Aftermarth by Mark Binmore
As she trudged upwards and into the top field, she startled a large flock of birds, which rose from the stubble; a quivering veil. They formed a huge arc in the sky and then a black exclamation mark, before wheeling off against the horizon and beyond.
She put down her basket and watched them disappear. How odd to have seen a flock of birds. How long ago was it that she had witnessed Brent geese retreating in a long skein across the landscape, eastward to Russia? She could not remember and it did not matter. There was always something more important to do than reflect on the past.
She continued with her task for that day, gathering nuts and berries from the hedgerows in her home-made pannier. She had become expert at finding the best but it was late July and the season was over and she was reaping a poor harvest.
It was not the birds or wildlife that had taken their share of the juiciest blackberries or the musky sloes, for there were hardly any birds left that had not been put in the pot or vertebrates that had not been hunted down for their pelts or sinews. It was Jack Frost who had claimed the fruits and left her frozen, spoiled pulp, which stained her hands and guaranteed her basket was almost empty. She adjusted the wide strap that was slung across her shoulders. It, too, was home-made and cut into her with its raw edges and metal points. She decided to look for mushrooms instead and smiled to herself. Years ago, she would have been scavenging the ancient infill sites at the foot of their valley, along with all the other able-bodied women, but now age had brought privileges such as her new occupation, foraging amongst the hedgerows. Today there were no mushrooms, either. She straightened her back and looked down at the stale scene of scrub, marsh and lakes paddling the valley. There were no mature trees, just a few acres of coppiced willow, small conifers in regimented rows and birches with curling, blistering bark. Further along, ice-crusted fish-ponds glinted in the weak morning sunlight and people, bundled up against the weather, darted out of wooden huts, which were strung along the dirt track like a dismal string of decaying beads.
In the far distance, she could see the vanes of the sombre wind generators and hear the occasional grunt of an engine as it attempted to kick-start life into the water pump or methane plant. In the centre of it all was the heavily defended Watchtower and Council Hall where they assembled when the alarm bell rang but it had been many, many years since they had had to do that.
She looked up at the sky, it was time to report in. From her pouch she extracted a sliver of mirror just large enough to hold up to the watery sun and signalled the Watchers. She put back the shard, folding it in a wad of fleece. She sat down on a stump of oak, felled years before to build the stockade. She was hungry and cold. It would be time to head back, before the afternoon light would begin to fade and the icy northern blasts came needling along their valley. She pulled her hat on more tightly and tucked in the cut down coat. Her feet were beginning to go numb. She sighed, thinking of the long summers of her childhood, her parents’ garden of tropical palms and days so warm that the air-conditioning unit had been on permanently. Then she thought of the Flood.
‘Calm and Order’ had been the mantra she had intoned. Like all other child survivors, she had been brainwashed into acceptance. The adults who had fought against the changes either left the community, to take their chances on the outside, where wars raged and brigands roamed the desolate, swampy landscape, or they buckled down, sometimes reliving their past lives in a dream world of invented memories.
Despite the rigorous trauma counselling of those early days, it had been difficult to forget; she thought she could still hear the noises of unknown battles. At night, the dark sky would be peppered with light and sound, pulsating in mysterious colours, magical, enthralling and dangerous. Then she heard cracks, like shells blasting and could feel the tremble of heavy artillery reverberating through the floor.
Exhausted, she would wrap her homespun blankets around her and fall asleep, reassured that the war was far, far away; so far away that they had dismantled the lookout towers long ago and stopped the night watches. Few ever found their way into the valley and none ventured out of it. She looked at her pannier again. This was a very poor show for a morning’s work. Perhaps she ought to go up to the crest where the old signalling station used to be. It would be a steep climb but it would be worth it if she could find the loganberries and cloudberries that she had gathered in her youth. Back in the village, at the communal kitchen, she could transform them into pies and preserves for the winter stores.
There was bound to be spoonwort, which she could collect for the apothecary and perhaps a few birds’ eggs. It was just impossible to go back to the community with a half-empty basket. The icy stares and hunched shoulders would be unbearable.
She trekked upwards for the best part of a mile, clinging to the wiry, leafless shrubs as the path gave out, testing the ground in front of her when the scree, loosened by her footfalls, bounced off the rocks below. The parapet of the lookout tower, now a ruin, leered out of the hillside. Here, long ago, she had gathered at dusk with the other youngsters, all refugees from the Flood, many of whom had made that terrible journey with her.
Then they’d built fires and exchanged illicit memories, sang half-remembered pop songs and talked irreverently of the elders, made plans to build a new world and tried to fall in love. A brief moment before the hard work of growing up began, before one or other had to man the lookout for the night. The berries were not as plentiful as she remembered but she gathered them greedily, staining her lips and scratching her hands as she grazed on the fruits; their sweet- sour taste filling her mouth with pleasure.
Guiltily, she thought of the others who were just as hungry as she was. She took out her mirror, flashing a signal to the Watchtower. Soon the sun would be over the mountains and the mirror would be useless. He flashed back three times, a warning signal. She knew the rules, it was time to get back to the settlement. The bending down and gathering fruit, the scrambling for the best berries had disoriented her and she headed off across the peak in the wrong direction, to the other side of the mountain.
She was about to turn back when the sky cleared and her eye was caught by a white light in the far distance. At first she thought they were clouds foaming on the horizon, massing together in every direction as, startled, she looked from left to right and right to left. Or was it a signal, someone in distress, in need of assistance? The cold made her eyes water as she stared, trying to focus on the faraway point, trying to see clearly and make sense of whatever was illuminating her grey world with such stark intensity.
The slow realization that she was staring at a massive ice sheet overwhelmed her, leaving her weak, breathless and trembling. She wanted to run but could not. Her world seemed to melt very, very slowly as she tried to mutter ‘Calm and Order’ but all that came out of her quivering lips was an empty silence as she struggled to mouth the words.
Away on the horizon, beyond the next range of broken-backed hills, the glacier was slowly and inexorably making its way forward, grinding and crunching up the ground beneath it, cracking and fracturing like small arms fire, rumbling and reverberating as it advanced, cruelly and remorselessly. From the right, a colony of arctic terns suddenly swooped across her field of vision. Vaguely, she noted their long, white, forked tails and their bright red legs as they formed and re- formed in shoals; one moment backing, and then darting forward, defying gravity as they careered across the deep azure of a frozen sky. This time she did not think it odd when they formed into a huge black exclamation mark, nor did she care that, in her panic to get back to the valley, she had left behind her basket of berries.
Mark Binmore (born 1971) is an award winning British novelist, author of 'Sad Confetti' 'Beautiful Deconstruction' 'Everything Could Be So Perfect' 'Sunsets Etc.' and many other books. In 2015 Mark was ranked one of Britain's 100 new influential LGBTQ writers.