Piper in Hazmat (the whole thing)

I’m having a subdued Christmas. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that my father died suddenly on February 14th this year. Well, his brother, my uncle and godfather, died in the early hours of Christmas eve. Yes, they knew how to make an impactful exit. This wasn’t sudden, he had been declining due to cancer for most of the year. The really harsh part is that he’s in Wales, I’m in Scotland so can’t go to the funeral.

Even if I were to get past Wee Nippy’s border guards and into Wales by crossing Offa’s Dyke at night on foot, the Drakeonian restrictions in Wales mean I won’t be able to visit my mother or my auntie or indeed most of the rest of the family. Only 20 are allowed at funerals, and this uncle had five children, all grown up now with grown up children of their own. His immediate family might not all be able to go, and that’s before we get to his surviving brother and sisters. It must be absolute hell to have to make the choice.

Well, it’s happened. No going back now. I had sent a copy of Coronamas because he always enjoyed these anthologies. It arrived the day before he died. I don’t know if he had time to read any of it though.

So I’ll just post this here. It’s the story I put in Coronamas and if he didn’t get to read it, maybe some ethereal internet connection will let him see it now.

Piper in Hazmat

Dawn wiped away her tears before they could freeze. It had been three years and yet the pain burned as bright as ever. She stifled a sob and kept her head bowed. Tree respect was nearly over and she would return home alone, to spend this Earth Day’s Eve night in darkness.

This year, again, she considered ending it. It would be so easy. Refuse to turn off the house. Keep a tablet or phone open. Wait for the bells and let Santa take her as he had taken Willow, and six years before that, Martin. She would be with them in spirit, somewhere, if the old religions replaced by the Green God still had any power. At least the pain would stop.

That’s what the old religions promised. The Green God promised nothing but despair, the burning of this planet now deep in snow and ice. The trees were dormant, having shed their leaves for their long winter sleep and yet the news declared that the planet was warming by the hour.

Dawn gasped when the klaxon sounded. Relieved, she turned and headed for home. Maybe she could simply not bother with her preparations and let the cold take her this year, as it took so many others. Mostly the old, but then it did also take some of the young, even some of those younger than Dawn’s thirty years.

Lost in her depression, she didn’t notice June draw alongside her as she walked. Normally the families maintained social distance and respectful silence on Earth Day’s Eve. Everyone was too intent on getting home for one last hot meal before turning all the power off to be bothered with any idle chit-chat anyway. June’s whisper startled her.

“Dawn. We need to talk.”

Dawn shook her head and whispered back. “Do you want us both on the Naughty List? We have to maintain tree respect this day.” She kept her eyes firmly ahead.

June’s breathing was harsh. “They’ve made something worse than Green Santa. The Piper. They plan to take all the children.”

Dawn curled her lip. “They’ve taken my husband and my child. Why would this be any of my business?”

June stayed silent until they were nearly at Dawn’s house. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry, Dawn. I know you’re going through a living hell but we need you.” She pressed something into Dawn’s hand. Something that ticked. “It’s not electronic so Santa won’t see it. It’s mechanical. Watch it after you turn off the house. When the thick long hand has moved halfway around the dial, and if you want to help us, open your front door and put a LEDlight outside.”

Dawn turned, but June was already receding into the growing darkness. She opened her door and dashed inside.

The door closed, her back pressed against it, Dawn stared at the small metal disc in her hand. Behind its flattened clear dome were three pointed sticks, radiating from the centre. A long one, a short one and a very thin one that rotated around the centre as she watched. There were numbers, one to twelve, around the outside of the dial.

It moves. Is it really not electronic? Is this a trap?

Dawn chuckled, a harsh and desolate sound. It really didn’t matter. She wanted an end to her personal hell anyway so if it was a trap she’d gladly walk into it. It took the decision to end it from her hands, it meant she didn’t have to choose.

In the kitchen, Dawn placed the disc thing on the table and switched on the kettle. She’d try, although she didn’t really want to, to fill enough hot water flasks to last the twenty-four hours of Earth Day. She set the soup on the hob, the last hot meal until sunset tomorrow, and remembered how she had taken the tepid leftovers when Willow was still here. Now the hot soup was all hers and it tasted of loss and despair.

Dawn filled two hot water bottles and three Thermos flasks with hot water before the brown-out started. She filled the fourth with half of the soup and sat to eat the rest at the table. Through the kitchen window, she saw the sun touch the horizon. She ate faster, soon it would be time to shut down the house and wrap up as well as she could for the long dark hours ahead.

Her gaze fell to the strange disc June had given her. It had protrusions either side, as if it was once fixed to something. As she ate, Dawn wondered where it had come from. It looked old, tarnished and scratched and yet whatever mechanism lay inside still worked. The thin stick in the dial moved in jerky steps, round and round. She was to wait until the long thick one moved halfway round the dial, after she turned off the house.

It’s a time measuring device of some kind. Dawn blinked a few times. A memory tried to resurface. Had her grandfather had one of these, or something like it, strapped to his wrist? The Great Cull had taken him while she was still a child, the viral plague that had wiped out many of the elderly. She sniffed and took another spoonful of soup. The four-digit clocks were so much easier to read, this little time measuring thing looked like hard work.

The soup finished, Dawn checked on the sun. Only a tiny arc of its disc now showed on the horizon. She sighed and rose. Time to turn off the house. Technically she had a few more minutes but what was the point? The electricity was now so low that the ceiling light seemed to suck light out of the room rather than illuminate it. She switched on a LEDlight and opened the panel for the power.

This was control. Martin had told her. They could turn off the power remotely through the smart meters but that wasn’t real control. Making everyone turn off their own power, that was real control. Dawn reached into the space behind the panel and pulled down the handle. The house fell silent. The pale bluish glow of the LEDlight was all that remained.

Dawn sat at the kitchen table and considered the tiny device June had given her. She was to wait until the ‘thick long hand’ had moved halfway around the dial then put a LEDlight outside her door. Well, assuming she gave enough of a shit to find out what this was all about.

What do I have to lose? Nothing.

The thin stick continued its rotations. The short fat one didn’t seem to have moved much. It pointed at just below the three. The one she was to watch pointed at the six. So she was to put out a LEDlight when it pointed at twelve. Dawn wondered how long that would take. The hell with it. I have to get some layers of clothing on. It’s already getting cold. She placed the little dial on the table and went off to the bedroom with the LEDlight.

Wrapped in multiple layers of clothing against the growing cold, with one hot water bottle in her bed and the other under her clothing, Dawn returned to the kitchen. She carried three extra LEDlights since her first one was already fading. There was not enough sunlight to charge them at this time of year. Should she really waste one by putting it outside her door?

The long fat stick pointed at eight. So she hadn’t missed whatever awaited her this night. Dawn tried to care, she tried very hard, but three years of being alone weighed heavy on her. If it was to end tonight, let it end.

Why twelve? There were twenty hours in a day, a hundred minutes in an hour and fifty seconds in a minute. Dawn had a vague recollection that it had been different and harder to understand when she was small but it was so easy to calculate now. Hardly any thought required. What was this little dial measuring? Transfixed, she watched the movements within the little dial, tracking the motion of the one that led to a decision. Would she agree to June’s request or ignore it?

Nine. Halfway to twelve. Dawn walked to the window and shivered at the moonlit whiteness outside. Every house, well, every box-shaped dwelling, all identical, all dark… it looked dead out there. She held her breath and listened but could hear no bells. Nobody around here was on the naughty list tonight, so far. Dawn glanced back at the table. So June had told her the truth. The tiny dial wasn’t electronic or she’d be hearing sleigh bells by now. The Green Santa wasted no time when dealing with the naughty ones.

Dawn hugged herself and returned to the table. The LEDlight was almost dead. She switched on another. These tiny solar-charged lights were the only electronics permissible on this night. Dawn picked up the little dial. Its ticking seemed louder now that all other sound was silenced.

Ten. Getting close to decision time. Was she going to put a light outside or just ignore June’s hinted rebellion and go to bed? The short stick had moved a little closer to four. That one must measure hours, June thought, although it seemed a little off. Still, it was hardly bedtime but what else was there to do now?

What was it June had said? The Piper will come for the children? Dawn closed her eyes. There was a tiny hint of childhood memory trying to get through, something about a piper who took children away. Vague, fleeting memories of a story one of her grandparents – she couldn’t remember which one – had read to her when she was small. Something about Hamlet… no, that was a white supremacy thing she had learned about in school. Piper of Hammering? Piper with a Pie? Dawn shook her head. It was too long ago, far too long. Even so, she was sure she remembered a story about a piper who took away children.

She opened her eyes and stared at the dial in her hand.

Eleven. Not much time left to decide. Should she base her future, or possible lack of it, on a vague memory of a children’s story? Dawn pursed her lips. They had corrupted Santa. Changed him from the old jolly fat smoking and drinking guy who gave away presents into the New Green Santa, who was lithe and fast and Pure, and who gave nothing but took away the Naughty Ones. It was not so much of a stretch to believe they had found another childhood icon to corrupt.

June was right about the little dial. It moved without electronics. Mechanical, she called it. Dawn turned it in her fingers and wondered what was inside, what powered it. It was certainly very old. Did the ancients have some knowledge that was now lost to the modern world? Or was it an elaborate trick? Dawn placed it on the table and watched as the thin stick made a complete revolution and the long fat one clicked one notch further. It can’t be electronic or Green Santa would be here now. June had told the truth, even if Dawn couldn’t work out why it was true.

So maybe June also told the truth about the Piper. The long fat stick was close to the twelve. Dawn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

She had lost her husband and only child. Now this Piper thing was coming for other children. Should she care? Should she help? Or should she continue in her slide into despair and let the rest of the world suffer as she had?

Dawn pushed her seat away from the table and stood. “What the Hell do I have left to lose?” she said aloud. “I can wither away and die or go down in a blaze. Maybe I won’t be any use but I can face whatever god there might be and say that I tried.”

The hand was still one minute from twelve when she put the LEDlight outside her door.

Wrapped in as much as she could wear, with a hot water bottle among the clothes at her midriff, Dawn slumped over the kitchen table. Should she go to bed? Was the signal she had placed intended to get a response tonight or tomorrow? She exhaled. Her breath condensed in the air over the LEDlight on the table.

Damn, it’s cold tonight. What, if anything, is going to happen? Dawn picked up the little dial, now ice cold. It ticked away as if immune to the falling temperatures. The short fat stick had passed the twelve and the long fat one pointed at four. Dawn wished she could remember how to understand its measurement of time. She was sure her grandfather had taught her when she was a child, but the digital clocks were so much easier. She had forgotten this old and faded mechanism entirely until now.

She turned the little machine in her fingers. Its ticking brought comfort and terror. The regular tick-tick-tick was like a heartbeat but those beats ticked time away. Every tick, another moment lost to the past. How many are left?

Dawn shook her head. Don’t think that way. There might be millions more ticks to come. But… did she want them?

Tap-tap-tap.

Dawn straightened in her chair and stared at the little dial.

Tap-tap-tap.

It took her a moment to realise the sound came not from the dial but from her own door. Someone was knocking, very softly.

Dawn moved to the door and opened it a crack. Outside, the LEDlight gave a faint bluish grow, the dying embers of its limited charge. There was a figure, wrapped against the cold. Dawn squinted, unsure whether to speak.

“It’s me.” The voice identified the figure as June. “Pack a bag, light, only absolute essentials and absolutely no electronics. Not even a LEDlight. Bring any hot water you might have left. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“June? You want me to abandon my home?” Dawn recoiled at the thought. Outside, on Earth Day, in the depths of winter? Nobody survives out there.

“It’s no more a home than anyone else’s. We own nothing, Dawn. These are not homes, they are boxes to store us in until it’s time to work. They have taken everything from us. Now they will even take our children.” June’s head moved from side to side. “We have to get the hell out, now.” She took a step back. “Ten minutes.”

“How will I know?” Dawn asked. “The power is off, none of the clocks work.”

“The answer is in your hand.” June gestured at the little dial, still in Dawn’s grip. “What does the long wide hand point to?”

Dawn glanced down. “It is between four and five.”

“I will come back when it is between six and seven. Hurry.” June turned and disappeared into the night.

Dawn closed the door and stared at the little dial. It brought memories.

The grandfather she had never hugged. It was the time of the plague, but she had been too small to understand. Her grandfather died without ever feeling her touch, nor she his. They had talked across a room and later through plexiglass. He had showed her this little dial – no, not like this one. His was a little larger and held on a long chain. It had a lid that popped open. She remembered she always wanted to touch it, she had left tiny fingerprints on the plexiglass when reaching for it.

She remembered it resting in his large and calloused hand, his face smiling and tearful through wrinkled skin. He wanted to give it to her, she felt it inside, he wanted her to have his… watch. That was it. It was called a watch. And the chain. The silver chain he kept it on. Memories burst a dam in her mind.

It was her father who had one of these on his wrist. Before he was drafted into the antivirus wars. She was maybe seven or eight when that happened. Then they moved to this box she called ‘home’ and she met and married Martin. Then her mother died of the plague too. Her father, well, she never heard what became of him.

Ah, the plague. It was the reason nobody saw death any more. All the sick were isolated, to die alone. The young were insulated from the horrors of death until, like her daughter, they had no idea what it meant at all. If Willow had seen death, she might have been more careful. She might not have been taken by Santa that night.

It wasn’t about her grandfather’s watch. She understood now, after all this time. It wasn’t the watch. He had just wanted to hug her, even just make one tiny physical contact. Handing over the watch would have meant their hands touched and they never, not once, experienced even that. All because of someone he regularly called ‘a gecko-faced psychotic twat’, whatever that meant.

Dawn’s breath obscured the watch in her hands for a moment. She blinked away tears. The plague was still around even though nobody ever saw anyone die any more. Anyone sick was immediately quarantined and few of them came back. They had to take care.

The long fat hand touched six. Dawn had little time left, but what time did she need? She was already wearing most of her clothes anyway. She hurried to pack spare clothes into a bag, carefully wrapped the remaining flasks of hot water and placed them inside. She was just lacing up the top of the bag when she heard tapping on her door again.

Scarf around her mouth and nose, her coat wrapped tightly around herself, hood up, Dawn opened the door and nodded to the shadowy figure outside. She pulled on her gloves, picked up her bag and stepped out into the night, closing the door softly behind her.

A shiver ran through her body. Not the cold, it wasn’t much colder outside than inside any more. It was the realisation that she had closed the door to her home – her storage box – for the last time. Whatever happened now, her old life was over.

What the hell, it had all gone to shit anyway.

“Come on.” June started walking. “We can’t be outside for too long. Santa is out tonight and now there’s the Piper to worry about too.”

Dawn started to ask where they were going, but realised she didn’t actually care. They were going somewhere on a night when nobody should be going anywhere. Unauthorised exit from her own home. Associating with other people. It felt good. It felt more than good. It felt euphoric. Dawn grinned beneath her scarf. If Santa caught her tonight, this feeling, this fleeting delight, something she thought she would never again experience… it was worth it.

“Did you remember my watch?” June inclined her head.

“It’s in my pocket.” Dawn hoped June didn’t want it right now. It would mean unbuttoning her coat.

“Good. Those are very hard to come by nowadays. That one was my father’s.” June continued walking.

If only my grandfather could have given me his watch. I could have worked out how to use it by now. Dawn shook herself. This was not a good time to let misery intrude. This was a new life. She had already broken the law, what further excitement could the night bring?

They passed many identical tiny houses, all shrouded in darkness. Occasionally the remnants of a glowing LEDlight could be discerned through thin curtains but most of those would have long since run out of their feeble solar charge tonight.

“Here we are.” June stopped in front of a large building.

Dawn squinted, but the darkness around it was complete. It didn’t seem to be a house. She recognised it at last as the derelict barn on the edge of town. Nobody ever went there. It wasn’t safe. Dawn took a step back.

June seemed to sense her fear. “It’s okay. We’ve spent many years putting around rumours about this place. It’s perfectly safe really.” She tapped three times on the door.

There was a pause before the door opened, just a crack.

“It’s June and Dawn.” June pulled down the scarf covering her face and motioned to Dawn to do the same. Their breath plumed in the icy air.

The door opened and they walked into total darkness. Once the door closed, several LEDlights came on.

Dawn gasped. The barn had at least thirty people in it! An indoor gathering of this size had never been legal as far as she could remember. And there were children too. All silent, adults and children alike, all staring at her. Some she recognised, others she did not.

A woman approached her with a girl who looked to be about ten. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Jasmine. This is my daughter April. She was a friend of Willow’s.”

Tears rolled from Dawn’s eyes. April was the friend Willow had spoken of often. Her best friend. They were only allowed three friends in school. April and Willow had been besties.

April stepped forward and took Dawn’s hand. Another law broken. The touch of other people’s children was forbidden. Dawn curled her fingers around April’s and held tight. This is what it would have felt like to be holding Willow’s hand now.

“I’m—” Dawn choked on the words. “I’m afraid Willow isn’t coming back. Santa took her.”

“I know.” April’s lip trembled. “And now the Piper is coming to take us all.”

“Not all.” The voice came from a man who now stood within coughing distance of Dawn. Unmasked. Yet another law broken.

Dawn’s head reeled. What was this? How did she go from obedient worker to renegade in a matter of hours? She felt April’s fingers tighten and tightened her own in response.

The man put his hand on her shoulder. “I am Sanjay. Jasmine’s husband and April’s father.” He smiled down at the girl. “We had a better name for her, one more in keeping with our traditions, but that was no longer allowed. The Church of the Green God decided the list of names we could use. Still, she is our daughter and we love her.” He turned his smile on Dawn. “We have to run if we are to keep our children. We need you to come with us.”

“Run where? And why me? I’m no hero.” Dawn stared into his eyes, knowing she would agree to anything if she could hold a ten year old hand and close her eyes and pretend it was Willow.

“You know more than you have ever said.” June pushed her hood back. “There have been hints in conversations, times when you have stopped short in discussion. There is knowledge in you, and we don’t have much of that.” She laughed, a short harsh sound. “Those in charge have made sure of it. You know more than we do about how this world works. We need you.”

Dawn lowered her eyes. They met April’s, who stared up at her, filled with hope.

I know what Martin told me, and he told me to never tell anyone else. Did I leak it without realising? I can’t have or Santa would have taken me by now. Martin knew so much, he saw through the veil of lies. Is that why they took him?

“Perhaps it’s time the truth came out.” Dawn gasped at the words. Her thoughts had become sounds.

“Perhaps it’s too late.” Sanjay patted her shoulder. “Or perhaps just in time. Time will tell.”

Another man stepped forward. He nodded at Dawn. “I am Leif. Time is not on our side. There is a place we can go, unused now but we can make it liveable. We have to go tonight while most power is off. It will not be hard to track us if we have any electronics so we will take no LEDlights, we will walk by moonlight.”

April tugged Dawn’s hand. “They say that you have heard the bells. Is it true?”

Dawn shivered. “Yes. It’s true.”

A murmur ran around the room. Nobody who hears the bells should survive. Sanjay licked his lips, stood back and turned his gaze away.

June put her arm around Dawn’s waist and squeezed. “Help us, Dawn. We need you.”

Dawn looked from one to the other, at the room of hopeful eyes, and made the only decision she could make. There was no going back now.

“Yes,” she said. “But first I have to know where we are going.”

Leif pursed his lips. “There is an old windfarm—”

“No.” Dawn raised her hand. “They revive the windfarms when they can. We need a solar farm. Those are no use at this time of year so they are never checked and they will have more recent facilities.”

Leif and Sanjay looked at each other and nodded. “She was a good choice,” Sanjay said. Leif nodded.

“There’s another thing,” Dawn said. “All those sites, wind or solar, are bristling with cameras. There’s no way to get in or out undetected.”

Leif smiled and motioned a small woman forward. “This is Holly. She works in a monitoring station, watching the cameras. Holly?” Leif stood back to give her space.

Holly cleared her throat. “At least half of the cameras don’t work. More are so grainy they’re no real use. Nobody bothers fixing them because there’s no need. Everyone is so used to thinking they’re being watched all the time that they just act as if they’re always watched. So there’s no longer any need for constant surveillance. The presence of the cameras is enough. The fact that so many of them are out of order is kept very quiet.” She glanced around. “Nobody outside this room can ever know I’ve told you this. I’d certainly be sent to the Farm.”

“Of course.” Dawn looked around at the expectant faces. “Do you know which ones aren’t working?”

“Yes.” Sanjay pulled out a sheet of paper and unfolded it. “This is a map of the area showing where the dead cameras are. We can avoid the live ones on the way to the wind farm, but we’ll need another route if we’re going to the solar installation.”

Dawn looked over the map. “The easiest way is to head for the wind farm and turn off here.” She pointed at the map. “This is just a dirt track, my husband took me there once when he showed me round his job, maintaining the wind and solar installations.”

Holly examined the map. “No cameras for a couple of miles. We’d have to watch for drone patrols but they aren’t common outside the towns.”

Sanjay and Leif conferred briefly. Sanjay addressed the room in a hushed voice.

“Okay, get a few hours of sleep. We won’t be able to show any lights so we leave as soon as the sun starts to rise. The power won’t come back on until tomorrow night so everyone else will stay huddled up at home, and the lack of activity in our own houses won’t be unusual until nightfall. By then we should be a good distance away.”

Amid murmurs and whispers and the occasional sound of a hot water bottle being emptied and refilled, the people settled into a large huddle.

Dawn caught Sanjay’s arm as he turned to leave. “Where are we going? We can’t stay at the solar farm for long. What destination do you have in mind?”

Sanjay pursed his lips and stared at the ground for a moment. He took a breath. “We don’t know. Holly has told us that the cameras only go so far out. We can get to the wilderness where there are no cameras and try to eke out some kind of existence.” He forced a smile. “We haven’t had time to really think about it. It would be better to go in summer, sure, but this is the only time the power is off. It’s the only time we can go without our absence being noticed for several hours.” His smile slipped. “Also, if we wait, they’ll take our children. There’s been no time to really plan anything beyond getting out of here.”

Dawn considered this. It had been a rushed decision because of the Piper. “I understand,” she said. “We can make plans when we get to the solar farm. There’s a kind of museum there, or maybe just storage. Martin showed me round it. Old vehicles, the ones that used to run on fossil fuels. They even had some fuel stored there. There are electric cars too, they use them to get around the farm. We might as well add theft to our list of crimes.” She smiled.

Sanjay grinned widely. “Oh June was so right to bring you in. You’re going to be so valuable to us.”

“I hope so. We can steal some tools and medical supplies while we’re there. Might as well go all the way, eh?”

Sanjay slapped her arm. “Wonderful. Better get some sleep though, there’s only a few hours till sunrise. If you want to refill a hot water bottle, there’s a drain over there you can empty cold water into.”

It was indeed getting chilly, despite the body heat of all these people. Dawn unbuttoned her coat and took out the hot water bottle nestled inside. She reached for her bag and stopped, remembering something. Delving into her pocket she brought out the watch, still ticking the moments into the past.

“June,” she said, handing over the watch. “Thank you. We might not last long on this adventure but it’s so much better than the gloom I was facing.”

June chuckled. “You underestimate the determination of these people. We’ve been very careful in who we’ve chosen. We had to be so, so careful not to bring in anyone who might betray us and there are so very many of those.”

Dawn bit her lip. She had had to bite her lip many times in the past, when talking to neighbours. That certain look in the eye, the incline of the head, sent a message that told her they were waiting for a misstep, a word out of place, something they could report and improve their standing with the authorities. June was right, there were so very many of them. She looked around the room, darker now that most of the LEDlights had been extinguished. That’s why there are so few here. It can be hard to know who to trust.

She said goodnight to June and went to the drain Sanjay had pointed at. Here she emptied her hot water bottle and refilled it from one of the flasks in her bag. She toyed with the idea of discarding the empty flask but it might be useful again one day, and it didn’t weigh very much empty. She put it back in her bag.

Hot water bottle under her buttoned coat, she curled up at the edge of the group, near the wall. The wind cut through a gap in the boards, so she placed her bag against it and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Dawn woke to a pale light that gave no heat. She was aware of low murmurings and soft movements around her. For a moment she wondered who was in her house, then recalled the events of the night before. She opened her eyes.

Leif knelt beside her, his finger over his lips. Then she heard the scream.

It came from outside. When Leif moved away, Dawn moved her bag away from the crack in the boards. Outside, on someone’s doorstep, two people in Hazmat suits were forcing a child into a smaller one. The child’s parents struggled against the police holding them.

“It’s for your safety.” The shouted words came to her across the cold morning air. “And your child’s. Just relax. Be calm. Panic makes you more susceptible to the virus. Your child will be safe with us.”

“My baby!” The cry cut Dawn to the heart.  She knew how that mother felt. Her darker side knew that that particular mother would have delighted in turning her in for wrongthink, but even so, the pain in that cry was so deep, so visceral, it blew away any other consideration.

“I didn’t think they would move so fast.” Sanjay’s whisper made Dawn jump. He ran his lips over his teeth. “Although it makes sense. Today, Earth Day, nobody can use their phone to warn others what’s coming.” He closed his eyes. “This is bad. They’ll find out we’re not at home in a matter of minutes. I had hoped we’d have hours of head start but we’re going to be running right from the beginning.”

Dawn blinked away her tears. “Get used to it,” she said. “We’re going to be running for the rest of our lives.” She glanced behind her at the children huddled with their parents. “Probably for generations.”

____

This follows from ‘For Whom the Bells Jingle’. The next one, probably next Christmas, will connect to ’23-David and 81-Mohammed’ to complete that sequence.

Finally

I have been somewhat distracted for the last six months. Finding it hard to focus. Book promotions, working on current books, my own writing, it has been difficult to get the impetus to deal with it.

On Friday, 24th July, my father’s ashes were interred. If you’ve been around a while you’ll know he died of a pulmonary embolism, pretty much instantly and painlessly, on February 14th. Nearly six damn months ago. The ineptitude of the NHS Wales coroner meant his funeral was not until March 10th. This did mean he had a very well attended funeral and cremation, there were over a hundred people at it. A week later there would have been four.

Then lockdown happened and his ashes languished in the undertaker’s place until they could be interred. Meanwhile, the stonemasons completed his headstone and in a further act of ineptitude, installed it over a grave he wasn’t in. So it had to be moved. I can imagine his rage at all this. He hated waiting and he hated to be late and here he was, at the end, late for his own funeral. Because of the ineptitude of others.

One thing he would have been very proud of was his casket. Made by my son, his grandson, who learned a lot of his woodworking skills from my father. He also learned what has become a sort of unofficial motto in this branch of the family at least – ‘There is perfect, and there is wrong’. And so my son has agonised about some tiny imperfections in the wood but the casket he made turned out far superior to any of the readymades available from the undertaker – and that came from the undertaker themselves.

I know my father would have had no criticism of the casket. The coroner, the stonemason, all the rest of it, well he would have had some interesting phrases to launch at them all.

It has been difficult. I tried to rationalise his death as I rationalise most things in life. He was 82, he’d had multiple strokes, his mind was fully intact but his body was failing and that, understandably, made him frustrated. He knew what he wanted to do but his body could no longer do it. I don’t know which is worse – losing your mind in a fully functional body or having all your faculties in a body that’s collapsing. It’s still difficult to accept either way. Your parents are there from the moment you are born and you think they’re immortal, but they’re not. Everyone finds that out the hard way.

It has been difficult though, knowing he languished in storage when he should have been laid to rest. This should have been all over in March. If the coroner wasn’t an utterly useless arse it would all have been over by the end of February. If it had been, I could have been there.

I could not attend the interrment. I would have risked the application of two weeks of quarantine on my return from Wales to Scotland. I would have risked having to stop at the border, get out of my car and batter the racist SNP bastards with a King Dick spanner on the way back. I really would not have been in the mood to deal with their petty childish shit. I suppose quarantine in prison is much the same anyway.

Only four family members could attend. I know Bozza and the Pretend Conservatives say six but that includes the undertaker and the priest. Family gets four. My father has two brothers and three sisters surviving him, only one brother was able to be there along with his wife, my mother and my brother. If I had been there I would have had to force one of them out. I am glad my uncle was there though, he and my father were very close. It’s horrible the rest could not attend. I’d have given up my spot to any of them if I had one.

At least we have some kind of closure at last. My father’s journey has finally ended. He spent far too long in the waiting room but he’s now reached the final destination.

I can hear him now – ‘Bloody British Rail would have been quicker’.

Final days

The coroner has at last (March 6th) signed the forms that release my father to the undertaker. My father died instantly of a pulmonary embolism on February 14th, the death certificate finally became available to my mother on March 4th and the undertaker had still heard nothing. After, I suspect, several angry phone calls, the coroner remembered to do his job and signed the release forms.

So, there is no real prospect of an open casket funeral because the undertaker has not been able to embalm him. My mother wanted to say one last goodbye, but thanks to the utter ineptitude of the South Wales coroner, that is unlikely to be possible. The entire family is now at the point where if this coroner shows his face he’s really not likely to get to keep it. Don’t show up to apologise, Coroner. No apology can or will be accepted. Just fuck off.

This is not an exceptional case. More and more are coming forward from the area covered by this coroner’s office. The local MP will be getting letters, as will whoever is medically in charge of that shitshow.

I wonder if he would dare do this to a Muslim family? Islam requires the time between death and internment to be no more than three days. This coroner thinks nothing of taking three weeks or more to sign a damn form. If they jihaded him, they’d have the full support of me and my entire family. Heck, we’d give them alibis.

I have been uncommunicative for a while because of this. We cannot move on until it is over. My mother could not arrange bank accounts, insurances, property, pensions, council tax, anything at all without the death certificate so we have all been in limbo until the coroner finally managed to shift his arse. Fortunately my brother has been on hand to help our mother and CStM and I will be there in a couple of days for the funeral.

And don’t blame this on ‘Tory cuts’. This is NHS Wales. It’s Labour controlled. God help you all in Wales if (when) coronavirus hits. It has an incubation period of at least two weeks and it’ll be three weeks before you know if someone died of it. NHS Wales will go under with cases in a month, all because the coroner just does not care.

The remainers and the climate cult have dropped their masks now, gleefully delighting in hte deaths of ‘old Brexiteers’ and ‘old Climate Heretics’ and not realising that coronavirus does not care how you vote, nor does it care for your religion. I actually don’t know how my father voted on Brexit, nor his opinions on climate change. We didn’t discuss politics. I don’t know how any of my family voted on anything, nor how they feel about climate change, for that matter. In my family, family is first. We do not split over trivia.

I think they will listen to me over the new coronavirus, since I’m the only one with a doctorate in microbiology. So I will be advising on this one. It’s not ‘flu. That ‘it’s only flu’ mindset is what makes those required to self-quarantine think ‘It’s been three days, I’m fine, I’ll go to that concert/business meeting/football match’ and spread it all around. Its principal danger is not even in its death rate, which is amateurish compared to the likes of Ebola. Its danger is in its asymptomatic spread which will lead to a total collapse of the health service. They don’t only deal with coronavirus, you know, and when hospitals are full of people on respirators, what about all the other illnesses?

As for me, I only have one gathering to attend. My father’s funeral. It will be big, there are a lot of us on all three sides of the family (long story, another time maybe) from all over the country. Infection rates are not yet at dangerous levels as far as anyone knows (although ‘confirmed cases’ are only the ones so far showing symptoms and the real current cases could well be ten times that) so I’ll risk it.

Confirmed cases are doubling every two days in the UK. Don’t imagine this one is just going to disappear. This is not the necrotising fasciitis scare that killed about eight people and caused mass panic, this one will run and run.

We’re not flying to Wales. I had already decided to drive because that gives more flexibility over coming back. If we have to stay a few more days, no problem. Just as well really since the operator of flights from Aberdeen to Cardiff was Flybe, and they’ve now gone bust. I’d have been driving anyway and with no chance of ticket refunds.

Still, the eleventh Underdog Anthology will go ahead. Submissions will close on March 31st although publication isn’t likely to be until mid to late April and you might not get an email response until mid March at the earliest. That’s not your fault, it’s the fault of an idiot in a coroner’s job.

This one will be dedicated to my father. He loved to read these books.

Limbo

I don’t have the next chapter of Panoptica ready for this week. I’ll have to catch up later.

Why? Because the coroner has not yet managed to get off his arse and contact the doctor, so there is no death certificate for my father. It’s been almost a week.

Nothing can happen without that certificate. The funeral director cannot set a date for the funeral, already it’s going back into March. Pensions cannot be cancelled. My mother has cancelled his seat on a flight she’d booked but cannot get a refund without that certificate.

There is money set aside for the funeral. That cannot be released without that certificate.

The South Wales coroner is beginning to look like a figment of the imagination. Even the doctors can’t find him.

This is not an unusual occurrence. This coroner has delayed funerals for a month in many cases. We’ve heard so many tales now.

How the hell can a coroner justify leaving families in limbo like this? My father did not die in any suspicious circumstance. He was 82 and disabled. He collapsed in front of many witnesses. There is nothing to investigate here, no need for this delay. As in so many other cases.

We are in limbo. No idea when my father’s funeral will be. The funeral director has, I hear, been excellent as far as they can be, but can set nothing in motion without that certificate. The same for all the others, pensions, flights, banks etc. Only the coroner is holding everything back.

I hope I never meet this coroner. It could end up with me spending time in jail.

After what he has put my mother through, especially, I feel it could be worth it.

In Memoriam

On Friday night, a little before midnight, my father died. It was sudden and unexpected – even though he was 82 and had suffered several strokes, his mind was still sharp and he could still get around, although with some difficulty.

My parents had been out for a meal at a pub and he collapsed and died on the way out. I’m going to Wales in the next few days and will likely be out of touch for a while.

My father was filled with stories. Not the fiction I turn out, these were all real life tales of working in the mines, in factories after the mines closed, and pranks from the days before health and safety took all the fun out of it.

I’m sure I’ve told of the time a young singer named Tom Jones did a set at the Ynysddu Progressive Working Men’s Club. This is indeed the same Tom Jones, when he was just starting out.

They paid him off halfway through. All the shouty singing and hip-thrusting didn’t go down well with a room full of flat-capped miners. He was told he’d never play the Ynysddu Prog Club again. And he never has.

When I was very small we lived in a council house in the Penllwyn Estate. My father once gave a coworker a pack of seeds for his new garden. Our garden was full of dockleaves… those were the seeds.

As a teenager I had a very realistic silicon human hand. It was remarkably realistic. My father, then working in the nearby Johnson and Johnson factory, producing J-cloths, took the hand to work one day. He dropped it on the emerging sheet of cloth so it would pop through the rollers to where another coworker was inspecting for flaws. The guy had to go for a long sit down…

One of his best tales was from his days in the mines. He worked at the coal face. Lunch breaks were underground, they took packed lunches with them. One of the other men always had corned beef sandwiches and always complained that it was the same every day. His wife made his lunch for him.

The others told him to be firm, stand up for himself, and tell his wife he wanted something different. Sure enough, at lunch break next day, his sandwiches did not contain corned beef.

They contained fruit salad. He might not have been too diplomatic when asking for a change.

It’s going to be hard to come to terms with a world that no longer has him in it. He was such a gigantic character, there will always be a gaping hole where he once stood. All the things he made are still here though, and he made a lot of things. Including me and my brother.

He lived long enough to see three great-granddaughters. His mind was intact to the end and his wit remained sharp, and he died without going through a long slow decline in a bed. If I could choose, that’s how I’d go too. With a good meal and a beer inside me.

RIP Dad.

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Update: Thank you for all the kind messages. They are appreciated. Prayers are appreciated too even though I don’t believe. It’s the thought that counts.

I like to think that he left one last important message. Get stuff done. Don’t piss about because you never know how much time you have left.

I think he got everything done he wanted done, and I hope that when it’s my time, someone else can say the same about me. So. Back to work.

I currently don’t know when we’ll go to Wales. Can’t book anything until we have a date for the funeral. Hopefully the storms will have become bored with the UK soon and travel will be easier.

Thanks to everyone.

Another remote goodbye

Several well known bloggers have died since I started on this blogging lark. I always intended to meet up with some of them but rarely made it happen – partly because I live somewhere remote now and have rarely had the funds to take spontaneous trips. However, I will have to make more of an effort before it’s my turn to meet the Reaper.

Frank and Bucko had the good fortune to meet Nisakiman recently. Nisakiman has now passed away, with his daughters at his bedside and, it seems, peacefully.

I’ve never been much good at condolences or eulogies so I’ll just raise a glass to Nisakiman’s memory this evening.

Rest in peace, Kevin.

 

Redirecting…

No blog from me tonight. I have spent a few hours this evening on an insurance company’s telephone timewasting service and have given up without actually getting through to a real person. An Email full of rage and cancellation is in preparation.

It wasn’t a totally bad day. I had a meeting about science work in which we formulated a clear Plan for a project, and dined on venison steaks and chips and all the trimmings. At a very acceptable price too. The local pub here does excellent food, stocks BrewDog’s Nanny State alcohol free beer (I was driving) and has a real coal fire in the bar. I might become a regular, especially once the weather improves to the point where I can walk there.

Tonight, no ramble from me. I redirect you to a long and interesting post by Anna Raccoon.

It sort of puts the annoying things in life into perspective…