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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

The Children of the City {first three chapters} a novel by Nick Sidwell {68,000 words} nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com If you like what you read here, find out more and register your support at www.ifyoulikeittakeit.com Thank you

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

CHAPTER ONE

T

here are towers. In the shadows of the towers, the city is without limit. Endlessly repeating chapters that spread forever onwards, each a different mix of buildings mapped onto a grid-network of streets. Each containing at its heart a smoking tower and positioned always three blocks south, an education centre. Only the river that meanders through the city from unknown source to unknown mouth, the hill above the marketplace and the marblewhite complex, above all the marble-white complex, are not mirrored throughout the urban sprawl. The city is without children. Except that every citizen is a child of the city. The council is the great patriarch to them all. But in the gardens of the city, in its streets, on its riverbanks, there are no sounds of childish play. The city’s largest department store is stocked full with councilapproved goods. Inside, citizens between shifts or on lunch breaks browse amongst fields of identical fashions and appliances and utensils. An inexpressive building stands next to the department store. It is education centre four. The children sit at neatly ordered rows of desks, eat at neatly ordered rows of tables and sleep in neatly ordered rows of beds. They have never seen 2


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

their parents. At birth, babies are taken from the mother to an incubator. Vast rows of new life that are then assigned to an education centre in which they grow. Families are strictly forbidden. The city is without history. Along the city’s roads, trucks rumble, laden with documents gathered from the collection bins. They are to be delivered to the storage silos and sorting office in the marble-white complex. The sorting office sluices and channels the documents into those to be archived and those to be destroyed. The written record of every life in the city is sorted. What would, if left unchecked, settle eventually into the strata of history. The council carefully cleanses history from the consciousness of the citizens. Only a little is archived. The vast majority of what comes in off the trucks is sent on to be crushed and packed, and then incinerated. History burns in the towers. The city is without crime. Guided by the council, untroubled by history, the populace identifies with the city. It is the city. It is the same vast, ordered perfection. One could no sooner commit a crime against another than he could against himself. Collectively the mind of the populace is perfect. Localised anomalies are quietly ironed out by the council and the city accepts that this is so. Individual minds can sometimes go awry, it is the way of things. But the combined mind is constant. The city believes in this faith. The city is without a true concept of the past or of the future. The city simply is. In the shadows of the towers, in the streets of the city, there is nothing but unblemished order. *

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

LAZARUS CAVE TURNED away from the twelfth-floor window where he had stood naked, watching the sun break slowly over the eastern horizon. He padded heavily across the living room, flicking the switch on the kettle as he passed the counter dividing it from the kitchenette. In the bathroom, cold linoleum stuck to his feet, still clammy from the night’s sleep. He lifted the lid of the toilet bowl and urinated loudly into the still water below. The large mirror above the bath caught his profile. He studied himself critically. At forty-seven his physical prime had long since deserted him. It showed its absence in a few extra pounds around the middle, a slight droop to the muscles around his breast and arms due to lack of use, a receding hairline which was accentuated by the way he swept his hair back and away from his forehead. The only thing moving in the whole composition was the golden stream of piss. And then that too ceased. In the bedroom the carpet was old and did not quite fit snugly to the skirting board in places. Cave took a pair of scissors from a drawer and snipped at the beginnings of a frayed edge that threatened to disturb the neat order. Outside apartment blocks rose from the carpet of the city. Above them, the towers stretched towards the sky. In the centre of the city, the tallest tower of them all from which the others radiated outwards, one in each chapter, soared heavenwards from the middle of the marble-white complex that housed the city council. Cave opened his wardrobe. Half of it was filled with freshlypressed blue shirts, the other half with crisp white ones. Below them, pairs of black trousers were arrayed on hangers. Cave selected a shirt and trousers and dressed himself. In front of the mirror on the chest he looped his tie and slid the knot precisely into place. With cream he slicked his hair back using carefully measured strokes of his comb. 4


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

Through the streets of the city citizens moved by droves as they made their way to and from work. The sky above was a pale grey in the early morning sun. The buildings were grey concrete and the murky exhaust fumes from cars filled the greyed tarmac of the roads. The people themselves were grey too. Only the brilliant white of the complex, the egg-yolk yellow sun and the thick greenery on top of the hill to the south-east broke the uniformity. Cave donned a suit jacket and carefully swept his shoulders with a lint brush. Sitting on the edge of his bed he laced his shoes. Through the bedroom window the tree moved gently in the morning breeze and beyond that stared the blank face of another apartment block. In the kitchen Cave poured water from the kettle into a mug and stirred in coffee granules, taking note of the spidery way in which they dissolved. He blew on the coffee to cool it and gulped it down, screwing his face up at the acrid taste and the fact it burnt his throat as he drank. He stepped out of the door at the front of the block and into the thrumming efficiency of the morning city. He turned right, walking in the direction of the nearest tower. An old red saloon was parked further down the street. Cave unlocked the door and climbed inside. He twisted the key in the ignition and the engine came to life. It ticked over methodically for a while as he waited for a security van to make its unhurried way down the road. The morning traffic was slow but untroubled. The masses of vehicles on the road slipped through the traffic lights, along the city’s grid of roads in a controlled formation. The morning commute was an oiled habit and Lazarus Cave relaxed in the worn leather upholstery of the car as he drove. Advertising hoardings decorated the route, huge council-sanctioned images bearing down over the citizens below. Picture-perfect products

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

and messages wallpapering the buildings and combining together to cement the existence of the utopian urban landscape. At the gated entrance to the council compound Lazarus Cave slowed to a halt, wound down the driver-side window and showed his security pass to the sentry on duty. The sentry’s eyes flicked back and forth between the ID photograph clipped to Cave’s suit and the face of the man in the car. With an apparently satisfied grunt he opened his mouth to speak and Cave noted in approval the starch in his collar, the closely shaved stubble and the neatly aligned teeth that were displayed as he drew his lips back to form the words. ‚Thank you, sir. You have a good day now.‛ Cave returned a nod of gratitude and proceeded under the rising barrier, closing the car window as he drove slowly forwards. In the vast parking lot Cave made his way towards his assigned parking bay. Other cars beetled forwards with the same measured pace. People on foot moved along marked paths. Everything migrating inwards. Cave parked up and killed the engine. It made mechanical popping sounds as it cooled rapidly in the uncommonly chill summer air. He climbed out and shut the door behind him, bracing himself against the cold. Overhead geese flew in formation, a vee of dark shapes standing out against the dull canvas of the sky. They came in from the southern edge of the complex, appearing from over the crown of the giant immutable oak that stood inside the council grounds and continuing in a straight line until they were lost behind the imposing marble façade of the Civil Security Advisory building. The throng of staff making their way towards their stations began to disintegrate as it approached the separate buildings that made up the council’s administrative body. As groups and bodies flaked off, Cave continued on past the CSA, the urban planning 6


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

department, the sorting shed and storage silos that dominated the western portion of the complex. He watched as a truck made its way from one of the silos to a chute in the side of the sorting shed. Reversing up to it, the driver raised the rear section, released the tailgate and waited as a white cascade of documents poured down into the hoppers below. To his left the monumental, monolithic tower stretched upwards like a pillar supporting the canopy of the sky, the smoke from its top seamlessly mingling with the clouds. Its shadow in the low morning sun elongated until the tip lay at the revolving glass door of the archives. Inside the archives the broad lobby was as encased in marble as the outside of the building. Cave strode across the cold floor to the bank of lifts. A tall, thick man in his fifties with a heavily developed paunch and second chin was waiting in front of them, studying the lights as they ticked along the scale of numbers above each set of double doors. He heard Cave’s footsteps echo in the marble lobby but kept his eyes focussed on the numbers until he was confident which lift was approaching next. Cave waited for the big man to position himself in front of the correct lift before he spoke. ‚Morning, Sal.‛ Sal Bernieri looked at him. ‚Morning, Larry.‛ Bernieri was a friend or the closest figure that Cave had to one in the city. He was an amiable man and his slightly lazy appearance belied a warm energy that ran deep within him. He lived a few chapters away from Lazarus, with a woman named Marge, who was herself tall, thick with a heavily developed paunch and second chin. They went well together. ‚Marge being good to you?‛ The lift arrived. Its doors slid noiselessly open and the two archivists stepped inside. Cave pressed the button for the floor below. Bernieri patted his stomach. ‚She’s up early every day. The woman knows how to cook a good breakfast.‛ He chuckled. 7


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

The doors closed and the lift descended. There were three floors of the archives above ground and a further four that stretched below. Two were full of offices. The lower two were the archives themselves, cavernous networks of rooms without apparent limit that contained within them files and documents that formed precise records on every single motion in the city. Cave had experienced Marge Bernieri’s cooking once before, a monumental portion of stew, heavy with dumplings. She had drunk wine, which was unusual for the city. Sal had a glass; Cave didn’t drink. The evening had been light and homely. They had discussed relationships, the way they coalesced around the shared faith in the city that ran through the entire populace. The faith that was at the heart of everything. Friendly hours had passed. Cave had asked if they had ever had children and Marge, who would have been talking and talking, fell silent. The Bernieris had shifted uncomfortably. Sal had explained. ‚Well, you see, truth is, Larry, we don’t know. We might have done. It doesn’t make sense from the outside – but think about it, the body, it’s the only record we really have. We know better than most perhaps, you and me. Everything else is in the archives, or burnt more likely, gone. Your hair, take your hair. It’s retreating. Soon it will be even further back.‛ He had paused for a moment then with a smile, ‚my stomach. It grows. But pregnancy is different – there’s a bump and then it’s gone. Sooner or later the extra weight goes too. Or it stays and just becomes a part of getting older. Our hips broaden with age too so that becomes inconclusive. And the memories, bit by bit the memory goes. Our pasts are so expertly cleaved away – cleaved away by us, Larry – that we only ever have the bare present. Sure we talk about the past, the future too, we have words for them. But they’re gone. And not just past but really gone, buried or burnt, either way they’re gone and everything that has been held within them goes with them.‛ He looked 8


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

strained for a moment and then his normal easy-going demeanour returned. ‚I mean, I can’t even remember how me and Marge got together. We love each other because we love the city. We know we love each other because we always have done. But was there a time when that love was growing? Or when we didn’t love each other? Or when we hadn’t met? Probably. But then it doesn’t exist anymore. Not in diaries, in photos. In memories even. So no there wasn’t. We’re Sal and Marge. The Bernieris. Same with children. Probably. But that doesn’t mean anything, not without a past, so no. Even you who knows the archives, who’s part of it all won’t understand this. But ask any couple and they’ll tell you the same. I guarantee it. But don’t ask. It’s not the done thing.‛ Cave had not stayed much longer after Sal finished. Marge Bernieri had remained muted until the goodbyes. Sal had reassured him that he had not been out of place and at work he remained warm and jovial but Cave had not been invited back again. The lift reached the lower ground floor with the softest of jolts as it came to a rest. The lift shaft opened into the middle of a long corridor filled with electric light. Several large ventilators were used to circulate fresh air around the building. Time, which registered only vaguely in the passing of seasons in the city above, in the aging of bodies, down in the archives seemed to cease all existence. Bernieri and Cave walked part of the way down the corridor and then turned right into a large open-plan office. They made their way to the far corner in front of a glass office with drawn blinds where four cubicles faced each other across low partition boards. Schmitz was already seated diagonally opposite from Cave’s desk. Donald Schmitz was a year or two younger than

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

Cave, but smaller and badly balding. The three men exchanged perfunctory greetings. It was the role of the archivists to curate the endless repository of information that was not burnt. They trawled it ceaselessly, monitoring and making sense of the city around them. On the occasions when there were irregularities in the behaviour of citizens, it was the duty of the archivists to sift through the archives, searching for the strands of information hidden in the vast records that might lead them to an understanding of this behaviour. * THE TABLE IN Landau Krauss’ office was long, rectangular and made of dark wood. Seven people sat round it. Cave, Bernieri and Schmitz had been joined by Arthur Camras, the fourth archivist. Camras was somewhere in his thirties, a thin, quiet, precise man. The four of them flanked the table. At one end sat Tess Dalton and Carlos Waites. At the other, Krauss was finishing a one-sided telephone call. The head of the archives was a heavyset man in his sixties with thick gunmetal grey hair. Imposing eyebrows sat atop thin wire-framed spectacles. The others waited for him. At last the voice on the other end of the line ceased. As he returned the telephone to its cradle, Krauss signed off, ‚yes, councillor, of course. I understand.‛ He surveyed the group. Cave could see thin lines of strain creased across his brow. The conversation with the councillor had not been a pleasant one. ‚You all know Carl.‛ As one the table inclined their heads towards Waites. ‚And Tess, these are my archivists: Sal Bernieri, Larry Cave, Don Schmitz and Arthur Camras.‛ He counted them off in turn. ‚They’ll be supplying the information you need. Tess Dalton joins us from Analysis.‛ 10


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

Analysts interpreted the banks of files held within the archives. They differed from archivists in that they modelled vast swathes of information to produce data that described the patterns and behaviours of individuals, groups, sectors, industries, companies. On their computers was a perfect deterministic representation of the city, indistinguishable from the living, breathing physical reality itself. When it came to the city, the analysts were never wrong. ‚The council is keen to see that we bring this event to a quick resolution. Carl will brief you in a moment. We know anomalies crop up. We’ve all seen them before. It’s rare. It’s even rarer on a serious scale. Mainly clerical errors; gentle hiccoughs. The council guides the people, gentlemen; sometimes there are individuals who seem intent on disrupting the harmony of the people. Carl, please.‛ Carlos Waites was head of the CSA, a hard-formed man not given to emotion. He leaned forwards and looked down the length of the table. Cave could detect the uncharacteristic nerves as he cleared his throat. ‚Landau’s right. At the CSA we deal with one or two cases a year. Mainly diarists, often loners.‛ He caught Cave’s eye and did not look away as quickly as he might have done. ‚We detect; we deal. History is just a giant river; we can see where it flows. If it stops somewhere other than us, here, in this complex we just detect and deal. Four weeks ago we ran into something,‛ he paused, searching for the right word, ‚<something. It’s an anomaly. It’s not a bureaucratic slip. We’ve had the analysts on this too and we can see the flow of history being siphoned off. But we have two problems. We’re not talking a loner here. It’s a pair. A couple. And we know that the history is being diverted into this pair. But it’s not stopping with them.‛ Camras asked the question. ‚Where’s it going?‛ ‚Have you heard of Canscot?‛ It was Tess Dalton who spoke. 11


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

Camras shook his head. He looked round at the other archivists, each of whom was doing likewise. Waites resumed. ‚Neither had we. This couple are a male and a female, cohabiting. Two days ago my agents photographed the female depositing documents in a collection bin. They’re still depositing most of their stuff. It’s an exceptionally clean flow they’re diverting, no ragged edges. Not one. No firm evidence that we can pin directly on them. It’s smart. But one of the photographs showed a letterhead in the documents bearing the name Canscot. It’s the only time the name’s appeared. We think they’re diverting everything into Canscot.‛ Bernieri raised an eyebrow. ‚You think?‛ ‚As sure as we can be.‛ ‚Why aren’t you certain? And where do we come in? Who are Canscot?‛ ‚We don’t know.‛ Carlos Waites looked at Tess Dalton who nodded confirmation. ‚My analysts have run everything we’ve got. Canscot doesn’t exist anywhere in the models.‛ Lazarus Cave spoke next. ‚You’re sure about this letterhead?‛ Tess nodded again. ‚It’s genuine. I’ve seen it. It will be in the archives this time tomorrow. There’s something out there in the city that we can’t account for at present.‛ Donald Schmitz had been sitting with his arms crossed over his chest. Now he unfolded them. ‚I can see why that would be a problem.‛ Landau Krauss leaned in. ‚The councillors are<concerned. It’s impossible for something to exist that the council knows nothing of. Everything in this city is certain. We know this.‛ He cast his right arm about himself. ‚Canscot’s in here somewhere.

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

Somewhere in these archives. You four are to trawl until you find it. Any mention of it goes straight to Tess.‛ Schmitz mulled this over. ‚Do we know why they’re doing it?‛ Waites shook his head. ‚Nothing conclusive. The CSA are monitoring them.‛ ‚Bring them in. If we know they’re doing it, we should bring them in.‛ Again Waites shook his head. ‚We can’t. They’re clean as far as withholding history goes. As I said, it’s smart. We can link them to Canscot. But we’re stuck without details on what Canscot is. We can’t bring them in for a link to something that, according to us, doesn’t exist.‛ For a few moments nobody spoke. Only the hum of the air conditioning and Cave tapping his pen on the edge of the table disturbed the silence of the office. The scale of the problem settled on the archivists. Cave stopped the tapping. ‚I don’t like this.‛ Sal Bernieri clapped a supportive hand on his shoulder. ‚Faith, Larry. The council knows everything. So we have to root it out. You heard Carlos. Detect and deal. So the detection’s a little harder here. Faith.‛ Cave didn’t respond. Instead Camras spoke next. ‚When do we report by?‛ ‚Feed anything through to the analysts as it comes up. The CSA are keeping agents on the ground. The councillors want a report with full details on Canscot by five tomorrow afternoon. We don’t have to like this. But Canscot’s somewhere in here. History is the enemy of freedom. This city is blessed because it has us to absolve it of the responsibilities that history tries to impose. We haven’t a single crime. Our citizens are perfect because, without the troublesome knowledge that history forces upon them, there is nothing else they can be. We won’t let reckless 13


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

individuals threaten this.‛ Krauss cast his eyes around the table. All apart from Cave who sat studying the tabletop, met his gaze. ‚That’s all for now. Tomorrow at five, gentlemen, I want a report on my desk that I can deliver to the councillors.‛ They all stood. Lazarus Cave was the last to rise. The news troubled him. It made him feel old. He probed his receding hairline with his fingertips as they filed out. There was urgency in the voices of the others but Cave remained silent. Bernieri laid an arm about his shoulders as they approached their desks and repeated his mantra. ‚Faith, Larry.‛ * HALF A MILE from the eastern edge of the central complex, the ground sloped up away from the tightly packed shops and stalls of the city’s main market. In the north-eastern section of the market, behind the bustling section where the butchers collected their stands, the heavy sentinel form of a tower stood at the corner of the hill. Some two hundred and sixteen steps led out of the marketplace, from near the base of the tower up to the expansive rectangular plateau at the top. Three more towers kept guard at each of the other corners, the smoke from the crowns rolling gently southwards in the early afternoon breeze. It was the lunch hour. Halfway up the steps, Cave paused for a few moments on a bench that looked out over the market. Behind him, the top of the white marble dome of the research laboratory could be seen hanging above the crest of the hill. Below, the cobbles of the broad square were busy with people. Dark grey awnings, red-and-white coverings, white tarpaulins were all hung or draped over a scaffold framework that stretched around much of the perimeter of the market. In the centre of the square, a fountain bubbled pleasantly. Set in the ground around 14


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

its edges, drainage holes took the excess water down into the vast old sewers that ran under the city. Traffic was not permitted entrance to the marketplace during business hours, but a security van slowly made its way through the crisscrossing citizens. Overheard, a cloud of white smoke from the tower behind the butchersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; corner was trundling across the sky. It began to rain as Cave walked across the top of the flat hill. Bedraggled roses with their thorns on show flanked the gravelled pathway. On the right there was a sculpture consisting of three great blocks of polished metal arranged as a corner of a cube. Up ahead, the imposing façade of the laboratory dominated through the light drizzle. There were other people up on top of the hill, couples and small parties come to visit the zoo that lay in the gardens behind the research centre. As he got closer, Cave could see raindrops hanging like limpets on the marble columns. He pulled the collar of his coat up round his neck and strode up the long, low flight of marble steps leading up to the double wooden doors that were thrown open to the inhabitants of the city. In the cavernous atrium, electric strip-lights fixed around the edges of the room made up for the wet light that was leaking in through the skylight in the top of the dome. From the inside, its enormous, smoothly curved sides and the circular pane of glass at the top made it look like a single huge eye. But if Cave was inside looking out, there was almost nothing to be seen apart from the thin tears of rain that trickled over the top of the roof. On the far side of the atrium to the broad entrance doors an exit led out to the zoo. A steady flow of people moving in both directions passed Cave standing at the top of the ramp that led down to the enclosures. He watched the bodies around him. The women in the atrium and the women in the gardens were the same. The women by the monkeys and the women by the 15


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

penguins. The men too were identical, with identical clothes and hairstyles and conversations. All perfect products of the perfect city. And everywhere women and men and no children. Cave smiled. He was a good citizen. And then he thought about his body, how it had looked in the mirror that morning and he felt again his hairline and the sensation of aging filled him so that in his mind he was a good citizen but in his heart he could feel only the strain of the steps he had climbed, the constriction of the fatty build-ups around the muscle and a beat that felt tiring and anxious. The two towers standing at the northern edge of the hill were visible through the mesh fences of the animalsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; habitats. The rain had given out to a cold, wet unseasonal wind. Endless smoke bent in the breeze and continued to be carried southwards. There was a clear view over the rooftops of the city to his right, which he turned to face. Spreading out east, tall and small buildings rose and fell like a breath to the horizon. When the sun shone, Cave could see the twisting river shining as it curved south, but now there was a only a grey smudge where the flashes of light had come from. He rarely went to the chapters that lay to the east of the hill, although he knew their roofs in detail, the chimney stacks and guttering, and they way in which they formed endless patterns that forever shifted around and surprised him, like clouds. Lazarus Cave could sense the vitality of the buildings, and in them he knew that people lived as the soul of the city; and perhaps it was a change in the wind but his mind wandered as his eyes swam along the skyline and he asked himself what the souls of the people were, and what they would look like, and where they could be found; and maybe the wind changed again and took the answer away with it, but Cave could not respond to his mind, and he would have stood a while longer musing on this but a visitor bumped sharply into him, and a crow cried its harsh caw, 16


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

and these events fixed his mind back in focus, and draw his gaze in from the western chapters; they caused him to forget about citizens and souls, and instead he apologised to the visitor who had collided with him and had now walked on, and turned his attention towards the zoo and, in particular, the rhinoceros. The enclosures of the larger animals fascinated Cave. He meandered past the giraffes and bison and great apes; each specimen was a precise living representation of the illustrations of animals that were displayed in the education centres. A bulky hippopotamus stood in its soft mud. A pile of lionesses lay slumbering near a glass viewing window where a wall provided some shelter from the wind. Another lone lioness was lookout, alert on a raised section of the enclosure, steadily watching a group of women who pressed up to the glass to look at the cats. The rhinoceros pen was as far from the research centre as the zoo stretched. The path that ran alongside it stopped abruptly at the edge of the hill and beyond it, the city continued to the north in another endless expanse of dwellings and commerce. The towers were great pillars planted into the ground around which the houses and shops and offices seemed to cluster. It looked as if they were exerting a pull over all that fell within their rotating shadows; they bound the buildings and streets and chapters together with careful precision. Without them, Cave imagined that the city and its inhabitants would simply float away, lost and directionless in an uncertain disorder. There were several bodies already neatly resting on the viewing rail that ran past the two sides of the rhinoceros enclosure that fronted on to the tarmac paths that spread like a grid through the whole zoo. On the other two sides, the rhinoceros gazed out over the edges of the hill to the north and east. Inside the habitat there was a long, low trough of food, a sort of deep pond, towards which the ground on either side sloped, 17


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

and a hut or shed towards the rear that was filled with straw and the sweet, nasty smell of a female rhinoceros not visible at this moment. There was also a rough dead stump of a tree against which the animal could scratch its tough hide. Piles of dung were scattered over the flat ground; even in cold rain they had managed to attract a few sluggish flies. Information plaques were spaced evenly along the penâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s viewing rail. Their primary subject was grazing stoically on a bale of hay by the edge of the pond. Cave sat down on a bench by the side of the tarmac path, from which he had a clear view between four bodies at the viewing rail; two couples, reading the short solid lines of information, mirror images of one another â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the man on the inside, taller than his blonde-haired partner, with his arm pushed around her shoulders. Perhaps the male and female suspects came here. Maybe they were now in the zoo, with his arm pushed around her shoulders, walking along the tarmac paths laid out in a tidy grid, carefully cutting away segments of history and cauterising the telltale wounds as they did so in order that no errant thread was left dangling which could be pulled and unravelled to reveal exactly what it was they were secreting, and exactly why. The thought troubled Lazarus Cave and he dropped his focus from the matching couples and fixed it instead on the great bulk of the rhinoceros. Its huge ruminating body was sewn into heavy folds of grey skin that rolled like great plates of armour when it moved. And when it did move, Cave wanted to feel the hill to which his bench was securely bolted shift and groan from the shock. A couple of hardy flies buzzed around its rear end, and it swung its tufted tail like a lazy whip to move them on. The enormous rump and shoulders were covered in wart-like bumps. Where its majestic horn should have sat like a crown on the end of its snout, there was instead a perfectly rounded knob, worn down over years of 18


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

tracing the same steps, over and over, on a patch of raised earth in the heart of the city. When Cave looked into the beast’s dark eyes he saw an expressionless black, and he could not tell whether the rhinoceros was looking at the grass towards which it lowered its head; at its attentive double audience at the viewing rail; at the bird that glided from the edge of the hill and into a mass of smoke from the nearby towers; or at Cave himself. Or at none of these, because Cave knew that the eyes of a rhinoceros could not see well, and maybe the taste of the grass was all there was, or the smell of the pale smoke, or the sound of the twin couples moving away, and two more stepping in to take their places. Or perhaps there was nothing but expressionless black, and the rhinoceros’ eyes simply reflected this, and the rhinoceros knew that this was the case. An old man with weathered features approached the bench and sat down next to Cave. He was wearing grey worsted trousers and a padded brown jacket, buttoned up around a woollen scarf. For a while both men watched in silence as the rhinoceros munched at the hay. Overhead the clouds began to gather in a more organised fashion, preparing for a storm. The replacement couples left, and another two arrived to fill in the gaps. The rhinoceros took two steps forward and lowered its grey mouth towards a mound of fresh hay. ‚There’s something kinda sad in that behaviour, don’t you think?‛ Cave followed the rhinoceros carefully, the lowering of the head, the movement of the jaw muscles, the shifting of the hind legs as the soft ground subsided. It was possible that the eyes of expressionless black could be the colour of sadness. ‚What else is a rhino in a pen going to do?‛ Again the twin couples standing at the viewing rail moved away and two fresh pairs slotted into place. 19


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

The old man said, ‚I wasn’t talking about the rhinoceros.‛ Lazarus Cave did not rise from his seat. He barely shifted as he switched from looking at the rhinoceros to looking at the two new couples who stood in front of the information plaques. In both cases the man was on the inside, taller than his blondehaired partner, with his arm pushed around her shoulders. Moments passed as he looked at them. ‚I should tell you I work for –‛ The old man interrupted him before he could finish. ‚Don’t tell me. If you were going to report me, or look me up, or ignore me you would have left by now.‛ Cave twisted around to see who it was he was sharing the bench with. The old man was scrutinising him already and Cave examined the weathered portrait in front of him. What little of the neck that showed over the broad scarf and the chin above it were clean-shaven. The hair on top of the head was full but white. Although the skin was aged and leathery, the face was sharp and clear. Bright blue eyes like his own stared back at him. ‚Who are you?‛ ‚What makes you think I can tell you?‛ ‚Your name? Where you work? What you do?‛ ‚Oh, I can tell you what I am. A good and true citizen, that’s what. Who I am? Other than my name? The who lies somewhere between the layers of what I am now, and what I was before that, and before that, and so on. But memories fade. I’m an old man and so my memory fades more than most. That who you ask about is whatever picture the separate whats create. But the city keeps our history, you know that, and with it, it takes away pieces of the puzzle. I know more about who that rhinoceros is than I do about myself.‛ The old man sounded neither happy nor sad as he said this, neither angry nor resigned. 20


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

‚Your name then.‛ ‚I’ve lost everything else, I’m not giving my name away too.‛ ‚All the other information, the archives hold that.‛ The old man looked at Cave and laughed. ‚You think that’s information they keep down there in their big storerooms?‛ He laughed until tears streamed from his eyes and Cave did not understand. ‚Information indeed! Those archives are nothing but a great repository of souls.‛ He got stood up and moved off without looking back, still chuckling to himself. * IT WAS PAST midnight by the time Lazarus Cave decided to leave the office. Half an hour had passed since Bernieri had left him by himself, trawling through the endless archives, hunting for a trace of Canscot. Nothing had yet been found by the archivists. He flicked the switch on the computer monitor and watched the screen disappear to a pinprick of light and then fade out from grey to black. The strip-lights in the ceiling of the office and corridors buzzed and flickered as he walked out towards the lift. Cave could hear the low rumble of the air conditioning units gulping in great mouthfuls of air to be transported through the pipes hidden in the walls to the workers below ground level. Somewhere a switch on a cycle clicked on and whatever it controlled whirred briefly. As the doors of the lift closed behind him, a water cooler around the corner gave a muffled belch. Outside the night air was clear and chill and Cave decided that he would walk home rather than drive. Yellow streetlamps cast pools of light over the cold pavements as Cave made his way westwards along the ambling boulevard of 3rd street. There were a few other citizens tramping silently along the road, thick 21


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

overcoats drawn up closely about their necks. They were shiftworkers most likely, or individuals making their way home from the bars scattered around the central chapters. The bars themselves were low-profile venues, single rooms mostly, located on the dim, narrow streets that connected together the broad carriageways such as 3rd street. An old man with sad eyes passed Cave coming round a corner at the top of one of the constricted side roads. His breath smelt of whisky and he walked with an uncomfortable stiffness in his left leg as if he had forgotten how to bend his knee. Cave could see the bar from where he had come, its murky light spilling out from small windows. They were subdued places. In the sublime idyll of life within the city, Cave felt a seam of loneliness that ran through the populace. The bars were the places of the chronically lonely. Drinks were served to citizens for whom the constant presence of the council in their lives could do nothing to fill in the disconnection that they felt from themselves. In the midst of their unquestioning satisfaction with the city, of their happy acceptance of their fealty to the council, there was a tiny barren pocket into which, in place of a concrete realisation of self, fell long nights spent circling the bottom of whisky glasses. Drinking itself was a slow and measured activity, the bars careful always to never permit a customer to depart disordered. The bars were the grey vessels into which the uncertain needs of citizens could be decanted. Cave continued homewards. He disapproved of the bars, had never set foot inside one. Any simple needs that arose within him were ably met by his determined faith in the council. In place of a vacuum, an aging belief washed through his idea of himself. The tower that stood at the end of 3rd street was a huge dark monolith keeping a quiet watch over the sleeping city. In the late afternoon its shadow stretched back down 3rd street under the 22


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

sinking sun. In the distance Cave could see the white smoke flowing from the massive tower in the centre of the council compound. Above him, the top of the nearby tower was dormant, colder and blacker even than the night sky it rose into. The flat was cold as Cave opened the front door. He set some beans on the hob and stood at the window, overlooking the city. The 3rd street tower was visible from the living room. Sparse lights in homes and offices floated like boat lights on an endless rolling ocean, curiously disembodied lives drifting through the night on the currents. Emerging from the waters, the tower was a hard emblem of the power of the council. The chessboard was in the gloom at a corner of the room that the weak bulb struggled to reach. He withdrew a crumpled envelope from his pocket. Its seal had been neatly broken and then taped back down. The tape bore the crest of the council; the correspondence of all city officials was monitored in this fashion. Cave went into the kitchen to fetch a knife with which to slit open the pre-read letter. An image of the old man by the rhinoceros enclosure idly entered his mind and paused there for a moment as he wondered what the monitors would do if they knew that he had failed to report the conversation. The reflection dissolved back in the lounge as he slipped the tip of the knife under the corner of the envelope and cut along the sealed edge. Inside a tatty piece of paper which had in black ink the stamp of the censorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s office revealed the move he was to play out on the chessboard. Cave picked up blackâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s defensive bishop and placed it where instructed. The air by the window was cold through the single pane of glass. Cave sat at the small chess table and rubbed his hands to keep warm. He stared at the board for a few minutes, attempting to decipher the moveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s coded intentions, before giving up on the task.

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He ate the beans. When he had finished, he meticulously washed both saucepan and crockery. After a while he moved away towards the bedroom where a small oil-burning heater offered greater comfort. A milky patch of moonlight fell across the pillow on Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s bed. It was the only source of light in the room. The apartment block that sat across from his window was poker-faced in the dark. Grey-black shrubs waved in a night-time breeze around the base of a large tree, smudged against its gloomy backdrop so that its outline was sometimes here, sometimes there and never definable. Cave picked a framed photograph up off the chest and lay with his head on the pillow and the picture angled towards the moonlight. There was a man and a woman in the photograph, they stood with their arms around each other, smiling from behind the brittle protective glass of the frame. The expression in the eyes was hard to decipher in the dim haze of the moonlight. It looked like pride, or something that was supposed to look like pride. Perhaps it was not even that; it seemed more like something that was supposed to look like something that was supposed to look like pride. Like an image run through a photocopier a hundred times. A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Of a copy. Cave carefully removed the back of the frame and lifted the photograph of his parents out so he could see it without the reflections of his own face caused by the glass. Exposed, their eyes seemed to change so the expression that was pride or something like it before, slid into love, then reproach, then command, before coming to rest in a distance that was almost so removed as to be less expression and more just a snapshot of a pose by two figures so perfunctory as to be without a soul. On the reverse side the photograph bore the printed logo of the city council. Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s parents were the parents of thousands of other citizens. Identical 24


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

framed photographs were displayed in countless homes, copies of that ambiguous expression staring out at the children of the city. Rain started to fall outside again. Thick, heavy drops that soaked the air and pinged off the metal stairs of the fire escape that zigzagged down the back wall of the apartment block. Cave lay on his single bed, listening to the notes they struck as they did so. The light in the bedroom was turned off but the curtains were undrawn and Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s eyes were open. The head of the bed was positioned by the sash window and he could see out over the back of the adjacent apartment block on 43rd street. In the night it was like a tall, dark face that gave nothing away. A light switched on in one of the windows. The curtains were drawn but badly, and Cave could see a metre or two of floor space inside the flat. From his vantage point he was marginally above it, but not by much. Cave lay where he was but kept his eyes fixed on the gap in the drapes, waiting for a body to cross into the unguarded light. When she did, he smiled to see her again. The gap between the two buildings stretched about sixty feet and the distortion created by the viewing angle made it hard to determine her features. She had red hair, shoulder-length and cut straight. Her posture and gait suggested somebody slightly younger than him. Without ever deliberately keeping a watch for her, Cave enjoyed her intermittent appearances. He had seen her once or twice walking down the strip of road he could see between his apartment block and hers. Most often though he came across her like this, at irregular times when her window would shine out of the sleeping array around it. Her appearance now both did and did not surprise him. Lying in the narrow dark he allowed himself to briefly love the unpredictability of her habits. Of course she worked in a job that involved shifts which, although apparently here and there, were laid out as any other by 25


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

the council. The light in her living room window in the early hours of the morning was, had Cave known everything, to be utterly expected. But still he could not help himself but watch her until the apartment again fell dark. And when it did, he dreamt that her hair floated in the space between their buildings, and that he could irresistibly elongate his hand to reach out across the gap, and that his fingers could run gently through her red tresses with a touch that only dreamers could feel.

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

CHAPTER TWO

I

t is gone four in the morning. Lazarus Cave sits on the edge of his bed, his back curved and shoulders hunched forwards. He is wearing a white vest and undershorts, the same garments that he wears during the day under his neatly pressed shirt and trousers. He has his socks on against the cold, the oil-burner having long burnt out. The photograph and frame lie unassembled on the floor by his feet. In the kitchen, dressed for work, Cave rests against the work surface eating pineapple rings from the tin and drinking supermarket coffee brewed from a jar with a po-faced brown label. Dawn is still several hours off as he closes the front door behind him and walks down the central stairwell, cold footsteps echoing off the dull walls. * THE AIR DOWN by the river where it curved westwards after passing the southern slope of the hill topped by the grand research centre was distinguishable from the rest of the city by its smell. Market scents drifted down during the day and hung around before mixing with those than floated north from a sugar 27


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

refinery located somewhere in the chapters down that way. The resultant subtle tang seemed to permeate the water itself as it flowed slowly by. It was on these banks that Cave stood, leaning over the railings that edged the towpath and into the tarnished silver of the river below. Inside the council compound he had seen the hellish glow of the furnace in the base of the massive tower, the cityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s icon. It burnt constantly, reducing records by the tonne into rolling, voiceless clouds of smoke. They too sometimes blew southeast to add an extra tinge to the riverâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s odour. Although it was barely past five in the morning, there had been the stirrings of activity already in the market square. Butchers and grocers were unpacking tables in preparation for the vans that would shortly arrive to deliver fresh produce. Cave had crossed its expansive cobbles, ignoring the sounds of traders, heading without really knowing why towards the oil slick of the river. Thickly the water passed by under his gaze. Colours without origin danced across its surface as stodgy wavelets broke and fell. Above, the clear sky allowed the moonlight to coat the river in its milky luminescence. A long time ago he had seen a body floating by. It was an animal of some form and the water moved quickly then as if trying to pick it up and hurry its indecence away. Now it trundled almost listlessly, washing the city of its history, the constant surface over the currents below. Cave shuddered. He turned and made his way back across the market place where the exhaust fumes of the first delivery vans condensed rapidly in the cold air. He thought about Canscot as he passed the fishmonger who was unpacking insulated boxes, arranging the fish inside on the trays full of ice that covered his stall. How could the records of a whole company slip undetected through the supposedly infallible grasp of the council and its 28


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

many departments? It should not have been possible. Nothing like this should be able to happen. Every strand of activity within the city was bound together in an enormous web that like a spider’s, reverberated to a hundred million frequencies, each tremor telling of a single moment in the minutiae of urban existence. The city was both the cause and effect of everything that transpired within it and the council, like the spider, sat in the centre, interpreting the endless signals, regulating where necessary, sometimes here, sometimes there, and governing, overseeing, administrating. Omniscient and omnipotent, they maintained the perfect order of life within the city. The council could not be broken, and as he braced himself against the stiff southerly wind Cave found this fact supportive. But the anomaly of Canscot complicated matters. Cave ran his fingers along his hairline as he thought. This was something altogether different. It suggested the possibility that there had occurred an error or a loophole somewhere inside the flawless system. Refusal to cede records was an obstinacy of will that ignorantly sought in the individual the security and peace that only the council could provide. However, the existence of a company that did not according to record exist, that in the reality of the city did not exist was uncomfortable, insidious. Destructive. A little way from the Council complex, he nearly collided with Bernieri as he rounded the corner of 3rd street and 22nd. Cave’s face was slightly flushed, the wet air by the river and the cold of the early morning giving his cheeks a ruddiness that brisk walking had accentuated. The presence of Bernieri had surprised him. It was still not yet six o’clock and he had not expected to encounter any of the other archivists until later on. Sal Bernieri’s appearance had intruded into the gentle turmoil that had been his reflection upon the implications of the case they were handling. Cave did not want to seem flustered in front of his colleague, but 29


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

it took him a moment or two to compose himself and partition and calm his thoughts. ‚Sal<sorry about that. Up early this morning.‛ ‚Morning Larry. Krauss’ deadline. I get the feeling we’ve got our work cut out with this Canscot business.‛ Cave acknowledged his agreement with a murmur and the two men fell into step together as they resumed walking in the direction of the complex. For a while neither spoke. The silence suited Cave. His heart was still beating fast, as if Bernieri had glimpsed something private that he wished to cover up and sweep quietly away. He made no effort to provoke a conversation. 22nd street was a long road, but not an interesting one. The two archivists were travelling northwards up its expressionless pavements. There were no shops or restaurants around here, just high-rise blocks of apartments and offices crowded together in an endless strip along both sides of the road. They rose so high that in the morning and afternoon they blocked the low-lying sun and in the winter they turned 22nd street into a zone of almost perpetual dawn and dusk. At one point they passed an open manhole cover. Cave looked down into a big pipe, almost a tunnel, easily big enough for a crouching man. Along its curved base he saw flickers of light and could hear the sound of the sewer draining down towards the river. As early as it was now, a regular flow of cars moved quickly in both directions, taking advantage of the lack of cosmopolitan bustle to bypass the more congested roads that lay to the west. Over the archivists’ shoulders at the distant end of the road another monolithic tower was planted firmly in the ground like a great, ageless tree, its roots drawing the sustenance from the urban sprawl surrounding it. About half a mile ahead of them the road curved down for some distance so that where before there 30


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

had been endless facades of grey buildings, there was instead a patch of grey sky, illuminated by streetlamps and framed by the last apartment blocks before the dip and so uniform of colour and rectangular in shape it looked as though someone had cut it from a patch of felt and stuck it there as drab decoration. Shortly before the road descended, Bernieri and Cave turned right. Not far down the road, shining like a great white crown amid the absence of colour they could see the south-western corner of the marble wall surrounding the council buildings. They were close now, barely more than ten more minutes walk until they would enter the atrium of the archive house, at which point the silence and all it portended would be lifted by the promise of fresh investigation into the case. New priorities would arrive in both their minds and maybe this ugly walk they were sharing would be forgotten. Perhaps, thought, Cave, they could make it to those doors, he could place his foot into the sanctuary within without having to speak. However, the hope, if seriously entertained, was soon dashed. They had advanced only a short way along the street when Bernieri finally broke the silence that had sat between the two men. The question, innocuous, polite, appeared to Cave to be an affront to the tacit pact of silence he imagined them to have entered. ‚What brings you over this way, Larry? Your flat’s over that way isn’t it?‛ Bernieri indicated with his thumb a location roughly to their left and behind them, the opposite direction from which they had come. Cave looked at his companion, unable to hide the indignation that Bernieri had thought to disturb the equilibrium with such an ordinary question. Indeed, it was hardly a question, more a statement. Lazarus Cave knew that Sal Bernieri was perfectly aware of the address of his apartment. The inflection he raised in his voice at the end of the second sentence was little 31


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

more than a creature of habit. It provoked within him an irrational passing impulse that Bernieri had somehow some how wasted the silence, that this was an act of treachery. All this passed through Cave’s mind so swiftly he could not consciously separate one strand of thought from another. Likewise a quiver of emotion, a certain tightening of his expression that he could not resist, passed across his face without his full awareness. And Bernieri, although not able to extrapolate from what he saw as a momentary grimace a robust spectrum of emotions, nevertheless discerned in Cave’s face a fleeting sense of discomfort. ‚Trouble sleeping,‛ he answered after a pause. A sudden gust of cold air, wet with the possibility of an encroaching fog that smelt of the river made both men shiver. Cave sniffed. His throat was dry and he coughed loudly into a handkerchief with which he then blew his nose. ‚Is everything okay?‛ Again Cave felt the pressing intonation of Bernieri’s question, as if he was either stressing the validity of a pointless query or in some way wedging the question home so its roots took hold under Cave’s skin as it burrowed towards a core of truth. Lazarus looked up at him. He brought an awkward smile to his lips and fought the urge to cough with a weak, tenuous laugh. ‚Can’t you feel it too?‛ For a moment Sal Bernieri could not determine whether his colleague was referring to the bitter chill in the morning air or something else. ‚We’ll be there soon,‛ he replied, indicating the entrance to the archives with a wave of his hand. By now the two men had entered the compound and were crossing the parking lot. Before Cave could acknowledge this latest piece of commentary Bernieri continued. ‚Canscot’s nothing to worry about.‛

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Cave started, his head jerked round in surprise. ‚I never said it was,‛ he responded with a nearly stumbled immediacy. They reached the edge of the car park and followed the footpath for the short curved walk to the main doors of the archives. Bernieri stopped for a moment with his hand on the door. He ignored Cave’s defensiveness. ‚We’ll have Canscot by the close of the day,‛ Bernieri laughed, ‚how do they think they can possibly succeed when this is all here?‛ With his eyes he indicated the endless solid walls of white marble all around them. As Cave followed him through the open door a torrent of rain came tumbling down from the dawn sky. Two drops of water, thick, heavy and cold caught Cave at the point where his coat collar parted slightly from his neck and they trickled uncomfortably down his back. * LANDAU KRAUSS SAT behind the closed door of his office. His telephone rang intermittently, sharp peals that he cut off on the third bell by lifting the receiver cautiously from its cradle. Most of the time it was Tess Dalton, either calling with updates from the analysts, or else requesting them from himself. Once it was the councillor. Through the partially closed shutters that covered the large glass windows, he could see Camras, Schmitz, Cave and Bernieri hard at work. Progress for the archivists was frustrating. It was approaching midday. They had run and re-run countless data sets. Vast swathes of the digital archives had been crossreferenced and there was not a single fleeting mention of Canscot anywhere in the mix. There was a clock hung behind Schmitz, directly in Cave’s line of view. He glanced up at it. The minute hand seemed to be 33


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

speeding round far too fast. Already midday had advanced upon them, and soon it would be past and they would begin eating up the afternoon. He stared back at his computer screen, flicking rapidly, randomly through programs, scanning for a link or a connection or a pairing that had been missed. Nothing. ‚I don’t understand it, this shouldn’t be possible.‛ Donald Schmitz responded to Cave, ‚It isn’t possible.‛ ‚Then why can’t we find a single mention of Canscot anywhere? There’s nothing here.‛ ‚If we haven’t found anything yet, it’s because we’re not looking hard enough, or in the right way. We’ve got a huge amount of haystack to shift before we can find our needle.‛ ‚Don’s right, Larry, you know that.‛ Camras nodded in agreement with Sal Bernieri’s words. Bernieri continued, ‚we know the system’s perfect. It’s everywhere, here, in this office, throughout the building, outside in the streets and the houses and smoke that comes from the tops of the towers.‛ ‚Every bit of that is based on our belief that the needle is in the haystack, somewhere. There’s a heck of a lot hinging on that faith.‛ ‚Faith’s got nothing to do with it, Larry,‛ interjected Camras, ‚that needle’s fact.‛ He gestured broadly around himself, ‚and we’re sitting in the middle of the bloody haystack.‛ Cave pushed his chair back from his computer and stood up. ‚Arthur, you’re right. You too Donald, of course. I don’t know<I’m going to clear my head.‛ As he strode out of the door, Krauss emerged briefly from his office. ‚Everything alright out here?‛ Camras and Schmitz exchanged brief glances. Bernieri inclined his head to the affirmative, ‚we’re working on it.‛

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

* LAZARUS TOOK THE lift up two floors, stepped through the spacious lobby and out through the main doors. The air outside smelt dank and used. Clouds were darkening overhead, heavy with the promise of rain. He wandered, subdued to the edge of the parking lot and stared at the city that grew up before him. For a while he rested on the hinged barrier that was across the entrance. It sank down a little under his weight and when he shifted his feet it creaked. The city was endless, a vast sprawling ocean with edges as seemingly flexible and impossible to define as the sea itself. At unfailing intervals the towers emerged from the teeming hubbub of buildings and people. Effortless, emotionless, they were the calm symbols of the council’s unassuming, absolute power. It was the towers, the massive furnaces within them, that performed the essential maintenance of the city, executing the council’s binding edict that compelled the citizens to scrub history from their lives. Every single minute cog of the city rested in a sublimely constructed system atop the twin facts of the council and the towers. A little way behind him, the massive unceasing tower housed within the complex grew upwards so that its dark grey smoke mingled with the clouds and it looked as if the weather itself was coming out of its crown. It was emblematic of the entire city, the embodiment of everything Cave believed in. Profoundly. But now, leaning on the entrance barrier, he was trying to suppress a tangible sense of doubt. Beneath the uncharacteristically blank eyes, he was wrestling with a hesitation that was needling him, constantly, carefully staying out of reach of the established fingers that sought to wring its neck. Of course Canscot would be found. If it wasn’t, it threatened everything.

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Drops of frozen rain started to fall. A chill wind whistling down from the north made him shiver. Cave turned back towards the archive building. He reached the impassive glass entrance doors as the sleet began to come down faster. Pushing through them, his troubled reflection stared back at him, seeming to ask the question of why was this affecting him so? The other three archivists searched on through the banks of data, supported by their steadfast faith in the world around them. For the briefest of moments Cave thought he saw another reflection standing behind his shoulder. The red hair of the woman he could see from his window seemed to be fleetingly caught in the glass but looking backwards, all he could see was the miserable weather outside with no one around. In the elevator riding back towards the lower second floor Cave checked his watch. Half past twelve. He had been long enough outside; he ought to be heading back to his desk to resume the task in hand. But if the fresh air was supposed to blow the doubts from his mind, it had done little but whip his thoughts into further disorder. His own irresolution bothered him now nearly as much as Canscot itself did. The whole fact of his discomfort was edging towards assuming its own identity. With a low chime, the lift reached its destination and bumped to a halt. The twin sets of doors slid open with a quiet hiss and the carpeted corridors and yellow lights overhead waited for Lazarus Cave to emerge. Inside the lift, backed into the far corner by the control panel, Cave stood motionless. Quietly the doors closed shut. He reached out and pushed the button to take the elevator down two more floors to the lower fourth. In the shaft that stretched the full way to the top of the building cables creaked and gently lowered him downwards. Stepping out into the elevator lobby, the familiar noise of the air conditioning unit hummed slightly clearer than it did higher 36


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

up. Oddly the air down here, even further from the surface, tasted cleaner, fresher, less recycled. Cave inhaled deeply and looked around. It was clear from the two healthy looking plants standing in deep ceramic pots on the floor that people came down here regularly. There was little other sign of active life, however. A long, straight passage led away from the lifts, bathed in crisp electric light. About halfway down there was a small door set into the left-hand wall, a janitor’s closet perhaps. Cave walked past this without a second glance and continued firmly on towards the double doors at the end of the corridor. Made of dark, heavy wood they were an incongruous addition to the vast marble building with its glass fixtures. Behind them was a section of the archives that lay largely ignored, dormant files stored on great racks of shelves neither part of the city’s record keeping nor consigned to burning in the furnace of one of the towers. They were both part and not part of history. Housed within the archives, they were considered little more than clerical errors. Although carefully categorised and kept, they were not incorporated into the data bank that serviced the analytical department. Included amongst them were official forms that had been spoiled in some way, incomplete formal documents – anomalies that would disrupt or distort the data stream that the archives fed to the analysts. Also retained in the innumerable piles of defunct documents were extinct records, shapeless information that did not appear to form part of the recognisable boundaries laid down by the council, that for some lost reason were kept here amongst the city’s apocrypha rather than having been reduced to ash. Cave walked down one of the vast banks, running his fingertips along the riveted metal shelving. There was not a speck of dust on them. He was not at all sure what he would find down here. Stretching high up towards the ceiling, rows of boxes 37


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

impassively filled all the space. Affixed to each box was a log of its contents. There was no computer system for all this grey data. Nothing stored in this spotless room had any counterpart in the living, breathing streets of the city above. Canscot should not, therefore, be found in here – the letterhead was a tiny, undeniable proof of its reality. Its authenticity had been determined by the CSA immediately on discovery. Company goods could not be obtained without a business registration document held on the civic records. CSA agents had simply cross-checked the transaction between Canscot and the printing firm that had supplied the stationery and confirmed that proper procedures had been followed. It was proof from the system itself that the system was functioning correctly. Cave walked along the aisles, searching for the section containing commercial business papers. Being in this dead archive troubled him. The evidence provided by the CSA showed it was undeniable fact that any details relating to the nature and activities of Canscot were to found within the city’s official documented records. It was fundamentally impossible that it should not be. Bernieri, Camras and Schmitz believed as much. Krauss did too, presumably, and Tess Dalton also. Everybody, in fact, allied their faith with the city’s voice, and in turn that voice, and the vocal chords of the council that spoke it, demanded, needed the absolute conviction of its enforcers, its amplifiers. It was dangerous for Cave to be down here, doubting. But doubting what? The city? Himself? Cave found the section he was looking for at last and began to scan the catalogued contents of each box, searching through the alphabetical listings. He would not – did not – think it possible to fully divide himself from the machinery of the city. It was impossible that there should be any trace of Canscot in any of these files, but he had to see for sure, as his click of his shoes on the cold, hard floor echoed 38


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

with each step drawing him progressively down the alphabet, through A and now onto B, he was driven on by the awful compulsion to see for himself the state of things. Reaching the files marked with a C Cave slowed his step, reading each index with care. His heart slowed too, deep, paced beats in his chest, hardly daring to break the controlled hope he maintained that ‘Canscot’ would not appear on one of the labels in a neat, formal typewritten font. * KRAUSS SAT BEHIND his desk, rolling a pen around and around in his fingers, irritated. Outside he could see Sal, Donald and Arthur hard at work, glued to their computer screens. Where the hell was Lazarus Cave? It was gone four o’clock. The deadline was approaching. So far his archivists had produced nothing. In hours of searching they had failed to turn over a single lead in the endless sea of information. And his best archivist was missing, vanished, and not responding to his pager. The telephone rang. Krauss picked it eagerly off its hook, hoping it would be Cave calling in with revelatory news that would explain his absence. He was disappointed. At the other end of the line Tess Dalton’s fraught voice asked him if there had been any developments. Krauss shook his head, struggling to bring the words out for fear of what they might mean if by five he and Dalton could still not deliver a definitive response to the council. ‚None at all,‛ he said in a carefully measured voice, and carefully lowered the receiver back down, severing the line without waiting for a response from the analytical department. Cave gone, answers unforthcoming, and this relentless Canscot problem at the heart of it all. He leaned back in his chair and turned his face up towards the ceiling.

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Krauss was still sat like this when the door to his office opened unceremoniously. Cave strode in, tossed a thin, buffcoloured file across the desk and turned straight back out without a word. Krauss moved to call after him but the name on the file caught his attention. In unmistakeable black type across the ID tag were the words, ‘Canscot: extinct’. He pulled the folder open. Inside was a solitary two-part business registration form. Registering a company with the council was an uncomplicated process administered by the council’s business and enterprise arm. The elegant simplicity of the requirements was supposedly the safeguard for the system against abuse. Part one of the form was both application and primary registration. The business applicant completed it, the authorities ran corroboratory checks on the information provided, assessed the application and logged it onto the public record, a process which took about a week. There were then four days for notice of ratification to be dispatched to the applicant, and for the applicant to return part two of the form, the acknowledgement of ratification and acceptance of the conditions under which businesses were permitted to operate within the city. Within those four days, the new business was permitted to conduct a limited range of operations, all restrictions being lifted upon return of the part two. Any failure to properly submit part two within those four days would lead to the voiding of the original application and the removal of the company from any records. The two-part business registration form was then filed in the extinct archive as incomplete paperwork, the company named upon it becoming termed an extinct business. Krauss scanned the topmost sheet in the file. Red capital letters inked the word ‘Void’ over each sub-section, but clearly legible underneath it were the names of the two suspects and an application for an enterprise named Canscot. The form was dated 40


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

eighteen months previously. He hurriedly turned over to the second part. As he expected it was totally blank except for a single diagonal line that had been struck through it and the several Voids stamped on top. Trying to understand what this might mean, Krauss remembered the CSA confirmation for the order of the letterheads. He had a copy in his desk drawer and he grabbed for it impatiently. The voided business form was a rarity, but Krauss knew that in such an unlikely event strict protocols were followed to ensure that no unattributed transactions from the four-day interim period were left floating through the city’s records. Quickly he read through the CSA material. At the bottom of the transaction page in a small, innocuous detail he found the answer – a request to delay the processing of an order for one batch of letterheads for a week. Anger rose within him. Official letterheads allowed them to acquire information via a non-existent company; as soon as something became Canscot’s, it vanished from the city. He thumped his fist down on top of the document lying in front of him. Again the telephone went, its shrill tone piercing his rage. It was the councillor requesting news as the deadline approached. Krauss took a deep breath to calm himself and delivered a single line: ‚We’ve got them.‛ * IT WAS FOUR THIRTY-SEVEN when Landau Krauss emerged from his office. After speaking to the councillor, he had informed both Tess Dalton and Carlos Waites at the CSA of the breakthrough. Lazarus Cave was sitting in his chair, staring vacantly at his monitor. He had been utterly unresponsive to the queries of the other three archivists upon his return and with no knowledge of 41


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

what Cave had discovered, they continued their fruitless searches for listings relating to Canscot in the official archive. Cave hardly heard as Krauss broke the news, the words of relief, of congratulation directed at him, of reinvigorated confidence. Bernieri raised an eyebrow in askance towards the impassive Cave before joining Schmitz and Camras in celebration. Cave looked up at his colleagues. Cheering, backslapping, their faces were flushed with the knowledge that they once again had the upper hand against the two otherwise ordinary citizens suspected of storing history, of providing themselves with the potential to construct a narrative, a story at odds with the absolute unity preached by the council. Belief coursed through the archivists, Cave could feel it fill the office. And in the centre of it there was something missing. He could not connect with the emotion that buoyed the others. Rather, he could not fathom the enormity what he did feel. It struck him in the pit of his stomach where it felt as though the bottom had been removed and now he stood on the edge, too afraid to look in, too uncertain of what to expect. Cave excused himself to the toilets, complaining of feeling unwell. Safely inside the bathroom, shut away from the sounds of affirmation ringing through the archivists, he gave himself over to the nervous panic within him. Shutting himself in a cubicle, he let his heart thump fast and loud against his breast. Slowly it calmed down. He sank onto the seat of the pan, loosening his tie. A cold sweat had broken out over his body, he could feel it beading on his brow. Minutes passed, he couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t tell how many. In clothes creased from the efforts of the day, Cave sat in a crumpled heap inside the cubicle, almost motionless. After a while longer the door opened and footsteps entered onto the tiled floor.

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‚Larry? You in here?‛ It was Bernieri’s voice. Cave’s feet were visible in the gap below the door, Bernieri wasted no time knocking on the right cubicle. ‚What’s up with you, man? You’ve just saved our asses out there.‛ Bernieri could hear movement behind the door. The toilet seat clanked as Cave stood up. He exited the cubicle, flattening his suit with his hands and look squarely at Sal Bernieri. ‚That file should never have been in there, Sal, you know that.‛ ‚What are you on about? If it hadn’t been, we would’ve been totally screwed. C’mon, we were turning nothing up from the regular archive. It was inspiration itself to go looking there.‛ ‚Do you hear what you’re saying, Sal? That’s just it, we had nothing from the archives. We had nothing because there was nothing – but we didn’t know that, we were sure there was something.‛ ‚And you found it Larry, which is why everybody outside is so pleased. And you’re locking yourself in toilets, what’s going on Larry?‛ ‚Don’t you see, Sal, I went to the extinct archive to not find that file. It couldn’t have been there. When I saw it I just wanted to rip it up, scrub it out<something. Anything but the fact it was there.‛ ‚What are you on about? It being there has given us the concrete link between Canscot and the people out there who are trying to disrupt the very things this city stands for.‛ ‚But it can’t be concrete, Sal. It is and it can’t be. If it’s concrete, it means Canscot’s real, in some way it’s real<but that file was in the extinct collection. Canscot should be an extinct company, non-existant, nothing there. It’s concrete enough though, isn’t it? It’s out there, in the city, but it’s just not part of the reality that we create and stick by. It’s a ghost, Sal, the whole 43


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

thing’s a ghost and there’s nothing, nothing in the archives, in the council, in the whole damn system that should allow a ghost to be possible.‛ ‚Larry, you’ve got to calm down. It’s underhand trickery by enemies of the city. It’s designed to do this, to get to you. You’ve just gotta relax about it.‛ ‚Whatever, Sal – it shouldn’t be possible. The city’s meant to be infallible, Sal, that’s what we believe<it shouldn’t be possible.‛ Cave paused for a moment, deflated, exhausted by the effort taken to force out thoughts he had not even admitted to himself. He looked down at his shoes and scuffed a toe idly along the restroom floor. ‚I’m going home, Sal, I need to get out to the air. I’ll see you tomorrow.‛ ‚You’ll feel better in the morning, Larry. Get some rest, you’re tired, emotional – we all are. Get some rest, you’ll come round to what I’m saying in the morning.‛ Cave looked at Bernieri’s face, saw the undiminished fervour in his eyes, felt the conviction in his words. ‚Maybe Sal, we’ll see tomorrow.‛ He walked towards the bathroom door, pushed through it and let it swing shut behind him. Bernieri watched him go. * THERE ARE TOWERS. They represent perfect, unadulterated, unthinking order. Beneath the towers, in the streets of the city, walks Lazarus Cave. It is early evening. The sky is a dull gunmetal grey, the colour of mercury. These are the last fingers of sunlight, somehow hanging onto the city’s skyline although the sun set over an hour 44


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

ago. Darkness is closing in and Cave is making his way home towards his single apartment. In the streets of perfect order, while citizens with beatific smiles pass hurriedly by, Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s mind is in total chaos. * ON ARRIVAL AT his flat, it was not yet late enough for the temperature in the main room to have dropped to the chill normally induced by the large windows and Cave switched the heaters on in order to conserve the warmth for a while. Sitting at the small chess table, Cave could still not work out the intentions of the recently moved black bishop. The mug of fresh coffee grew steadily colder while he stared at the pieces on the board. There were still avenues open to him that an aggressive rook or knight might exploit but in each potential scenario he could not account for the plans of the bishop. He examined his own dissimilar bishops, one poorly placed and out of position as it was. They were of broadly matching dimensions, but where they should have had precisely corresponding features to become a pair, they did not. This oneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s mitre was higher and more pointed that that oneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s; one was a chiselled white plastic, the other was plastic also but faded and yellow like old enamel. But they did work; they worked as a pair, lines of an unseen field holding them together in relation to one another as they swept across the board in disparate diagonals. He had expounded this field theory once to Camras, himself an occasional chess player. Mutual lines connecting like pieces, obviously apparent in the subsequent loss of efficacy of one bishop or knight or rook if the other should be felled. Arthur Camras had nodded sympathetically then as he finished summarising his idea, chuckled and dismissed the notion. 45


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

But still none of this helped. Cave reached for the coffee, drank from the cup and cringed at the cold bitterness of the milky brew. Resignedly he got up without having moved a piece, the black bishop sitting smugly in its strange square. He poured the coffee down the sink. It was early still, not yet nine o’clock and he had not eaten, but he was tired and the thought of food after the tumultuous day did not come as an appetising one. Turning off the main lights he went through to the bedroom where the oil burner hummed pleasantly. Once in bed, sleep did not come swiftly or easily. He lay for a while, ten minutes maybe – thirty? An hour? – studying the ceiling with unresting eyes. When at last his lids did begin to close, Cave’s slumber was fractured and unsettling. Tossing and turning, in a half-daze he thought he saw a light come on in the next apartment block, but he couldn’t tell whether it belonged to the woman with red hair or not. He tried to force himself awake to identify it, but his mind was so heavy that he could fix only the floor it was on or the number of windows it was in from the edge, but never both at the same time, and as soon as he did have one coordinate, he forgot it immediately upon searching for the second. Soon he could not see any lights at all, but he could see her face. He could see it as he slept, it haunted him through his dreams, through the streets of the city he knew well, through the streets of other cities different to the one in which he lived that he had never seen before. Sometimes it would come before him and let him look upon it, its beauty; but in other cities it remained always to one side or behind him, sad or angry, leering, repulsed, all manner of unpleasant variations; and then there were cities that were like ghost towns, he walked through deserted streets and empty roads, entering and leaving unstaffed shops, and wandering into uninhabited houses and through laughterless 46


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

parks, and the face in these cities was neither before nor behind him, nor to either side, but it appeared in the shape of the clouds, in the ripples of puddles, in the shadows of the buildings where they clashed and overlapped. In each city it was different and in his dream Cave tumbled from love to hate and from fear to desire, but in each city is was the same also for it was only ever just a face, not disembodied or detached â&#x20AC;&#x201C; just a face with no further body. At one point in the night Cave sat bolt upright in his bed and screamed. His skin was white and sweaty and as his heart slowed to a regular beat, he turned to the window and looked for a moment out into the deep black. There were no lights on in the next building now, none anywhere as far as he could see, just streetlamps and the odd passing headlight of a car, and away in the distance, across two or perhaps three chapters, raised up on a hill he could see the dancing orange speck of a fire at the base of a tower, loosely outlined, flickering, standing against the darkness of the night.

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

CHAPTER THREE

A

cat slinks along the side of a low wall. Stealthy paws move forwards and its gaze is fixed upon the blackbird pecking at the ground beneath the thick, venerable oak tree that stands within the central complex. Slowly now it places one foot and then another, taking care not to crinkle fallen leaves under its soft pads. The blackbird pecks on, oblivious. Loud steps come by suddenly and the blackbird, startled, flutters up into the safety of the branches. The cat twitches its tail and for a while stares thoughtfully at the treacherous legs receding into the distance, before suddenly dashing off in a different direction as though there is something else that cannot wait to be dealt with. * NO ONE KNEW where the rumour of the child had come from. Lazarus Cave waited for the automatic barrier to raise and pulled into the council lot. CSA agents clustered ahead of him, some in small pockets of conversion, others making their way to and fro, loading up the four official vehicles sitting on the tarmac. Two of them were standard security vans, their interiors filled with sophisticated monitoring equipment. The other two were empty 48


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

except for hard looking plastic benches along each side wall. Cave could see that the walls and door panels were reinforced with some kind of metal or fibreglass framework. He parked up his old red car outside the archives, away from the activity, and entered the office minutes later. Although it was only just gone seven, there were a number of staff already there and the muted voices that passed rapidly between them did little to mask the excitement of the occasion. Arthur Camras and Don Schmitz were already seated at their desks, sharing an animated conversation in hushed tones. Cave sat down opposite them and with a curiosity that, temporarily at least, suppressed the disturbances of the previous day, questioned the two archivists. Camras spoke. ‚CSA agents were outside the suspects’ apartment last night. The report came in a couple of hours ago, just after four,‛ Camras nodded over his shoulder, ‚Krauss has been here all night. Nobody has any idea what it contains, there’s nothing official from anywhere at the moment, not us, nor analysis – certainly not from the CSA. The word’s leaked out though that the suspects have a child in the flat. It’s impossible to know for sure what truth there is in that. Krauss’ door has been shut since we got here. I thought I could hear him on the phone once or twice, voice raised, but most of the time its nothing but whispers. All we know for sure is that report has made its way directly to the councillors. We’re waiting from there.‛ Schmitz pointed towards the door to Krauss’ office. It had been opened a crack and behind the closed shutters they could see the dark shape of Landau Krauss’ body. It was as if a seal had been broken and the archivists fell silent, waiting expectantly to see what lay within. The time was seven twenty. Landau Krauss walked slowly out into the main office. Despite the dark patches of skin under 49


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

his eyes and the unruly wave to his hair, he looked alert and focussed. The previous two hours had been ones of revelation and decision. Krauss looked at the three men seated in front of him. As he prepared to speak, Sal Bernieri appeared around the corner. Upon seeing his colleagues arranged as they were, he strode quickly over to the desk and took his seat. The full complement of archivists waited to hear what Krauss had to say. ‚At three o’clock this morning, a CSA inspection team discovered evidence that strongly suggests the suspects in the Canscot case are illegally harbouring a young child, their own. It’s believed to be aged between three and five months. We think that Canscot was a shadow entity being used to withhold documents and records for later use with the child. A security team is currently stationed outside of the suspects’ residence. The CSA will be dispatching a team of agents to arrest the suspects within the next ten minutes. Lazarus, you go with them. I want thorough records. Everybody else, be prepared for when they bring them in.‛ * IT WAS NOT yet time for the roads to be filling with commuters. Driving full-speed through the sparse early morning traffic, the journey to the 111th chapter took less than fifteen minutes. Lazarus Cave sat in the lead vehicle. Six CSA agents were packed tightly into the seats around him. Three more vans followed behind in a speeding convoy, each with a trio of agents. As they tore eastwards along 261st street Cave looked out of one of the side windows. Everything – buildings, homes, offices, shops, pedestrians, trees, litter bins, flower pots, pigeons, the polished windows of cafes serving the city’s breakfast – was smeared together into one endless smudge in a dingy organic palette. Still 50


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

looking sideways, his stomach turned slightly as the driver wrenched the van into a left turn and soon after rushed them to an abrupt halt outside their destination. In front of them another security van was parked, presumably the reconnaissance team that had been dispatched during the night. Sliding panels on either side of Cave’s van flew open and the CSA agents rushed out towards this other vehicle. Only the driver and the archivist remained inside. Behind, the three other vehicles performed the same routine, the drivers pulling into the kerb and two agents sprinting out. Moments later the remaining four agents exited via the drivers’ doors of their vehicles and joined the group ahead. Cave remained where he was, notebook and pen, both stamped with the insignia of the council, two body-less hands clasped together, poised and ready to document the proceedings. He couldn’t hear what orders were being given to the CSA personnel, but he could make out the urgency that was being imparted to them. Their captain divided them into carefully defined groups. Two agents took up positions on opposite pavements, diagonally across from one another and level with the ends of the row of parked security vehicles. A further two stood guard in front of the main entrance door of the building. Three others were dispatched to secure the rear and emergency exits. The captain and the remaining four agents entered the ground floor of the apartment block. The automatic light that attempted to splutter into life fell dark mid-flicker. Cave assumed it had been quickly fused. There were lights on in most windows. In the privacy of their apartments, Cave knew that citizens would be eating breakfast, ironing shirts, drinking coffee – preparing to depart for work. Others would be at the other end of their day, returned from one of the numerous jobs that kept the city humming with 51


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background activity during the dark; cleaner, post-worker, one of the workers in the twenty-four-hour factories that operated through the night to meet the prodigious appetite of an endless city. Others still would be shaving, showering, standing naked in front of the mirror, forlornly contemplating expanding bellies and widening hips, or admiring curves and muscles. Human bodies were at the same time expansively universal and intensely private. And then there would be those involved in some kind of carnal act: urinating, defecating, copulating. Without moving from where he sat, Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s imagination could guide the eye of the city into the most intimate acts of its inhabitants without their ever knowing. He stared up at the one window in the building that mattered. A female face appeared in it and then sharply withdrew. Cave knew that she had seen the collection of security vans, the agents dressed in their dark suits, standing impassively on the street outside. He knew that she would be turning immediately from the window to shout in panic for her partner; that he would drop his full mug of steaming coffee on the floor, the mug shattering, coffee splattering the kitchen walls. Barely noticing this, he would run to the bedroom where the woman would be standing over the crib at the end of the bed, gathering the now screaming baby up to her chest. For the briefest of moments they would look into each othersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; eyes with fear and love, and then they would run desperately for the front door. But Cave also knew that five dark-suited CSA agents would, at that moment, be reaching the top of the concrete stairs, looking for flat number 72 with a red front door. Parents and agents would meet in the stairwell. That was it; there could be no confrontation. Two minutes passed, then the front door opened. Flanked by agents, the two suspects, heads cowed, were bundled into separate vans.

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The captain, holding a whimpering bundle of blankets, climbed calmly into the final vehicle. Cave knew that this was how it must have happened. As they returned through the beginnings of the rush-hour traffic, he read back the official record of events written in his own hand, a series of stark facts littered with timing marks. 0751: Agents enter apartment 72. 0759: All vehicles return. The arrest had taken less than ten minutes. Even sitting inside the van it had been exhilarating. Seeing the suspects led from the building, handcuffed, defeated, was invigorating. Onto their hunched shoulders and bent necks Cave allowed himself to cast, with anger, the barrage of doubt that had welled up within him over the Canscot issue. Here they were, the engineers of his torment. If they had succumbed to the system, then the system could not surely have been so badly pierced as Cave had feared. He caught sight of the giant central tower of the council compound and his heart surged with joy. Upon entering the walled complex they drove directly to the CSA headquarters building. A small group of agents were already waiting for them. Cave climbed out the van and took up a place half way up the steps leading to the great double wooden doors to the CSA offices. From the second van, the male suspect has escorted up the white marble steps towards the imposing building. Cave stared at the white line of his scalp where his hair was parted neatly down the middle. Agents either side of the female took her from the next van back and she too kept her gaze fixed firmly on the impassive ground. A slight wind played with loose strands of hair that hung down from her fringe. Out of the final vehicle stepped the captain, the baby in his arms still wrapped in blankets now silent. The three of them walked in a heavily guarded line towards the open double doors. Cave could sense the tension in the air. In 53


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that small family, now broken, there was the essence of a revulsive attack upon the infallible values of the city, the values that the citizens whether public or private adopted for their own. The marble steps were constructed with rounded overlaps at the edge of each tread protruding over the level below. The captainâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s front foot caught the first of these nosings, causing him to stumble. A shrill cry arose from the bundle he was carrying. Two frantic arms were pushed upwards, shaking the coverings from its head and Cave could see now its thin, fragile skull with a sparse covering of black hair. Eyes screwed up firmly against the world, the cries rose and fell in an arrhythmic wail. Without warning, the female twisted sharply in the grip of the agents and threw herself back down the steps towards her crying child. With arms outstretched, she tried desperately to get a hold of it but her hands were restricted by the handcuffs she wore. She cried too, tears of rage streaming from her eyes as she screamed and fought with the agents trying to bring her back under control. At the top of the steps, extra hands rushed to take a firmer hold of the male to prevent him from seeing the struggle below. A cord of blanket that had come unwound from the childâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s swaddling swung now within reach of the female. With a lunge she grabbed it. The blow that landed on her unprotected back sent her sprawling but she held on still, lying on the cold ground, blood from her mouth staining the clean white steps where she had connected with them. It looked for a second that one straining fingertip had reached the warm body of her child but then the agent who had struck her was upon her and wrenching the blanket from her fist. Throughout it all the crying continued, a pervasive, anguished noise.

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Then the struggle was over as swiftly as it had begun. Quickly the agents cleared the steps and shut the wooden doors behind them, and Cave was left standing there, staring at the bright red spatters of blood that were beginning to turn brown, with the sharp smell of a babyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s soiled nappy lingering in the air. In his ears he could still hear the haunting screams of the frightened child. Deep in his gut, he could feel the wrench of the previous dayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s disquiet. Hurriedly he made his way back towards the archives. For the rest of the day, Lazarus Cave found himself unable to join in the atmosphere of celebration that filled the archives. After being debriefed by Landau Krauss, he sat subdued in front of his computer screen, working over the mundanities of archive maintenance. In contrast to Bernieri, Camras and Schmitz, all of who had removed their ties and released top buttons, Cave sat quietly, smartly with his tie neatly in place and his collar tightly fastened. If anybody else in the office noticed, they did not let on nor question his reticence. It was unlikely Cave would have registered even if they had. Amidst the almost carnival atmosphere of his colleagues, those cries, the despairing, lonely cries of separation echoed in his memory. They carried sentiments that he understood. The shattering realisation of the imperfect power of the parent; the dismantling of the belief that every human is born with, that the one who nurtures it is limitless in time and knowledge, just as they are eternal sources of warmth and nourishment. The torment of the baby, although sharper, more keenly felt, was made of the same stuff as the doubts prompted by the failure of the system to carry a record of Canscot that had troubled Cave himself. * 55


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

THE SUN WAS setting noticeably later as summer progressed. Despite the unceasingly miserable weather, life was flooding the city, and in time it might bring a renewed belief, perhaps. Cave unlocked the door of his car and climbed into the driverâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s seat. The polish he used inside gave off the smell of factory-new upholstery, even though the seat fabric though not dirty was faded by exposure to sunlight. This was the first time he had been alone since the news of the arrests in the Canscot case, as it had semi-officially been termed, had been relayed to all the archivists. He felt exhausted. Peering upwards through the windscreen he followed the grey of the western sky is it progressed upwards, getting darker, through liquid mercury and powdery charcoal, forever tending towards the black of night, waiting for the earth to spin round far enough on its axis. Thin clouds the colour of dusk filled the higher reaches of the atmosphere. The wind blew cold and softly, probing at the seals of the car doors. If summer was truly here, Cave could not sense it. He found it difficult, from his position behind the large, three-spoke steering wheel to imagine that the clouds could ever lift. It was as if spring had never happened and everything seemed to be caught in an eternal winter where the amount of daylight was merely a variable that swung gently back and forth against the constant of the season. After all, change could be registered only in relation to the state of things as they were previously â&#x20AC;&#x201C; historically. The careful and precise eradication of history from the city subjected it, surely, to an unbreakable stasis. Each new day could not be different from the previous day because the towers and the archivists had sterilised it and scrubbed it clean. No change meant no progress, nothing with which to mark the passing of time. The city felt like a timeless, 56


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

limitless sprawl in which there was no conceivable way the gloomy coldness of now could ever give way to a future warmth. For a moment, Cave fought the urge to shake the steering wheel and scream. Instead he unclipped the glovebox and reached inside for a boiled sweet. With his tongue he pushed it round his mouth, probing the conundrum of the cityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s existence. Still thinking, he turned the key in the ignition, listened to the engine grunt into mechanical life and drove with a low rumble out onto the streets of the city. Canscot. Aimlessly he drove in looping circles round blocks of buildings, past the parks and gardens that sprung up all over the city, past the towers that held it together with unflinching regularity. Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s destination was his apartment, but the route he took to get there hardly mattered. He felt like driving purposelessly, putting as much distance between himself and the events of the day as possible. Only when he felt the need to stop driving, or when he ran out of fuel, would be bring his meandering to an end. At one point he found himself approaching the education centre in the 104th chapter. As he reached its first wall he slowed the car to a crawl and looked up at the building, and he found himself repeating this same process over and over again with other education centres until the sun had vanished completely and the lights in the dormitories had come on and gone off again. He was outside the centre in the 2nd chapter when he pulled the car over to the side of the road and stepped out onto the pavement. An electronics shop with televisions on display was directly in front of him. On the screens he could see the official headlines broadcast by the official bulletin of the councilsanctioned news channel. There was no mention of Canscot, neither in the first, second nor third rung of stories.

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

The education centre was located across the road from where he had parked. Cave turned to gaze up at it. In every detail it was exactly the same as the education centres in every other chapter Cave had driven through so far. Each institution was prepared to exactly the same blueprints, and each was uniformly equipped within and without with identical equipment and facilities. Cave sat on the bonnet of his car and wondered which centre he had grown up in and graduated from. He ran his eyes over the unremarkable faรงade of the 2nd chapter centre. It could have been this one, he acknowledged to himself, but then it could have been any of the other identical buildings he had seen that evening. He tried to think about his past, but he found that the past no longer existed for him. Even the memories of the life within their protective walls had faded into the uniformed beige in which the corridors were painted, and in which it so seemed that the corridors of his memory were also covered. He scratched at his hairline and thought instead of the children lying in their beds in the darkened dormitories, heads and bodies cushioned between pillows, soft mattresses and thick duvets. The cry of the baby from that morning rang unbidden in his mind and he knew that the children in the education centre would never know the rift in feeling that could produce such a cry. By raising its citizens under its own parental auspices, the city never had to witness them undergo the breaking of the fundamental belief in the awesome power of the mother. The older Lazarus turned to go. Reseated in his car, he started the engine and watched the dashboard come to life. A series of lights came on and went off again, leaving just the handbrake indicator illuminated. The needle on the fuel gauge twitched upwards and then settled just on the cusp of the red warning band that told him he was running low. In the central console, the green digits of the clock gave the time as nine forty-three. Over 58


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

three hours of driving. Cave slipped the car into gear and accelerated gently in the direction of home. Approaching the 111th chapter from the north, rather than the east as he usually did, Cave drove down unusual roads. There were few houses and shops around here. An enormous factory loomed up in the dark on his right-hand side. A vast structure, blacker than the lantern-lit night, it cut across the tops of several roads running north-south, creating a kind of massive island. The surrounding streets were full of storage depots, workshops, smaller refineries that took whatever was produced in the factory and turned it into more manageable materials. Only the occasional anaemic-looking block of flats, presumably home to some of the factory workers, interrupted the industrial landscape. Cave knew roughly where he was; he had travelled through this area once or twice during the daytime, but he had little reason to do so often. As far as he could he kept his eyes fixed on the great monolithic tower located in the southern part of the chapter and headed towards it; somewhere on a straight line between here and there was home. Sometimes though he would have to turn a corner by a warehouse and then he would be hemmed in by the buildingâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s high sides and he would lose sight of the tower, momentarily unsure of his bearings before regaining sight of it in a gap between buildings. Dark and deserted street fed into dark and deserted street. Jaundice-yellow patches of streetlight pooled like blood on the pavements. Bruised shadows fell in awkward joins between uncomfortable buildings. The city seemed ugly tonight, without another living being to share it with. Driving swiftly down one long narrow road, with the guiding tower unsighted from anywhere along it, Cave was trying to escape the cloying atmosphere of the industrial quarter. Even breathing the air, it felt repulsive in his nose so that he could 59


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

imagine himself choking on it. Distracted, he hardly noticed the small shape dart across the road until almost too late. Immediately he slammed his foot down hard on the brakes, wrestling the steering wheel to prevent the rear end from spinning out of control. The eyes caught in his headlights had shone brightly in the dark; alarmed, frightened, like a stray dog. Cave sat for a moment, gripping the steering wheel, bringing himself back under control. Calmly now he stepped from the car, leaving the door open behind him and the keys in the ignition. The engine ticked over in neutral, the sound magnified by the close-in brick walls of the warehouses and the complete silence otherwise so that it seemed to fill the whole street. Exhaust fumes condensed in the cold night to form a thin white fog at the rear of the car. Taking a deep breath Lazarus Cave walked towards the young boy he had so nearly collided with. The boy had untidy brown hair and white skin coloured grey with the cityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s muck. Lines of clear skin did show through where he had smiled or cried or wrinkled his forehead, a network of threadlike roads built by the muscles of his face and the dirt of the city. He pressed himself against the wall as Cave approached, petrified. Cave held his hands outwards, palm up in an attempt to reassure the boy. Whether it worked, or whether the child was simply too scared to coordinate his legs, he did not move. Cave bent down so that his face was level with the boyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s. He looked even younger close up, barely more than eight or nine years old. Pale freckles spread over his nose and cheeks were almost indistinct from the dust and grime on his skin, his clothes appeared warm, once, but they were torn and frayed now, and he was painfully thin. But it was his eyes that Cave noticed most. They danced. Flicking from side to side, fixing upon his own, unsure, threatened, defiant â&#x20AC;&#x201C; they sparked with a life Cave was 60


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

not used to. Gold flecks seemed to shine from the dark brown irises, themselves almost impossible to make out clearly in the meagre light. They stared at each other, an intense, unlikely pair. ‚Do you need a lift to your education centre?‛ Cave asked. Surprise came into the boy’s eyes and then was gone just as quickly. He shook his head. ‚Do you need a lift anywhere?‛ Again the boy shook his head, slowly, solemnly and his eyes appeared to carry the same answer. Cave looked up and down the road, they boy following his gaze with his own. There was still nobody else in sight. He strained his eyes. Not a sound. What was this child doing out, let alone out here, here, at this time? The nearest education centre was a good distance away. He would surely have heard if there had been a runaway. Canscot had dominated recently, of course, but a runaway was unprecedented, surely something of that scale would make itself heard. He brought his attention back to the child, placed a kind hand on his shoulder to try and reassure him. The boy flinched but did not move away. ‚What’s your name? I’d like to help you.‛ Cave waited for a response. The boy hesitated and then shook his head, not moving his vibrant eyes from Cave’s own. ‚You don’t have a name?‛ The boy confirmed by shaking his head again. ‚Do you have any parents?‛ Parents. The word was unnatural sounding, a concept that had no real place in language beyond the parental scope of the city and its council. Cave knew he was stalling, one step from the final question, hesitating like the boy had hesitated.

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Once more he looked both ways along the length of the street. At the end furthest from him, on the corner, was the fuzzy halo of the light from a telephone box. Telephone boxes in the city were not for personal use, they were emergency items only. Cave knew that all he had to do was lift the receiver and he would be connected automatically to the council switchboard. He was at least two hundred feet from the phone, he wondered how he would get there and not lose the boy in the process. Stationary as the child was now, Cave could tell he was still terrified and should he, Cave, transform from unknown quantity into clear threat, the boy would undoubtedly kick and bite and struggle – all enough to make a two-hundred foot journey and subsequent telephone call highly difficult, if not quite impossible. When he looked back at the boy he realised the child’s eyes had not moved an inch from his face but when he opened his mouth to speak, the boy’s entire body tensed under his hand and he knew that the boy understood why he had been looking down the street. ‚Does anybody know you’re here?‛ The boy didn’t move, didn’t nod or shake his head, he stood perfectly still, every muscle strained and ready to run. Cave didn’t need the boy to speak or indicate the answer with his head, everything he needed to know was written in the boy’s eyes with their alarming quality of life. For a while they held the pose, the boy standing, Cave crouched, his arm a bridge between the two of them. Then he relaxed the grip of his fingers and lifted his hand away from the boy’s shoulder. Carefully the boy edged away, turned and began to walk rapidly up the road. Cave got back inside his car, pulled the door shut on the now cold interior and followed him slowly in first gear. A dark narrow alley that Cave hadn’t noticed before in the dark night appeared in a cut between two solid walls. The boy 62


The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

turned into it and Cave brought the car to a halt opposite its entrance. It was a dead end as far as he could tell, all that was inside was a line of bins. There was just enough space between the edge of the bins and the wall for a grown man to fit sideways. The boy walked easily between them. Only when he had reached the end of the row of bins did the boy turn back and look at Cave watching him. For a moment he thought the boy was going to turn back; for a moment he thought he should get out of the car and follow him. Then the sound of another engine in a nearby street broke through the silent night. The boy heard it too. As Caveâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s attention was distracted by the growing beam of oncoming headlights that was forming at the end of the road, out of the corner of his eye he say the boy dart sharply behind the last bin. Cave released the handbrake and accelerated away as a security van on patrol turned into the street. Car and van passed each other travelling in different directions in the dark of the night. Both drivers looked out of their windows but the vehicles were moving too fast and neither was able to see the other. Then, with their briefest of encounters over, they left the road at opposite ends. Soon after silence settled again like a blanket and there was not a living creature anywhere in sight.

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The Children of the City / a novel by Nick Sidwell / nick@ifyoulikeittakeit.com

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The Children of the City: {three chapters}