The heavy breathing continues behind us and I turn to the
Samaritan I’ve blasted and who is now lying supine on the stairs. Paul
joins me as we look down at the boy gasping for air. Where the bullet has
struck his neck, bubbles fizz as though he has a strawberry soda pouring
through the wound.
“Can’t be older than sixteen,” I whisper. “What have I done?”
The weapon in my hand drops to the floor, a statement of my
contempt for what I’ve become, what I am.
“What you’ve done is stay alive and that’s all we have now.”
Paul steps up to the boy and places the muzzle of the rifle against
his brow. There is no acknowledgement in the kid’s eyes, just the faraway
look of the dying.
The rifle quickens the boy’s passing with a report that is as loud as
any I have heard in the past half an hour. It is an act of mercy and an
execution blended together until it becomes one and the same.
Paul turns to me, his face grim. “We’ll drag them all out into the
street. I guess the dogs will be eating well for the next few days.”
I bow my head, not seeing anything good in his statement.
We turn a corner, there is another half a mile of High Street until
we reach the city gates, another run of storehouses. As soon as we have
walked twenty paces, we see the group of four people sitting on the
concrete ramp leading up to a warehouse.
There are three men and one woman, of mixed ages, but united by
their shaven heads and malformed hands. The fingers appear twisted, the
palms convoluted like panels of corrugated metal. One man has support
splints on his wrists, bulky leather straps keep the haphazard bracelets in
place. The four vagabonds sit and, at our approach, hold out their ruined
hands whilst the woman types slowly on her tell-pad with a zig-zagged
Good peOple! HAv meErcy at our timme of neeDD.
Alice intercedes. Her comment is brief, and I can guess it’s not
I look upon these poor souls, victims of a momentary lapse of
reason, and the long-term penalty it has incurred. It is pity that has me
pulling a wax wrapping from the folds of my gift bag and tossing it to the
woman. She has no chance of catching the alms but tries regardless, and
it hits the street, the wax paper keeping the sandwich inside it contained.
The men sit back as the woman scoops it from the concrete with the
combined mangled digits of both hands.
I feel Alice place her palm in the small of my back and urge me
You shouldn’t encourage them, Sarah. They get their daily rations,
even though they contribute nothing.
I watch as the woman opens the wrappings in her lap, the white
paper stark against the grey rags of her skirt. The men sit patiently, their
eagerness betrayed by their twitching, twisted fingers, and she portions
out the sandwich, distributing each piece like a mother feeding her young.
Once this is done, she looks up at me, a crown of stubble on her
head, face etched with the deep lines of chronic pain, and she lifts her
parody of a hand to give a wave of thanks.
Alice nods as if her worst fears have come true.
See? Now they’ll expect it every time. You’re just a big softy. It’s
my new name for you, Sarah Soft!
I smile and turn away from the group as they take comfort from
their meagre meal. The laws of Cathedral can be harsh.
But as Chapter 9 reminds us, a life without them is worse.