I was 16 years old when I first saw water – I’d just graduated, wanted to see the world. It was a river, twisting across the ground like notes on a score, and I’d never seen anything so blue and dazzling. On the opposite side was a bear, all curled up with its nose tucked under its paws; couldn’t even smell the carp shooting out of the river, their wet silver scales twinkling in the sun. Fragments of water soared up with them, but soon crashed back to the mother lode – gravity was always there to catch them. Flowers swayed to the rhythm of bubbling and splashing, their pale blue petals ruffled by the odd loose droplet of water. Above them, sleepy pink clouds peppered the sky. I laid on the bank of Rowan River for hours that day; long enough to fall asleep, with only my sketchbook to shield my face from the saffron sun. When I woke up it was dark, moonlight sprinkled across the water’s surface. There was tangible stillness all around me, soaking into my skin. Only the fish kept on leaping and dancing in the darkness, and I followed their quick flashes of oily light all the way to the crossroads.
When I can’t remember who I am, I like to think about Rowan River. I imagine myself swimming with the fish, a silk blanket of water surrounding my copper scales, swimming further and further into inky-blue nothingness; and when I coarse upwards and burst out into the sky, all the other animals will be overwhelmed by my beauty. I can never imagine whether gravity will catch me.
I ended up better off than most of my friends. I got factory work, I see nothing but machines day and night but I can move around, I can take a break in the yard outside. The air doesn’t taste so processed out there; a little dirty maybe, but in a way that feels good for my body. Every day at 11:21 am I am allowed to stand in that yard, light up a cigarette, and listen to blackbirds talking about their days. It was always their bright eyes that stood out to me, like they might turn their heads out of the encyclopedia pages and soar away. One time the binmen forgot to take the skips away, so I scrambled to the top of those heaps of metal and wires; I saw sprawling green and a snapping yellow beak, before a wheel gave way beneath me and I fell back down, swamped again by four brick walls. Still, I’d never known that their beaks were yellow. Now when I look at them in my books, it’s all I can see. At 11:31 am my wristband starts flashing, and I head back into the black-and-white.
As for my friends – I heard that two of them ended up in analysis, tapping keyboards and crunching numbers. Those guys don’t get breaks, you show up at 7:00 am and you finish at 7:00 pm and if you can’t handle the hours, then you’re booted down to the cleaning sector. Mahree, that’s her job, cleaning up sick from the hospital patients. Last time we spoke she’d put in an application to start her nurses training, but they don’t let you do that sort of thing without a lot of experience – well, unless you’re from the other side of the river. We both know she’s going to spend another few years mopping the floor after chemo sessions, before she gets an interview. The prison service, that’s the one you have to watch out for – it’s mostly made up of spies, or so it’s said, infiltrating the sectors to keep an eye out for trouble. My brother Gerry was selected for the program, it’s the only way you can get a job there. I haven’t seen his wide-eyed smile ever since.
The conveyor belt is juddering like it’s wracked with nerves, bringing me out of my thoughts. I feel too distant to give it a proper service, so instead I hit it with a spanner – it starts running smoothly again, a job well-enough done. After a few more minutes of thinking, the bell starts shrieking and rattling, and I know it’s about time to lay down the tools and get some food. The tang of tomato sauce wafts through the air as the door slides open, pushing me even faster towards the kitchen; I’m practically running when the door slides shut behind me.
The whitest, cleanest room you ever saw, flooded with filthy, oil-stained mechanics. I throw my legs over the nearest bench – almost whack my knees on the table – and sit down next to Mort, the only person in this sector who’s ever shared a sentence with me. It had been a hot day, drops of sweat all across his forehead and sunlight pouring through the kitchen window, and he’d said:
“Bit hot today, isn’t it?”
And I’d said, “Yeah, you’re telling me.”
It’s raining today, grey and grizzly. The waiters and waitresses move down the rows of mechanics, handing out plates of beer-battered carp, butter-fried onions, and baked beans – the same dinner I’ve eaten every night here. The woman who hands me my plate is new, a rare occurrence: big brown hair, orange eyes, and a smile that dazzles like birdsong. Her own expression lifts a smile right out of me, and as I look around I notice the smiles on other people’s faces. I pick up my fork, but as I go to pick a single bean, Mort brings his hand down hard on my wrist – I drop the fork, shout a little, and frown in complete confusion. He gestures to my plate. There’s a message, in the beans.
Mort looks at me knowingly, tapping his nose with his finger, then starts shoveling food into his mouth with his unruly trowel-hands. I pick up my fork and demolish the message with real enthusiasm, dipping into the carp and onions as I go. When I’m done, I need to go to Floor Two, Room 5, and do whatever they need me to do. It’s not my turn to check the security software, I did that almost two weeks ago. Is it my birthday? I usually get a sort of feeling for it, around the right time of the year.
I slump my cheek into my fist, propped up on my elbow, and stare out of the window for a while. I can’t tell you what time it is, but the sky looks like a pot of melted marshmallow, all lilacs and bubblegums. There’s a fluffy white cloud or two, but they’re pushed along by the wind and don’t stay in my sight for long. When everyone’s done with dinner, the bell starts its wailing, and the mechanics filter back out through the doors.
Except for me – I take the stairs.
As I start walking up, I realise that I know this room. It was years ago now: a protest led by a guy from my university, I think his name was Pitcher. And Pitcher told us all about how poorly the people in these sectors were treated, how we were the privileged class who actually had an education, and got to spend time with their families. These people are miserable, he told us, these people are sharing bedrooms and barely seeing the sunshine and they are miserable as hell. But I always wondered – did they really care that they’d never seen a rainbow, when they didn’t even know what rainbows were?
He thought that because we were across the river, we could do what we wanted, we could scream and shout and throw rocks through the window of Floor Two, Room 5 – and no-one would do a damn thing, except cower at how superior we were. You can imagine his surprise when a head poked out through the shattered glass, followed by the barrel of a gun. Pitcher didn’t ask us to protest against anything else after that, and we didn’t ask him either.
I’m practically tiptoeing up the stairs now, trying not to mark the ivory carpet with my thick brown footsteps – the door is straight ahead of me, so I take one big step from the top of the stairs and find myself inside. The window is still shattered, vases and chairs turned upside-down on the wooden floorboards, a few white sheets thrown around. The rock is sitting in the middle of the room, the colour of concrete with streaks of iron-rich red. Doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here since the man with the gun. I walk to the window, and for the first time in a long while, I see Rowan River. It must be winter now; the trees look bare and the water is sluggish, but I recognise the particular shape that it flows in. When I squint my eyes I can see daffodils dotting the banks, bright yellow, peering in the river at their own reflections.
Usually I’d have been stopped by the guards. For all they know I could climb out of that window and cross the river, try to find what’s left of my family. Maybe Georgie’s still over there in her three-floor town house, fussing with the kids and picking out their clothes for school. How old would they be now? Eight and eleven, I think. I hope Georgie found them someone else to watch their weekend theatre shows, someone to share a bowl of honeycomb ice-cream and watch comedies on repeat. Windows catch the light like diamonds, sparkling from miles away; one of them could be hers. I run my fingers along my wrist, along the flash of white skin, bulging out like stuffing from a poorly-stitched toy. Trying to escape again might be dangerous.
Yet here I am, standing by an open window, a tree holding its strong arms out within jumping distance. The wind is gushing all around me, lifting my fingers and streaming past my cheeks – not just tousling my hair like it does in the yard. I’ve missed the sensation of air. I find a small section of window-pane where the glass has been completely blown away, and step onto it. There’s a bear by the riverbank now, much smaller than any kind I’ve seen before, digging its nose in and pawing at the dirt. Guess it can smell something. The daffodils are dancing, swaying side-to-side – they remind me of Georgie’s kids, perfect formation, bopping along to whatever rhythm they can find. Maybe it’s the bird-song.
The tree is beckoning me now.
I’m closing my eyes.
One more turn at the crossroads.