It’s Sue this time. We retrieved the wrapped handset from the tree where we left it, but no message from you. When we saw the burnt-out husk of the caravan we ran towards it, which was probably stupid, but we needed to know if you were here. There was nothing to salvage of our home, and nothing to be seen of you either, and we’re taking that as a good sign. We think you must have got away, possibly with the workset, and abandoned the caravan to whoever did this. So I’ll post here in the hopes you can find some way of seeing it, and replying to us.
Sarah said a little about how it was in Chester, but I want you to know all of it. I would have sent that message myself, but after challenging the guards on missing people I was given a red tag, and told to stay within the residential and work areas for a week. It was Sarah who pulled me aside before I got into real trouble. It was the first day, after three hours of gruelling work shovelling ashes and occasional unburnt remains into sacks to go out to the farms as fertiliser. By the end of work, I was frantic that you hadn’t arrived, describing you to everybody, asking if they’d seen you. Eventually, somebody pointed me to the guard who’d been on the gate all afternoon, and he told me you’d arrived and gone away again. I couldn’t understand it. I thought he must be lying. I asked about the people we came in with – a Pakistani family with two little girls and a boy Sarah’s age. We’d shared stories in the waiting area, before they took us for interviews, one by one, each separately tagged and scanned and given the details for our accommodation, food depot and work duties, even the seven-year-old. We hadn’t seen them since. Sarah wanted to wait for them, but I just wanted to get to the depot, get our loaf of soggy bread and find our flat before our shift started. When the guard told me you’d gone, I started asking about them, too, and Sarah dragged me away and told me to look around. There was nobody inside the walls who wasn’t white. I stopped asking questions, and we decided we’d get out the next day and find you.
We went to the depot immediately after work to get into maximum debt and go away with as much food as we could. We had to queue for an hour. I couldn’t stop myself worrying about the debt, and Sarah got annoyed with me. “It’s all just numbers on a screen, mum. They only bother with it so they don’t have to call the food ‘rations’ or the work ‘slave labour’. It’s not like anybody’s ever going to be able to pay it off, they charge us more in rent and food than they pay us.” And I got annoyed, because I wanted to believe that some sort of remnant of the old world was in place, that there was some continuity, some normality to be found. “It is normality,” she said. “That’s how it’s always been.” When did she start talking like we used to? She’s like your mother, no quarter for liberal platitudes or half-measures. How we must exasperate her.
We went back to our accommodation and made some rucksacks out of wiring and pillow cases, to take the food and the few essentials they left in the flats. Just as I thought we’d calmed down and focused on a plan, Sarah told me she’d found out how to get a message to you, and she needed my wedding ring, and so we argued again. I didn’t want any complications to my carefully timed plan, or to think of her going alone to a corrupt guard in a deserted building where I couldn’t follow, and I eventually pulled rank and told her that it was my wedding ring, and she couldn’t have it. She started shouting, “What’s more important, making real contact with Dad or holding onto a memory of when you used to?” and that hurt. I didn’t really care about the ring, I just wanted to stop her going, and that made her even angrier, angry that I was weak and afraid, that I couldn’t be strong for her and wouldn’t let her be strong for us. She had an idea that you’d be breaking in to find us even as we were breaking out, and that we had to get a message to you, and even as I told her you wouldn’t try something like that I began to worry that you would, and hesitate over whether to leave at all. By the time Sarah persuaded me to give her the ring we were both shouting and shaking and crying. She grabbed it from me and stormed out in a rage, then immediately returned and hugged me fiercely, planted a kiss on the top of my head, and strode out again.
I spent the next hour trying not to watch the window, trying to occupy myself with preparing and packing. The flats had been cleared, but not too thoroughly. Our plan was to escape down the river on a camping mattress we’d found at the bottom of the wardrobe when we arrived. I checked it for punctures, though I had nothing to fix them with. I’d found some maps in a kitchen drawer, too, and planned out our route and how we’d get back to the caravan. And then I watched the window until it was dark, and when I saw her walking steadily back towards the flats I knew that she was fine, that our daughter’s damn near invincible, and I felt so proud and relieved – and sad. I put my head down on the table and realised I had no energy left to escape that night. Then I realised I couldn’t tell Sarah that, and I’d just have to find the energy, borrow it at crippling interest from the next day’s reserves, like everything else there.
The canal’s not far from the residential blocks, but it was a tense walk. There isn’t exactly a curfew, but being seen out and about at night with bags and an inflatable mattress would certainly have raised questions. We found an unguarded stretch and huddled together in a warehouse doorway, while we took turns inflating the mattress. It was only then that I began to really think about what we were risking, what would happen if we were caught. In theory we weren’t prisoners there, but running from a debt was a serious crime. There were all kinds of speculations about what happened to “debt fugitives”, but most imagined they were summarily shot. There’s no reason to bring somebody back who might be trouble, or to let somebody go who may know how to get back in unseen. I thought about that as we set our makeshift raft floating on the canal and tried to crawl on board without overturning it, and I wondered if Sarah had thought it, too. Of course she had. She never used to kiss me before walking out after a row.
We lay flat and paddled the raft with our hands over to the other side. We knew that the canal passed a few checkpoints where we might be spotted, while the river was wider and ran further from the residential areas and away from main roads. After crossing, we carried the mattress through deserted streets to the river, drenched and ridiculous, me jumping at shadows and Sarah suffering from inappropriate giggling fits, until we reached a quiet spot to throw ourselves into the hands of the Dee. There was a level change which, small as it was, sent us spinning down a fall towards the handbridge and almost overturned us. Then it was my turn to be angry at Sarah; I hissed at her to get a bloody grip, as I struggled to right us and save the food while she squealed like a child on a rapids ride.
“Have you been drinking?” I asked her, as if there were the slightest possibility, as if she’d just come home late from college, and she shook her head, then buried it in the mattress, crying with laughter.
She took gasping breaths as we got the mattress stable in the current. When she could speak again, all she said was, “I can’t help it. It’s just too funny.” And I realised that it really was. We clung together and gave in to helpless laughter as the river carried us gently away.
Once we were well into overgrown, unharvested farmland, we put everything in the centre of the mattress and swam it through the chilly water to the bank. By this time most of our clothes were wet anyway. We wrung them out but didn’t have any spares, so put them back on, damp, let down the raft and began the long squelch North by the pole star that we knew would eventually lead us to the M6, or at least a road with signs to it, and from there, we hoped, to you. Instead, this morning we found the burnt shell of our home, and you gone.
But we have this handset, and we have each other, so all we can do is keep moving. Sarah thinks you might have gone back to the museum – it’s the only place we can think of where you’d imagine we might look for you. But first, we have to find some kind of shelter and sleep.