At Whitbread, our pupils are wonderful at achieving exceptional English results. Their teachers however, are rather pants at celebrating these successes. Therefore, in a series of short posts, I will be embarrassing all the truly splendiferous students by showing their work off like a proud papa placing a drawing of an ambiguous splodge of paint on the fridge door.
Millie Morris is an outstanding all-rounder. Her results last week read like a Scouser trying to placate a fracas: A… A… A… A student of both Literature and Language, Millie demonstrates outstanding analytic skill and wonderful creativity. For years she has continuously impressed teachers with her well-constructed and perceptive arguments and produced poetry and short stories that could be published in an instant. Furthermore, fully armed with her plethora of highlighters and colourful gel pens, Millie’s notes during lessons are some of the finest examples of contemporary art.
In addition to academic excellence this year, Millie has also had great success in the coveted Lancaster Writing Awards. With hundreds of entries from exceptionally gifted sixth formers across the country, Millie came second in the fiction category. This is a truly phenomenal achievement, and it gives me great pride to post her outstanding short story below.
The Runaway Orphan
London, 2093 AD
I’m running away. Away from the camp, away from the ghost of my mother, and towards Cole. My time is up – I am scared and tired but I have no alternative – today is the day of my 16th birthday.
They tell you, when you’re younger, it’ll never happen to you. You’ll stay with a loving family who’ll pay for your upkeep, and, when the time comes, your usage tax. They skirt around the topic, move onto other things. “This isn’t on the curriculum.” “None of you are orphans, so it don’t matter.” They don’t mention what happens when your parents can’t afford to pay the tax, although everybody knows.
My mother couldn’t pay. She was reaching old age and the end of her use, her tax increased and she was killed. I was there. There was blood.
I shut it out, ignored it, was taken to an orphan camp but I was dangerously close to the end of my “free” childhood. No investors. No other option but to get rid of me. So I ran.
I stumble on a rock, lose my footing and fall, arms flailing madly, into the thick ashy mud at my feet. I scramble up, using my sleeve to rub the dirt away from my eyes and mouth and stare around at my surroundings. London city. Destroyed, but still beautiful. It’s own kind of poetry.
To my right is the stinking, polluted river they call the Thames. England’s great water motorway, I remember being told. I rack my brains but for the life of me I can’t remember what a motorway is – maybe the great expanse of murky water, dancing like dirty, liquid diamond would mean a little more to me if I could. I doubt it.
I stare at my camp-issue watch, bright lights still twirling in front of my eyes. It’s 7:45 pm – I’ve been alive for two hours, 42 minutes longer than they had planned. I wait for the feeling of success to fill me – I’ve achieved the impossible, I deserve elation, excitement. None comes. Why do I not experience the delighted relief the characters in the books I read always feel? Have I not passed the climax, achieved my goal? Surely there is only the resolution to come. I curse the names of Tolkien, Doyle, Rowling. Perhaps my life does not qualify for the adventure story I took it to be. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing the feeling into existence.
“Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
I do not like the dark. The darkness brings other things. Resting behind my eyelids, assaulting me when I close my eyes, are the people I’ve lost. My mother and father, Cole, Mo, 321, 453. Others whose names and numbers I can’t remember. All but Cole were gone because their usefulness ran out, and nobody could pay the tax required to justify them using this world’s hopelessly limited resources. Cole simply disappeared.
When I first arrived at the camp, the leaders were optimistic that I’d get an investor. Intelligent, healthy despite my asthma, and not too noisy. My obsession with books and my advanced use of language, they said, would only be minor drawbacks. But it soon became clear that despite my low tax and high usefulness level, the investors who initially showed interest disappeared with weak excuses. I scared the first one off with a metaphor; the second one spotted my copy of Northern Lights; the third left bellowing profanities after I answered the question “What’s your favourite colour?” with “that orange colour Cole’s hair turned in the sunlight, like the edges of the rays themselves”. Poetic or creative language is seen as rebellious – I learnt that soon enough.
But word travels quickly within the upperclass, and there were no more interested investors. Apparently, the merits of paying my tax and thus getting a share of any salary I make was not enough to warrant the rumours now surrounding me. So I ran. Cole must have managed it, how else had he disappeared? I had a theory he had set up camp, was waiting for other orphans or penniless people to join him. I figured he’d head to central London, as it was a wasteland, stripped of it’s capital city status after the London Raids – London rebelled. And it had been subdued.
I had been walking for almost 15 hours and I needed to rest. It was growing dark, and I wanted to be asleep before night fell entirely. My footsteps had become slow, my feet sinking deep into the black mud before I pulled them out again with a great sucking sound. I figured that the grassy patches were no longer helping muffle my steps and altered my path so I was walking on the cracked, ashy slabs of stone I assumed were once a path following the course of the river. I kept my eye out for a place to rest.
I took refuge in a small concrete shelter with smashed windows but a stable roof. I stared out at the huge metal wheel it stood by – bigger than anything I’d ever seen: magnificent, muddy, murky glass pods stationed at regular intervals around it. Despite its size, it remained standing and likely structurally sound, a metal sentry to the collapsing buildings surrounding it. I fell asleep taking guesses as to its purpose.
I was shivering when I awoke, late at night, the darkness almost tangible, covering and caressing my eyes with its inky black hands. I did not like the dark. I sat up, letting my eyes adjust and soon the dark veil obscuring my vision lessened, as though fabric was switched from velvet to lace. There was a cold wind rushing through the empty window panes, but aside from its howling I could hear nothing. I stood up. I blinked. I could still see very little by the light of the moon – only dark shapes that unnerved me. I did not like the dark.
I thought of Dickens, of Poe. The darkness that concealed potential attackers also hid me from them. But before I could help myself my thoughts had turned to The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven and I heard the lone sound of a bird’s caw overhead, echoing around the abandoned city and I screamed. I covered my mouth a second later. I did not like the dark.
“Then, methought, the air grew denser.”
The bird’s call unnerved me. I had heard nothing of life for so long in this wasteland I assumed no animal dared inhabit it. For the first time, I felt as though there was a hostile presence on my tail. I wasn’t alone in London tonight.
I swung my small bag of provisions over my shoulder and edged out of the little building, cursing my scream, cursing the bird for frighting me. Anyone could have heard me. Somebody did.
In the darkness, I had missed them. They stand only a short walk from my resting place. Four of them: tall, dark, Governmental figures. And standing in the middle of them? Cole.
Relief, pain and confusion flash through my mind in quick succession. I don’t know what to do or what it means but he is standing there. My brother. My flesh and blood, alive.
I can’t find my voice. Words, always my comfort and my weapon, have failed me. A hoarse whisper, barely my own, murmurs “Cole?”
“482.” He says. It’s wrong. Too businesslike. My number, not my name. He gestures to the man next to him. I don’t understand the motion. My heart is screaming at me to move closer and greet him and little is stopping me. I feel as though my brain hasn’t caught up yet; my thoughts are jumbled, panicked. I take a step towards him. I cover the rest of the distance without noticing.
I throw myself into his arms, crying, before my brain can warn me otherwise. I feel his hands in my hair, his lips at my ear, urgent. “I’m sorry.” He whispers. My brain catches up.
I turn and there’s a gun at my head. One shot only to kill the runaway orphan.
“And my soul from that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!”