The white uniforms of the matrons were already moving among the rows of beds, flinging open the shutters to the cold grey twilight of dawn. Leitha quickly swung into a sitting position on the side of the bed. If she looked awake, the first wave would pass by, allowing her to consider the dream undisturbed.
The derelict landscape was a familiar background to nightmares she’d had since her mother was called up. The business with the scroll was new, though. She could almost see the writing if she concentrated. The matrons had passed further up the dormitory, roughly shaking sleepers. Leitha cautiously took a notebook from her lesson satchel and tried to reproduce the characters.
Lost in the puzzle, she was badly startled when a figure appeared beside her.
“Elly! I thought you were a matron!” Leitha hissed, as her friend sat down on the bed.
“What’re you doing?” Elly asked curiously. Leitha tore out the page she had been working on.
“It was in a dream,” she explained, “Like the other ones, but I nearly found a way out. This message may be important. We’ll be at the Japanese Embassy all day. Maybe one of the kids can translate it.”
“If you don’t get dressed soon, you’ll be grounded,” Elly pointed out. The dormitory was seething with activity now. Matrons, returning from their morning tea, were steering the milling crowd of children into neat lines at the far exit. Alarmed, Leitha dragged the faded red dress from its hanger, pulling it straight on over her night clothes.
“They won’t ground me,” she told Elly,”They know I hate Patriot Day. You’d better get on to breakfast, you’ve got the chance to see your mum.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Grab me a roll if you can,” Leitha said, “I need to do some stuff here.”
Elly joined the quietening crowd, now nearly all in neat lines. Leitha thought fast. She didn’t want to go out unprepared after that dream, with the taste of fear still in her mouth. The wretched dress was too thin to hide much.
She pulled on two pairs of socks. A pencil and more paper from the notebook were light enough to go in the flimsy apron pockets. The fire striking kit was out of the question; there would be a metal detector at the Embassy. A clump of the fluffy tinder would go in the other pocket, however.
She decided to risk bringing the tiny knife fashioned from a sliver of glass bound into a wooden handle, and tucked its slim leather sheath into her sock.
The room was almost empty now as the last of the red lines filed out of the door. A rearguard of matrons began to eye up stragglers. Leitha dragged a brush through her hair.
“Last again, Leitha?” Matron Chloe stood over her, pleased to have a predictable victim.
“Sorry Matron,” Leitha mumbled, wriggling her feet into house slippers.
“Well the last shall be first as they say,” said the matron spitefully, “Just to make sure you don’t hold the rest of us back, you can be first in the queue by the outside door. You’d better go there now.”
“But I’ll miss breakfast,” wailed Leitha, pretending to care.
“All the more reason to make sure you get lunch. Come, I will walk down with you.”
And the matron sailed off in her billowing whites, leaving Leitha no choice but to scramble after her.
“At least I’ll get first pick of the shoes,” she thought.
They passed the noisy breakfast hall, where Leitha caught a glimpse of Elly deep in conversation with the rest of the gang. Melissa and Daisy had been moved to a different dorm after the incident with the sprinklers.
“It was worth it though,” Leitha recalled gleefully; half of the damaged cameras had never been fixed. The matron abandoned her in the echoing lobby, admonishing the surly janitor to keep an eye on her.
“She is not to move from that spot.”
“Yes’m,” but the janitor barely paused in her aimless sweeping when Leitha wandered over to the rows of shoes. For Patriot Day, the stupid red dress was accompanied by shiny black leather shoes rather than their everyday rough hide boots. These shoes were carefully polished and stored at the end of the day. Some pairs were decades old. None were new. Leitha found a pair that pinched less than usual and sat down on a cold stone bench. She hated Patriot Day.
It was worse staying at Home, as she’d discovered last year. Instead of standing out in the unpredictable Spring weather listening to long rambling speeches from the local politicians, the children who’d been grounded had to watch the main event from the metropolis on television. After a merry day of minimal supervision, causing minor mayhem, she’d gone into the hall feeling cheerful and about ready to rest awhile.
She’d been late, of course. The big screen was already showing the crowds in a Memorial Square far larger and grander than their small town affair. The camera swung round to the decorated podium, where the faces from the propaganda photos were lined up. Leith’s heart had begun to pound. She’d broken out in a sweat and her stomach heaved. She could see her father again, standing on that same podium ready for his speech, see him fall in the frozen moment before panic began.
“Stop it,” she told herself, pacing restlessly around the entrance hall, but she was already caught up in the painful memories. Her parents were famous politicians. There was an election campaign, during which she was abandoned to the nanny’s care. It had ended in victory. Leitha had hoped that the ‘Dreams Can Come True’ slogan might have applied to her as well but, if anything, she spent even less time with her parents. All she heard from them was talk of war, over her head. She’d painted them a picture of a city on fire, but that only upset them.
The janitor was frowning at her, so she sat back down, still feeling agitated. The others would be ages; there was a briefing after breakfast where they all had to hear the day’s plan yet again.
Back then she had been six and they were living in the metropolis; she’d been considered too young to attend the Patriot Day celebrations. Despite throwing an epic tantrum – her father was going to make a speech, she ought to hear it! – she was packed off to the suburban home of their relatives. Aunt Pat had a new baby and Uncle Simon was glad to stay at home.
She enjoyed the company of her cousin Phil. Her uncle had spent the morning devising codes for them to solve. After a lavish lunch, when they’d settled down to watch the ceremonies on television, there had been quite the festive atmosphere.
Leitha had rubbed that memory smooth over the years. It was the last time things had been really okay.
They missed hearing the shot at the time. Leitha’s father suddenly clutched his chest and staggered. His white shirt grew a spreading red stain and he fell down. The other heads on the podium swung towards him. Uncle Simon leapt up shouting,
“Bernard! What the -” and a blizzard of interference covered the scene. Her uncle raced to the telephone; they could hear him talking rapidly in the other room. Leitha and Phil stared at the empty screen.
“They won’t show any more, my dears,” Pat said gently. “Simon will find out what’s going on. They’ve got the best hospital in the world just round the corner, I’m sure he’ll be alright.”
She turned the television off, to Leitha’s dismay.
“But what happened?” she wailed.
“I think your father got shot. We have to find out. We’ll tell you when we know.”
Pat was busy with the baby and Simon with the stream of anxious visitors though, and Leitha got the news of her father’s death from the television. She and Phil were left alone to play cards. They switched it back on; there was an emergency test card with annoying music. They turned it down.
“Look!” said Phil, shuffling cards after yet another win. There was a news broadcast. Leitha scrambled to turn it up.
“ – killed in an exchange of fire with police. The opposition leader, Bernard Arkwright, died earlier today in the Memorial Hospital, from a gunshot wound. The – ” but that was enough.
Then began long months of confusion. A car came for her the next day. The people said she was going to see her mother, but took her to a place like Home instead. They said her mother had gone crazy and they were going to keep her. Then somehow she was living with her mother in Aunt Pat’s house. Their family had gone away but no-one would talk about it. They’d left all their furniture behind.
Leitha went to school, read books, did normal things in those months, but there was always the feeling of walking on thin ice over terrible depths. Her mother didn’t work. She said she was on a pension, but she wasn’t old. They didn’t go out, and nobody came to visit, until one day she was trudging home through fresh snow and saw a black car leaving her driveway.
She had been offered work, her mother told Leitha. Undercover work for the government. It would be unpatriotic to refuse. Leitha would have to go to boarding school. Things moved fast; she arrived at Home two days before her seventh birthday, which no-one remembered.
“Five years ago,” she recalled gloomily. The war, somehow triggered by her father’s death, dragged on. They never saw any fighting out in the countryside, but everything got scarcer all the time. After a savage winter when three girls died of pneumonia, Leitha had resolved to concentrate on survival rather than hoping for rescue.
The bewildering memories of her family life were pushed to the background, where they had been safely buried until last year. After that broadcast, she had longed to talk with her mother again, but there had been no more visits, only letters.
“I had one! I was saving it to read at lunchtime,” Leitha remembered. “It was in my satchel. That dream made me forget!”
Many of the other children were able to meet up with family during Patriot Day. She wanted to have a letter at least, so she didn’t feel so left out.
The others were taking a long time. They’d be late for lunch; maybe sent straight out to perform without eating. Leitha was bored, tired of dwelling on past unhappiness. She thought about the dream instead. There was an adventure, a new mystery. She cautiously unfolded the paper with the message, holding it just inside her pocket to study. The cameras in the lobby were probably still working.
“That character’s not quite right,” she thought at last but, before she could correct it, the double doors behind her swung open and the chattering crowds from breakfast began to pour in. Her friends joined Leitha at the front of the queue.
As the black clad Monitors from the year class above theirs tried to restore order, they snatched a brief conversation under cover of the noise. Elly palmed Leitha a scrap of bread; Leitha showed the others her cryptic messsage.
“I’ll make copies as soon as we get there,” she whispered. “We’ll meet tonight after chores and compare notes!”
The matrons arrived. As if by magic, silence spread outwards from them and two neat rows of children waited for the huge oak doors to be opened. The half dozen who hadn’t been quick or ruthless enough to find shoes that fit were rounded up, sobbing, and herded off with the prospect of a dismal morning doing chores.
The wait dragged on and the silence grew deeper, until the tap of feet on the stone steps outside could be heard clearly. The ceremonial staff boomed on wood, sending deep echoes through the high-ceilinged chamber.
“All Clear!” came the cry from outside, sirens wailed and the doors swung heavily open.
It was a beautiful day.