Tuesday, 26 January 2021
Friday, 22 January 2021
Sparrow sighed. Looking after the others was exhausting. They weren't so bad though, she thought. At first she'd thought that she'd have to do everything for them, but they learnt pretty quickly and could keep up better than at the beginning. Even Dee was a sturdy wee thing, despite being so pale. She looked over at him, trying to keep his eyes open, despite his head drooping, his white hair flopping forward. She felt a surge of affection for him that previously she'd only felt for Tekla. Grabbing her blanket, she sank down next to him, and nudged him gently.
"You still awake, soldier?"
"Uh...uh huh..." Dee raised his head and yawned widely, "I'm...awake."
As they sat in the flickering light of the fire, Dee fell back to sleep, his head resting on Sparrow's shoulder. She waited for daylight to come in through the doorway, watching as the wood in the fire crumbled into glowing embers and finally dead ashes. The sleeping bodies and noises of the others were some comfort against the darkness, despite her own breathing seeming the loudest sound in the room. At long last, the grey light of day filtered through, and the others started to stir.
Sparrow poked her head out the door. It wasn't actually raining, but everything was wet and dripping, and the sky looked cloudy. "I'm going to go grab some more stuff to burn before it starts raining again."
She trotted off towards the large building and ducked under the metal door. Pools of rainwater collected in holes and cracks in the floor where the roof was gone, but there were dry areas around the edges. She scooted around the debris, collecting splintered bits of partition walls and parts of broken furniture. She wished she'd brought the cart to carry everything. When she'd got as much as she could carry, she headed back, remembering to rip some posters from the wall to help re-start the fire.
She found the others clustered around Zed. "He can't get up!" Tekla said, coming over to pull Sparrow closer.
"Can't or won't?" Sparrow muttered, but her tone changed when she saw Zed's flushed face. "We're staying here for the day. I'll get the fire going so we can all have a hot drink."
She started the fire in the ashes of the previous one, and told Dee to get the powdered milk packet from the bags. The hot malty drink had been a staple of school camp suppers, drunk around the evening campfire before the whistle blew for bedtime. Sparrow mixed it up and poured it into one of the few enamel cups. She got Zed propped up against the wall, and pressed the cup into his hand. He shivered, "Sparrow? I don't feel so good..."
"Drink your milk." She ordered, and grabbed one of the blankets from Rat, who was curled up in the corner in a nest of her own making. Rat clutched at the blanket but wasn't fast enough to stop Sparrow taking it and roughly throwing it around Zed's shoulders. He held out the empty cup, "Thanks. Can I go back to sleep now?" He yawned and his eyes closed.
Sparrow let him sleep and chased the others away. "Go on, go find some more stuff to burn or something. Just don't go too far. And don't get hurt!"
Dee and Tekla took the cart with them, followed by Rat and Bee at a slower pace. Bee was still finding her way over the stony ground, and Rat was jumping in every puddle. Jem stood at the doorway and watched them as they made their way to the other buildings in the complex. Sparrow came and stood next to her. "Do you think Zed will be ok?" she asked.
"Should be..." Jem mulled. "He seems strong enough. You youngsters can throw off most things easy."
Sunday, 17 January 2021
"What did you say that for?" Bee whispered furiously. "We barely have enough food for all of us."
"We can share." Sparrow whispered back before raising her voice, "We could all share the fire and food, if you want..."
The figure hesitated before turning round again. They nodded slowly, pushing back their hood to reveal long hair and a weathered face.
"Um, follow us then." Sparrow said, dragging the cart and Bee towards the door. The old woman followed at a distance, not wanting to get too close. When they reached the small building where the others were, Sparrow had to pause to fit the cart through, and the old woman came up and put her hand on Sparrow's arm. Sparrow shook it off.
"What?" She said testily.
"I'm Jem. My name is Jem." Her voice was husky, as if she didn't talk much.
"Oh. I'm Sparrow. That was Bee with me. The others...well the others are inside."
"Others?" Jem looked alarmed.
"Yeah, my little sister and the other kids."
"Oh, children..." The woman looked relieved and went to pat Sparrow's arm again before catching her eye.
"Let's get inside." Sparrow gave the cart a final shove and it rolled into the narrow hall. She stepped aside to let Jem enter first, and gave a last look around the darkening landscape before following her inside.
"Listen you lot, this is Jem." Sparrow pushed past and jerked a thumb towards Jem. "Bee you already met; this is my little sister Tekla, that's Dee, Zed, and the one in the corner is Rat. Jem's gonna have some food with us."
Introductions dispensed with, Sparrow ripped the posters off the wall and gathered the smallest bits of wood from the cart to start a fire. The others had draped their wet clothing over the furniture, and it was dripping into puddles on the floor.
Bee started to search through the packs and pulled out the dry blankets. She handed them out while Sparrow was coaxing the fire into life. Zed had got out some tins of food and the metal pan. Jem watched from the doorway until Sparrow waved her over to the fire in the centre of the room. "Bring more of the big bits from the cart please."
Jem reached into the cart and grabbed an armful of the bigger pieces of wood. She brought them over to Sparrow and dropped them on the ground next to her. Sparrow looked up, "Thanks. Sorry about...you know. That was the first time I'd ever done anything like that."
Jem gave a laugh that was more of a bark. "I should hope it would be the last time too!" She said sternly.
Sparrow looked fierce, "But people are bad out here..."
Jem allowed a softer expression onto her face. "Not everyone. It's best to check first. Has everyone you met tried to do you harm?"
"No...not at first." Sparrow acknowledged. "The horse people did bandage Rat's hands and feed us."
"There, you see. What if you'd threatened them? They might not have been so helpful then."
"I suppose..." Sparrow didn't sound altogether convinced.
By this point, Zed had finished emptying tins into the pan and stirred it all up. He pushed it over to Sparrow who balanced it on top of the embers. Jem reached into her coat and pulled out something. She offered it to Sparrow. "It's not much but we can all have a bite if we roast it over the fire."
Sparrow looked down at the dead thing in horror. She recoiled from it like she had from Rat's dead bird and looked at Jem as if she was mad. "We can't eat that!"
Jem shrugged, "All the more for me then." Watched by the children with half disgust, half fascination, she pulled a blunt looking knife from the inside of her coat and began to skin the rat. It was hard going and Sparrow offered her sharper knife to do the job instead. Jem nodded her thanks and wiped her own knife on the side of her coat before stashing it away again.
"What you got against eating rat then?" Jem asked after the skinned and gutted rat had been placed on the embers next to the pot. She darted a glance at Rat who had crept closer to the fire, hunched under a blanket while her outer clothes were dripping on the chair. "Is it cos of the little 'un, Rat?" At the sound of her name, Rat looked up and stared at her across the fire while the flames danced in her eyes.
"Her real name is Em," Sparrow explained, "And it's not just rat, it's all animals."
"Oho, so you are from the Cities then. I heard tell they don't eat meat in there. What's a bunch of City kids doing out here all alone?"
Sparrow explained about looking for her dad, and how she and Tekla had found the others.
"Actually we found you." Bee corrected.
Sparrow stuck her tongue out at Bee. Tekla giggled, "Bee, Sparrow's sticking her tongue out at you."
"What for?" Bee asked, puzzled. Sparrow scowled at Tekla.
"Food's ready!" Zed said hurriedly, sensing a argument about to break out. He slopped the soupy mix of beans and vegetables into various empty cans, and held out a fistful of spoons for everyone.
"Sure you don't want any?" Jem asked as she tore the stringy meat off her rat and added it to her can. Sparrow and Tekla shook their heads violently, but the others were intrigued by the smell of the roasted meat.
"Can I...try just a tiny bite?" Dee asked. "It smells so good!"
"A tiny bite is all there is..." Jem remarked as she handed over a piece. "Anyone else?"
Rat's hands were still bandaged so she had to wait for someone to feed her. She tried to lift the can up with her bandaged hands but she could only hold it with two hands. She banged it against the floor in frustration when no one seemed to notice.
"Sorry Em..." Sparrow said, and put down her own food. She picked up the spoon and started to feed Rat, but Rat shook her head and shut her mouth. She pointed at the rat insistently, until Jem held out a piece for her. Sparrow took it with disgust on her face and watched it disappear into Rat's mouth. Rat then pointed to her mouth and stared at Sparrow until Sparrow started to feed her again.
"Eww, Rat ate herself!" Dee laughed.
Sparrow grinned and poked Rat, "Are you good to eat? Shall we put you on the fire and roast you?" Rat squirmed away.
Zed shivered and sneezed. Jem glanced over in his direction. "All this rain will do that for you. We've been lucky with the weather so far this season but now it's turning nasty. Time to find a place to stay under cover if you can."
The warmth from the fire and their bodies was drying their damp clothes slowly, but the ones hanging off the chairs were still sodden. Sparrow looked around at the others as they warmed their hands and feet at the flames. Zed's socks steamed in the heat from the embers. No, wait, it was smoke, not steam.
"Zed, your socks are burning!" Sparrow jumped up and threw some water over Zed's feet.
"I thought it was a bit hot..." he said, looking ruefully at his wet socks. He sneezed again. Jem reached into one of the many deep pockets of her coat and pulled out a small lidded pot. She unscrewed the lid and passed it over to Zed. "Here, rub this on your chest. It'll keep the cold from travelling into your lungs. Well, it'll help, anyhow."
Zed scrunched up his nose at the unfamiliar smell. It was strong, but not unpleasant, reminding him of the sap that had oozed from the branches in the forest. He rubbed a little of the salve over his collarbones and handed the pot back.
Tekla yawned and pulled her blanket closer around her. Sparrow found herself yawning too, now that she'd eaten.
"You go to sleep if you like," Jem suggested. "I'll watch the fire for a bit and wake you up later."
Sparrow was too tired to disagree. She sat herself down next to Tekla and closed her eyes. The next thing she knew was Dee shaking her awake.
"Sparrow, Sparrow! I woke up and that lady was gone..."
Sparrow jerked awake, looking around at the sleeping bodies. Jem was no where to be seen. The fire was dangerously low, and there was no glow from the door that would mean it was daytime. She got to her feet, careful to step over the sleeping Tekla beside her.
As she reached the door, she heard a noise outside and froze, reaching for her knife. She groaned when she realised that she'd never got it back from Jem after she'd finished with the rat.
Cursing herself, she looked around for another weapon and her eyes settled on Bee's staff. She grabbed hold of it and stumbled back to the doorway, only to be met by Jem with an armful of wood.
Jem's eyes flickered to the staff, but she said nothing. Sparrow fell back to let her through and watched her add the wood to the fire.
"You should have woken me up before you went out..." Sparrow said as she replaced Bee's staff. "Oh, and I need my knife back."
"Oh, of course..." Jem handed it over. "I didn't want to disturb you, you looked sound asleep."
"Well, I'm awake now. I'll stay on watch while you get some sleep."
"I'll stay awake to watch too!" Dee piped up.
"Only if you're quiet," Sparrow said. "We don't want to disturb the others."
Dee nodded, and Sparrow checked on the drying clothes while Jem settled down beside the fire. The clothes were just damp now, rather than actually wet. Still, it would either mean wearing damp clothes tomorrow, or staying here another night until they dried. Only Zed was showing signs of a cold now, but they could all get sick if they had another day of walking in the rain. Maybe it was best to stay put for a day or so. If the weather wasn't sunny tomorrow.
Wednesday, 13 January 2021
It was raining. It had been raining all day, and everyone was wet and tired. It didn't help that the track they were on was now becoming a small stream with the water that was running along it. They were following the city fence around the outside of the forest. Sparrow reasoned that by going around the city they'd have to reach the railway line going towards Exchange at some point. And this way they wouldn't get lost in the forest again. It did mean, however, that they were in unknown territory, and for this reason she was carrying the knife in her hand.
Sparrow looked around at the others following her. While they were in the woods, Bee had found a long, smooth branch that she could use as a staff to help her traverse the ground. It would also come in handy, Sparrow reflected, as a weapon if need be. Zed was stumbling along in his sandals, the socks underneath sodden with mud. Dee's footwear was in a similar state - the canvas gym shoes with a tide mark of mud nearly up to the laces. Bee, Rat and Tekla were luckier, their rubber boots were perfect for this weather. Sparrow looked down at her own shoes, sturdy leather walking boots that she had worn for camping with the school. One of the laces had come undone and was trailing in the mud. She stopped to re-tie it, sticking the knife into the ground beside her. Bee's staff nearly hit her on the head.
"Watch it! You're lethal with that thing..."
"Why've we stopped?"
This brief interaction seemed to open the floodgates of general conversation, and there arose a chorus of comments and complaints from the younger members of the group. Apart from Rat, of course, who was stoically stamping in all the puddles she could find. Tekla joined in and was briefly distracted from her misery. Their enjoyment made the rest of the group feel lighter as they trudged along punctuated by splashes and giggles.
Up ahead, Sparrow could see a cluster of derelict buildings standing at some distance from the track. "I can see some shelter, Bee. I'm going to check it out. You stay here with the others. I'll signal to Zed if everything's ok."
She trotted off in the direction of the group of buildings. As she got closer, she could see that the roof of the bigger building had caved in, but the smaller buildings still looked solid. She slowed her pace as she came up to the first doorway. The door had been kicked in, and was hanging on its hinges. She squeezed past it into the hallway, tiptoeing over broken glass and other rubbish. She couldn't hear anything but the drum of the rain on the roof. A quick glance into the two rooms revealed no hidden dangers, so she scrambled back to the doorway and waved at Zed and the others to join her. They ran the last bit, desperate to get out of the rain.
"Watch your feet" she warned Zed, as they crunched over the broken glass, aware that his feet in sandals were more vulnerable than the others.
Inside it was dark, but dry at least. A wooden desk, some chairs, and a metal filing cabinet were the only furniture, with some peeling posters stuck on the walls.
"There might be some stuff we can use for firewood in the other buildings..." Sparrow said, as the others stood around, dripping water into puddles on the floor.
"I'll come with you," Zed offered.
"No, I'll take Bee - the roof's fallen in and her boots will be better than your sandals."
The two girls walked across to the other buildings in silence. Bee stumbled slightly on the uneven ground, but Sparrow didn't notice, focused as she was on their surroundings and possible threats. The biggest building had a large doorway, with a metal door that opened upwards like a garage. It was stuck halfway but Sparrow was short enough to be able to walk underneath.
"Wait." She ordered Bee, who had nearly walked into the door. Bee felt for the edge of the door and forced it upward, making a grating noise that echoed through the cavernous space beyond.
"We need to be quiet!" Sparrow whispered, gripping her knife tighter as her eyes scanned the inside of the building. The roof had collapsed into the middle, leaving space around the edges. Splintered wooden beams and twisted lengths of metal lay scattered on the floor, while other broken pieces of roof hung precariously overhead. Sparrow inched her way around the outside of the room, listening for any noise that might indicate a further collapse. Bee followed slowly, using the wall to guide her, and sliding her staff across the floor to check for anything that might trip her up.
Sparrow darted into the centre of the room, and tugged a length of wood from underneath some shattered plasterboard. The pile in the middle shifted and she jumped back quickly as more plaster and bricks fell to the floor with a crash and a cloud of dust.
"What was that?" Bee asked, flattening herself against the wall.
"Just...getting some firewood..." Sparrow replied breathlessly, hugging the piece of wood to her chest.
"I thought you said we had to be quiet..."
Sparrow rolled her eyes, "That was BEFORE we knew it was empty."
There was a loud sound from the other side of the room, and both girls jumped.
"What was that?" Sparrow whispered.
"Maybe it's not so empty after all." Bee retorted, spinning her staff round to a defensive position.
Both girls could hear muttering and mumbling coming from the other side of the room that was hidden by the fallen roof. Knife in hand, Sparrow inched forward. A shuffling figure came into view, dragging a wire cart full of broken bits of wood. The figure was stooped over, eyes fixed on the ground, occasionally bending down and picking something up to throw it into the cart. It was impossible to tell whether it was male or female, swathed as it was in cloths and scarfs. Thick gloves covered its hands and a hood hid the face.
"Hey!" Sparrow called out, waving her knife. The figure looked up.
"What are you doing?" Bee murmured.
"Getting some firewood." Sparrow said firmly. She walked towards the figure, brandishing the knife with more confidence than she felt. The figure backed away, mumbling something.
"What was that?" Sparrow demanded. The knife made her feel braver, made her face stern and her voice harder.
The figure held out their hands. "I don't...I don't want no trouble."
"Right..." Sparrow reached one hand out to rest on the cart. She couldn't quite believe that the threat of the knife had worked and now that it had she felt a bit flat. "We just need some firewood. That's all."
"Take it, take it..." The figure turned to walk away, leaving Sparrow holding the cart and the knife, feeling both elated and sad. She pushed the sad thought down and rolled the cart back to Bee. "Let's go." She looked at the figure walking away, and called out again, "Hey! Hey you!"
The figure froze.
"Are you hungry?"
Monday, 4 January 2021
Sparrow took her time leaving the tower. She'd never been in a building like it before. Everything about it seemed larger than normal, from the size of the stones making up the walls and steps, to the thickness of the wooden planks of the platforms inside. She felt very small and insignificant. As she descended the outer wooden steps from the door high up in the wall, she could see over the whole settlement. The big gates were being opened to let in a truck that looked oddly out of place next to the grassy houses. It's wheels bounced on the uneven track before it pulled up in a space beside the tower. Something didn't feel right to Sparrow. She ran down the rest of the steps and hid in the space underneath. She watched as the door of the truck opened and a man she recognised got out. It was the captain from the other night who had captured them.
Sparrow wondered if she should run back and warn Grace but it was too late - one of the tower people was already showing him up the steps. She watched their feet tramp above her head and sat there, worrying. Did Grace know the captain? Why was he able to just drive up without anyone challenging him? Maybe they were working together, in which case, Sparrow realised, they weren't safe here. Grace wasn't going to look after them, she was just going to hand them over to the enemy.
Warily, she clambered out of her hiding place and ran around to the backs of the houses where the children were still playing. Zed was the closest so she grabbed him and pulled him to the side.
"We need to get out of here."
"What? But why?"
"The captain - the guy who captured us - he's here. They're going to just give us to him."
Zed looked around in alarm.
"It's ok, he's in the tower just now, but we've not got a lot of time. I don't know when they'll come and get us."
"But how will we get out? There's always someone at the gate."
"I don't know..." Sparrow looked at the group of kids and had an idea. Maybe they'd know how to get out of the settlement without being seen. "Leave that to me. Can you go back to where we slept and grab our packs?"
Zed nodded and slipped away. She waited til there was a lull in the game and then walked into the middle of the group, "This is boring now, let's get out of here and explore outside the walls."
One of the smaller kids piped up, "We're not allowed outside without an adult."
Someone laughed, "There's a way we can get out. Not through the gate. Come on, we'll show you."
Sparrow looked around for Zed but he hadn't come back yet. Reluctantly she followed the rest of the kids along the outer wall until they came to a fenced area where some animals were grazing. The kids from the encampment hopped over the fence, but Sparrow and the others hung back, nervous of the animals.
"They won't bite!" "I thought you faced down a wild dog, anyway?" "It's just some sheep..."
Zed caught up with them, weighed down by rucksacks and bags. He handed them out, making sure Tekla and Rat got the lightest ones. "I couldn't carry everything," he explained, "I had to leave some of the tins behind."
"What do you need those for?" The other kids clustered around, hanging over the low fence.
Sparrow paused before answering. She wasn't sure if she could trust these kids, if their parents were in league with the soldiers. She shrugged her arms into her rucksack and started to climb over the fence.
"I'll tell you later. Now show me where we can get out..."
"No." One of the older kids blocked her way. "We'll only show you if you tell us what you're up to."
Sparrow scowled. This was not how it was supposed to go. She jumped off the fence and squared up to the tall boy. "Fine. I'll tell you, but only you. And you can't go blabbering about it to the grown ups."
He pulled a face,"As if..."
They moved aside, out of earshot of the others. Their hurried exchange was cut short by a cry from the other side of the animal enclosure. "Hey, what are you kids up to?"
An angry young man started crossing the grass towards them. "I've told you kids before about hanging around here - it upsets the animals..."
The kids from the settlement ran away, and Sparrow had little choice but to follow them back into the main section of the houses. The kids melted away, mentioning chores that needed doing, or food that was waiting for them. Soon they were left standing by themselves outside the house where they had stayed the night.
"What do we do now?" Zed asked.
"Later..." Sparrow hissed, as a lady came out from the house and saw them standing there.
"I expect you're hungry again. Come inside and I'll see if I can fix you up something."
They reluctantly followed her in and anxiously waited at the table while she poured soup into bowls and stacked bread on plates.
"We'll have to sneak out tonight," Sparrow whispered across to the others. "Derrin told me how to get out."
"But where will we go?" Bee asked.
"Somewhere far away from all grown ups..." Sparrow replied into her bowl of soup.
Later that night, Sparrow waited until all noise downstairs had stopped. She shook Tekla and Dee awake. Bee was sitting on the edge of her bed. Zed was checking the straps on their bags and Rat's bright eyes glittered from underneath the bed frame.
"We all ready? Good. I'll check the downstairs is clear."
The first step creaked under her feet and she winced. But no one called up from downstairs so she continued, the others following her to the top of the stairs. The room where they had eaten was in darkness; the only light came from the moonlight shining in through the window. She could hear the others fumbling down the wooden steps as she made her way to the door. The door wasn't locked, and she inched it open to glance up and down the road outside. A small brazier of fire was burning down to embers at the top of the road close to the tower.
She opened the door and then found Tekla and Rat's hands. "Stick close to me." She ushered the two small girls outside and around the corner of the house into the thin gap between the buildings. Bee, Zed and Dee followed, all trying to make as little noise as possible. It was darker here, in the shadow of the houses, and Sparrow struggled to see where she was going at first, until her eyes adjusted. She felt the others crowding behind her and ran to the next shadow. The outer wall wasn't far, and she followed the line of it until they arrived at the animal enclosure.
This part of the outer wall was made up of all kinds of scavenged materials: sheets of corrugated iron, metal panels, planks of wood, doors, and even the bodies of old cars, squashed and stacked on top of one another. Sparrow opened a door on the bottom car, and saw a small gap in the broken seat panels where she could fit through. She removed her bag and pushed it through the hole first, then wriggled through the gap, twisting her arms and legs to fit. Once through, she stretched her arm back through the hole and beckoned the others to follow. "It might be a bit tight for you, Bee, but I had room to spare so you should be ok..."
Once on the other side, the moonlight revealed a landscape of bushes and small trees. A series of small paths ran through the scrubland, perfectly sized for children. Sparrow tried to work out which way they should go while she waited for the others to emerge. In the distance she could just make out the tree line of the woods where they had come from before. She wondered if the best thing was to backtrack to where they had left the main road and then head out from there. If her dad was heading to Exchange then their best bet was to find and follow the train tracks. Which meant heading back to the city.