The crush of bodies seeking shelter down in Turbine Hall drove me up to the roof for air. That’s when I saw her. Just after midnight, a girl no more than twelve emerged from the rain and stood before The Family, a bronze sculpture overlooking the Thames. Making sure she was unobserved, she climbed onto the massive abstract and disappeared through a hole between the parents, the place where the child had been knocked off. By dawn she was gone, crossing the river to forage on the far bank. Curious, I climbed onto the statue. Surprise left me confused. The hole she’d disappeared into was gone. Then I saw it. She’d fashioned a door to fit the hole. Anyone passing by would not suspect that a child was safe inside.
I slid the door off and eased into her world. The hollow space was surprisingly large and comfortable. She had books and a comb, and newspapers for a bed. On a board were sketches of faces and flowers. She even had a burner and a pot smelling of onions.
Stretching out, I drifted off. But not for long. A woman was wailing in Turbine Hall, a piercing cry that said someone close had died. A husband? A child? What did it matter? Death had been the only constant since the first influenza. On the ramp leading into the Hall, a man had hung himself from a light standard. I’d gazed at him for days, transfixed with horror and fascination as the elements consumed him, a transformation that left only the rope, still waiting, it seemed, like an invitation.
I eased out of the statue, slid the door closed, then gazed at the Thames flowing by, the incessant rain forcing it higher and higher. I pushed on, hunger driving me past derelict buildings and parks dotted with fresh graves, the morning’s forage quickly evolving into an exercise in futility. Too weak to carry on, I sank onto the rubble of St. Paul’s as the rain pounded down.
“Well, well. This must be your lucky day.”
Before me stood a beefy man in a black slicker and mismatched Wellingtons. The red armband said he was a recker, a government worker from the Ministry of Reclamation. The gun belt said he was a crew foreman, a CF for short, his ample gut evidence that he wasn’t hurting for anything. I ignored him, hoping he’d find someone younger and stronger.
“By order of the interim government,” he said, “you are hereby ordered to assist in the…”
“Thames River Reclamation Project,” I wearily replied. “Right.”
I’d been Shanghaied by these bastards before.
“What do I get in return?” I said.
“Service is compulsory,” he snapped.
“I know,” I said, playing the game. “What do I get?”
“Tin of broth.”
He produced a tin. The label clearly read beef broth.
“Show me the ends,” I said.
He obliged. I saw no resealed holes. I would’ve taken it even if it had been drained and refilled with water. Refusing to work for a recker crew guaranteed a bullet in the head.
“Shall I find another volunteer?” he said.
The warning forced me to my feet.
“The Battersea levee’s broke again,” he said, climbing behind the wheel of a flatbed truck. “Hop on.”
A recker in the passenger seat glared at me like I was the waste they’d come to collect. I got the message and struggled onto the back of the truck. The coal burning engine spewed ash as we turned endless corners. Finally, we came to a stop. I looked up, and there was The Family.
“Move it!” the CF yelled.
I climbed off the truck and wound a rusty chain around the statue, my thoughts on the child returning that night to find her home gone.
I slipped the chain over the crane hook, then stood back. The CF pulled on a lever. The statue rose off the plinth and came to rest on the back of the truck. I held out my hand for the broth.
“Hop on,” the CF ordered.
The recker in the passenger seat glared at me. I got the message, the rain chilling me to the bone as the CF leaned on the horn and scattered a group scavengers. I watched them slink away, thinking that I saw her, the child, among their destitute numbers. But I couldn’t be sure.
We arrived at Battersea just as work crews finished plugging the break in the levee with concrete slabs. A recker, a supervisor by the yellow band on his arm, gave the CF orders. We drove on, north passed the burnt-out shell of Buckingham Palace. The King had donated it to the Ministry of Hospitals before he’d left for Bermuda. Many think the influenza had broken out there. The Ministry of National Security had ordered it burned to the ground. But that didn’t stop the second influenza from wiping out half the population.
We drove on and turned into Hyde Park. The smell of sulphur told me we’d arrived at the Ministry of Metals. A guard waved us in through the gate. A second guard waved us inside the smelter. Heat from the blast furnaces washed over me like a summer day.
“Hook her up,” the CF ordered.
I pulled the crane hook down only to jump back. Peering up at me from inside the statue was the girl. Her eyes radiated fear, like an animal snared in a trap.
“What’s the hold up?” the CF barked.
Before I could reply, he was looking inside the sculpture.
“Jesus,” he swore. “They’re like cockroaches.”
He drew his pistol.
“Don’t waste a bullet,” the recker in the cab said.
He climbed out and pulled a lever back. The crane swung the statue over a vat of molten metal, the sculpture sinking lower and lower. I closed my eyes, waiting. But no scream reached my ears. No plea for mercy. No cry for mother or father. Nothing.
“You’re free to go,” the CF said.
He tossed a tin at me, then he and his partner drove off.
I lingered by the furnaces. It was the warmest I’d been in years. But then the guard ordered me out, the barrel of his gun setting me adrift once again, tin in hand. I gathered weeds, boiled them in the rich beefy broth, licked the can clean, then fell asleep inside a bronze statue tumbled over in Regent’s Park, her comb in my pocket.