This Is Not an Exit

The café is cold and blanketed masses huddle over steaming cups of weak tea. The bomb blast took out the windows, even in this hamlet miles from the target. Those of us who still have our sight read old newspapers and our bitterness grows. I while away my hours here now. You’ll find me at the back; the man with rough hands and heavy-lidded eyes on a pock-marked face. Not that I’d stand out from the rest with that description. One way or another, the fallout has carved its marks on all of us.

            My sentry post is at the back tables, watching those who come and go. I never sit facing away from the door. It’s some advice I’ve picked up lately, reading Malcolm X. He always took his seat where he could see the exit, just in case. The idea has taken hold within me. My new hobby breeding paranoia.

            I rub the toe on my boot into the damp bark coating the floor and its pine scent lingers with the throng of smoke in the air. Soon it will be sunrise and I can use the weak daylight to guide my way up into the hills beyond our ghost town. It’s a lonely hike; it’s my work that sets me out from the rest. I think of my occupation as self-employment. It doesn’t pay well. Not in financial dividends anyway.

But I eke just enough from scattered handyman jobs to hold my roost in the formerly snug coffee corner. There’s nowhere else to go during the still hours. I’ve been locked out of every house since rumours started flying around about my excursions into the treeline. They’re happy to call on Handyman only when they need something. To be needed and not wanted is lonely. Folk are reading too much into my distrust. Though they’re deaf to my pleas, this is all part of the shunning. I’ve learnt independence through adversity.

            The first light glimmers on the lingering shards of shattered windowpane. It’s time for me to get moving. My tools jangle in their greasy holdall as I cross the floor and ignore the dirty looks I get from the patrons, waiting out until the safety of morning. Animals have become bolder lately, they can tell that their former apex predator has been toppled, hoisted by its own petard. Roaming packs of dogs have spread in to fill the gap. As we bow out, we appreciate the safety in numbers as well as our technological superiority which landed our species in this mess in the first place. Where you find humans, you’ll find them in groups and you’ll find them with guns. So it’s not just the evil eyes staring me down as I leave my perch. I have to face the cold glare of gun barrels as well. There may come a time soon where I am the victim of some frontier justice. I’ll have moved on before then. I’ve a knack for sensing which way the wind is blowing.

            This morning is sweeping in from the south, washing radioactive particles from long dead branches and bleached building slats. I don my thick gloves and muffler and unfold a stained map I’ve torn from the rubble of a library husk. There are several ringed points, copied over from an advertising brochure whose filmy pages I’d had to peel apart. This damp magazine is my bible, Handyman’s purpose and word of God. On the way out of town, I lean into a thick shrub and drew out a thick gym bag filled with building materials. There are several of these stashes lodged around the town. I’ve cannibalised unused buildings for planks of wood and sturdy timbers. Gardening and hardware stores have provided me with the rest. Having slung these over my shoulder, I am ready to make the trip into no-man’s land.

            In the woods, it is quiet. There are no birds any more. The tallest trees are the dead ones. Their smaller kin grow stunted and diseased. The poison got into the water table even this far out in the sticks. While all of us had our noses pressed to television screens showing crowning international tensions, national park land was flogged off behind our backs. For those who could afford it, a remote point was an ideal place to wait for all of this to blow over and hunker down in case it didn’t. In the cities, polluted air strangled the protests. Meanwhile in the unspoilt countryside; trucks, diggers and other earth moving machines were chartered and trooped into the wilderness. I’ve become adept at chasing the tracks they left behind.

            Out here, I don’t feel as hunted. My pace slows and I have time to enjoy the anaemic sunlight. At the brow of a hill, I pause to cough and am forced over, retching. The droplets of blood staining my handkerchief are the only sparks of vitality in this cold locale. I tie it back across my face and heave my load once more. I didn’t used to have a cough. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have to do this. All the more important that I finish my task here, then.

            From this vantage point, it’s easy to see where the land has been carved out by hydraulic machinery. Trees felled months ago have given way to concrete doorways and rusting vents peering out. The billionaires sheltered here, made a private heaven to weather the storm and locked the rest us out. These bunkers were sunk deep underground and sold at high cost. The figures in my magazines are astonishing. No-one can afford those prices, not then or now. Those that could pay cling on to life in their safe caverns, waiting for their descendants to emerge. Even from here I can see warm steam seeping from the filtered vents. Not all of them though.

            My boots clump through a thick carpet of leaves. Autumn hasn’t come and the trees have shed their load. After checking my map, I alter my path and arrive at a flattened glade, shrouded in mist. Ahead of me is a doorway fashioned from rock and concrete. Fresh moss creeps across the weathered grey surface. Either side are reinforced portholes of thickened glass. Beyond I see nothing but darkness. There’s no-one checking the weather today.

            It’s too late for me to beg for shelter, not that many haven’t tried. As the first alarms sounded, swarms of people ascended looking for sanctuary. Weeks later their skeletons had been picked clean by desperate scavengers. Those doors are sealed, there’s no way in or out until the various internal spectrometers and computer systems decide that the air is safe once more. If I want to make my presence felt to those inside, I need to try a different tack.

            One problem encountered with early tests is that if you want to provide an isolated space beneath the earth to weather a storm or hail missiles and what have you is that you need a steady supply of air, filtered of course. And so, upon completion of each shelter, drills bored thick channels through the bedrock to enable life-giving clean air to the inhabitants below. They were rigged with complex dynamic systems capable of removing toxins from the atmosphere. In complexity, there is room for error.

            I drop my gear to the ground in a heap and wring open a can of beans which I’ve kept for the occasion. Sitting on a dislodged boulder, I eat them cold and thought up a plan for an attack. This time wouldn’t have been different from any of the others. The empty can clanged off the door. I hoped that down in the ground, they were hear it and fear.

            Like most of us, I lost everything in the blasts. My little life that I’d built up for years vanished in a flash. My house, my family, everything. Once I hadn’t been Handyman; I had a name. I hadn’t dirtied the water. I hadn’t declared war over dwindling resources. I had paid my taxes and kept my eyes front. That said, I’m not the type to whine over a problem without trying to do something about it. I’ve always been a practical man. If we were feeling the consequences of the decisions made by those who now bedded peacefully underground, then why not redistribute things a little.

            This little snuffing operation is my getback. Those wealthy men and women who now are sealed off, away from the disasters that they’ve caused, need a reminder that we’re still here on the topsoil. Those plutocratic Persephones might feel invincible down there, but as long as there is breath in my body, I will be extinguishing their air supply. If there’s no hope for us, there will be no hope for them either.

            I stride over to the first vent and seize it. With a bit of assistance from my pal the screwdriver, the hood comes off and I am bathed in warm air. Down below, I can hear the whirring of funnelling machinery echoing up the pipeline. Next, I take a shovel as I usually do and begin to heave dirt down the pipe. The work is hard on my back, but bitterness powers me through pain.

            I wasn’t always able to block off the air supplies with earth. Sometimes I barricade the opening with caulking and wood. If I could, I’d tear the filter apart and the pipe hood, walking away happy in the knowledge that below my feet an unseen family were choking on a slow trickle of fallout dust. Sometimes I am lucky enough to encounter the mining equipment left behind. Any explosives were put to use burying the re-enforced doorways anyway I could.

            After an hour of slinging dirt into the hole in the ground, the clicks and stutters coming the other way fall dead. Suffocation might be days away for anyone on the other side of that door, but it was certain. I nail a pallet of wood together and roll a boulder over the top for good measure. From my pocket I pull my map and scribble over one of the circled points. Then I move onto the next one; it’s only over the other side of that ridge. I can be there by nightfall. As I leave, I take a lungful of the dirty cold air and whistle a merry tune. I’m happy in my work.

About the Author

George Aitch


George AitchNuclear War