The Day of Joy

by KM Elkes

Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015

Message ID: 197/45

To: [insert name]
From: The Relocation Commission
Subject: Great news!

Congratulations! Your family has been selected, from many thousands of hopefuls, to be part of our great nation’s holistic advance. Yes, you’re going to be joining other lucky winners on the Great Adventure to the East.  

Details of the leaving date and transportation will arrive soon. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to have you on board! 

 

***

 

You wake early, legs restless, an acid heat in your chest. Beside you, Ruth gazes back in silence, while across the room Elena kneels on the floor, whispering as she repacks her bag. You rise, wash, put on your best clothes, then stand by the window, watching for the transport to arrive. It is the Day of Joy.

Rudi, a neighbour from across the hallway, predicted this day months ago: “There’s moves, plans being made. Relocation.”

Rudi cracked nuts in his mouth as he talked, spitting the broken shells over the balcony. He was old, lined, smelled of petrol and metal. But he knew people who knew people: “Everyone from the district will go. Everyone.”

Rudi had been right. First came the radio bulletins – bright music and the voice of a child, excited, laughing. Then another voice, an old man’s, shaking with emotion.

You began to leave the radio on all the time, anticipating the next announcement, worrying you might miss something and arguing with Ruth because she turned the volume low. Then the first of the official messages arrived. After reading it twice, you sat Ruth and Elena down at the table.

“We have been chosen to go East,” you said.

“What does that mean?” asked Elena.

“A good thing. A new start.”

You looked at your family. Elena, such a bright flame but small for her age and Ruth, hands folded in her lap, tired always now and weak-lunged. The doctor blamed the air of your building, a dank high-rise, powdery with decay.

“A new start,” you said again: “We’ll prosper when we get resettled.”

Then you pointed at the message, as if it were proof enough.

 

***

 

Message ID: 197/46

To: [Insert name] From: The Relocation Commission
Subject: One week to go!

Are you ready? Are you excited? The Day of Joy is nearly here.

Just make sure you are waiting at the designated place at 7am. Your barcodes should be clearly showing. We’ll take care of the rest. Remember: we cannot transport pets or livestock – humans only.

 

***

 

At the appointed time, a line of green buses wait outside, ticking in the early heat.

For once, no diesel blue hangs in the air, no klaxons summon people to work. The streets are empty of bicycles, the roasted engines of old cars, the heavy thump of lorries. It is, perhaps, a sign of how things will be out East.

The bus is crowded, so Elena sits on your lap. You kiss her head. Ruth reaches out a hand and you grasp it.

As the bus waits its turn to leave, a street cleansing crew arrives. One of them spits on the side of the bus, then cleans the spot with a filthy rag. The others in the crew laugh. You notice, strung along the side of their filthy truck, is a swinging curtain of corpses – cats, rats and a few long dogs.

Then the bus moves off and everyone cheers.

 

***

 

The square in front of the railway station is busy when the bus pulls in. The first arrivals have settled in groups, sharing breakfast. Men stand in knots, laughing and smoking. Swirls of children shriek as they play.

A young woman from the Relocation Commission greets you. She tells you she is grateful your family has come and that today is a great day. She smiles.

All the Commission workers are the same – young, bright-skinned, clear-eyed. They are dressed in identical green t-shirts, jeans and black boots. They wear earpieces and microphones. They have wristbands in rainbow colours, imprinted with phrases like ‘Calmness’, ‘Focus’, ‘Complete’.

On a platform by the station gates is their Manager. He peers constantly into a computer screen, his face tinged ghost-blue.

After the girl checks their papers, you ask about the suitcase still in the hold of the bus. She replies. “We’ll take care of your luggage.”

The suitcase hides the money you have saved, stuffed into a pair of socks. You think about insisting on taking it off the bus, but the girl has moved on.

Ruth spreads a blanket on the ground and you sit, waiting through the long morning hours. More people arrive, the crowd thickens. The heat of the day rises.

“I’m thirsty,” says Elena, after a while.

“Your grandfather said when they moved here those many years ago, his mother put pebbles in their mouths to stay the thirst.”

“We didn’t bring pebbles,” says Elena, toes curling and uncurling in her shoes.  “Why are we here?”

“You know why,” you say.

“Why us, I mean? And where are we going?”

Your daughter is much like her mother. Maybe Elena has heard Ruth whispering the same questions. You try to remember the words of the official message: “We are being relocated to the East. Somewhere better.”

Elena frowns: “But where exactly? Why are we going somewhere we don’t know? If I was told to go somewhere I didn’t know, I’d want to know exactly where. And exactly why.”

“But you’re here,” you say.

“Because you are,” says Elena.

You kiss her head, thinking of what to say, when there is a swell of music and giant screens around the square flicker then fill with words. “Welcome,” they say: “To the Day of Joy.”

The young people in the green t-shirts all cheer. Some in the crowd do the same.

As the letters fade, a landscape appears. Birds wheel away ahead of a camera that swoops over trees, then fields with plump cattle, grazing lush grass, impossibly green. The edge of a town appears, new houses, hundreds of them with straight, clean streets running between them. A crowd of people heads down one of the roads, carrying suitcases. At each house a family is led to the door by a young person from the Commission.

The green t-shirts in the square cheer and clap and whoop at this, encouraging the crowd to do the same. You squeeze Elena’s hand and say: “You see! This is it.”

The scene cuts. A child runs through a house, going from one spotless room to the next. There are two toilets, carpets, and in one room, a television. All round the square now, there is cheering and clapping.

“You see!” you say again this time to Ruth. But Ruth is not looking at the screens. She is watching the greenshirts, moving among the crowd. When they find a couple without children, or someone without family, they stop, smile, say a few words, then point towards a door at the front of the square. The people gather up their things and go, still cheering at the screens.

 

***

Message ID: 197/47

To: [Insert name] From: The Relocation Commission
Subject: The big day!

We are sure you’re as excited as we are for the Day of Joy, but please comply at all times with Registration and Processing – it will make things much smoother.

Members of our team will be on hand to help you – we don’t want to leave anyone behind!

 

***

 

The day draws on, the air stills, heat pools in the square. A family arrives late – a father and wife, four children. They are well-dressed, with luggage that glides on wheels. They head straight through the crowd to the Manager. Documents are handed over. The Manager types, waits, then points to the screen in front of him.

The father begins talking fast, you cannot hear the words. The Manager speaks into his headset. He waits, shakes his head, points again at the screen.

The well-dressed man waves his papers: “You people,” he shouts. “You people.”

A murmur runs through the crowd, low, like a swarm of heat-slowed flies. The Manager holds up his hand. Two young men in greenshirts appear. Their hands hover just behind the father’s shoulder, not touching. They both smile.

The father looks at the wife, licks his lips. Their children bunch around them like sheep. He takes back his documents and the family walk through the door at the front of the square.

You try to think about the houses on the giant screens. Picnics and walks in the lush green fields. You think how other districts have been relocated, how sometimes there is an update on the news. How you look for familiar faces, that you might have known from the factory or the journey to work. There is never anyone you recognise.

Two days before The Day Of Joy, the police raided Rudi’s place. The apartment was empty. No-one had seen him for days.

You begin to do up the buttons on your jacket. Then undo them again.

You rearrange the documents in order of age, then wonder if this is right. Maybe there is some other order. But what order? When you think of questions, more questions come. You button and unbutton your jacket again.

Ruth puts her hand over yours. For a moment, she leans her head on your shoulder and you catch the bitter smell of her scalp. Then she turns and calls to one of the greenshirts patrolling between the queues. The young man comes over. When he smiles, you notice how perfect his teeth are, except a single dead one, a little greyer than the rest.

“My daughter is very thirsty and faint,” Ruth says.

“Water will be provided soon,” the boy replies.

“My daughter is sick. Perhaps we should go back home, come another time.”

“Ruth?” you say.

“There are medics where you are going. All will be well,” the boy says.

Ruth moves closer to him: “What is your name?”

“Niko,” he says.

Ruth smiles: “We can find money, not now, but soon.”

“Ruth?” you say.

“But everyone is going, Mother. Don’t you want to go too?”

“Please Niko. For my daughter.”

“Ruth?” you say.

Niko holds up his hand, speaks into his microphone. He waits, nods, then he looks at Ruth and smiles.

“If you come with me, Mother, I’ll see what I can do.” He opens his palm, holds it just behind her shoulder, not touching.

“We should stay together,” you say. “With everyone else.”

“Jacob,” says Ruth and you see then her dark eyes shine. She turns and walks with the greenshirt until you cannot see her any more.

“Where’s mummy going?” asks Elena.

You catch the eye of a man in front of him, who has a boy, the same age as Elena. His wife leans against him. The man looks away. You bend, hold Elena’s hot face in your hands. She has a smudge of sleep in her eye and you wipe it away with the sleeve of your jacket.

“Everything is going to be beautiful,” you say.

 

***

Message ID: 197/48

To: [Insert name] From: The Relocation Commission
Subject: One last message!

We know moving can be stressful, but we’re here to make things go smoothly and efficiently.

You will be with all your old friends and family from the District. So stay together in the designated areas and board the train as quickly as you can.  

And remember, Relocation is for the good of all our futures.

 

***

 

The gates of the Grand Station open soon after Ruth is gone. The screens play their videos again, there is triumphal music and the greenshirts begin cheering and whooping until the noise is taken up by the crowd.

The queues press forward and you reach for Elena’s hand. She grips tight.

“Where’s mummy?” Elena asks again.

You cannot think of an answer your daughter will believe.

“Should we wait?” she asks.

Beyond the high gates, there is a sudden roar of diesel engines, so powerful the ground shudders. And with it the hard, flat stink of smoke and engine fumes.

The crowd tightens, some begin to jostle. You keep Elena close. On the ground there are abandoned bags, toys, a walking stick, some shoes. Someone has vomited and the smell of it drifts across the afternoon.

You approach the gates, where greenshirts direct the crowd. One of them is Niko. You pull Elena over to him. He makes both of you look into a camera, then takes your papers.

“My wife?” you say. “You must remember?”

“Of course. She will meet you on the other side,” Niko says and smiles his dead tooth smile.

You are herded through the gates and down a tight channel between high metal barriers. On either side are greenshirts, two or three deep, clapping and cheering. Some wear medical masks and gloves. Others hold dogs on thick metal chains.

You reach a tunnel and the crowd surges again. For a brief moment, you think of moving aside, stopping and waiting. A space to think.

But there is no aside, no stopping or thinking. The crowd is too tight. When the pace picks up, people begin to fall. You trip over an old man, stutter and lose your grip on Elena’s hand.  She is taken by the tide. You call her name, think you see her head once, twice far in front, and then she is gone.

You call out for your daughter, for Ruth, but cannot even hear your own voice. And the crowd moves as one, it races and pulses and carries you, quicker and further towards the platform. Music blares, hard over the vast rumble of engines. And from the screens that fill all the walls, dazzling in their brightness, are scenes of fields and houses, a happy child, looping round and round again.

And when you see the open doors of the train trucks on the platform, the people clambering inside, a memory comes of walking the long way home from school, so you could sit on the bridge over the rail tracks and watched the endless clanking trains pull towards the plains and the mountains to the East.

Now, above a few shrill screams, the crowd finds its voice – a sound without words that fills your head until you forget everything else, except the knowledge that this, finally, is the Day of Joy.

 

KM Elkes

The Day Of Joy was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015, as chosen by Paul McVeigh.

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