Maria looked out over the bleak city landscape, noting again the jagged ruins of the nearby city area of London, which even ten years before would have been crowded with suited bankers and accountants rushing purposely back and forward between gleaming, glass fronted skyscrapers. A hundred yards away was the jumble of bricks that was until recently Mansion House and Bank Station. All obliterated in a moment by the riots two years before. A feeling of regret briefly descended before she returned to her online conversation with the Health Department official speaking to her from the other side of London.
“How many Prosilion and Resac have arrived?” She asked in her most assured business like tone.
The middle-aged man paused before her paused. It was a good video connection, surprising in the present day of confusion and disorder. He picked up several pieces of paper, scrutinising each one.
“Well, a tanker. Filled to the brim? Will that do. It arrived last night from USA. ”
“Not for long.” A worried look passed over her face. “I dread to think what will happen when it runs out.”
“It’s extremely costly. The pharmaceutical companies have put their prices up yet again.” He sounded both unhappy and uninterested at the same time. She admired the younger man’s attitude to life’s many discouraging problems.
“Well. Have you considered authorising our own production system? Cut out both producer and supplier? “ She had suggested this to him many times.
He grinned at her. “Once again, my dear, how? What industry we have left is busy producing other things. Cheap clothes and shoes for sale elsewhere. No, my dear, let us first consider the country’s health. As a doctor you surely must agree with that?” Suddenly, he pulled a transparent tube from his jacket pocket and taking out a pill popped it into his mouth. “Just in case!” He said smiling.
“When will we have the load?” She asked.
“Oh, within the week. I’ll get people working on it straight away and have everything transported to the London depots. How are supplies in your sector?” He replied.
“Running low. Clinics in all outlying areas complain that stocks are running out.” She frowned.
“Will do what we can, Maria. Hold the fort if you can.” He looked at his watch. “Time to go my dear. Give my regards to your brother.”
She nodded and switched off the connection.
She made herself a tea and sat down to relax, killing time until her last patient arrived. Nowadays, she had six or seven each day. It was too much even though she knew she was doing it for the good of the country, to make people well enough to play a productive role again instead of moping on outlying estates. Unfortunately psychotherapy took time and was only really suitable for those with above average intelligence. Her patients therefore were skilled members of the workforce, those who had been managers and innovators.
Mental health problems amongst the general population had soared since the unremitting economic depression that had beset all advanced countries twenty years before. As a scientist of sorts, Maria wondered if such problems were the root cause of the failure of advanced economies. Irrespective of the reasons, Britain had descended into chaos. Central government returned only tenuous control over large parts of the country and many areas of London had become no-go areas for police and army. Gangs of feral youths roamed areas as divergent as Chelsea and Enfield, few large companies functioned south of the river, electricity and gas supplies throughout the city operated only occasionally. The rich had consequently withdrawn into enclaves throughout London into which they diverted what remained of the country’s wealth. There they continued to live in luxury. The largest of these engulfed the West End, from Marble Arch to the Strand, another covered Whitehall, the home of the government, while another included all of Hampstead. Around each, to protect the rich from the rest of the population, had been built enormous walls patrolled by black-uniformed guards..
Government control existed at times through the medical services, the remnant of the long-collapsed NHS, which still ran clinics and hospitals from dilapidated buildings full of rubbish and dying patients. As a consequence of the chaos, GPs were busy diagnosing mental health problems in everyone who attended their surgery and did not display clear physical symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was widely referred to as GPs labelled everyone who entered their surgeries. Subsequently, they proscribed psychotropic drugs with the elan of street vendors handing out leaflets. Maria had contributed to the psychiatrist’s bible several years before by noting and categorising teenagers inability to get up in the morning and a suitable drug had been developed to tackle the problem.. As a doctor and through her brother’s influence she was given the job of organising the distribution of drugs and with others bringing skilled individuals back to health.
Her last patient was due at six. Outside already the light was going. Thick tremulous clouds hung in the sky and it began to rain. Many of her patients, there were after all a large number, she scarcely remembered. Bannion was certainly one her more nondescript clients and she tended to be momentarily surprised by his appearance in her home each time he arrived. Looking at her appointment book she tried to place him once more and failing simply ran through his many symptoms, which were similar to many others. The only clear difference was that he had work but continued to show signs of discontent. By now, according to her diagnosis, he should be an integrated citizen happy to support the government.
As she stood there she noticed Bannion’s round slowly moving form, and to her surprise recognised him for once. From thirty feet up, she observed him approach security, necessary for all who moved in and out of the enclaves, offering his identity card to the largest of the black uniformed officers. Once his identity was safely checked he was allowed into the courtyard. She switched on her CCTV and watched as he entered the building.. She knew it would take him some time to reach her as there were a number of businesses in the building and he would be required to pass through several security checks. In the meantime she read through his notes once more.
Once he reached her door he pressed the bell and, checking he was alone, she let him in. In a moment he stood before her, his plump face a blank sheet.
“Come in Mr Bannion.” She said, waving him inside.
He dawdled in, saying nothing, just nodding slowly. Without prompting, he went over to the couch and sat down. She sat down opposite him and they sat in silence for ten minutes, as usually happened with reticent patients. In the meantime, to keep her interest she studied the little man noting his pallid complexion and thinning hair. There was a certain smell with these people, very different from the group she belonged to and who now once more ruled the country. As the session continued she manoeuvred Bannion into revealing his feelings about society and he responded with bleak indifference. As he spoke, she made notes. Towards the end, she asked, as prescribed by the government:
“Do you intend to go back to your old profession, take more responsibility? Become a full member of society again?” She leant forward. “Perhaps think of running an enclave?”
“You mean, make more money again? Go back to working computers? What did it gain me?” His thin voice became a whine. Bannion was unable to resume his old occupation, as it seemed to him a part of the past. It no longer had relevance in his life.
Complaining constantly and vociferously Maria knew was a sign of obsessive disorder. She made a quick note to that effect.
Bannion hadn’t eaten that day, or much the day before. What food he had, he’d given to his wife and children. Commonsense told him that he should resume his work in computers but he no longer felt part of the old middle-class that had expired as the economy fractured and broke apart. His wife did not truly understand as she longed to return to the comforts of her now ruined home in the suburbs. She could not understand his stubbornness, with food unfeasibly expensive and petrol difficult to acquire.
Before the economic depression, the family had lived in a quiet suburb in North London close to a shopping centre and a park. Bannion and his wife were earning above average salaries and they expected to materially progress in life just as their parents had done. By his present age, he had expected to have two cars and be living in a fine three bedroomed semi with the luxury of financial security. After fifteen years of struggle, he resented the ruling elite their retreat into wealthy enclaves. They had cut themselves off from the relentless poverty that gripped the rest of the country and he felt could no longer automatically expect the support of other citizens.
With a few minutes left, she made note again of his permanent frown and pinched expression.
“I must ask you again, will you take some tranquillisers?” Her pen continued its unholy scratching.
Bannion shook his head.
“You will feel so much better and will get back into your career.”
Once again, he shook his head.
“Then we will meet again in a week. Think about this more, because only if you agree to treatment can we help you.” She closed her book firmly and stood up. “Very well, next week.”
Bannion stood up and scurried unhappily away. She grimly watched him leave. Once he was again outside she switched on the CCTV and followed him down the winding stairs into the outside where he slowly walked to where security were sitting, rifles by their side. His pass was again checked and he left the enclave walking across the wasteland to the nearby road. She continued to watch him as he padded up the main road, getting into his dust covered, rusting old car. She studied a gang of men observing him too on the other side of the road. The rain fell on their neat overcoats. They got into cars and sped away.
After he had gone she began preparing her evening meal. After eating she planned an early night as it had been a long, difficult day and she was tired. She believed strongly in healthy ingredients cooked and prepared a light meal of boiled potatoes and fresh lettuce, both grown within the enclave. Over the top, she scattered cheese and poured lemon juice. Once she’d eaten, she filled the bath with perfumed water and set out an array of perfumed candles. In the weak light she undressed and slipped into the water. Once she felt sufficiently relaxed she slipped out of the bath again and for five minutes stood in front of the bathroom mirror admiring her body. At fifty she was still firm, her breasts, with the help of surgery, jutting upward, her stomach flat and her face only moderately lined.
“Thank God”, she thought, “I’ve never had children.”
She had never harboured motherly instincts and when they married, her now dead husband and she had decided not to have children but instead to enjoy their lives to the full. She had never regretted that decision.
Without dressing, she walked out into her living room. There, seated on her favourite armchair reading a magazine, dressed in his grey-green security officer uniform was Karel, her lover. After her initial shock, she smiled broadly.
She had known Karel for a year since his arrival in Britain after the government had made a request to the Belarus government to provide a cohort of officers to deal with local terrorist groups that had grown larger and more effective. Karel had been dealing with terrorists in Eastern Europe since a raw teenager in the small Belarus army and had developed a strategy of snuffing them out one by one. His expertise was admired in Russia and the USA, both of which had to deal with widespread internal insurrection. As Maria stood naked before him, he too grinned broadly and putting out an arm drew her towards him.
After they’d made love, they lay together on the couch in each other’s arms.
“Have you had a hard day, my dear?” He enquired in his deeply accented English, cupping a breast with disinterested attitude of a man comfortable with women.
“I always seem to these days.” She replied, sipping wine. She turned slightly, pulling his hair. “As lovely as it is to see you, I wish you’d knock occasionally.” She teased.
“I have a key to every building in London. I do not need to, my love.” Once again, he affectionately kissed her forehead. “I too have been working hard. But in different ways.”
“Chasing thugs and fanatics!” Her voice was strained. These were difficult times.
“Where?” She asked.
“Ah, around. “ He waved his hand around in the air to indicate how active he had been. “I rush around, dealing with trouble.”
She smiled and nodded. “It is necessary. Did you kill many today?”
Knowing that she enjoyed hearing his stories of murder and torture, he said: “Yes, several. It is my job.”
She sighed with satisfaction. “As I have mine. Both of us, in our ways, make this city stable again, as it was when I was young.”
She rolled off the couch walking over to the bookshelf, against which he had placed his gun. She picked it up and began caressing its long, shiny barrel.
“Is this what you used?” Grabbing the slender barrel, she closed her eyes. She placed the barrel against her lips and kissed it slowly.
Watching her, he got up and put his arms around her. Once more he kissed her. She closed her eyes and laid her head against his chest.
Although he liked Maria, he had a job to do. The British Secret Service, a complex system of interdependent groups, directed possible terrorists to Maria, without her knowledge, to treat possible or known trouble makers. Once a week, when they attended her surgery, their whereabouts were known and they were followed by his men to see who they were connected to. In this fashion the Secret Service were building up a dossier on fifty men and women. His relationship with Maria, as delightful as it was, was business.
In his heart, which in the metaphorical sense did not amount to much, he was loyal to his wife in Belarus. Of course, he often had affairs as he travelled from one city to another, protecting elite groups, but always afterwards he headed back to his wife and children. It was only in their beautiful house deep in the country, away from the disintegrating cities, that he felt comfortable and secure.
After wine and a few pills to improve their performances, they set off to the bedroom.
Bannion had realised he was being followed so instead of joining Hamid to discuss future plans he headed to a bar and then home. It was another two days before he and Hamid eventually met up. While Bannion was considered a harmless discontent, Hamid was a known activist so meetings between the two men had to be carefully arranged. Hamid was the group’s passionate, brilliant and charismatic leader admired by those who met him, but Bannion served as the group’s organiser studying a target, noting opposition and terrain and from such matters designed a plan that the group would agree to or reject.
The central group consisted of ten men, the majority from housing estates in East London. Although the estates were semi-autonomous, run by ex-councillors, they were subject to occasional raids from police and soldiers whenever the government attempted to reassert its authority. At times, dissidents were hauled away.
For the government, drugs were a much better solution. As anyone demonstrating unhappiness or rebellion was diagnosed as mentally ill, Hamid and many of those living on his block had received them and consequently lost many of those feelings that initiate motivation and anger. Life passed them by. Hamid had studied at university, done well and acquired work in the city. With the economic collapse he had lost everything. His wife had divorced him, taking their children back to her family in Pakistan. He had consequently fallen, like numerous others, into despair. Slowly, scores emerged out of their sluggishness, resisted the drugs and avoided the clinics altogether.
That evening the group sat together studying maps of each central enclave.
Maria arrived at the London family home early on Saturday evening. She adored the house now surrounded by huge walls with security guards at every hundred yards. Now it belonged to her older brother, Gregory, the Minister for Home Security. Although the furnishings were similar to before the disaster, externally it resembled a fortress. Situated at the corner of a small enclave it boasted an army both inside and directly outside its walls. She had been driven over by Karel who unfortunately had been unable to stay. Gregory, for all his much expressed pride in the soldiers who fought and died for the government, found most military men vulgar and made little attempt to socialise with Karel. His admiration was usually expressed from afar.
Having eaten a huge meal of beef with masses of vegetables and consumed at the same time a bottle of rich, vibrant red wine, the siblings sat down opposite each other to talk. It was something they both enjoyed. While relaxing in the dry warmth of her brother’s erudition, Maria also enjoyed studying the many objects in the living room, all endearing reminders of her childhood. She sat resting her head on the back of her armchair, swallowing the wine.
“My dear,” her brother began, “how is your lover, the soldier, what is his name?” He affected memory loss.
“Gregory, don’t be a jerk. I’ve told you, darling, a thousand times.” She replied sharply.
“Tell me again.” His eyes were full of amusement.
She deeply sighed. “Karel.”
“A strange name. Surely it’s a girl’s name.” Gregory replied.
“Stop being a prick, darling.” She swallowed another drop. “He’s absolutely perfect in every way.”
No matter the annoying sarcasm he habitually directed towards her on the subject, he was happy for Maria. She deserved some attention, he thought, after being alone for two years since her husband’s death. She was the sort of woman who was better, indeed happier, in a relationship. At fifty, she had many years of love before her. Even though he was both her brother and famously gay, he considered her a very attractive woman.
“A fine looking, military man indeed.” Gregory noted. “He has the eyes of a murderer.”
She looked sharply at her brother. “He has beautiful eyes. The eyes of a poet.”
“Look again, my dear.” Gregory took out a pill and popped it into his mouth. “I have a young man coming tonight my dear. Hopefully we won’t keep you awake.” He enjoyed taunting his sister, a talent he had honed since she was a very young girl. “I will anyway use the far bedroom.”
Since he had become old, he had given up the arduous task of courting and seducing. Why bother, he thought, when money will suffice. In this time of impoverishment, there were many beautiful youths willing to share his bed. He was no longer on the lookout for love, merely a night of pleasure maybe once a month.
Maria’s eyes fell on the portraits on the far wall and the Braque beside them. How wonderful the past was, she thought, as she finished her drink. With the onset of evening, they spoke about their parents, both long dead, and from there recent novels, none of which they liked. It was at nine o’clock that the attack came.
The huge CCTV screen on the far wall sprang into life and the narrow, lined face of the Head of Security appeared.
“We wish to make all residents aware that the enclave is being attacked.” His accented voice gravely intoned. “If you wish to watch events, images will be made available.”
Gregory’s eyes brightened.
“This sounds like fun!” He exclaimed clapping wildly.
Maria nodded in agreement. Gregory went into the kitchen for some biscuits and returning with several packets they settled down to watch.
At first all they could see were exchanges of fire, extraordinarily vivid in the increasing darkness, and shadowy figures flitting back and forward. Further along the security wall they saw the bright orange incandescent glow of an explosion, and then another closer to. Gregory clapped his hands again.
“So beautiful!” He exclaimed. “These reminds me of the fireworks displays when we were children.” He popped a biscuit in his mouth, crunching into it.
“Very lovely!” Maria agreed.
The exchanges grew more intense and they observed several of the guards crumbling lifeless to the ground. A dozen shadowy figures, apparently dressed in black, climbed over the walls directing rapid fire into the courtyard. Grenades were thrown, exploding in destructive flashes. A look of concern appeared on Gregory’s face.
“The guards may need back up.” He mused as even more figures scaled the wall. “Where are they coming from?” He quietly questioned. In his experience, insurgents rarely attacked in such numbers.
After even more guards fell the Head of Security appeared again on the screen.
“Please, make yourselves secure. We are handling the situation but ensure that all your doors and windows are locked securely.” Once again, he was expressionless. He bowed his head and his image flickered off to be replaced by events in and outside of the courtyard. More explosions flared in the blackness.
Gregory pulled out his mobile and dialled. It took a while to get a response. He kept the phone to his ear, scrunching up his face as he watched the guards slowly retreat and more and more figures climb the wall into the enclave. Eventually, an urban voice answered.
“Hello, Gregory, dear man. How are you?”
“Adrian, got you at last. I’m well, and you?”
“Well enough. What can I do for you?”
Gregory, his eyes fixed on the worsening scene before him, replied:
“We are under siege here. I’m afraid we may need help.” He popped a pill into his mouth between sentences.
“It’s happening everywhere. They’re much better organised than we thought. We are a bit overstretched already here in Whitehall. The Stratford enclave is similarly overwhelmed. The army has been sent out to all the enclaves and they ‘ll reach you soon, Gregory. Chin up! Keep in there! We’ll have it all sorted out soon.”
“At the moment, Adrian, I’m wondering about the appropriateness of all those defence cuts you started.” There was a trace of irritation in his voice.
“Now, now, Gregory. Don’t put the blame onto me for all this. It was after all the PM’s idea.”
Gregory knew it was all true. The only idea the PM had was how and where to make cuts. He insisted on these against all advice while the country descended into increasing poverty and chaos.
“When can we expect help?” Gregory asked. He was more desperate than he sounded.
“Half an hour. At best.” Adrian replied. “Stick it out. We’ll be there.”
Contact was suddenly broken off.
Maria turned towards her brother: “Shall I phone Kare?” As the casualties increased and the guards continued to fall back towards the buildings, she began to panic.
“Yes, dear. Please do.” He scrunched on another biscuit. “Straight away, I think.”
She phoned Karel several times but on each occasion it went onto voice mail. In the meantime she watched as more rebels flooded into the courtyard and rushed towards each building directing grenades and fire arms towards the walls. She watched as an explosion rocked the bottom stories of their home, and the room shook from the effects. Tiles dropped from the roof shattering onto the concrete balcony below. She tried Karel again and this time he replied.
“What’s happening?” He called out above the din of explosions and rifle shots.
“Karel honey,” she began, trying to sound calm, “we’re under attack. There’s hundreds, thousands rushing into the enclave.”
“Same here, hon. We’re holding them back, but I’ve lost half my men.” His voice began cracking under pressure. “We’ve thrown them back three times, but there still more of them.”
“You cannot help us, Karel?” She shook her head as despair began to overcome her. “Is there anyone who can?”
“I will try.” Karel promised and then his voice faded and all she could hear was the resonating din of tremendous blasts.
She switched off her phone.
Gregory swapped cameras and began following the insurgents as they cautiously moved up the stairs towards the main part of the house where the living quarters were situated. Those guards still defending Maria and Gregory were easily dispatched. Brother and sister held hands as heavy objects slammed against their main door and after several small explosions occurred and the door fell in, saw the insurgents flooding through the house. The siblings stood up to meet their fate as the attackers poured into the living room. Maria, to her surprise, recognised the squat form of their leader.
“Mr Bannion!” She called out in disapproval as several automatic weapons tore her apart.