Everyone stands, and Julie nudges me to do the same. We start filing out, past the Lorders. I almost can’t breathe, but somehow put one foot in front of the other, carefully keeping my eyes straight ahead. All the while expecting a cold hand to reach out and clamp my shoulder.
They stop a few students at the exit, and take them to one side. The students go pale and everyone avoids their eyes. Maybe, they weren’t fulfilling their potential.
Maybe Tori wasn’t, either.
* * *
He spreads white stuff – cement? – with a metal thing like a pie spatula across the top row, then, one at a time, plonks bricks on top. Wipes cement that oozes out between the bricks, smoothes it around between them. Then starts on another row.
I stare. He glances up a few times, keeps working, placing the bricks one after another.
I know I’m staring, and that you shouldn’t stare at people: they generally don’t like it. But I can’t help myself.
Brick after brick. It is five rows off the ground now.
If I stand here much longer, there will be trouble. Mum is probably timing how long it should take me to mail the letter still clutched in my hand at the post box on the corner of the next street. The first time I’ve been allowed to go anywhere on my own. It will also be the last time if I don’t get on with it, most likely.
He looks up again, sits back on his haunches. About thirty years old, in blue overalls covered in streaks of paint, cement, grime. Greasy hair. He spits on the ground.
‘Well?’ he says.
‘You want something, darling?’ He grins as his eyes focus on my wrist, my Levo, then slide back up to my face.
‘Sorry,’ I say, and dash across the street and around the corner, hearing him laugh behind me.
I post the letter and cross back again. There is a white van parked where he works, with Best Builders painted across it. He is still placing bricks one after another, building a garden wall.
He whistles when he sees me and I keep walking, cheeks burning, home.
‘What took you so long?’ Mum says, perched on the front step. Watching, she’d waved as soon as I turned the corner to our street.
‘Nothing; just walking.’
‘Is everything all right?’
‘Yes, fine.’ I head for the stairs.
‘Where are you going?’
I turn. ‘To do some homework,’ I lie.
‘Well, all right. Diligent little student, aren’t you? Dinner will be in an hour.’
In my room I shut the door and grab my sketch pad, hands shaking. My Levo starts to drop: 4.4…. 4.2…
And I start drawing a wall. Brick after brick from the ground up. My pencil moves fast and then faster; my Levo stops falling, then creeps back up to 5. I must finish the wall, and I must draw it with my right hand for it to be correct. After everything today: Tori returned, Lorders in Assembly, Lorders in my dream. Somehow I know that as long as I build the wall, everything will be fine.
Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
‘Not the most interesting subject.’
I jump. Amy: somehow she must have opened the door, crossed the room and looked over my shoulder, all without me hearing a sound.
I snap my sketch pad shut, and shrug. Calmer, now that the drawing is finished: the bricks cover every space on the page. Somehow, this is very important.
I almost forget about the wall during dinner. The surprise announcement from Mum that she and Dad have decided, Slated or not, Amy is old enough to see Jazz if she wants. Washing up, which I am starting to hate now the novelty has worn off. Homework – real homework, this time.
But before I go to sleep I pull out the drawing, checking there are no gaps in the wall, no imperfections that can be got through. By what, I do not know. I shade in around the edges and finally put it down, close my eyes. Seeking blankness, nothingness, sleep.
But all I see are bricks being slapped in place, one after another.
Pain fills my legs, my chest. There is no going on, not for me. I collapse on the sand.
It doesn’t matter how he shouts or threatens or pleads, nothing he can do to me will matter soon.
It’s getting closer.
He kneels and holds me and looks in my eyes. ‘Never forget who you are. It’s time. Quick, now! Put up the wall.’
So I build it, brick by brick; row by row. A high tower all around.
‘Never forget who you are,’ he shouts, and shakes me, hard, as I put the last brick – clink – into place. It cuts out all light.
All there is now, is blackness, and sound.
Horrible screams split my skull. Terror and pain, like an animal backed in a corner. Facing death.
Or something worse.
It is a while before I realise.
It is me.
Then, it is as if I step through a kaleidoscope; everything shifts and changes. Grasses tickle my bare feet. Children’s voices sound through trees, but I lay down, hidden in the long grass, and watch clouds drift across the sky. I don’t want to play today.
Gradually the clouds and the grass drift away. I open my eyes, dreaming over for tonight. I won’t shut them again.
It worked, once again – going to my Happy Place in the middle of a nightmare.
But this time, I hadn’t wanted to leave it, no matter how horrible. I was sure I was about to find out something, something important. As if seeing bricks cemented into place today, one after another to form a wall, somehow triggered something deep inside. Some recognition, a trail that if followed may help me finally understand who or what I am, what is wrong with me.
What was chasing? Who was the man? Never forget who you are, he said.
But I have.
Most of all: why – and how – was I building a wall?
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
* * *
It feels strange to be heading back to the hospital, the first time since I left. That day I was so scared to leave its walls and venture into the wider world: it feels eons ago, a whole other lifetime, yet is more like days.
But we might not make it in time for my 11 am appointment with Dr Lysander. In fact, we might not make it at all. Amy has the map out looking for alternatives, and Mum is cursing under her breath and flicking between radio stations for traffic reports.
‘Twenty minutes it has taken us to go the last mile. We might as well turn around,’ Mum says.
‘What if we get off at the next exit?’ Amy suggests. She’d been so keen to come today, she’d somehow convinced Mum that if she did she might be able to meet Dr Lysander. She didn’t want to lose her chance now.
Mum turns off the radio. ‘No reports.’ She frowns. ‘I don’t like this. Something is going on. Amy, find my phone, and call Dad.’
Amy finds it in Mum’s bag, and pushes buttons on it as I watch, surprised. Mobile telephones are forbidden to anyone under the age of twenty-one. Maybe it is all right because Mum is next to her and told her to do it?
‘There’s no answer. Should I leave a message?’
‘Yes. Tell him where we’re stuck, and ask him to call.’
We crawl along, up a gradual incline. A few helicopters fly overhead. We get close to the top of the hill, then stop. Sirens sound, and black vans dash past on the hard shoulder.
The phone rings; Mum answers.
‘I see… All right…. Fine. Bye.’
She hangs up. ‘There are some road checks up ahead. Nothing to worry us I should think.’
The traffic starts moving again, slowly. We reach the top of the hill. On the other side of the M25 the traffic is stationary. We inch along, and stop again. There is a swarm of men dressed in black like hospital guards, stopping and searching cars on both sides. We get waved on.
‘Who are they?’
‘Lorders,’ Amy says.
I snap around to look again: they are not in grey suits, but black trousers and long black shirts, with some sort of vest on top. They are dressed just like the hospital guards: does this mean they are Lorders, too?
I feel ill, and finally ask the question I have been avoiding.
‘What are Lorders?’
Mum turns, eyebrows raised. ‘You know, Law and Order Agents: they track gangs and terrorists. They’re looking for someone.’
They must really want to find them to be stopping and searching every car on a motorway.
‘But are they the same as the ones in grey suits at the show, and at school?’ I ask.
‘Yes, they were at the show; I can’t imagine why. They usually wear grey suits, but dress in black when they are in operations: counter-terrorism mostly, these days. Used to be gangs. But are there Lorders at school?’ Mum says, frowning a little. ‘Amy, is that so?’
Amy nods. ‘Sometimes they come to Assemblies. They’re not always there; just now and then. More so lately.’
There are fields sloping up to our left, trees above. I catch a movement: a slight flash, as if the sun caught something glass or metal.
‘There’s someone up there,’ I say.
‘Where?’ Mum asks.
‘In those woods,’ I say, and point. ‘I saw a flash.’
‘Are you sure?’
She takes out her phone again, but then a helicopter appears where I’d pointed, and men run from below up to the trees. She puts it down.
Rat-a-tat-tat sounds loud in the air.
‘What are they doing?’ My eyes open wide. ‘Are they shooting at someone?’
‘Flashing Fodders,’ Amy says, and sniffs. ‘Freedom or die they want? Die it is.’
The traffic soon starts moving again, and Mum calls the hospital to tell them we’ll be late.
We approach New London Hospital the same way we left it, almost two weeks ago; it unwinds in reverse before my eyes. Outlying areas are again bustling with people and traffic; offices and flats teem with activity. Closer to our destination there are more guards on corners, dressed in black: Lorders. The crowds seem to open around them, as if they are surrounded by an invisible bubble that must not be crossed.
Just as the guard towers of the hospital come into view, there is a roadblock: more Lorders. We sit in the queue to get through, between a truck and a bus, and I can’t stop thinking of my dream: a whistle, a flash, an explosion. My eyes hunt side to side but find nothing suspicious. They are searching vehicles; we inch forward. But then just like on the motorway, they wave us through without stopping. This time I notice the Lorders focus on Mum, then touch their left shoulder with their right hand, then hold their palms forward.
‘Why don’t they stop us like everybody else?’ I ask.
‘Sometimes being my father’s daughter comes in handy,’ Mum says, and I remember Wam the Man, who crushed the gangs that terrorised the country nearly thirty years ago. ‘Sometimes, it doesn’t,’ she adds, so quietly I almost don’t hear.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Must you ask so many questions?’ she snaps. Then sighs. ‘Sorry, Kyla. We can talk about this another time, all right?’
‘Why do you play hide and seek in your dreams?’ Dr Lysander leans back, hands crossed in front. Observes and waits.
I’d worked out early on with Dr Lysander that I had to give her something real. I have never told her about the beach, the fear, the running: in various forms, it is a recurring dream I’ve had ever since I first became aware at the hospital. But if I don’t tell her something true, she knows.
It’s not just that she is good at reading facial expressions, involuntary gestures, eye movement, blinking. All the usual things you can learn to observe. But with this Levo on my wrist monitoring emotions, it is plain and logged. All she has to do is scan it, and she can see if I am telling the truth or lying. Though Dr Lysander is confident she can see everything without resorting to such devices. Her confidence is justified.
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