This is a short story I wrote a few years ago THAT NO FUCKER WILL PUBLISH EVEN THOUGH MY CREATIVE WRITING TUTOR GAVE ME 98 MOTHER FUCKING PER CENT!! WHAT, DOES SHE KNOW NOTHING, IS SHE A FUCKING IDIOT OR SOMETHING? But I’m not bitter about that in the slightest. I’ll just publish it here, so it can be read by those who matter. All five of you. This story hopefully proves there’s a heart behind all of the quadruple amputee jokes I do.
All locations in the story are a blend of different places, but anyone from Falkirk reading this may be interested to know (but probably won’t be) that the park at the beginning of the story is based on the top park in Wallacestone (apart from the water), and the industrial town in which most of the action takes place is modeled on none other than my dearly beloved Grangemouth.
Trench is a The Road-esque tale of a grandfather trying to do right by his grandson in a time of great horror. Excuse the shite formatting; this site’s not conducive to the smooth and proper publication of fiction.
by Jamie Andrew
The old man gave the boy a gentle shove; the swing’s chains creaked.
‘Higher, grandpa,’ said the boy. ‘Higher.’
His muscles stiffened with the effort, issuing a few creaks of their own. He moved just in time to avoid the back-swing and a pair of boots in his chest.
‘I can nearly see past the town!’
‘Not so loud,’ said the old man, drawing out and lighting a cigarette.
The boy propelled himself ever higher into the blank and cloudless sky; normally it would have been alive with jets cutting white scars across its marine canvas.
‘I’m going… to jump…’ said the boy, wrestling himself higher still, ‘…and jump… over…’
‘Take it easy, now,’ said the old man.
‘…the whole… town…’
He landed on the grass, his supple little legs soaking up the impact as if he’d done nothing more than step off a kerb. Fearless. Or oblivious. It amounted to the same thing.
The boy tumbled and somersaulted over the grass; and ran like a greyhound around the rusting relic of a roundabout in the centre of the park.
‘Come to my side,’ said the old man firmly, moving hurriedly past the gently rocking swing to reach him. He too felt like a relic: his body ached. He’d outgrown the world, or it him. There was nothing more he now wished except to see his grandson safe.
‘We’ll need to get going, son.’
It was crazy to have taken him there by himself, especially given what he was carrying. He guessed the play-park visit was as dangerous as it was selfish. But if this was to be the last day their last day together then he wanted something with which to remember the boy, and a memory for the boy to hold on to that didn’t weigh heavy with sorrow or infection.
His wife would have given him hell for this, but owing to the trifle of hard and soft contrasts stacked inside her large heart loved him more because of it. The old man allowed himself a smile.
Twigs snapped. He hadn’t seen them coming. Two men stood on the opposite bank of the stream that fringed the park, a hundred yards away or less. The town had been in quarantine for only days (was it ten? twelve?), but the men’s grimy, ragged clothes looked like they’d been worn through an apocalypse. Dark and dirt sat on their faces, and seemed reflected in their glazed eyes. Many unsavoury things, especially natures, had been brought to the surface since the sealing of the town and the removal of law enforcement; like rats after a flood.
‘By my side,’ the old man barked. The boy did as he was told, slowly and without panic. The old man softly placed his leathery hand atop the boy’s head, then trod out his cigarette on the grass.
The old man stood a silent statue. The men stared; wolves that smiled.
‘Are you sick, old man?’ hissed one of them, the taller and more toothless of the two.
‘Want us to take care of the boy?’ croaked the other, the fatter one, his voice blending into a rackety cough, which in turn became a rasping laugh.
They wore their illnesses like tattoos. Bruise-like legions and weeping sores peppered their faces.
The old man replied by way of opening his jacket and drawing out his Webley Mk IV revolver; a souvenir from his war years trading bullets in the deserts and trenches.
‘This gun’s killed worthier and less deserving than you,’ said the old man, steadily raising his gun level with the taller one’s chest. His mouth felt dry, and his words scratched like flesh against gravel as they worked up his throat. The water rationing had done it. And the cigarettes, his long-departed wife would’ve reminded him. ‘Don’t make me prove that this old thing still works.’
He felt the boy push against his right leg, thread an arm above and around his calf.
‘Your old thing stopped working years ago,’ rasped the fat man, which caused the tall one to cackle like he’d a lungful of wasps. ‘We’ll teach the boy what he’s missing out on.’
The gun-shot made the boy jump. It made the men jump too: blasted the smiles from their faces. But they didn’t leave. The old man felt the boy’s hands clamp tightly around his leg.
‘The next two bullets will cure you of your sickness, gentlemen, I can guarantee you that.’
His hand trembled, but only because adrenalin had become more and more a stranger to his bloodstream since the beginning of his bus-pass days.
The men stared. The old man stared back at them. Whether it was the gun itself or the look in its owner’s eyes that repelled them, within seconds they were gone; vanished back into the dense fronds and bushes from which they’d slithered.
The old man led his grandson through the streets. Most of the windows in the blocks flanking them were smashed, and people’s possessions lay strewn on the grass and pavements like carcasses. Wardrobes, clothes, chairs, televisions. All smashed and broken. Derelict and spilling out. The old man caught the scent of smoke from a nearby fire.
He watched the boy surveying the destruction, a look of fascination relaxing his delicate features. The old man’s chest tightened. His hip felt like it had been sculpted from granite. He squeezed the nape of the boy’s neck then reached up to ruffle his shaggy mop of hair.
‘Will we get sick, grandpa?’ the boy asked, looking up at him.
‘We’ll be fine, son.’
For some reason the disease, whatever it was, had spared the very old and the very young: two groups of people contagion usually fell and fed upon with unrelenting ferocity.
There was a medical unit in the town square where people were taken once they became sick, or died. Its reek made the town smell like a hospital that had caught fire. The healthy and symptomless could submit themselves to the unit’s care voluntarily, but rumours persisted that those who entered it never returned. Nor did they seem to win their freedom beyond the makeshift razor-wire fences and military sentry posts that bordered the town.
He’d heard the stories. People had tried to escape. Others had simply tried to climb or walk out, refusing to believe that in our golden age of human rights a civilised government had the authority to pen them against their will. All had been shot. It was said that a middle-aged man had scrabbled a few feet up one of the fences before a far-off sniper’s bullet had pounded through the fabric of his suit, leaving a raw, bloody wound through his chest. The next day his body was gone.
They always came like phantoms in the night – in full bio-suits, he’d heard – to retrieve the terminally sick and the dead. It mattered little whether or not the tales were true. They stopped people trying to escape.
‘Grandpa, look,’ said the boy, squeezing his hand.
The old man turned to see three young lads shuffle out from the entrance to a block of flats. They stood and stared from the opposite side of the street, each of them wearing police hats too big for their heads. One of them clutched a kitchen knife, which drooped menacingly from his grip like a pendulous limb.
‘What do they want?’ asked the boy, staring back at them.
It still unnerved the old man how quickly the veneer of society could crack and peel. He recalled the words uttered long ago by a commanding officer: ‘The road to Hell isn’t just paved with good intentions, sergeant: its slabs are cemented by the blood of Samaritans.’
‘Keep walking, son,’ said the old man, focusing on the sensation of the pistol that rested against his heart.
They weren’t far from the fence. As they passed by the local pub, its elderly landlord – an acquaintance of the old man – was standing on the pavement outside. The landlord leaned on the butt of a shotgun that was doubling as his walking stick; he called them over.
Even though the old man knew he was a few years younger than the landlord, he felt twenty years’ younger by comparison. A life of free booze and second-hand smoke had produced a face barely one step ahead of the mortician’s easel. His barman’s apron was spotted with dark-red and brown stains, which made him look more like an over-enthusiastic butcher than a bar tender.
‘Look over to the east,’ said the landlord.
The old man looked out towards the town square. He couldn’t see the square itself, but behind the rows of streets and factories he watched the first of the military helicopters rise to the sky. The boy looked up at him. He smiled back as best he could.
‘Where are they going?’ asked the boy.
The sky thundered with an orchestra of blades and engines, its music reassuring the old man that this course of action was the right one. Once the helicopters had climbed high enough above the buildings, they dipped their noses and swarmed off towards the horizon like giant insects.
‘Can I pour you a pint?’
‘Maybe later,’ said the old man.
The landlord’s eyes were fixed on the empty sky. ‘Last orders.’
The soldier waited for them by the hole in the chain-link fence. He wore a balaclava, only his glazed, blood-tinged eyes visible. The last time the old man had seen him the soldier had been proud and erect. Now he hunched and twitched like a vagabond, his uniform ripped and smeared with dirt.
‘Keep the boy well back from me,’ rasped the soldier. ‘Do you have it?’
The old man reached into another of his pockets and withdrew two thick rolls of bank notes.
Throughout the long, happy years with his wife he’d maintained the illusion of every Wednesday strolling to the square with their bank book, even though their savings had been locked in a chest in the attic. She wouldn’t have approved. Until today.
The old man held out the rolls for the boy, who received them with a look of puzzlement.
‘You give one of these to your mum, and the other to the nice lady who’s waiting at the other side of that field.’
The old man nodded towards the hole and its jagged fringes. In the field beyond, tall blades of grass swayed in the breeze like waves on an ocean. The ground dipped downwards after about five hundred yards, above which green mop-heads of trees were visible. No sign of the military, or the road, or the soldier’s wife that would drive him to safety. The boy would be running across no-man’s-land.
‘Aren’t you coming, grandpa?’
The old man bent down to place his palm on the boy’s cheek, and looked at him; really looked at him. In those shimmering blue eyes he could see his wife, his daughter. In the heat of the boy’s skin he could feel the future.
‘I’m coming later, son,’ he whispered, ‘I’m too old to be running through fields.’
‘Keep low in the grass and don’t stop running until you reach my wife’s car. It’s red.’
The soldier wrenched an envelope from his jacket and threw it down at the mouth of the hole.
‘Give her this letter,’ he said, his head hanging earthward like a scarecrow’s.
The old man looked down at the boy. He’d thought about writing a letter to his daughter, but affairs of the heart had always been his wife’s department. Besides, those clear blue eyes looking up at her would be the only message she’d need. He bent down to clasp the boy’s tiny hands in one of his, and kissed him on the head.
‘Your gran and I love you very much.’
The automated message boomed from the loudspeakers the old man knew were bolted like chain-guns to the town’s many sentry pillars.
‘Citizens. Proceed to your homes. Remain indoors.’
He stood on the small balcony of his top-floor flat and looked past the town. He lit his last cigarette. A few minutes later the first group of bombers appeared over the horizon. From that distance they looked like a flock of birds, swift and silent. When they whistled, he closed his eyes; his grandson on his lap, his wife by his side.
Maybe the bombers would follow the boy; but today, the old sergeant’s blood had cemented something no disease could curdle, nor government extinguish.