It sprung up overnight. Unexpected, it stood there as we all opened our curtains, bleary-eyed, in the morning. A divider line. A wall in solid bricks and mortar, tangerine and crimson. The road was carved in two by it. Unthreatening but impassable, like a teenager’s practical joke gone too far. We shuffled up to inspect it in our dressing gowns and fluffy slippers. We hollered over the top of it at our neighbours cut adrift. Susan Donoghue and Hester Lovegood were stranded on the other side. Pat Carter and Janice Smith were here with me on mine. And none of us knew anything about the unforeseen construction. Nancy Belweather wrote a strongly worded email to the council. Nothing was received in reply.
As time trundled by, the wall remained in place, unopposed, and we adapted to its presence. There was the inconvenience of an additional five minutes annexed to the school run. The corner shop became an impractical option for those whose most direct route to it was blocked by the newly erected partition. The postman no longer reached our section of the divided thoroughfare until almost three o’clock. But after a week, we had more or less gotten used to it.
A few days later, some good-for-nothing scallywag sprayed the first graffiti on its face. It was a pig in a gas mask. The tag in its jagged lettering proclaimed the artist as Stokesy. On the reverse, they dug up the tarmac with a pneumatic drill and planted a flower bed full of geraniums. There were trellis-climbing creepers that poked their leafy heads above the parapet.
At first, it was only us – our street, unique and at the centre of a thousand interconnected conversations. We were where it started; the epicentre of the disease. But soon enough, the second wall went up on Rochester Street. The third followed shortly after on Portland Avenue. Each of them was built in the same style – red bricks neatly lain. Each of them was assembled overnight. As if they were built by ghosts, or goblins, or other creatures of the twilight world.
With each new wall, more attempts were made to find out what was going on. The local MP was contacted for comment. Angry residents tried to storm a night session in the council chambers. A Facebook group was set up in order to organise resistance against this misunderstood new threat. Builders were contacted about the possibility of clandestine demolishment; farmers, as well, or anyone with a vehicle who might be able to inflict the requisite damage. But it was soon found out that other less physical walls had sprung up too. Requests and demands were ignored from all directions.
Other developments were noticed around the time of the seventh wall (which was, this time, right at the midpoint of Church Lane where the olde worlde cottages meet the brutalist 60s flats). It was then that the letters were received from Lily’s head teacher. She was in the wrong school for her postcode area, apparently, and had been allocated a place at Park Academy instead. I went in to see her form tutor. I asked if Poppy Donoghue and Jada Lovegood were being moved too. ‘No,’ she told me. Confused, I explained that they were our neighbours. So, she tapped away on her computer keyboard and finally replied with – ‘They’re the other side of the wall, though’ – before nervously biting her lip as if that was something that she wasn’t allowed to say.
They made redundancies at work. ‘Cutbacks,’ said the manager. ‘I’m afraid it’s the economic situation. And it’s simply not viable to keep you all on.’ Pat Carter left in tears. Rita Simmons stormed off in a string of swear words. I protested that I had been there longer than anyone else, working the shop floor of the department store since I was a teenager, always with a cheerful smile on my face. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the manager, ‘but my mind’s made up.’ Anne Copeland was one of the lucky ones; Penny Thompson and Sian Wickers were kept on too. They were the ones with more palatable accents. They were the ones with straight rows of beautifully shining teeth.
By the middle of October, people started moving. Janice Smith’s family upped and left without telling anyone what she was about. The Burrells cleared out in the early hours before anyone else was awake. The Chakrabatis received an official letter from some government agency explaining that they were no longer entitled to their house. It was all very bewildering. No one could fit all the jigsaw pieces into place.
In the New Year, the walls began to link up together. We became hemmed in by them like a shoal of dumbstruck fish. When they started opening new bargain shops in the long-abandoned arcade, there was no longer much reason to go into the other parts of town. In the food store, the tins were labelled with cheap stickers and the microwave meals appeared to have been made with the cheapest cuts of meat. But getting to the big supermarket in the town centre had become such an effort that we were just pleased to have something convenient on our doorstep. They put in a dingy cinema where we could go and watch the latest releases. Clothes at cut down prices could be bought off the back of a truck.
Next thing, the bus routes were diverted. A complicated one-way road system was implemented that no one could quite work out. I wasn’t sure when exactly they put in the checkpoints – electric barriers that hardly ever swung open; each of them manned by a gun-wielding guard. If you walked too close to them, they’d give you a threatening look. If you asked to cross into another neighbourhood, they’d stare at you in silence. The answer was always ‘no’. Almost always at any rate.
It was Cathy Cole who found out about the positions vacant. A beige rectangle pinned on the communal noticeboard outside the pub, it announced that a company called Service Solutions was looking for cleaners and gardeners, drivers and cooks. I hadn’t worked since my dismissal from the department store. Cathy had lost her job at a fancy advertising agency in town. We needed the money. There were no other opportunities floating about so we tore down the advert (in case anyone else should happen upon it) and wrote our letters of application in our neatest hands. Both of us got an interview. Both of us received a green pass through the post explaining that it would allow us safe passage past the guards.
They gave me a brown pinafore as a uniform. It was uncomfortably starchy. They told me that I should wear my hair up in a neatly tied bun; that I should only speak when spoken to by the family; that I should never get in their way or visibly alter the course of their daily lives. Cleaning was to be done in the prescribed order only – bedrooms, laundry, kitchen, living rooms, bathroom, and then the ironing. A deep clean of the oven was set for a Thursday morning. Polishing silver was a task for Tuesday afternoons. Windows and mirrors were to be done on Mondays and Fridays. If the family asked for any change in the routine, it was to be reported back to head office. Apart from that, I needn’t bother the fast-typing clerks in their clapboard booths. My pay would be sent in the post, they told me. I was given an A4 pamphlet which clearly set out the rules.
The address I was given wasn’t one that I recognised – 24 Nightingale Street. I had to ask for directions, which they gave me. And I was surprised, when I wound in towards it, that the area was unsettlingly familiar. Lily’s old school passed by on the left-hand side. The greengrocer with the unfortunate lisp. The park where I used to sit for hours when I was pregnant all those years ago. And the top of a road that used to be the top of my road. They’d changed all the names, I realised. Almost as if they don’t want to be associated with what could be found on the other side of the wall. Brook Lane was now Fenniwig Terrace. Drabble Row was now Ashburn Close. It all looked very manicured compared to the rundown nature of our neighbourhood. There wasn’t a touch of graffiti anywhere and the lawns were sparkling and green.
Nightingale Street, it turned out, was the new name for the dissected part of my very own Caldwell Street. Number 24, I realised with a shock, was the new number for Nancy Belweather’s house. All of a sudden, there was a Porsche parked in the driveway. It looked as though they were having a large conservatory tacked on around the back.
Knocking, I expected a friendly greeting. Nancy was always one of those women who are a little overweight. Plump around the midriff, her way of walking could only be described as waddling. She had a face that was lacking any real definition except in being consistently jolly – chipper with a can-do attitude. Opening the door, though, she stood before me as a woman transformed. She was wearing an expensive-looking dress. Her figure had narrowed into a pleasing hourglass. The kindliness had vanished from her eyes.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realise it would be someone that I knew.’
‘It’s all so strange, this, isn’t it?’ I asked in reply. ‘But I’m glad to see you after all these months. Looks like things are going well for you, at least?’
She tutted at that. ‘I’ll let you off this once. But your instructions should have been perfectly clear. I don’t expect to have to put up with your chit-chat.’ And with that, I was ushered inside and told to get on with my chores. Like a second rate citizen. Almost like an unloved child.
Back home, I discussed my day with Cathy Cole. And it soon became apparent that her experience was similar to mine. Someone that she knew from before the walls. Someone that treated her as if she were now a piece of dirt. She had found out more than I had, though. According to her, at least, the town was now split into zones so that people were divided by their ethnicity or social class. ‘Seven neighbourhoods,’ she told me. ‘Rich, middle, poor like us. The Pakistanis have had their power and water supplies cut off. The Chinese have been deprived their imports of egg noodles and Hoisin sauce.’
The next day, I tried to ask a couple of questions to Nancy’s eldest without much success. I listened in to Stanley’s phone conversations as best I could. I sneaked a look at some post that was lying opened on the kitchen worktop. But it wasn’t until I had been there a week that I picked up my first titbit of information – that there was a right-wing grouping working behind the scenes who had democratically decided amongst themselves that too much democracy had become a very bad thing. It seemed that the walls were their idea. They had strong-armed some people in government and suggested a trial in a town that was unlikely to put up much resistance to the idea. Cathy discovered that Janice Smith and the Burrells had gotten wind of this and that is why they moved.
It was a while later that we found out about the resistance groups. The graffiti artist Stokesy was one of the main agitators. Rita Simmons, infused with anger, had learnt to brew up a Molotov cocktail. And Pat Carter was in charge of disrupting communications from her position on the post office’s sorting floor. Cath and I joined a protest march on nowhere in particular. We helped stuff envelopes that were apparently destined to media outlets and anti-fascist organisations around the world. We even joined a rather daring raid on the jewelry shops in the posh part of town. None of it did much good, though. Because how can you fight against an enemy that you simply cannot see?
It’s been five years now since the wall on our street appeared as if by magic under the shadowy cloak of night. Since then, change has been incremental. If I’m entirely honest, we’ve not always noticed the shifting tides. The things they took away from us. The way that their seemingly generous gifts were often a reaction to a dip in the public mood; that they were sometimes just second rate versions of stuff we had had before the walls – basketball courts, sweet shops, children’s playgrounds. Everything in our neighbourhood mutated to grey or brown. The trees withered. The fabric of our clothes faded and tore. Stokesy’s graffiti has been scrubbed away.
There are still some rumblings of resistance, of course. A barrier guard gets attacked from time to time. One of the security cameras that watch our every move got hacked from its mounting the other day. And a few weeks back someone took clippers to the barbed wire that tops our wall. There are disappearances that we can only assume are related to these acts. People simply vanish in the middle of the night. Like a puff of smoke, we never hear from them again. And so the best thing to do is to keep your head bowed; get on as best you can.
The newspapers are full of propaganda. Nothing is ever mentioned about the sinister metamorphosis of the town. Nothing is ever mentioned about elsewhere. There’s a grapevine of gossip but it’s impossible to tell how much of it is true; how much of it is filtered in by the mysterious far-right grouping to keep us second guessing. And even after all this time, they remain anonymous, nameless, unknowable.
I want to leave you with a green shoot of hope; you that are reading this, incredulous (probably), disbelieving that we could so easily be cajoled into such a state of unquestioning apathy. It’s all true, even though I shake my head to admit it. But there are cracks appearing in the edifice. Fault lines that threaten to topple the walls like a chain of so many teetering dominoes.
Firstly, in the rich part of town, there are grumblings of discontent. Mothers who are used to dominating the parent-teacher groups are being crowded out by other alpha females. Men who are used to reveling in the fact that they have more money than so-and-so down the road, that they go on more expensive holidays, that they have a better make of sit-on lawnmower, are bereft of lesser men with which to compare themselves. Without the Pakistanis and the Chinese and the paupers and the beggars to complain about, they are turning on each other. Claws are out. Knives are drawn. Bulldozers can’t be far away.
Secondly (and this is important), the children (no matter which neighbourhood they happen to call home) are piqued with a sense of curiosity. What exactly is there on the other side of these red brick walls? Is the grass really greener or browner or mixed in with clusters of weeds? Do the people in the other areas really have purple skin or warty hands or eyes that can turn you to clay? The braver ones scale the heights. They make discoveries that what connects us is far more than what drives us apart. They form secret friendships with children from the other side of the tracks. They imagine a day when all the walls will come crumbling down.
Matt Kendrick is an author and illustrator based in the East Midlands, UK. Information about his work can be found on his website (www.mattkendrick.co.uk) and he is on Twitter @MkenWrites.