Morning in Camp Coronation Street. In the calm summer air smoke from the cooking fires curled around weathered shanty wood, patched canvas and as the scavenged fuel took hold sooty residue drifted to thicken the layer of grime that overlay everything.
In the long looted cottage Forrester shared with seventeen other people he carefully squeezed his last teabag before setting it on the old plate to dry out, at one hot meal a day he wouldn’t need it till the evening distribution.
Forrester had spent the previous day tracking and trapping children. On his left hand fresh scratches demonstrated that even a nine year old was not to be taken lightly. Taken, of course, being a term that, as his fellow teacher Maurice had stated, “Does what it says on the tin”. (He’d also said “Clip his ****ing heid off, man,” but those comments never made it into his reports.)
Some parents cooperated, usually those with carefully civil smiles and a vocabulary they seemed to feel they had to demonstrate when the Literacy police arrived with the rising sun. Others waved crutches or pointed to elderly family members cocooned in salvaged plastic and paper and argued- but not too forcefully, eyeing the batons of the teachers- that they needed little Jimmy or Ahmed or Britney to go for the water, find fuel or… “Pickpocket” shouted out one passing neighbour.
Most parents had no idea where the children were, but everyone knew there were parts of the camp, usually near the perimeter fences, where the next generation squabbled, stole, swore they wouldn’t be like the ****holes who’d created this world they’d inherited, had sex, bootlegged booze or traded for drugs and weapons from the occasional enterprising civilian who made it through the fence.
Those areas were marked on Forrester’s crudely sketched grubby map (Turn over: APPLY FOR AMNESTY NOW, YOUR GOVERNMENT FORGIVES)
‘YOU ARE NOW ENTERING U.N. TERRITORY. LETHAL FORCE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT ARE IN OPERATION.’
Forrester made it past the long queue of shabby people without meeting anyone’s eyes; he knew from experience that all he’d see would be envy, contempt or blank indifference. The guards – aliens from a different planet called Europe – waved him through with the relaxed gesture of grandees acknowledging a supplicant serf, visored battle helms flashing through an electronic spectrum in rainbow colours as they threat assessed the English summer. Perhaps praying to their technological deities as the Roman legionnaires must have done to their Gods when sent to the nearby Wall two millennia ago, looking out across the Northumbrian landscape thinking: Who did I **** off to be sent here?
SEEN SOMETHING SUSPICIOUS? KEEP YOUR GOB SHUT!
THE FOG ON THE TYNE… MAKES IT HARDER TO AIM AT YOU
Gottlieb was looking at aerial shots of the Chinish Wall when Forrester came into his office, Chinese tech and money, Scottish industry, one big stone and steel final **** off to their English neighbours. Before he came to the camp Forrester had shivered in the heather with other desperate hopefuls calculating the odds…
Gottlieb grunted and waved in the general direction of some cardboard boxes on the clean (clean!) wooden table (Three good fires worth there, thought Forrester)
“Sorry, it’s all that came through.”
Forrester looked inside one, a dozen small notepads he would have thoughtlessly used as memo material in the old days, blunted pencils and some basic textbooks – he checked the dates, a decade old – maths and English primers for ten year olds, some wooden rulers, former owners’ names scratched or inked on their surfaces.
“Cleaned?” The polite term used by the Emergency Government censors to indicate they’d taken a look under Prevent VI.
“Ya, they thought there was more than enough Chemistry going on without you teaching the little buggers, and as for the history stuff you put in for…”
History is written by the victors, thought Forrester, but there haven’t been any for years.
“I’ll get one of the guards to drop it off for you”
The Educational Liaison manager reached into the filing cabinet beside him and produced a carton of Polish cigarettes and a bottle of French whiskey, “An apple for the teacher” he said dryly.
RED CROSS TREATMENT CENTRE: ALL WEAPONS MUST BE LEFT OUTSIDE
Santa Claus did not live up to his name. He had the beard, but the thick black belt holstered a well-cared for handgun and the contents of his sacks were generally for the naughty, not nice.
“Look marra, some oranges and some milk, yes, Red Cross issue so you know they haven’t been sprayed,” (another Government initiative to deny food to the Enemy). “But that’s your lot, I steal from charities, I don’t run one”
The cigarettes and the bottle vanished into a sack, a small bag magically appeared to be thrust into the knapsack Forrester carried.
“Capitalism is alive and well and flourishing,” said Santa Claus, his smile one of contentment.
Outside he stood indecisively, a woman approached.
She wouldn’t meet his eyes, held out a cloth bundle with a caution bred by bitter experience. He took it, taking her silence as acquiescence he looked at the contents and felt his heart hammer at his ribs, Shakespeare! Orwell! Half a dozen volumes of Classics, unable to speak he reached out to her and she flinched and spun away, “Me mam used to read them to me, teachers read ‘em to her in the old days, she loved hearing them words”.
LIBERATION FRONT AREA: TRAITORS CAN’T HIDE
He knew he’d been followed since he left the cottage and it was almost with relief he saw Mr. Smith step into his path, almost.
“Forrester! How lucky to meet you on this fine morning, I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you.”
Barbed wire thin, nondescript, small. Forrester’s scalp itched in anticipation of his brain being abruptly blown out of his skull.
“The answer’s still no, Mr. Smith.” Nothing to add. He was talking to a man seriously unused to debating a difference of opinion.
“But we want the same thing, don’t we? The bairns need a future, a goal, a chance to put an education to good use.”
Unspoken but unavoidable the words between them: Shadow School. Where dialogue was conducted in 9 millimetre bursts and school prizes were given out as blocks of Semtex.
Mr. Smith waited, a slight smile worn lightly, as if undecided what face he should wear for this conversation.
It would be so easy to encourage the promising ones, the quick learners, the angry not apathetic, to gently guide them into the welcoming arms (Arms! All calibres studied) of Mr. Smith. All he had to do was open his mouth and say.
Mr. Smith said regretfully, “No retirement watch for you, then,” before stepping aside.
YOU ARE HERE.
He placed the notebooks and pencils on an old packing crate, the oranges and milk beside them. He looked at Maurice who was noisily swinging his baton whilst casually glancing at the mix of sullen apprehensive children crowded in one corner of the lean to they were in.
“Sit.” He pointed to the improvised benches. Slowly they came forward and sat, or squatted, or scratched (Delouser, he thought, make a note)
“Good morning, children, welcome to school…”
© Kenneth Cowell 2018
This was one of six pieces of creative writing shortlisted for UNISON’s 2018 writing competition.