Through the Door

There was a relieved cheer from the Japanese as their flag came into sight. The stern old Embassy building was set back from the Avenue, its courtyard kept empty by tall barriers and a well manned security gate.

The tractor continued on past this to turn down a side street and wait for the return journey. As it rounded the corner, Leitha could read the slogan on the trailer.

‘Remember the Greater Good’ the red letters proclaimed.

Then they were queueing for the metal detector, checked against the register and sent to line up in the courtyard. The Japanese were ushered inside to undergo much the same process in order to collect their yearly residence permits.

Leitha managed to stand close to a Special and tried to listen to his radio as she watched for her friends. There didn’t seem to be any of the Japanese families coming through – but there was Elly! Section Nine was the last. She ached to talk to her friend to find out what had happened to the procession.

Suddenly there was a commotion outside. One of the large white coaches from the Terminus building had pulled up and was disgorging its load of passengers. Specials streamed out from the building and escorted the people straight inside. There was a mixture of children from Home and Japanese. Some wore bandages or slings. One was carried on a stretcher.

Leitha could see Matron Chloe in animated discussion with a gold-braided Special. A Japanese couple hurried up and joined in the argument. Leitha recognised Takeshi’s parents. Had he ratted on her? There was still no sign of Melissa or Daisy; she began to worry. Elly was standing in line just across the courtyard. Maybe she could sneak over in the confusion.

Leitha began to edge towards the stream of people heading inside. She was just tagging on to the end when Takeshi’s mother pointed to her and shouted something at Matron Chloe. The matron nodded, replied in soothing tones, then turned towards Leitha who stood frozen,

“Leitha Arkwright! Come here!” she called. Leitha cast a despairing glance at Elly, who smiled bravely and patted her pocket to show she still had the paper.

There was a lively conversation going on in Japanese, which seemed to come to a successful resolution as she reached the small group. Matron Chloe turned to her, radiating friendship in a way that didn’t suit her.

“Now, Leitha,” she said, “These poor foreigners have lost their child. The foolish boy became separated from them during the procession. Mrs…” the matron covered her failure to pronounce the name, “this lady says you may be able to recognise him.”

“Dunno,” Leitha replied cautiously.

“You were seen talking to him at Terminus,” elaborated the matron. “There can’t be many stray Japanese children on the street. I suppose I could send your friend Elly to look for him?”

“No, of course I’ll go,” Leitha said sweetly, and looked at Takeshi’s mother.

“Don’t worry ma’am. The Patriot Squad will find your child!”

“Well done Leitha,” it was nearly choking Matron Chloe to keep up the pretense of pleasantry. “We’d like you to go back to Terminus and check the assembly building there, keeping an eye open for little Takeshi as you go. Come straight back, and you may be in time for afternoon tea.”

“And if you should find the boy, also start back at once, reporting to the first of my Specials that you see.” the officer said kindly, taking the exchange at face value. “Come, I will write you a pass and you can be on your mission.

Leitha bowed politely to the Japanese couple, before they were led off into the Embassy. Drones could be sent out to search for the kid, but it would take time to programme them. There would need to be a report, which would look bad for the matrons. So much easier to send a disposable piece onto the board.

The officer tore an ornate pass certificate from a book on his desk inside the temporary gatehouse, signed it with a flourish and handed it over.

“Now remember, let us know as soon as you find him, don’t wait till you get back.”

Leitha nodded obediently. As she was leaving the cabin, she noticed a box of water pouches and realised how thirsty she was.

“Please Sir, can I have some water to take with me?”

“Certainly you may. Take a couple in case the boy’s thirsty too. It’s warm for the time of year.”

Just as she was going out, the small pouches stowed in her pockets, a man burst into the office from behind a partition at the back.

“They’ve crossed the border sir!” he cried in alarm, “Should we….”

He broke off as a gesture from the officer indicated Leitha.

“Thanks,” she said hastily, and left. There was an uncomfortable tension around the gatehouse. Specials were gathering in small groups. Twice, she was challenged for her pass. A dozen armoured cars were parked in the Memorial Plaza. Drones idled over the road, keeping it clear.

The crowds had thinned right out now. Leitha could keep a brisk pace in the gap between the picnic chairs and the shop fronts. Some of these had closed their metal shutters.

“Perhaps they’ll open again for the show,” thought Leitha, “Maybe everyone goes off for lunch while we get ready.”

There was a knot of people gathered outside the bakery. Leitha considered using the road to get around them. The drones would catch her on camera, and the matrons would study the film closely in their long dull evenings. She decided against it, and started to wriggle through the crowd.

It was centered around the shop door, where the baker was handing out pastries.

“Plenty for everyone!” he cried, “Taste it or waste it!”

A customer murmered a question.

“Closing up for the day, business is slow, might celebrate Patriot Day with a picnic,” the baker answered for the cameras. He handed Leitha a couple of warm pies.

“Thank you,” she said politely, “Have you seen a small Japanese boy in the street? We’ve lost one from the Embassy.”

“Can’t say I have,” he replied, dusting crumbs from his hands, “Would be noticeable, foreigner on their own in the street, catch the attention, like a stray dog.”

He shouted back into the shop, “Hey, Alice, get them cakes out here!”

“Or a fox,” he continued to Leitha, “No offence. Off you go now.”

Leitha walked away slowly, automatically munching on the pie. She was irritated by the baker comparing Takeshi to a dog, and puzzled by the second odd reference to foxes. There was the rattle of the bakery shutters coming down. People were folding up their chairs, chatting about a picnic. The baker seemed to have started a trend.

A motorcycle escort came speeding up the Avenue, followed by a sleek black limousine crashing carelessly over the pot holes. The remaining crowds began to hasten their departure. Leitha finished her pie and walked faster.

Sirens began to wail from the direction of the Embassy. A loud, repetitive announcement blurred by distance joined in. Craning round to see what was happening, Leitha slid on a banana skin. She was standing outside the fruit shop – but where was the window with the clocks? She must have passed it. Perhaps she ought to go to Terminus and find Takeshi first?

Leitha suddenly felt lost. Patriot Day was obviously going horribly wrong. She would rather be gloating over the failure of the matrons back at Home. Being in the middle of it wasn’t fun and it didn’t feel safe.

An orange rolled down the street, bumped gently against her foot. She picked it up.

“In an uncertain situation, the best place to carry food is inside you,” a thought came into her head. She wished she could remember who had said it. Sitting down on an upturned crate, she used her glass knife to peel the fruit. The weather was turning, she realised. Ominous black clouds filled the sky over Terminus. It could even be raining on Home. She had a feeling that Takeshi hadn’t come this far.

A chill breeze swept up the road, setting the rubbish to dance and spin. A garish poster for the Zoo skipped past her. There was a picture of a fox on it.

Leitha sighed and stood up, deciding to follow the dream. More of the chemist’s window was broken, but the other shops had their shutters down. No wonder she’d missed it. There was the dusty black facade!

Just as she touched it, a tremendous clattering racket filled the Avenue. It rose into the air, and a huge machine came into view above the Embassy.

“Helicopter!” a tiny excited voice shouted from the shop doorway, and a small boy jumped out to watch it disappear over the roof tops, away from Terminus.

“Takeshi!” cried Leitha, dragging him back into the doorway as a squad of armoured cars rattled by. The street loudspeakers began to wail the Air Raid theme. A drone paused, detecting the children. They shrank back as it turned to face them.

“This is not a drill,” it boomed, “Proceed to shelter immediately.”

It sped off. Another hurtled past the doorway at chest height, spitting electricity, trailing broken wires.

The alcove ended in a glass door. A blind concealed the inside of the shop, and a notice read ‘Closed’. Leitha knocked firmly on the door, then tried the handle. Locked.

Bother.

At least she’d found Takeshi and the shop.

“Hi Takeshi,” she said, “I’m Leitha,”

She returned his bow, then ignored him as she studied the street, wondering what to do. Perhaps they should just wait for the door to open – she knocked again, more urgently – as it had in the dream. But then the shutters hadn’t been down, and Takeshi hadn’t been there.

Maybe she had to take him back to the Embassy first? The few people left in sight were all running in the opposite direction. She could hardly think for the racket from the loudspeakers, so it was a relief when they abruptly choked off. A faint hum, high up and far away, filled the silence.

“Aeroplanes!” cried Takeshi. Leitha caught him before he ran into the street with its lethal malfunctioning drones. They both looked up. Half a dozen tiny black V shapes were crossing the sky. Leitha stared in horror. Behind them, a shop bell tinkled.

She turned and stood face to face with the old man from the dream. He was dressed exactly the same, a black velvet waistcoat embroidered with astrology symbols over a white shirt, tucked into high waisted black trousers like a stage magician’s. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, and a black smoking cap covered most of his hair which, judging by his neat beard, was probably grey.

“You!” he exclaimed, in mild surprise.

“Hi, I’m Leitha, I saw you in a dream,” she said quickly, considering that there really was nothing left to lose.

“Of course you did. Have you a ticket?”

Bewildered by this strange request, Leitha handed him her Security pass. He read it carefully, then crumpled it up and threw it into the shop.

“That’s not it. What about your brother then?”

“He’s not my brother,” said Leitha hastily, then felt guilty. “He’s called Takeshi, and he’s lost. I have to look after him.”

“Indeed. Have you a ticket, boy?”

“Hai,” Takeshi replied, holding out a scroll of his own. The old man received it with both hands, though it was hardly larger than a match stick. He unrolled it, studied the characters, then waved the boy into the shop.

“Sit yourself down while I close the outside door,” the old man advised, before turning back to Leitha.

“I had a scroll like that,” she pleaded, “but it was in a dream, I copied it out but I gave it to Elly, I can copy it again for you and get it properly right this time.”

“Probably no need. Have you looked for it yet?”

Defying common sense, Leitha felt in her pocket, took out the small scroll and handed it over.

“Excellent. Now give me a hand with this door. I’m afraid I’ve neglected to oil it for awhile.”

The door was not only short of oil, but the hinges had several layers of paint on them.. Leitha had mistaken it for part of the facade. Their combined efforts could only shift it a little way. The old man gave her a blunt penknife to scrape the paint from the hinges, while he muttered something about a crowbar and went to rummage in the shop. Another V of aeroplanes passed overhead, going the other way.

Leitha could hear him talking to Takeshi in Japanese. She felt pleased with herself that she could almost understand what they were saying. She’d neglected her studies recently to concentrate on the struggle with the matrons, but she seemed to be keeping up anyway. She dug at the paint, which flaked off easily. The street was visible through the gap they’d made, and a movement caught her eye.

A small squad of Specials – no, they were soldiers! They wore grey urban camouflage, and carried long guns. It seemed like a patrol, by their slow pace and the way they were looking around.

“Mr…Watchmaker!” she called urgently, “There are soldiers coming!”

The Watchmaker came bustling out of the shop, holding a rusty crowbar, and stepped into the street.

“So there is,” he said, waving. Leitha backed inside nervously.

“You and the boy should hide really,” the Watchmaker said without turning round. “Unless you want to go back to the Embassy, but I warn you, it is not safe at present.”

Leitha had no desire to go back.She felt a shred of guilt for not seeking Takeshi’s opinion, though he had had plenty of time to say something. The back of the shop, behind the counter, was curtained off. Leitha pushed the heavy drapes aside to enter a cosy living room. Takeshi was curled up on a settee, leafing through a pile of comics.

“Sssh,”Leitha told him. She stood behind the curtains to listen.

“Good officers,” the old man called in wavering tones, “Would one of you kindly help an advanced citizen to close his safety door? All my staff are at the war, I’ve no-one to help me.”

The boots marched on without a break.

“Will no-one help a poor widow’s son?” he demanded in a firmer voice. Leitha could feel the pause. Footsteps approached, there was a low murmur of conversation followed by the protesting screech of the heavy door closing.