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Authors: Frank P. Ryan

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BOOK: The Sword of Feimhin
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It was a cross that wasn't a Christian symbol at all, but the symbol of their arch enemy, the Tyrant of the Wastelands. If ever Mark had questioned whether Tír and Earth were linked, he was looking at its confirmation.

Nan was tugging at his arm. ‘What does it mean?'

‘I don't know.'

They were jostled to one side as some teenagers barged past, not caring if they knocked them over.

A moment later, a girl's scream came from the direction that the teenagers had been running in. Mark wondered if he should go and investigate, but his instincts told him to forget it. The girl screamed again – a long drawn out strident wail. Then it stopped. He had no idea if it was just
kids playing around or if somebody had just been seriously hurt. But he had no intention of abandoning Nan here while he investigated.

Two well-dressed and clean-scrubbed young men appeared out of nowhere, asking if they were lost and offering to help them. Under the immaculate charcoal suits they looked fit and well toned – like trained military recruits. Mark wondered if it had been these two who had been following them. He said, ‘Maybe you can help us. We're looking for the Church of the English Martyrs.' They ignored his question. Their expressions remained studiously bland. Each was hugging a small leather-bound prayer book.

‘Grace be with you, brother and sister.'

Nan squeezed his arm, affecting a smile. ‘Thank you. May I enquire? Are you members of the Grimstone church?'

‘We are members of the Saved.'

Our Place

‘
Stop, look, listen!
' She had said. Now Gully Doughty heard Penny's words inside his head again. ‘It's okay,' he muttered to himself. ‘There ain't no 'urry.' He stopped for as long as it took him to shove his grimy spectacles up his nose.

Thinks she's smarter than us. An' maybe she is
.

His mind reeled, just thinking about it. He didn't want to think about it. Only he didn't rightly know how to stop thinking about it. That was the trouble with thinking. You found yourself thinking about things you didn't want to be thinking about in the first place.

‘Now you got to 'old yer breath an' listen,' he muttered to himself again. He held his breath. He listened.

Maybe she's a whole heap smarter than me while I'm a whole year older than her. A whole year! Only she goes right ahead and says it
.

Shit! The truth of it was that, when it came to it, he didn't really mind thinking about Penny. And he didn't
mind thinking about Penny at all when he considered it that way about.

Gully made himself listen again. He heard nothing because there was nothing to hear. Then he shoved the cardboard box up through a crack in the wall and into a soot-stained shaft.

So wot – so Penny is smarter than me. But it's only smartipantsness. She ain't a deal smarter when it comes to finding the bleedin' food so's we can eat. I'm the one who has to go out and do things
.

It was dark in the rubble-strewn basement. The temptation was to hurry, but Penny was right. There was no need to. His brown eyes swept the gloom, making sure there was nobody about. There was only this one way in, but it was kind of awkward because the box was so heavy and he didn't want to shine no torch into the gloom; that might let someone know he was there.

The basement was ankle deep in soot and ash from the fire that had burned above it. There wasn't any kind of a door into the shaft, only the crack in the wall where you could squeeze through a gap between jagged bricks and the edge of a wrecked car that stank of piss and cat shit. His bladder always seemed to respond to them smells, like now, so it felt like a balloon just about to pop. But he didn't want the bleeder to pop right here and make the stink worse. He just shoved his back up against the wall, so as to balance the box, and bent his knees up so that the soles of his trainers were pressed against the rusting metal of the other side of the shaft. That way he could shimmy up
the first two floors in the dark, keeping the box safe in the curl of his belly, all the while feeling the muscles of his thighs bunching so hard they was just about splitting the seams of his pants. Foot by foot, he slid his back along the wall, all the way up past the boarded ground floor.

Sometimes there was dossers there. They pulled off the boards and kipped down in the mess and lit fires and scrapped among themselves.

‘
Don't forget to wait and listen
…' she always reminded him.

He waited, just for a little, time enough so as to get his puff back, making sure there wasn't no dossers who could have heard his scratching.

‘Fuckit – they's too pissed to hear anyway.'

He'd come to the bit wot Penny called the air lock.

‘
It's the airlock that keeps us safe, Gully. It stops anyone who tries to climb the shaft. It puts an ocean between them and us, leaving us Our Place like a secret island rising above the ocean
.'

He liked the idea of that. He liked it when Penny talked about Our Place like it was a secret hideout. It was a mystery to Gully how a lock could be made out of air. But it was a good thing as far as Our Place was concerned. It made it safer. For sure, Penny was smart. He had to grant it to Penny how she got her angles just right. Gully couldn't deny that about her. She had the brains for stuff like that.

He shoved the box out before sliding his body over the big muck hole – wot Penny called the cave of wrack and ruin – where, if you listened when the wind was blowing, you could hear the clatter of parts of the roof still falling
in. When it rained, the water came through here like a river. The fire had burned out them floors in between the roof and the basement. He had watched it happen: flames roaring like a horde of demons through all five upper storeys. The crashing and cracking as the innards tumbled down amid the smoke and the heat had been so loud. When you looked up, you could see a massive crack in the roof. Penny said that this was because the internal walls had gone. He was sure them fire demons was still alive, creaking, up there in the concrete of the roof where it sloped and dangled all over the place.

Emerging out of the shaft, he slid the box along so he could sit astride the I-beam. It was a bitch, because his back was grating against the scratchy cinders. At least the glasses wouldn't come off – he had heated the ear pieces in a candle flame to bend them around his ear lugs. He stood to relieve his busting bladder, while simultaneously removing his glasses with one hand and washing the lenses with his spit between his finger and his thumb. He laughed now to think that he could have shown Penny how well he could multi-task – and all the while perfickly balanced on the one-foot-wide flat of the I-beam. He wiped his glasses dry again on his hooded denim jacket.

Lens-wiping and dick-shaking-off all done, he made a point of resting a calf against the box and holding still for another few moments of self-congratulation on his multi-tasking, while still waiting and listening.

He heard a slithering noise from the floor below. Could
be he heard the whisper of dosser voices. Maybe somebody felt the rain of his piss coming down out of the dark. Gully giggled again. But might be it wasn't such a smart thing to do.

‘
Check if Our Place is secure
.' He heard Penny's warnings in his head again.

He felt so guilty that he stopped right there on the giant iron beam, holding himself rigidly still. He closed his eyes so he could listen better.

Once ain't enough
, he thought

Gully made his way over the rusted I-beam that bridged the devastation of the collapsed upper stories; a thirty-foot crossing with the cardboard box balanced on his dark mop of curly hair, one hand steadying it. Stepping cautiously in the dark, he felt around with the edges of his trainers with the other hand, registering the hard sharp side of the beam, until he arrived at the junction where iron merged with the ledge of concrete. Manoeuvring himself, and then the box, he pushed himself through the trap door that opened into the shaft and dropped lightly onto the rusting roof of a big, unmoving lift. He hauled the box down off the ledge.

The box held the stuff he had bought from the sale of Penny's drawings. The honey – a tiny pot of the waxy sort Penny liked – wos a surprise he had for her. Maybe it would make her think about him like any normal gel should.

‘Weird she is. Won't let me touch her or nuffink!' Gully wanted to kick something right there and then. His fists
bunched. ‘Why won't she let me touch her – not even give her a little hug?'

Penny was smart enough, her ma and da coulda been professors. Yeah – professors or the like. Only she wouldn't talk about 'em. Never. Only thing she ever said, maybe like she was recalling a thing somebody must have said to her, was, ‘You are the strangest thing – the most disruptive child.' The hoity-toity accent Penny put on it made it sound like a school teacher mighta said it. Or more like some bleedin' professor. Not that Gully had ever met a professor in his life.

‘Won't let me touch her, she won't. Won't even let me pull up close to her in the cold. Don't feel the cold, she don't – not ever. Not even when her 'ands are blue with it and her skin is covered in goose bumps. Not let me come close, just to warm one another. Paranoiac – that's wot she is!'

Might be a good thing, being just a bit paranoiac. Might keep you alive. But you didn't want too much of it.

Gully stopped and listened again and only when he heard not so much as a rat squeak did he slide across the rusting roof, heading to the porthole in the wall, where he shoved the cardboard box into the dolly. ‘Dolly' – that was what Penny called it. She knew the words for things like ‘dolly'. Gully would give her that. She was smart with the sums, and she was smart at remembering the pictures. But for all of her smartipantsness, there was that weirdness about her, in so much as she would think about things
nobody in their right mind had any right to think about. There was scumbags who called her Cat and made meowing noises when they saw her coming. Like they knew that Penny had claws. All the same it frightened the life out of him at times, the way she took no notice. Like she didn't seem to know how to be afraid when anybody with 'arf a brick o' sense knew there was times when you needed to be afraid.

On his knees now on the gritty ledge, he slid the box further forward, finding the port hole in the dolly. He opened the porthole and slid the box into the empty chamber inside. He got it so it was sitting right in the middle and then he pulled on the cord – three sharp tugs. It didn't ring any bell at the top, but it made a soft noise, when the leather spring opened and shut. He waited for Penny to give the single tug back that would tell him she got the message three floors above. She would then haul it up and pass the knotted rope down the other shaft so he could follow.

While he was waiting, he thought back again to the night of the fire.

Razzers had started it in the small tube station next door. That too had been derelict – the entrance boarded up. Gully had watched them tear off the boards and go inside with their cans of petrol. He had watched it burn. The fire had quickly spread to the five storey red-brick office building next door. He had waited to see if the fire engines would turn up, but nobody bothered. The buildings was empty
and there was more important fires elsewhere. So the fire had it all to itself, gobbling up the tube station, until the roof and the walls caved in. But the old red-brick office building had stood the worst of it. Penny said it was because of the I-beams and the reinforced concrete up there in the roof. That and the water storage tank that was perched right up there on the topmost corner, right over the surviving two rooms that were left to them. Our Place had been saved when the tank had split and the water had deluged onto the topmost floor and covered the corner of the lift shaft and a few other bits and pieces, like the dolly, two rooms and the I-beam wot came out into the dangling metal sleeve of the dolly. Otherwise, all that was left was a big empty space, a black hole of cinders and broken concrete and twisty bits of rusting iron.

In the two or three minutes he had been waiting, his knees had begun smarting from kneeling on sharp grit and there had been no answering tug on the cable. Sometimes it took a while, like when she was up on the gantry, drawing her pictures. But this time Penny was taking too long. The thought grew in him that she just wasn't there.

Penny shoulda been there. She shoulda waited for him. She had promised she would.

A mixture of fury and apprehension caused Gully to jerk upright onto his feet, cracking his head on a protruding ledge of concrete.

‘Ow – ow! Bleedin' 'ell!' He no longer gave a ratarse shit if the dossers heard him. Wincing and holding his head,
he was forced back over the I-beam and the rusty roof of the trolley car. Here he extricated a plastic torch from his pocket, directing its beam into the well of the lift shaft. Only then did he notice that the knotted rope was down.

Penny really had gone out.

But she had taken the precaution of pushing the loop of rope into the corner and fixing it out of sight under a brick. Gully shoved the glasses back up his nose.

‘Wot's Gully to think, gel?'

He clambered up the knotted rope within the lift shaft and when he got to the top there was no sign of her. That did not come as a surprise. He didn't even bother to look for a note. He was the one who left notes.

He moved over to the dolly and hauled on the chain in the channel by its side, muttering and fretting all the while. He hauled out the box and carried it into the kitchen area.

I suppose it must 'a been some kind of impulse, not some emergency situation?

He sat down, his arm lying over the box. He let a puff of air out between his pursed lips – a habit that Penny would have complained about if she was here.
Well, that's the price you pay, gel, for not being here!
He hoisted out two heavy bottles of drinking water, which he been allowed to fill up at Mrs Patel's corner shop for free, and set to preparing two sandwiches – beef for Gully and salad for Penny. He placed his sandwich on a small, clean square of toilet paper, right there on the pink-tinged Formica table, carefully wiping away the crumbs so that it became shiny again. He had so
wanted to tell Penny how he had bargained on the Hawksmoor picture with that Reverend woman. He could rip off her high-pitched la-di-dah voice just perfick. She was an old biddy that ruled the same church as in Penny's picture, the one who made him laugh with her purse dangling on a bleedin' chain.

‘Squeezed twenty quid out of 'er, I did, wot bought the groceries, lots of fruit and vegetables and such like – an' the lice comb. She tells me the picture makes the church come alive. I just thought you'd a liked to hear them things.'

He flopped down on the concrete floor by the side of the dolly and lit up a cigarette, gathered together from the dog ends he had collected. He took a drag on it – still damp from his spit on the paper glue – and thought about all them things as was going wrong, and was going wrong all the time, all over the place. That was what made him feel so worried. He wanted to talk about his worry with Penny. He needed to see her here. He needed her. What she did, what she cared about, what she told him, was right. Mrs Burlington had hit the nail on its head. That was the thing about Penny – the magic about her. She made things beautiful. Her pictures made buildings come alive.

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