A Dealer In Hope

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared – and battle come down
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out – and draw another breath

“London calling, London calling – please respond,”

For two years and seven days this message had come through the radio. For every one of the seven hundred and thirty seven days since then it has been ignored.

Only McDermott had visited London. He’s dined out on the stories ever since. Forget a pinch of salt, you need a lorry for some of the tales he has about the great floating city of the south.

McDermott claims the city is anchored to the Big Ben clock tower. When I questioned him on how a immense raft holding eighty thousand people could be attached to a crumbling 700 year old building he just said it’s symbolic and that the city is moored all across the old city. And one is actually tethered to Big Ben.

Locals lap up his stories and he can’t get enough of the attention but I’ve seen McDermott when he’s on his own sat in his garden. He looks a different man, his hands shake and his already pallid skin looks almost transparent.

Occasionally the facade will crack. After a night on the spudwine about 8 years ago he told me about the time he was setting sail back up to Bradford laden with goods he had traded for food.

As his longboat pulled away from the floating city an immense ship hoved into view against the blood-red sky. McDermott said the ship was at least fifty metres high and rather blocky and square. He couldn’t believe it could float.

When it approached their vessel McDermott saw things on the ship that rocked him to his core.

Well, I should say he heard things initially. An incredible piercing wailing that travelled across the water to his boat. His shipmates Fallon and Harris stood at the bow with him and wondered what on earth it was.

As the square ship drew parallel to theirs the three men said the noise had become intolerable, like Halifax gunpowder oil in the ears. It was hard to keep standing and your bearings too.

When they could finally focus on the ship they could see men, or creatures to be more precise, lined up and manacled around the boat.

They had no hair or clothing and their bodies were disfigured by deformities, lumps and missing body parts. And in some cases extra body parts. McDermott saw one man with a suppurated hunchback that started at the top of his head all the way to his arse.

The man stared at him and howled, pus was dripping out of sores on his bald head and running down his malformed back. Other men had arms and facial features missing and a few literally had holes in their chests.

McDermott claimed there must have been over a thousand of these pitiful creatures onboard and they were being sailed into port by around twenty tanned-skin men wearing red Napoleon hats. As the ship sailed past the noise could still be heard for 2 hours as they headed north.

McDermott had told me the story a couple of nights after Fallon had killed himself. Suicide in the isolated towns was common enough but McDermott said Fallon had never been able to stop thinking about the noises emanating from the ship. Zombies was the word he used but these men weren’t dead. Instead they were victims of the war four hundred years ago. The offspring of radiation victims.

What kind of things were happening in London? No one within 200 kilometre knows. Centuries ago, news was available immediately. Some of the books and magazines at the library show the world as it once was. 11 billion people on earth living in great nations like the United States and China that no longer exist.

Ironically it was once thought that water shortages would be the cause of the big war but in the end it was shortage of land. As the sea levels rose and the eastern coasts of China and the US began to disappear. Eventually, and no seems to know definitively who started it, a nuclear warhead was launched and obliterated the city of Moscow in a country they called Russia.

And that was that. It was the largest war in human history and one of the shortest. The world was engulfed in flames and pandemonium and within days it was all over. The armies and the governments had been disintegrated.

Scattered populations survived the war but the planet simply kept heating up. No one knows how many people live on Earth now. Possibly a few tens of millions, maybe less than ten million.

We regressed, I can see that from the books in the library. The Burj Tower and Wembley Stadium, feats of engineering and brilliance that you don’t see now. All we see now are flood barricades. In London a city was gradually built from the materials 150 metres below the sea. McDermott said it is a wondrous sight after seeing only isolated islands as you pass what was once the Chilterns.

A land of mechanical ingenuity rising into the crimson sky and stretching out now across the old city like a tentacled, recycled monster. London has risen again, McDermott likes to say.

The total population of the five “Faraway Towns” of Northern England sits at around fifteen thousand. Bradford, Halifax, Bacup. Buxton and Sheffield and a few smaller communities in the Moors. The population is shrinking still – the unrelenting heat and poverty is too much for most people. Grafting in the fields or fishing around the polluted waters is life for virtually everyone now.

I only keep sane by reading books and believing that humans will find a way to civilisation again. Contact was lost with lawless London many decades ago. Only trading happens there now. We trade them food in return for rarer items. McDermott says that it is a dangerous place filled with rapacious, amoral thieves. Wanton violence is a plague on the city and that if he wasn’t a big strong man he wouldn’t dream of stepping on the “deck” of the city.

“London calling, London calling – please respond,”

As I have done every single day since we started receiving that message I have contemplated responding. The other members of the council urge me to reply. They have yet to supply me with a valid reason. I asked McDermott what they could want when the other members had departed.

“I’m not sure. It could be as innocent as trade contacts. Or…” his voice drifted off.

“Or what?” I replied, annoyed by McDermott’s love of dangling his knowledge on a string. My annoyance lifted though as I looked into his eyes. His eyes were moistening and his hands were trembling again.

“The people there, they…” McDermott was struggling to find the words, “they have two faces. They talk of peace but the brutality on the streets is astonishing. And when I was there, there was talk of an invasion.”

“An invasion?” I nearly fell off my stool when he said those words.

“Yeah, against the mutant men, the irradiated ones. I don’t even know where they come from, and no one there would tell me. I told you, they have two faces, they won’t help anyone. Everything has a price. Even dignity,” McDermott left the council chamber and looked close to tears.

“London calling, London calling – please respond,”

I said at the last meeting if they want to talk to the Faraway Towns they will have to get in a boat and sail up to us.

Today will be no different.

by Martin O’Brien based on London Calling by The Clash.

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