Sanitised Inhumanity

Sterility is one of the true markers of our time. As we live, try to understand and to create we repeatedly assume that to cleanse, to add a polished shine is to imbue quality in what we do.

In cities we gentrify, bringing order to urban chaos in the form of kit ready assemblies to be erected over the rubble of human growth. That same human growth suddenly dismissed as almost bacterial, disordered and messy. It’s judged as bad, while newly erected chains and cut to template homes are held as pure and good. A concerted effort to appease an imagined middle perhaps, where any number of fears, uncertainties and phobias can be soothed by uniformity regardless of how thin the slice of humanity is which requires such complete psychological security to exist.

In culture even the darkest and most honestly chaotic experiences, truths and ideas follow the same path. Without an ounce of realised hypocrisy or awareness the most fractured and incomprehensible portions of our human condition are buffed to a camera ready sheen where the words might survive unchanged but the force is disinfected away to aid the digestion of the now deified consumer. To do otherwise, to offer the unadorned and un-gilded without comforting context or a soft focus is to break the laws of appeal. An ironic requirement which means even the most unpleasant of subjects need to be sold to an audience by a ready set of tricks, tropes and focus grouped obligations. And even where art ignores those demands and tries to force forward with honesty there’s the whole industry of marketing waiting to insert itself and do the job in the creator’s place. An overwhelming process which can turn even the most determinedly transgressive rejection of the polished product into a marketable asset without the option to resist ever arising.

In our news the same occurs. Unending and unyielding stories are distilled down to bite sized packages, a war is the story of the week and forgotten with the weekend, natural disasters blossom up in live feeds and tragic set pieces before magically being healed in the viewer’s unconscious once the cameras stop rolling. Nothing is so bad, so inhuman or so crippling that it can’t be subsumed into the calm waters of cleansed presentation. An unnatural act, like a story cut off before the final act and one which leaves the audience to wonder why there’s some gnawing doubt digging into them. The news moves on, but humanity doesn’t, even if the outline of events is forgotten the feelings they inspire aren’t. They just add to a never ending pile of oppressive anxiety and insecurity which grows with every rotation of the news cycle. A more bare boned honesty would seldom offer much more by way of resolution but it might at least highlight the need for thought beyond the first hit of action rather than proclaiming the past passed and leaving the results of it to silently fester.

Maybe this is the evolution of human control at work. Perhaps the desire was always to sterilise what we saw and how we saw it. Perhaps this is just the first time in our history where so much force – political, capital and social has come together to give us what we want though. Where before the drive to not see was a desperate aspiration maybe it’s now become a readily offered boon from a society and media which is finally in a position to both offer and profit from it. If that’s so then it’s us who need to shake out of our own overstuffed comfort zone and seek some sense of humanist masochism. We need to start rejecting the comforts of a story, world or home which is marketed to us rather than grown and experienced by us. Or we just need to reject the snake oil salesman whose potion has proven itself, in a way, to work. And if this isn’t our natural desire carried through to artificial completion then why do we have it? Why is such simplicity and razor sharp definition of our world being forced onto us and what lies across the lines beyond which confusion is being partitioned off?

Either way the side-effects of our anti-bacterial fixation are going to keep on mounting up and, sooner or later, we’ll need to face them or let them take a toll on us no less devastating than the messy truth itself would.

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The Dwarves of Camberwell

Camberwell Green

It wasn’t until they set about building the new flats that questions started to be asked.

They were easy ones at first, mundane in nature, technical in approach. ‘Have you checked the subsidence in the north west corner?’ and ‘we’ll have to add another layer of concrete to those foundations there, any idea why it keeps dropping out?’ They were questions that people in bright yellow safety jackets could feel at home with, nodding sagely as they stared at theodolites and arguing over clipboards with suited council officials. The day to day grind of the working world and nothing new to any of them.

Things got more complex though, quickly. Even more expert experts than the ones already on site were called in, machines with ticking gauges and thermal imaging were deployed with smug pride from those who knew what they did when others didn’t. Bore holes were made, samples taken, studies carried out and, eventually, locked away in secret filing cabinets as strange figures in hazmat suits started to appear in the night, upsetting the part time security guard and casting conspiracies in the minds of the neighbours. Nuclear waste? Ancient alien ruins? Chemical weapons? Everyone at the bus stop had an opinion, to start with at least, until it became a bit too obvious that, one by one, the usual commuters and school kids were disappearing after speculating a little bit too wildly and that the grey man in the grey suit with the grey phone was taking a few too many notes on what was said.

The council, affronted at being left out of the loop, blamed the gas company, who blamed the water company, who blamed the phone company who blamed the gas company again because they were part of a large corporation which wanted the works contract for the area to themselves and it seemed like a good opportunity. The strange figures in hazmat suits didn’t blame anybody, although they did tell the police to sod off when they turned up, insult the fire brigade for showing an interest and question a passing doctor from the hospital who came asking about potential risks. People did try asking them questions but before long the army showed up and, with a few rubber bullets and some tear gas, curiosity seemed to fade a bit.

After that the questions more or less dried up in Camberwell. If anybody knew anything then they didn’t want it known and those who didn’t know anything still knew enough to know that they didn’t want to know any more. Even when the attack helicopters started hovering and the tanks skimmed their way down the Walworth Road the nervous silence was kept and none bar the odd, ignorant child even raised an eyebrow when the dull thud of explosions began to rattle under their feet, dribbles of smoke working their way out of drain covers as distant screams and cries faded from the ground up.

And then one day it was over. The army packed up it’s toys, strangers in hazmat white jumped on the bus out of Camberwell and all was quiet in the ancient South East London idyll again. Except for the kids screaming at bus stops, traffic jams, occasional junkie and night bus revellers lingering outside of McDonalds, of course.

It was easy to forget from there. The construction barriers which had shielded the development came down and all was as it had been. Camberwell Green was green again, forgotten was all talk of executive flats, gentrification, regeneration and ‘Camberwell Village’. A good thing too, spat the street drinkers who’d been shunted along by private security and the kids who’d had to hop the fence for a dare before the army arrived to take pot shots at them.

It was only a select few who ever heard the truth, and of them even fewer who believed it and of them even fewer who’d ever be believed in turn.

It was in a pub, the pub, the name of which goes unspoken because those who know it know and those who don’t, don’t. It was after work on a Friday, when thirsty throats staggered in for a quick pint, or a long one, or seven, a necessity after life’s trials and tribulations had taken their toll. Most present were local to one degree or another, in type if not geographically. The type of locals who, within an hour, would either be plying you with drink and sharing tales of wonder and woe, or giving a blunt lesson in why, of all the places a person could be, the same one as them was the worst available option for you. There was, however, one exception.

He was short, he was surly and he drank Guiness with a Bailey’s on the side without throwing up, at least not so’s you’d notice but with a beard thick enough to crush a pigeon there was always room for doubt on that part. He was no local but then, by the judgement of those present, he was no outsider either, no art school student, aspiring office worker or home counties dandy down to live the life for a laugh. Plus he bought his round and was happy to share his crisps, so why would anyone look too closely? Granted the iron shod boots, small hatchet in the waistband and only being 3ft tall while still being 2ft wide was a bit of a novelty, but it’s rude to stare so people didn’t. Not while he was looking at least.

He didn’t say much, although he was there until last orders, the lock in and the ‘get the fuck out, you’re drunk’ stage of the evening. What little he did say though was, by all intoxicated accounts, a convincing and certain truth.

There’d been a war, he said, rubbing at a red and raw scar above his eye. A terrible clash of arms, a conflagration for the ages, a calamity in Camberwell, a lash up in London – all under his fellow drinkers very feet. He spoke of old ways and old folk, the Little People of myth and legend, Dwarves, to their few friends. Their city lay under ours, a sprawling complex of mines, caves, caverns and cul-de-sacs weaving their way around the sewers, tube lines and dank basements of the surface dwellers. A mystery to most, but a truth known to a select few. Agreements were held, age old treaties which set out the rights of the subterranean underclass in relation to their surface level opposites. Governments, and most of London, had been built on such things, with weighty oaths sworn and blood pacts decided upon. Once upon a time anyway, although apparently that had all gone a bit tits up some time in the ’80s when Thatcher, ever eager for a useful war, had considered invading the city under the city and scoring a quick win against her pocket sized adversaries. It had never come to pass but relations had soured from there, said the bearded drinker. Secret passageways between the civilizations were walled up and friendships forgotten, barring the occasional abduction and probing of the odd Tory MP for shits and giggles. And while none welcomed the stony silence most came to accept it. Until the Camberwell Catastrophe of course.

New builds were spreading like a plague, ignoring old orders and rights, foundations smashing down into lands best left untouched. Much was tolerated, to the point of self-destruction almost but the block of flats in Camberwell had been the last straw as underground parking smashed into underground dwellings, pubs, schools and temples. ‘Fuck this’ was the consensus of the day and so it came to violence. Regrettable violence, of course, but such is life in this hard world, said the stranger with the smirk of one who can be philosophical in victory.

The big men had gone down with guns and rockets and flamethrowers and, mostly, come back up without them, happy to be back in the fresh air and away from the psychotic hordes of the underworld. Even a tank, he said, was no match for a determined (under)Londoner with an axe and half a brick to hand and all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men, not to mention her assault rifles, grenades, depleted uranium rounds and napalm, couldn’t put that subterranean task force back together again. The little man, or big Dwarf, went on in that vein until he’d drunk his fill and staggered off to leave, having told tales to make Vietnam sound like a walk in a not-at-all deadly jungle. And only in his final words did he reveal his reason for venturing to the surface amidst such unwary company.

“Be careful what you do up here, how you treat this city of yours, because all that’s above rests on all that’s below and there’s an awful lot of us fuckers down there. So no more flats on Camberwell Green, or I’ll bite your face off. G’night all, think I’ll get a kebab on the way home…”

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Death of Beauty

“How will you do it?”

“I don’t know but it’s not hard, it’s natural after all”

He was pale as he listened to her, his usual assertive strength swept away by an idea that he apparently couldn’t get a hold on for all the certainty of his usual fire and fury.

“Natural doesn’t mean in easy. And what about your family, they’ll punish them, you know that.”

Tila did and she’d expected the point to be made. Even as she’d chosen to tell him she’d known that Ich wouldn’t be able to accept her choice, never mind support it. He couldn’t ignore it either, he needed to say something if only because silence wasn’t in his nature and while he couldn’t rant and rage at her about this as he did about the Lifers there had to be some token resistance to make himself feel like he’d served his usual purpose.

“I’ll disown them, make it clear they knew nothing about my decision. Hell, they’re all Lifers themselves, they’ll disown me too before they even think about what I’ve done. They won’t send them away after they do that, Lifers don’t do that to Lifers. You should lay low though, pretend you barely knew me.”

The colour quickly returned to his face as she shifted the focus onto the aftermath. He hated the Perfect Lifers and that was an anchor that could bring him down to solid ground. If he thought that what she was doing was part of some great clash with them – and nothing else – then he wouldn’t think any further.

“Fuck them. Let them send me away, they’ll do it sooner or later anyway, I’m too loud for them to ignore and too right for them let me stay around here where I can do real damage.”

She nodded, he was only partially right, he was too loud to ignore but he couldn’t do any real damage and they probably wouldn’t send him away either. Ich was related to Perfect Lifers. Not just supporters of the movement but the higher ups, those who worked on the state level ensuring that the Sanctity of Eternity, their driving concept, was protected in schools, offices, factories and the off-world colonies. Puritans when it came to their cause and, in Ich’s case, indulgent of challengers who they had long experience of blithely dismissing as misguided. Her family weren’t high up and she wouldn’t be indulged if she acted as he did, in fact she wouldn’t even be sent away, she’d just be jailed in a stasis chamber and left to drift in a hell of her own imagining until she learnt to tow the line. Something else Ich, as he started to hit his stride, would never understand.

“You’ll harm the movement too. You know that. Doing what you plan to, it makes us all look crazy, as if we want to die. I can’t defend that, there’s too much at stake here and in the colonies.”

Any momentary loss of control was gone, Ich was fully himself again even if he couldn’t bring himself to name the act she was planning – ‘suicide’. That didn’t factor into his cause. Nor did death really, for all his fiercely declared beliefs. He didn’t understand that for a lot of people it was something they wanted, far more than they wanted a simple cause to fight for. Not that she thought less of him for it. There was never a doubt that he believed what he said, even if he didn’t entirely understand what it meant. That was why she had chosen to tell him and no one else, to give him warning that one of his associates was going to puncture his perfect ideological vision of the struggle. She knew he would be able to prepare himself for the arguments that followed if he knew, he was quick to assimilate everything into his world view. A side effect of not comprehending what it really meant, everything was just another variant to adapt to make him and his right and them and theirs wrong.

“I don’t live the movement like you do, Ich, I live my life and I’m tired of it. I just want out, I’ll leave the philosophy and politics of it to you. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say, you won’t see me again. Say what you want about me when I’m dead, I don’t mind.”

She took a final swig of her coffee and stood to leave, pausing for only a second to see if he had anything left to say. He didn’t, his brow was furroughed and his mind already heading elsewhere. He’d adapted and she may as well have already been gone, all his attention now was on how her suicide would effect the Lived Life movement and it’s campaigning. She hadn’t expected much else.

Outside of the coffee shop the sun was still shining though there was an early Spring chill in the air. People were out strolling, trying to convince themselves that, now the rain and snow had stopped, Summer proper had arrived, although thick coats and hats showed that they weren’t quite convinced themselves. She started walking aimlessly, trying not to think of anything in particular. The area was beautiful, verdant lawns and daffodils were only tentatively skirted by concrete walkways but even they were gently curved to escape the need for sharp edges or harsh angles. The same went for the few scattered buildings like the coffee shop that bubbled unobtrusively from the ground. It was a relatively new build, a pleasure garden of sorts but not too different from the rest of the city. Everything was made for beauty these days, everything was elegant in design, it was a driving pre-occupation for the state, which had resolved to keep anything jarring out of sight. A connivance that she couldn’t bring herself to hate, as Ich did. No, beauty was beauty and deserved appreciation for what it was even if she’d long ago tired of it.

The only concession to a world beyond the pleasantly immediate came in the form of occasional digital billboards promoting the colonies. The one release valve the state and the Perfect Lifers alike allowed for in their idyllic world. Life, the ads declared, was ‘Real’ out there. Though what that made life here on earth she wasn’t quite sure. Things were dirtier out there, she knew that much, there was a real frontier being pushed forward into the stars and that had to mean something different from the staid routine of life here. But even that carefully managed idea of brave new worlds was tempered by the absolute solidity of the great truth that those Perfect Lifers stood for. The Sanctity of Eternity. Human immortality, the biggest thing the species had ever done and an achievement that defined almost every facet of life, especially if you were born after the advent of the barrage of medicines, nano-technologies and scientific miracles which spawned it.

Tila was a relative child, a hundred years old in a world where that was barely sufficient age to get you anything more than tolerant nods and sighs from the real seniors of society. She stood on the wrong side, as she saw it, of the history’s most extreme generational divide. Where they, the Perfect Lifers, the ones who had lived in a world of war, disease, famine and death held their immortality as an unquestionable reward for the human struggle she, and others like her, just wanted to die. How that had become intolerable she didn’t know. History now was a stage managed story, defined by those who’d lived long enough to claim ownership of it and they were jealous in guarding their possession. Oh they knew death happened. Even now there were accidents and even in the early days, the early centuries even, after the advent of immortality suicide, murder and self-destruction had been commonplace but as they told it the sort of people who did those things had culled themselves. They had been mad, cruel, ignorant individuals who had done the world a favour by their own rush to the grave but now that was over, a sorrowful memory for some and a cautionary tale for others. Now life was perfect and the human eternity was sacred. So campaigners like Ich, or the suicidal like Tila, were deemed no more than children anxious to romanticise something they couldn’t possibly comprehend. She half believed that herself. Certainly suicide, when the idea had first dawned on her, had seemed absurd, offensive even.

Even the Lived Life people, eager in their campaigning to remove the artificial blocks to mortality and let those who chose to play out their own existences as nature dictated, saw suicide as an insult to the suffering of generations past and a madness to those still living. Their ranks were full of people like Ich though. True believers whose faith was as elaborate and artificial as the dictates of their opponents. They called for natural endings as an abstract, faced with the actual fact of death they couldn’t do much more than argue, albeit passionately. To them, as to everyone else, the finality of leaving life was abhorrent, even if they wanted – or thought they wanted – the possibility of it. A result of boredom, Tila half suspected, more than anything and almost petulant for it.

She wasn’t alone though, no she wasn’t alone. Even amongst the placid faces of those strolling around her on yet another idyllic day there would be those who, on some level, longed to end it all. They’d never say it, never act on it, never manifest their feelings in any way whatsoever for to do so would be to shatter enshrined cultural taboos too solid by far to be challenged. But Tila wasn’t special or unique, she had no delusions there and if she could feel that weighted desire for nothingness then so would others, little as that mattered.

“You need to go to the colonies, you need a change and you’re old enough to get a permit now.”

Tila nodded vaguely as the woman next to her spoke. She was a senior, although Tila wasn’t certain of her age beyond knowing that it was more easily measured in centuries than years. To look at her though there was no way of knowing it, the visible signs of ageing having been eroded away along with the intangible fact of mortality. A few smile lines, a few streaks of grey in her auburn hair, both marks Tila bore herself at a hundred years old, but beyond that Kara was, presumably, much as she had been at 30 or 80 or a hundred. High cheekboned and somewhat dramatically imperious there was nothing more to mark her out from the crowd and even if her eyes still seemed to hold life whatever fire there had been in them was tampered down to a meagre flame

Kara was a relative, of some sort, although the genealogical connection had long since been forgotten. Immortality made family a sprawling affair, constantly expanded by the addition of genetic or social connections, no less valid for that though. Kira had watched her grow up, she was close with Tila’s parents so even if the blood link was purely imagined she was still family and the speech she was giving was as comfortably familiar as the bond between them.

“I was older than you when I went off-world, but it was still the best time of my life. And you’re different from me, you want something else, I’ve always been happy enough here but you need something new so go and get it. Life’s different out there, there’s an edge to it.”

Tila nodded again, the message was a staid one. The off-world colonies were as safe as Earth was. Dirtier, perhaps, the mentality rougher and more enamoured with some tenuous sense of frontier life but still people came back from them unscathed, certainly mortality rates were no higher out there than down here. The Perfect Lifers were content enough with it though, for them it was a neat solution to the disillusionment of the Lived Life types and their fellow travellers. Unhappy with the serenity of Earth? Head into space, play at gritty survivalism, life is still sacred wherever you are and even accidental deaths were only marginally more prevalent at the limits of human expansion than at its heart. Endless safety measures and inoculations made sure of that much, as well as degrading the whole mirage of a different way of living out there. Without death it was all much the same.

Kira was drumming her fingers on the kitchen table, probing green eyes on Tila. Looking, Tila thought, for a way to shake her from what Kira must have assumed was routine youthful apathy.

They were in Kira’s apartment, where Tila’s idle wanderings had led her. She had no intention of telling her about the suicide plan, Ich would be the only one to know about that, but even that much sharing had tired her so she’d come looking for comfort. She’d considered heading to see her parents, whose own house was on the other side of town but they were too lost in their own obsessions these days. Ardent Perfect Lifers they’d bought wholesale into the relatively new trend for the beautification of life, another in the long list of past-times contrived by the state and its ideological backers to keep people occupied and alive. All they’d have to offer her was a knowledgeable, but interminable, lecture on the merits of geometric aesthetics and the latest theories behind ideal design. Kira was at least harder to distract, less faddish in her attentions.

Skating over the colonies idea Tila tried to pull the conversation in a new direction.

“What are you doing now? Living in the beauty?”

Taking the hint Kara gave a hollow laugh.

“No. I can’t understand why your parents are so obsessed with it either. Between them they’re pushing a thousand years and yet give them something shiny and they’re like kittens with a ball of string. You’d think immortality would amount to at least some wisdom wouldn’t you?”

The disdain was only half meant in jest. Kara was Kara, hardly a rebel but she anchored her identity to steering away from the mainstream even if she still stuck doggedly to the periphery of it. Something which had once led Tila to almost idolise her until she’d realised how carefully managed the image was. But then the seniors tended to do that after a certain age, as if change or evolution were finished processes.

“Anyway, I’ve been making music. I used to do it when I was real young, less than a century old. I was good too. This time I aim to be even better though, re-make what I did and create something perfect.”

“Not something new?”

“Oh there’s nothing new here, not for me anyway. It’s up to you young people to create something different, out on the colonies maybe, where there’s still some chaos to go around.”

Tila smiled tiredly, young at a hundred, she didn’t feel it. Besides, age didn’t matter, there was nothing new, everything was already too cluttered to leave space for that. A fact, Tila reminded herself, not a pessimistic lament – that was an important difference to remember. Not leaving time for the tangent to grow too far from her starting point Kara started talking again.

“So, will you go to the colonies?”

“No, I won’t, but I will go home now, I just stopped by to say hi. I’ve got stuff I need to do.”

Kara didn’t rush to stop her as Tila stood to leave, but carried on talking.

“What could you have to do that can’t wait? Come on, we can get you a permit for the next ship off Earth, you’ll feel better for the change, it’ll set you up.”

“Another time maybe.”

Tila turned and left the room before the matter could be dragged out, leaving Kara to sigh to herself and ignore her departure. She’d been telling Tila to leave for the colonies for years now, there was no rush to resolve the matter.

Tila’s home was a spacious apartment next to a newly constructed pleasure garden which she could see from her balcony. It was based on an ancient notion of Zen design, a minor act of rebellion from a local designer who’d decided to fly in the face of convention but ignoring the more contemporary theories on urban design. Tila had met him when he’d given a lecture to local residents on what he had planned, there’d been an argument over the hollowness of such antiquated concepts of style. He’d been elated by it, a validation of his self-aware controversy. Although the irony of revolt through an appeal to history so old that no one alive could even remember that far back was seemingly lost on him. Ich had been there too, making noise about how only people who could die could come up with something so beautiful.

Now that it was finished Tila kind of agreed. As regimented as the gardens which made up the courtyard for an array of more modernistic blocks was it still felt more alive than the usual gentle curves and organic lines. Precisely designed lawns, immaculately trimmed trees and bushes, eternally flowing streams – all the product of near constant human attention. Only a shedding cherry blossom tree broke from human control but even that had to be managed, fallen petals harvested to stop their beauty from decaying into mulch – something the Perfect Lifers would have appreciated. Although now it was Spring and everything grew. It demanded something of people, constant attention and maintenance. A difference from the sort of aesthetic people wanted now, which served but didn’t require real attention but instead rolled onwards before the force of it’s own designed inertia. This was something to do with life, rather than something to be a backdrop to eternity. Or perhaps not. Aligned with them she may have been but Tila was far from blind to the tendency towards romanticising dead ideas that the Lived Lifers had. It was childish, or maybe not, but people said so and she couldn’t help but believe it herself.

She stood there for ten minutes, watching the last remnants of light fade away from the day, before turning away and looking into her apartment.

There was a noose hanging there, a three legged stool beneath it.

Tila hadn’t told Ich it would be done tonight. She hadn’t known herself really, not until she’d gotten home and found the rope which she’d long ago set aside, before the idea of suicide had seemed real to her. Now though, this evening, everything else was done, there were no more conversations to be had, no more thoughts to think.

She stood for a moment, waiting to see if she’d shake or sweat, tensing her legs to see if they showed signs of giving way at the prospect before her. Nothing happened though, she simply stood there, breathing sedately in and out, not even thinking about what she was about to do because it was certain that it should happen. Her life was done, not in tears or horror or sadness, just done. And something else had to take it’s place, or nothing else did, either way it was time to end her immortality.

Then she was on the stool, rope around her neck. She turned her head, surveying for one last time her home. She’d been there for 30 years, it was beautiful, contoured to leave not a single uncomfortable edge. Tila nodded to herself and kicked the stool away from underneath herself.

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Urban Flesh

They made up a surgeon’s hand. Dissecting concrete housing blocks and perishing tarmac roads, slicing away incongruously overgrown marks of humanity to remove the infected tissue of life. A healing process, they said, the men and women who orchestrated the diggers, cranes and wrecking balls with balletic elegance. From their elevated vantage point at least.

How much beauty could be seen from below, in the midst of the crashing squalor of the cut up urban flesh itself, was a moot point. Surgery could be a bloody business, but the cutting hand couldn’t be allowed to see it. Uncertain tremors were risked by an awareness of anything but the sterile perfection of the well managed operation and blindness was a favour done to the victims, one to fend off doubt that could cause a slip.

That was their unspoken defence at least, though, in truth, the beauty of remoteness was too precious to give up.

For more from me and to support my work check out No Cure for Shell Shock.

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