“State your business!”
The accent was odd…funny even, the vowels elongated, extra syllables trying to work their way into the words. So these were the Brummies.
“We’re just passing through,” called back Adam, calmly, casually, “we’ll have a look at the Rag Market for some supplies before we find somewhere to rest the night, and my friend here will probably look for some books.” He indicated Ezra, who nodded slightly.
“Books?” replied the guard from his ramshackle tower, which formed part of a barricade across the wide tarmac’ed road, formed largely of metal parts and those rubber things they used to put on the wheels of vehicles. He sounded pretty disparaging of books.
“Alright,” he replied, somehow substituting both of the more traditional vowels with O’s, “come on in, but drop your ammunition in the box and take a ticket for it. You can have it back when you leave. Knives and swords and what have you n’all.”
The rusty barbed-wire gate was swung open from the inside, and one-by-one my new family walked through, passing the ammo from their weapons to a man on their right before being frisked by one on their left, and having their guns checked and handed back to them by a third man. A fourth wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to them. Adam went first, as ever. I admired his calm and easy manner, chatting and joking with the guards even as they pored over his most treasured possessions. He stopped to point out some mark of interest on his pistol to the ticket-writer, who stared down the barrel with interest, as Drexyl, Reggie, Ezra and then I moved through the checkpoint, handing over our valuable ammunition, our hard fought prizes, to these strangers. It felt wrong to me – I struggled to let go of the bullets, and in particular the knife that had saved my life so many times. I knew I had to trust my family, Adam, Ezra and Drexyl had all been here before. Reggie seemed un-phased, but he went after Drexyl, and that kid would crawl over broken glass if Drexyl had done the same before him.
I was holding my breath in anticipation by the time the guy on the left indicated to me to put my arms out for him to frisk me, worried about how I would react to have his hands on me, patting me down, maybe checking a little more thoroughly than the job called for…that was what I expected. But I barely felt a thing through his gloves and my clothes, and he didn’t even look up at me, probably hadn’t even noticed that I was female, and then I was being handed a piece of paper and ushered on through another barbed wire gate.
I followed my family members into such noise and smells and colours that it took me aback for a second, and I must have stood, staring. I wasn’t used to seeing so many people! I had never really seen a city before, not one that people still lived in at any rate, and The Rag Market was a city alright. I had never seen such a lack of nature – I was used to buildings covered in moss and lichen, shoots growing through cracked and broken walls. Here there was no greenery to be seen, buildings were a mix of ancient crumbling stone or concrete and more recently added cloth or metal sections. The air was so thick with smoke, both from the cigars, cigarettes and pipes which were almost ubiquitous accessories, but from furnaces, kilns and blow-torches – as least what I know to be those things now, to me then they were all just strange, noxious smelling machines that belched black smoke. Most of these were out on the street, set up on stalls, alongside clothes, guns, ammunition, boots, blankets, cigarettes, liquor, tinned foods and even fresh food. On and around the stalls were people, everywhere, rushing to and fro, or standing chatting, chewing tobacco and drinking spirits distilled from god knows what.
“Some of the fresh food here is apparently actually edible,” Adam told us, as he lead the way through the throngs of people, “they had some underground farm that they swear is radiation free.”
“You can grow radiation free crops anywhere, if you’re careful,” argued Reggie, biting loudly into some kind of green and red plant seed. Reggie had grown up on a farm. He really believed this stuff was save. I’ll stick to my tins.
“Sure you can,” said Adam, smiling at Reggie, “still, let’s stock up on a few tins just to be on the safe side, eh?”
He had plenty of food, but as things were going pretty well recently, we also had a whole bunch of other loot to trade, and our points recently cashed in from The State allowed a little indulgence. I knew what Adam’s would be. Tinned peaches. I never even heard of a peach before I ran into Adam, Ezra, my Family…he goes nuts for them. Whatever gets you through I suppose, and they’ve got to be better than anything that grew.
“How about we see if we can find a card game?” asked Reggie, looking up at Drexyl, hopefully.
“Sure thing, kid,” the bigger man agreed, smiling a smile of chipped and metal capped teeth, “so long as there’s a bar and you don’t get all bent out of shape when I take your money again.”
If Reggie was ever insulted by Drexyl’s teasing, it never showed, he simply beamed back at the man he so clearly idolised and made ready to follow him.
“Okay everyone, I’ll sort us our some accommodation and catch you up at…?”
“The Engineer’s Arms,” replied Drexyl.
“Right you are,” Adam replied, and turned to leave.
Ezra stopped him with a hand on his shoulder and motioned with his thumb in the opposite direction.
“Okay buddy,” replied Adam to his old friend, “Ezra going to head to the bookstore.”
“Oh, I’ll go too!” I heard myself say. Reggie’s face broke into a childish grin.
“He’s teaching me to read!” I protested, probably way too defensively. Reggie’s grin just became wider.
“Wait, you can’t read? What kind of crazy commune did you come from?”
“Look who’s talking,” interrupted the low gravel voice of Drexyl, too my relief “what good did reading ever do you?”
“I’ll show you when I beat you at poker. The little numbers really help,” replied Reggie, sardonically, and Drexyl punched him playfully on the shoulder, pushing him in the direction of the bar. Adam saluted his two finger mock-salute – a deliberately lazy aping of that used by The State, and made his way off into the crowd.
I turned to my silent friend, his eyes calm and quiet behind his ever present gas mask.
“Lead the way!”
We pushed our way through the crowds – there must have been two or three hundred people in this City – and trough the smoke, noise and hanging cloths which people used to separate their meagre stalls form one another. I knew some of the guys were looking forward to staying in an inn tonight, with the warmth, food and drink to order, company and other distractions, but I preferred the way we usually lived – making camp in deserted villages or even out under the stars. I liked to know who was sleeping nearby me, and that both of us would be armed. My missing knife felt like an amputated limb.
I followed Ezra to the door of a building, standing unique amongst the ruins around it. The concrete behind the door seemed to only extend a few yards back before it merged into the rubble around, like it lead into a closet. My reading was even worse then than it is now, but I think the sign said “Pzz Ht”.
“What is this?” I asked Ezra.
“Bookstore,” he replied, bringing his grand total of words uttered for that day up to around one, and pushing the door open. As soon as he did the architecture made sense, as what I had taken to be a shallow closest was actually the entrance to a stairwell leading down into a stale smelling gloom. Of course, now I know that the wealthy live underground, and that’s where the best stores are, but, give me a break, this was the first City I had been too that wasn’t populated solely by rats and cockroaches!
Here’s something funny about that day – I don’t remember how that place was lit. And it was – for an underground store that place was lit up like a bonfire! I guess in bookstores it’s important people can see. But something distracted me, and you’re going to take this totally the wrong way if you’re anything like Reggie or Drexyl or…men, but I can’t remember because that was the first time Ezra touched me. Just as we were coming down the stairs, which were really steep, Ezra reached behind himself and took the first two fingers of my left hand in his. To guide me. To steady me. Don’t even look at me like that. Of course I love him, but it isn’t like that. It’s just that I remember it because…well because Ezra doesn’t do things like that…he doesn’t even speak! I guess I always hoped that he cared about me like Adam said he did but..
“Ezra!”called out the lardy old dwarf as we reached the bottom of the stairs, “My old friend, how can I help you today? What are we after, maps? A little pre-was literature? Language?”
I don’t know that Ezra and the dwarf were ever friends but the guy sure knew Ezra, because he didn’t take offence when all those questions were replied with only a thin smile and a wave towards the rear of the shop.
“Of course, old friend, you help yourself.” The man never acknowledged I was there. Rude given his eyes never left me. And not my face either. Goddamn weapons barriers.
I followed Ezra, closely now, to the back of the store, where he took his time running his fingers along the spines of the old tomes. Pre-war, these were. Writing today never gets bound in the same way those old books do – with the same care. They were beautiful dusty things. I always found it fascinating that they – these seemingly fragile things made of paper – had been around longer than anyone I had ever met…longer than the world I knew. It seems so surreal sometime, to imagine that there were so many people in the world that there were this many books. I guess everyone wrote a few.
Like I said, my reading was pretty poor, and Ezra was teaching me to read, whatever my other reasons for not wanting to go with the other boys that night, but I pretty much stood mute whilst Ezra looked at the spines of the books, occasionally taking them from the shelf and flicking through the pages.
Eventually he stopped returning books to the shelf and settled on reading several pages of the same one. When he closed it, he looked up at me for the first time in half an hour and smiled his funny, silent half smile.
“We’re buying this one?” I asked. He nodded, and then he leant towards me and whispered, like a conspirator, like Drexyl would whisper to me “I’ll take the guy on the roof, you take the guy on the ground” half way through a fight:
“Very rare, beautifully illustrated.”