(published by TWP June 11, 2020) (shortened version)
Bullets ricochet outside, jolting Eliza out of dreamless sleep and into her real-life nightmare, triggering a slow-motion sense of catastrophe. Shivering, she imagines the horror transpiring in real-time on the opposite side of the graffiti defaced wall that separates their beer garden from the back lane.
Taking care not to disturb Stuart, snoring obliviously next to her, Eliza slides out of bed, dragging on clothes damp from the cold.
Planting a silent kiss on their daughter Alice’s downy head as she passes the cot nestled in the corner, Eliza flinches at the wailing of sirens. Police, she notes from the gradual increase and decrease in the siren’s pitch; and another, a faster wail changing to a yelp… ambulance.
Since taking over the pub, they had learned to count their lives by the hour; always aware it could be their last. Any incident could provoke reaction. They only stayed because it was all they had in the world.
Peering through greyed net curtains, her fears materialize – two bodies, ambulance and police vehicles. The red blood pooling around the bodies is a violent intrusion into the otherwise bleak grey landscape. It’s ugly here in winter, she thinks, blinking back her tears, missing the warmth of her homeland and the life she lost when they left.
Friction between rivals had entered a new crescendo last week, the violence palpable, hovering just below the surface. Some things become transparent as you stare into them.
Some locals were raw and unpolished in their illicit enterprise; others were alarmingly refined, having descended from a lengthy line of career criminals and inherited the baton early in their lives. All were dangerous.
The radio news cuts through the air, announcing the separation of Charles and Diana. Her thoughts time-travel back to when she’d watched their wedding on television. Eliza had been an enthusiastic university student back then, full of optimism for her future. Mocking her, memories regurgitate and she relives the day she made the decision that made her an outcast from her family, and now an alien in a foreign, dangerous city. The butterfly effect kicks in, the what-ifs… the lost years haunting her. Desperation has a way of modifying your morals and morphing your perspective, and life has a way of turning dreams into ashes.
Dragging her back to the present, the ambulances leave without sirens; she feels an ache in the back of her throat and fantasizes about escaping.
Tiptoeing out of the bedroom, padding barefoot down the two flights of stairs to the front door to speak to the police who she knows await her, she feels her heart racing with the adrenaline spike. As the landlady she will be interrogated and possibly asked to identify the bodies at the morgue. She’s learned to not become involved with the patrons, it only creates more souls to say goodbye to.
The police hasten through formalities; it’s the third shooting they’ve attended today. Sympathetic, knowing Eliza’s in for a hard day with the locals, they make their interview painless.
The casualties are well-known members of one of the families notorious in the area. Eliza, despite being naïve to this violent dystopian world, nevertheless recognizes the shootings harbinger gang war.
As the day progresses she vacillates between nervous apprehension and a misplaced sense of respite. On average, every three weeks there’s a serious incident in the pub. It was two weeks and four days since the last; the odds weren’t in their favor.
She wonders if she can change the odds. She’s done it before, the night of Robbie’s birthday cake. Predicting he’d never had a cake with his name on it, she’d piped ‘Happy Birthday Robbie’ in blue on the white frosting. Robbie, the heir apparent of a lengthy line of career criminals and the notorious head honcho of the neighborhood, had sniffed discretely as his eyes welled up.
“These people are my friends,” he had announced challengingly to the crowded bar.
Eliza prays he’s in the bar tonight.
She’s organized a band for the evening, or rather a singer/guitarist and his backing guy, a dubious drummer with an unsettling smile and severe Tourette’s. He often turns up with his face painted like a cat in the manner of Eric Singer of Kiss fame, a vast improvement. Although once he’d said to her, “Be a love and run and get me your reddest lippie sweets,” his painted on pout having faded.
The band plays to the crowd’s mood, with the distorted and amplified electric blues style of Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues for You” bouncing off every surface. Suddenly the tone changes; with a confidence bordering on arrogance a stranger approaches the bar.
“I’ll have 70 beers thanks,” a smile snakes across his scarred face.
Then the gates of hell open with a swarm of 70 uniformed police materializing through the misty night air, expunged from the three pantechnicon vans parked further up the street, storming through the door and rounding on everybody in the pub. It was virtually one on one.
Thrust against the wall, its rough exposed brickwork gouging the side of her face. Eliza winces and looks imploringly at the young female officer holding her in a vice-like grip. The woman’s face is tinged with contempt, her lips flat-lined and her eyes narrowed and hardened despite her youth. No mercy here, Eliza realizes as the distinct metallic taste of blood hits her tongue when she licks her lips. Imagining her grazed face as it throbs and smarts, she fears for Alice’s reaction.
In that moment Eliza realizes that they – she, Stuart and Alice – are trapped between nowhere and nowhere; worse than refugees, they are under scrutiny from all sides, everyone watching for them to make a mistake. And any mistake would be a death sentence. They’re in a position where they can understand both sides’ perspective, but are imprisoned in an isolation borne of being in neutral territory.
After the raid some patrons leave threatening vengeance, some remain, as they’ve nowhere better to go. The police leave with a cache of illegal weapons and a stern warning to everyone. The band exit shaking their heads and threatening never again to play the pub; the au pair who baby sat Alice says the same. Eliza doesn’t blame them. All she can feel is a nauseating wave of envy that they have the autonomy to leave. She swallows hard as they hug her goodbye.
Eliza’s feet fly up the stairs to Alice, asleep in their bedroom; but her concerns are with Stuart still in the bar.
Despite precipitated by the dawn shootings, the raid was still an affront and catalyst to the locals. As Big Ben chimes midnight on the other side of the river, Eliza notices a group festering outside in the deserted street. The vandalized streetlights barely illuminate the area, but she discerns the undercurrent of a lynching in their manner.
Suspended in the still night air, their voices resound with rage and blood-lust. Moving closer to the window, although words jumble into each other becoming unintelligible, the tone doesn’t require any translation. Revenge. Reprisal. Retribution. The mob believes she and Stuart are involved and are assembling to avenge the perceived betrayal.
As Eliza gazes over at Alice, she stirs in her cot.
Aware of a sudden ominous silence in the street, Eliza trembles. Her teeth chatter despite her jaw being clenched, and she tastes metal mixed with bitter bile.
Simultaneously, cheers from the street applaud the sound of windows shattering. Even two floors up the invasion is physically discernible as the mob storm the bar.
Pulling herself to an upright position, precarious on her unsteady little legs, Alice screams, “Mama, Mama, MAMA.”
Watching from the bedroom window, Eliza sees Stuart dragged into a car on the street. Tears flood down her face – the sensation is like acid burning the newly grazed cheek. The physical pain focuses her.
Strapping Alice to her in a baby harness, Eliza crawls out of the bedroom window. Climbing down the rusty creaking fire escape she realizes he last section is missing, the fall to the ground sufficient to inflict immobilizing injury.
Hearing thumping on her bolted door in cadence with her own heartbeat, jump… she wills herself… jump, Eliza, jump…
“Jump Eliza, jump!” A rough male voice rasps the words.
Shaking from muscle fatigue, Eliza’s hands slip from the cold metal, and the fall is over before she realizes it’s begun.
“Gate’s open love, get out that way,” Robbie sets her down and indicates the entrance to the back lane with his thumb. Tracing his bulky finger down her grazed cheek and shaking his head, he thrusts a wad of crisp banknotes into her shaking palm, closing her fingers over it.
Reaching up, Eliza brushes Robbie’s cheek with her bruised lips before racing to the gate where the night swallows her and Alice.
Robbie’s shout, authoritative and unquestionable, echoes through the loaded atmosphere of the night, “Too late, bitch’s long gone.”