alarms. None came, all was silent. She twisted the grill, allowing it to fit through the gap, lifted it into the chamber, lowered it with a shaking hand, lay it next to the screws, waited. Still no sound, no shouts, no alarms. She leant forwards, putting her weight on her arms, lowering her head through the gap, wanting to see what was there—what was waiting for her.
The vent was above a small corridor, a short pathway really. On one side was a room with beds, three patients. They must be the clones. On the other side, beyond a glass wall, were two human guards. They stood, straight backed, legs apart, facing away from the clones, towards a door which she guessed led out of the room, to a general corridor. She stared for a second at their backs, then scanned the rest of the room. There was no one else, no nurses or doctors. At the moment.
Lena pushed herself back up into the space above the vent. She sighed. Now what? The chances of her being able to climb down from the vent, to lower herself onto the floor without causing herself an injury were slim. The chance of doing that unseen by two trained guards was pretty much impossible. If they saw her, they would probably shoot her, restrain her at best. She would then be unable to meet Max. Would her attempt to reach the clones be sufficient? Would John’s helpers, this hidden army of star-counters, be willing to remove Max from the hospital? Would they risk their jobs, their anonymity, to help take Max somewhere safe? She didn’t know.
There was too much she didn’t know. She had heard Nargis say there would be a delayed reaction to the poison she was carrying. How then would injecting the clones cause a diversion? Or was she herself the diversion? Did the planners of this scheme assume she would be caught, that the chaos over her own capture would divert attention away from Max, away from her son, so he could be taken to safety? If she had been told that, she would willingly have complied—saving her son was all that mattered. But no one had actually told her that. No one had actually told her anything. She felt like a pawn in a great game of chess, moved around by greater minds, useful but expendable.
Memories of Max flooded her mind. She remembered before he was born, the solid lump moving within her, how she would stroke her belly, pray for the baby to be born safely. Even then she loved him, would have given her very life for him. Then watching him when he was tiny, seeing his father’s eyes staring at her, her own mouth set in a determined line as he struggled to achieve something. Her body remembered the feel of carrying the toddler Max on her hip; she knew just how he had fitted against her when she carried him around. She had always read him well, even now, as he was changing from boy to man, she often guessed his thoughts, read his mind in a wisp of knowledge carried to her by his expression or tone of voice. He might be physically separate from her but the bond tying them was very strong, almost physical in its intensity. Sometimes she felt overwhelmed by her love for him.
So she was now unwilling to risk being caught. If she knew he would be safe, she would try, she would risk her own safety. But not if that was tantamount to abandoning her son. She had no idea what to do.
In despair, she lowered her head. “God,” she prayed, “this is way beyond me. I don’t even know how I managed to get into this mess. I’m scared for me and terrified for my son. Could you please just tell me what to do? Should I give up and go back? Should I try to find Max on my own? I am so tired…”
There was no answer, no bolts of lightning, no inner voice telling her what to do. Lena felt utterly alone. She waited, held her breath, eyes screwed shut, waiting for a revelation, a direction from above.
There was nothing. Silence surrounded her, the white dust uncomfortable in her throat, her mind in turmoil. She rested her head on her knees, felt tears well behind her eyes and flow down her face, wetting her cheeks and falling to her neck. She was so tired, so completely worn out, and now it had all been futile.
Max was ready. The nurse had been joined by two porter bots. There was no risk of waking the boy, he was heavily sedated. His breathing was regular, heartbeat strong, temperature level. His carer nodded, pleased that he was stable. She didn’t stop to wonder who he was, why he was being sent for treatment. It was easier to not think these days, to do your job and comply with instructions. No one had told her that he was special, needed to be watched. The authorities knew that not everyone agreed with their policies. Sometimes it was safer to not announce things, to let people become lost in the system. If the nurse had known the boy was ‘high risk’, she would never have left. However, she might also have mentioned it to someone. In deciding to avoid the latter, the authorities had not foreseen the former.
She checked the information on the bot’s screen. The boy should be gone for about half an hour, perhaps fifty minutes. That was good, she hadn’t had her break yet, she could nip down and get a drink, be back in the room by the time they returned him.
She crossed to her computer, sent the updated information, then slipped it into her pocket. She watched as the two bots wheeled the bed from the room, taking it towards the operating room. Then she gathered her things, double checked she had her computer in her pocket and set off for the canteen. The authorities often forgot lower level staff breaks. When there was an emergency, they were expected to work straight through. Which was fine in theory but there seemed to be an awful lot of emergencies.
Her mind wandered. Hot chocolate, she thought, that would be nice. They had a new one now, extra thick and creamy but low in sugar, so the sugar tax didn’t apply. She could use a break, a chance to switch off for a few minutes. She would be back in the room well before the boy was returned, no one would even know she had left. She began to hum as she walked, she could almost taste that chocolate already.
Mel4 was beginning to relax when it happened. She had watched Midra make his speech, had kept the volume low—it was hardly going to be earth shattering, no need to listen. Then he had moved to shake the hand of a delegate.
There had been a shout—barely heard on her monitor, but still audible. She spun her camera away, in the direction of the noise, then a bubble of information appeared on her screen, every bot in the holy place sending her information, the bots next to her buzzing as they processed the information, sent her reports to scan and actions to sanction.
Mel4 must sanction action: Shoot to kill or tranquillisers? Removal of patient already actioned, car sealed, patient in transit. Did she sanction local hospital or hospital 05? Bots recommended 05, bot in car reported replacement organ likely to be necessary, bleeding under control, heartbeat dropping, fluids administered.
Her brain was bursting with information, using the bots’ advice to decide the best course of action, knowing that her decisions were slow in comparison, that speed mattered.
Mel4 swallowed. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.
‘Detain perpetrator, continue medical intervention to stabilise patient, bring him to 05.’
It had happened, Midra had been shot.
She examined the preliminary reports that were being sent from the car. The wound was extensive but unlikely to be fatal. He would need more blood and possibly a transplant, depending on what the bullet had touched. The on-board medical scanners were limited; they would know more when he reached hospital. She decided that 05 was the better option. Then if there was extensive internal damage, if a transplant was necessary, it could be done immediately. She sent the decision, issued instructions to prepare for his arrival, turned back to her other screen.
In the holy place, there was pandemonium. Another man had been shot, probably fatally. One of the human guards had decided to act, to minimise damage. Mel4 suspected he had panicked, shot before he had evaluated the situation. She frowned, now they would have problems finding out who the instigator was, if it was a lone action or part of something bigger. Mel4 told them to try to save the shooter, to take him to the nearest hospital. A team would be waiting for him, they would find out what they could. The guards and bots at the holy place were securing the area, overseeing the safe departure of the delegates.
The bots were still sending her information. She told one to action the safe arrival of Midra to the hospital. The machine whirred, finding vacant rooms, actioning a bed to be prepared, messaging medical staff to leave what they were doing and to be waiting in the correct areas. They cancelled treatment on the boy, that was low priority, and they could use that theatre to treat Midra. They checked security and arranged for further guards to cover the entrances and corridors that the leader would travel down. Within minutes the bots had processed information and made decisions. Mel4 struggled to keep up. This was her job, her fast mind was her main skill, her ability to sanction decisions or cancel them. She was the human element in this, she hoped that was not a hindrance.
The porter bots wheeling Max received the message almost instantly. They stopped moving while they processed the information, then turned, wheeled the bed back to the room.
In the rest area, the nurse was just ordering her drink, she was not expecting her patient to return for nearly an hour. She was tired, it was near the end of her shift. She felt her computer vibrate in her pocket, decided to ignore it. She would be back on duty in a few minutes, she would sort out the message then. Sometimes the authorities forgot that nurses weren’t machines, couldn’t work continually without a break. It was dangerous, irritated her and put the patient’s well-being at risk. No, whatever it was, it could wait, it was hardly likely to be urgent. She would mention it at the next staff feedback session. This really did happen far too often.
The porter bots wheeled Max into the room. It was empty. Their instructions did not mention being met by a nurse, they had not been alerted that this patient was a high security patient. They were machines. Machines do not worry about possibilities, they respond to instructions. They placed the bed back in the room then continued to their next job, informing the waiting computer that they would be slightly later than expected due to a change in schedule.
Max lay in the bed, his shaved head resting on a pillow, one arm flung from the sheet that tucked him securely in place. He slept on, alone in his room.
Lena heard a noise and peered down. She was at the point of abandoning her task, of crawling back to the start and trying to find Max on her own. Before she went, she looked down to see what the noise was. With the grill removed, she could hear quite clearly.
One of the guards was reading a message. He turned to his colleague, said there was a security emergency in zone 26, they should go at once. A high priority patient was arriving; it took precedence over their current position. They both drew their weapons and hurried from the room.
Lena watched them go, their uniformed backs departing through the door. The room was now empty of people. She could hear machines, beeping, whooshing, sucking, but no people. Now what? She knew that the room might not remain empty for long, if this was a chance to inject the clones unseen, then it would be her only one. She was here now, she had come without thinking, driven by tiredness and despair, carried along by other people’s will. But she was here. She may as well continue.
She looked at the distance from the hatch to the floor. It was too high. If she jumped, she would break a leg, if not worse. There was nothing near to climb onto and she had no rope or anything with her, even if she were strong enough to climb down a rope, which she doubted. She turned onto her stomach and lowered her legs through the hole, aware that if anyone happened to enter the room they would see her before she could react. Then she slid her body, further and further through the gap in the ceiling. The cloth of her tunic snagged on the rough edge, she hoped it wouldn’t tear, continued to lower her body. Her weight shifted, pulling her down. There was nothing to hold onto, she grasped the edge of the shaft with her fingers, felt herself slipping, tried to hold her weight on her arms. She was too tired, too unfit, her fingers were not able to keep hold. With a cry, she fell.
Lena landed heavily, twisting her ankle, all the air bounced out of her, a new bruise on one elbow. She didn’t pause, no time to recover, she scrambled to her feet. When she stood, a bolt of pain shot hotly up her leg, her vision blurred, she fell to the ground. She waited, remembered to breathe, in out in out, waited for the pain to subside, her head to clear. If anyone arrived now, she would be defenceless, unable to do more than crawl.
But no one arrived.
Lena waited until she had recovered enough to try standing again. Cautiously, little by little, she lifted her head. The world did not spin. She did not vomit. She edged upwards, putting her weight on her good leg, crawling towards the nearest bed, using it to haul herself upright. Then she stood there, on one leg, gazing down at the first clone, wondering how long before the guards returned.
To be continued on Wednesday. . .
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you: UK Link Here!
Thank you for reading. Why not sign up to follow my blog? anneethompson.com
Look on your device for this icon (it’s probably right at the bottom of the screen if you scroll down). Follow the link to follow my blog!
A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.
Max stirred. He could hear the soft fluttering of someone moving in his room. Eyes heavy, he opened them a crack, peered out. The world was bleary, and white—harsh lights; he closed them again. The someone moved closer, he smelt almonds, felt a machine on his neck.
It whirred and hummed as it measured his temperature, heartbeat, fluid levels. Then another prick, sharp, in his thigh.
“Another bee,” he thought, “way too many insects. . .” He floated back to sleep.
Mel4 was back in her office. She sipped the bitter coffee in her hand, stared at the screen. She could see Midra leaving his underground garage, the car flanked by two others. The glass was black but she knew he was inside, accompanied by a human guard, with a bot fastened to the ceiling. The bot would be monitoring all passing traffic, anything unusual. The human guard would be armed. She switched to an inside monitor; all was as expected.
All human guards carried firearms, tiny guns that could shoot either instant tranquillisers or, more rarely, lethal bullets designed to kill. Neither guaranteed the immediate removal of danger as it depended on the aim of the marksman when the target was hit—which meant there had been calls for the rearming of bots. Mel4 hoped that would never happen. She remembered too well the mistakes of the past, the malfunctioning bots who had killed innocent bystanders, the over-diligent bots who had removed enemies they would rather have interviewed. It was still too difficult to write code that tempered absolute obedience, code that would enable bots to balance more than the physical elements of the situations they were in. Humans, though unreliable, were still considered more reliable than bots when it came to weapons. They were still able to weigh up situations and vary their decisions accordingly. There were fewer absolutes in the human mind, more variables. For ten years now, security bots had been armed only with sedatives, ones that worked fairly instantly but were never fatal.
Mel4 shook her head; she was day-dreaming, and there was no time for that today. She took another sip, then rested her cup on the desk. She would need to move that if her boss came, the roaming bot that floated around the corridors checking workers, sending instructions to her terminal. Liquids and machines were not a good mix, despite all the manufacturer’s assurances that computers were watertight. She would be careful. It had been a long week; she needed the caffeine. She read through the data that had arrived so far. The holy place was secure; the delegates were on their way. They would be met by Midra at 9am, they would nod, smile, make meaningless speeches, then Midra could return to his safe bunker and the delegates could leave, knowing their importance had been acknowledged.
Her next job would be to make a decision on the boy from the island.
Lena was standing in an inspection room with the nurse. He had locked the door, moved the trolley bed to under a hatch in the ceiling and smoothly climbed onto it. He was now unscrewing the clips, lowering the metal plate. Lena was watching. Did he really expect her to climb up there? To shuffle through tunnels? She fingered the borrowed barcode clipped onto her borrowed uniform. She felt her feet, pinched by the borrowed shoes. She wondered if she would need to use the toilet before she got back. Heroes in stories never used toilets, she had noticed that. Women with children did though, and the nurse had made her drink a lot, watched her swallow every drop of the sweet liquid, told her the fluids and sugar would do her good.
She glanced down at the map in her hand. She had nearly forgotten to bring it, had left it in the side pocket of her bag. He had reminded her, raised that eyebrow again, suggested it might be useful unless she had committed it to memory. His sarcasm was irritating, made her want to slap him.
The nurse finished removing the hatch and he sat on the bed, holding it, looking at her. He reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag attached to a thin belt.
“Put the vials in here. There’s not much room up there so you would do better to wear them at your side, there isn’t enough space to have them at the back, and you’ll need to shuffle on your stomach. You don’t want to break them. Do you know how to administer them?”
Lena shook her head. She had no medical training, how would she know such a thing? He stood and crossed to a cupboard, pulled out a small tube.
“They look like this inside,” he told her, his voice full of forced patience as he explained. “Slide them out of the holding tubes and you will see two buttons.” He held it so she could see. “The first one,” he depressed it, “extends the needle”.
Lena looked at the long point as it shone in the light. It looked sharp and cruel. She swallowed.
“You insert it, a thigh or arm will do, or the neck if that’s quickest, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in a good centimetre.”
Lena shuddered. She didn’t much like injections, though had given them to the children when necessary, when the drones had brought them from the pharmacy after an online medical examination. This looked much the same, though was slimmer and had no instructions attached.
“Then you just press the button at the end,” the nurse was telling her, “just like a normal injection. The chemical will be pushed out, count to five, that will be long enough. Then inject the next clone. We think there are three but we have given you five, just in case”.
“In case of what?” wondered Lena. “In case there are more clones? In case I drop one? In case I decide to murder someone extra on my way out?” She kept quiet. He didn’t look like he would appreciate her thoughts.
The nurse was standing again, climbing back up onto the trolley bed. He clearly had no time left, needed to send her on her way. He passed her the screw remover, watched her add it to the cloth bag, managing to remain silent, to not tell her to hurry up, but every muscle in his face tense. He reached out a hand to help her up.
For a moment Lena stood, stared at his hand, did not move. After a pause, she took hold of it, her own small hand swallowed up in the mass of his, let him help her onto the bed. She stood next to him, peering upwards, not at all sure she was strong enough to climb up, the gap was very small, very high. Then, with no time to think, the nurse hoisted her upwards as easily as he would have lifted a child. She swung her legs into the space and peered forwards. There was a long white tunnel leading away from the entrance shaft. It was lower further on but she had room to sit here, to remain upright. Below her, the nurse was raising the hatch back into place.
“Wait, what are you doing? How will I get out?”
“Don’t panic,” he told her, his voice rough now, in a hurry. “I’m just putting in place, so no one notices. I won’t secure it. When you get back, listen. If the room is empty, stamp hard, and it will fall down. Then you can get out. Go back to the washroom. You remember the way?”
Lena nodded. Realised he couldn’t see her, said, “Yes”. Her voice sounded strange, hollow and hoarse.
He paused, lowered the tile again so he could see her.
“Good, then go there—to the same washroom. At ten o’clock I will come. I will have Max. You can both leave. There will be a car waiting, it will be ordered with a different barcode, make sure you disable the on-board camera. It will take you to the port. Someone will meet you. That’s all I know.”
He did not tell her to trust him. She had no choice. He did not tell her it would all be fine. He doubted that it would be. He looked up at this woman, saw her exhaustion, her acceptance that she had no options, her determination to find her son. In his mind he wished her well, prayed she would have the strength she needed. He nodded, fixed the tile in place, and left. He did not expect to see her again.
Lena wanted to call after him, to tell him to stay, she couldn’t do this, it was stupid to even try. Through the small grill in the ceiling, she watched the top of his head go towards the door, then he disappeared from her view. She tied the belt around her waist, hearing the vials jangle against each other. She hoped they were stronger than they looked. Then she leaned forwards into a crouch and began to half crawl, half shuffle, along the narrow vent. She held the map in her left hand. It was folded so that her current position was showing. She needed to go forward past three more vents, then turn right. She felt like a marker in a computer game, wondered if she glowed red.
Crawling was uncomfortable but not difficult. Every so often, she lifted her head and looked ahead. She could hear nothing from below, hoped her own shuffling was unheard. She crawled along the narrow space, a fat black cable lying beside her. She tried to not touch it, there was something threatening about that cable. She arrived at the first vent and peered down.
She was looking into a room. There was a nurse in the corner and a bed with a tray next to it. She strained to see around the edge of the vent, to discover who was in the bed. If it was Max, she would abandon her mission in an instant, would find a way to get to him.
It was not Max. It was an old lady, her white hair flowing over her shoulders, her head resting on a pillow. She was very thin, with paper-thin skin and when she lifted her arm, Lena saw bones with flesh hanging, the movements shaky and slow. The woman appeared barely alive. Lena shuffled on.
The tunnel had no discerning features, a long dust-filled hollow stretching before her. Lena used her elbows to propel herself forwards, her stomach dragging along the floor, the unsecured sections of hair hanging in her face, the air dry.
The next vent was over a corridor. People passed beneath her, she paused for a moment and watched their heads. Snippets of conversation floated up, none discernible, a general babble of sound. That helped her relax a little, to think that she herself was unlikely to be heard unless she coughed or shouted when above a vent. Whatever the ceiling was made of, it was clearly well insulated, containing both heat and sound. She continued.
At the next vent there was a crossing of routes. She checked the map again, took the fork to the right. Her arms were beginning to tire now and her throat was dry. The tunnels were dusty, dry, uncomfortably hot. She wondered what her uniform must look like now, imagined it was far from the pristine white it had been a few minutes ago. That would be a problem when she came to leave. There was nothing she could do now, so she continued, taking her weight on her arms, shuffling with her legs. An uncoordinated caterpillar.
Mel4 was watching her screen closely. She could see that Midra had arrived at the holy place. He had left the car and was moving into position, walking through the clapping public, through the arched doorway and along the aisle. All seemed to be going to plan. She watched the live feed, switching between monitors until he was in his seat at the front. He would be introduced, then would stand and make a speech.
She reached for her keyboard and turned her second screen on. It flashed blue, then she called the island reports back into view. She had made her decision. They could not alter the boy, that was too severe, held too many risks. She thought it was an unreliable method of control, disliked the number of ‘failures’ her department had been forced to cover up. No, she would not sanction that.
However, her bot had given her three options and the second, the decision to wipe a part of his medium-term memory, seemed sensible. He was young, he would have many more years to build new memories. A few gaps wouldn’t matter.
She entered the codes, sent her decision. They could do it this morning. He could then be returned to the island; she saw no reason to remove him permanently from his family. Her understanding was that they were planning to leave soon anyway, they could be reunited and go. Then they wouldn’t be her problem anymore. It was not as if they were a security threat, they held illegal views, that was all. Mel4 did not agree with the law as it stood, but her job was not to make judgements about that, it was to ensure it was upheld. She finished writing and sent her conclusion. Then she turned back to watch Midra.
Lena reached the next vent. She sat up, easing her back, stretching the muscles. This was physically very tough, she wondered if it was going to be possible, she would be tired when she eventually arrived. She peered down, adjusting her position so she could see through the gaps in the vent, squinting her eyes, looking for her son.
She seemed to be over a cafeteria, she could see heads moving, smell something spicy. It made her feel nauseous. A tendril of hair was tickling her nose. She pushed it back, swept all the escaped hair together, hooking it back into the hairband—it didn’t matter what she looked like now. She noticed her hands were dusty, dry, she wished she had gloves. Wished a lot of things.
Lena checked her map, refolding it so her current position was at the top. The exit shaft, the one near the clones, was now on the same square of paper. She was getting closer. That was good, she told herself, nearly there, nearly at the right place. She stopped there—not wanting to consider what came next, what she must do when she arrived and the myriad of things that might go wrong. She had no sense of time but she felt she had been crawling for hours. She checked the vials were still in place, moved them slightly so they didn’t knock against her leg, then leaned forwards, continued moving.
“I can do this,” she told herself, willing her arms to keep moving, clawing her way forwards, heaving her body through the vent. “I can do this, I can save Max. . . ”
On the island, John’s computer beeped. A message. He opened it. It was sent in code, talked about monitors being fixed, awaiting collection. He smiled, they had located the boy. He checked the time, rubbing his hands together, the slightest smile flickering on his mouth. This was all going to plan.
John rose and went to find Den, to tell him to pack, he and Lucy would be leaving on a boat before nightfall. Whatever happened, it would not be safe for them to stay now. Too much was going to change.
To be continued on Sunday
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Amazon Link Here
Thanks for reading. Why not sign up to follow my blog? anneethompson.com
Look on your device for this icon (it’s probably right at the bottom of the screen if you scroll down). Follow the link to follow my blog!
She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .
To The Hospital
Lena walked away from the house. She didn’t bother to look for electronic watchers, she knew she wouldn’t see them anyway. She kept to the shadows: hugging the side of a wall, walking so close to a bush the thorns caught her elbow, stepping on the edge of lawns, brushing the side of buildings as she passed.
It was cold, the morning light weak and grey, as if night was clinging on, unwilling to leave. Lena could see her breath in puffs of condensed air, coming quickly as she hurried towards the hospital. Her hood was hot, so she pushed it off, then worried she was too visible and pulled it back up, over her hair, hiding her face in its shadow. A car passed her, then another. Neither slowed and she didn’t look at them, was almost past caring if she was seen. This whole experience was too foreign, too unreal, like being caught up in a psychological thriller.
When she reached the corner opposite the old school, she stopped and leant forwards, resting her hands on her knees. She had a pain in her side, knew she was walking too fast to be comfortable, faster than someone with her level of fitness could maintain. She had a long way to go, was still tired from the walk through the tunnel. When she straightened the world spun briefly, a haze of grey and brown. Then her vision cleared, she took some deep breaths, forced herself to calm her breathing, to relax her shoulders. Another car was approaching, its lights sweeping the road, the faint whir of its motor audible in the silence of the early morning. Lena continued walking.
There were lights on in most of the houses, casting a cheery glow into the grey morning. Lena longed to go to them, to knock on a door, ask for help. She could see people inside, preparing to leave for work, eating with their families, chatting, happy, normal, living within the bounds of the law. She wondered how she had got here, what had led her to this place of unwanted adventure and fear, wondered if she could have avoided it.
Lena walked along path after path, crossing roads at designated points, following signs to the hospital. Many of the streets were familiar, but they looked altered in the morning light, menacing somehow, as if warning Lena that she no longer belonged. There were trees, stretching overhead in rigidly planned spaces, houses of people, fenced areas for children to play. At one point her route took her away from the road, along an alleyway with buildings on either side, and Lena heard the whine of cameras as they turned to follow her, security lamps lighting the darker patches of path. She shrunk further into her hood, told herself she could be anyone, the cameras were for her protection, in case she should trip or fall suddenly ill when unseen from the main road. She almost believed herself. The alley joined the main road again, it felt safer, there were more cars, the occasional pedestrian who Lena turned away from as if distracted.
By the time she got near to the hospital, her legs were aching and the strap of her bag dug cruelly into her shoulders. She wondered if she would have a blister—certainly she had one on her left heel, the skin was sore and her shoe rubbed painfully. She stopped, moving her sock, trying to alleviate the pressure slightly. When she looked up, she could see the hospital, shining on the hill, a beacon for the sick. It seemed every room was lit, it sat there, like a glowing fat spaceship, watching over the valley.
The road up to the hospital was lined with trees and Lena walked amongst them, following the line of the road but away from it, hoping to remain unseen. It was fully daylight now and there was a steady stream of cars to and from the hospital, carrying patients, staff, visitors. She tripped on a raised root and staggered, got her balance, adjusted her hood, continued, taking better care to look where she was going.
She checked the map she had been given, the one showing where she would be met. There was an entrance on the right-hand side of the hospital; a narrow driveway led to it, with a circle for the cars to turn, drop their passengers and leave. She checked the time, she was early. Not wanting to stand on the driveway where she might be seen she turned, walked deeper into the trees. There was a small clearing and she sat on the moss, leaned against a trunk. The ground was damp, the moisture almost instantly seeping upwards, through her trousers. She really could not be bothered to move. She reached into her bag, pulled out an energy biscuit and ate it, crumbs falling on the ground and scattering across her jacket. Absently she wiped them away, then took a look at her heel. It was sore but not blistered. She dug out a tissue, tried to pad the heel of her sock. It hurt. She checked the time. It was moving slowly now. She waited.
At 8am, Lena walked from the trees onto the driveway. A couple of cars passed her, people hurried out and into the building; no one seemed to notice her, to wonder why she was walking. She approached the door, uncertain. A nurse saw her, came out. He did not speak, just walked towards the woods, back to where Lena had come from, a quick jerk of his finger indicated for her to follow.
When they were back in the trees, mostly hidden from the road he stopped.
“Hello, w-i-n-d-e-n473?” he asked, using the beginning of her barcode.
She nodded, glanced at his own barcode. The colour bands showed he was highly educated, a senior nurse, owned a small property, had no family. He nodded back at her.
“Good, you are on time, well done.”
He passed her a different barcode, the plastic slightly worn, the pin behind it twisted. “Wear this. It belongs to another watcher, another nurse. It will be picked up by the scanners, they will assume she is arriving for work. I have her uniform,” he looked at Lena, appraising her size, body shape. She felt herself redden under his scrutiny.
“I think it will fit you. I will take you to a washroom, you can change there. You have the vials?”
Lena frowned, not sure what he meant, then realised he was referring to the package for the clones. She nodded, lifted the box from her bag, offered it to him.
The nurse shook his head. “No, you keep them. When you have changed, put your clothes in the bag but keep the vials. We can stow your things in the ceiling, I will show you. Then I will take you to the access hatch and help you in. Here,” he passed her a piece of paper.
Lena unfolded it. It was another map, a maze of lines, crosses marked at intervals. She had seen it before. It was the map that John had shown her in the cottage, the one that showed where the wiring routes were.
“Why are you showing me this?” Lena was confused, then alarmed as she realised what he was assuming. “No, no, I’m not doing this. I have come for my son. I was told you would help me.” She backed away, her back touched the trunk of a tree and she stood there, staring at him, confused. “What is happening? Why are you saying these strange things? I’ve come to find Max, to take him away, they had said you would help me. . .”
The nurse raised his hands, placating.
“Keep calm, breathe, it’s okay, I am helping you,” he said, seeing the rising hysteria, needing her calm, sane. “We are going to get Max, you are going to take him away, to somewhere safe.”
His voice was low, slow, as if willing her to trust him.
The nurse looked at Lena. Her hair was tangled, sticking to her wet forehead, her eyes, red-rimmed from lack of sleep and worry. She stood, slumped against the tree trunk, exhausted, defeated. He seriously doubted she was up to this. But she was all they had. And time was running out. He needed to be back on shift in twenty minutes or his absence would be noticed. She needed to be in the ceiling by then, clear on what her mission entailed.
But first he must calm her, get her to rest and eat a little, persuade her to trust him. He was cross with himself; he had done this all wrong, started in the wrong place. He blamed it on the lack of time, the urgency of the situation.
“Look at me,” he told her.
Lena looked up. Her eyes took in his height, his face looking down at her with eyes that were almost black—grave and hypnotic in their intensity. His white nurse’s uniform stretched across a wide chest, the sleeves rolled back slightly, so she could see dark hairs on his wrists. The impression was one of strength, not necessarily of friendship.
“We are going to get Max,” he repeated. “You are going to take him away, somewhere safe. He is safe now, no one has hurt him. We know where he is, we are watching him, checking him. But before we can take him, we need a distraction. We need to move the security staff away, to another part of the hospital. I cannot do that. You can. It will be easy. You will go to where the clones are. You will administer the injections, you will leave. If anyone sees you, they will think you are a nurse, no one will stop you.
“When you return, I’ll have Max, the staff watching him will have been called away, to where the clones are, away from where Max is. You will take Max and leave. It will be okay. Can you do that Lena?” He remembered her name now, had seen it on the report from John, hoped using it would make him more believable, a friend.
“Can you do that? Can you create a diversion so that I can get Max?”
Actually, she did not think she could do it. She thought she was too tired, too muddled, too frightened. But something about the way he said it, the intensity of his eyes, her lack of alternative options, made her nod. She had no choice, not really. She couldn’t find Max on her own, she needed them to help her. If she did see Max, if she spotted him somewhere while they were in the hospital, then she would take him, she would leave. Their plan meant nothing to her, she had done her bit, she had collected the vials, she owed them nothing. But until she actually knew where her son was, she had no choice, she would do what this man was asking. If she could.
The nurse lifted her bag from where she had let it fall on the mud, frowned. “Why’s it so heavy?” He felt inside, asked: “What’s this?”
“It’s a replica doll. I bought it for my daughter.”
“And you thought it would be a good idea to bring it along?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Lena was suddenly angry. What right did this man have to challenge her decisions? If she wanted to bring a doll, a gift for her child, who was he to ridicule her, to make her feel silly?
“Yes,” she said, refusing to explain further.
He noted her anger, saw the fight in her, decided she might stand a chance after all.
“Come, we’re running late. I’ll take you somewhere you can change. Then I will bring you something to eat, you need some energy. I’ll help you on your way before I return to work.” He passed her the bag, strode away, back to the hospital.
Lena struggled to fasten the barcode to her jacket then hurried after him, avoiding roots and sticks, not wanting to be left behind. If she was stopped at the entrance, she wanted this man with her. He could explain why she was there—he was less tired than she was.
Lena was not stopped at the entrance. It was a staff entrance. She walked through the haze of sterilising mist with other workers returning to their wards and offices. Her nurse, as she thought of him, strode ahead, not looking at her, not waiting for her. She followed him along bright corridors, wondering if anyone would notice her muddy boots, her damp trousers. No one appeared to, everyone was focused on where they were going, walking quickly with purpose, aware only of the time and not wanting to be late.
They came to a washroom and he slipped inside. She followed. Like all public washrooms, it was designed for both genders, with secure cubicles inside for privacy but with a shared sink area with mirrors above. Flashing signs reminded her to wash her hands, to not place bags on the floor. He told her to lean against the door, so no one else could enter, then reached up, removed a panel from the ceiling. He lowered the white tile, revealing a hole, reached inside and pulled down a bag. He passed it to Lena, then replaced the tile, clicking it into place.
“There’s a uniform in there. Go into a cubicle and put it on. Make sure the door is locked and stay there until I get back.”
“Where are you going?” she said, not sure she wanted to be left alone but also grateful he wouldn’t be there when she changed.
“To get you something to eat.” He turned and left.
Lena went into a cubicle and locked the door, lowered the lid of the toilet and sat, her head buried in her hands. The day had gone from nightmare to surreal.
She looked in the bag. The uniform, of course, was white. Lena felt very grubby after her long sweaty hike and rest in the woods. She left both bags in the cubicle and went back to the sinks, hoping no one would come in. She held her hands under the tap, waited for the flow of soapy water before washing her face, scooping the warm liquid onto her face and neck, scrubbing away sweat and specks of dirt. Then she stood next to the drier, angled it to dry her face, enjoying the warm air as it tickled her hair, chasing wisps across her forehead and neck.
She heard footsteps and hurried back into her cubicle, locking the door. Someone came in, used the cubicle next to her, a man she thought, someone with a good flow anyway. . . She felt an insane urge to laugh, made worse by the need to keep completely silent. She sat there, not moving, hardly even breathing, trying to not listen as they used the toilet. She waited, heard the shuffle of feet, the sound of a zip, the door bang as they left, the hiss of water as they washed their hands, another banged door as they went back into the corridor.
Lena pulled the clothes from the bag. There were the white trousers and tunic that all the female nurses wore, with white plastic shoes. She struggled from her own clothes, stuffing them into the bag, then dressed in the uniform. It was tight across her stomach but not noticeably so. The shoes were a bad fit, very uncomfortable but she could get them on. They squeezed her toes and pushed against her sore heel. She would not be able to walk far in them. She used her fingers to comb her hair, then refastened it in the elastic band she had. She doubted she looked very tidy but was loath to return to the mirrors now she was in uniform, unsure if this was a staff-designated washroom or intended for the public.
She rested the bag of clothes on her muddy boots on the floor, then sat back on the toilet seat. She wondered how long she would have to wait, how long before the nurse returned, what her next instructions would be, how long before she had saved her son.
To be continued tomorrow.
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. UK Link Here!
Thanks for reading. Why not sign up to follow my blog? anneethompson.com