Nell nuzzled her head against me. I rubbed her nose. Her eyes fixed on me and I swear she knew.
It was barely dawn. Everyone but Jim was asleep. He insisted the night watch suited him but I think he likes to watch out for us. He says us young ones are the hope for the future but I don’t know. We’ve lost too many.
He came to meet me at the gates. ‘You taking her out?’ He nodded his approval and patted her neck. He turned the winch and the metal barricades opened. Nell stamped her feet, anxious to get going. It hadn’t affected the horses or the dogs. For some reason our natural companions had been spared, and we were grateful for this small mercy.
I rode without a mask. I breathed in a sharp lungful of sweet air, aware of the risk as I did so. In the freedom of the morning with a horse beneath me and an open field ahead of me, it was one I was content to take.
Jim nodded at me to go on. I felt fear run through me. No-one ventured out unless they had to. Not after Simon had returned, barely alive. It had taken a month for him to die.
I kicked at Nell’s flank and felt the sudden jerk of movement. We were away, kicking up clumps of damp earth, a faint mist cooling my face as she galloped on. I saw a pack of dogs in the distance. They looked well nourished. There were clearly pickings to be had. Pickings I didn’t want to dwell on. One of them approached me, its tail up, expectant. We needed dogs, good ones. He trotted along beside me, looking up at me every now again, panting a smile. Today was not the day though. When I paid him no attention, he gave up on me and ran back into the wastes.
I pulled on the reins, turning Nell onto the road south. It was the road Eve and I had ridden in on all those months ago. When we’d found the settlement, they’d welcomed us. We both knew it was because of Nell. What use was there for a half-ruined man and his pregnant wife? But one horse had carried the vote for both of us.
The metal groaned as Jim opened the gates. ‘It’s alright lad, I’ll take her now.’ I dismounted. I didn’t look at Nell again.
Eve was in the communal room, nursing our son. He pulled at her nipple, his fist slapping at her breast in frustration. I sat down next to her, putting my arm around her fragile shoulders.
‘Is it done?’ she asked. I nodded. We would eat well tonight. Her eyes filled with tears. Then she looked down at our son. ‘Good,’ she said.
The little dog is tethered in the sun. From a distance, she has a rough coat. But when I’m close enough to stroke her, inside the pool of her reflection on the slow-baked sand, she is soft. You tell me not to touch. “Fleas, Simon,” you say. I drag your case up the hill. So many clothes. All from the cheap shop so you can justify their number, their casual disposability. I hoped you would spend all week in your white swimming costume. But you want changes, multiple changes. The room disappoints you. The humming fridge disturbs your sleep. The toilet gasps and gurgles. The ceiling fan struggles to stir air thicker than Brown Windsor soup. “I can’t breathe,” you say. The little dog cries all night. You burn on the beach, so you stay in the room. You smother your skin with cream, but refuse to let me baste you. I buy you more lotion—"Too watery, too melon scented"—from the shabby shop. Down the hill, up the hill. You want stifado in a carton. Down to the jaded restaurant, up again. Yo…
“She’s not dead, you know,” a voice beside me says. The woman sharing the park bench in Kensington Palace Gardens has been observing me write on the back of a postcard. Years have passed since that immeasurable worldwide torrent of grief. Even so less than fifteen minutes ago, I’d found myself unable to walk past that famous face on a display of vintage cards at a Bayswater Road stall. “Diana’s not dead.” The woman shifts on her thighs and re-settles herself on the bench, a faint unidentifiable smell exuding from her dirty grey overcoat. Really, I can’t help myself when it comes to Diana. You have had to be around in her time to understand the mesmerising effect she had on people. “Oh?” “She wasn’t in that coffin.” “Oh?’ Despite myself, I am intrigued. The woman eyes me steadily, holding me fast with her gaze. “No. She’s in a mental institution.” The tone is matter of fact. “Under lock and key. They’ve kept it from everyone.” She gives me time to consider this, turning her attention to a m…