The platform was crowded. Busy but almost silent apart from the sound of shuffling of feet in heavy boots, bodies shifting nervously from foot to foot. When I'd been waiting there before, in what I now think of as my previous life, my fellow commuters were nose-deep in newspapers, typing emails, waiting anxiously for family to haul their suitcases from a train or excitedly waving people off, checking passports, taking photos, tickets clutched in their hands. Today we stood shoulder-to-shoulder, grim in the knowledge we were carrying everything we needed for the journey. We didn't need much.
The posters had gone up two weeks ago, pasted across road signs, bus stops, office noticeboards, shop fronts, car windscreens, in lifts, trains, malls and cafes. Not that many were open by that point. The paper was cheap, the message simple. A stark website, black on white, no pictures, no logos: www.endofdays.com. Of course, should we have seen the crude marketing campaign just last year, there would have been a collective rolling of eyes, an expectation of a new underground nightclub, a wannabe rapper making their mark on the city, an accompanying YouTube video, but the timing of these posters was unsettling.
My husband was made redundant a few months ago, myself six weeks later, schools had closed quietly and children were left to prowl around in the autumn chill while their parents knocked on doors of any operational businesses trying to pick up work.
Soon, bursting bin bags formed misshapen mountains on the sides of suburban streets, power cuts struck across the city plunging whole blocks into pungent darkness, the stink so much worse in the black. Rats, swirling faded fast food wrappers, the smell. Oh, the smell. I longed for green hills, walks by rivers, fresh air, but the petrol stations had run dry, public transport was long gone and it was no longer safe to walk, even if I could have faced the long journey to the city limits. Teenagers out for blood, money, anything to steal or trade, like a live re-enactment of the gut wrenching London riots. Feral. Pieces of wood in their hands, smashing windows, slashing tyres on stranded cars, acting out of anger and fear, many of these kids had gone to school with my own. Previously smiling and respectful, they were now forcing us into our homes, driving us to defend our belongings and family by any means. Driving us to do the unthinkable.
My children were waiting on either side of me, comically dressed up in winter coats and the hats we bought for a skiing trip, but no one was smiling. We were together, which was more than many could say; there was a group of what I guessed were orphans standing together around a woman holding a numbered flag. Orphans. My stomach dropped even further. I'd paid everything I had to get us on the same train. Even a few more hours together.
That website had haunted our lives ever since it appeared. I'd seen it on the way to work, a flyer under my windscreen wiper that I'd hurriedly removed and shoved in my pocket with the usual day-to-day detritus. I'd heard colleagues talking about it, hushed at first, grouped in twos and threes around a computer, pointing, then panicking and asking each other questions that no one could answer. Slowly unfurling the white scrap with its heavy words, I typed the address in. Much like the posters, no time or money had been spent - no frills, no welcome, just brusque instructions. Enter your security number. Enter your birth date. Enter your dependents. Confirm. A date and train issued. Was that it? What would that train take me to? What if I stayed? But as the days wore on, I no longer wanted to stay. I'm sure the sun had shone in the last few months but I couldn't remember feeling warmth or woken up from a sound sleep to a bright morning. Looking around, it seemed everyone felt the same; grey faces, dry hair and smudges under tired eyes.
The next morning, a plain envelope had arrived. I don't know how - we hadn't had mail in weeks. My family name simply typed on the front, it contained a rough sheet with a list I needed to bring with me to the station. A strict tone telling me to BRING NO MORE, NO LESS. One bag, one pair of jeans, a winter coat, hat, two T-shirts, one jumper, two pairs of socks, two sets of underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, soap. Communication devices expressly prohibited. No recording equipment, paper, pens, electronics of any kind. No music. No more music. I had placed the letter on the dining table, afraid to touch it, quickly calculating how many days we had at home. Twelve. And they had slipped away so fast, despite the days dragging in a fog of grey depression.
Looking down at the platform, I couldn't remember the last time I'd spoken to my mother, the phone lines cut off and postboxes overflowing with unsent letters. There was no way of getting to her, making sure she was safe, had food, that intruders hadn't broken down her door and taken the few precious pieces of jewellery or those canned meats we had teased her about. She was in the countryside, so I prayed the village hadn't succumbed to the same horrors of here.
The children had been issued similar instructions. No toys, no books, no blankets. No softness or tokens of our love. Nothing to remember their father by. They looked up at me, eyes searching for clues, as if I could offer comfort or assurances. A squeeze of their hands was all I could manage, not trusting myself to open my mouth in case a cry crept out, betraying me.
The noise levels were rising. A train approaching. Uniformed guards pushing us into our assigned pens, barking, demanding papers, a child swept aside. I'd never noticed how loud the trains were before, but the metal on metal screamed as one slowed in front of us, all logos crudely ripped from its sides and more guards waiting on board. The children's grip grew tighter as people started to climb the steps. Our turn. I smiled thinly at them and we found our seats.
Ÿ Helen Spearman is the fourth runner up of the 2012 Short Story Competition organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi Book Fair