I can’t stand the Land Armers – everyone knows they are the worst. Me, I’m just a regular Street Warden. I do the job, sure, but not per their style.
This street person, I saw him right out on the pavement, begging in broad daylight. He was babbling at people, asking for money, standing there all cretinous poor-like. He had such sad eyes; the poor soul looked like a total Grade Z to me.
Something stopped me. I did the unthinkable. I walked on by. As I did, I saw three Land Armers in the caff across the street – drinking coffee, eating currant buns – and it would not be long, I realised, before they’d notice my dereliction of duty. No point in getting them worked up. I had to go back. It’s not like in President Dixie’s day. The Land Army is powerful beyond belief since the Great A took control.
When I turned around, the street person was nowhere to be seen. In a flash I realised full well where he’d gone. See, I used to do it myself when I was a kid. We were cold at home. The Multiplex is always muggy warm. Right at that corner is the back door that leads into the corridor right by Screen 12 and sometimes they forget to lock it when they’re taking out the rubbish. Certain sure I was that this was where the street person was, I pushed the door and it was still unlocked and I was in.
Inside, the glimmering lights that flashed from the cinema screen blinded me at first. I blinked a few times in the sweaty popcorn air until I could see better in the murk. The screening room was almost empty – it was only afternoon.
Then I saw him. He was right there, sitting in an aisle seat, intensely concentrated on the film. As he watched the slightly blurred images his mouth was a big ‘O’ of wonder. On the screen a cartoon rat wore a little chef’s outfit and worked in a big cartoon kitchen. It was an ancient film. They don’t make them like that any more.
I strode over to him and put my hand on his right shoulder, to escort him off the premises. He didn’t take no notice, just kept his eyes glued to the screen and that surprised me, made me hesitate. As I stood there I began to watch the cartoon rat myself and kept on watching and he was a funny, joyous kind of rat and I thought maybe someday I’d be watching films like this with my boy – or even my girl, whatever the kid turned out to be. All I cared about then was Louisa and the child – that the birth would go well and the child would be normal and pass all those Literacy and Land-Of-The-Free Tests with flying colours and get at least a ‘G’ – or even a ‘H’ would do – and all I wanted was for us to stay warm in the city instead of freezing our asses off out in the Burbs because no one in their right mind would want to be sent out there.
And while I was staring at the screen and thinking all these things, this poor cretin didn’t take no notice of me. None whatever. He just kept right on sitting there, giggling at the screen, watching that little rat dancing on a cartoon kitchen table.
My friend Carlos says there’s trains all lined up, out there in Rent Road Station. Extra trains, all lined up in a row on a special new-built line, to take these lower folk away. He says they take the Grades from ‘V’ to ‘Y’ out to the Burbs, which is many miles away, and drop them out in the wintry snow. The ‘Z’s? No one talks about the ‘Z’s but my friend Carlos claims the trains take them even farther, to a place that is not cold but hot. A place of fire and ashes and gas and hell.
‘Soon they’ll all march back,’ says Carlos. ‘Holy moly, we will see them come,’ he says. ‘Oh boy, I already seen a few. They came in their rattling wheelchairs, some of ’em. I saw one laddie ride bareback on a raddled pony, and some others drivin’ along in clattery old vehicles they must of found out there in the crazy old Burbs.’
All the street people will come trundling back again, he says, because the city’s warm and even if you don’t have a place to live you can survive because hot air comes up from the subway through the street vents and there are warm places to sneak into like shopping malls and cinemas and there is food even if you have to steal it and the street people who are strongest will come back – because if they do not, they will die.
What will become of the Great A, the Absolute One then? What will become of the Swanky People’s Party? What will become of the rest of us?
There I stood, watching the cartoon rat on the screen. This street person –more than likely a Grade ‘Z’ – was chuckling to himself, he was chortling, he was enjoying the little cartoon rat and his kitchen adventures so much. A few minutes more would make no difference, I thought. It would be his final treat. Then I’d take him out into the street to test his Literacy and Land-Of-The-Free skills and he’d undoubtedly get a grade ‘Z’ or at the very most a ‘Y’ and I would bring him to Rent Road Station for remittance to the Burbs.
When I took my hand from the street person’s shoulder, he didn’t seem to feel its absence, just as he did not seem to notice it when I placed it there. I sat in the seat across the aisle from him and glanced at his face silhouetted in the dim light. He gazed, quieter now, tenser, at the screen. Then I began to watch the cartoon rat as he bounded busily around in that cartoon kitchen. One day, I hoped to watch a film with my son – or daughter – whichever it might be. I wondered how that would make me feel. I stared at the screen, watching, powerless, as the evil chef chased after the little rat with a huge metal sieve. I didn’t want the rat to be caught. It was only a cartoon rat, I reminded myself, but I was all caught up in the terror of it.
Featured illustration by Jacob Stack.