No 8 - Winter 2001
Emillya has been out on the northern fringes of the city when she had first come across the tunnel. She was with a group of other girls, all from large families where food was scarce, money scarcer. They had been collecting spring nettles and other edible ‘soup-weeds’ to sell on in the markets, and though it could be hazardous harvesting the weeds in an illegal zone it was a relief to be free of the dirty shacks and crowded bustle of the shanty-town, even just for a few hours. The girls were burdened with huge back-sacks and hand scythes but there was a holiday atmosphere between them, all chattering, laughing, singing the latest ghetto songs. As they worked amidst the rubble, reaping in the banks of lush nettles and coils of goosegrass, they were aware they were being monitored. The Fence, that snaking ten metre security wall which separates the whole of Noatun City from the wealthy Lakeside villages, was always in view as they worked. They knew not to get too close to The Fence - mines and deadly laser snares had been set there by the Authorities; a prevention against city-zone dwellers escaping to ‘contaminate’ the villages. Death or serious injury was inevitable to anybody who went within a hundred metres of that wall. Few people even bothered trying to escape the cities anymore; those that succeed never lasted long in The North without the correct ID tag. The only way into The North for a city ‘zoner’ was to get work out there on a temporary pass then somehow marry into a wealthy family; either that or win a jackpot on the lottery and bribe yourself a path out.
Emillya saw the armoured truck first. The girls groaned in chorus, dropped their scythes and drew off their thick work gloves. As the vehicle trundled up they were not too worried. They knew the routine. Every spring ghetto-girls out collecting soup-weeds went through the same old game with the wall patrols. Four soldiers clambered out of the truck’s hatch and sauntered toward the girls, guns slung over their shoulders to hang casually at waist level. They were all young; too young to have seen action in The Southern Wars. Sensing weakness the street-wise girls teased them and flirted as their identity tags were examined.
“Rubbish stew for dinner then,” one soldier goaded at Emillya as he scanned her wrist tag with the decoder.
“Marry me then,” she jeered back, “and give me good fresh meat for supper.” She patted her crotch as she spoke and the girls yowled to see the sol-dier flush red in the face.
“Oh, this one’s sweet,” Emillya crooned, reaching up to stroke his face. He shied back from her fingers, out of his depth.
“Little blusher, look at him. He’s gorgeous. I love him already.”
Her ID checked, he released her wrist, unable to hold that shining gaze in her eyes.
With two of his comrades, Emillya’s young soldier escorted the girls back toward the legitimate city boundary, helping them with their cumbersome packs of food. The sun leered hot from above, sky hard blue around the dazzling white ruins, and in such gorgeous weather the soldiers could not keep up the pretence of being grim, stern-hearted war veterans for long. They softened as The Fence receded away behind them and were soon joking along with the girls, boasting of impossible heroics in the war, trading chocolate and cigarettes for pecks of kiss-es. Emillya walked all the way beside the one she now called ‘Flushing Warrior’, bombarding him with questions about his training, his family, his life beyond restrictions of the city zones. His name was Yana, and by the time they reached the city barrier she had won him over with her bubbling charm. As commanded, he picked a wayside flower and carefully fixed it in her hair, just above the left ear, making sure that when his fingers drew away he brushed gently down her cheek and slender neck.
Two days later, as arranged, Emillya and two of the girls returned to the prohibited area alongside The Fence. There, in a blind spot beyond the range of mon-itors and scanners, they met their soldiers again. In the roofless hollow of a derelict storehouse they drank raki and beer together, smoked cigarettes and cheap hashish. Eventually Emillya’s young soldier, ‘Flusher’ as she now called him, led her giggling away through the rubble. They stopped at a circular hole in the ground. A ladder of metal rungs, bracketed to the curve of the wall, led down into darkness. In turn, him first, they clambered down. Tittering, nuzzling, slopping their mouths in drunken kisses, they staggered across a cubed concrete basement to where there was bedding and oil lamps. There, in echoing gloom and dancing shadows, they drank more raki then made their love.
Afterwards, smoking a cigarette, head upon the heaving chest of her lover, Emillya took in her surroundings. Sunlight came filtering through the circular entrance in thick, smoke-moted beams, illuminating bright patches of graffiti on blue mildewed walls. Plastic raki containers, beer bottles and the rotting remains of two broken armchairs littered the floor beyond the raised bedding platform upon which they lay. Behind them and the platform, clearly visible in the smoking lamp light, a bricked up circle, about the height of a man, was set in the concrete wall.
“Your heart beats like a train,” Emillya murmured, twisting her head to gaze up at her lover’s chin. She saw that he was smiling. “This place is a real palace. You certainly know how to impress your ladies, Flusher.”
He still smiled, eyes closed.
“What’s this thing here behind us?”
He looked down at her, turned, following her gaze to the bricked up circle.
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Drains or something.”
Emillya had thought so too. She had already worked out that if a tunnel lay beyond those bricks then it ran in the direction of The Fence. He twisted up, reaching for his pile of uniform. “Probably some old sewer. Must lead into...”
“A tunnel under the wall,” she whispered.
“Something like that.”
“I could escape and meet you through there.”
“Yeah yeah, and get me shot.”
“I'd be your wife. We’d have a house.”
“And a dozen snotty kids around your ankles.”
“No no, silly, we’d use contraception.”
A tension flickered between them - of course they had not used anything this first time. Neither had considered disease or children. He laughed aloud to break the sudden mood, head shaking as he grabbed for his trousers.
“Anyway, Flusher,” she said gravely, propping her chin into upturned palms. “We can’t marry yet. That would be illegal. I’m under age...”
Worry rippled upon his face and she giggled, pouncing forward so that he was forced to catch her in his arms, the two of them rolling to the bedding again.
Emillya met her soldier several more times that spring, and they always ended up in the secret basement. After making love she would mumble him pillow-talk fantasies of escaping through the bricked up tunnel. She’d tell of the house they would have in The North; of their beautiful children; of the huge garden with its vegetables and pretty path-side borders of flowers. Sometimes at night back home in the family flat, she would turn her thoughts away from the day ahead, allowing imaginary scenarios to play through her mind. On her inner screen, like some heroine in a disc adventure, she would be sneaking through the outer city ruins, a bag of clothes upon her back. She would have money, and a false ID bracelet that would allow her to pass freely through the Lakeside villages. By torchlight - for she always escaped at night - she would climb down the metal ladder, take a hammer from her pack, then smash her way through the circle of bricks. And following a long, wet, night time of tunnels, she would emerge at day break far away, rich and free and beautiful in The North.
One night, after one of these fantasies, she suffered a terrible dream. She had broken through the tunnel wall, and as usual was groping along through darkness toward her freedom. An unfathomable danger lurked behind her like a wild dog, pursuing her at a distance, and she was aware that capture was inevitable. Bright torchlight from ahead blinded her as voices came floating down the tunnel; harsh voices, murmuring an echoing chorus in a language that she did not understand. Silhouettes came jerking toward her, a gaggle of skinny, ragged people forcing her to press against the cold wall as they went whispering by.
“Where do you think you are going?” she called out after the last one, a child, had passed her by. The boy pointed ahead, uttering a short, hopeless sentence in the strange language. Though Emillya did not understand the words she knew exactly what the child had said. “Freedom,” he had said. “We are escaping into freedom.”
Hardly a nightmare, yet the depressing images haunted Emillya, the memory of the dream lingering for years.
Inevitably summer came, plants went to seed, and weed-gathering ceased for that year. The young soldiers were transferred to some distant war-plagued corner of the continent, parting from their ghetto-girls with the usual fruitless promises of friendship, reunions, and letters.
Emillya soon forgot the physical details of her blushing soldier, but forever remembered their basement love-nest with its illuminating beams of smoky sunshine, its graffiti, the litter of empty bottles. And she never forgot that bricked-up tunnel entrance with all those dreams that lay beyond it.
These dreams of freedom she made sure were instilled into her first child, a son, who she named Yana, after his father.
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