Looking around at the other guests Theresa mopped her brow and wondered, yet again, why she had allowed herself to be talked into coming to the party. Other than the sense of duty that had induced her presence, she felt no affinity with anyone here, least of all her parents and older sisters, Joanna and Vanessa. It was the latter’s thirty-fifth birthday and Theresa spied her across the expanse of the roof garden, picking at the buffet table, her elegantly styled hair sparkling in the reflected sunlight from the Canary Wharf tower. She seemed tall and willowy but, if stood beside Theresa, the older sister would be dwarfed.
A police siren echoed up from the streets below as Vanessa, having recognised a newly arrived face, left the buffet to sidle through the throng, to meet him. The man reminded Theresa of Vanessa’s husband, Jay, and her eyes darted across to find Jay deep in conversation with her parents. The similarity between him and the newcomer was more than coincidence, which meant that he was probably Jay’s brother, Des. They had not previously met, Desmond having been in Australia at the time of Vanessa’s wedding, some eleven years previously. On a whim Theresa scanned the crowd and quickly identified the thirty-seven currently present who had also attended the wedding. Apart from immediate family and Joanna’s current partner she had not met any of the others since.
Her mother, seeing Theresa staring, waved momentarily but quickly returned to the conversation before Theresa could acknowledge. Her father acted as if he hadn’t seen her.
Slowly, she made her way across to the now unoccupied buffet table, hardly aware of the way people parted automatically to make way for her passage. She was used to looming, of eclipsing people’s view of the sun; she had been doing it since her early teens. Most of those here nodded and smiled at her as she passed; she returned the compliment knowing it to be a lie in both directions. Like her parents, they didn’t want her here either and she concurred - this was no place for her. She looked down upon their heads; even the tallest of them barely reached the tip of her nose. She let a sneer of contempt ripple across her wide face, lost on those below.
Reaching the table, a long, metal-legged trestle, she attempted to smooth down the dress that had looked adequate on the store dummy but constantly rode up as it tried to adjust itself to her outsized body. Her antiperspirant was no match for the heat and the sweat it induced, causing the material to cling to her. The fault was not in the dress; Theresa was not made for dresses. The Big Bear, her sisters had called her even while she had still been shorter than them. Back then it had been a sign of affection; now, she thought, while the description was more apt, it was no longer used, at least not to her face.
While the big bear cursed in the heat, the little bears went about their business unaware of the problems faced by their larger symbiotic ‘cousin’. Even had they been aware, such problems would have been incomprehensible to them. They were simple folk; they did what they did. It was all genetic instinct.
Theresa sighed, longing for t-shirt and shorts. It wasn’t that the heat really bothered her, even though she was sweating as much as anyone packed onto the rooftop that day. She didn’t mind the cold either. “It’s all your padding,” Vanessa had once commented, years ago.
She glanced at the leftovers, popping a lonely slice of warm quiche and a couple of forlorn-looking sausage rolls into her mouth before refilling her glass with orange juice. A large, stainless steel tray, now almost bare of triangular, crustless sandwiches, reflected her countenance and she looked away immediately though not before spotting that her plain, light-brown, straight hair had, as usual, not prevented her protruding ears from escaping into view. Teddy bear ears, her mother had called them, as if she had ever needed the reminder.
Why hadn’t she been blessed with the sort of looks that graced her sisters? Lithe in body, symmetrically pretty of face and packaged with a topping of poise and grace that befitted royalty, they had got it all leaving Theresa with nothing. The envy streamed from Theresa’s pores. Yet if anyone was shown the baby photos of herself and her sisters they would not have been able to tell the difference. Something, however, had changed within Theresa during the first two years of her life; something had made her vastly different.
However, she guiltily reminded herself, her sisters had not have it all their own way. Joanna’s brush with cancer had resulted in a mastectomy and, until the chemotherapy had been completed, the additional requirement to disguise her baldness with a hairpiece. Vanessa, too, had been afflicted with respiratory ailments all her life: asthma plus a seemingly endless succession of colds and ’flu. The attack of ME in her late teens had sapped the girl’s strength for many years and permanently limited her diet to what Theresa considered nothing more than a bland assortment of plain biscuits.
On the contrary, Theresa, despite some strange eating habits as a young child, had never experienced a day’s illness in her life. Despite her size and weight, she had recently surprised doctors by the low cholesterol levels in her blood and the more than healthy beat of her heart. There was some question about a high sugar level that seemed to be unique to her alone. She had declined further tests becoming uneasy at the attention; she was already considered different, she hadn’t wanted that difference verified by medical tests. The conclusion on the whole was that, at twenty-nine, she had the metabolism of a child though, regrettably, none of the looks.
She leaned back onto the base of a mobile phone mast that also occupied this corner of the rooftop and stared westwards out over the metal, glass and concrete vista of what had once been London’s docklands. Above the sweltering streets, the sky was devoid of clouds: a startling, rich blue that faded to a mottled green nearer the horizon where sky met the jumble of roof. Southwards, the haze of pollution clung to the skyline, splashing it with amber. There were no birds. It was too hot even for them.
Theresa gazed down but the safety fence prevented her from getting close to the edge so the streets immediately below were hidden from view. Not that heights scared her, nothing much scared her – apart from people.
She rested back against the mast. Below, unseen in the distance, more police sirens blared their way through the noise of traffic, rushing to some unknown emergency. She listened to them – there were at least three blasting in unison. They were headed away from her. At least, she thought, this anniversary of the July bombings of 2005 hadn’t been celebrated in kind, for which she was grateful. She had been close by on that previous occasion having travelled through Aldgate station some twenty minutes before the bomb had gone off. Vanessa’s birthday hadn’t been dogged by a subsequent repeat but, ten years on, the world still felt far from safe. Theresa certainly didn’t feel safe here but, for her, that was true of anywhere this close to the centre of the city. Not for her the nine-to-five office life of her sisters. Though far less financially rewarding, she considered her role at the animal sanctuary in Kent more than substituted for city life. She peered at her right arm, at three little marks that could only just be made out against the otherwise unblemished skin.
“Ow!” Theresa shouted. “The little bleeder.”
“You been bitten?” Harriet asked, her head bobbing up from behind the solid partition where she had been scrubbing the concrete floor.
“Yeah. This little minx.” She raised the cat in one podgy hand. It waggled its ears and tail before playfully grabbing at Theresa’s wrist again. “No, you don’t,” she said, as it jumped from her grasp and scampered back inside the hut it shared with two other more timid strays.
Harriet opened the wire-meshed gate between the two runs and examined the injury. The cat, a frisky female judged to be hardly older than a year, had already bitten two other helpers at the sanctuary. It looked to Harriet that this attack was the worst of the three.
“You’d better get a tetanus shot,” she suggested as Theresa dabbed at the blood which had already started to congeal.
Two days on and the marks from the cat bite had almost disappeared. She hadn’t gone to the doctor as advised, of course. She never did. She didn’t need doctors.
She sought out where a frightened dog had chewed at her other arm a couple of months previously but, despite the depth of the original wounds, there was no longer any mark to prove the event had ever happened.
A helicopter flew high above the party heading in the same direction she judged the police sirens to have gone. Maybe something serious was up. She watched it hover in the distance and tried to figure out exactly where it was. Somewhere near Liverpool Street station? It hung there for a minute and then buzzed further westwards.
Theresa shrugged; whatever it was, surely it couldn’t affect her any worse than this damned party. The pillaged buffet caught her attention again and some sad looking cheese and pickle combinations on cocktail sticks beckoned, even though she wasn’t actually hungry.
A glance at her watch showed that it still hadn’t reached four o’clock. “Damn, I really need an excuse to get out of here,” she muttered to herself.
Amongst these ‘normal-sized and shaped’ guests she knew she stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb and, because she did so, she knew her absence would be immediately noted and ‘words’ wouldn’t be long coming. Joanna would snipe at her, “Ruined the party, you did,” even though they’d both know it would be a lie. Her parents would sniff in agreement, too, damn them.
A woman Theresa didn’t know was fingering limp salad with one hand while the plate she carried in the other tilted and deposited used cocktail sticks onto the floor. The woman was barely five feet tall, mousy, with thinning hair; Theresa was a mountain in comparison. More sirens joined those still blaring in the distance.
“Noisy today, aren’t they?” the woman mumbled, flicking her glance over Theresa for a second, but unable to hold eye contact. Theresa nodded and grunted in reply. Was she expected to converse with the tiny, insignificant speck before her? Silently, she chided herself, furious for treating the woman in this manner. The woman’s thin hand was decorated with a wedding ring representing an arrangement Theresa had long abandoned as one of life’s possible options. Who would have wanted to marry a Big Bear like herself? She’d certainly found no candidates; the only near-intimate encounters she had ever experienced had been short, embarrassing and rarely repeated.
The woman settled on a few peanuts and drifted off, blending into the babbling crowd. Theresa, who could not have blended into a team of rugby players, envied that ability.
The little bears envied no one. They were content with their lot, living out their simple, tiny lives in this moist environment. They had adapted to their new environment over the years, changing and evolving as necessary.
The sudden but distant rapid round of gunfire from across the rooftops made her jump, and the babble of the party halted as everyone looked in the same direction as Theresa. More police sirens joined the impromptu, distant chorus. It was all happening at least a couple of miles away and only the height of this building was allowing the sound to travel so far. The gunfire wasn’t repeated, though the sirens continued their raucous melodies and, after a while, the partygoers returned to their babble.
Theresa ached to get away. She was dying here. She hated London: its pollution, its heat, its noise. They all wore her down. How could her sisters stand it? She glanced across to Joanna who had joined Vanessa near the doorway that led down into the tower block. Two thin bitches, she thought, as they talked animatedly, gesticulating with their arms. Vanessa shook her head at something Joanna had said, disagreeing or not remembering. Then she turned her head in Theresa’s direction and beckoned her over.
Theresa sighed to herself and started slowly walking across to them. What, she wondered, had Vanessa forgotten this time?
That was another thing – Theresa’s memory. She could remember events almost back to when she was a baby, while her sisters, Vanessa especially, had trouble recalling anything from before they were seven or eight. Even now, years later, she could stand her earliest memories up in a chronologically arranged row, each one as bright as she had experienced it at the time. And, as always, the same two stood out from that regimented row. She grimaced as she remembered the first, being rushed to hospital by her parents after they had discovered her scratching off and eating lichen from one of the old, encrusted stones on the rockery. She had been less than two years old and, unknown to them, had been eating such things for months. She could still taste the gritty plant in her mouth. The habit had faded a few months later; somehow the taste had changed. Of course, the hospital had not detected any adverse effects from her unusual diet, and she and her parents had been sent home.
The second memory had also involved a trip to hospital. It had been after she had fallen into the large pond in her grandparents’ large garden when she had been barely three. By the time they had managed to find and unentangle her from the mass of water lily roots, she had been under the water for over six minutes and had slipped from consciousness, a state which she had concluded had been more due to the cold of the water, still not warmed through in the spring heat. Her parents had feared that their youngest daughter had been brain damaged after the time it took to start her breathing again but, even before the ambulance had finally turned up to take her to A&E, she had recovered and was apparently none the worse for wear. The hospital had run some tests but, apart from needing to cough up the last of the murky water still trapped in the depths of her lungs, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The doctors hadn’t believed she’d been submerged for as long as her parents claimed and suggested that there must have been some air trapped down there with her, but Theresa remembered every second up until losing consciousness, and there hadn’t been any air.
Nearing her sisters, she ground her large teeth together wondering what petty memory she was going to be asked to dredge up and had almost reached them when the cessation of the wailing sirens was accompanied by an intensely bright glow behind her. She saw people’s mouths open wide in horror and then their eyes screw tightly closed. Turning, she saw the tail end of the blinding flash, followed by the mushroom cloud billowing up from the centre of London, accelerating unhindered up into the deep blue of the sky.
Her own mouth hung open in shock. There was screaming all around her.
“Oh Jesus,” she whispered, “the b@st@rds.”
For Theresa, time slowed to a crawl while, for those around her, time no longer had meaning. She felt the intense heat engulf her and watched the flesh of everyone else, including her own sisters, twist and vaporise: bodies around her turned to nothing where they stood. Theresa waited for her own existence to be snuffed out similarly but, although her clothes and hair had already been burned away, she alone remained. Automatically closing her eyes to protect them she felt her naked skin crawl as the heat evaporated all moisture from its surface; the outer layers cooking.
But there the damage halted.
Then the wind struck, and she was blasted up into the air, eastwards and away from the tower. As she blindly tumbled, accompanied by the charred remains of the table that had previously held the buffet, the tower block that had hosted the party crumbled and started to fall before becoming engulfed in the cloud of debris that was accelerating across her world. Unseen below her the Thames was boiled away and she was enveloped in its rising steam, which buoyed her bulky frame even higher. She screamed a single scream exhaling all the air from her lungs, but the sound was drowned in the roar of destruction.
At that point she lost consciousness but a reflex prevented her from inhaling again to replace the air from the scream. Inside the big bear, the little bears had already detected the scorching heat in the air and unconsciously prevented her natural reaction.
Silently, now hundreds of feet in the air, her outer skin crisp and dark, she tumbled out over the emptied basin of the Thames estuary and towards the North Sea, which was beginning to churn violently in response to the man-made violence.
Some thirty miles east of London the arc of her flight finally connected with the turbulent surface and she sunk under the tumultuous waves of the growing unnatural storm. Above her the water was peppered with the remains of East London: cars, masonry, glass, bodies, wood, all picked up whole and thrown the distance, as she had been, in a few scant minutes. Unconsciously, her mouth clamped shut and, with her lungs emptied of air, she sank lower and away from the water’s surface that, in places, now burned.
After a day, she slowly rose to the surface, her body apparently devoid of life. But now her skin had shed its charred outer layer and that which replaced it glowed a healthy pink. As she broke through the water into murky air she gasped and, still unconscious, sucked in a portion of the taint. Above her unseeing eyes, the world was shrouded in dark stormy clouds. The sea, rolling and restless, as if it had forgotten which way it was driving its tides, tossed her adjacent to a floating wooden packing case and her arm, making contact with it, gripped it in an unshakeable grasp.
It took Theresa three days to make her way back to an unrecognisable coastline. Conscious again since the second day she had begun to paddle the packing crate away from the weak sun during the morning and towards it in the afternoon. Thirsty, but resisting the urge to drink the muddied, salt water, her strength hardly diminished as she paddled.
She reached land at night bumping up onto the northern shore of an estuary now clogged with bodies and other debris. The landscape glowed with an unnatural brown-hued light that permeated the muggy air itself, not enough to make out any detail in the distance but adequate enough to recognise the mounds close by for they were, and what they had once been. She pulled herself up the beach, legs trembling and, after nearly three days in the water, barely able to balance, and made her way between the things that were once human and the rubble of their civilisation.
Barely able to even think coherently she had no plan, no concrete direction, but something drove her westwards, back towards the heart of what had once been London. At first she hadn’t even realised that she had been returned back to the Thames but as the hours advanced and a meagre light indicated that day had returned, she caught the first glimpse of a row of distorted shapes rising from the returned water. Though no longer gleaming they were still recognisable as the Thames Flood Barrier though they were no longer in any state to hold back floods. Packed around them was another barrier, a clog of putrefying flotsam, the stench of which Theresa’s nose picked up above all the other smells that pervaded the muggy atmosphere.
On the sixth day she came across a man who was still alive. His body was covered in sores and he bled from multiple eruptions across his whole frame. He was delirious and she soon abandoned him knowing he would soon perish. After leaving him Theresa looked down at her own expanse – even six days of starvation had not diminished her bulk by a noticeable amount. Although her skin was scratched and bruised in places, it exhibited a ruddy health that perplexed her. She felt her head and the stubble of returning hair added to her confusion. She should have been developing sores and other radiation-related diseases. Instead, she was healing, possibly even quicker than she had in the past.
What was going on? She shouldn’t have been getting better. She should have been dead!
A memory surfaced, unbidden. When she had been eight her family had visited Japan and, despite protests from her mother, they had make a trip out to Hiroshima and learned about the aftermath of the first nuclear attack on an enemy target. That event had been a firecracker compared to whatever had been detonated here. As Theresa passed close to where Canary Wharf had once dwarfed the rest of its surroundings she wondered how it been done? How could a complete nuclear bomb have been assembled and exploded in the heart of London? Who had done it? Who had masterminded it?
Jesus! How had it even been allowed? Theresa’s rage burned almost as bright as the reason for its existence.
The air cleared slightly over the next couple of days and, as it did so, Theresa’s injuries also healed completely. Still naked and still not having eaten or drunk a thing since the party, she drew closer to ground zero. It began to rain and, despite her initial reluctance she finally turned her face to the brightening sky and drunk in the water knowing it to be tainted with radiation and worse. Inside her and unknown to the big bear, the tiny bears, in symbiotic allegiance, cleansed the toxins from the water she ingested and passed it pure into her body.
Finally, trembling, she stood alone at the point of impact. It hadn’t been hard to locate. Fused into a single, vast, glassy mass were the melted remains of Bank, of the Stock Exchange, of Liverpool Street railway station, of buses and cars, of buildings and roads, of now silent police sirens, and of people.
The rain had turned into a torrent and pooled in the dips and hollows of this melted world. Theresa, still naked, and indifferent to the growing cold, stared at the devastation and took it all in. If it had been someone other than Theresa standing there then maybe they would have shed more than a single tear for the loss.
But this was Theresa and not the Theresa of a week ago. She noted every shape, every twisted remnant and remembered them all. She catalogued every inch of the atrocity.
“Someone will pay for this,” she thought.
And then Theresa fully became the Big Bear throwing back her head to howl. And, with that release, she began to understand everything about herself.
She didn’t understand how but she knew she could survive almost anything. And she wanted revenge. And someone WOULD pay for this.
And, inside her, maybe the little bears, the tardigrades, knew it as well.
Tardigrade: the generic name for a group of species, commonly known as Water Bears. Found, amongst other places, on lichens and mosses, they are very hardy animals. Known to live in hot springs, on top of mountains, under solid ice and in ocean sediments, they just require somewhere moist to exist. They can suspend their metabolism and be revived years later. They can also withstand a thousand times more radiation than a human though they have never been known to inhabit a living person...
More information can be found at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tardigrade
(please note: @ used to get around the H2G2 profanity filter, tee-hee)