The water was just visible in the bottles, the glass so scratched that Jean had to squint to see the inch of liquid at the bottom of each. Three of them, lined up at the front of the table with a man standing next to them.
‘We can’t afford it,’ Jean said, tugging Perry’s hand. He leaned out towards the table, waving his free hand through the stream of rainbow light cast through the bottles by the low sun.
‘Perhaps you can,’ the man by the table said. He was looking at Perry, and Jean pulled Perry closer.
‘No,’ she said, smiling to take any offence out of the refusal. ‘Thank you, but no. We have water at home.’
‘We don’t,’ Perry said. ‘You said we were coming here to get some water ‘cos we keep running out!’
‘From the council’s bowser trucks,’ Jean said. ‘That’s enough for us. We don’t need to buy more after that.’
Perry tried to tug his hand free, and Jean dragged him away. The man called after her; ‘Come back any time! The water may still be here!’
Safely out of sight of the water stall, Jean pulled Perry upright and slapped him hard across the face. The stallholders nearby watched without comment. The old world has definitely gone, Jean thought. I would have been prosecuted for that ten years ago.
‘Behave yourself!’ Jean said. ‘Did you see that water? It was orange. What have I told you about orange liquid?’
‘Don’t drink it, not ever,’ Perry said. ‘But he said it was water!’
‘Piddle is water, too,’ Jean told him. ‘Not every trader is honest. Before you let them know you want what they’re selling, make sure you know what you have to pay for it.’
Perry’s face wrinkled and his mouth opened to wail.
‘Stop that,’ Jean said. Her hand raised again and Perry shut his mouth.
‘Kid’s a bit young to be here, maybe,’ said one of the stallholders, a man of Jean’s age.
‘He has to learn,’ Jean replied. She pointed to the stallholder next to him, a young woman with two small children. ‘Like they do. They’re behaving themselves well enough.’
The stallholder snorted. ‘They’re tied to the table, or did you not notice? In case someone steals them.’
The two children stared back at her blankly, and the woman stallholder watched her with a scowl.
‘Used to be three of them,’ the man said. ‘Keep a good hold of your kid, unless you mean to trade him for water.’
Jean tugged Perry towards the old car park, where the council’s water bowsers would arrive soon. She didn’t know whether the woman had sold her third child to the slavers or whether he’d been kidnapped. Either way, that scowl felt like a witch’s curse.
Perry began to fidget as Jean joined the end of the water queue.
‘Need to wee,’ Perry hissed.
‘Can’t you wait till we get home?’ Jean said.
‘Go on then,’ Jean said. ‘Bushes, over there. Stay where I can see you.’ More water lost to their community. Even the tiny amount Perry would piddle would be valuable; after being filtered slowly through their reclamation system, urine would be safe enough to water plants and their plants sorely needed a drink. So did she. If the water truck ran dry before she reached the front of the queue, Jean would join the bloody riots this time.
Perry re-joined her as the bowser trucks arrived, and they waited for their turn to claim the community’s water ration. Jean touched the ration books to make sure they hadn’t fallen out of their hidden pocket, or been stolen. They needed the water this time. The stream running behind their little group of houses had eased to a trickle, and at times it looked polluted. They’d taken to filtering it and adding purifying tablets, but they still suffered stomach upsets at times.
The soldier checked Jean’s books, stamped them and shouted to his colleague; ‘Seventeen adults and a child.’ Jean handed up the bottles and watched as they were filled with water. Or almost filled.
‘Can you top those up, please?’ Jean asked. ‘Some of them aren’t full.’
‘Ration’s been cut. Litre a day per person now,’ the soldier said. His stance changed; hands shifting on the gun, feet apart, braced for trouble.
Jean shrugged. They’d manage. She settled the bottles into the trolley, took Perry’s hand and led him away. ‘Home now,’ she said.
‘Not the market?’ he asked. His face reminded her so much of his mother’s at that age. Always asking for something more – another five minutes in the park, a second lolly. Louise got what she wanted, sometimes; Jean wished now she’d been less strict when life was easier. If she’d realised that Louise would be dead before her twentieth birthday, she would have been the spoiling kind of mother.
‘We have to get these bottles home safely first,’ Jean said. ‘People get mugged for water. You keep watch for bad guys, and I’ll take you back to the market tomorrow.’
‘Tell me about the markets when you were little,’ Perry said. He treated these accounts of life in the twentieth century as fairy tales – once upon a time, people could get water everywhere they went, children threw water at each other for fun and nobody got upset about it, everyone threw all their urine away and sent clean water after it to chase it through the pipes.
‘The market in my town...’
‘What’s a town?’ Perry interrupted.
‘Like a village, but lots of people,’ Jean said. ‘A thousand times more people.’
‘What’s a thousand?’
Jean hesitated. ‘It’s a lot. It doesn’t matter. You won’t ever see a thousand people all together, not if you live to be a hundred years old.’
Perry stopped. ‘Will I live to be a hundred?’
No chance, Jean thought. ‘You might,’ she said instead.
‘Are you a hundred?’
‘No,’ Jean said. ‘Fifty-three.’ A good age, these days. Marcus had made a series of jokes recently about the Eskimos abandoning their elderly, keeping his gaze on her as he chuckled. She knew that without the shelter of her house in Western Avenue and the support of the street’s group, she wouldn’t survive long.
‘Was my mum a hundred when she died?’ Perry asked.
An image of Louise came to Jean’s mind. Turning up on Jean’s doorstep in tears after fleeing her boyfriend and her university course, already in the last year of her life.
‘What made her dead?’ Perry asked.
‘Water,’ Jean said, unsteadily. ‘She drank some bad water. When the taps ran dry, she bought a bottle of dirty water from some bad people. You remember I told you not to drink water that didn’t look clean? It killed her. It’s too easy to drink anything you’re offered when you’re thirsty, Perry. You have to be careful.’
He was silent for so long that Jean worried she’d scared him too much.
‘What’s the taps?’ he asked.
Jean almost said that you turned on a tap to get water, but Perry had never seen that happen in his lifetime. It had been that quick. Rainfall had been decreasing for twenty years. Reservoirs dried up more often, till it wasn’t a news story. Water rationing every summer turned into a year-round restriction, enforced by closing down the water supply to homes. People began to die. They died in water riots – they drank from streams and died of cholera and typhoid and pesticide poisoning – they drank alcohol instead of water and died of liver disease and dehydration and diabetes. Small injuries went unwashed and festered, and sometimes…
‘Look!’ Perry said. ‘It’s that man with the water! Hallo mister!’
…Sometimes, they were murdered for their bottled water ration.
Jean pulled Perry to her side as the water trader approached.
‘Fancy meeting you here,’ the trader said, grinning. Jean didn’t reply, but clutched the handle of her trolley tighter. Shit. She should have been watching to make sure no-one was following them.
The trader took a few steps closer. ‘Is that all the water you have?’ he asked, nodding at the bottles. ‘You should have bought from me while I still had some to spare. All sold now. We could always swap, though.’
His eyes were on Perry. Jean stepped backwards, and someone close behind her said; ‘Boo!’
Jean froze as two arms wrapped around her shoulders from behind, pulling her backwards and off balance. She screamed, feeling Perry tugged away as she fell. She fought back as best she could, dodging the kicks aimed at her and snatching at the assailant’s legs to trip him up. Perry’s wailing receded, but she couldn’t spare time to look for him – the kicks were getting more vicious, and the ones that landed on her face sounded like explosions inside her head.
A final kick missed her right ear and Jean heard a whistle of air and a thud, then silence. She rested her face on the dust of the road and passed out.
It was dark when she came to, and a light drizzle was falling. Jean heard nothing nearby. After a moment, she rolled over slowly to face up into the drizzle, wiping the dirt from her face and looking cautiously around. No-one. The water bottles had gone, too. She put her hands to the road to push herself upright and felt slime under her right hand. Wiping it off on the grass, she smelt the coppery tang of blood. And there in the ditch was a body with an arrow protruding from its chest.
Jean leaned over the man, keeping her distance. She didn’t recognise him, but the watch he wore was distinctive. This was the man who had wrapped his arms around her from behind and let the trader wrench Perry away. When the man half-opened his eyes, she stood back warily. Even back in the old world, he couldn’t have been saved from an injury like that. Jean wasn’t going to waste any time on him. She had to let Marcus and the others know that Perry had been kidnapped.
Marcus. She looked again at the arrow sunk into the man’s chest. Two sky blue fletches and a maroon one, colours running in the damp air. It was one of Marcus’ arrows. He’d been there, had fired – and hadn’t stopped to help her. She might get home only to find that he’d rallied the Western Avenue group against her, and she was driven out of her home.
Jean was shivering by the time she reached Marcus’ door. It was long after midnight, but he still had a candle burning low and dim by his chair, causing a faint glow in his front room window. She almost didn’t knock, but if Marcus had thought she was going to crawl away and die he needed to be challenged. When he opened his door to her, she folded her arms and tried to look severe. Marcus motioned her in with a jerk of his head.
‘Perry’s gone,’ Jean said. ‘Trader took him.’
‘I know,’ Marcus said. ‘I was out in the woods and saw what happened. I went after the man.’ He draped a jacket over her shoulders. ‘Perry’s safe.’
‘You shot the man who was attacking me,’ Jean said. ‘Thank you.’
Marcus nodded a ‘You’re welcome’.
‘But you didn’t fetch me back,’ Jean added. ‘I woke up on the road.’
‘You made it back on your own,’ Marcus said. ‘If you can’t look after yourself, there’s no point in saving you. Besides, I was busy going after Perry.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Upstairs,’ Marcus said. ‘Maybe you should leave him here.’
‘Sure,’ Jean said. ‘He’ll be asleep. First thing tomorrow.’
‘I meant, leave him here from now on.’
‘He’s my grandson,’ Jean said. ‘He stays with me.’
‘We’ll discuss this tomorrow.’
‘No discussion,’ Jean said. ‘Perry stays with me. He’s only five, Marcus. He needs his family, and I’m all the family he has left.’
‘When you and I were five, we went to school,’ Marcus pointed out. ‘We began learning the things that led us on to our roles in later life. Perry has to do the same. There’s no room in this world for idle kids – he’s already learnt to plant seeds, tend plants, weed and pick fruit, and now we have to start teaching him what else he’ll need to know as an adult. He’s part of our group now – he’ll have to earn his way.’
Jean thought of the trader’s accomplice slowly dying in a ditch, and wondered what Perry would grow up to be. It was their job to teach him how to be good, and how to survive. That hadn’t changed in the last five years – in all civilised human history. Be good, and survive. She nodded.
‘If you won’t let him live with us - can he come here in the daytime?’ Marcus asked. ‘I want to take him on as an apprentice.’
‘Apprentice to a builder? Why?’ Jean asked. ‘There’s millions of empty houses in this country and the last I heard there were less than a million survivors in England.’
‘I stopped being a builder when everything collapsed,’ Marcus said. ‘No, I want to train him as a bowyer.’
‘Bowyer,’ Marcus repeated. ‘Archer. Fletcher. Making his own bows and arrows and firing them fast and accurate. It’s the kind of skill we need right now, and it was my hobby before – before the water ran dry. If nothing else, the woodworking skills and the muscles he’ll build will get him a place in any good community – one with water to spare.’
‘And that’s the new six figure salary position,’ Jean said. ‘Clean water. I gave an annual donation to provide clean water to African villages before all this crisis blew up. Now it’s our turn. Will you send him out robbing graveyards of their yews?’
‘Not yew - ash,’ Marcus said. ‘Though any tree with the right amount of flex to it will do. Oak – maple, too, and there’s not been many diseases that hit maple trees, so there’s plenty of them around.’ He shrugged. ‘An arrow saved your life, earlier today. Try buying a bow and finding an archery school now – I can teach the kid to make his own bow and shoot straight and hard.’
‘Why?’ Jean asked. ‘We have you to do that.’
‘I won’t be around forever,’ Marcus said. ‘I know I keep saying this as a joke, but – the Eskimos were said to dispose of their elderly when food was short, and one day we might be so short of water or food that… I’m the oldest round here. I might get asked to leave for the good of the younger people.’
‘I thought,’ Jean said carefully, ‘that you were directing that joke at me.’
‘I wondered why you never smiled at it,’ Marcus said. He snorted. ‘No, you’re a good gardener, and we need to grow enough drought-proof fruit and veg to feed us as much as we can. I’m fifty-one now. Ten years if I’m lucky and I’m out.’
‘I’m fifty-three, so I’m ahead of you in the disposable stakes,’ Jean said. ‘Growing food is no use if some dick decides it’s easier to come in and take it. An archer sitting waiting for them means you keep the food you grow.’
‘Perry’s a good lad,’ Marcus said. ‘He could be the next archer of Western Avenue. He pestered me all the way home about my bow. He’s keen.’ The light dimmed. The stub of candle was softening, the wick lurched off to one side and about to drown.
‘Teach him,’ Jean said. ‘But let him go on living with me. He’s my grandson, and I will tear open anyone who comes after him.’
‘As I did,’ Marcus said. ‘That kidnapping bastard’s dogmeat now.’
The candle wick sank slowly into the pool of molten wax, and the light died.
‘Sleep on the sofa,’ Marcus said. ‘You looked too tired to stand up.’
‘Can I have some water?’
Marcus hesitated, then went to the kitchen and half-filled a mug with water from the carafe, handing it to Jean.
‘You can pay me back tomorrow,’ he said, as she drank.
As she worked her mind slowly down the layers into sleep, Jean whispered her usual goodnight to her daughter’s spirit. She dreamed of Perry standing out in a storm, head tipped back and mouth open, drinking from the taps of the sky.