Turmoil (A Story From Troublesome Times)
by Andrew Lee-Hart
I found the following piece of writing in the back of a battered computer manual that I bought ten years ago, after attending a shop clearance over in Willeton. It was part of a collection of similar books which I thought might be of interest to a collector of such things, but the whole pile lay forgotten and unlooked at, in the corner of my shop, slowly accumulating dust, until, because of my lack of customers, I decided to go through my stock, giving me an excuse to read or skim through my collection before putting everything back exactly as it was.
To my surprise I realised that one of the books contained something attached to the inside cover; a grubby brown envelope within which were several sheets of handwritten paper which I have now transcribed; modernising the language and editing scenes that might disgust or bewilder any younger or sensitive readers. Whether anybody will ever read this is of course a different matter, but it has given me a hobby when I needed something to occupy my mind.
It took me almost forty-eight hours to get to Brighton from Doncaster by rail, travelling on a cold and noisy train, but not so long ago the journey would have been impossible; too many shootings and bombs on the lines for the rail companies to try it. Even now that things are a little better, it was still a risky journey and I am sure I was not the only passenger who unconsciously ducked below their seat every time the train stopped, and who had a gun close to hand just in case.
There were almost a hundred of us waiting at the station when the train came in; I noticed one family who judging by their clutter had been there awhile, I guessed that they were a father, daughter and her three children, they kept themselves to themselves, whispering and avoiding everyones gaze. I could hear other passengers whisper that they were Jews, but that was probably just malicious. They did look scared though, but it wasnt for me to report them, and anyway with things getting back to normal I did not want to bring attention to myself.
The train stopped and started throughout the journey; we had a good run between Sheffield and Nottingham, but then we ended up stationery for almost ten hours just outside Leicester when I managed to sleep fitfully. Heading towards London there were several stops when inspectors, heavily armed as usual, came aboard and asked for Identity Cards, and train tickets; fortunately they did not find me suspicious, although my heart beat more quickly when they came to examine my documents.
At the fifth such stop a dozen soldiers came aboard and strode through the carriages. The family I had noticed earlier, were at the far end of my carriage, the soldiers seemed to have known they were there, because half the troop went straight to them and covered them with their rifles; after a cursory glance at their papers by the leader of the troop, the family were shepherded off the train, they walked past me down the aisle, looking straight ahead, as if they were used to such humiliation. An elderly couple, who I had not noticed before, were also forced off, tears silently falling down the face of the husband as they left, I have no idea if they were also Jewish, a member of some revolutionary group or just a couple the soldiers took a dislike to? The soldiers and their captives stood together at the side of the railway line, watching us expressionlessly as the train pulled thankfully away.
The train smelt of damp, faeces and stale food, but by the time that we slowly manoeuvred our way into Brighton station, weary and hungry, it felt like home, and I left the carriage with some reluctance, as if from a shelter from the storm. There were more soldiers at the station, examining us all closely, the trick was to maintain a balance between looking confident but also humble; blending in. I had my letter from the government tucked away somewhere, in case I was grabbed, but I would only produce it as a last resort, and fortunately I left the station without being taken away.
At least nowadays people were less likely to be shot out of hand than in the past, where heaps of what looked like old clothing were a common site in towns and cities, or dumped by the side of country roads and railway lines, with pigs and wild dogs looking on with macabre interest. By all accounts the South was relatively safe, more so than Yorkshire and the North West where I had spent the last two years, with proper procedures in place although the curfews were still rigorously enforced.
I had hoped that I would have received some kind of message from Mr Cohen; someone pushing a letter into my jacket pocket or a whispered piece of information from a passer-by, but there was nothing, no doubt he would contact me when the time was right; I had every faith that he would be able to find me when he needed to, and in the meantime I had work to do. Even in Yorkshire messages had been passed to me, although nothing in the last four months or so, which is partly why I had decided to head back down South, to see what was happening.
As I walked through the town looking for a hotel I noticed the streets looked cleaner than when I was there two years ago, so there must have been some kind of refuse service now, and there were shops that appeared to be open and doing business. I went in one, a normal residential house by the look of it, but now a makeshift bakery, there was a teenage girl there on her own, with loaves of bread behind her; the smell of freshly baked bread made me almost cry, remembering times gone by.
Have you got anything to exchange? she asked.
I advanced forward into the shop, but then realised she had a gun in her hand and was pointing it at me, calmly.
Dont come any further, until I know what you have got.
I can fix computers, I have a licence.
We dont have a computer, what would I need one of those for?
Her accent was more London than Sussex and I wondered what had brought her here.
Whats your name? I asked, trying to edge a little closer, but she was having none of it, and her gun remained steady, pointing at my chest.
I have chocolate.
We haggled but eventually I left the shop with a loaf of bread and a sachet of jam, having had the best of the deal, and I sat in a derelict shelter, where old folks used to gossip and escape the cold wind, and ate four slices of bread; it did not taste as good as it had smelled, it was heavy and gritty, but it filled me up, and I felt my sense of being human rather than an animal start to re-appear. I just hoped that it wasnt poisoned; there were rumours of such things and someone from a congregation in Hull had died after buying meat from a cart, although that might have been because the meat was rotten, rather than anything malicious.
I found a hotel on a busy road. The manager wanted to charge me a huge amount for two nights but once I told her that I could fix her computer system she agreed to let me stay for two nights without any other payment.
It hasnt worked for three years. The owner, a young woman of about twenty told me.
I will be able to do something I am sure, as I examined the kit; old certainly, but then all computers were, but I felt that there was life within her, hidden behind the circuits.
She brought me some surprisingly good coffee as I sat in front of it, tapping on keys; I had to replace a few pieces but within two hours, and four more coffees later, it was working, much to her shock and pleasure.
It has most of the basic functions, and there is the internet.
Yet, it is up and running, government controlled, but you can advertise on there, find missing people, that sort of thing. Just be careful as I believe it is monitored.
Thank you so much, and then she kissed me; her lips hard and strong against mine, and behind them warmth and comfort, and for a moment I held her close.
I had a handwritten map and a vague memory of the way from my previous visit, and thus after a couple of detours I found the building, an old garage which looked closed, but I walked around the back, and there was a door which I pulled towards me and I was inside the cold repair room which was now empty, apart from a couple of benches, although there was still the smell of petrol in the atmosphere, and I imagined what it had been like before the Turmoil, with young men in overalls listening to music on the radio as they joked and larked about and fixed cars. The young men would all be dead, and the cars cannibalised and rusting.
I followed the sound of the singing into a large room with chairs and people; I had lost count of the number of times I had stood in the midst of such a group of believers like this; mostly women but a few elderly men as well. But there was something different this time; there were fewer people than there used to be, and their looks were different, no longer was there the fervent enthusiasm and sense of danger as in the past; many looked bored as if they felt obliged to be here but their hearts were elsewhere.
An old woman, dressed in black, was standing at the front, and she was reading something from the Psalms, when I walked in and found a seat near the front, she then read a scripture from the Book of Acts. Afterwards, in strident tones, she talked rather at random about the passage of the Bible she had just read and talked and the persecution up North and the importance of staying true to Jesus, all a bit rambling as if she was making it up as she went along, and the audience hardly reacted, waiting for her to finish.
Was it amongst these dispossessed people, where Mr Cohen had sent me, that the revolutionaries lurked? In the past maybe, but surely not now. Was there any point in spying on such ineffectual and pathetic people who were being left behind for good? Whilst I surreptitiously looked at the congregation I noticed a young woman at the back who deliberately met my eye; she did not seem to belong, being better dressed than the rest, wearing a rather lovely blouse and skirt, and like me she seemed more interested in the people around her than what was going on, in front of her. She had red hair and even now when there were ten or twenty women to each man, she stood out as particularly attractive.
After the woman in black had finished her monologue I came to the front and introduced myself before telling them about my trip in the North; exaggerating the bad to create interest; I was pleased to notice that most of the congregation were beginning to wake up and engage, whilst the woman I had exchanged looks with gave me a smirk. Afterwards I mentioned about my computer work and where I was staying in case anybody needed their computer fixing, a bit of a dangerous thing to do but I had not been paid for awhile and needed the money.
After the service had ended, I talked with an elderly man who was a senior member of the church, I had met him during my last visit, and we sat together quietly in a room upstairs.
Sorry about the congregation, many were busy.
I nodded, that is no good, you used to get twice as many, or more.
But things are changing, did you hear about the letter in The Times, asking that churches be re-opened, even a few months ago they would not have dared to print that.
No, I hadnt heard that I admitted and drank my coffee thoughtfully.
Just think, no more hiding in abandoned buildings and the fear of getting caught?
Indeed I agreed, before leaving, anxious to get back before the curfew.
The woman with red hair was waiting for me outside.
I thought you had gone a different way she murmured as she took my arm and led me along various backstreets to her flat, which was on the other side of the town, hidden away in a cul de sac; it was deathly quiet as we walked; once there would have been the sound of cars and people shouting and laughing, but now there was nothing, just the light breathing of the woman by my side.
Her flat was richly and tastefully furnished, with several thick carpets and a pleasant smell of perfume.
Have you a message from Mr Cohen? I asked her.
She shook her head, but here are the names from the last six months she told me and handed me a sheet of paper, numbers are dropping as you saw.
Can you fix my computer? she then asked, you mentioned that you can do it.
Curtains drawn, she sat on her bed and watched whilst I worked on her computer until it was lit up and working, by then it was seven oclock and the curfew had begun and so I had to stay, we undressed and had sex quickly and satisfyingly, and then we curled up together in her comfortable bed, and I had the best nights sleep I had had for awhile. By the time I awoke it was six and the curfew had just ended, I dressed, my feet warm on the carpet, and leaving the woman motionless in bed I left the flat and went looking for my hotel.
I felt vulnerable walking along the promenade; too many young soldiers about looking bored and restless, and the houses and hotels overlooking us were unseeing and dead. I originally had planned on catching a train, but there were no staff at the Railway Station, other than a bored looking woman in a café which was empty of food. There were people camped inside the station, with tents, huddled together for safety, but I had no urge to join them for God knew how long; I was only going to Eastbourne, and after my long train journey at the beginning of the week and then sitting in the hotels small office fixing computers all day and night, the idea of a day walking by the sea appealed to me.
I had not heard anything from Mr Cohen, and I was starting to worry. After I had left Eastbourne I was going to go to London, and hopefully there I would come across him; I had a few people I needed to report to, and presumably he would soon discover that I was back in the capital and initiate contact. Although I had an address for him from long ago, I was not sure he still used it and anyway I was under strict orders not to try and find him, but that he would find me when he needed to; that had always been the way. Without hearing from him I felt lost, as if I was going through the motions but without direction.
Ahead of me limped a man dressed all in black, as I got closer I examined him more carefully and appreciated his suit, presumably it was second-hand (at best) but even so it was well-tailored and better-fitting than one usually saw, even amongst the rich and powerful. For a moment I remembered being a child, my father stitching throughout the evening with the television low in the background, singing a traditional song.
You cant always get what you/ but you know some time/ You just might find/ You get what you want.
From the old bed in the corner I had watched him, just the two of us in one room. Until one night they took him away as they had my mother before him, and I was left to fend for myself.
When I passed the old man he was standing still, apparently regaining his breath.
Good morning brother he called out.
I gave him a smile, it did not pay to talk to strangers, not that it was in my nature to.
Hold up he said, and walked in time with me, I speeded up in the hope of leaving him trailing but it did not work, and he kept in time although his breathing became heavier, and he kept clutching his right leg, as it to stop it dropping off.
Where are you off to?
Eastbourne. Strangers did not ask questions unless they were from some authority and were armed, I became wary.
I dont think I will get that far, but I will walk with you a little if I may, maybe as far as Newhaven.
I shrugged and carried on walking, not sure where Newhaven was but hoping that it was close by. The man picked up a stone and threw it towards the sea, where it joined the innumerable pebbles already on the beach.
There were few people about, even the soldiers had disappeared, just a few elderly men and women dashing from house to house. As we walked along I saw what used to be a church, Nonconformist at a guess, now turned into a cinema, and I wondered if it had been taken over during the Turmoil, or beforehand. As a boy in Bootle I remembered many churches had been either been knocked down or turned into office blocks or Bingo Halls. Tired old churches, with a tired old message, doomed to disappear sooner or later.
Are you a churchgoer he asked me.
Of course not.
Dont look offended, it is likely to become legal again, or hadnt you heard? We all need something, a community, a place of ones own.
Do you? I asked him.
He laughed, I may have been. I am old. These new ways dont sit right with me, nothing wrong with religion. It does no harm.
I sniffed and wondered where he had got his suit from. Perhaps I should have gone into tailoring like my dad rather than computing, but who could afford new clothes, or even the material to make them with?
We walked on without speaking.
I saw you, at the church, I was to the side, you went home with that young woman.
I looked at him, he returned my gaze, calmly.
I wonder who you work for. We all have to make a living, but perhaps you should stick to fixing computers, the world is changing.
I noticed it was quiet, nobody within sight, and to our right there was a bus shelter, large and I surreptitiously tried to steer him towards it.
No thank you he said, and I realised that there was a gun in his hand, and I was sweating despite it being a cold Spring day
There are people watching us he told me, not that I need them, one step and I will shoot you down; if I had my way I would have already done it. Stick to your computing my friend, you are doing a useful job there, the world has changed now, and you lot are not needed anymore, everything is opening up now, it is a brighter, better world, and there is no room for people like you in it.
He walked away, heading away from the sea and I stared back at him, he turned once more.
Oh and dont come back. We know who you are and next time I will shoot you, or somebody else will do it, but I hope that it is me.
And then he limped away, whilst I carried on walking, more hurriedly now, imagining rows of rifles pointing directly at my head. I shivered in the cold wind and hoped Eastbourne would be more hospitable.
I sat in a Lyons Coffee Shop, drinking something unpleasant and watching the office opposite; earlier I had been told that the man I had come to see did not work there and had swiftly been edged out of the building by the young woman on the desk and the armed guard who had quickly appeared, presumably at her behest. I had sat watching the office for two hours now, it was gone five and surely he would leave, unless the woman was telling the truth and he no longer worked there, or perhaps he was one of the many who had died; even the richest and most powerful were not immune to the knock on the door or the car pulling up beside them and the invitation to step inside for a chat.
The café smelt of damp and of toast, close to the door there were an elderly couple talking quietly, and at the counter was a young woman who appeared to be doing everything; cooking, serving and taking the money. Judging by the opening hours on its door the shop was supposed to have closed a short while ago, but the girl had made no move to throw us out; presumably she lived on the premises so did not need to worry about getting home before the curfew, and the more money she could get out of us the better.
And then I saw him; my contact and link with Mr Cohen; he looked around once and then swiftly left the building and I ran from the coffee house a pitiful amount of money left on my table. I saw the girl mouth bastard through the window as I gave chase. Many people were in a hurry with less than two hours to go until curfew began, and there was an air of haste about the city, I had heard that the soldiers were less vigilant in London, but also that there were gangs at night, and decent people liked to be safe at home before seven, with the lights off and bars on their doors.
The man was walking nonchalantly down towards Government Tube Station, I was sure it was him, that loping walk, his blonde, almost white hair, and his expensive coat. I could smell his usual aftershave as I came up behind him, but as I was about to reach over and touch him on the shoulder, I felt myself pushed and my back crashed into a wall and slid to the pavement.
Two men, young and well-dressed looked down on me and started to kick me, and I doubled up in pain, I received a vicious kick to my stomach and lay paralysed for a moment before vomiting over a shoe. I was expecting a bullet, at least one in my knee cap, but they continued just to kick and stamp, until after a final savage kick in my face, one of them spat in my face and they left me, heading into the Tube Station laughing, leaving me lying there amidst the smell of urine and sick.
Predictably nobody had come to my aid, or even after my assailants had gone, did anyone check to see if I was okay; they probably thought that I was a revolutionary or a Jew, and thus deserving my beating. Eventually I managed to stagger up and stand still for a moment; I felt sick and there was blood dripping down my forehead, but at least I could walk, and I wasnt dead. Gingerly I started to head towards the room that I was renting, realising that I would lucky to be back in time.
The next day I spent visiting various offices and rooms; at first I tried the large official looking buildings, where in the past I had sat with important men and women making plans and drawing up lists, but now nobody knew the people I was asking for and were anxious to get rid of me, as if I was a reminder of something horrific that they would rather forget. I walked through a city that was slowly returning to life after a long and life-threatening coma; the population looked less nervous and there were more people about, whereas until recently, the sensible ones only went out if it was unavoidable, and in groups.
And still Mr Cohen had not contacted me; a couple of times I had mentioned his name only to receive a blank look in return. If he wanted to, I am sure he could have found where I was staying and passed on a message, or some money. Perhaps he was watching me going from office to office, lost and confused; I imagined him tracking me on a computer, laughing or feeling sorry for me, until the time was right; and then he would make his move.
Slowly I became aware of footsteps behind me, strong and persistent, the sound of authority and power, which in the past had been the side that I was on, but no longer, they must have been only a couple of metres behind me, but I did not dare stop and have a look; I wondered if it was Mr Cohen himself, letting me know he was there and knew where I was. I began to avoid the quieter streets and I made sure that my gun was close at hand. My breathing became shallower, but I could not stop and rest, and I did not want to go back to my room in case they followed me there, assuming they did not already know where I was living.
After wandering purposelessly around the city, I headed into the East End, my last hope; there were more people about here and it was more like London used to be, the locals appeared to have managed to make a home amongst the ruins which the bombings had left behind all those years ago. After awhile I realised that I could no longer hear my follower, I stood on a street corner and slowly looked around, but nothing looked suspicious, and I carried on with my searching.
As a last resort I headed to a small room above what used to be a Kosher Butcher shop, but which had been vandalised and neglected so that it was barely recognisable, there was just a fragment of Hebrew on the lintel which nobody had managed to destroy, which gave a clue to the buildings original use. I remembered the first time that I had been here; even then it had been dilapidated and I had been convinced I had gone to the wrong address, although it was clearly written on the piece of paper I had received at the café in Walthamstow.
There had been no need to knock, the door had been ajar and a voice had shouted for me to come in, and there was the man who was to control my every move for the next few years; he called himself Mr Cohen, the name that was then on the Butchers downstairs, but I assume that this was a rather macabre joke, but I was never given another name. That first evening no curfew in those days he had sat me down and we had talked about the chaos that was slowly being unleashed.
The government is still behind the scenes he told me, but we are losing control, we need people like you to find out who the troublemakers are; the revolutionaries. Search them out; see what they are doing, know their plans before they do, and report it all back to me.
I had sat there, shy but flattered to have been picked out and asked.
It will be dirty work, you will see bad things and will have to be ruthless, but it will all be necessary.
I had liked him from the first; he reminded me of my father, so kind and patient, attributes which you rarely saw nowadays, and I felt he was somebody I could trust and that I would do whatever he needed me to. We had drunk beer and listened to Vaughan Williams, whilst outside there was the continuous sound of alarms going off, gunfire and screams, somehow it sounded worse from the small flat than when one was in the middle of it. I had left that night, with a purpose, money and a gun, and now I was coming back to see what had gone wrong.
I climbed up the dirty staircase that I knew so well, with its familiar scent of urine and God knows what else, I tried to be quiet, but the stairs creaked abominably, and anyone in the building would have known that I was there. I knocked on the door and there was silence, so I tried the handle, the door was unlocked and I pushed it open, and, straight in front of me was Mr Cohen sat in the chair, with a gun pointing straight at me, but a Mr Cohen who looked tired and dirty and at the end of his tether, his eyes dead. I would get no help from him.
So you have arrived. He said wheezily, and squeezed the trigger, fortunately he was slow and I had already pulled the trigger of my gun, and he jerked backwards as my bullet hit him, whilst his bullet hit the ceiling above my head. I gazed down at the body of my mentor, he was still stirring.
Why? I asked.
They sent you to get me. he wheezed, I said that I would go down fighting. He coughed, I told them I would not give in easily. But I did not think it was you they would send.
Nobody sent me, I was just looking for orders.
There was silence as he regained his breath.
There are no orders he muttered and then closed his eyes, either dead or asleep.
There was an old blanket which presumably he had slept on and I had covered him with it, and said a quick prayer that my father used to say; I was not quite sure of the words, but hopefully it meant something, and even though he had tried to kill me, I felt that I owed him that. For a moment or two I stood over him and felt tears coming to my eyes, although I really knew nothing of the man dead at my feet.
I hurriedly left the building, my eyes peeled for anyone suspicious, but everyone was hurrying home, and nobody seemed to notice me. I got back to the end of my street just as the sirens went on for the curfew; I could see someone in the window of the two elderly ladies who owned the block of rooms and who lived below me on the ground floor; I had fixed their computer for free and they had been grateful and often left food in my room for me and chatted with me in the evenings.
As I walked up the drive, I saw that it was Mrs Anderson at the window, she was talking to someone within, and then she appeared to see me, and without turning around she surreptitiously waved for me to go, her hand conveying urgency and fear. I immediately turned and ran, there was the sound of glass breaking behind me and running footsteps; two men came out of a nearby street, heading straight towards me, by now I had my gun in my hand and I shot twice in their direction and there were yells, but I kept running, hoping that I had hit both of them.
I was on a main road now, and felt safer there, dodging in and out of pedestrians, who would not want to get involved with this. And then I saw, miracle of miracles, a bus, something I had not seen for almost ten years. I jumped aboard, the passengers on it, resolutely refused to look at me as we drove out towards the centre of the city, and I continued to stand, watching the road and pavements going past, I could see nobody in pursuit. I had nothing with me except a briefcase, but I had money, I had my wits, and for some reason I felt safe, possibly just elation at escaping the ambush, and grateful to Mrs Anderson for saving me, I hoped she had not been made to pay for that act of kindness and bravery, but I feared the worst.
The bus stopped by an Underground station and I alighted without having paid, I headed into the station and found a train heading towards St. Georges Station. There were soldiers on the train, but they seemed to be engrossed in a conversation and looking at a young woman sat near to them, and they ignored me. At St. Georges I managed to get a ticket to Newcastle the farthest North one could go and sat on my train cautiously watching those around me, but everyone seemed busy with their own concerns, even the train guards and soldiers seemed relaxed; sharing jokes and flirting with anybody they found attractive.
The ticket had cost me about half my money, but I was not worried, the future was mine to take, and curiously I felt relieved that Mr Cohen was dead; I was free and at peace, under nobodys command. As the train pulled out of the station I munched on some chocolate and watched Londons suburbs swiftly move past me, I began to make plans.
This is where the manuscript ends, suddenly and mysteriously, possibly the writer ended up in Willeton, where I purchased his books, but I have no idea, and no way to find out, like much else in this piece of writing it will remain unkown.
The modern reader will find themselves disorientated with the strange place names mentioned, London is undoubtedly the once great Lunton and Brighton, Britesea, but where Eastbourne, Hull and Leicester are we can only guess. And there are other mysteries; what was the Underground? what was coffee? and who were the Jews? And does their disappearance have anything to do with the savagery and death that has come upon us once again; leaving me in a shop with nobody to sell things to, just waiting for my food and water to run out so I can join the millions of dead that lie all around.
A.H., January, 2025
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