“So, this is nice. We haven’t done this in a while,” Harry said sipping at his scolding coffee. He sat in front of a glassless window, watching frantic survivors keep their village running. The floor of the café had been swept of debris, but there was still an immovable layer of dust that tinted everything in sepia.
“Don’t get comfortable, we’ll be out of here soon,” Jack said from behind his newspaper.
“The coffee shop?”
“Oh…” Harry hadn’t considered they’d be leaving the city. Running away from home was one thing, but leaving the capital? He’d never even seen beyond the broken remains of the motorway. He picked up the brass coloured spoon and scrapped at the congealed tea stains with his one unbitten nail. He leant on his elbows and pouted. They sat in silence. Jack read and Harry stirred his coffee.
Jack cast an imposing shadow, the other patrons had left as soon as the duo had sat down. Harry was a weed in comparison, all squeak and no roar. But he admired Jack. He admired his strength but most of all he admired his ability to be good. Despite everything, he was good. Jack had once told Harry that he was done with war, but war wasn’t done with him. Harry knew he’d fought before, that he’d put an end to some big evil. God wanted more from him, and Harry would help, so Jack said.
“Jack,” Harry ventured, “Where are we going?”
Outside, people dashed around, like they used to, but instead of briefcases and art easels, it was bags of rice and bottled water. Around the corner from the cafe, there was the vegetable farm, grown on a former public park. It fed the whole of New Village. The ruins of the old world smouldered around them, and armed guards in dirty, torn police uniforms passed between the civilians. These officers protected New Village, standing on the makeshift walls and holding back raider skirmishes.
Harry felt safe here, he’d never felt safe at home. Harry pulled his jumper down his arms to hide the scars, the frayed fabric itched against his fair skin. New Village stunk of gunpowder and blood, like home, but it was different, a shroud around him.
Jack flipped the page; he tutted and grunted as he read. Harry drew spiralling pictures on the table with his wet spoon, the muck clumped together as he scrapped the metal against the wood.
“I’ve heard it’s terrible up north, Jack,” he said. He bit the skin around his gnawed fingernails, grimacing at the taste of mud.
“It’s terrible everywhere.”
“Yeah, but I heard there’s cannibals up there,” Harry said.
“There’s cannibals down here.”
Harry dipped his spoon and slurped the coffee off of it. There were bad people everywhere, he thought. Jack had told him it was because no one had anything to believe in anymore. That they’d surrendered to ‘foul animal instinct’ because they couldn’t cope with the hopelessness. Jack had hope, and he said Harry should too. He said he should have faith in some big guy in the sky. Imaginary friends are for children, that’s what Harry’s father said, before ripping his teddy bears and smashing his teapot. Harry didn’t need faith in some God, but he had Jack.
Harry glared at the grey speckled hair that stuck above the paper. “Why are you reading that, Jack? It’s like five years out of date.”
“I like to pretend.”
Jack growled, “Yes, pretend.” He dropped the paper flat on the table and leaned forward. “I like to pretend it’s five years ago. When the only thing I had to worry about was my pissing tax returns. When the economy may have been bad but at least we had an economy. When parents took care of their kids and didn’t pass them around just to get a drink or a line.” He picked the paper up again, flicked it out and continue to ‘pretend’. His hands were shaking, and he was jiggling his leg, making waves in their drinks. “Now drink your coffee,” he said over the top of the paper.
Jack had brought the news rag from home and he’d been reading the same one over and over again. Harry looked down at his mug, his nose almost grazing the surface of the water. “Is there coffee up north?”
“I don’t know.”
“I hope there’s coffee, I like coffee.”
They fell silent again. The distant sound of gunfire was nothing new, neither was the faint and constant stench of burning and death. Harry took a sip of his coffee, it was cool enough to drink but warm enough to stave off the chill and he enjoyed the bitterness of it. Harry wondered if there were any other coffee shops left in London. He supposed there must be. The thin blonde lady running this one had given him his for free. The woman had also given him some chocolate, much to the displeasure of the other patrons. Harry liked the lady, she had a funny accent and everyone kept calling her Boris. He thought it an odd name for a girl.
“Jack… why are we going all the way up North?” Another police officer strolled past, tipping his hat to Harry. Harry bit his lip, watching a group of children kick a football around the square and laughing. “Could we not stay here? In New Village?” Harry said, picking bits of mud out of his dishevelled hair.
Jack growled to himself and put the paper down, folding it into thirds and placing it next to his handgun.
“If you say it’s terrible everywhere,” Harry continued, “isn’t the terrible you know better than the terrible you don’t?”
Jack leant forward, dirt and grime had collected in the creases of Jack’s face and matted in his wild beard. He looked like a savage, but Harry knew different. “Listen, lad, you know who your parents are. They will come looking for you. We cannot stay here. So for us, the unknown is better.”
“Are the northern cannibals better than southern cannibals?”
Jack laughed, “There’s more space to run up there, lad,” he said, winking at him. “Look, I don’t want anyone knowing where we go. Don’t want to risk that info getting back to those bastards. So you’re going to have to trust me. Can you trust me?”
“Yes, Jack.” Harry looked down, at the gun that still sat on the table between them. His whole body shivered as he remembered the sound followed by the taste of someone else’s blood in his mouth. Harry rubbed at his face with his sleeve and went back to biting his fingernails, grateful for the taste of mud.
“Does the north have a king and queen?” Harry asked.
“No, lad, they don’t but neither do we. No matter what those violent psychopaths claim.” Jack’s hands clenched around the edge of the table.
“But they have a castle. And they have guards…”
“They stole them, Harry,” Jack explained. “The real king and queen got taken away long ago. Besides, God doesn’t care about castles and guards. He only cares about what’s in a man’s heart. And their hearts are black as coal. They could have saved the capital. But they just….” He looked at the teen sat beside him, who was hanging on his every word.
“Leaders have a duty to protect their people. Even if the people don’t realise they need protecting. Leaders don’t throw them into the abyss just because they asked for it.” He paused, his face fell and voice grew softer than Harry had ever heard. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes, “And sometimes leaders have to do terrible things for the greater good.”
“Can I not help them? The people?” Harry said.
“Maybe. One day.” Jack shuffled in his seat, facing him head on, “Harry, I need you to listen to me very carefully.”
Harry turned to mirror Jack, placing both hands on the table and leaning right in wobbling on the uneven seat, “Yes, Jack?”
“When we get there, to the north. I need you to promise me, you won’t tell anyone who you really are. Ok?”
“So I won’t be a prince anymore?”
“No, Harry. But you’ll still be important.”
“Will I never be a prince?”
“One day, we will come back. Then you can be a prince. In fact, you may even be King! But until then, you’re just Harry.” He stared deep into Harry’s eyes like he was pushing energy into him. Harry could feel it, the desperate need to protect. And he did feel protected with Jack, even before the war.
“Ok, Jack. I’m just Harry.”
Jack leant back, his eyes drawn to the shadow that engulfed the doorway. A man, just as big as Jack, stood, covered in filth with a large automatic rifle strapped to his back. He was several years younger than Jack but experience carved age into his dark face. “You ready?” he said to Jack.
Jack bowed his head and then stood, “This is us, Harry. We’re going.”
“But I haven’t finished my coffee,” Harry said, attempting to down the whole thing in one go.
“That’s alright, Little Soldier.” Boris was stood on the other side of the counter, “Here’s a fresh one, I’ve put it in a special mug so you don’t spill it.” She held out an old travel mug. It was pink and covered in cats, but Harry didn’t mind. He took it, flicked open the lid and took a big whiff.
“Thanks, Boris, you’re awesome.”
“You are, Borislava,” Jack said, taking her hands in his, “Thank you, and you didn’t see us.”
She tugged his hand towards her, forcing him forward, his face inches from hers. “Promise me you’ll come back for them, Jack,” she said.
Jack smiled and squeezed her hands, “Sound the alarm as soon as we hit the checkpoint, and be careful.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“Bah!” Boris pulled her hand away, “They’ve already killed my family and destroyed every country I’ve ever called home. What could they do to me now?”
“We have to move,” the man from the doorway said.
Jack clipped his gun to his holster and nodded, steering Harry to the front door.
Outside, a large bus had rolled into the square, clogging the air with the scent of petrol. The tires had large spikes on them and thick metal grating covered the windows.
Jack turned to the man in the doorway, “That’s a bit bigger than we discussed.”
Around them, parents began grabbing their children, pulling them into intense embraces, and sobbing before herding them onto the bus. The bags of rice and bottled water Harry saw earlier were being loaded into a storage unit underneath and guards were tugging at the grating, making sure it was secure.
“We’ve got a skirmish planned against the east watchtower, with a decoy bus of C4,” The man from the doorway said to Jack, “You’ll be heading out of the south gate. We’ve bribed the guards.”
“South gate? There’s no way we’ll get a bus this big around the ring road,” said Jack.
“You’re not going on the ring road. You’re heading down to Dover.”
“Jack, I thought you said we were going north, to see the nice cannibals,” Harry said.
The Man-in-the-Doorway’s whole head crinkled as he cocked an eyebrow at him.
“We are,” Jack said, suppressing a laugh, “We’re going by ferry, it seems.”
Harry looked at the faces of the people around him, they were all so sad. Even Jack looked sad. Even when he laughed, the smile never reached his eyes. Jack was never sad. Angry, yes, but not sad.
“What are you going to do?”
There was a moment where everything seemed to stop. Jack’s whole body shrunk and for the first time, Harry swore there were tears forming in the old man’s eyes. Jack seemed to stop breathing and even The-Man-In-The-Doorway couldn’t look Harry in the face.
“Jack?” Harry said, gripping onto his uncle’s arm, “What are you going to do?”
Time lurched forward again, as Jack exhaled sharply. “Something terrible,” Jack said. Jack pulled Harry away from the cafe, and guided him towards the bus, “Drink your coffee.”
Harry smiled as he pressed his nose against the top of the mug,
“I like coffee.”
Originally published on Alison's Anthology Click for more Short Stories!
Published by Alison Wells