Firefighters - Wikipedia commons
ON A SHOUT
Part 1 of 2
Without warning William Gorton's world distorted and collapsed around him. Blinding white light instantly banished all shadows and texture. His eyes watered, and even with his lids lowered an after-image of fulgent light remained with him. The deafening noise that followed was nightmarish. Disconcertingly he could feel his whole body vibrate. Pieces of masonry and timber knocked him to the floor.
Groggy, bruised and bleeding, he lay with his legs covered by debris. His world had shrunk, had become a microcosm of pain. He coughed on blood and dust as he tried to breathe in the clogged atmosphere. He still dared not open his eyes. But he was alive! His head sang with the concussion and he could sense warm dribbles pouring out of his ears, meandering through the caked dust on his neck. The roaring of his ruptured eardrums was unceasing; no other sound impinged. But he lived! As the ground where he lay beneath the rubble stopped shaking, he did not; shock tremors persisted.
Fearfully he opened his eyes. It was like peering through gossamer. Oh, God... No amount of blinking would improve his vision. The film of frosted glass upon his eyes was there to stay, it seemed, and the realisation greatly depressed him. Still, poor sight was better than none. Later, he would shut his eyes often and wonder...
White flakes of plaster-dust floated eerily, like snow, and clogged the air. Only the chimney-wall seemed to be standing. So his home - his ground-floor bed-sitter - was n more. Neighbours were unknown to him, and some regret tinged his thoughts, for he would no longer need to 'make the effort to get to know them'.
The air was heavy with yellow smoke and was abnormally dark. With grazed and throbbing hands Gorton pushed brick and plaster off his legs. There were gaps, for he kept blacking out. Pain spread from deep gashes in thigh, shoulder, and kneecap and his multiple bruises. He throbbed all over. At last he pulled himself up and leaned against the truncated chimney. So it had finally happened; his aching legs mockingly reminded him of the protest marches, the snowballing force of public opinion behind them on the heels of the nuclear devastation in India and Pakistan. Wrong, after all... Oh, God, what did we do?
His bloodied hands trembled, veins distended; his muscles tensed as dizziness continued to wash over him in this upright position. He brushed the back of his hand against the side of his head and it came away stained dark red: his inner ear was awash, drums perforated, affecting his balance... Only with difficulty and some hidden reserve of will did he control the rising hysterical laughter; to think that he had survived the collapse of the house! Mouth clamped tightly shut, his tongue felt a tooth break loose and he almost choked, spat it out in disgust.
Beyond the ruin of his house, everywhere more resembled a surrealist painting than a suburban street. Covered with dense clouds of smoke, the sky was as dark as pitch. Under the blackness all the visible buildings for miles were on fire. As though the world itself were ablaze, flames belching from the Earth's core. At least his eyes could distinguish colours and contrasts. The sky was dark, the ground scarlet, and shimmering between hung clouds of yellowish smoke. Stark yellow, scarlet and oppressive black, through which darted black match-stick people, the whole scene like something created by the visionary Bosch.
Gorton vomited and strength drained from him. His heart pounded louder in the voided shell as he looked on what seemed to be the end of the world. Salty wetness trickled to his trembling lips as he stood unsteadily near the quite unscathed edge. The devastated Solent Conurbation was now becoming submerged in a sea of flames.
He was shaken violently from side to side and clammy sweat made his wet clothing more uncomfortable. He awoke.
'Come on, Bill!' Jacko's voice. He stopped shaking him, stepped back to finish dressing. Gorton moaned and heaved himself out of sleep. Familiar, Spartan surroundings, still viewed through gauze: cots, with bedding unkempt, damp; emulsioned walls adorned with assorted posters, a television picture with the sound turned off. And the radiators steamed where the wet clothes hung. Convenience food wrappers were screwed up on the small plastic table with an untended pack of playing cards. He closed his eyes again, briefly.
'More racist arson!' Jacko spat out and swore repeatedly. Gorton remembered thinking that Jacko's temperament was unsuited for this work; he smiled thinly. The horrible ringing was still in his ears. But of course it was not concussion this time but the fire-alarm.
The digital said 02:23. He rubbed callused palms over his lined, drawn features and through the thinning patches of grey hair. A tremor jerked his heart: small tufts of hair still fell onto his pillow.
'What about the others?' he asked Jacko, glancing up. 'We only got back from a shout thirty four minutes ago.'
'Called out.' Jacko's dark brown close-set eyes glistened; his broken nose gave an attractive lopsided aspect to otherwise harsh, rugged features. Nervously unwrapping a stick of chewing-gum, he threw the paper away in a pointless gesture of frustration. He used up too much nervous energy in futile gestures and exclamations: energy that couldn't be adequately replenished these days. For the fourth time that night, Jacko said, his voice pitched high: 'If the bells go down one more time, I'll jack it in!'
He looked like some cartoon character, his slight frame encased by a heavy and cumbersome rubber delta suit. Regulations on build had long since been placed in abeyance: the Fire Department was glad to get anyone.
Leading Fireman Gorton swung his legs round and sat up, thrust his wet stocking feet into thick rubber boots. Medicals for recruits had been abandoned, too, otherwise he would now be one of the five million jobless. And the jobless had shrunken bellies; they had too much time on their hands to brood and to hit out in a variety of ways. Arson was but one; they also escaped, by suicide.
In an effort to be rid of his traumatic memories and to shut out the insistent cold and insidious cramp, he collected his belt and equipment. He devoted his concentration to buckling on his harness with axe, revolver, mallet and knife. He ignored his friend's outburst: Jacko had always intended 'jacking it in', hence his name.
It was a bittersweet realisation: they had let him sleep the longest. Somehow, they had learned about his weaknesses, his past. Strangely, there wasn't any guilt. If they knew how he cared, how he helped... they gave no sign. Did he talk in his sleep? On return, the entire crew had fallen into a sleep of physical exhaustion in their wet clothes. Now, as always, he regretted sleeping. Painful though it was, he could contend with cramp; but nightmares were a different matter.
They met up with the others and hurried to their appliances downstairs. Jacko lagged beside him, offering moral support, for he was soon short of breath.
R.T. crackled in the cab. Reynolds, the Station Officer, was at the scene, having been waylaid on his return from another shout. Jacko belted himself in the driver's seat and snapped the torn computer printout on the dash's clipboard. Destination, a hotel in the Chinese ghetto, behind Soho... The take-away next door had been put to the torch by another racist faction. 'All aboard!' Jacko shouted unnecessarily and gunned the vehicle through the computer-controlled doorway.
Gorton was bounced along in the cab as the fire-engine raced through the streets. There was a depressing sameness about London now; long gone were the colourful clothing shops, the bazaars and amusements, the bijou cinemas and cosmopolitan restaurants. Instead, there were boarded-up shop windows and gutted ruins fenced off with barbed wire; consumer society rubbish was cast far and wide, clogging gutters and drains. Day and night, shadowy figures skulked, some misshapen through the evil agency of war, others carrying broken frames caused by malnutrition and general neglect. The few eyes that would meet Gorton's were empty, without hope or sentiment. An inhuman hardness was there; it was like looking into chilled water. People were clubbed to death for trifles and bodies lay where they had been attacked. The police and armed forces were incapable of containing street violence, even under a kind of martial law. Some three years after the end of the War, the country was moribund. The demoralised population was easy prey to any cancerous propaganda, so racism rose to terrible proportions; a cause to espouse, to foment...
Seeing these fleeting images as the vehicle hurried through the city, Gorton reflected on his good fortune to be alive, even with contamination rotting his body. Life was worth hanging onto at any cost; not for him the quiet submission, the weak acquiescence, the descent to a living death, or the final admission of failure, suicide.
Bathed in the eerie yellow light, the unkempt woman clutched a brown paper parcel to her torn clothes; her flesh on the left glowed red. She knelt, trembling uncontrollably and looked up as he trod across the rubble towards her. Bloodshot whites encircled fearfully staring irises and her mouth opened in a broken-toothed grimace. The momentary distraction was enough to loosen her grip and scorched bones fell out of the tatty bundle, some garbed in soiled baby clothes that stank terribly. She scrabbled in the dust frantically to retrieve them, her fear at his presence submerged by her insane maternal distress. She did not feel his gentle touch or his merciful blow.
Not only were his sleeping moments disturbed. She had been the first victim he had relieved. He still remembered the heart-wrenching decision, the gut-feeling after the action: he felt good, merciful. He had knelt down beside her corpse and dutifully collected the baby’s remains, placed them beside her. Unbidden, prayers tripped over his quivering lips. He had never been religious, but now prayer seemed to provide a need, to salve. In the cab he licked his lips, tasted the now familiar salt; the others, sitting beside and opposite him, ignored his tears, for they were used to his introspective periods.
Screeching round a barricaded bend, the vehicle burst through and scattered street fighters left and right. The steel-reinforced fender at the front was a potent persuader; Jacko laughed hysterically. Some fired stolen automatic weapons, but the fire-engine raced on. The siren blared stridently. The whole city was a constant noise of sirens, chafing at nerves, remarkable only when a rare lull occurred.
The conflagration was discernible two blocks away, bestowing a pale aurora upon the sky. A heat-halo from Hell, he thought sardonically. Even above the siren-wails he could hear the cries of the fire victims. Ringing in his ears. And the tears ran.
Thousands died in unbearable pain for the analgesics ran out very quickly. Often, he came across wandering survivors; vacant, insane, or simply running amok in extreme anguish, like moths about a light. Frenetic, frenzied, self-immolating.
When there were no witnesses to misunderstand his motivation, he helped to remove the pain, by taking what little life remained and it wasn’t much, usually. He spent some time trying to muster the victims’ will, to mentally subdue the agony, or he nursed them till they died of shock. Only as a last act of mercy, taken reluctantly, he told himself, did he end their soured existence. Afterwards he always felt good; but he supported profound sadness too. So much life, so much innocence: scourged.
It was little consolation now that the Limited War had been halted, miraculously, when it was feared all-out nuclear war would follow. Some sombre rejoicing took place at the announcement of the incredible climb-down from escalation. The television screens had brought all the horror and carnage home, to every country, courtesy of the satellite stations. But the rebuilding of the nation suffered more setbacks as frustration and national grief swamped people. Easy prey to those who expressed these feelings were the black, yellow and Jewish communities.
In his white bloodstained coat the young doctor wiped sweat from his glasses; absently, Gorton noticed only one lens installed. 'I can't prescribe anything for these people,' he said, frustration shading his tone. 'Profound emotional disorders aren't curable just like that,' and he tried unsuccessfully to snap his fingers. The doctor turned away, ducked into the recently erected Army tent, and left Gorton surrounded by moaning and crying, shouting and swearing: ambient suffering.
Turntable ladders and emergency tenders filled the roadway; water glistened in pools; rainbows were flaunted by oily surfaces. Searchlights illumined the buildings: a hotel of four storeys, bed-sitter buildings, boarded-up boutiques and take-away shops. Fire rages, spreading fanlike across the frontage.
Firestorms had turned the few fallout shelters into crematoria. He wandered for days before a survey team found him. Blackened match-sticks huddled in the shelter corners beside their televisions, scorched and burst canned food, their air-filtration units and bio-loos. Survivors near the edge suffered severe burns that were superimposed upon the radiation effects. Protective clothes should have been but were not comforting as the teams trod through the wasteland to make readings and leave monitoring boxes.
Many on the survey team killed themselves: the prevalent feeling was that the team members had cheated, had not shared in the torment.
Of course the fallout had spread, for miles, invisible, deadly. As time passed, deaths mounted from infection and radiation-induced disease; lack of water, of sanitation and of contaminated food compounded the death-toll.
Yes, he found much evidence that the living envied the dead. And jargon persisted, cold, divorced from reality: 'Suicides seem to be on an exponential curve, with no levelling off in sight.'
Conditions worsened as there was no way to dispose of the thousands of decomposing corpses. Epidemics spread; virulence increased as the medication was exhausted.
But that was three years ago, he reminded himself.
'Things are improving...' More specious propaganda. But surely life was worth living, regardless?
He was no longer so sure.
To be continued tomorrow…