by Grace Bridges
It is a warm summer day. Layers of wispy clouds do little to obscure the sun, for once. These temperatures are rare in Ireland—but all the more treasured for it. The air carries wondrous scents of flowering things and the promise of tree fruit in autumn: apples and pears and plums now ripening, the unborn ghosts of their nascent aromas already filling the orchard slopes.
Railway tracks border the green area, with rows of brick houses beyond. Farther still, to the north, are the tall chimneys of an industrial area nearer the city, and on the left hand looms the dark shape of the Black Mountain that overhangs western Belfast. A train rattles by, its wheels screeching, the commuters gazing with longing at the paradise that is lost to them a few seconds later. In the midst of the city the allotments bloom. Tired brick and old streets have given way to a space between the walls where determined gardeners have staked a claim and worked the land.
Even now there is a harvest of other crops, the summer vegetables and early fruit. The little girl stoops, reaches into a tangle of leaves, and twists a strawberry from its socket with a pleasing pop. Her sharp eyes watch to confirm what her fingers have already told her. When she brings it out into view, it is intensely scarlet and fills the palm of her small hand, a thing of beauty with a drop of juice barely clinging on at the recently detached summit. She breathes its essence, warm and ripe, a storehouse of sunshine and satiety, the secure anticipation of how it is going to feel on her tongue as she savours it and her tastebuds explode with simple happiness.
She bites into it, but something is wrong. It’s not really there. Her mouth is vacant, no matter how she tongues it.
“Mariah!” The whisper infiltrating her mind, but she must resist, hiding away in her soul’s secret place.
A spark of the synapses. Realisation slowly dawning on her…
“Wake up! We’ll be late.”
She groaned. Yes, something is very wrong. Very wrong with the entire world, where nothing grew any more, least of all a strawberry. She defied alertness a moment longer, trying in vain to recapture the aroma of that fruit, but the effort only awakened her brain even more. She was not a little girl, she was not in the allotments, and the allotments didn’t look like that any more.
There was a tug at her shoulder and she finally came upright with a grunt and shook her dazed head to clear it of sleep. She had been dozing in the cafeteria, face smushed on forearms with her nose in the gap, leaning on the table. The cafeteria might not be worthy of the name these days, but dining tables made passable headrests for snatching a few winks.
Liam shook her shoulder again, peering at her from under his thatch of red hair. “Wakey-wakey. You trying to get us in trouble?”
She surveyed the empty room with its rows of benches. Only young Jonesy was visible, cleaning up on the other side of the servery hatch. Poor kid, by rights he ought to be growing more, but who could grow in times like these? She smiled at the painfully skinny boy and blinked hard.
Unsteadily she got to her feet, refusing Liam’s proffered hand. He continued to hover, though she didn’t want his support. A thought formed itself, that Liam didn’t have to get himself in trouble—why was it always “us” with him anyway—but a glance at his earnest eyes told her it was pointless. He was inexplicably determined to stick by her.
Together they strode out of the eatery and across the narrow gap between buildings, into their workplace. Just before they stepped inside, a stray ray of sunshine burst through the clouds as a puff of wind caressed them.
Mariah sighed. The rest of her dream might have been a fairytale, but the weather was a perfect match. Such a beautiful day to be stuck in the “office”.
It barely fit the definition at all. Only a tin-roofed concrete-block shed with a few ramshackle old computers and desks that had all been repaired so many times they were hardly recognisable. Cracked monitors still served above dusty processor towers whose fans sounded like the death-rattle. Broken desk legs had been replaced or simply shored up with whatever stick-like item had been to hand. Years of rain had stained the porous floor just left of Mariah’s yet-unbroken chair that she was very glad of, beneath a rusty spot in the roof. She was well-practised in avoiding its trajectory on wet days—and also well-practised in staring at the hole, analysing its spread from season to season. Through the worst of last winter she had finally placed a bucket on the floor to catch the drips, but one day she’d forgotten to take it home and in the morning it had vanished. She didn’t have another.
Despite all this, it was the Northern Department of Farming Statistics, and they were bonded to it for a plate of porridge each noon. Unless of course the Senate authorities saw fit to transfer them somewhere else, which might happen at any time. This wasn’t such a bad place to work, was esteemed and sought-after because it did not involve physical labour in the grain processing plants or few remaining fertile fields. People joked that office workers would become fat and lazy.
Mariah knew the reality was different: nobody could be fat on these rations.
The department manager raised her eyebrows when they entered the building, and she tapped her bare wrist. Mariah made for her desk, trying to look contrite. They wouldn’t get in trouble—the manager knew Mariah and Liam were her most conscientious workers, and they’d still get much more done than anyone else even if a few minutes were shaved off their time.
Giggling emanated from halfway along the room. It was Kitty and Elsbeth, tittering behind their hands and peering over them at the latecomers. Mariah didn’t know why they were tolerated when they did so little work and often caused distractions. Silly girls, heads full of fluff, too naïve for her to hold anything against them.
Liam slid into his chair nearby. “Were you dreaming something nice, then?”
Mariah fiddled a moment with her mouse and used it to pull up a new harvest report for checking and processing. “Aye, that I was. Do you remember the allotments?”
“Not really. That was a bit before my time, and I woulda thought a bit before yours as well.”
“I can’t have been more than three or four. I guess it just made such a huge impression on me that I never forgot it.” She closed her eyes and saw it spread out before her again, larger than life: the sunshine, the fruit trees, the humps of leaf-swamped dirt in the strawberry patch. “It was my uncle’s allotment. I only went there once or twice. He grew all kinds of things…but I remember the strawberries. They were massive and sweet and they tasted like heaven.”
“I woulda liked to know what that was like.” Liam’s voice grew wistful. “Before it all died out.”
There was the scrape of a chair in the corner, and both Mariah and Liam shot their attention to their screens.
“Enough with the chatter, you two,” called the boss, without bothering to get up. This pronouncement was followed by hushed laughter from Kitty. Elsbeth only stared openly at Mariah, her glee evident. Mariah shot her a withering glare, to which Elsbeth poked out her tongue. Mariah shook her head.
For a while Mariah dedicated herself to entering the reported figures for Farm E in County Down. The name was meaningless to her, but it was the only official designation and might equally have been in Donaghadee or Downpatrick. This farm had in any case just scraped into the “acceptable” bracket of standard results once again. Of course all the brackets had been redefined three times last year, and what had been labelled insufficient then might have passed now. There was no reason to it, no reason to say this farm was doing okay when it clearly wasn’t. Mariah could only guess that the authorities wanted to be able to assure the public that everything was going fine, to pre-empt unrest and looting.
Only the human drones in Statistics knew the full truth.
This line of thinking could only occupy Mariah’s mind for so long before she had to drop it to avoid spiralling into total negativity. Topics other than food—and the lack thereof—were hard to come by. Mariah’s mind filled once more with the memory of her uncle’s garden and the fruit that tasted of real life, real nutrition, she knew that now. It was a wonder people still found the strength to stand when mostly all they got to eat was a bit of oats and maybe some wild greens, if the rare hardy weeds that still grew could even be counted as sustenance. She almost gagged at the thought of the dandelion leaves she’d had to eat last night: sour, tough and nigh on unchewable even when boiled for a full half hour, but they did stop a stomach from rumbling too much. If she or Da could find some, tonight’s dinner would be the same again. Or it might be nothing at all. She’d slept hungry more times than she cared to enumerate.
Mariah closed her eyes for a moment to imagine that perfect strawberry. She nodded once, rallied, then sagged. It was there before her in her mind’s eye, a luscious red, pocked with non-terminating seeds, and the smell—oh, that aroma would move mountains, she was sure of it. If she could just eat this solitary one, she wouldn’t need any dinner. Then the fruit was in her hand and she was raising it up to her face. Her mouth opened.
Her teeth clacked shut on nothing.
The sound reverberated inside her skull and jolted her upright in the chair. She shot a glance around the room to see if anyone had noticed.
Liam caught her eye and grinned. She looked away; he didn’t matter. Well, it wasn’t that he didn’t matter—it was more that it didn’t matter if he was the one who caught her snoozing.
Then, laughter. Oh—botheration. Mariah snuck a look towards Elsbeth and found her head to head with Kitty as they whispered in each other’s ears, clacked their teeth together and burst into fresh giggles. Mariah felt mutinous. She didn’t mind the work, but the taunting was almost too much for any reasonable soul to bear. What was this, primary school? Well, those girls were probably only in their mid-teens and had been drafted just like young Jonesy, just like everyone in this dratted place. She brushed off her anger. It would only make her more hungry as soon as lunch wore off.
Her focus drifted in and out through the interminable afternoon. As quitting time approached, she checked the minutes on her computer again and again. Finally the display ticked over to six o’clock, the hour she’d spent all day waiting for.
As she stood and gathered her things and pulled on her well-worn cap and jacket, she reminisced again about the once-glorious allotment. She’d gone back a few years ago to sate her curiosity and see if the soil could be salvaged, but without decaying plant matter it had turned to soulless muck.
Instead of that juicy strawberry, the image that now pressed itself onto her mind was that of the same garden patch—but now dead and with no hope of producing anything resembling a crop. She’d wept as she’d stood in the wasteland of swiftly eroding mud between the railway tracks, the once-green hills now brown in the distance, the houses falling into disrepair, the cold, damp wind whipping at her hair and clothes. She’d weep again now if she wasn’t careful; she gulped hard and got herself under control. Hoping for better from the allotments after the onset of the viral terminator gene had been a pie-in-the-sky idea anyway.
The day had started to cool towards evening, although the sun wouldn’t set until some time after the ten o’clock curfew. Mariah did up the buttons on her patched and quilted coat: sure it looked funny, but it kept her warm through a good part of the year. Winter was another story, but it was a long way off. She’d have to add another layer of patchwork to the inside before then, and some extra padding if she could get hold of it.
The office workers moved in a gaggle towards the door. “Just a moment,” said the boss, and heads turned towards her. “Kitty and Elsbeth. A word, if you don’t mind.”
In the alley, Mariah unlocked her bike from the rail fence and looked around for Liam. He seemed to have disappeared—his wheels were still here so he couldn’t be far away. Mariah caught herself and smiled faintly. He’d been behaving like a lovesick puppy and while she’d gotten used to having him around all the time and being so attentive through the working day, she wasn’t sure she had the sort of feelings he obviously had for her. There were far worse options, to be sure. Perhaps she’d end up with him after all…If so, she’d try to talk him out of having children, bringing them into such a messed-up world where even their ma and da wouldn’t be certain of feeding them properly each day. Look at how poor Jonesy was suffering. No, she didn’t want her child to live like that, a wage-slave before his ninth birthday, and still not enough to eat.
She blinked and shook her head. That was clearly too far for her mind to wander, where Liam was concerned. She was firmly decided that nothing could come of it, not with the way the world was. Still, against her better judgement, she delayed swinging aboard to head home, pretending to check the tyre while her other workmates said their farewells and left.
Sure enough, a short while later came the pounding of feet. Liam skidded round the corner of the building. “Oh good, you’re still here.” He approached, one fist closed, but not tightly. “Uh, here. This is for you.”
At his gesture she opened her palm and stretched it out. He loosened his fingers, dropping a single strawberry into her hand. It was the size of her thumbnail, fringed with pale green beneath its crown of leaves—but a strawberry!
Aghast with delight, she met his gaze. “How—where did you get this?”
Liam pointed his thumb back over his shoulder. “Found it in one of the alleys.” He stuck his hands in the pockets of his ragged jeans and dipped his head, clearly pleased at her joy.
Mariah nodded. She wouldn’t ask him to reveal more than that. Such secrets were personal, especially since the plant would likely keep growing and produce more fruit if it had been lucky enough to root itself into living, nutrient-holding soil. Liam needed to keep that to himself.
She lifted the berry to her face—so much like she’d been dreaming of—and inhaled deeply. The scent was faint but unmistakable. She closed her eyes a moment and felt herself transported back in time. Then the facts slapped her back to the present.
Liam. Gave her a gift. A most precious possession. That must really mean…No, no. She couldn’t let him do this. “Liam, don’t, this is too much.” She looked up from the tiny fruit into his crestfallen face.
Slowly he reached out with both hands and closed her fingers over it. “I want you to have it. Really.”
Something within her stirred at his touch, an unexpected awakening. The dream was no longer important. If Mariah accepted this gift, she’d be encouraging Liam in his feelings for her. But he wasn’t letting her open her hand. He just stared at her with those burning emerald eyes. How could the colour green burn? She didn’t know, but she did know it was the exact colour of those lush strawberry leaves from long ago.
When he finally broke contact, he grabbed his bike and sailed off before she could stop him. He didn’t look back, but stood up on his pedals and gave it his best speed, swiftly vanishing from sight around the corner.
“Liam,” she called, but he was gone. She stood alone in the street, clutching a strawberry that must be protected at all costs. If it had been growing wild, its seeds might even be viable. Mariah looked down at it. What had the world come to, that such a small thing should carry such significance? It even served as proof irrevocable of a young man’s love.
She would deal with Liam later. Somehow. For now, she had strawberry seeds to nurture, once she got them to a safe place and figured out how best to coax them into germination. It wouldn’t be easy, but she had to try. Had to.
Two late leavers came giggling out of the office. Great. Just her luck: Elsbeth and Kitty, of course. Perhaps the boss had been lecturing them. They stopped and looked Mariah up and down with great exaggeration, then traipsed away down the alley. Their whispers and peals of childish laughter assured her they were unlikely to be an actual threat to this great treasure with which she’d been entrusted, as well as unlikely to have listened to anything the boss had said, but she was still glad the strawberry was well hidden in her cupped hand. Who knew what sort of a big deal the young troublemakers would have made out of it.
When they were well out of sight, she wrapped it in a clean hanky and tucked it into a section of her bag where it couldn’t be damaged.
Taking care to ensure it kept its safe position, she mounted and rode away—slowly at first, then gathering speed. The lowering sun for a second turned even the ugly industrial area to gold, and Mariah’s solitary figure with it.