Authors: James Lovegrove
For James Hale
who first agreed to give this book “a punt”
First published 1990, first published as an ebook 2011
ebook from Solaris, an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX1 0ES, UK
Copyright © James Lovegrove 1990
The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from thenBritish Library.
Designed and typeset by Rebellion Publishing
was five miles long and two miles wide and one mile high.
One night, a Philanthropist had a dream of her and he used the vast sums of money he had earned in this lifetime to make his dream come true. He went with his dream to a Designer and Builder. It took seven years for the three of them to have the
built. They shaped her hull in a low sweeping arc to take into account the curvature of the earth. They hinged her in two places with immense joints so that high waves would not break her back. They gave her two gigantic turbines which left a wake of churned grey foam tailing fifteen miles behind her. She had a displacement of one thousand million tons. She cost the equivalent of the gross national product of a small nation. She would carry nearly a million passengers. People scratched their heads and said it was folly, and said it was madness but wasn’t it wonderful, and said that the Hope was the crowning achievement of the industrial era.
In the end the Philanthropist’s dream bankrupted him and he hanged himself the day before the
was due to be launched. He had seen what he had done and thought it was no good.
They launched her all the same.
There were celebrations and ticker-tape parades and bands and dancers. Thousands of people flocked to the quayside to see the
To look at her now, you would never have thought she had been a dream, not the sort of dream that men work and die for. Rust lined her sides in streaks like orange puke. Several thousand gallons of paint had peeled away to reveal her bare, iron-clad flanks. Smoke belched from her funnels and coated the decks a greasy black. Her turbines shuddered as they turned, and some of the passengers said she did not have much life left in her; she would run out of steam; she would burn out and die; she would never get them to the other side of the unending ocean. Most, of course, were too terrified to contemplate such a thing and laughed at the idea. Nothing to worry about, they said.
Oblivious to them all, the
A BATH OF BLOOD
Mary Shitshoes’s children were crying again. Adam was beating the table with a spoon, his face red and creased with rage. Mark was squatting naked and silent on the top bunk. Sophie was repeating, “Mummymummymummy”, as if it was the only word she knew, a private mantra. Mary spoke to them as soothingly as possible, ruffling Adam’s hair and trying to avoid looking at Mark’s swollen belly, but there was a slight waver in her voice which the children picked up on immediately. The more she soothed, the more they cried and the more they cried, the more she soothed.
Their crying evolved into a single note, which rose and fell, a fraying sound speaking of days that stretched back beyond counting without a proper meal, only scraps, a fortuitous fish or something small scrounged and even then it had to be divided equally three ways (and you were too hungry and too greedy to ask what Mary was eating). The cabin began to buzz, its bulkheads and bunks and empty bottles seeming to catch the sound and shiver. Mary was growing distant, Mary was growing outside herself, until in her mind’s eye there were she and the three children ranged round the cabin, four corners of a distorted square.
As she watched, she saw herself getting up and plucking one of the bottles off the shelf. Holding it by the neck, she shattered the base against the table and thrust the jagged end at Adam’s face before the last shards of glass had reached the floor.
Adam screamed. Mark screamed. Sophie screamed, highest and loudest of all.
A spit of blood.
Curls of Adam’s face scraping back. A blood-streaked howl. Pathetic arms flailing at her.
Mary came to herself with a shudder. It would never come to that, would it? And yet, how much more could she take?
Adam, with a hurt and wounded expression on his face, was asking when would they get something to eat, Mummy, he was starving, they all were starving, it wasn’t just him. His attempts at elder-brother unselfishness were as touching as they were half-hearted. The bags under his eyes made him look much too old.
To avoid the question, Mary examined the backs of her hands and found they were withered and liver-spotted and also much too old. There was no mirror in the cabin. She had not seen her own face for months now, and for that she was glad.
Eventually she said, “There’s nothing. Nothing to eat.” It was no comfort, but how could you explain the way of the
to an eight-year-old, even an eight-year-old who looked more like eighty?
Adam’s rage diminished to a sulk and he sloped off to his bunk below Mark, hunkering down in the shadows and muttering to himself a sort of song, the lyrics of which went, “Food and fish and fish and I want a dish of food, a dish of fish in my place, a plaice in my place…” He was in a daze, staring at nothing.
Sophie was still humming, “Mummymummymummy.”
There was a cupboard where the slop-bucket was kept. In better days they had had a proper bathroom, but now there was only this cupboard, popularly known as the Poo Place, and it was used less often than was healthy.
Through the salted panes of the portholes Mary could see it was raining (wasn’t it always raining?). She took her red plastic raincoat out of the Poo Place. The smell of shit made her wrinkle up her nose. She had not got used to it and she thought she never would. It threatened to invade the cabin so she shut the cupboard door, but it always clung to her raincoat like an Old Man of the Sea she would have to carry for ever on her back. She slipped her feet into her shoes – her shitshoes – and did up the toggles of her raincoat tight. The children had stopped crying on cue, seeing that she was about to go out and find food and they could keep quiet till she came back, oh yes. Church mice. Ideas of food like inflated balloons filled their heads.
, a thing of happiness that was breathed with life.
It had been this way since
left, four bitter years during which Mary’s dignity and standing had decayed. She had been pretty once, and well respected. She and
and the three children, as close a family as you could ever want to see, would go out often to enjoy the social life – dinner and parties where the wine flowed, and the fish was always good and fresh, and sometimes there were fruit and sweetmeats. He was handsome and smiled and had a respectable job on one of the upper decks. They lived in a cosy three-room cabin on H deck. Smiles and gaiety and food…
To think that way was bad, Mary knew, and at times it seemed as if she had made the whole thing up just for something to tell the children. This did not console her. Nor did the fact that the
and all she had to offer had been Mary’s for the asking, and she had lost it. These days, living meant having to scavenge or to accept handouts from neighbours and even from the very women with whom she had once socialised, shared smiles, swapped stories, broken bread and drunk wine as an equal.
She gathered the dozen-odd bottles off the shelf and dropped them carefully into a plastic carrier-bag. They were the trophies of many hours spent combing the rubbish tips. If she was lucky, she could exchange them for money for food.
At the door she said goodbye to the children. Three pairs of dull eyes gazed in her direction without contempt or affection. If she brought something back, they might have the strength to offer her one or the other.
She did love the children.
Rain fluttered into the skin of her cheeks. It drizzled from a distant, dreary slice of grey sky viced between deck upon deck of windows and walls that rose up high on either side. You could not see the sea from here, this being one of the
’s innermost areas and lowest decks. Only the thrumming of the turbines in the steel underneath your feet and the shroud of smoke across the sky informed you, if you did not know already, that you were on a moving ship the size of a small city. Skeletal walkways were attached to each level and led off in multiple parallels in either direction as far as the eye could see. Gangplanks crossed between them at odd intervals. They looked tentative and fragile. It was only a matter of time before one of them or all of them rusted right through and gave way.
Mary hurried on. The bright red of her raincoat said she did not belong here amongst the blacks and greys and stained whites of the background.
On her way, she passed a couple of large bundles of cloth piled against one side of the walkway. Bundles of cloth with yellow eyes. The lonely ones. Stoppers.
It was said that, when they could get it, stoppers drank a type of alcohol distilled from the contents of the
’s fuel tanks. But then, there were lots of stories going around.
I’d rather kill myself that sink that low
, she thought, fearful that it might just come to that.
A few minutes later, she passed a knot of women huddled in the shelter of a doorway, effectively blocking off the walkway. They had been exchanging their juiciest slices of scandal until one by one they spotted Mary coming towards them and one by one they fell silent. She had to step over and around their feet, through a gauntlet of stares. As soon as she had passed, they started whispering. She heard them pretending loudly to sniff the air. She heard sibilants of
She held her head high.
She was going to Bart’s. There were two things you noticed about Bart’s. The first was the queue of people clutching bags full of personal effects, junk mainly, with no value except of the sentimental kind. Ninety per cent of this stuff Bart rejected out of hand. If he took it all, as he was fond of saying, he would need a shop as big as the whole deck. He would guffaw at this. It pleased him to be popular or to be needed, he wasn’t sure which. The second thing you noticed was the shop front – a fair-sized hole torched out of the steel and covered with a sheet of polythene on which had been stuck paper letters reading BART’S MART. Underneath some wag had put “Where Trash is Art”. It was generally suspected that this wag was in fact none other than Bart himself.
Mary took her place in the queue. If anyone was downwind of her, they were being terribly polite about it. Perhaps they had other things on their minds.
Half an hour later, she was inside the shop. After another quarter of an hour, she was at the counter.
“Mary, Mary, and how are the little ones?” said Bart, peering up at her. Broken since birth, Bart had used crutches all his life. He was a hobbled, bent thing, habitually dressed in a long black coat which flapped around him when he did his crippled insect walk. He had a long beard and straggling hair. He was a shrewd man and a generous man, proof that the two qualities are not wholly incompatible.
“Well. Hungry,” she added. Bart did not like picking up gentle hints. He made a habit of failing to, and it meant you were forced to beg and he hated begging.
“Hungry, poor devils. And what about Mary, eh? What’s she eating these days?”
“Not much. But I’m OK. It’s the children, Bart.”
“Yes, well, what have you got for me?”
Behind her someone was getting impatient, shifting from foot to foot and coughing.
“Bottles. Lots of them.” She began to lay them out on the counter individually.
“No, no, don’t do that!” Bart interrupted. “No time, no time. I can tell what you’ve got if you show me the bag, Mary. I have eyes.” He leaned over the counter as far as his crutches might allow and scrutinised the contents of the bag. The person behind Mary ahemmed loudly.
“Yes, yes,” Bart grumbled to himself, “all very useful, I’m sure, but there’s not much call for bottles at the moment. What can I do with them? I can’t take them upstairs until I have at least five hundred and I’m nowhere near that yet. Not worth my while.”
“Please, it’s all I can find. Surely you need them. You won’t get five hundred if you don’t take every one you get.”
“I’ll be honest with you, my dear. There’s no call for them any more. People aren’t interested in reusing things, see?”