Coffee cut with dirt or sand or embers. I think I can see an ember glowing in the bottom of it. Ember coffee. Tastes like-well, charcoal…read more
She died in the night, the old lady. I had learned to sleep through the moaning and perhaps that was callous. The younger one woke me. She must have been sitting there with her when it happened. I knew what had to be done. There is no ritual around burial. There isn’t the time, the resources. One gone is one less mouth to feed. Still that will be scant consolation here, they only had each other. I think it had been that way for a long time. And now the dreaded ‘there is only me’. I have gotten used to it, been like that for too long to worry about the sentiment.
I groaned my way out of bed, which was wrong because I understood the urgency. The moaning had been endless and now there is no moaning and maybe someone is listening and maybe someone will come. And whoever comes here will be better fed than the people at the rubbish tip. I have had the spade in the corner for days and a second hand knife I have been sharpening. I went to bed dressed, we all do.
Between the two of us we heft the body downstairs, carrying it between us. Into the slush and mud that was the ground floor. I don’t think the flood is ever receding and we will need to move inland. It is just a fact. Hundreds, thousands, millions, billions have faced this dilemma everyday for what must be half a century now. Maybe, maybe not that long. It is ten years since I abandoned England the first time, no I think -it can’t be that long. It would make her so much older now, so long without her. So much I can’t remember. I am alone. I tell myself that. It does not bear thinking about. No one will carry my body like this. There is no point in sentiment.
When did the water start coming in? Who knows? I don’t think there was a specific date. There probably was for some cities. I vaguely remember a headline about Miami sinking into the sea, but maybe it was Shanghai or Denmark. I don’t think Denmark was a city, it all eludes me now. The facts are irrelevant. It’s all just gone.
We carry the body between us. Sloshing through the mud in the darkness. The road –well the water that is flowing between the houses where the road once was, is only lit by fires from inside open buildings, buildings with no walls, or only a back wall or side walls but not enclosed. They aren’t proper buildings. They open onto the street. Mostly they are built just a foot off the ground, this allows them to stay open when the floods aren’t too bad. It keeps money or its equivalent flowing in whatever the weather. They call themselves ‘cafes’ but they are nothing like the cafes I remember. Some of them have fire all night. These light our way. But it is still dim and dark. We move quickly and quietly.
I take the old woman’s body now. She is bent over with grief. The reality is sinking in. I have the old woman over my shoulder. I look around, wary, aware. I try to make the thing I am carrying look less human, more small. The ‘cafes’, they never close, they are a refuge. They are dotted along the main road. People sleep there, live there, eat there. It isn’t like before. People are looking out, walking past us, seeing what we have and looking the other way. No one cares. There are no rules here. They know we must hurry.
We take the main road even though its where we are most likely to be noticed. Its also where its most likely for someone to intervene if we need them. Even now people baulk at the idea. They don’t like it and sometimes they will come to your aid. Plus if I have to fight myself I’d always rather there were witnesses. I don’t like doing death in dark alley ways, I always feel it is dishonest. Deceitful. It feels like a crime, death out here in defence of a human body would feel justified, reasonable. Even though it is only hunger that will drive our attackers.
We are taking the body to the end of town, there is a rubbish tip there, which is constantly burning. It is not mined the way the plastic mountains are. It simply smoulders and smokes all day. It burns endlessly, who knows when it was set alight. When I say burns, there are no open flames, just constant trails of smoke into the sky and lumps of embers on the ground. Its alight but only in the summer does its flames streak out into the sky. Its on slightly higher ground, or its made the slightly higher ground, who knows which. It smoulders even in the rain, its long peel of smoke drifting into the air on even the worst of days. It burns underground somewhere, away from the weather, there are glowing coals on top, its like a volcano only made of rubbish. Its immense, its hard to get across to anyone the size of the thing. They have slid into towns before, these burning ember trash mountains. I remember hearing about one once. There is the rubbish of a whole civilisation there smouldering away in a pit that was once landfill. It’s delightful aroma covers the town some days, but I think we are all used to it. Smoke inhalation is a better way to die than the belly.
We are going to burn the body. It is better than the alternative. We could sell it. But there is some semblance of humanity left here. My advice is don’t buy from the local butcher, and certainly don’t buy from someone who offers you meat in the street. It might be dog, it might be rat, it might be something else.
It is no secret what we are going to do. We are going to dig her a hole and put her in and hope she is burned to a crisp and inedible by morning. I have a shovel, it is unlikely the people by the tip will have one so I have to dig deep enough so that it is hot enough that they will not be able to retrieve her. I will guard it for the night. It is the least I can do. She will need to go and mine the plastic mountains tomorrow anyway.
I can see the smoke in night sky, its just darker than anywhere else. There are no stars shining through it. The tip has tracks running through it. We walk on through it and stop randomly. There were footsteps behind us. I could hear them but I didn’t turn to look. There seemed to be only one set or two at the most. She sits. I put the corpse of the old lady on her lap. She is crying softly. I guess this was her mother, maybe her aunt. I’ve no idea, I never asked. Can’t even remember how we came to be friends. Details don’t matter, survival does.
I dig, not as quietly as I’d like but I dig. In the greyness beyond I can see one or two people, sitting, watching. That is why I will stand guard. I dig slowly at first to give her more time. Then I realise that soon that there will be too many people off in the greyness and there will be no chance of defending her. I look at the hole, just off the side of the track. I can see glowing embers at the bottom. Not enough oxygen for flames. I take the body myself and push her away as she grabs out at it. I shove it in to the hole I have dug and start to pile ash and dirt on top. I do it quickly. Its at this point that we are most vulnerable. I am watching them out of the corner of my eye. At least I am watching the darkness, shapes in the darkness and the shapes in the darkness are not moving. Its hard work in hot conditions.
I pile in embers. I would like to see flames but I know that won’t happen. I hope she is watching my back a bit. But I can hear her sobbing, a sign of weakness I’d rather not have. I keep working. I can see them edge closer. Movement. I stop. Look around me. They are still far enough away. She does not look up, crying into her sleeve. If I shout they will take that as a sign of vulnerability. I pile more embers in on top of her. She will cook slowly and then eventually be burned to all hell. Just a charred skeleton. The odd thing is if you have ever seen a plastic belly victim burned, the plastic just melts into a gooey pile and sticks to the skeleton. You can always tell a belly victim that way. The skeleton usually the spine, the plastic is melded on to it. Sometimes you can even still see a glint of colour. It is not pleasant.
I have covered her now, well and good. I stand beside it. Put my shovel into the ground, stand there, looking formidable. These people are hungry, well you’d have to be wouldn’t you. I don’t begrudge them food, just not this food.
She waits with me. As the dawn nears, I send her home. I know she won’t be there when I return, she will have gone to work. There is no time for mourning here.
I wait and watch the sunrise. I am hungry too. I am thirsty. I would love a coffee. The sun is getting hotter, water and coffee. I stand guard. One of them approaches. Dirty, ragged. Probably that is how I look to. She holds out a cup. I can smell coffee, not real coffee. Coffee cut with dirt or sand or embers. I think I can see an ember glowing in the bottom of it. Ember coffee. Tastes like-well, charcoal. I know what this means. The woman under the ground, her daughter, these people, they took me in. This woman in the ground, roasting, she is my friend. I made a promise. I did not mean for her to be cooked, but to be charred so she had no nutrition left to be taken. Dignity.
I look at the woman offering me coffee. How long since she ate? She isn’t that old, maybe she has children. She reaches out with the coffee. I tell myself I have lines I will not cross. It’s just that I constantly surprise myself as to exactly what they are. They are never where I think they are. She is dead. No one will know but me. My hand, it moves up. Reaches out. I feel the warmth of the cup. I take the coffee. I stand and drink it, wondering just how much plastic I am ingesting in this one cup. The woman who gave it to me has the belly too. I can see it. I know to them every second counts but for me, another piece is broken. Another taboo overlooked so humanity can survive.
I don’t finish the coffee. I throw it out onto the ground. I can see the look she gives me, aghast at the waste. I am careful to make sure the dead ember stays in the bottom, even as I throw away the rest of its contents. Maybe she can use it again. Maybe its a sentimental ember. I don’t care anymore. I drop the cup. I don’t care enough about anything to hand it back. I grab the spade and walk away.
There was almost nothing left of her anyway. They will be gnawing at bones. I hear the scuffle behind me. Someone is digging. Someone is hungry. She will be cooked nicely I think. I wander home, I wade through water. I wished the world were different. I wished I was different. I wished I could make different choices. None of us is better than another. Tomorrow I will let her have a day off and work the mountain myself. The day after maybe I will think about the Med, about crossing it, about going over the sea, about different choices.