The box cut into Arthur’s hands. It was heavier than the rest, and when he placed it atop the pile he’d created and flexed his hands, he found dark red bruises beginning to form. Thick calluses had grown round the bottom of each finger over the previous month, as he carried box after box around the market hall.
He paused for a moment and looked around him. The market hall was a hive of activity, although a different sort to usual. Gone was the mass of stalls, fighting with their coloured banners and signs, replaced by orderly rows of tables that spanned the entire length of the hall. Gone was the faint smell of mould, from food that had perished and been swept underneath the stalls and forgotten about. Whoops and crys echoed around the hall, but rather than calls for deals and requests for work, they were of joy and the occasional yell for help. He watched as kids scurried around the hall, diving in out of a row of ladders, held fast by a row of men; he let his eyes wander up the ladders. Clutching on with one hand, the other stretched out, workers conducting final checks of the hall’s lighting.
Arthur sensed someone watching him, and he turned round. His father, Harry, stood with his arms folded.
“C’mon lad, time enough to watch later. Forem’n says t’go back and get the last crate.” His father walked to the pile of boxes and tore open the lid of the top box.
Arthur craned his neck to see inside. Despite carrying them from one place to another, and being told that the contents were delicate, he wasn’t told exactly what was inside. His father noticed his attempts and angled himself so that his back obscured Arthur’s vision.
“Off y’go Art. Y’ll find out later.”
“Yessir.” He said.
Arthur pushed his way through a throng of people, waiting to be served at an impromptu food stall, then fought with the urge to turn round and join them as the greasy smell of hot meat reached him. He carried on walking. He didn’t want to keep the foreman waiting.
Away from the hall, the corridor emptied, and the general hum of New London took over from the shouting in the hall. He broke in a jog, his shoes clanking against the metal floor. The corridor was humid. The ventilation shafts wouldn’t be opened for another hour at least, unless the wind changed direction and the factory smoke blew the other way; although he could hear the wind howl past the corridor, it didn’t blow away the heat that came through the glass panels and lingered in the corridor. As Arthur ran, he flicked his hair out of his face, tying it behind his head with a band.
Several minutes jogging and he began to near the storage barn, and he could hear the growl of the foreman as he gave order after order. Arthur slowed and rubbed the sweat from his face with his shirt; he slowed his breathing and entered the barn.
The foreman sat in his wheelchair in the centre, pushing his arms back and forth on the tops of the wheels, making the chair spin as he gave orders. Arthur wondered once more how the man was able to spin so quickly without becoming dizzy.
“George they’re for the factories, Pot leave those for today, Arthur final box’s over there.” The foreman flung an arm up and pointed. Arthur turned and guessed where the foreman had intended to point. His spinning didn’t help nor did his habit of continually talking and letting one instruction run into another.
He found the final box and glanced at his hands and then around for a trailer.
“Don’t need no trailer Arthur” said the foreman, his call fading rapidly as a stream of instructions followed.
Arthur knelt and lifted the box, grunted in surprise at how light it was in comparison to the rest, and started to walk back to the hall.
As he walked, he guessed what could be inside. It wouldn’t be the fireworks, they’d all been set up days ago. It wasn’t food, that came from the other side of the hall. It wouldn’t be cutlery or glasses, the nice stuff was all stored in trays. Perhaps it was candles, or gifts.
He paused in the corridor, put the box down and changed his grip. He thought back to what he’d seen at the previous C-Days that he was missing so far. There were the banners, but they weren’t being used this year; the streamers replaced them, in a rainbow of colour along the top of the hall, ready to flutter in the clean air when the purifier was engaged and the ventilation shafts were opened.
His mind continued to wander as he continued down the corridor, sweat dripping from his forehead and running down his nose, before dropping and drying on his shirt. Perhaps it was some commemoration gift? He knew that a couple of the factories had had their production redirected and everybody was being quiet about what it was they were now making.
One night he and Walt had run through New London, dodging in and out of shadows to avoid the watchmen and guards, and managed to enter the factory district. The noise had been immense, and their eardrums had hurt for days after, and they had struggled to stand initially as the ground shook and vibrated. Sometimes the walls rumbled and dust creaked out from the ceiling. Stifling their coughs, they crept the entire length of the district, their clothes becoming black as they absorbed the greasy air. Eventually they found the two factories and had watched as the gates opened and shut, parcels being pushed out by grease-skinned men who shouted and grunted at each other. The parcels would get stacked high on the back of trailers, before three of the men would emerge from the factory and pull the trailer away, down another corridor.
The boys had watched for several hours, until the sun had begun to rise and grey light had begun to fight with the dirty windows, before they had scurried back through the darkness. Both of them had thrown their clothes into the rubbish when they got home, and both were told off for falling asleep in their lessons that day.
Arthur put the box down once more and looked out of the window. The government tower was in the centre, marking the midpoint of the corridor. He looked out and down, looking into the darkness from which the towers were grew. His school had run a trip down to the Dark before, into the foundations of the school tower. They weren’t allowed all the way down though, only into the museum part, which had been certified safe. Arthur and Walt had tried to explore, but the route was carefully plotted, and they couldn’t climb the barriers.
He turned back to the box and felt along its edges. He shook it and felt nothing move. He looked around the corridor, checking that no-one was coming, and then felt for the opening. His knife swished open and he cut slowly along the tape that ran across the top. He held the corner of the wood and lifted it, pushing hard against the stiff hinges.
Inside, nestled amongst a pile of sawdust, was a small picture. He lifted it from the box, holding the wooden frame. He didn’t recognise it, it wasn’t of the Minister, and wasn’t of anybody else who was important. It was an old woman, who was looking directly at the artist. she was wearing something strange, a bit like a curtain, that ran from her shoulders all the way to the ground. He guessed it was some sort of dress, but it was funny shape, spreading wide at the bottom like a bell. She was wearing something else too, something on her head.
A voice echoing down the corridor startled Arthur, and he dropped the picture back in the box, slapped the top shut and stood up, walking quickly to the hall. Once there, he ducked into a shadow with a roll of tape and stuck some back over the top of the box, which he placed next to the pile of now empty boxes.
Harry waved with one hand for Arthur to join him, and raised a mug with another. Arthur nodded and ran over, dodging a plank that hung over the end of a trailer.
“Took y’time.” His father said and passed Arthur a mug full of black tea. He swung his legs over the bench and looked for milk. He shrugged and sipped at the bitter liquid, leaning forward to join in his father’s discussion.