The Parade

The children marched down the worn stone steps into the courtyard. They came to a halt behind a large trailer carrying an inverted V of propaganda boards. Leitha tried to edge round to see what they were saying this year, but a monitor sauntered up and slapped her wrist with a riding crop.

The ceremony, commemorating forgotten historical events, dragged on behind them. At least it wasn’t raining. Finally, a cheer rose up from the participants. The leather bound Official Register had been handed to the Air Raid Marshall. Two matrons hurried up the lines and opened the gates to the outside.

Coughing into life, the tractor set off, yanking its trailer along. The engine was running on cooking oil; the faint smell of food made Leitha acutely aware of how hungry she was.

They had an hour’s walk ahead of them. When Leitha first made the journey, there had been a coach. And crisps, and a plastic pouch of vivid orange liquid. Now, even the seven year olds in their ill-fitting shoes were on foot.

She kept the pace as slow as possible, despite the yells of the monitors. They were on their own here; the matrons followed in carriages. Leitha was scared of the tractor driver with his messed up face though, so she didn’t dare cause serious trouble.

They trudged on through the wreckage of the firebreak zone. Neat raked plots were covered in a fuzz of green shoots, and peas were flinging tendrils across the rubble. Of the tiny shelters, strings of ragged washing and thin, shy people that had been there last week, there was no sign. Some of the gardens were scuffed up with struggle, brown soil streaking the green rows. Leitha thought she saw a pair of bare feet sticking out from a heap of bricks and shuddered.

“It happens every year. You’d think they’d have the sense to run away,” she told herself crossly.

The chain link fence of the Terminus came into sight. The tractor pulled up at the gates and the driver clambered down. He shambled over, unlocking them with a key from around his neck. A pair of monitors reluctantly stepped forward to hold them open.

The driver came towards the lines of children, making a show of checking the trailer. Instead of passing by her, he swung round to glare at Leitha.

“Think you can out fox me, do you?” he snarled, out of the corner of his mouth that still worked. The left side of his face was artificial, moulded into a permanent happy smile.

“No, sir,” Leitha replied promptly, puzzled by the odd emphasis on the word ‘fox’. He leered at her and poked her hard in the chest with a grimy finger.

“You just stay right behind me. I can see you in the mirrors. Right behind me is the safest place for you.” and he stepped back, patting his holstered gun meaningfully.

“Did he just threaten to shoot you?” hissed Elly, as the driver stomped on to the end of the column.

“He’s just trying to scare me,” Leitha whispered, “Now he’s off to scare the young ones; he never misses a chance when the matrons are out the way.”

The driver returned, favouring Leitha with a final glare. A quick glance round showed her the dust plumes rising from the approaching carriages. The children followed the tractor into the huge compound.

Rusted, barely legible, metal signs at the gate proclaimed this to be ‘Official Transport Zone 23’ with a silhouette of an aeroplane. People said they used to take off along the straight road leading to the Terminal Building. Now it was lined with rows of prefabricated buildings whose history was written in the fading stencils along their sides.

‘Emergency Accommodation – Refugee Centre 6’ was the faintest, overlaid by ‘ Unit 8 Infantry’ from the time spent as barracks. The newest signs reflected the area’s gradual transformation into residential streets; ‘General Stores’, ‘Geranium Road’ and such like.

Despite the flimsiness of the wire fence separating it from the Fire Zone robber gangs, a place in Terminus was sought after. Even matrons had families, and listening to gossip as she did chores was Leitha’s main education about the outside world.

There was wooden garden furniture outside some of the prefabs, a rocking chair on a hand built verandah, tangled nets of grape vines just showing their green shoots. A couple of chimneys trailed smoke into the air, but most people had already gone into town to beat the rush. With so many dignitaries attending, the authorities made sure there was a display of abundance. Produce that might not be seen again all year was suddenly on the shelves. Real coffee and fresh pastries were in the cafes. Nobody wanted to stay at home, even though the Parade – the main attraction – was so dull, and weary cheering compulsory.

The tractor chugged on to the gates at the far end of the compound, but the children poured into the shabby Terminal Building for a welcome rest. A sleek white coach parked outside indicated that the Japanese were already there. Had been for awhile, it seemed. The jugs of lurid fruit squash on the trestle tables were half empty; green uniformed skivvies were carrying piles of plates away.

Desperately thirsty, Leitha managed to grab a cup of the sickly liquid before casting about for likely translators. Older kids might inform on her – over there! A young boy was studying an ancient map on the wall. Leitha wandered over to him.

“Hi kid, konnichi wa, speak English?”

“Aeroplanes!” the boy explained with great excitement, pointing to a long straight path across the centre of the map.

“Yeah, hai,” Leitha agreed, “Can you read this for me?”

Confident there were no cameras in the run down facility, she took out her copy of the dream scroll. The boy stared at it. Leitha realised that he might be too young to read, but he looked up with a serious expression.

“Yes. I have…” he fumbled in the pocket of his black shorts, then a Japanese woman swooped down on him.

“Takeshi!” she cried angrily, seized his hand and hauled him away to the Departure Gate. Leitha watched her arguing with a man, presumably her husband, as they were checked back on to the coach for the short trip to the far gates.

Elly had been scavenging from the used plates, but the matrons had turned up and were handing out marching orders. She passed Leitha a half-eaten cake.

“Here,” said Leitha, feeling dizzy from the sugar, “You’d better take the scroll copy. I’m sure they’re watching me, and I can draw another one. Try and find that kid I was talking to.”

“Leitha Arkwright,” called Matron Janice, “Eloise Parker. Leitha, you are front of Section One. Elly – side of Section Nine. Jill Stone, Petra Gabriel.”

“See, they’ve separated us,” Leitha whispered, “Try and meet in the Embassy toilets after lunch, no cameras there.”

“One! Section One!” Matron Louise held up a large board. Other groups were forming around the hall, but Leitha’s was first out. They were counted, checked against a register, arranged into pairs and marched off to the gate. This part of the compound was pasture land; they were watched by curious sheep. Signs of the newest generation read ‘Caution. Land Mines’

The sun was quite high in the sky by the time their procession was fully assembled. Leitha had a feeling it was running late. Her group surrounded a dozen young office workers from the Japanese party; four of them in front, one at each side and four at the back.

The office workers carried banners, wore new smocks with bright company logos and chatted gaily. Families were further down the line; coloured balloons bobbed over that section. Leitha caught a glimpse of Takeshi; his parents were still arguing. She could see Melissa and Daisy heading Section Four, but Elly must have been on the far side of Nine.

A flurry of activity, the matrons took up their positions between each section, the monitors flanked the sides and the tractor began to roll. These gates were set in a stretch of stone wall, so it was a surprise to Leitha when they slid open – someone had fixed the mechanism! – and revealed the outer edges of the crowd. Grounded for Patriot Day the previous year, she hadn’t realised how much it had grown.

There was plenty of room for picnic chairs behind the barriers. The lounging Security Specials sprang to attention as they passed, but so far the road was clear without their intervention.

Leitha tried to match the buildings to the ruins from her dream, without success. They turned right into the dreary end of Patriot Avenue. She still recognised nothing, but the crowds were much thicker. The noise was alarming. Over the racket of a thousand conversations blared martial music and inspiring slogans from the street lamp loudspeaker clusters.

People had escaped the crush on the pavements by climbing over the crowd barriers and milling around on the road. The tractor sounded its booming horn and the Specials started shoving the strays back off the road.

“There isn’t room.” thought Leitha. “Any fool can see that.”

A tomato exploded against the propaganda boards; there was the nasty sound of batons striking flesh behind her. The barriers pushed out further under the press of people until the trailer wheels were almost touching them. They were scarcely half way along the Avenue when they reached a particularly narrow pavement.

Just ahead of the tractor, a barrier fell. A spill of crowd was forced out in front of the vehicle, most managing to scramble to their feet in time to be arrested.

The driver continued relentlessly, despite a sudden agonised scream. Leitha marched helplessly past a boy whose bare foot was horribly mangled. Eyes wide with shock stared at her from a thin, dirty face for a moment before the Specials dragged him away. Cries of protest rose from the crowd; people began to move. Leitha looked round. There was a surge into the procession being beaten back.

The whine of drones sounded overhead. Their yellow and black bodies hovered over the procession and its rebellious audience.

“This is a safety announcement. You are to move down the Avenue.”

As Leitha trudged on, wondering where the people were supposed to move to, the crowds did begin to thin out. Several people had not been fast enough and sported the luminous yellow paint tags for non-compliance. They would be rounded up later, unless they could access black market solvent.

The disturbance had travelled ahead of them; the road was littered with debris. Leitha nearly fell when she slipped on a spill of vegetable oil from a split bottle. She kept her eyes on the ground as they passed through a bad patch, hoping that the red puddles were something to do with tomatoes. There were certainly a lot of these. She kicked an orange out of the way, wishing she dared to pick it up. Her partner slid on a crushed banana. As Leitha turned to catch her, her eyes fell on the fruit shop of her dream.

Leitha’s heart began to pound. There it was, just the same, apart from the presence of a door. Then the chemist. A window was broken there, but the mannequins in the next shop stared out serenely. They were moving into the wealthier end of the Avenue now; the dummies sported cat fur jackets and high heeled boots.

Yes! There was the shop with the clocks. It was an old fashioned frontage, made of wood whose carved details were blurred by many layers of thick black paint. The windows were divided into diamond shaped panes rather than plate glass. The clocks were not pointing to midnight; most were at ten past ten. There was the shop door, set back from the pavement in a small alcove floored with a mosaic of black and white tiles. ‘The Watchmaker’ was written in hand painted, fading white letters along the top of the door.

Leitha was in a fury of frustration. Between her and this possible sanctuary was a crowd barrier. Above her hovered the drones, who had at least fallen silent now. In front, the homicidal tractor driver; behind, the matrons.

“What would I say anyway?” she thought, “Hi, I saw this shop in a dream? Maybe there isn’t an old man there at all. I’d sound crazy. They’d just hand me over.”

She wasn’t sure what would happen if she ran away during the Patriot Parade, and didn’t want to find out. The only people who might know were the girls who escaped from Home. No-one ever saw them again, though their recapture was gleefully reported by the matrons.

They passed between the pair of gilded columns which marked the start of the Diplomatic Zone. Leitha stumbled on a skewed piece of grating. It was part of the cover for a deep narrow trench which extended right across the road. It housed what seemed to be a thick metal panel, ready to rise up like a monster from the deep.

Leitha was sure it hadn’t been there before. She hadn’t left Home territory for two years, and wished she knew more about what had been going on outside.

The loudspeakers mounted on the propaganda trailer crackled into life. Soothing classical music drifted over the audience, who had been spared the blare from the public system. There was space for picnic chairs on the pavements again; these people were ticket holders.

A pair of matrons hurried up, falling into place beside Leitha and her partner. They had radios clipped to their belts.

“Security tell us that the dance in front of the memorial has to be cancelled,” Matron Chloe said, “They need to clear the road.”

She fumbled with the earpiece, which was on a cord just a little too short, and dropped out of her ear every time she moved her head. The tractor driver was maintaining a brisk pace; the matrons were not accustomed to exercise.

“However,” the matron continued in a low menacing voice, “you can smile and wave. Begin!”

Leitha obediently added a spring to her step, sported a manic grin and waved to children as they passed. The office workers, who had been rather subdued, cheered up and joined in. Leitha was surprised to find herself rather enjoying it.

As they passed the Memorial in its own fountain studded plaza -”eyes right!” hissed the matron – the music changed. A subtler variation of the strident dance theme came from the loudspeakers. Toned down and woven in with strains of haunting laments, the mix was quite beautiful. Surely not the work of the awful tractor driver?

Their procession usually regrouped in the plaza. The tired children would have to jump and march and turn in a well-rehearsed performance until everyone had caught up. This time, they just walked solemnly past. Leitha tried to look back to see where the others were, but Matron Chloe casually slapped her. It seemed that the procession had got much shorter.