[First published in JUPITER 38, this copy taken from the draft issue.]
It’s a fine day so I’m only wearing a paper mask and I’ve got the weightcoat open a little to keep me cool. I walk past Pewfellows the corner shop where old Pewfellow himself is stacking shelves, baked beans by the look of it. He gives me a wave and I wave back. Nice old guy.
The next two houses past Pewfellows are abandoned as the wind has got hold of them. The brick work has been eaten in a big standing ‘S’ shaped hole. It won’t be long before they fall down or maybe Pewfellow will get someone to take them down to avoid any danger to his shop. I give the walls as wide a berth as I can without leaving the pavement because I don’t want to get my shoes dirty. The wind has been getting into the sewers round here and it’s forced up some foul smelling liquid into the gutters. I’ve got to look my best for Jimmy.
Mrs Osbourne’s house is at the far end of this row. Jimmy had the bricks green-enamelled to stop them being eaten away, no one else on the row can afford to have it done. She calls it her Fabergé castle. I don’t really understand but Jimmy’s Mum always has a chuckle.
A plastic bag goes whipping along the street, pulsing in the gusts. It’s OK on a fine day like this – you can see them and avoid it but when it’s dusty or overcast you just have to let it hit you.
At the house before Mrs Osbourne’s, Simon Chaka Mtlbebe is re-pointing the brickwork. It’s much cheaper than enamelling but it only lasts a year or so. He has his mask hanging round his neck and is sitting on a low bench he’s made from trellises. They call him the ‘Lazy Builder’ round here but whenever you walk up and down the streets or alleys he’s always there – stopping something from falling down. With his pallet knife in one hand and a platter of mortar in the other he looks like a giant blue-overalled Michelangelo. When I get out of school I want to design buildings for Simon Chaka Mtlbebe to make. I told him once – make ‘em round he said. When Simon says "round" he
shows the too many teeth in his big mahogany face. Sometimes I wish he would get romantic with
Mrs Osbourne so I, Jimmy and he would all be family.
I pull down my mask and give him a kiss on the cheek. Simon pretends to swoon and a pile of mortar slips off his platter onto the pavement and he laughs like a booming chimney when it’s lost its cover and the wind gets in. He pulls up the zip on my weightcoat and tells me the wind is getting quicker. He’s like a dad to me. He knows that I was brought in as an evacuee so he looks out for me.
He once told Jimmy to mind how he took care of me. It was very brave as no one tells Jimmy what to do when he is off-base. Jimmy has got a terrible temper. It wasn’t always that way.
Before he was drafted we had already been boyfriend and girlfriend for years and when the papers came through the door we all sat about and cried. Mrs Osbourne hugged Jimmy and sobbed while he looked at me kept saying he was sorry. I went to the kitchen and made them both a cup of tea. That’s when I started being good at being grown up. I said six years is only six years. I said this was all the family I had. I said Jimmy would always be the only boy for me, always be my hero. Always.
I meant every word and I still do.
Simon Chaka Mtlbebe points at the meter he’s got clipped to the end of his bench – it’s three little cups spinning round and round in the breeze. I squint at the tiny display for a bit and see that he’s right. The pressure is dropping and the speed is very slowly ticking up.
I give him a kiss goodbye on the other cheek and walk on to Mrs Osbourne’s house. The slight gusts in the wind shadows pull the weightcoat about but it’s still bright sunshine. The door to Jimmy’s mum’s house is the same old wooden one that was there before the place was enamelled. It must have looked very smart when it was first painted dark navy but the wind has shaved off layers of the paint making an odd ripple pattern of alternating wood and deep blue paint. There’s a lion’s head knocker on the door. She told me that her husband brought it back from Venice for her years ago when everyone thought the world was getting a little hotter maybe or perhaps there weren’t enough trees. We spend a lot of time at school learning about history – all those years the wind was getting that little bit quicker. I found a picture of the Venice bubble that was planned and showed
her but Mrs Osbourne said it was better off under water. There’s no wind underwater she said. The knocker has been soldered down so it won’t bang in a storm so I knock on the door with my knuckles.
Dat-da-da-dat-dat, dat-dat. The same friendly old knock everyone uses to let people know you’re not a looter or something. I think it’s a bit silly - but I can’t not do it. I hear the catches being unlocked and the strongarm lever being pushed down, the door opens up about halfway and I can see little Mrs Osbourne in her apron holding the lever down with all her round little frame. I pop inside so she can let it back up. When the door shuts it’s dark and gloomy in the hallway so we go straight in the kitchen which has a nice sheltered window so it doesn’t have to be wired or bricked up.
Somehow the kettle has just boiled and there are two cups with tea bags already in ready to go. Mrs Osbourne likes tea in a cup with a saucer. We both know that Jimmy is going to be off base today so we are pretty excited. She’s been baking and once I hang up the big weightcoat on a hook I show here that I’ve dressed up especially for Jimmy. She goes upstairs and comes back with a silver chain and pendent. It has a little amethyst in it that she says looks good with my hair but would be silly on an old woman. We drink tea and have a biscuit. She asks if I’m hungry but I tell her that I’m too anxious to eat. She nods and tells me she’s cooked for an army. We both know that Jimmy has a big appetite. Mrs Osbourne’s tabby cat Mia mews from the doorway – it’s the only house pet I’ve ever seen and how it survives the winds I’ll never know. Mrs Osbourne sniffs and tells the cat it hasalready been fed.
She sees me take a worried look at the meter on her wall.
She says it’s always a little quick because it’s on the roof. We talk about the price of things in Pewfellows and how Lisa Norwell’s dad has got a paying job at the covered farms but he has to travel so long each day they might have to move out. Best that they are all together says Mrs Osbourne and I know she’s right.
Mrs Osbourne suggests maybe I should stay here and wait for Jimmy to come around rather than meet him at the gates but I say no. Jimmy gets upset if I’m not at the gates to see him and sometimes he can stay upset for the whole leave. She knows I’m right. I get up to take the weightcoat off the hook. It’s the most expensive thing I own but it is terribly ugly. Mrs Osbourne helps me pull on the heavy brown arms. It crumples up my lovely dress. I pull up the zip over the purple pendent and up to my chin.
I pull the strong-arm then she holds it down. The wind is making a wowing sound in the corridor now the door is open. I give her a peck on the cheek and go out the front door as quickly as possible.
Mrs Osbourne’s house is the end of the row and used to overlook the park. Now it faces a long dusty bit of land with broken tree stumps in it. There’s the odd tuft of grass but right in the middle some kind soul has planted a few bits of heather and a gorse bush. It’s the only green patch in the whole acre. On the far side of the park is the base wall and a road that runs right round it. I lean to my right against the gale and it starts pushing my dust mask off so I pull up the hood on the weightcoat. Two strings pull the hood opening tight and I shove the laces back in the hood by my cheek so they won’t flap about and hit me in the face. I start walking in a line to the gorse bush with yellow pips of flowers. I put my head down and watch my feet taking the difficult steps. Only two more years of meeting Jimmy at the gate and we can be together again.
The first year was by far the worst. They gave Jimmy great doses of steroids to bulk him up. We couldn’t see him for the first thirty weeks when he was in boot camp. When we did get to visit him he wasn’t the handsome willow boy any more. They made us talk to him from behind a window and he didn’t say very much. He had hands three times as big as mine, his chest was as wide as the booth they made him sit in and his face was worst of all. The high cheekbones had become girders and his jaw was like an anvil. His sweet blue eyes were hidden much deeper in his sockets behind lids that didn’t seem to fully open any more.
I’m sorry he’d said as he got up and went back out of the door into whatever hell that base is. I’ll never know what they do to them in there. They are heroes, every one of those adolescent boys and girls that go in.
At the end of the first year Mrs Osbourne got a medal through the post but there wasn’t a letter with it so we both got scared that Jimmy might be dead. A week later there was a letter explaining that Jimmy had saved a turbine platform and all the men and women on it. There weren’t any more details. The next day a Sergeant came round. He squeezed in through the front door and talked to us in the kitchen where there was no space for him to sit down. He was frightening even though he was being kind. He said Jimmy had been granted a day’s leave on account of extreme valour but because of the implants giving him constant doses of drugs he would need to be there to ensure our safety.
Mrs Osbourne hugged the Sergeant - which looked quite ridiculous as she only came up to his waist. The Sergeant blushed and I cried.
Later Jimmy arrived at the door escorted by two men. His face and hands and every exposed piece of skin had little clear ceramic triangles patch-worked over it. Only his precious blue eyes still looked the same. We tried our best to pamper him but little things would send him flying into a rage and when he did the Sergeant shouted at him to stand down. Whatever else they do to them in the base – they teach them to follow orders above all else. Jimmy would drop everything in his hands and stand to attention like a statue even though you could see his table sized chest heaving with anger.
At the end of the visit I hate to say that Mrs Osbourne and I were glad they took him back. The Sergeant stayed a few minutes longer and said he had once been like Jimmy – a draftee – but when the six years was over the implants would stop and Jimmy might get a hold of himself as he had done. I asked why he was still in the service and he put down his cup of tea that had looked like it was from a dolls house in his hands then stared at it. He said without the service there would be no more cups of tea.
Walking is like trying to wade across and angry river now. I get to the gorse bush but the wind is beating waves of grit up from the park so I can’t make out the base wall at the other side. Looking back I can just see Mrs Osbournes house and the other buildings. The sky goes from gloomy to dark. There’s a little tube in the neck of the weightsuit that tells you how fast the wind is so I bring my glove up to the hood and look at the little glass square on the back of it.
I could go back but I want to see Jimmy at the gates. I set off but the wind pushes me like a pair of soft hands in my back and I stumbled over the gorse bush. Dust goes up into the hood and I fall over. I spit on the ground and blink like crazy to get the dirt out of my eyes. My head banged the floor and it makes me feel sick. Tucking my legs up under me I kneel by the bush for a few minutes to get myself back together. I cry a little when I know I’ve got to go back. I won’t meet Jimmy at the gate.
They say it isn’t the wind that kills you. It’s the things in the wind that kill you. A piece of branch or a kids bicycle. Whatever it was it hit me on the shoulder like an iron bar while I was looking at the little digits on my palm.
I lay flat out on the ground with the gale pulling eddies of dust over and around me. My shoulder is numb but starts to throb all the way up my neck and into my ear. In the heavy sleeve of the weightcoat my arm lays limp along my side. The wind won’t leave me alone and tries to roll me over and over along the floor and I scream each time it pushes me onto my bad side. I can feel things in my shoulder crunching and the pain is so intense I can’t breathe. My mouth is gaping open and I have to fight to pull in a trickle of air.
They give you weightcoat training at school every couple of months so that everyone knows what to do but it takes a while to realise that I’m in that emergency. I need to get it attached to the floor. Without the coat the wind would have already picked me up and rammed me against a brick wall. So with my good hand I pull the bolt out of the sleeve of the bad arm. I get into a ball and up on my knees with my scalp into the wind. Pulling the chuteline out of the top of the hood I get the bolt through the eyelet and push it into the metal holder in the bottom seam of the coat. It’s just a little tube with two handles on the side - the right handle has a trigger on it and luckily my right hand is my good one. I use my knee instead of my left hand on the other handle. When I click the trigger there is a concussion so loud my ears ring. I lay face down and get my good arm up out of the sleeve then pull the hood in tight to the piton and pass out. Somewhere on my back a little red light is blinking. I hope.
You should lay in the weightcoat like a sleeping bag with the hood zipped closed, the bottom zipped up and the sleeves pulled inside. I can’t get my bad arm in for a few tries and keep fainting. The pain seems to shoot up and straight into my head like a knockout punch. Outside the wind is clouting the coat about and twisting me with it. I wait for a lull and this time pull the arm slowly – it seems more painful but it doesn’t make me pass out. I get the sleeve in. There’s no blood but something is broken in my upper arm. You can read the little dial from the inside of the glove too but do I really want to know? Grow up girl. It might be slowing down.
Looking at those digits makes me start shaking, I feel cold and hot in waves. Am I going to die? Who is going to meet Jimmy if I’m gone? In the shoulders of the back of the weightcoat is a fisheye lens like they put in people’s front doors. In the school drill you are told you use this to find the quickest path to safety if the wind gets below sixty.
I want to look anyway. You can turn it round like a periscope. I see the flashing light on the hood and very little else. It’s dark out there and the dust combined with goodness-knows-what is flying about. I can see a darker spot close by which I think is the gorse bush. The inside of the weightcoat is hot and sweaty – it shouldn’t be – but then I realise I am panting, crying and sweating. I keep looking through the little scope because if I don’t I’ll be inside with my broken, dying self. I can wait can’t I? What’s the point of this stupid, ugly bag - bought with Jimmy’s family money - if not to wait in? I’ve waited four years. What are a few hours and a broken shoulder compared to seeing Jimmy brutalised, mutilated, by the Service to fight for us? No enemies to fight, just our own past, they said. Most storms last several days now.
I suddenly remember Sheila Daniel’s little funeral on the scrub land behind the school. We all stood around and when the head teacher asked if anyone would like to say anything - none of us did. So she said that Sheila was snatched away from us all and had fought bravely to get back home but she hadn’t had a weightcoat because her family were poor. She had said we'd all promised that we would work hard, at school and at home and in our jobs, to make the world better. I wonder if she'd use the same speech for me.
I think I can see light on one side me. The fish-eye lens makes distant things difficult to make out so I stare into the dark river of wind and dust. There’s definitely a square of light there. A square with a tinge of green around the edge. Every so often something flying past in the wind eclipses the light but it’s definitely there.
Half the square seems to disappear.
Is that Mrs Osbourne’s front door or am I kidding myself? Now I can see that the dark bulk obscuring the door light is lit from behind. It’s a man and someone is shining torchlight on his back. It’s Simon Chaka Mtlbebe. He looks like he’s wearing two weightcoats. He must have got them from the neighbours. The outer one is too tight to close and he is carrying a sack of sand under each arm. Dark shadows flit by him in the storm and I whimper with fear for him. Every ten steps he bends down to the ground with the sand bags and rests between them. Racing silhouettes scud along the floor and in
the air around him. When he stands I see a rolling, folding square of night coming at him. Simon Chaka Mtlbebe will be killed. Simon Chaka Mtlbebe will be killed trying to save me.
In the turmoil to the side of him something stops the flying object dead in the air. It then gets thrown
up into the sky to be wrenched away by the storm. Simon Chaka Mtlbebe takes more steps. Upwind of him an unseen power is battering away gateposts, railings and a hail of masonry. Something is holding back hell from the struggling man. Is it God? I say a little prayer of encouragement. When the builder makes it to my weightcoat I twiddle the little periscope and shout out. I see his too-many toothed grin right by the lens and can just make out bits of him shouting -laytime –over. Time t- c-me inside.
He puts one of the sandbags down near the hood and cuts the weightcoat where it is pinned to the ground. He holds me round the waist like I was a missing bag of sand. I refuse to scream at the pain of held so tightly. We go ten paces and stop. I expect us to get up and take ten more paces but then I can hear a voice like a storm god shouting GET UP – GO ON and Simon Chaka Mtlbebe trying to move on but falling with me. The builders arm releases me and I feel the wind taking the untethered weightcoat away then a great fist clenches it at the waist and I feel myself lifted and moving very quickly.
After a few seconds the zips are being pulled open and I see Mrs Osbourne and the faces of some of the neighbours. Jimmy is blocking the half open front door looking at my face. His blue eyes are filled with tears. They sit me up and I look at him, I can’t hear his words over the wind raging faster outside. His lips seemed to say I’m sorry – back soon.
I see him moving back into the storm and it becomes clear why he couldn’t enter the house: he is using a kitchen table as shield from the debris. Bricks and timber are flying around, the storm must have torn down the houses by Pewfellows and anything else it could lay waste to. Jimmy moves into the darkness. I could die of pride. I smile at Mrs Osbourne - say something about Jimmy and pass out.
In the spare room I realise that I am looking into his blue eyes for minutes before it occurs to me I am awake and not dead. His mum is standing at the door with a tray of tea but isn’t sure whether to come in or not. Jimmy is perched on the bedside chair like an adult on a kids chair at a primary school. By the door I hear the lovely round voice of Simon Chaka Mtlbebe telling Mrs Osbourne to leave us to it. I can see her face look sideways at him and smile. Jimmy follows my gaze and gives me a slow nod. He does the best impression of a smile that his face will allow. That’s the look of someone falling in love - we both know because however much he changes Jimmy still has that look.
He picks up a newspaper and shows me the headline. There are some words in it but all I really
focus on is the number.
"150 MPH Winds Quicker Than Ever Recorded"
About the Author
Alex Weinle is the friendly arms dealer of the literary world; he has almost no respect for
genre or contemporary expectations - what he provides is explosives. His work has been
published in academic anthologies and science fiction magazines. He is a welcome outsider
flicking lit matches into the paper basket of twenty-first century fiction.