By Max Hardy

‘Beats fishing ‘em out of the rivers and canals,’ says Rory as we lug the stiff out of the housing estate, ‘but this still blows.’

Rory has the feet. Rory always has the feet. Wanna talk about things that blow? I think to myself. Then let’s talk about you always having the feet and me always having the stiffs’ putrid heads knocking around between my knees. Using my testes like a speedball.

It’s just like me to think like this and say nothing; to seethe with rage and suffer in silence—just like me. I can be passive aggressive, but mostly I’m meek. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself though: I survived. I’m a survivor. Maybe my constant hidden carping, my meekness is the reason.

We sling the stiff into the mobile incinerator.

‘Yah, I’ve seen it all,’ says Rory, dusting-off his latex-gloved hands. ‘All states of decomposition: fresh, day-olds, the long-dead, exposed to the elements. Yer name it. But it’s them they drag up out of the canals and rivers is worst.’

I wish Rory would shut up. He never shuts up. For the past two months: a running commentary all day, every day. And he thinks he’s tough too, but I’ve seen him gag at the sight of a particularly grotesque stiff. Not me though. The sight of the dead doesn’t affect me. Has never done. Because of my accident I suppose.

We trudge back into the high-rise.

‘How many’s that then, ay?’ Rory asks.

I consult my tally hand counter. ‘Thirty-seven,’ I tell him.

‘And how many floors’ve we cleared?’

‘Just the top three.’

We have a hundred-body-per-day quota (a totally arbitrary figure of course; barely scratching the surface). It’s nearing lunchtime. We’ve been slow. I’d like to say that Rory’s yammering and showboating has slowed us down, but that wouldn’t be true. I’m the reason we’re slow today. My wound is giving me grief. It has that gnawing, leaden feel it gets before the infection returns. Rory’s good enough not to mention my injury anymore. He knows now that talking about it upsets me. I’ll give him that much—the ear-bashing bastard.

‘Alright let’s get ter fifty before lunch,’ Rory jogs up the stairwell, three stairs at a time. ‘Let’s smash this out.

‘See yer up there,’ he calls down to me.

I hate it when the elevators are out.

By the time I’ve made it all the way up to the fourth floor from the roof (level 21), my wound is a sheer misery to me. Gormless as he is, Rory must discern in my face the agony I’m feeling.

‘Yer really strugglen today, huh?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Maybe yer’d prefer to be a fisherman. Just standen on the towpath with a big old net. Just fishen out them stiffs.’

Often, it’s best not to respond to Rory.

Rory’s been working hard: on the landing between the two floors is a crush of body bags. I can count at least six. The bags have been unceremoniously discarded down the stairs; a twist of dead limbs poking out against the latex that encases them. I wouldn’t have left them this way. Rory has no regard for them, or if he does then he regards the dead with nothing but contempt.

I step over the pile of bags.

‘C’mon,’ I say while using a locksmith’s tool to jimmy-open the door to a flat. I get it unlocked and then the door is wrenched out of my hand, opening inward with a crash. Rory steps in ahead of me.

I bend down to secure the Velcro strip at the end of the latex body chute to the top of the small set of stairs between the floors. I walk backwards down the stairs, unravelling the rolled-up chute as I go.

Shit! C’mere!’ Rory calls to me from inside the flat. ‘Check this out!’

The flat is a studio, a different layout to the other flats we’ve seen today. Walls have been removed from the original structure. Someone was a dab hand at DIY. It must have been privately owned.

A window is open. The wind pumps in through it; implacable, like a current of electricity from a generator. Like the will of God himself. But there is no God. Rather there are gods and the rumours say that tonight we will see them give a broadcast. The rumours say that tonight the gods will speak.

‘In here,’ Rory sounds impatient. I follow his voice.

I find him standing next to a bed-ridden stiff. The stiff is propped up against a small mountain of pillows. The bedspread is littered with empty and half-empty cans of soup as well as countless plastic bottles of water. The room has the strong ammoniac smell of urine but no smell of decomposition. Not even thinly.

‘He’s alive,’ Rory rasps.

‘No way.’

‘C’mere and check!’

After a morning in the suit, my breath has fogged-up the visor, compromising my vision. Even so, I can make out quite easily that the stiff’s throat is swollen, and his glands are up. Textbook case.

‘He’s dead Rory.’

‘Fuggen listen to ‘im!’

I’ll humour him, I decide, and lean forward over the stiff. A very faint guttering wheeze escapes the man’s cracked lips. Leaning further still, through the fog of my breath, I can make out tiny rivulets of blood running between the cracks in the lips. This is not a dead man.  

‘Rory he’s alive.’

‘S’what I fuggen told yeh!’

‘He’s beaten it.’

‘Now, we don’t know that.’

‘He’s clearly fighting it off. Something in his immune system has found a way.’

‘Whadda we do?’

‘Get him some water for starters!’

I leave the room with one of the man’s plastic bottles. I feel giddy. I can’t remember feeling this happy since, well, since before my accident.

The old pipes protest as I run the water in the kitchen, but soon I have the bottle filled to the brim.

When I return to the bedroom, the shock of the scene unfolding before me causes my hands to go weak and I drop the bottle of water. The strength goes out of me completely and I stand there, simply watching in horror. Meekness. I am meekness personified.

Rory has one hand over the man’s mouth and the other clamped over the nose. The man moves his own shaking hands upwards. A feeble attempt to defend himself. The movement triggers something in me (Murder. He’s alive. ALIVE! Murder. This is MURDER!), snapping my catalepsy.

I lurch forward, almost tripping over my bad foot. I steady myself against the bed, gripping the man’s shin.

‘Stop!’ I cry. ‘Rory, please stop!’

I wrestle Rory’s hands away from the man. Rory is oddly compliant. He withdraws several paces from the bed.

The man’s lifeless hands rest on his narrow chest. I lean forward but cannot make out his shallow breath. The hood makes hearing difficult.

I twist the hood back and forth until finally my chin pokes out the bottom of it.

‘Yer shouldn’t do that,’ says Rory from behind me, ‘it’s against protocols.’

I ignore him, tossing the hood at the foot of the bed.

I hold my exposed right ear next to the bed-ridden man’s mouth and nose. Nothing. I place two fingers under his chin. Nothing.

‘Dead,’ I say. ‘You’ve killed him Rory.’

‘A man shouldn’t strangle that easy,’ he says by way of justification. ‘Serious case of pneumonia. I did him a favour.’

I turn to face my partner—the uneducated, violent half-wit, who I have been forced to pair-up with and carry out this hateful chore. In this moment, I hate Rory with every fibre of my being. I hate him with a violent anger—one even I cannot contain.

I fly at Rory’s throat, grabbing bunches of latex high on his chest. Because of my injury, my balance is poor and pressing my body weight forward into Rory I lose complete control and it is up to Rory to steady us, even as he backpedals and collides with a wall.

‘Why did you do it?’ I demand of him. ‘Why the fuck did you do it?’

I perceive a glimmer of fear in Rory’s expression. He is unmanned. But only for a moment.

‘Gerroff me yer fuggen cripple!’

Rory shoves me hard in the shoulders. I go sprawling backwards. I sit down heavily on the bed behind me, reclined awkwardly at a 45-degree angle to the dead man. What sorry bedfellows we make.

Another death, what should it matter? Nothing. It matters nothing. But the tears arrive all the same.

‘Why?’ I ask Rory. ‘Why’d you do it?’

‘Here, put yer hood back on,’ he says, handing it to me. I think the sight of me crying makes him uncomfortable. He’s an emotional cripple. Maybe that’s why the Committee paired us: two cripples doing cripples’ work.

I slide the hood on over my sweat-sodden head, down over my blubbering face. I am compliant again. Meek.

‘Why’d you do it, Rory? Whatever that guy had in him that made him fight it, maybe it could have been the basis of a cure.’

‘Yer naïve mate,’ he says. His use of the word ‘naïve’ surprises me. ‘What about “manmade super-virus” don’t yer understand? Them that’s created it—them people’re callen gods—they don’t want a cure. They just want this thing ter run its course, burn itself out. If it hasn’t already.’

He’s right, I know. I hate him for being right.

‘As fer this poor sap,’ Rory continues, referring to the dead man in bed with me, ‘we don’t know if he was going to beat it, and even if he had’ve he prob’ly woulda died of malnutrition. He’s halfway a skeleton already. Cruel way to die after beating the Virus.’

Together we zip the stiff into a body-bag. He has the weight of a living thing and is heavier than we both expected. Rory is glad that I rolled out the chute. I watch the undignified carriage of the stiff down the length of the chute until his procession is arrested by the entanglement of latex-wrapped bodies on the landing. They welcome him to the fold with a thudding embrace. I thumb down the hammer of my hand tally counter.

We work in silence until we have cast fifty stiffs into the mobile incinerator.

‘Cows,’ Rory says during lunch, ‘disposen of cows is worse still. Worse than draggen bodies out of the canal. ‘Cos they’re so big. Yer gotta take a bone saw to ‘em first. Get ‘em into nice manageable chunks before ‘cineraten ‘em.’

My accident happened in 2012.

My company had successfully tendered to the rail authority to install a new line—not too difficult when you irresponsibly undercut your rivals.

I was a senior site engineer at the time and god it was an unpleasant project. The tender was unrealistic, and work was continually behind schedule. To compound matters, the rail authority imposed draconian hours of work so we could never pull a late-one to get back on track if need be. The company’s solution to this was to employ more men; more labourers, more subbies. It got so that there was a small army of men rushing around the site giving and receiving confused orders. It got so that it was chaos. Men were driving vehicles they weren’t licensed to operate; men were digging trenches where they weren’t needed; men were turning up to the site and clocking-on without ever having been interviewed or hired. Chaos.

The dogman blamed the crane operator for dropping the rail sleeper on my foot and the crane operator blamed whoever it was who failed to properly secure the load to the crane’s hook. Neither the dogman nor the crane operator had the proper ticket. The fines imposed on my company were so severe that it nearly went under.

The left forefoot was amputated, and the surgeon was happy with my progress in the first few days after surgery. But the pain continued to bloom at the site of the amputation and it soon became apparent that I had contracted osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone.

The surgeon encouraged me to have the remainder of the foot removed, he told me that that was the only way to clear the infection. But I couldn’t stand the thought of it—being hobbled like that. I asked him if I could live with it and he told me that humans are stubborn creatures and can tolerate the most unconscionable of indignities. He told me that the infection might spread; might get into my blood stream. Then sepsis would happen. Multiple organ failure after that.

‘Down the line, it could get so bad that it will kill you,’ the surgeon told me. ‘Further amputation could be the only way to save your life. Cut away the bad to save the good.’

I chose to keep what was left of my foot.

The infection is not always symptomatic but when it is, I call it a “flare up.” It’s not pretty. I’ve never once failed to beat the flare-ups though. The surgeon said I must have a strong immune system to kill off the infection so quickly.  

Naturally, the life insurance company denied my claim. It formed the opinion that with a further amputation and a good orthotic insert I could have gone back to work. I’m sure it’s easy to make those decisions sitting in a cubicle, staring at a screen. My lawyer got me into a room with the insurer’s lawyers to try to reach a commercial settlement. As luck would have it, on the day of the conference I had a flare up.

The lawyer asked me if I was comfortable exhibiting my injury for the benefit of the other lawyers in the room—he called it ‘show-‘n’-tell.’ I told him that I wasn’t comfortable doing that; the thought of parading my injury—the repugnant, rotten secret at the end of my leg—to a room full of suits was offensive. I spent the next thirty minutes in a small conference room being brow-beaten by the lawyer into agreeing to show-‘n’-tell. Eventually, I caved. I told you I was meek.

The lawyer kept his submissions short and once he was done, we moved to show-‘n’-tell. He had me wheel my chair around to the insurer’s side of the desk and unlace my boot. The stink of rot was immediate, and I recall seeing in my peripheral vision the insurer’s in-house lawyer instinctively move her head away from me in disgust. I was wearing a grey sock. The toe of it was stained darker where the pus had seeped through the cotton, and as I rolled the sock off there was a distinct sucking sound as it pulled away from the gelatinous ruin of my toes. The wound itself runs the width of the top of the foot where the toes should be. It consists of a series of undulating peaks and troughs: the technicolour mountain range of a bad acid trip. During a flare-up, the peaks are tipped with fluorescent, yellow cairns and the valleys resemble blue cheese that is quickly passing from delicacy to the blackening waste of biohazard. The show-‘n’-tell was repulsive. I was upset by the reactions in the room and ashamed of myself for being the sideshow. It was, however, very effective. The matter was settled within thirty minutes of me removing my left sock.

Afterwards, the lawyer clapped his milk-white hand on my back and told me that I’d never have to work again.

But he was wrong there.

The Committee had needed volunteers to collect bodies and arrange for their incineration. It was the most urgent job they had going. It wasn’t a popular job and volunteers were scarce. The Committee decided to conscript the unskilled into that line of work (hence Rory). With my qualifications and injury, I’m sure that I could easily have avoided the job without raising an eyebrow. But I volunteered. I have a strong stomach and I knew that the work was necessary—it’s been a long-time since I felt needed. In two months, I’ve not yet seen a body of a person killed by the Virus that looks more repulsive than the sight of my foot during a flare-up.

When the Committee was assembled, they gave us literature about the G.O.D: the Global Order of Defence. People started to call the members of the G.O.D gods. I’m sure that’s what the G.O.D wanted.

People hated the G.O.D at first. They said that the G.O.D had no right to do what it had done; held the G.O.D responsible for all the deaths. They said the G.O.D was elitist.

It didn’t take long for people to accept the situation though. Humans are stubborn creatures and can tolerate the most unconscionable of indignities.

Some people speculated that the G.O.D had developed an antivirus as well but hoarded it for the exclusive use of its members (the gods) and their families. It strikes me that that is probably true, but what does that knowledge do for me? I am still a man wearing a latex suit hauling bodies out of buildings. I am not a god.

We incinerate our hundredth body without further incident.

‘Time is it?’ Rory asks me at the end of the shift.

‘Six forty-five,’ I tell him. We’re quite late; we need to be at the stadium by 7:30 p.m.—attendance is mandatory.

‘You go home,’ I tell Rory, ‘I’ll drive the truck back to the depot.’

‘Thanks,’ he says and as I climb into the truck, he tries to reassure me: ‘I won’t tell no one yer took yer hood off.’

I have time for a quick shower at home. I sit on the edge of my bed and towel myself down, and as I do most days, I think about the first body I had to remove from a flat—my own flat—for incineration. I press a hand flush on her pillow and delude myself that it feels warm.

I have been to this stadium before, some years ago with my daughter for a football match. It was an important game, a sell-out. I remember jostling for bar service before kick-off, trying to get myself a pint and my daughter a hot-dog. My daughter was overwhelmed at the sight of the packed stadium, the incredible noise of the place. It heaved and pulsed. You could feel it in the vibrations rippling up through the concrete. People. So many people. More people in one place than my daughter had ever seen. She was astounded by the size of the world she lived in.

Now, the stadium is less than half full. If I was bothered (and if I hadn’t left my glasses in the flat), I’m sure I could count the number of people here. The sight of what’s left of East London takes my breath away.

I take an aisle for myself, then think better of it and walk down the bay towards two women siting together. I sidle along the aisle, but crab-walking is tough work with only one complete foot.

‘May I sit here or is this seat taken?’ the joke doesn’t land. Maybe it was in poor taste. Maybe people aren’t ready.

‘It’s a free country,’ one of the women says. The words sound menacing.

I take the seat and pretend I’m at a concert waiting for the main act to come on. Or maybe it’s half-time at a sporting match and everyone has gone to the bar. It’s no good. Although there is a lot of nervous chattering, the sound merges and echoes in the half-empty stadium. It’s ominous. Why didn’t they spread us out? I think. I consider making this observation to the women sitting next to me, but I don’t. I just sit next to them quietly—which is just like me.

The Committee members are standing around on a raised dais at the southern end of the pitch, where the goals would normally be. An overweight man half-runs out of one of the tunnels that lead to the pitch from the subterranean dressing rooms. I watch as his stomach joggles above his belt. I bet he must be the most unathletic person to have ever runout of that tunnel. He makes his way to the edge of the dais. One of the Committee members bends down so that the fat man can whisper something to him. The Committee member passes on the message to another Committee member who has the natural bearing of one who is used to being in charge.

The presumed leader of the Committee walks to a microphone standing at the centre of the dais. He is a tall man and must adjust the microphone.

Ladies and gentlemen,’ his voice booms out of the PA system and reverberates around the half-empty stadium, ‘I’ve just been told that the census is complete. All of East London has been accounted for, so let’s now crack on.’

‘Who died and made ‘im king?’ the lady next to me asks.

‘Wanker,’ says her companion.  

At 8.30 sharp, the G.O.D will be making a public announcement. I understand that this is a difficult time for all and that many of you will have questions for the G.O.D but there will be no opportunity for questions tonight. The G.O.D will set out its plan for moving forward.’

Moving forward—that was always the line of corporate-jargon I hated most.

‘Wanker,’ the same woman says.

In the meantime, please make yourselves as comfortable as possible. I know that this stadium is familiar to, and loved by, many of you.’

Who are the gods? People have been speculating about that from the day the Committee was formed. The women next to me recapitulate the old debate now. They mention the names of the CEO of this and that company, this and that former president, this and that four-star general and of course, this and that billionaire. All names I’ve heard bandied around before.

I check my watch. Five minutes to go until the main event.

The big screens fizz to life.

The screens are dominated by the giant image of a woman. Her face is pixelated, the way the media pixelates the faces of accused criminals when they’re shown on TV before the conviction is secured.

‘People of the English-speaking world,’ the woman with the pixelated face says, ‘you are the survivors. I congratulate you on surviving but acknowledge that many of you must be experiencing feelings of survivor’s guilt.’

‘Why is her face blurred-out?’ someone shouts from a bay beneath mine. People murmur in general agreement with this complaint.

‘Yeah, what the fuck’s she hiding?’ someone nearer screams.

‘Who the hell is this bitch?’ shouts the woman whose vocabulary I had thought up until this point consisted solely of the word ‘wanker.’

Many of you will be wondering who I am,’ says the woman on screen. ‘I am a member of the G.O.D, the Global Order of Defence. In time, the exact identities of our members will be made public. But, now is not that time. Now, I have some facts for you:

Immediately before the pandemic, it was widely recognised that the Earth had warmed by slightly more than 1.1 degrees. On the prevailing pre-pandemic trajectory, best estimates suggested that this figure would have risen to somewhere between 4 and 4.3 degrees by 2100. The consequences would have been truly unimaginable. Even at 2 degrees warming, life on Earth would have been impossible for many.

‘Every person receiving this broadcast knows the spiel. I won’t inundate you with further facts—esteemed scientists have been doing that for more than three decades. Those esteemed scientists trusted in the collective logic of the world’s population; to acknowledge the problem and avert course to avoid catastrophe. Sadly, their trust was misplaced. The human race has proceeded not in ignorance, but in apathy and self-denial. In 1992 the United Nations established its climate change framework, and yet the human-caused damage to the environment since that time has exceeded the damage done in all the millennia before it. We have buried our heads in the sand – the very sand of the global desert that our dear Earth was becoming.  

‘Climate change was a global emergency. An emergency that required drastic action. The governments of the world were not taking drastic action. Hence the G.O.D was formed. The members of the G.O.D are eminent people from all around the globe who understood the challenge that climate change posed and who were willing to—and did—take drastic action.

‘Yes, we developed and then disseminated the Virus. We did not take the decision lightly. We are not amoral people. We, like you, were desperate people. Desperate people who saw no alternative. To save Earth and the people of Earth, we took steps to drastically reduce the human race. Consider it pruning the dead limbs and leaves of a plant, or poisoning the body to kill the cancer, amputating the gangrenous limb before the spread of infection. Choose your metaphor. We—the members of the G.O.D—each did.’

The stadium’s audience—the population of East London—is stunned into silence by the bold admission. People had generally accepted as gospel the rumours which said that the G.O.D was responsible for the Virus, but to have this confirmed in such an audacious and casual way was nevertheless shocking.

‘Latest data suggests that the Virus has reduced the global population by approximately ninety percent.’

‘Bullshit!’ someone in the audience shouts.

‘Maybe in poor places it has, but not for the rich!’ someone else suggests.

‘Yeah, what’s the population of Chelsea these days?’ another picks up the theme.

‘Every aircraft ever built is now grounded. Every private motorcar is now stood stationary. They will be left to rust in hangars and on roads. Monuments to a former wanton age.’

A manic, religious zeal supplants the calm, measured voice.

‘Oil derricks the world over stand idle, crusting over with grease.

‘The smokestacks of industry no longer pump out strangling smog. Mere obelisks are they now. We will tear them down.’

The voice resumes its calm, conciliatory tone.

‘The Virus, as many of you will know, was transmitted from humans to cows. The global population of cattle has reduced in corresponding numbers—also by ninety percent. This was by design. The beef industry was one of the largest contributors to global emissions.

‘Beef is permanently off the menu.’

‘Yeah, what’s this cow eating tonight?’ one particularly irate-sounding member of the crowd complains.

‘Filet mignon I bet,’ answers another.

The G.O.D is presently overseeing the development of a small, curated cattle industry designed to supply dairy milk and leather goods. This will be carefully managed.

‘The G.O.D has taken similar measures with other harmful industries. While this may seem to many of you an ad hoc and chaotic state of affairs, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. The G.O.D has been preparing for this event for a very long time.’

‘Fuck the G.O.D!’

‘Yeah, fuck the G.O.D!’ A small chant develops before the pixelated woman speaks again. In the tunnels that lead into the bowels of the stadium, I can see the tops of many heads, people gathering in the tunnels on both sides of the pitch.

Now to the question of what next? The question of moving forward.’

That contemptible turn of phrase again. All organisations are the same in terms of their rhetoric.

We, the members of the G.O.D, have reason to believe that the Virus has now extinguished itself. We are taking measures to confirm this. Those measures include monitoring the survivors—you, the people receiving this broadcast. This requires a huge effort of coordination and for that reason, we require each of you to remain in your canton. Movement between cantons will not be permitted in the short term. If you are confused about the limits of your canton, please consult your canton committee.’

‘I still have family—a cousin—south of the river!’ a woman cries. ‘When can I see him?’

Now, I will turn you back over to your organising canton committee. Thank you for your patience.’

The broadcast ends.

Ok, thank you,’ the Committee Chair speaks into the microphone from the dais at the end of the pitch.

‘Is that it?’ I hear someone call from the other side of the stadium.

‘I want to see my cousin!’ the woman with family south of the river screeches. She is sobbing now.

More will be revealed in time,’ the Committee Chair says, sensing the collective thirst for further information. Clearly this guy was not a diplomat before the pandemic—his words have the approximate effect of a red rag to a bull.

‘No, tell us now yer wanker!’

I watch as two men, working together, manage to twist a plastic seat away from the bolts fastening it to the steel bar beneath. The larger of the two casts the seat towards the pitch. The audience is rapt watching the flight of the airborne seat—this is the closest thing to professional sport anyone has seen in a very long time. The seat only narrowly clears the bay closest to the ground and skids to a stop in the soft earth, where it is concealed by the overgrown grass.

It is a eureka moment for many. Soon, the people of East London are grafting together to free their own seats. Some manage the job quicker than others. Plastic seats start to rain down onto the overgrown field. Not everyone has good aim however, and some people in the lower bays cop unwelcome seats to the head. A number of those unlucky enough to be hit turn around to face the throwers, they begin to clamber over the rows behind them to make their feelings known. Fistfights break out.

Please,’ the undiplomatic Committee Chair pleads, ‘people.’

The people I saw gathering in the tunnels begin to spill forth onto the pitch, they trot towards the dais. Without my glasses my long-range vision is poor, but the people heading for the stage look solid. They are dressed in black.

‘They’re armoured,’ the woman next to me says in a hushed tone.

Others begin to make for the pitch too, from the stands. Most struggle to get over the barricades. Some work together. One young man vaults the barricade easily and is soon racing across the pitch, moving towards the dais which has by now been surrounded by armoured men.

The din throbs. It echoes back from the empty stands at the northern end of the stadium. Suddenly the stadium has real atmosphere. If I closed my eyes, maybe I could imagine that I am sitting with my daughter again at that busy football match.

Boom! And my reverie is cut short. The din is punctuated by the report of a shotgun.

The young man had gotten too close to the dais. He had ignored all warnings from the armoured guards.

He has taken both barrels to the chest and even from a moderate distance and with bad eyesight, a person can see the terrible crimson maw between his shoulder blades that is the exit wound.

Another for the mobile incinerator, I think to myself. The young man wavers; momentarily suspended in a limbo between life and death. He collapses in a heap like a discarded marionette.

For the second time tonight, East London is stunned into silence.        

Rory has the feet again. I’ve left it too late to complain, this is the status quo now—Rory takes the feet, I take the shoulders.

It’s early morning and we have cleared our first building for the day; a three-story terrace. We’ve only collected four stiffs so far. We cast our latest into the mobile incinerator and I thumb down the hammer of my tally hand counter. We move on to the neighbouring terrace.  

Unlike the high-rise, we tend to work terraces from street level; work our way up. We are at the top story apartment and we have yet to find a single body in the building. Rory is set to claim that this terrace is the luckiest in East London—clearly every resident survived and moved elsewhere during the height of the panic.

‘C’mon baby,’ Rory says while I jimmy the front door of the apartment, ‘papa’s feelen lucky.’

I get the door open.

There is no confusing the cloying smell of death.

‘Ah fug,’ Rory laments.

We step into the apartment.

‘And bust. Better luck next time punter,’ Rory commentates his own disappointment.

Will he ever shut up?

The owner of the apartment was an elderly woman, maybe ninety or so. She had decorated the mantelpiece above the defunct fireplace with a series of photographs of herself and an array of cats. Each photograph is housed in the same style of brass frame, but the photographs have been taken over many years. If I were to guess the average age separating each photo, I’d hazard a guess at a decade. Some of the cats are white, some of them black, some piebald. Some are tabbies, some furry and some close to hairless. Only one cat appears in two photographs – in the first, as a kitten and in the latter as a watery-eyed, emaciated scrag of a creature. Over the series, the woman herself has transformed from a mere old woman—the sort you might have found in a supermarket before the pandemic, slowly unloading the contents of a tartan shopping tote onto a conveyor belt—into a gnarled, ancient crone. It’s clear that the woman had no family (if you didn’t count the cats).

We find the woman’s latest cat first. It is dead beneath the sitting room window. The window is bolted shut and below the pane innumerable desperate games of naughts and crosses have been gouged into the plaster.

We find the woman in her bed. A half-drunk glass of sherry sits on her bedside table and were it not for the frantic work of the cat on her face, she would look serene.

We bag her up and down the chute she goes.

She is only our fifth for the day. We are far from reaching our quota.

‘Just thumb down forty, will yeh?’ Rory says to me after the woman has gone into the incinerator. Normally I would argue.

‘Didyeh see the show last night?’ Rory asks me over lunch. He knows that I did, and I continue to eat my beans. ‘Boom. Boom. Quite the spectacle. Them armoured guards are badarse.

‘Yah, I hung around after it all and spoke to them Committee members. They need more guards, they do. Young men like yers truly is what they’s after. They took down meh name. I recken I’m in with a good shot of joinen them armoured guards.’

He’s right, I’m sure. I hate him for being right.