Set in a Britain on lockdown, Eleanor Matthews’ short story sees the protagonist make a bid for freedom against all odds. Illustration by Tim Laing.
If I hadn’t heard the low purr of engines, the floodlights might have seen me before I saw them, but years of cycling in London had tuned my ears to the varying frequency of engines. This one was lying in wait, I could tell. It had the same low hum as a car in a sideroad waiting to pull out. The same discreet indifference. So I swerved off the road before I reached that corner. Now, in the rough terrain of the forest, I’m forced to swing off the saddle and push my bike through a mulch of pine needles and dirt. The trees here are planted in grid formation, grown for timber, so you’re always at the centre of a crosshair, only able to see down four narrow avenues.
Walking five rows back from the road, I keep an eye on the blockade as I move past. It’s too dark to look for danger in any other direction, so I don’t try. I can hear now why the engine was on. They’re listening to the radio – they’ve got sloppy. Ostensibly, the police will just be checking for stolen cars, but everyone knows they’re also hunting for foot-traffickers, pedallers, and anyone else sidestepping the freedom from trespass laws. Luckily, these particular officers are more focussed on smooth hits of the noughties than on detaining boundary migrants.
Continuing through sand, leaf-litter, and the odd ditch, I reach the north-eastern edge of Thetford Forest at dawn. Before me, a light flares on the rust-tipped grasses and poppies. After years confined to the city’s greyer areas, it’s a beautiful sight. But I need to find cover before the wide sky lets too much sun onto the flat planes of this landscape. The forest is rumoured to be home to some less-than-scrupulous exiles, so I don’t fancy napping here in daylight. I keep low behind boundary hedges, stooping behind stunted Scots pines. About half a mile away, some shabby farm buildings huddle against the fields. No guarantee they’ll be deserted, but I fancy my chances. When I make it to the barn, I fall quickly asleep on the rough straw.
When I wake, it’s to the sound of pissing. A man sporting a tattered Barbour and a ruff of white beard is unsteadily urinating just metres away. Turning round, he staggers and almost falls onto the dampened bales behind him. I should be running, but I’m not. He should be reaching for a scythe or pitchfork, but he’s not doing that either. Instead he recovers himself, smiles gently and introduces himself.
‘Bill. And you are…?’
All the good lies have deserted me.
‘Mel. From London.’
Bill sucks in his ruddy cheeks a little.
‘Interesting. I thought the transport system was all locked down these days. Not that an old fellow like me knows much beyond what he hears on TV. “New ID-specific travel liberties have drastically reduced inter-borough crime with smart-access programming.” Or so they say.’ He looks at me appraisingly, then adds ‘I imagine there are localised bloodbaths that never make the nine o’clock news, of course. If you coop people up like chickens, they’re bound to peck the feathers from each other’s backs. So, how did you manage to exit our fine capital?’
‘I guess there’s no harm in telling you I took the canal path. It’ll be gone soon anyway.’
New riverfront flats will shut off the last foot access to Walthamstow. Planning permission went through just before I left, and the path is set to go the way of the pavements. I got out while I still could, heading for Scotland. My house backed onto the railway line, so I’d hitched a lift on the night freight running east, jumped off near the reservoir and cycled north from there, skirting the major cities to avoid trouble. I was due to make the border crossing north of Peterborough by Saturday, but the roadblock ruined that plan.
‘OK, the canal path. Very good. But the bicycle?’ Bill gestures to where I’ve concealed it, badly, behind a hay bale. ‘I was under the impression they had all been confiscated.’
He’s right. Almost all were impounded about three years ago. The government used a spate of HGV deaths as an excuse to conduct door-to-door raids in the name of road safety. They knew exactly who was holding, because the bike park keys brought in a few years back were linked to your debit card – same as everything else.
‘I used to be a courier, so I had a stash of spare parts under the floorboards.’
‘Hmm. Think I’d have made a move sooner if I were you.’
‘My father was ill. I could hardly leave him.’
‘Ah.’ Bill is quiet for a moment, his curiosity finally satisfied. ‘Well, do you want a bite to eat? You must be burning through calories at a rate of knots. I’m afraid I can only offer you porridge though. No milk either. I’ve had to adopt my father’s wartime trick of adding a tea bag for flavour.’
I stand up, almost buckling on my aching thighs. Food is a welcome offer, given that I’ve been on iron rations of syrup-soaked bread since I left. Walking as though his pelvis has calcified to his thighbones, Bill leads me over to what must have been the farmhouse, before the roof fell in. He probably keeps it in a state of disrepair on purpose, to deter visitors.
Ducking under a broken beam, we come into the kitchen. Many of the large flagstones have been cracked by falling timber and debris. We go through to what was once the larder, presumably chosen for its lack of windows. An old rag rug covers the floor, and a tatty photo of a girl wearing a daisy chain is pinned to the wall. Bill stoops over painfully to straighten a corner of the rug, then lowers himself onto an overturned milk crate. Picking up a tin can with rough holes knifed in the sides, he pours some liquid into the bottom.
‘My Benghazi burner,’ he explains. ‘Another wartime trick.’
Sparking a match on the wall, he drops it into the can which flares into flame. Bill balances a pan on top, and measures in oats and water. Then he slings in the teabag, already dyed dark from previous use.
‘So I assume you’re headed for the border?’ Bill drags the wire wool of his right eyebrow further up his face. There’s no point denying it, so I nod. He stares at me a little longer, like an artist measuring the horizon with a pencil before marking his paper.
‘It’s closed now. All the land routes have been shut down.’
The bluster and uncertainty is gone from his voice.
‘Who are you to know that?’
His beard bulges with the upward pressure of his cheeks as he smiles. ‘It doesn’t matter who I am. What matters is you won’t get 40 miles, not if you go north-west from here. A few months back it was still possible, but not now. I can help you though, if you want me to?’
Bill shrugs, a movement that comes more easily to him than walking.
‘Well, if what you’re saying is true, I’ve not got much choice. But how could you help me?’
‘You get yourself to the coast, to Horsey Gap, and I can get you on a boat. Always used to be a favoured spot for smugglers, only now they pick up rather than drop off. How long do you need?’
‘The coast is about a night’s cycle away. But how would you get word there so quickly?’
‘Carrier pigeon. I’ve trained some collared doves up to be my own personal postal service.’
Bill winks and lets out a bass laugh. ‘No, not really. Never you mind how. All you need to worry about is being on Horsey Gap beach for 5am tomorrow morning. Just turn up and say Old Bill sent you. No ticket required.’
Bill hands me the pan of porridge and busies himself with wire while I eat. He’s making what look to be snares, or perhaps some more complex kind of trap. The warm meal is a powerful sedative, and my lids are starting to droop downwards when tires crunch on the gravel outside. Suddenly alert and sensing a set-up, I look over at Bill. He seems equally alarmed, and is hurriedly stuffing his wire constructions into a compartment in the wall.
‘You need to go. Now,’ he says, grinding the loose brick back into place. ‘That’s my son. He likes to check up on me. Stops just short of reporting me himself, but I suspect that’s out of embarrassment rather than kindness.’
I obviously look puzzled, so Bill clarifies: ‘He’s a hotshot in local government. Revealing you have an eccentric, under-the-radar father isn’t good for a political career.’
He ushers me out of the larder, but not towards the front door. Instead, we duck past cracked wood and swelling mounds of bricks towards the kitchen hearth. There, behind the wood burner, is a man-sized hole. Half pushing, half grasping my hand to shake it, Bill says: ‘Remember. The boat will be there at 5am tomorrow. Don’t miss it.’
I slip through the narrow gap like a deer through a hedgerow and move carefully round the side of the house. A smart black 4×4 is parked up outside, and its owner is walking towards the front door. He sports a sharp suit, a shaved head and a stern face.
‘Dad,’ he shouts, with a tone more suited to a dog that’s soiled the carpet. ‘Dad. Come out of that dump. We need to have words.’
I can hear Bill making low muffled excuses inside. When the son relents and stoops into the house, I make a low dash for the barn to retrieve my bike. In this scalped landscape there’s nowhere to hide, so speed is my only option. I sprint off over the clods of earth and fossilised tractor ruts, onto the road. As I’m about to round the corner out of sight, I flick a look back over my left shoulder. The two men are outside now, the son curved in accusation and Bill unflinching. I cannot tell for sure whether the younger man has seen me, but on this flat track of landscape any movement is like a hare to the greyhound. I’m not about to wait for the jaws, so I bow my neck to the shoving wind and power on.
I had memorised the way to the border, but with this new route I rely heavily on my black-market maps. Eventually, I reach some low trees. Under their close-knit canopy, nothing grows for lack of light. Dead twigs carpet the earth and the trees stand apart like stakes. Rather than sleep exposed, I choose to bed down by the field’s edge, in the snowy drifts of cow parsley. My eyes focus in on an overloaded ant struggling skywards. A money spider trails a fine thread of itself stalk to stalk. A small beetle rootles across dark ravines in the soil. Submerged in the greenery, I watch the flowers and grasses wave above me.
I have been sleeping. My mouth feels claggy and earth is indented on my cheek. The sun has set over this lower world, if not over the field above. About now, the last Londoners will be heading home from work, swiping their debit cards over the tube gates and proceeding to their designated boroughs. Perhaps a few braver employees will be strolling a little first, not that they’ll get far. Since the mayor stopped restricting building on pavements, cafes have expanded right to the road. Apartment blocks rise directly from the double yellows, accessible only from underground parking. Cars are king, and petrol an extravagance few can afford. In areas where council estates and new-build flats once commingled, luxury apartments have flanked together to shut out undesirables. Once rich and poor lived side by side – now they live back to back.
That’s why I need to get to the Scottish border. Dad wanted me to go years back, but I couldn’t leave him. Instead, I waxed on about London’s cosmopolitan charms and pretended that I didn’t want to go. Better that he was disappointed in me for wanting to stay, than disappointed in himself for preventing me from leaving. I’d wait until he had slipped into a codeine coma – or, more rarely, sleep – in that dank bedroom with walls grey from mould, then go down to the basement.
I spent my nights in the company of mice, fixing up a bicycle for when the time came. Restoring old parts and noting what I needed to acquire. I had improvised brake blocks from car tyres and bent some handlebars out of old piping. The project progressed faster than his illness, so I was left fine-tuning the gears and spokes, over and over: skills my Dad had once taught me. Only by then it was my hands that were black with grease, and his that seemed small and delicate.
Night has fallen around me in the field now, but it seems translucent in comparison to the pitch of the city. We’d lived in the dark periphery, like dirty thoughts pushed to the back of the mind. Those streets transformed fathers and daughters into thieves and murderers. Here, the wind blows freely through the thin hedgerows. It lulls heavy heads of barley, which bob in the moonlight. I had hoped for cloud cover, but least I can see the map.
Back on the road, the hedges slip by in black ranks. No foxes tearing the flesh of a dead pug here. No rats making daylight raids on the Turkish bakery, only to be beaten back with loaves. I hope that a barn owl will swoop across my path in a clean flash and I can count it as a good omen, but this mute landscape promises nothing. Avoiding the yellow stains where towns leach into the night, I speed unnoticed through back lanes, trusting that fear will have tucked good citizens up in bed. The few cars that do pass are preceded by twin lights traversing the hedgerows, giving me time to dive into a nearby ditch.
Curving wide of Norwich, I reach Cawston and rattle down the old railway path for some straight miles east. The sharp flints jab at my tires, but I can’t slow down – it’s 3am already and I’ve still more than 20 miles to go. The railway spits me out in the shadowy suburbs of Aylesham town. To get east from here, I have to cross an A road. My best bet is to simply pelt over a crossroads, and hope that nobody’s coming.
Cycling along the twist of tarmac leading to my chosen crossing, I stand up on my pedals and lean down over the handlebars. My rucksack slips awkwardly onto my neck. I’ve built up a good speed, but the lane is blocked off before the main road. Trees shadow the fence and I see it too late. Slamming sideways into the rough wood, I feel it splinter under impact. I sling myself and my bike over the barrier, and try to regain momentum in the ten remaining metres to the junction. I’m still pushing down hard, trying to accelerate over the rough ground, when the motion-activated floodlights of a roadblock blaze to my left. Blinded by adrenaline and LED bulbs, I make for the dark burrow of a lane directly in front of me. The sound of shouting, engines, and scraping metal chafes my ears. They have to extricate themselves from behind the barrier, but then they’ll be after me. The breath is already tight in my chest, but I have to push on into the warren of country lanes.
The road splits and splits again like a probability tree, each time increasing my chances of escape. My leg feels sore and my hand comes off black when I test it. Slowing to glance down, I see my knee leaking dark, thick liquid like oil. I must have ripped my skin on the fence, on some rusty nail. My socks are already soaked, but I can’t cycle with a tourniquet. Every pump of my leg, I feel it spewing blood. There’s no choice but to carry on. Left, right, left, left, right. Hope I don’t choose a dead end. Hope the police don’t catch me. Hope Bill kept his word and his tongue.
There’s a faint line on the horizon where the sun will appear at dawn. I head just left, to where I hope the smuggler’s cove will be. The sky is lightening, but the hedges and fields are blurring. The map swims as I trace the turns I’ve taken, to tally up where I am. A final push out to the sea, bloody from sunrise. The road is gritty, wheels slip slide beneath me, and I slump over the handlebar, let the back wheel skid, pedal until it’s too sandy, then flop off. I heave the bike into a ditch, then go it on foot as fast as I can. Steps slow through the dunes, two forward, one back. It’s 5:05 on the watch. Sand sticks to my leg and dark crusts crumble off.
A boat is still here, silhouetted. I strip off into the North Sea and swim. Open ocean. Tug of the tide. I hope it’s help and not betrayal.
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