Pulp.net - Hard Rain

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Richard Berry
At the sound of machine- gun fire, Ashot Torosyan ducked behind his car.

Bullets thudded into the front door of 12 Lineker Crescent where Ashot had pinned an enforcement notice stating, inter alia, that:

‘… the volume of this dwellinghouse
and/or its curtilage has been expanded
without the prior consent of the
Planning Magistrate.’
(S.2.(5) Planning (Emergency Fluvial
Provisions) Act 2043).

Contravention of this statute was punishable by demolition of the offending building and extension within twelve hours of the notice being served. The malefactor faced up to ten years imprisonment aboard the Republic Mansfield, a prison ship anchored off the coast of Birmingham. Given the unpopularity of this measure and its vigorous implementation, planning officials were used to being shot at.

Ashot’s titanium-plated amphibious vehicle deflected bullets into the grubby brown floodwaters. Still crouching, Ashot waved his palm in front of a security plate on the driver’s side. The door opened like an eagle offering a wing to its young. Another round of shots rang out as the door slammed shut and the reassuring hum of the onboard computer kicked in. He considered retaliating with heat-sensing rockets, but the sniper was secreted amid a mishmash of water-damaged dwellings. Besides, filling out the necessary SE-12 Summary Execution Form would only add to his pile of paperwork.

The light blue dashboard flashed up an air composition report:
8% humidity
Air quality -3

The temperature was cool for October, but the humidity was suffocating. The air was poor even for this sector of the city where sewers regurgitated waste in revolt at their unrelenting workload, and fat rats ignored the drifting cadavers uprooted from flooded cemeteries.

There were three messages.

1: 12.34 — Office
Ten hovercrafts delivered to Planning Marina. Orders required for deployment.

2: 12.37 — Weather centre
Imminent severe rain alert. Move to high ground or designated place of safety within 67 minutes.

3: 12.42 — Hanif Mohammed
Personal. Return communication.

Ashot focused his dark brown eyes on the last message. ‘Contact,’ he said.

The screen filled with the face of a male Pakistani biting the corner off a samosa. His cracked face supported a collapsed quiff of black hair and his crumpled off-grey shirt restrained plumes of white chest hair.

‘Hanif. Long time no see.’

‘Been over five years, my boy. How’s life treating you?’

‘Good. I was promoted to senior planning officer last month,’ said Ashot, aware that his distinctive, angular Armenian features had infused all Central Highland media reports throughout the previous week.

‘I expect you’re so busy nowadays you forget the little things in life,’ said Hanif.


‘My seventy-fifth birthday!’ shouted Hanif, pressing his face so close to the videophone screen it caused Ashot to recoil. ‘But how can I be offended? You’ve forgotten the last seventy-four!’

‘Congratulations, old fella! They say seventy-five is the new fifty. You’ll be eligible for a boat pass then?’

‘Stop that cheek and stop in for some food. Surely you can spare ten minutes for a man entering middle age?’

‘Not sure. I have urgent work to oversee.’

‘Nonsense! What’s the point of being promoted if you can’t delegate? Besides, there’s business I’d like to discuss.’

Ashot relaxed back into his seat.

‘Business? Okay. Say, does Furzana still make those delicious stuffed parathas?’

‘She prepares them as we speak.’

• • •

Ashot ordered his office to send a demolition hovercraft to 12 Lineker Crescent and delegated the rest of the morning’s unauthorised building investigations. The hydraulic suspension of his vehicle revved loudly, raising the chassis, dispersing floodwater like Moby Dick surfacing to greet Captain Ahab.

He looked in his rear-view camera: sixty or so tower blocks stood to attention as if waiting for the God of Ten Pin Bowling to come and strike them down. These ‘temporary’ structures had been erected in 2010 to house the first wave of evacuees from the Lincolnshire Fens. Thirty-three years later, meteorologists were outwardly confident that the measures taken to combat global warming were beginning to take effect.

But the waters had reached Peterborough. Work on the ambitious Fen Reclamation Scheme had been suspended as polders flooded. Billions of dollars had been invested and the speculators’ dreams lay at the bottom of the Wash. Leicester city centre had now become a property hotspot. Buildings had been extended upwards, outwards, and on the highest ground downwards, as migrants from the east and south squeezed into an already overcrowded area. It could not continue unabated, and so the planning magistrate was appointed.

Ashot drove up to the security cordon that surrounded the St Peter’s Estate. To speed up formalities
he handed his identity card, a two-hour visa and a hundred-dollar tab to the security guard. The guard waved his machine gun at his colleague to raise the gate.

As Ashot kicked the accelerator to the floor, his vehicle parted a way through the floodwaters. In his wake the water kissed the doorsteps, as if reminding them of its presence.

Hanif had been more than a landlord to Ashot; he had given the penniless Armenian immigrant his first job washing dishes after he discovered the waif rummaging through a waste bin at his restaurant. Back then, Leicester’s main thoroughfare Melton Road was known as the Golden Mile, full of curry houses sandwiched between glittering sari shops and jewellers. Now there were no restaurants; the idea of wasting a whole building on dining out was absurd when living space was so scarce. Former restaurant owners, desperate to make a living, resorted to issuing invitations to the public to visit their houses for ‘authentic Asian cuisine’. Only McDonald’s had survived; more adaptable than the water rat, they had launched a fleet of Burger Boats mincing creatures washed inland from oceanic depths. Once fried, they were served up with McSeaweed garnish.

Ashot turned into Heskey Road and parked outside the first house. Children sat on the rooftops, and adults peered out of second-floor windows, handkerchiefs wrapped around their faces to protect them from legions of flies. A caravan had been squeezed into the front yard, propped up on bricks to raise it above water level. On its roof lay a teenage boy who wore a wide-brimmed hat and a sullen expression as he idly catapulted gravel into the floodwaters. The caravan was a clear breach of planning legislation but Ashot decided to overlook this. He was hungry.

The front door opened and a handful of toddlers hopped from the front step like penguins jumping off a cliff, splashing excitedly around Ashot’s legs and sloshing water over the top of his black leather boots.

‘Calm down,’ he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a large bag of assorted sweets.

The children snatched at the bag. Assorted lollipops and chews tumbled into the waters. A podgy seal pup of a boy with a snorkel pushed the others aside and took a deep breath before plunging for the treasure. Moments later he triumphantly held up a tube of Smarties which was seized by two boys who fought over and bent the sodden tube. Ashot was soaked, but the distraction enabled him to climb over a bank of sandbags into the sanctuary of the porch.

Hanif held out his spindly arms and nodded towards the mayhem. ‘Good to see you, but you should learn not to be so indulgent with your own children — if you ever have any.’

‘The country’s overpopulated enough as it is,’ said Ashot, seizing Hanif’s claw-like hand.

‘Come through,’ said Hanif.

Ashot removed his boots and followed the barefoot Hanif through a front room jammed with mattresses stacked to the ceiling and piles of bedclothes folded with origami precision. Six nonagenarians sat on the floor, their legs crossed like those of grasshoppers, sharing a bottle of cough linctus as if passing round a joint.

The dining room had a small table cluttered with gewgaws, tiny jewel-encrusted novelties and gold-plated ornaments. The walls were bare. Wallpaper had slipped off the damp walls, leaving black patches of condensation.

It seemed Hanif had sold the decent stuff. The family gold he’d once proudly looked after, the heirlooms brought over from Pakistan by relatives. Ashot knew that few had personally benefitted from the floods as he had, but it surprised him how a once enterprising restaurateur was doing little more than running a doss house for relatives.

Poor Hanif. He always seemed to be lumbered with his family’s problems: idle sons, paying for daughters’ weddings, caring for the sick, and acting as an unofficial touchstone for the Pakistani community in Leicester. With his unsteady gait, his weathered appearance, and air of resignation, the man looked utterly without hope.

Hanif yelled an order in Hindi to the kitchen, reminding Ashot what a tough employer he had once been. Almost immediately, trays of pakora, dal and marinated strips of lamb and chicken were ferried out by four generations of females. Ashot helped Hanif to the floor and they sat cross-legged on either side of a coffee table.

‘How did you get hold of all this?’ said Ashot, admiring the plates that filled the table.

‘I still have contacts,’ said Hanif.

‘You know, I learnt more from you than you think,’ said Ashot, tearing a chapatti in half and scooping up a mouthful of dal. It was delicious. He’d watched Hanif cook it a thousand times, but however often he tried, it never tasted the same. He bit into a tandoori chicken wing, the red chilli paste coating his cheeks. ‘This is terrific. You joining me?’

Hanif waved his hand.

‘Savour it, my friend. Remember how we used to eat like this every night?’

‘I must have been the best fed refugee in Leicester.’

Hanif watched expressionless as Ashot finished his chicken wing.

‘Don’t take offence, Hanif, but you seem troubled. Neither of us enjoy small talk. What it was you wanted to see me about?’

Hanif moved a cushion behind his back and placed his hands on his thighs. ‘It’s not easy for me.’

‘I’m listening.’

‘You see how things are. I have my father here. Furzana’s parents. Relatives in Kashmir have been coming over since the conflict escalated. There are rumours India will drop another atomic bomb. Relatives over here are now making their way to Leicester. Last week, my cousin turns up with his family from Peterborough because the flood waters are breaking through! And I’m expected to do what I can to house them. If I don’t, I lose respect — the only thing I have left. Some would even see it as disloyalty.’

Hanif paused.

‘Do you know, Ashot, I don’t even know how many people are living here at the moment! It must be over sixty, yet my memory and eyesight get so poor I’m not even certain they are all my relatives.’

There was a crack of thunder, followed by heavy raindrops pounding on the windows. There were groans in the front room from the nonagenarians trampled underfoot by children scurrying up to the second storey. Rain seeped onto the windowsills and the familiar sound of the flood siren prompted Ashot to stand up. Hanif sat motionless.

‘Global warming has hit everyone one way or another.’ Ashot tossed the stripped chicken bone onto a plate.

‘I want to help — but there is only so much a man can do,’ said Hanif.

Ashot looked at him levelly.

‘I get the feeling you want me to assist.’

‘I cannot afford to buy in Leicester,’ said Hanif. ‘Even if thirty members of my family pool money, we cannot afford a terraced house in a place like Highfields. We cannot compete with these moneyed people from London and abroad.’

‘We’re both immigrants, Hanif. We expected people in this country to make allowances for us, and by and large they did.’

‘That was before the floods, when there was room to absorb everybody. It’s only a matter a time before the flood barriers break and everyone south of Watford moves up here. You can’t just relocate twelve million people into another part of the country.’

Ashot walked over to a window and peered into the torrential rain.

‘So how do you propose to deal with your problem?’

‘I can extend, build another storey. Two big rooms.’

Ashot started to laugh.

Hanif threw up his hands. ‘What’s so funny?’

‘You can’t even put up a shelf, let alone build something.’

‘I have sons. Relatives who are out of work: builders, joiners, electricians. Know-how and labour is not a problem.’

‘But you want to know whether your application will be granted? Is that it?’

‘It would be good building. Safe,’ said Hanif.

‘It’s not gonna happen, Hanif. You know the planning department has a moratorium on applications, precisely to stop people like your relatives coming up from London.’

‘But the Russian family on Worthington Close. Only last week they were allowed another storey.’

Ashot looked at his watch. ‘An exception. Forget it, Hanif, there’s no way you’ll get it granted. Five years ago we weren’t so concerned about illegal extensions, but we’re recruiting another eighty enforcement officers next month. You won’t be able to put up a dog kennel without getting your house confiscated and a stretch on a prison ship.’

‘Confiscated? What, so some bureaucrat can house his mistress?’ asked Hanif.

‘I don’t make the laws.’

‘But who are you using them to protect?’

‘Everybody. Hundreds are killed each year because of illegal extensions that collapse. The control of building materials has made a difference, but idiots still risk lives by building DIY extensions, using crap materials.’

‘Safety is just an excuse, Ashot. You could put in a word if you wanted; I know the department has discretion. Damn it, you could help me!’

Ashot shook his head.

‘You forget what my family did for you?’ spat Hanif, sweat gathering on his brow.

‘Hanif, I’ve always been grateful to you for giving me a home and job, but I’m telling you how it is for your own good. You don’t want to end up in a prison ship. At your age it would be as good as a death sentence.’

‘You’ve got so far up the ladder you do not see who is at the bottom,’ said Hanif.

‘I came here out of courtesy and longstanding friendship, but this is going too far. Now, much as I have enjoyed our reunion, I do not want to sit out the flood here, so thanks for your hospitality.’

Ashot walked towards the front room.

‘That is all you have to say?’ shouted Hanif.

Ashot turned. ‘How interested are these relatives?’

‘Desperate. The Thames flood barrier has been breached again. They have no choice but to leave.’

Ashot folded his arms, then stroked his chin like a contemplative professor. ‘There may be special circumstances.’

‘Such as?’

‘What jobs do they have?’

‘Shaheed sells boats, his wife something medical; paediatrician, I think,’ said Hanif.

‘Well paid?’

‘I suppose.’

Ashot smiled. ‘Then perhaps we could do business.’

Hanif limped over to Ashot and grabbed his shoulders. ‘You want a bribe?’

‘Call it a flood defence tax.’

‘You disgust me,’ hissed Hanif.

‘Just business, Hanif, like you always taught me. Agreed?’

Ashot held out his hand, and the screech of his vehicle’s warning system blistered the monotony
of the rain. He rushed into the front room, trampling bodies that lay crumpled like foetuses. Wrenching open the front door, he waded out towards his vehicle, floodwaters rising above his knees. He could make out the faces of children sitting on the vehicle roof; still others were sitting inside.

The rain beat harder. Ashot banged on the window, shouting through the glass at the smiling faces. The water was up to his knees now, and rising.

© Richard Berry 2006