Short story: After the Fourth War by Christine Dwyer Hickey
What will the capital look like years, centuries, even millenniums from now? Dublin in the Coming Times invites the people of the city to imagine how their home will change. Christine Dwyer Hickey continues the series with a short story imagining a future Dublin
Life on the Liffey: I could hear the water bus before I could see it – the grinding and groaning. And then the blast of its light and the clanking chains. Photograph: Jan Stromme/Getty
On the landing stage at Chapelizod bridge we waited for the early- morning water bus. It was dark still, and all around other passengers sat on benches or stood by the walls in silence. I leaned my tired head against my grandmother’s arm and listened to her inner turmoil, turning her sounds to images in my head: her heart a tiny island, her blood a black river bristling in the dark.
I was twelve years old, pretending to be nine. Dressed as a boy – a cousin I had never met who had lived with my grandmother for a few months until he died, in the September virus. This would have been towards the end of the Fourth War, the spring of 2116, and I had yet to find my way in the city. What I knew or felt then and what occurred to me later is not always clear in my memory, but I do know this much: I was always afraid – except for those times when I was too sick to be afraid.
I had been with my grandmother for a few weeks by then, and found her house, with its many rooms, confusing and lonely. The estate where she lived seemed a desolate place of dark and often abandoned houses with gardens that were either overgrown or had been mutilated for firewood. Soundless and full of shadows anyhow, like a place you might stumble across in a dream.
I found the city people peculiar, too, shifty-eyed and sullen – all the more so when they came together in a group. My grandmother said that since they had taken all the small screens from the ordinary joe, people were learning all over again how to look each other in the face.
In grey waiting rooms of former schools, or in queues along the barricaded pens outside the food depots in Ballyfermot, I had learned to read the squeeze of my grandmother’s hand. Through the fuss of endless checks; questions asked, then asked again: You are? And he is who? From which sector did you say again, and going where – to which designated place?
My grandmother took me to see her friend, an old nurse who lived in a place called Inchicore, walking from the house in Ballyfermot through what she called the sneaky ways, to avoid the checkpoints. But the old nurse said she could do nothing for me.
I could hear their low voices in another room; the nurse telling my grandmother she could take me to a doctor she trusted in a place called East Wall, my grandmother asking the nurse if she was off her head.
“You still have the boy’s papers,” the nurse said. “Can’t you use them?”
“But these are national checkpoints we’re taking about, not local. You know what’ll happen if we’re caught.”
“You have to do it. Otherwise the child . . .”
“It’s too long a journey. She won’t make it.”
“You have to do it!”
“How? Would you mind telling me how?”
“You’ll just have to risk the river.”
My grandmother studied my face against the face of the dead boy on the identity card.
“September virus; April flu; December enteritis: soon we’ll run out of months,” she said. She was holding the mane of my hair in one hand while the other hand drove the scissors on. Behind me the sound of gnashing and chomping, as if some small animal was trying to eat its way through a hedge.
I slept in a bed that once belonged to my mother, and this made me lonely for the child she must have been, sleeping in this room with its filled-in ceiling and only a small window for light; nothing to listen to and no one to talk to except this old woman who slept in another room.
“What happens to you people when you get sick?” my grandmother asked.
“We go to the infirmary.”
“I don’t know.”
She asked me questions all the time, about how we lived our everyday lives, and always she referred to us as “you people”.
But I didn’t know how to explain our lives to her. To say: our ceilings are high and made out of glass. You can see the black sky at night; sometimes the stars. You can hear the rain dancing when you go to sleep. There is always the sound of voices. We have our own ways, our own diseases; when we die we die, and then we are buried behind the old yellow car park.
On the outside my grandmother showed no turmoil: a sturdy shape, a blackish-brown face that could not be read, a bland and catlike eye. She schooled me in her night-time kitchen, woke me early and schooled me all over again. I came out of the bathroom, I walked into one of her rooms and I seemed to be always walking right into one of her sentences.
“And whatever you do, no complaining. No matter how bad you feel, huh? No matter what sort of pain. Give it no words. If they even suspect you’re sick that’s it. And don’t you contradict me. Even the biggest, most shocking lie that comes out of my mouth you leave be.”
“You people might like to think you own the truth, but you must forget all that now. Do you hear me?”
“Good girl. I mean, Good boy.”
For weeks her words had shunted into my head, but by the time we reached the river at Chapelizod I remembered only this: I was nine years old, and I was a boy and my name was now Demba.
On the morning we went for the water bus my grandmother asked me about my mother. It was dark and cold as we walked through her estate, although all I felt was heat. My grandmother wore a heavy coat, a big thick scarf and a ridiculous lemon-coloured fluffy hat. I wore the dead boy’s clothes.
“And how is she anyway, your mother?”
“A bit lonely, I think.”
“Well, she should have thought of that before she ran off with that . . . that. Not a word all this time and now? Lonely, huh! Lonely indeed.”
At the exit to the estate my grandmother pressed a bell, and an old guard’s head popped up in the checkpoint hut and, sleepy eyed, pulled back the window. She opened the top of a brown paper bag and out came its biscuity breath. The guard shyly dipped his fingers in. Then she asked him about his lumbago and said wasn’t it great now to think that the war was almost over.
The guard pulled out a big yellow biscuit. “Yes,” he said. “Until the next one comes along.”
My grandmother gave him a sideways smile. The old guard smiled back, then blinked down at me and said, “Jaysus, isn’t that fella after getting fierce tall?” And he opened our cards, pulled out a piece of paper and – bang, bang, bang – stamped all around him.
She squeezed my hand twice as we turned down the Chapelizod hill.
“Lucky for us,” she said, “that oul fella’s half blind.”
On Chapelizod landing stage the guard was young and hawk eyed. Outside on the hump of the bridge a pair of soldiers shouldered two long guns. Inside there was a sign on the wall that said in six languages: “It is a crime to falsify documents. Criminals will be prosecuted.”
All around people were flicking through wallets and rummaging in pockets and bags. One man held his cards between his teeth while his fingers searched for more. My grandmother had no need to rummage: she had all her cards ready in a plastic pouch that slipped in and out of her pocket.
I knew nothing of these cards – they were neither used by nor issued to our people – and only recognised them at all because, the night before, my grandmother had spread them across her kitchen table and for a long time sat staring down at them. A whole collection of security cards, a different colour for each purpose.
“I remember,” she said, “when the word ‘security’ meant something else.”
“What?” I asked.
The guard took his time. There was the sound of stomping across the boards as people tried to keep warm, the lapping of water, the creaking of chains. Sometimes he searched through a bag or asked a few questions. At our end of the queue an old man seated on the far side of my grandmother began to grumble and tut about the water bus’s late arrival.
A few places ahead of us was a man who looked like Tarek, the man who had brought me to my grandmother’s house, so I supposed he was of the Syrian race. Beside this man was his daughter, a girl of about my age – my real age – who was staring at me.
I stood up and looked over my grandmother’s head beyond the landing stage.
“Is the Phoenix Park around here?” I asked her.
She pulled me back down.
“Oh, you don’t want to go near there,” the old man said. “They’d ate you alive in there. And the bits they didn’t like they’d feed to their dogs.”
I had my instructions. When the guard was two or three people away I was to stand and walk slowly, as if I had nothing more on my mind than to take a look at the river. And there I should stay until the water bus arrived or until I heard my grandmother call out my new, dead boy’s name (Demba, Demba, Demba).
My grandmother gave me a dunt with her elbow, and I stood and walked to the end of the little jetty. Across the way I could see the twists of smoke from campfires against the fading darkness. Upriver and down the lamps of delivery boats were rubbing light all over the inky water. I tried to figure out where my home was from here, downriver anyway, and westways, in the direction of the old motorway. I thought of the last glimpse I had of it. The curve of the glass roof and the ancient supermarket logo from a time when the mall was a place where people came to buy things. I thought of all the other malls along these motorways and all the people I would never meet who lived as we did on the outskirts of the city. “Outskirts for outcasts”, as my father used to say.
When I turned back to look at my grandmother the guard was beside her. Head half-cocked, he was holding her cards like a fan in his hand.
“Yes, that’s right,” my grandmother was saying. “His mother is dead, and his father abandoned them since before this war. Abandoned them, yes.”
“And you’re his grandmother, you say?”
“Indeed I am. That’s my travel permit there, and that one is for the boy, and the pink one is the guardianship order, and . . .”
The guard looked coldly at her. “I know what they are,” he said.
From the far side of the landing stage, and across the chilled air, I could feel my grandmother’s fear.
A woman came out of the ticket office, clapping her hands, and I jumped. I noticed all heads had turned to watch the woman, all except the Syrian’s daughter, who was craning her neck to look at me. There had been a problem with the flood walls along the quays, but the water bus would be here in a few moments. Then she went back into the little office.
The guard handed the cards back to my grandmother, nodded and put his hands in his pockets, then went into the office and closed the door.
The old man beside my grandmother muttered, “Little fucker”, and blew his nose.
I could hear the water bus before I could see it – the grinding and groaning. And then the blast of its light and the clanking chains and two men in thick yellow raincoats helping my grandmother along a small ramp. I followed her below deck. All the people from the Chapelizod landing stage were already seated on benches and settled into the same wary silence.
I had never been this close to so much water before, nor been on any sort of a boat, so I wanted to stay up on deck, but my grandmother said, “Too cold.”
“Not for me,” I said.
She took off her glove and touched my forehead with the back of her fingers. “All right,” she whispered. “Just to cool down, mind, and then straight back down here.”
The dark had gone out of the sky by now, leaving a soft dove-grey light over the river. The boat shoved through the water; sometimes it stopped on the left bank, and the next time it crossed at a diagonal, to the right-hand side. Each time we stopped, the big ropes were uncoiled and the barrier was pulled back, and the two men in yellow helped passengers on and off, and one or the other of them called out, “Staaaanding room only: full below deck.”
We passed under a bridge and the river straightened out between high walls: the lower part was made of grey stone bricks, the upper part of thick smooth blocks. Above the walls I could see the upper deck of buildings. There was the dome of the mosque on one side and the peak of a church on the other. Above the mosque a squat glass tower and, inside it, soldiers like small moving sketches. And then, as the water bus pushed upriver, just standing there against the sky and taking my breath from me, were two groups of great stone figures.
I could hear the sounds of the city over the walls, but it was only at the landing stages, when the water bus pulled in, did I catch sight of what or who these sounds belonged to: horses and harnesses and wheels of carts. So many people.
Once I caught sight of a glinting herd of bicycles. And duckboards laid out along a wide double-sided street, children walking along them to keep their feet dry. At the front of that street more huge stone figures, this time in the shape of a group of black angels.
The river began to widen then, as did the bridges. A man was standing on one, leaning over the parapet and making a speech at the river traffic.
“We must prepare ourselves for the new dawn,” he roared. “We must, we must, we must . . . We must bring this glorious island of ours back to the way it was, take a big knife and cut ourselves free from the rest of this hateful world. We must . . .”
The water bus slipped away, and his words dissolved into the echoing air and the cobbled light on the bridge’s underbelly.
I didn’t want to go back down below deck, to leave the soothing cold air on the back of my neck. I didn’t want to go into the silence of shifty-eyed strangers, or to feel the sneery gaze of the Syrian’s daughter on me again. But I was afraid to disobey my grandmother.
When I got to the entrance I knew something had changed. I could hear the voice of the old man talking. And then another voice joining him and then another again, and now a burst of laughter from many voices. The voices appeared to be talking about the past, and this puzzled me, because I couldn’t understand how so many strangers could possibly share the same memories.
My grandmother started to speak then, a story about her girlhood. I had no idea what the story was about or why it was funny: it was not a past I knew or even cared about, but even so I felt myself caught up in the moment. As I listened to her speak it occurred to me that I didn’t like my grandmother. It occurred to me because for those few moments when everything and everyone had gathered about her story I did love her. And when her story was over I stopped loving her again.
The water-bus map was on the wall opposite, and I ran my eye along the names on the Yellow Line. Parkgate. Joyce Bridge. Four Courts. Fishamble. Bachelors Walk and two or three others until, finally, it stopped at East Wall.
I did not know where my grandmother was taking me, or if she would stay with me when we got there or abandon me at the door. I wasn’t even sure if I trusted her at all.
I came down the steps and took a place beside her. I could smell her skin and her hair. I could smell the vanilla of the biscuits in her brown bag. It made me feel hungry and sick at the same time.
In the mall they would be sitting down for breakfast about now. I could imagine the caravan of silver trolleys jangling up the centre aisle from the kitchen to the eating unit and the supervisors strolling between long tables, ticking off names and numbers. I could imagine them stopping when they came to my empty place, seeing the red cross there, and slowly, and perhaps even a little sadly, drawing a line through my name.