He took the bus because the cacophony was minutely less than on the underground, where the tinny tannoy kept up its assault with nonsense messages meant only to confuse. Not that you could make out what was being said. Anyone who tried was daft. You could read the boards though the times listed were often suspect and changed without warning.
But you couldn’t escape the din.
On the bus there were fewer screens and half the time the speakers were stuttering or mute. The barrage of noise within seemed quiet compared to the cacophony outside. The whole city pulsated. Stepping onto the bus was like stepping into the loo at a concert. The beat still echoed through your bones but your ears got a break for a mo.
He got off at the Southbank. It was a trick he’d learned: by the river at low tide you could find just about the quietest place in the city. The high walls against the tide held the sound at bay somewhat. There were the boats that ran up and down the waves and the voice of the old river itself, but that didn’t compare to the ringing streets above.
Sometimes as he wandered along the water’s edge Martin found things: old things, strange things. Little pieces of pottery from old dishes mixed with weathered bones or smooth bits of glass polished by the waves. He stuck them in his pocket for later. Sometimes they lost their magic by the time he got back to his room, looking ordinary and sad. The rest he arranged and rearranged on his trunk like some kind of altar to gods now lost.
There was also the book seller under the bridge. Martin wasn’t quite sure how they continued to operate. People didn’t much read and anyway they downloaded stuff online. Who wanted to pay for words? Information yearns to be free, they said. Who were they? Dunno. The same people who said if you want someone to hear you, you got to shout to get their attention. Earplugs were contraband due to the Order, but he had heard of rich people who had undetectable ones installed that they could turn on and off for when they wanted to talk to each other.
Money changes everything when you have enough of it.
Martin tripped down the last step from the bridge, looking ahead to the tables instead of at his feet. The neat rows of books filled him with a strange pleasure. His mother always told him there were worlds inside books if you knew how to unlock them. School mates rolled their eyes at him. So retro. He couldn’t remember her face too well anymore, but he still had that stupid book about dogs in cars with her words to him: Happy Xmas, Martin xxx Yor Mum.
She couldn’t spell all that well, but she could read fast. In the evening she soaked her feet with a stack of books beside her, picking up one or another, changing at will whenever she had the urge to follow another story. ‘Good-bye Blue Monday,’ she would say to him no matter what day it was. He laid his head in her lap and listened to her read from the books. They were mostly things he didn’t understand because he was little, but her excitement was contagious. The long days on her feet were forgotten with her nose in a book.
‘Looking for the real thing?’ The painted legend painted in green greeted those who passed under the bridge, though most went on their way heedless of the book stall’s lure. Noise resounded, the traffic thrummed hollow under the bricks: the hum of the city, the ceaseless drone of the speakers scattered at the regulated distances across the streets of the town. There was no escaping it; you just learned to tune it out even as your body vibrated to its pulse. They said the stress drove some mad. They said.
Martin strolled along the first table. The layout was different each week. History here: a pointless topic as no one learned from it as far as he could tell. He found some spec fic: that was more like it. Monsters were always good. Even bad monsters were good.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a girl about his own age who looked cool. She was picking up a crime book with a lurid sort of cover with cleavage and a knife. He wouldn’t have thought it would appeal to the fairer sex, as his old head master had always called the girls. For years he thought it meant that girls unlike boys treated you fairly. Aoife had cured him of that notion.
This one looked serious or maybe grim. It was probably the black leather jacket that looked real, not petroleather. She wore a black DIY shirt that had words painted on it but he couldn’t immediately make out what it said because he looked away when she looked up. Martin picked up the first book his hand landed on, which turned out to be some stupid space hero nonsense by an author he had liked when he was about ten. Naff stuff. His cheeks must have glowed as he put it down. Maybe she didn’t see.
Martin let his gaze flick across the tables. She was busy looking at a true crime book on the Moors murders. Maybe she hoped for a how-to guide. There was a scar on her cheek like a V that made him think of a kid’s drawing of birds in the sky. He tried to decipher the words on her tee shirt but with the book in the way it was even more of a challenge.
She put the book down and he let his eyes fall back to the table. He spotted a book he’d been seeking for months, the second part of a trilogy. The red knife on its cover had tantalized his thoughts for so long Martin found it difficult to believe he’d actually stumbled upon the treasure. He grabbed it. The book was well-worn. Several pages were dog-eared. Someone had scrawled in the margins, but he didn’t mind that usually—unless they were really stupid. He found it was like having a secret conversion with someone you’d never met, someone dead, someone missing, someone disappeared.
Like his mum.
A desperate part of himself always held out for the hope that she might be out there somewhere. His council processor had suggested that she had been deported or what was the other thing? Transported, that was it. Undesirables sent off to work in the colonies. Undesirability determined by darkness of skin in most cases. ‘You’re not to worry. We should have a placement for you soon,’ the processor had reassured him again this week.
Two years on and still nothing. When he turned eighteen, transporting would be more likely. It was an unpleasant thought.
Sometimes he dreamed of going to Scotland where it was supposed to be quiet and still green. Probably just a myth, but it was more believable than unicorns, dragons and elves.
‘You going to buy that?’
Her voice startled him out of his funk. He gaped at the girl for a tick, then realised his mouth was open and shut it. ‘Yeah, think so.’
‘Any good?’ Up close her face seemed more angular, her gaze startlingly direct.
‘Yeah, I read the other two. Good stuff.’ Jabbering like an eejit now, Martin berated himself. ‘Scary but adventurous. Lots of philosophy in it, too, if you’re that way inclined.’ He glanced down at the books in her hand. ‘Or maybe murder is more your style.’
She laughed. ‘Who doesn’t want to kill someone?’
‘What’s your shirt say?’
The girl gave him an appraising look. ‘Why?’
Martin shrugged. ‘You make it?’
Martin waited as if it didn’t mean anything to him what she might say or what it was about or what she was about and he didn’t know the words to ask. For once he wished the constant din of life could just shut up for a minute so they didn’t have to bellow at one another.
‘It says “Rebellious Jukebox”,’ she said finally.
He nodded and tried to conceal the keenness of his curiosity. ‘What’s that all about then?’
She grinned at him and suddenly looked like a little kid. ‘It’s a secret.’
‘Ah. Wanna see my secret?’
Laughter convulsed her face. ‘Is it a big one? Nah, don’t get embarrassed, mate. I’m just funning with you. Show me.’
They paid for their books and Martin led her to the steps. ‘Just over here.’
‘Ugh, you’re not going to kill me and throw me in the river?’ The girl made a face at the dirty water.
‘No, just—c’mon.’ Martin descended without looking back, sure she would follow as long as he didn’t falter. The edge was sandy here not shingle like down east of here. Some other people were wandering around so he led her away towards the wood structure that held up a walkway where people could look down on the river.
Martin tried to hide his excitement. She looked around curiously. ‘What’s all this then?’
‘Close your eyes.’
‘Nah,’ she said, looking at him with sudden attention.
Martin smiled. He put his hands in his pockets. Maybe that would make her feel safer. ‘Close your eyes and listen.’ He went first. After a minute he lifted one eye lid just a little. She had her eyes closed, too.
‘Do you hear it?’
‘I hear the water. The boats. The hum, it’s not so loud down here. I can’t hear a tannoy.’
They opened their eyes. Martin smiled. She smiled back.
He showed her everything he had learned, like how to keep on eye on the water line to gauge when the tide was rising. They searched along the edge of the river for hag stones and bits of porcelain. They looked at the skeleton of the old bridge and listened to the river’s echo under the bricks that held it up. It was magic.
Best of all it was quiet—relatively quiet, but that was the most you could hope for in the unrelenting din of the capital.
‘So what’s it all about?’ Martin asked Melka when they emerged to the surface once more. She bought them sandwiches from a cart and they sat on a bench by a statue of some old dude with a sword.
‘The jukebox?’ Melka looked off into the distance. ‘You might like it.’
‘But what is it?’ Martin had the same kind of excitement he had when he’d spotted the book today. When you wish for something so long and almost don’t quite believe in it and then it’s there. His fingers touched the shape of the book inside his bag, as if it might disappear without warning.
Would Melka disappear, too?
‘I have to ask the gang,’ she said finally, her mouth full of the last bit of sandwich. ‘They don’t let just anyone in.’
‘Sure,’ he said, but his heart sang with the possibilities.
‘Meet you here. By the statue.’ Melka waved a hand at the sword guy.
She shook her head. ‘Thursday. Can’t get away until then.’
It seemed a lifetime away. He hated to watch her walking away, afraid he would never see her again. Martin wandered the streets until late, unable to be still. He was itching to start reading the book, but he wanted to leave it for tomorrow, to make that day pass faster. Every time he looked up from his book he saw her face. That scar. The smile. The look when she was listening.
Looking for the real thing. He ignored the book stall and went right to the statue on Thursday. She hadn’t said a time, so he went there about midday. The benches around the bronze figure were occupied with people, some sleeping, some just looking lost. There was a blue haze over the city today again. Some said it was pollution. Some said it was a meteorological phenomenon. Either way it wasn’t healthy. Everyone was coughing and sniffling. People said November used to be a cold month. Martin couldn’t really imagine it.
He looked up at the statue. The man had a sword like he was fighting but he had a cape like Batman, too, and no armour. What was he supposed to be? He decided if Melka didn’t show up in the next half hour he would read the plaque at the base of the statue, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Just when Martin was about to give in he saw Melka coming down the steps from the bridge. His heart leaped. It took a force of will to stuff it back down. Wouldn’t do to look too eager. ‘Hey,’ he said with as much of a casual air as he could muster.
‘Doing anything tonight?’
Martin smiled. ‘Maybe I am now.’
Melka grinned. ‘If you’re up for it.’
The plan was very cloak and dagger. He had to meet her at Elephant & Castle at 20:00 and let her blindfold him. ‘I can’t take you right there. Too much at risk.’
‘So what is it really?’ He suspected it was just an underground club, but if she was keen on it he would be, too.
‘Something you’d never expect.’
The hours dragged until he could reasonably expect to show up. Martin was on his second read-through of the new book. He liked the Finnish witch better this time though she still scared him a bit. Yet he couldn’t help looking up from the book and wondering what Melka would show him. He tried not to let his hopes rise. It seemed like darkness would never fall. Walking the whole way helped fill the time, though he still had to wait a good while for Melka to show at last.
‘Here, put these on.’ She gave him eyeshades that looked like something a doctor might give you, black circles that cupped his eyes, held on by stems like glasses. They walked away from the station’s doors and she turned him around and around. Martin thought he could still tell which direction was which because of the traffic noise and the loudness of the tannoys on the station announcing inanities.
As she took him down streets and around corners, he began to lose his sense of direction in the omnipresent hum of the city. He trusted Melka to lead him. She was careful that he not step off the kerb or hit a wall.
Melka knocked on something that sounded like hollow metal. A door creaked open. Cooler air flowed over Martin. ‘It’s a step down,’ Melka said, taking his arm in hers. Cautiously he stepped down. The door closed behind them. She took off his eyeshades.
Martin blinked. There was a single bulb lighting the dark stairs. Someone walked ahead of them down the steps. They turned another corner where another dim bulb flickered, then a third turning where a torch fixed to the bricks with putty lit the way. It was a long way down. The air was dank and smelled of the river, as any space below the water level in the city did, but they were lower than the river now.
There was more light ahead. Martin could feel his heart begin to hammer a little faster. They stepped up to another metal door. The person ahead of Melka—he wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl—knocked three times slowly, then opened the door. They walked in.
Martin’s first feeling was disappointment. The strange brick room had dark pillars in the middle, huge cement slabs that must bear the weight of all the building above it. A few candles gave the room a flickering light. Ranged around the rectangular space were broken furniture and mattresses, and on them kids of about his age—some maybe younger, a few older—lolled idly, most with eyes shut, a couple looking up at him. Was it just drugs then? Sniffing the dust or shooting the shot? He had tried drugs. They were a disappointment. Books were better magic and needed no recovery time.
His scorn must have been visible. ‘It’s not what you think,’ Melka whispered and led him to a sofa with no legs.
‘What then?’ he asked, unconsciously whispering, too. The other kids ignored him, put their heads back, eyes closed. Melka pushed him back into the dank cushions and leaned against him. She closed her eyes and leaned back. ‘Listen.’
After a moment, Martin did the same. At first he couldn’t tell what he was listening for. His tinnitus—now the number one physical malady in the nation—distracted him. He did his best to concentrate. He could hear Melka breathing. He could hear someone snoring softly.
Then it hit him. He stiffened. Melka put a hand on his leg, patting it softly. Martin leaned back again and let himself go.
It was quiet—truly quiet.
Martin could not remember ever experiencing quiet. Sometimes late at night, the roar of the traffic was lower and the blare of the tannoy more intermittent, yet the hum was always there. Machines, appliances, other people might be less but they were never gone. The echoing vibrations of the city, of the vehicles, of the people—all still there. Not here. You had to listen hard to hear anything outside the room. Here each inadvertent sound—someone coughing, a shoe tapping the concrete floor, a sniffle—resounded with a newness that made it distinct.
The world shook him daily, distracted him. For the first time Martin felt as if he were himself. It was bliss.
Then he started to shake.
Panic filled him. He was going to be ill.
Melka put an arm over his shoulders. ‘It’s all right. It happens to everyone the first time. It happens to me sometimes and I’ve been coming for ages.’ Her whispered words shocked his ears like car horns. Martin tried not to fear the panic and gradually the shaking dissipated. Melka put her head on his chest and his heart swelled with another emotion. A distracting one. He had an urge to kiss her but thought it would be disruptive to try.
His heart slowed, but the urge to panic rose again. He concentrated on the weight of Melka’s head over his heart. Her breathing was soft. Maybe she was sleeping. All at once he was asleep.
Martin awoke disoriented. The silence was deafening. Panic hammered through his body again. ‘Shhh.’ Melka raised herself from his chest, her hand flat against his shirt. Her eyes glistened in the candlelight. She stood up and reached for his hand.
Together they walked to the door. Melka eased it open and they went up all the steps to the first door. She opened it slowly. It creaked its displeasure. Outside the cacophony had continued without them. ‘Elephant & Castle is just up that way,’ she pointed.
Martin smiled. ‘You trust me now?’
Melka nodded. ‘You’re a member now.’
‘I need to make my own tee shirt.’
He did finally, though it was not as good as Melka’s. She had a better eye or hand or whatever. Martin went for just the initial letters overlapping. It was more abstract, but he liked it anyway.
The silence was like a drug. It buoyed his spirits through the chaotic din of the city. He found his mind crisper, quicker. In time he learned to invoke the silence in the safety of his room. It flowed over him like a cool mist. In the silence, Martin discovered he could talk to Melka with his thoughts and she heard him clearly as if they were in the same room. When he awoke each day Martin felt lighter.
Over the weeks he got to know the other kids by sight, but they all tended to disappear when they left the Jukebox, scattering like pigeons. ‘It’s hard to keep secrets, you know,’ Melka said as they wandered along the river’s bank one cloudy day.
‘You couldn’t,’ Martin said, then immediately felt bad about saying it. ‘I can, but only because I don’t know any one I could tell. My council processor? Nah, don’t think so.’ He laughed. Melka had a family. She didn’t really talk about them—or why they weren’t bothered when she didn’t come home at night. Many times the two of them stayed in the Jukebox from dusk to dawn. No one was waiting up for him.
‘Do you suppose it really is illegal?’ They had gone back and forth on the question for days.
‘The Code,’ Melka insisted, always her point of view. ‘If it’s illegal to wear earplugs, it’s got to be illegal to make a building into a giant earplug.’
Martin considered this. ‘I think a lawyer could get us off on that technicality.’
The Jukebox changed his brain. Martin was sure of it. His council processor even noticed it. ‘Have you considered taking the advanced placement? You might get out of the manual labour rank,’ she said with unaccustomed brightness one morning.
He laughed as he told Melka, but she wasn’t amused. ‘That’s not much of an improvement.’
‘Speak for yourself. I had no hope of anything better than a spade or cleaning windows. Now she’s all like—I dunno. Like I’m educated or something.’
Melka’s brow wrinkled at him. ‘You are educated though.’
Martin laughed. ‘I left school at the first opportunity.’
‘You don’t sound like it.’
‘That’s because I read.’ The one time he lured Melka back to his room she was astonished to see the walls were lined with books. ‘This room would be twice the size if not for my habits,’ he said with pride.
Martin took to bringing her books when they met up at the Jukebox, trying to find stories that got past her reluctance to branch out from murder. ‘There’s all kinds of stories.’ For the first time since he could remember, he was happy. He had something to look forward to each day and he had hopes with Melka. They kissed good night when they left the Jukebox and he woke her with whispers every morning whether they were together or apart.
He carried the silence with him.
Yet there was no comparison to the experience of being deep in the bowels of the rock and brick and dirt. Impossible silence, the echoes of footsteps on the stair, and the soft murmurs as people settled. Sometimes even breath seemed too loud, but Martin loved it anyway.
The explosion was so loud it hit them like shrapnel, though there was none down in the Jukebox. It blew the bloody door off. The clattering heels on the stair assaulted their dazed ears. The physical blows only added to their distress in the lounge. The service personnel took vicious glee in beating the kids as they dragged them up to the surface, shouting at them, too, as if they feared the silence and wanted to fill it in like a hole with their own dirty noise. Some of the kids started screaming. The pain, physical and aural, was excruciating. Martin went limp as they grabbed him, holding onto silence as the officers dragged him upstairs.
On the street there was tape and flashing lights and more people, cameras, media—a circus. They must have known and planned for some time. Martin looked for Melka. The girls were all squished together, getting huddled into a van. Another van gaped for the boys. For his silence Martin received a cosh to the head. Unconscious, the sounds penetrated his head.
He woke in a cell, his skull splitting with an ache. Martin willed himself to sit up, then allowed his head to spin until it stopped. There were four in the cell, guys he knew by sight. They sat dejected, silent. Martin reached for the silence in his head. It took a while to find between the throbbing pain and the unaccustomed clangs and chatter of the lock up.
And then all at once it was there—fading in and out, but there. He held onto it for his life.
He reached out to Melka. Her fear pulsated. With gentle strokes he did his best to soothe her mind. At last she reached back to him. The girls were in a cell not far away. They were scared, too. Melka shared silence with him. It helped.
One by one, their parents came. Charges were laid, arguments reckoned—most were allowed into their guardians’ custody to await trial. Not Martin. No one stepped forward to claim him. Melka tried to get her parents to intervene. They refused.
The work was short. The powers that be wanted to make an example of someone. The Order must be maintained. Most of the kids had respectable parents, willing to make a fuss to get them out, willing also to force compliance. The Rebellion was over.
Martin was alone.
The verdict was transportation. His appointed counsel did her best but she was clearly up against a considerable effort by the powers that be. Woe betide the fly when the spider takes notice, his mother used to say to him. Her mother had said it to her as a child, too. It might be his only tradition, apart from the books.
For loss of his books, he sorrowed. Yet he carried many of them within him like the silence, a power he could tap into that gave him strength through the slow grind of the trial and the sentencing. He told Melka the verdict when it was handed down, though doubtless she had heard on the omnipresent news blaring through the tannoys.
Martin imagined himself on the deck of a ship, sailing away from the tiny land. The reality proved harsher. The prison ship was little different from the detention cells in the city. But he stayed hopeful. Who knew what the colonies would be like? Maybe he would find his mother or hear some word of her. Maybe there would be more space. On the maps the prison colonies looked huge. They couldn’t be locked up all the time, could they?
Maybe he could find some quiet place to hide.
Martin reached into the silence to tell Melka good-bye. Perhaps it would hurt less to speak to her in time. ‘Read a book,’ he told her with a chuckle. ‘Dream me into freedom.’ He pulled the silence around him like a cowl as the ship rocked on.
In memory of MES