The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Providence Fell

An extract

The district I was leaving was among the city’s less decayed; indeed, from what I knew of history the area was only marginally shabbier than it had been before the Upheaval. Most of the taller buildings were empty, abandoned because of structural instability; a few derelicts might gather in the ground floors, but there were comparatively few visible rats, and most dogs worked for the watch crews. The residents were middle-ranking servants of the faith, employed in public order or in supervising reconstruction and allocating resources, or else in the inquisition bureaucracy. It was possible to walk for half an hour in almost any direction before seeing anything that would fit the popular designation of rubble, and for at least another quarter-hour before seeing anything that would fit the official designation.

I walked for twenty minutes before stopping to wait for the transport; the district was not so heavily populated that I could avoid recognition, and even the inquisition has not yet made everybody discreet. Rather than wait alone and perhaps be accosted by some companionable security risk, I joined a clump of half a dozen people who were too preoccupied with their own business to spare me more than a vaguely hostile glance. We sheltered from the rain and hail in what had once been a shop; the reconstruction squads had knocked out the glass from the display window, plastered over the small door beside it and sprayed the transport symbol onto the new surface. My companions, three adults and three children, muttered complaints at each other while the drizzle threw its stones.

The transport arrived, a rust-spattered bus which disgorged a few passengers: we were in luck. Some drivers still take on more passengers than their vehicles can seat, in violation of the order to minimise breakdowns; but compliance has increased somewhat since the notorious case of one badly overcrowded transport whose passengers proceeded to lynch the operator. It is suspected that the ringleaders are still at large.

We sat down and were jolted into motion. I took a book from my pack. I have always been an enthusiast and collector of books; it is surprising how many can still be found in readable condition, despite the massive numbers that were burned for warmth or piety in the confusion immediately following the Upheaval. My collection is small and select: I will read almost any book I find, but I keep only the intact copies, and then only if the contents are worth reading more than once.

This volume was one of my disposables, part of the lower echelon destined to be traded or, as now, employed to keep tedium at bay without absorbing my attention overmuch. The cover and the first twenty pages were missing, and others were partly unreadable because of water damage; but enough was left to entertain. It was a pedestrian tale about a pantheon of evil extraterrestrial gods, and about a secret society of scientists and tough guys who battled against them using magical talismans. Anyone with an interest in old books has encountered such tales by the dozen; they seem to have been a staple of literature before the Upheaval, or else to have been preserved in disproportionate numbers afterwards. Some people find them quite intriguing, especially the kind of scholar who flourishes in endless, complicated and fundamentally irresolvable debate over authorship and textual authenticity.

Gradually the road grew more uneven and the stops more frequent as, besides allowing people to embark and disembark, the driver halted at watchpoints to be informed of the day’s new blockages, collapses and diversions. Only one of the crews made any effort at an inspection, and that a perfunctory one: a woman in body armour climbed aboard and tramped once up and down the aisle giving everybody the parade-ground eye. Either she was looking for someone specific under the guise of a routine check, or her superiors were the kind who preferred noise to results.

After that, the character of the streets changed abruptly: the buildings were set further back from the road, and more of the taller ones had been left standing. Almost every window was black and blinded, so that the sun’s occasional dim flickers on the remnants of a pane caused obvious apprehension. I have heard that the original reason for clearing the lots nearest the road was to prevent ambush by thieves. One place we passed had almost entirely fallen in, so that nothing was visible except a few outcrops of brick rising from a rectangle of stagnant water.

There was little sign of activity, though admittedly my glances at the view were brief and intermittent. I saw occasional movements, particularly where the damage was least repaired; they could have been reconstruction crews, or children running wild or foraging, or packs of wild dogs. The man seated behind me was certain he saw a work crew, and wondered aloud why it was playing around among the ruins while the weeds were taking over near the road.

The terminus was a great grey pile, low and wide. A long queue was waiting where we stopped, and while we disembarked those at the head of it eyed us as though we had come here to spite them. This was not at all the attitude I was used to; in the district from which I had come, people who were unacquainted would avoid each other’s eyes altogether. In the Fell, I knew, the convention was different again, strangers being treated with benign indifference until their uses and weaknesses had been properly calculated.

I presented my usual papers, which identify me as a distribution operative specialising in items for the lifting of public morale. There are some, even among my colleagues, who say that working for the inquisition atrophies the sense of humour. The watch crew took the tattered pages and handed them back with barely a glance in between; there was apparently no question of searching me. Whether this was policy or incompetence I have no idea; the further one gets from the inquisition centres, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish the two.

I left the terminus and walked half a mile into Providence Fell. There is no very obvious difference between the Fell and others of the city’s more run-down districts: one finds the same boarded and sagging houses, usually with the sturdier boards torn off and utilised elsewhere; the same giant white spiders of the mobile water reserves; the same tower blocks, long gutted to greyish frames and blotched like fungus; the same rusted cars, some burned or crippled, but a surprising number still roadworthy and in full possession of their windows and even their upholstery. This is one of the ways in which the Fell differs from other non-reclaimed districts: there are plenty which hoard petrol and have working vehicles, but in most the vehicles are generally kept out of sight or under guard, except when in rapid motion.

Few other pedestrians were visible. A group of children sat on and around the piled fragments of a recently demolished wall; they were negotiating some kind of transaction, and resumed passing their merchandise from hand to hand once they saw I would not approach them. Four men stood behind a car in front of which the road had fallen in; after much mirth they pushed the car forward until the ground collapsed under it and swallowed the front end. As I walked past I could hear them arguing amiably over who should get up and jump on the car to force it further in. An old woman, feet encased in matching plastic bags from a long-extinct consumption empire, nodded and grinned at me sociably while dancing among the random blades of ruptured paving stones.

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