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‘If that is going to be his epitaph, they need to hear it,’ and Charlie pointed towards her doorway, meaning the people on the street. He started to walk back to his own room, and Amelia followed him. He could hear the sway of her hips in the way her heels made loud taps on the hardwood floor. The scent of perfume drifted towards him as she got close, soft musk, delicate and expensive. When they both got into Charlie’s room, he pointed to the van that had pulled over at the side of the road. There was someone on the pavement with a boom microphone in one hand, talking to a cameraman and looking around. Charlie raised an eyebrow at Amelia as the cameraman pointed up at the window.
‘Oh shit,’ she said, although it seemed like a whisper to herself, rather than any comment Charlie was meant to hear.
Then he saw someone just further along the street, a face he recognised. Amelia hadn’t spotted him.
‘Got to go,’ he said to her, and as Amelia shot him a frosty look, he added, ‘Cheer up. You’ll look great on the news.’ Charlie went towards the door, leaving Amelia gazing out of the window, one hand just flicking at her hair.
John stepped out of the door that led into a stone courtyard, Dawn next to him. They were going to find food, on Arni’s order.
He hadn’t gone more than two paces before Gemma fell into step alongside him, heavy black boots on her feet. John looked down, and for a moment he wanted to put his arm around Gemma, to enjoy the walk in the countryside, but Dawn was with them. Instead he said, ‘How far is it?’
‘A couple of miles.’ Gemma smiled. ‘How does it feel, to be leaving the farm?’
He thought about that for a moment. ‘Strange,’ he said eventually.
‘It’s all still out there, babe, just remember that,’ she said. ‘That’s why it’s been so long, to let you shake off your old life, but it’s still there somewhere, ready to suck you back.’
‘I think I can fight it,’ he said. ‘I’ve listened to Henry. I understand his message now.’
‘We’re creating our own world here, where none of all that crap matters. We’re free people, but it isn’t easy, because people are weak. That’s right, isn’t it, Dawn?’
Dawn looked like she was going to stay silent again, but then she looked at Gemma, then at John, and nodded. ‘We have to stay together, to avoid temptation.’
John watched Dawn look away. He leaned into Gemma. ‘Is Dawn weak?’ he whispered.
‘From time to time, we all are,’ she said, and then Gemma let go of him and skipped ahead, her long skirt swirling around her ankles, along the muddy path at the side of the house, past the outbuilding that housed two quad bikes and the barrel that Arni had brought in earlier. There was a small square enclosure against the wall, fashioned out of chicken wire, with wooden shelters at one end, housing the hens that provided them with eggs. The peace was broken by the hum of a generator that powered the lights in one of the barns, where they grew cannabis.
As they emerged from the shadows they started to cross a field, the ground bumpy and pitted from tractor tracks and the root clumps of meadow grasses. In the middle were the Seven Sisters, the stone circle, although it was just a crescent really, some stones taller than others, with one slab in the middle.
Dawn waited for John to catch up, Gemma running ahead. When he reached her, he said, ‘I didn’t know there was a stone circle near Oulton before I joined the group.’
Dawn looked at it, and then down again. John thought he saw a tear run down her cheek.
She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and then tried out a watery smile. ‘It’s our legacy, so that it will be there long after we’re gone and people will know that we were here. And why.’
He was surprised. ‘I didn’t know it was a new thing, that we had put the rocks there.’
‘You haven’t been here long enough. You’ll find out soon enough.’
John nodded to himself, curious, and then said, ‘You can trust me, Dawn.’
She shook her head. ‘No, I can’t.’
Dawn looked towards Gemma, who was heading for a tumbledown part of the drystone wall and to a path that cut through the northerly woods opposite, which kept the coldest winds away from the house.
‘Things are not what they seem,’ she said. ‘You need to get out.’
‘What do you mean?’
Dawn wiped her eyes and then said, ‘Tell me what you think of Henry.’
John thought about what to say. ‘He’s a strong leader, delivers a good message, and I believe it, like we all do.’
Dawn laughed, but it was bitter and hollow. ‘So we’ve no need to talk.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I thought we weren’t about leaders.’
‘We always need leaders.’
‘I thought we were about freedom,’ she said and then walked quickly ahead, to catch up with Gemma.
John followed them, curious, wanting to find out more, but Dawn was with Gemma now, and he knew the moment had gone.
He looked around as he walked, at the roll of the fields and clusters of trees that dotted the green hills. He stepped over the fallen down rocks by the wall and into the shadows of trees, where the soft swish of the grass was replaced by the echo and snap of the woodland path. Patches of bluebells glimmered in the shafts of sun and he caught the scratches of grey squirrels clambering up the bark. The path would take them lower down the hill, to the stream that trickled and gathered pace until it ran between the stone sides of the Oulton buildings.
As he emerged back into the daylight, Dawn and Gemma were ahead, but apart from each other, Gemma turning as she walked, playful, young. Dawn looked down, her step leaden.
‘How far now?’ he shouted.
‘Not far,’ Gemma yelled back. ‘More of the men should do this. If it wasn’t for the women, you’d all starve.’
John laughed. ‘Hasn’t that always been the way?’
He turned to look back towards the house, and saw that it was hidden now. Two rabbits chased each other in the long grass on the other side of a low wall. The sun felt warm, the blush of early summer on his cheeks. It felt good, free and easy. John felt the same surge of happiness he had felt when he first arrived, the simple contentment of belonging.
The path followed the line of a wall and then reached the top of a small rise, where the view changed. He looked ahead and saw Oulton. The buildings in the centre were tight together, the grey stone rising higher than the others around, with tall windows and ornate facades, boasts of Victorian wealth long since gone. A disused railway line ran away from the town and down the hill, towards the towns in the valley, now part of the commuter spill over from Manchester, driving up the house prices and sending the locals further north.
The town fanned out like a flower, with the closed-in centre, and then the swirls and curves of the newer housing estates on the edges. The peace of the countryside was replaced by the sounds of lorries rumbling along the roads or straining up the steep hills.
‘There,’ Gemma said, and pointed. He looked and saw the corrugated metal roof and tarmac car park just below them, the first part of the town they reached. A supermarket.
‘We’re going shopping?’ John said, confused.
Gemma giggled. ‘Not exactly.’
They followed a path that was long and steep, curving down the side of the hill until it ended by a high wooden fence made up of strong horizontal laths with gaps in between, perfect for footholds.
Gemma turned to Dawn. ‘Have you got your bag ready?’
Dawn held up her rucksack.
‘Come on then,’ she said, and the two women scrambled over the fence, their long skirts riding high on their legs, Gemma’s bare, Dawn’s clad in torn black leggings.
John peered through the fence to the rear of the supermarket and saw large open doors, through which he could see high shelves of stock. A forklift truck lay dormant just inside.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Are you going to steal?’
Gemma turned around. ‘It’s not stealing,’ she said. ‘We are not taking things from inside the shop. They throw too much food away, even though there’s nothing wrong with it.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s crazy. I mean, we grow food to feed ourselves, but then throw it away because the fruit looks less fresh or the bread too hard. So we are taking it back, so that it does what it is meant to do. Bread, milk, cheese, butter, and jars and tins. Coffee, tea, cereal. It is all fine to be eaten, and so we should take it, because it is the right thing to do. It has been thrown away and so they don’t want it anymore. How can it be wrong?’
‘What does the shop say?’
‘This shop?’ Gemma said, and pointed. ‘Nothing. There is a bigger one a few miles down the road, and they spray the food blue so that we can’t take it. Where is the morality in that, that it is better to throw it away than allow people to eat?’ Then she grinned. ‘We come at night sometimes, because the security man lets us look without any problems. We know how to make him happy.’
John felt a bite of jealousy, and his eyes must have given him away, because Gemma said, ‘We get fed, he gets satisfied. What’s the problem? Except that he isn’t working this week, he’s away with his wife, so we have to do it this way.’
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’ John said, looking towards the large open doors.
‘We’ll be fine. If we get caught, we’ll just smile and flirt, and no one really cares.’
John watched through the gaps in the fence as the two women scurried through the yard and clambered into a large blue skip. They were in there for just a couple of minutes, and then they scrambled back out again and ran across the yard. They threw their bags over the fence and clambered over to join him.
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