A Season in Hell
The day began much the same as any other since they had taken over the pub. Eliza was woken from dreamless sleep by the whining echo of bullets as they ricocheted off the walls which separated their beer garden from the public lane beyond.
A threat or a casualty Eliza pondered as she prodded Mark, still oblivious to the drama unfolding outside and snoring contentedly next to her. Startled he woke and stretched, drawn into a conscious state more by her physical presence than by her anxiety. He reached for her and pulled her slim frame towards him, early morning passion driving his semi-conscious actions.
Eliza glanced over at the cot satisfying herself that their infant daughter Alice was still asleep, then returned the embrace. She quivered involuntarily as he ran both hands through her dark messy hair, then positioned one around her neck and ran the other down her spine. Since being here they valued each day, always wondering if it would be their last. There was no room for regrets. Any moment of pleasure was to be taken.
Minutes later the wailing of sirens broke the momentary reverie after the storm of their passion had passed.
A casualty, acknowledged Eliza. It was never a good way to start the day and she would always come to look back on that as an omen.
Jumping out of bed Eliza dragged on jeans and an old itchy castoff sweater of Mark’s before moving to the window, stopping to plant a silent kiss on Alice’s head on the way. Alice was curled up in her typical sleeping position, her favourite toy clutched to her chest. Eliza could smell Alice’s unique baby odour as her lips brushed the fine down of her hair. She loved that smell, it was intoxicating. Sleep baby sleep, she willed the child.
She battled with the threadbare cords of the blind before giving up and ducking underneath the faded and frayed black fabric to see outside. As she suspected, two ambulances, three police cars and a gathering of usual suspects, mostly wearing hoodies pulled up over their shaven heads. Their breath vapour condensed into mist in front of their faces as they spoke. Their words were muffled but the tone was fierce.
Eliza speculated as to who the casualties were. Male was all she could unequivocally discern. The blood pooled around the two bodies, the growing red effusion a rude and violent intrusion into the landscape, which was various shades of bleak and depressed grey. Everywhere was ugly in winter she thought, South East London especially.
Her breath misted on the window and she drew a heart in it, writing Alice where she used to write Mark. Why were they still here in this hell hole? So she would force a smile which didn’t quite reach her eyes and persevere with the façade of what was left of her life.
In the 9 months since they had been the Landlords there, the pub had changed. Or maybe they were just more perceptive to the issues. The violence was palpable.
Eliza could actually sense a change in the tone of the bar before an incident happened now, even if she was two flights above in their personal quarters. She could detect what might seem to be an imperceptible change to the uninitiated – a dissonance in the usual hum of the mingled voices and jukebox music, even without deciphering any actual speech. It was almost as it the building itself sighed in agonised anticipation.
And the friction between the two groups was becoming more agitated. The only time the rivalling powers that be came together now and joined forces was against outsiders or against the law.
Eliza had come to see below the surface, and could understand the perspective of the patrons to some degree. She could appreciate their violence and disregard was fuelled by disillusionment and discontent, and here more than anywhere in the depressed city, the cultural shift was evident.
The radio alarm burst into life, playing the year’s number one single “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston. Ever since the Bodyguard was released the previous month it was played non-stop on the radio and on the jukebox downstairs. She thought it ironic that a group with such violent undertones would identify so strongly with a love song, but she learned something new each day here. The music woke Alice who stood up in her little cot, rubbed her eyes and grinned at Eliza, “Mama, mushy pwease”. Alice’s request for her milk formula always made Eliza smile from her eyes, crinkling her cheeks. At 18 months Alice was adorable, and trying out new words with pride.
The radio news replaced the song and announced the separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It really was the end of an era Eliza mused. She thought back to when she had watched their wedding. Eliza had been an enthusiastic university student back then, full of hope for her future. Ironic, thought Eliza, the lost years haunting her.
Eliza returned to the present as she heard the ambulances drive away without sirens. She knew what that meant and her breath choked in her chest as she exhaled.
She gave Alice her bottle, picked her up and walked down the two fights to the front door of the bar where she knew there would be an entourage of police waiting to speak to her. As the landlady she would be interrogated and possibly asked to identify the bodies at the morgue later. She had learned to stop becoming involved with the patrons, it only made more souls to have to say goodbye to in the end.
Mark’s voice followed her, “Bring me a coffee and a bacon sarni when you come back will you”. It wasn’t a question.
The police were brusque and matter of fact, apparently it was the third shooting they had attended already that morning. They were sympathetic knowing Eliza was in for a hard day with the locals, and made their interview short. Eliza exhaled deeply almost seeming to deflate her already slim body, her stature drowned anyway by the oversized woolly sweater, so relieved was she when they told her she wouldn’t be required to identify the bodies. They knew who they were, members of one of the big families and notorious in the area. Eliza, despite relatively new to this dystopian world, still knew it heralded gang warfare.
As the day progressed without repercussion Eliza fluctuated between experiencing nervous anticipation and a misplaced sense of temporary relief. On average every three weeks there was an incident. It was two weeks and 4 days, the odds weren’t in their favour.
She wondered if she could change the odds. She had done it before. The first time had been the night of Robby’s birthday. Robby, the notorious head honcho of his gangster family, had been reduced to tears when Eliza gave him the cake.
It had been memorable and if it hadn’t been so tense it would have been funny. Mark had dimmed the lights in the bar just before Eliza had burst through the swing door separating the private area and the public bar.
The patrons had become nervous the instant the lights dimmed, and literally prepared for battle. When Eliza emerged smiling carrying the brightly illuminated cake (Robby was not a young man) she found herself surrounded by seven of the best, all tooled up. One of the knives they had turned on her she recognised as being from her own kitchen, having disappeared after one of Robby’s impromptu visits only the previous week.
She suspected that the bulge in Patsy’s trousers that he was grappling with was a gun. She wasn’t sure which would actually be worse, Patsy with a gun or just a loaded pistol.
Breathe Eliza, she told herself. Smiling she switched from fear mode to survival.
“Good to see you are all volunteering to help Robby cut his cake,” she dissipated the tension with the circle of fiends. Maxx, Robby’s youngest brother, offered his knife to her, smiling at her cleavage.
I definitely don’t want to get my fingerprints on that, Eliza thought. She inclined her head to Robbie.
“Don’t have a spare hand,” looking down at the cake which was by this stage changing the room temperature, and indicating to Maxx he should follow her.
“Where’s my birthday boy,” Eliza announced loudly, approaching Robby from behind without warning was never a good idea.
When she set the towering inferno down in front of him, Robby’s face had cracked with emotion. His hardened features softened and he licked his thin lips before grabbing Eliza and hugging her so hard she heard her ribs crack. He was a bear of a man, 6’4” and built like a warrior. And not usually shown to displays of emotion.
She had written his name on the cake as an afterthought, predicting that he had probably never had a cake with his name on it in all his 41 years. She had been right about that, seeing his name in blue icing on the white frosting was the final straw for Robby. He had stood and sworn his allegiance to her and Mark in front of everyone present. His actual words had been “These people are my fucking friends, you fuck with them and you fuck with me. Get it!”
It was a moment in time that had shaped their future, and saved their lives on more than one occasion.
Eliza hoped Robby would be in the bar that evening. The night was shaping up to be busy. She had organised a band for the evening, or rather a singer and his backing guy. Not many proper bands wanted to play a venue in such a dubious area on a Saturday night.
The crowd was appreciative and the night went well. Suddenly the tone changed, it could be likened to a collective gulp of the patrons present, and Eliza looked up from the Corona beer she was wedging a reluctant slice of lime into the neck of to see the reason for the change of tone.
An outsider had confidently entered and approached the bar. He was talking to Mark.
“I’ll have 70 beers thanks.”
“What?” Mark frowned in confusion.
“You’ll see in a minute,” the stranger responded.
Then it happened and the gates of hell were opened. A swarm of uniformed police were expunged from the three pan technics parked outside and they flooded through the door and rounded on everyone in the pub, it was virtually one on one.
Eliza was dragged out from behind the bar by two burly officers, hardly necessary as she weighed in at only 44kg. But it was a good thing for the incensed mass to witness, clearly she wasn’t singled out for gentle treatment. It wouldn’t have bode well if the Old Bill as the locals called the police, treated her differently – it could have signified she was actually one of them under cover. Eliza thought of Alice upstairs with the au pair and hoped this would not escalate.
Eliza was thrust against the wall. It had been originally designed as an architectural feature of sorts being thrown together from exposed and uneven lime washed bricks, and its harsh outlines grazed the right side of her face from the chin to the temple badly. She winced and looked imploringly at the young female officer who held her. The woman’s face was tinged with contempt, eyes narrowed and hardened despite her youth. No mercy here thought Eliza.
In that moment it occurred to her that they, she and Mark and Alice, were trapped between no where and no where, worse than refugees, they were under surveillance from all sides, everyone waiting for them to make a mistake. And if they made a mistake it would be a death sentence. Eliza wanted to leave, just cut their losses and walk away, but Mark wouldn’t hear of it. He was a survivor, a winner he would instil in her, and she had better support him.
The two police officers body searched Eliza along with everyone else. They were looking for drugs, they said. What they were really looking for was a murderer.
One of the less likely local lads – a regular at the bar – had been found dead in his flat two weeks earlier. Tortured to death by oxy-welder bearing brutes. He was a carpenter of sorts and often fixed things for the local families for just a couple of pints in return. It had shaken even the hardened locals, as he was popular and non-involved in the local underworld. Or so they thought. In truth he had dipped his toe in the water and had been thought to have had a quarter of a million pounds worth of drugs in his possession.
The police were thorough. After the raid a debris of small clear packets littered the black floor which Eliza had painted herself when they first took over, and various patrons with blood stained faces and broken arms. Some were taken off in custody, some left threatening to find out who the grass was that had triggered the raid.
The night of horror was only just beginning however. After the drama, Eliza anticipated fearfully that there would be after shocks, revenge behaviour, as she and Mark were still viewed as outsiders despite Robby’s support, and would be seen to have been behind the raid or aware of its imminence. And there were. Mark had rung the police when the remaining locals’ tension exceeded normal limits but they told him that as nothing had actually happened since the raid they would not be coming out, his fear alone did not warrant a visit from them.
Just after 1am Eliza saw the group festering outside in the otherwise deserted street. What remained of the street lights after the angry patrons had spilled into the street and wreaked havoc didn’t illuminate the area well, but Eliza could still discern the overtone of a lynching. She watched in horror as they made a primitive Molotov cocktail. Their voices were suspended in the still night air, angry and incensed, thirsty for blood. She moved closer to the window to hear. Words jumbled into each other becoming unintelligible but the tone didn’t require any translation. Revenge. Reprisal. The mob thought she and Mark had been involved and were preparing to avenge the perceived betrayal.
She ripped the sheets off their bed, noticing sadly the mark of their union that morning. She wondered if it would be their last and found herself contemplating that point. Taking scissors to the sheet, she hacked it into sections and then braided it together, constructing a rough rope which she hoped would be long enough to be able to lower Alice down the two stories to the beer garden if the worst happened and the building was torched.
Why were they still here? She had begged Mark to leave months ago when they realized the hellhole they had bought into, but it was all they had. To walk away, was to walk away with nothing.
They say the definition of insanity was doing the same things over and expecting the result to be different. Maybe she was insane.
At that precise moment Alice stirred in her cot. Sleep my darling, sleep, breathed Eliza, wanting to keep her oblivious to the imminent danger as long as possible.
Eliza was hit by the sudden silence in the street and trembled.
Seconds later she recognized the sounds of plate glass windows smashing. Cheers from the street. The building rumbled as it was violated, the effect of a dozen angry men forcing their way in through the shattered window.
Alice pulled herself to an upright position, wobbly on her unsteady little legs.
“Mama, Mama, MAMA,” the cries escalated to screams as her baby brain registered Eliza’s fear.
Eliza enveloped Alice in her arms and her chubby little hands grasped Eliza’s long hair as she wrapped her arms around her mama’s neck. She twirled a long curly strand round her little fist.
Eliza inhaled Alice’s unique sweet baby smell and fear ripped through her chest. What would they do to Alice? She had to save Alice, she had to get her out.
A strained scream from the floor below signalled overwhelming pain and when it abruptly stopped, possibly death. She knew instinctively it was Mark. A wave of emotions coursed through her. Deep sorrow for somewhere deep inside her she still loved him, why else did she tolerate this life. Sadness that he had finally lost the fight for she did admire his incessant passion.
Pain that she couldn’t save him this time.
Sadness that he had died in agony and probably terrified.
Thoughts and options flooded her brain and overwhelmed her senses. Should she go down to where she heard the screams, Mark’s screams? Could she perhaps still save him…maybe he had just passed out and she could intervene on his behalf. Plead for his life. Trade hers for his. Trade her body like last time, she shuddered recalling the gang rape she had endured. But what of Alice? A searing pain ripped through her chest making her stumble. So this is what it’s like she thought, this is what it’s like to die trying to decide who not to save.
Eliza collapsed on the bed, Alice still in her arms. A stream of hot tears ran down her face over the newly grazed cheek, making it burn as if it were acid. It was over, there was no way out now. With the emotional cocktail of pain and loss, she now felt anger being stirred into the mixture. She curled up on the bed, cradling Alice and waited for the end, her chest thumping and each breath agony.
Alice laid her head on Eliza’s birdcage chest and listened, smiling up at Eliza.
“Boom boom” she said smiling her irresistible two tooth grin reserved for Eliza.
An unwelcome memory invaded her mind. “I just want to lay on your chest and listen to your heart beat,” Mark had said to her that morning, just before the sirens had detonated the dormant time bomb. Eliza experienced a raw internal pain – guilt – that she hadn’t gone down to try to save Mark this time, that she had stayed with Alice. That she had put Alice in front of Mark.
Alice reached up with her chubby baby fingers to stroke Eliza’s raw grazed cheek.
“Poor Mama. Alice kiss better… fairy dust.” Alice pretended to sprinkle fairy dust on Eliza’s ravaged face, in the same way Eliza did to her when she was hurt. The image both broke and energized Eliza.
The guilt about not putting herself in between Mark and his adversaries was outweighed now by the guilt that Alice may die if she didn’t act quickly. Eliza sprung up from the bed, her mission now was to save her little girl. To save Alice no matter what. She could wait and hope for the best which was most probably to be killed by the angry mob in front of Alice, or more likely be made to watch whilst they killed her sweet innocent little girl and then her, an added torture she knew they were capable of.
Or she could try to save Alice.
Placing Alice back in the cot with a pre-made bottle of formula milk she hastily secured the improvised rope to the heavy stanchion that held up the roof. She measured it roughly and mentally flossed… as she had feared it wouldn’t reach the ground. Alice would be left suspended in the air possibly 7 feet or more above the ground.
She thought of Alice alone outside swinging endlessly from the rope, cold and scared and crying, waiting to be rescued but more likely to be captured and tortured by the angry mob. Testing the rope with her hands she decided to take a calculated risk on its strength. A frayed section started to tear. No brainer, she acted quickly. She tied a knot in it overcoming the issue of the weak area but shortening the rope by about another foot.
She found a baby harness, the one they used when Mark had insisted they all went sailing in another life, two days of pure escapism, two days out of time, and fastened it around her own body before securing Alice into her side. Alice felt happier with this routine, Eliza knew from experience.
She heard the sound of heavy angry footfall on the stairs leading up from the bar, and spun back to lock the door before wrenching open the window that led to the beer garden and possibly their safety.
Eliza grabbed Sooty, Alice’s favourite toy perched conveniently on the window-sill. He was a furry black puppet in the form of a bear, and she had always made him talk to get Alice to do things. She did it now.
“Alice, you… and me…. and Mama…. are going for…. an adventure. We have to be really quiet,….okay? Like three little mice….its a game Alice. ”
Alice nodded and unquestioningly cuddled up against Eliza’s slight frame, craving her mama’s comfort and warmth. Eliza experienced a rush of self-confidence from the child’s gesture, and hope flooded through her.
Determined and now focused on her daughter’s survival, she pulled open the bottom drawer of Alice’s chest of drawers where she had concealed under the little vests and pink tops, a pink miniature rucksack, a disguised grab bag of sorts, containing their passports and a measly £100 in small notes. She threw in her mobile phone.
Slipping the strap over her shoulder, Eliza slithered silently out of the window, backing out and then threw the rope down. It was clearly too short, she would have to jump the last few feet.
Using every last shred of courage and strength she started her climb down the rope, her arms aching after only a few feet. All the hours of pushing Alice on the rusty old beer garden swing, carrying her in her arms everywhere after the pram was stolen, lugging crates of dirty glasses and helping to shift kegs in the basement of the bar had paid off though. She managed to hold on to the rope and within a couple of agonizing minutes was swinging above the ground.
She estimated the drop would be about 7 feet, enough to risk a broken bone or damaged meniscus. Even after she reached the ground she would need to sneak around the building and try to scale a 6’ fence. With Alice.
If the landing went badly, she might not be able to walk, and then Alice would have to run off on her own. If she could manage to persuade her to do that; Eliza feared that Alice wouldn’t leave her if she was hurt. Then how would Alice escape, the gate was always locked.
Eliza accepted she would die but she couldn’t accept that Alice would. She hesitated wondering if there was another way. She saw Alice’s breath condense in the air and was reminded of how cold the child must be despite the little pink jacket she had thrust her unwilling arms into earlier. Jump she willed herself, jump, jump, jump Eliza, jump.
“Jump Eliza, jump.” A rough male voice she recognized whispered the words. It was Robby.
Eliza’s arms gave way and she felt herself in brutishly strong but surprisingly gentle arms. Unlike the night of the birthday cake, his hug as he set her down was moderate and tempered, respectful of the wide-eyed Alice strapped to her chest, and half cradled in her left arm.
“Gate’s open love, get out that way,” Robby indicated the entrance to the back lane with his thumb – a gate usually kept bolted. He traced his bulky finger down her grazed cheek and shook his head.
Eliza reached up and kissed Robby on his cheek and left silently just as the mob burst through her bedroom door and noticed the open window.