The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellows for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up—regurgitating, as it were—the debris of muck, slime, and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats, and worse; bringing back up to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying toward the overflowing and always hospitable River Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.
A fancy two-horse coach wallowed its way along the street, some piece of metal stuck near an axle causing it to be heralded by a scream. And indeed there was a scream, a human scream this time, as the coach door was flung open and a figure tumbled out into the gushing gutter, which tonight was doing the job of a fountain. Two other figures sprang from the coach, cursing in language that was as colorful as the night was dark and even dirtier. In the downpour, fitfully lit by the lightning, the first figure tried to escape but tripped, fell, and was leaped upon, with a cry that was hardly to be heard in all the racket, but which was almost supernaturally counterpointed by the grinding of iron, as a drain cover nearby was pushed open to reveal a struggling and skinny young man who moved with the speed of a snake.
“You let that girl alone!” he shouted.
There was a curse in the dark and one of the assailants fell backward with his legs kicked from under him. The youth was no heavyweight but somehow he was everywhere, throwing blows—blows that were augmented by a pair of brass knuckles, always a helpmeet for the outnumbered. Outnumbered one to two as it were, the assailants took to their heels while the youth followed, raining blows. But it was London and it was raining and it was dark, and they were dodging into alleys and side streets, frantically trying to catch up with their coach, so that he lost them, and the apparition from the depths of the sewers turned around and headed back to the stricken girl at greyhound speed.
He kneeled down, and to his surprise she grabbed him by the collar and whispered in what he considered to be foreigner English, “They want to take me back—please help me. . . .” The lad sprang to his feet, his eyes all suspicion.
On this stormy night of stormy nights, it was opportune then that two men who themselves knew something about the dirt of London were walking, or rather, wading, along this street, hurrying home with hats pulled down—which was a nice try but simply didn’t work, because in this torrent it seemed that the bouncing water was coming as much from below as it was from above. Lightning struck again, and one of them said, “Is that someone lying in the gutter there?” The lightning presumably heard, because it sliced down again and revealed a shape, a mound, a person as far as these men could see.
“Good heavens, Charlie, it’s a girl! Soaked to the skin and thrown into the gutter, I imagine,” said one of them. “Come on. . . .”
“Hey you, what are you a-doing, mister?!”
By the light of a pub window that could barely show you the darkness, the aforesaid Charlie and his friend saw the face of a boy who looked like a young lad no more than seventeen years old but who seemed to have the voice of a man. A man, moreover, who was prepared to take on both of them, to the death. Anger steamed off him in the rain and he wielded a long piece of metal. He carried on, “I know your sort, oh yes I do! Coming down here chasing the skirt, making a mockery of decent girls, blimey! Desperate, weren’t you, to be out on a night such as this!”
The man who wasn’t called Charlie straightened up. “Now see here, you. I object most strongly to your wretched allegation. We are respectable gentlemen who, I might add, work quite hard to better the fortunes of such poor wretched girls and, indeed, by the look of it, those such as yourself!”
The scream of rage from the boy was sufficiently loud that the doors of the nearby pub swung open, causing smoky orange light to illuminate the ever-present rain. “So that’s what you call it, is it, you smarmy old gits!”
The boy swung his homemade weapon, but the man called Charlie caught it and dropped it behind him, then grabbed the boy and held him by the scruff of his neck. “Mister Mayhew and myself are decent citizens, young man, and as such we surely feel it is our duty to take this young lady somewhere away from harm.” Over his shoulder he said, “Your place is closest, Henry. Do you think your wife would object to receiving a needy soul for one night? I wouldn’t like to see a dog out on a night such as this.”
Henry, now clutching the young woman, nodded. “Do you mean two dogs, by any chance?”
The struggling boy took immediate offense at this, and with a snakelike movement was out of the grip of Charlie and once again spoiling for a fight. “I ain’t no dog, you nobby sticks, nor ain’t she! We have our pride, you know. I make my own way, I does, all kosher, straight up!”
The man called Charlie lifted the boy up by the scruff of his neck so that they were face-to-face. “My, I admire your attitude, young man, but not your common sense!” he said quietly. “And mark you, this young lady is in a bad way. Surely you can see that. My friend’s house is not too far away from here, and since you have set yourself up as her champion and protector, why then, I invite you to follow us there and witness that she will have the very best of treatment that we can afford, do you hear me? What is your name, mister? And before you tell it to me, I invite you to believe that you are not the only person who cares about a young lady in dire trouble on this dreadful night. So, my boy, what is your name?”
The boy must have picked up a tone in Charlie’s voice, because he said, “I’m Dodger—that’s what they call me, on account I’m never there, if you see what I mean? Everybody in all the boroughs knows Dodger.”
IN A FOREST GLADE: Private Percy woke up to birdsong. It was a long time since he had heard birdsong, the guns saw to that. For a while he was content to lie there in the blissful quiet.
Although he was slightly worried, in a concussed kind of way, why he was lying in damp though fragrant grass and not on his bedroll. Ah yes, fragrant grass, there hadn’t been much fragrance where he’d just been! Cordite, hot oil, burned flesh and the stink of unwashed men, that was what he was used to.
He wondered if he was dead. After all, it had been a fearsome bombardment.
Well, if he was dead then this would do for a heaven, after the hell of noise and screams and mud. And if it wasn’t heaven, then his sergeant would be giving him a kicking, pulling him up, looking him over and sending him down to the mess for a cup of tea and a wad. But there was no sergeant, and no noise except the bird-song in the trees.
And, as dawn light seeped into the sky, he wondered, ‘What trees?’
When had he last seen a tree that was even vaguely in the shape of a tree, let alone a tree with all its leaves, a tree not smashed to splinters by the shelling? And yet here were trees, lots of trees, a forest of trees.
Private Percy was a practical and methodical young man, and therefore decided, in this dream, not to worry about trees, trees had never tried to kill him. He lay back, and must’ve dozed off for a while. Because when he opened his eyes again it was full daylight, and he was thirsty.
Daylight, but where? Well, France. It had to be France. Percy couldn’t have been blown very far by the shell that had knocked him out; this must still be France, but here he was in woods where woods shouldn’t be. And without the traditional sounds of France, such as the thunder of the guns and the screams of the men.
It was all a conundrum. And Percy was dying for a drink of water.
So he packed up his troubles in what remained of his old kit bag, in this ethereal bird-haunted silence, and reflected that there was some truth in the song: what was the use of worrying? It was really not worthwhile, not when you have just seen men evaporate like the dew of the morning.
But as he stood up he felt that familiar ache in his left leg, deep in the bone, the relic of a wound that hadn’t been enough to send him home but had got him a cushier posting with the camouflage boys, and a battered paint box in his kit bag. No dream this if his leg still hurt! But he wasn’t where he had been, that was for sure.
And as he picked his way between the trees in the direction that appeared to have fewer trees in it than any other, a shimmering steely thought filled his mind: Why did we sing? Were we mad? What the hell did we think we were doing? Arms and legs all over the place, men just turning into a mist of flesh and bone! And we sang!
What bloody, bloody fools we were!
Half an hour later Private Percy walked down a slope, to a stream in a shallow valley. The water was somewhat brackish, but right now he would have been ready to drink out of a horse trough, right alongside the horse.
He followed the stream until it joined a river, not a very wide river as yet, but Private Percy was a country boy and knew there would be crayfish under the river bank. And in half an hour said crayfish were cooking merrily, and never had he seen such big ones! And so many! And so juicy! He ate until it hurt, twirling his catch on a green stick over his hastily built fire and tearing them apart with his hands. He thought now: Perhaps I really am dead and have gone to heaven. And that is good enough for me, because, O Lord, I believe I have seen enough of hell.
That night he lay in a glade by the river, with his kit bag for a pillow. And as the stars came out in the sky, more brilliant than he had ever seen, Percy began to sing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’. He fell silent before finishing the song, and slept the sleep of the just.
When the sunshine touched his face again, Percy woke, refreshed, sat up – and froze, motionless as a statue, before the calm gazes that inspected him. There were a dozen of the fellows in a row, watching him.
Who were they? What were they? They looked a bit like bears, but not with bear faces, or a bit like monkeys, only fatter. And they were just watching him placidly. Surely they couldn’t be French?
He tried French anyway. ‘Parley buffon say?’
They stared at him blankly.
In the silence, and feeling that something more was expected of him, Percy cleared his throat and plunged into ‘Pack Up Your Troubles.’
The fellows listened with rapt attention until he had finished. Then they looked at one another. Eventually, as if some agreement had been reached, one of them stepped forward and sang the song back at Percy, pitch perfect.
Private Percy listened with blank astonishment.
And, a century later:
The prairie was flat, green, rich, with scattered stands of oaks. The sky above was blue as generally advertised. On the horizon there was movement, like the shadow of a cloud: a vast herd of animals on the move.
There was a kind of sigh, a breathing-out. An observer standing close enough might have felt a whisper of breeze on the skin.
And a woman was lying on the grass.
Her name was Maria Valienté. She wore her favourite pink angora sweater. She was only fifteen, but she was pregnant, and the baby was coming. The pain of the contractions pulsed through her skinny body. A moment ago she hadn’t known if she was more afraid of the birth, or the anger of Sister Stephanie who had taken away her monkey bracelet, all that Maria had from her mother, saying it was a sinful token.
And now, this. Open sky where there should have been a nicotine-stained plaster ceiling. Grass and trees, where there should have been worn carpet. Everything was wrong. Where was here? Was this even Madison? How could she be here?
But that didn’t matter. The pain washed through her again, and she felt the baby coming. There was nobody to help, not even Sister Stephanie. She closed her eyes, and screamed, and pushed.
The baby spilled on to the grass. Maria knew enough to wait for the afterbirth. When it was done there was a warm mess between her legs, and a baby, covered in sticky, bloody stuff. It, he, opened his mouth, and let out a thin wail.
There was a sound like thunder, from far away. A roar like you’d hear in a zoo. Like a lion.
A lion? Maria screamed again, this time in fear—
The scream was cut off, as if by a switch. Maria was gone. The baby was alone.
Alone, except for the universe. Which poured in, and spoke to him with an infinity of voices. And behind it all, a vast Silence.
His crying settled to a gurgle. The Silence was comforting.
There was a kind of sigh, a breathing-out. Maria was back in the green, under the blue sky. She sat up, and looked around in panic. Her face was grey; she was losing a lot of blood. But her baby was here.
From the book THE LONG EARTH by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Copyright (C) 2012 by Terry and Lyn Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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