The light was now receding; evening slyly beckoned. Supper had been served and devoured: a bowl of soup and a portion of bread – leaving the stewards still hungry as they retired to their rooms. Jade flicked the switch of the battery-operated lamp in her room at the rear of the Arena. In the corner by the bed sat Onyx, wiping fall-out from the tin she had removed from her rucksack, now totally void of provisions.
“Thanks for sharing the ravioli with me; it’s nice of you,” said Jade, as Onyx prised open the can with her pilfered tin-opener, dividing its contents into two metal bowls.
“Yesterday I saw Sapphire’s bracelet in Giant’s office,” began the teenager reflectively, spooning the ravioli into her mouth. “There’s a chance she may still be alive – here – in the Arena.” Jade rested her bowl on the table, and with hands on both knees stared at Onyx with her piercing, blue eyes.
“Well, another rehearsal will be held first thing tomorrow,” said Jade, in the hope that Onyx would do nothing rash. “You may see her then – while you’re being trained.”
“But I need to speak to her personally; to say goodbye to her,” insisted Onyx, as she chewed her last morsel of bread.
“You realise that stewards are forbidden from entering the candidates’ quarters, don’t you?” the senior steward admonished, fiddling uneasily with her ponytail as she spoke. “Giant would have no qualms about axing you at once if he or anyone else were to catch you trying to sneak your way across. It’s no more going to save Sapphire’s neck than it will keep you your job,” she added with concern, as she picked up her bowl and finished eating. “And it wouldn’t appear grateful on your part after he had the goodwill to take you on. If you were caught, you’d lose your right to be fed and to a roof over your head – which is why you pushed for the post in the first place, isn’t it? No, Onyx – I’d definitely say that disobeying Giant wouldn’t be worth it, and that it would do nothing but defeat a purpose.”
“If I’ve offended you, I’m sorry,” said the adolescent meekly, afraid she may have sparked some ill will. “It’s just that I felt I may not get the chance to bid Sapphire goodbye during a rehearsal, that’s all. I honestly didn’t mean to make things awkward —“
“I wouldn’t split on you, Onyx,” assured Jade, “but I’ll be working with you closely over the next few weeks – under Giant’s instructions. I’d be incriminated if you were caught trespassing in the candidates’ quarters. Another steward could catch you – or even Giant himself; then we’d both end up on the streets without employment, shelter or food. And what if you don’t come across Sapphire once you enter the candidates’ quarters?” she added, emitting a wry squeak of laughter as she spoke. “She has cancer, so her resistance would be low; she may not have even survived the shock of her arrest and of her sudden change of environment.”
“There’s no proof of that!” protested Onyx, forgetting her junior position; her hopes of finding Sapphire under threat.
Without a reply Jade abandoned her seat; she cleared away the bowls as Onyx, ashamed of her outburst, rose swiftly from her chair, ready to retire to her room for the radioactive night.
“I’ll come for you tomorrow morning before the rehearsal,” said Jade routinely, as her protégé promptly headed for the door. “Sleep tight; make sure to be there when I knock, won’t you?”
In her tiny room in the staff quarters’ section, Onyx lay restlessly awake, dogged by Jade’s warning not to enter the candidates’ quarters. The nightdress provided hung over the chair; her jacket and trainers were all she had removed before retiring to the comfort of her bed.
She listened for sounds to distract her from her thoughts, but all she heard was silence amid shrill, plutonium winds from the outside plain. The winds grew louder as she found herself standing in the half-moon corridor that hovered beyond the safety of her door. Sardonyx’s torch glared in the grip of her hand, reflecting her ghostly two-dimensional shadow, which trailed behind her in doubt, cloning her every move as she stole down the passage.
Her heart began to pound as she crossed the invisible barrier, stepping onto the candidates’ quarters with trembling feet. She looked about her, relieved to discover that this section of the Arena had been left unguarded. All seemed quiet in the candidates’ quarters; no sign of life, save the light from the lamps filtering forth from two of its rooms.
But as the corridor came to its end, the very last room turned out to be something of an exception. Its door was ajar, and directly before it – out on the passage itself – stood a solitary, cushioned chair on which sat a figure whose face she could not see because its back was facing her in silence. Yet somehow this figure seemed familiar, forcing Onyx to creep around the chair to discover its identity. Two tears slid down the adolescent’s cheeks as in the harsh, white light of the torch, the face was finally revealed; a face which had transformed from a pale, malignant yellow to a bleak, anemic blue.
The figure did not stir, its eyes staying fixed on the spot above Onyx’s head; their pupils dilated as if it were under hypnosis. Its palms rested languidly on each knee; but its shoulders were hunched as though it felt tense in some ill-defined way. Onyx felt herself trembling, the tears continuing to ooze from her eyes. She refrained from drawing closer to the mute, sedentary figure, shocked and upset at its failure to greet her.
Then faintly its eyes began to move – ever so gradually southward – before meeting with those of the young, bewildered girl.
“Such strong, radioactive winds there are outside … so loud.” The speech was slurred; the expression still hopelessly delirious; Onyx remained silent and looked on.
“I feel bloated; my abdomen aches; the cancer must be growing. I need pre-war chemotherapy – but the Arena doesn’t care.”
The door of the final room blew violently open, flooding the corridor with harsh, fluorescent light. Onyx switched off her torch and continued to listen.
“They drug you up so you don’t panic. Sometimes they give you pills; sometimes they give you alcohol. I was terrified when I first arrived here; everyone always is — but they sedate you”.
“Oh, Sapphire – I’m so glad you know who I am!” exclaimed Onyx with a sigh of relief.
“Have you been arrested too: is that why you’re here?” Sapphire heedlessly asked.
“I fell out with Sardonyx after turning up late with the ration”, explained Onyx. She turned on me – made things impossible…. so, I ran away from the hideout and managed to get a job as a steward at the Arena. I was desperate to find you – to say goodbye to you; that’s why I’m here.”
“She’s a dangerous woman, Sardonyx,” said Sapphire resignedly. “She resented me because she wanted to be group leader – and I knew she must have been the one who had manoeuvred my arrest.”
“She took in Ruby and Emerald soon after your arrest,” said the teenager hoarsely. “They’d trekked down to London from Loughborough; she said she’d forgiven them over the gang rape.”
“She took Ruby and Emerald in for one reason only,” sighed the ex-leader knowingly, the corners of her lips subtly raised. “They would have been wiser to avoid her; now they’re as good as dead for having believed she had forgiven them; there’s nothing that woman overlooks — absolutely nothing.”
Onyx’s tears flowed copiously and freely; she gulped with unease, unnerved that the mind of the woman she had placed on a pedestal was incoherent and astray.
“There’s a rehearsal tomorrow,” said Onyx, wiping the radioactive tears from her cheeks. “Will you be taking part in it?”
“Where’s the point of it all?” murmured Sapphire in despair, her eyes glued to the opposite wall. “What chance do I stand – wired to the patch board in my terminally ill condition?”
The lump in Onyx’s throat enlarged. The light from the room shone on Sapphire’s cancerous face, highlighting the sick, bluish skin around her numb, emerald eyes. Onyx studied her ex-leader closely; she placed a hand on her wrist, only for Sapphire to swiftly release it, edging it back to settle limply on her knee.
“They took away my bracelet,” said Sapphire. “My husband gave me that bracelet — on our tenth wedding anniversary – not long before he died – which must have been four or five years before the war— before my cancer of the ovary was diagnosed. We never had any children; we would have liked to have had children — but I suppose the war would have got in the way if we had. At least my husband didn’t live to see the war – to see me arrested so that I’d end up here – or to be arrested and eliminated here, himself. When I lost him, my whole world died before the planet did. That bracelet represented my husband,” she wearily went on. “It was the only part of him I happened to have left. I wanted to die with it on; now, I’ll never see it again.”
Onyx remained quiet amidst the shrill plutonium winds. She longed to offer words of consolation, but somehow the words would not come. Then, for a fleeting few seconds, Sapphire’s eyes diverted slowly from the wall to focus on the tearful adolescent, who placed a compassionate hand on that of her own, as she parted her lips to speak on:
“Just after the war – when you needed shelter and I took you into the hideout, it was as if my whole world suddenly came back to life; seeing you for the first time put all the leaves back on the trees and the flowers back in the gardens.”
Onyx tightened her grip on Sapphire’s hand, a hand she refused to let go of; preciously gloved in a night that she wished would never end.
“Those few years I lived under your care in the basement were the happiest years of my life,” broke in Onyx, the words finally pouring from her lips. “I was so glad to be away from the cruelty of my mother and sister. You were the only one who showed me kindness and affection – the only person I was ever truly fond of. I love you because you’ve been like a mother to me— and now I’m terrified of losing you— don’t know how I’ll cope without you.”
Sapphire’s eyes faintly hovered in Onyx’s direction. “I don’t have long, Onyx,” said the older woman sadly. “It’s my dying wish that you live on to become a woman in your own right; that you rise above the aftermath of the holocaust and witness renewed nature and the world spring to life once again: that is my wish above everything else.”
“I know,” the adolescent breathed, too choked to extend her reply.
Sapphire’s eyes slowly hovered round the girl’s ashen face, flickering like dull, dying embers.
“My husband and I always longed for a daughter like you,” the ex-leader went on, “— a cute, little girl with hazel eyes and brown hair. My husband would have adored you – just like I always have—-. And whatever happens, Onyx, I want you to remember that you’ll always be the daughter that we both never had.”
Onyx leaned over the chair, hugging Sapphire with force before bidding her a reluctant farewell. Her heart shattered as she flicked on her torch and stumbled back to her room in the staff quarter section, sobbing beyond her control.
She switched on her lamp as she thought of Sapphire’s wish, sighing with latent relief. So far that wish was fulfilled and so Sapphire would be proud; she had achieved her goal; she had said goodbye to Sapphire; she had kept herself safe; she had reached the candidates’ quarters without being caught, so could keep her steward’s job and the roof over her head. Yes, the night had been a success; no one had seen her trespass on the Arena candidates’ quarters.
I'm Karen Clark from East London. On leaving school, I worked as a shorthand / typist, and then went on to work as an ad taker for Loot Magazine. I've always been single, and have no children, and started writing as a hobby once becoming unemployed.