In association with Poetry Ireland, Oisin Mc Gann, who is a published author conducted a series of creative writing workshops with Transition Year students during April. The students produced a short story called Death and the Vegan and found the experience very enjoyable.
‘Death and the Vegan’
By Students of St Macartan’s College with Oisín McGann
This place had once been a McDonald’s restaurant, back when there were still restaurants in Monaghan. Then it was a makeshift treatment centre. Back when there were still doctors and nurses around. Now, it was just a building. But Bamf had searched the rest of this bloody town in the hope of finding food, and he was getting desperate.
Truth be told, he’d been desperate for a while. It took a lot of effort to do anything these days, even the pain that scraped at his stomach seemed to giving up and going away. The pains in his joints were still there and his throat felt like he’d been drinking battery acid, but he wasn’t giving up. There had to be something here . . . something everybody else had missed . . .
The big walk-in fridge was empty, of course, and a search under all the cookers and stainless steel kitchen units turned up nothing – at least, nothing he’d risk eating. The door to the stairs that led up to the offices had been broken open, and he was about to start up the stairs when a voice made him spin round:
‘There’s nothing up there, we’ve already checked.’
He had his hunting knife drawn even as he turned, but there were two of them, both around his age, not even out of their teens, and the guy held a crossbow. It was the girl who had spoken; she was tall (though most people were taller than Bamf), a goth with the black hair, black clothes, the pale skin. Funny how a person who was starving to death could still get it together to coordinate a style. Hunger had added to the image, giving her attractive face a haggard look.
Bamf could relate to the little vanities – there might be something bizarre about a short, starving black man keeping his hair bleached blond, but it helped him feel . . . human. And contrary to what some people believed, it had nothing to do with him being gay.
The other guy looked fat, and he probably once had been, judging by his skin. Now he had the distended belly of a starving man; Bamf had seen it enough times before. It looked like a beer belly, but it was caused by fluid, not fat, and it was pretty painful. The guy’s liver could well be swollen too. His hair looked odd, now that Bamf thought about it. Almost like it was permed. But nobody’d go that far to stay sane, especially not aguy, would they?
‘We’ve found something downstairs,’ the girl said, an intense look in her eyes. ‘But we need help to get at it. You help us, and we share what’s there, okay?’
She was holding a crowbar, but it hung loosely from her fingers, down by her side. Looking at these two, Bamf was pretty confident he could take them if he could get the guy to point that crossbow in the wrong direction. In the end, his stomach made the decision for him.
‘Yeah, okay,’ he grunted, trying not to look too hopeful. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
‘I’m Florence, this is Zach,’ she said, gesturing towards the guy with the belly.
‘Bamf,’ he muttered.
‘Nice hair,’ Zach said, his voice slightly slurred. ‘You do it yourself?’
‘You takin’ the piss?’ Bamf growled.
‘No, no, just wondering what products you use. If I wanted to take the piss, I’d call you a short-arse. Which you are.’
Bamf was about to cut him a new mouth when Florence spoke up.
‘You pair of lovebirds want to go see if we can dig out some food?’
What Florence and Zach had found was a chest freezer. It was huge, but it was empty. Bamf held up his knife, facing down one and then the other.
‘You messin’ with me?’ he demanded.
‘It’s not what’s in it – it’s what’s down the back,’ Zach pointed with the crossbow.
‘You want to lower that?’ Bamf nodded at the weapon.
The guy looked a little unsteady on his feet. Bamf wondered if he might be drunk, but found it hard to believe.
‘You want to put that knife away?’ Zach whined back.
Bamf hesitated. He didn’t trust them. And it wasn’t just because they were white – though that might have been reason enough – you just couldn’t trust anybody nowadays. Inch by inch, the two guys lowered their weapons, watching each other suspiciously.
‘Zach’s not very strong,’ Florence said, trying to break the tension. ‘But he was the one who found the stuff, and he came to me for help. There’s loads of packets of tomato sauce that have fallen down the back of the freezer. We can get them out if we can move it, but even for the two of us, it’s too heavy. Want to give it a try?’
If any of them had been in full health, they could probably have moved this thing no problem. But not now. Now it took all three of them, and even then, they only dragged it out a few inches. It was enough for Florence to reach her long thin arm in behind it and pull out the catering packs of tomato sauce.
As she stretched out, Bamf saw the needle-marks on her arm. They were old – she probably hadn’t had anything in weeks. It was amazing she was still alive, given that she’d probably have spent more time looking for drugs than food.
There was one burst plastic bag and two sealed ones, all stuffed with the little sachets of sauce. Florence started to divide out the loose sachets, but then Zach took over when it became clear she couldn’t count to save her life. They started tearing them open and sucking them dry before they’d finished sorting them. It was incredibly frustrating, there was so little in each one, but Bamf thought he’d never tasted anything so good in his whole life. He could feel his stomach coming back to life, and the cramps starting again. At least the tiny packets meant he couldn’t gorge himself as he wanted to. He’d just have thrown half of it back up again.
‘This is the food of the Gods!’ Florence gasped, as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and licked it off.
They tore open the other two bags and spilled the sachets out on the floor.
‘Have you got a place to go?’ Florence asked Bamf.
He shrugged. He’d been moving from place to place across town, but none of them were safe. The last place he’d called home had been ransacked by a gang who’d taken the last of his food. Then they’d taken his place.
‘We could both stay at Zach’s house,’ she suggested.
‘You what?’ Zach protested. ‘Says who?’
‘It’d be safer . . . y’know, if we were all together,’ Florence said. ‘Look what we’ve got! Everyone will want it.’
The other two knew she was right. If the three of them stuck together, there was less chance of someone taking the remaining tomato sauce off them.
‘All right,’ said Bamf. ‘But if either of you tries anything funny, I’ll kill you.’
They each gathered up their share of what was left, stuffed them into their bags, and headed for the stairs. Something occurred to Zach as they climbed back up to the ground floor:
‘If one of us tried something, but it wasn’t funny, would that be okay?’
* * * *
Zach’s place was safer than a lot other homes in Monaghan, but it was disgusting. His father had been a stockbroker – a really successful one, judging by the size of the house. But he’d disappeared a while back, without any warning. Bamf figured his cleaning lady must have either gone with him, starved to death or fled a long time ago. There was rubbish all over the floor. A lot of the rubbish consisted of vodka bottles.
Zach really only used the sitting-room, kitchen and downstairs bathroom now. The only thing that looked as if it was still functioning normally was a powerful PC with three screens and all sorts of other fancy kit sitting on or around a hardwood desk.
‘Electricity runs off a generator,’ Zach muttered, pulling a half-empty bottle from somewhere, unscrewing the top and taking a drink. ‘Don’t touch my computer.’
Apart from that, the place looked like a fancy bachelor pad a month after a stag party that had never been cleared up.
‘Should we put these in the fridge?’ Florence asked, holding up her tomato sauce sachets.
‘They’ve been stuffed down the back of a dead freezer for months,’ Bamf pointed out. ‘If they haven’t gone off by now, they’re probably not going to.’
‘Oh, right,’ she sniffed.
A pounding on the front door made them all jump. Nobody moved. The pounding stopped and several seconds passed. Then the door was kicked in, and a gang of men and women in military gear stormed in. They were all armed with guns, and they all looked hungry. They were rebels, one of the bands at war with the government, although they spent most of their time pushing the townspeople around.
‘What the hell’s this?’ Bamf snarled, but he left his knife where it was, tucked into his belt in the small of his back.
‘Random search,’ one of the rebels replied. ‘We’re collecting for the household charge. Got any food?’
The bags were lying out in full view on the wood and glass coffee table, and the rebels descended on them, tipping out the contents. There were cries of satisfaction as they sachets of tomato sauce were found. One of the men was about to rip open a sachet when a shot rang out, and he let out a scream. Dropping the sachet, he clutched his hand, trying to stem the blood gushing from the bullet hole in his palm.
‘You eat when we say you eat!’ a stern woman’s voice roared.
All eyes turned towards the door, where a tall, athletic woman with large breasts and a shaved head was striding through. Her face and scalp were scattered with tattoos, at least some of which had been picked in a women’s prison in Russia. Her name was Olga, and she was feared throughout the area for her fanatical beliefs and her expertise with any kind of gun.
‘Have you checked the ingredients?’ she asked the sergeant in charge of the men, as she pointed at the sachets spilled on the coffee table.
‘No ma’am,’ he muttered sourly.
‘Who gives a toss about ingredients?’ Bamf asked.
‘Ingredients are everything!’ Olga snapped at him. ‘Don’t you realize there could be animal products in these? It’s probably garbage like this that stunted your growth, little man. Don’t you care what you’re putting in your body?’
‘Go to hell,’ Bamf said.
‘I don’t care what I eat as long as it’s got calories,’ Florence replied softly.
At that moment, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. The soldiers moved back away from the doorway, forming two lines either side of the wiry man in the top hat who had just entered. This was the rebel leader, a sociopath named Moby, who enforced his vegan beliefs on his men and everybody else in the areas he controlled. He had a hook where his left hand should have been, and he tapped it against the button on his combats pocket as he stared at Bamf, Florence and Zach.
‘It was an animal virus that spread across our farms that started this famine,’ he said in a sad voice. ‘And it was the farming of animals in the first place that let that virus evolve. Eating meat has destroyed our world, my people. It has to stop.’
‘The sauce is free of animal products,’ Olga informed him, looking at the sachets.
‘Excellent, pack them up,’ Moby told her.
‘Get your hands off our food!’ Bamf shouted.
‘That’s ours!’ Florence cried. ‘You’ve got no right!’
‘All food must be gathered and distributed fairly,’ Moby told them. ‘It is for the greater good.’
‘Since when did you ever hand food out?’ Bamf growled, lunging at Moby.
He didn’t get even get close. Fists, feet and rifle butts battered him, knocking him to the ground. Several more blows later, he was unconscious.
* * * *
Bamf was amazed to discover that Zach’s fancy American-style fridge-freezer still dispensed ice. Nobody had ice any more. But then, hardly anybody had freezers.
‘Might as well use it for your face,’ Zach said, handing him the ice-cubes wrapped in a plastic bag. ‘It’s not safe to drink any more.’
Bamf nodded his thanks and pressed the ice-pack against his swollen face. His dark brown skin was starting to blossom in purple and black as the bruises formed.
‘I hate them,’ Florence rasped, clenching her thin hands into fists. ‘I hate them so much! God, I’m so hungry. This was going to be such a good day, and they just took it all off us.’
‘Everybody hates them,’ Bamf grunted, ‘but nobody does anything about it. This town is full of people who are all mouth and no trousers. Nobody in this place has any balls.’
‘And you do?’ Zach snorted. ‘What good are your balls, then Bamf? You just got your head kicked in for having balls. Oh yeah, you’re a real bad-ass. Wettin’ themselves they were.’
He turned away, making faces and talking under his breath. He wanted to continue the slagging, but he didn’t like the look Bamf was giving him.
‘I hate them,’ Florence said again.
Bamf was staring at the computer. There was a scanner and printer hooked into it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a laminated card. He’d grabbed it off one of the men as they were beating him up. In his former life, he’d made a bit of money from doing up fake ID’s. These ones wouldn’t be hard to copy. Moby and Olga obviously assumed people had more to worry about these days than copying rebel ID cards.
‘How much fuel do you have for that generator?’ he asked Zach.
‘None of your business.’
‘Stop being a prat and answer him,’ Florence sighed. ‘How much?’
‘I dunno, about ten drums. Maybe enough for two months, the way I use it,’ Zach replied reluctantly.
‘I know a way we can get back at these gits and maybe get a whole load of food too,’ Bamf said. ‘But then we’d have to leave here for good. Are you up for it?’
‘I don’t have much worth staying for now,’ Florence responded. ‘Everybody I know is either dead or gone. I’d love to get back at the bastards.’
‘If it meant getting food,’ Zach mumbled, ‘I’d try anything.’
‘Okay,’ Bamf said. ‘We need a camera too. Do either of you know where we can get clothes that look like the stuff Moby’s lot wear?’
‘I think it’s just walking gear with a few extra belts and pouches added in,’ Florence said. ‘I could put something together. There’s an outdoors shop on the edge of town where they’ve loads of that crap.’
‘Right then,’ Bamf smiled. ‘Looks like we’re in business.’
* * * *
Moby had built his fortress into the remains of the courthouse in the centre of Monaghan. The place had been gutted in the riots that had first followed the food shortages. Moby had built back into it, and added a watch-tower on the roof above its Doric columns. Everyone but the chosen few had to enter by the heavy front doors, now reinforced with steel plates. All the windows were covered with similar plates with gun slits for firing out if the place was under attack. It was an ugly, but secure home for the rebel leader.
The food gathered by Moby and Olga’s forces was stockpiled inside in locked storage rooms, and kept under armed guard night and day. Anything with meat products in it was burned in bonfires in the middle of Church Square. People could often be seen combing the ashes for any surviving morsels, but would be sent running with shots fired over their heads if they were spotted by the guards.
It was nearly midnight when Bamf, Florence and Zach crossed the square, each carrying a drum of petrol on their shoulder. They were all dressed in the military-style gear the rebels wore, their heads covered by caps. Bamf was in the lead as he climbed the steps to the guards who stood by the doors.
‘Moby was lookin’ for fuel for his generators,’ Bamf said to them. ‘We found a few remaining up at Macartan’s. There was a bunch of teachers still holed up in there – they put up a fight, but the place is ours now. Moby said anything we got out of the place had to go into storage here.’
The two guards looked them over. They didn’t know every face in Moby’s army, but anybody sent on jobs like this was normally familiar.
‘ID’s?’ one man asked.
The three cards were handed over. The guard studied them and handed them back.
‘Fuel goes right in at the back, last door on your right. No smoking anywhere in the building.’
To get into the store-room they’d been directed to, they had to be checked by another guard, armed with an assault rifle. He watched them carefully as he unlocked the door and let them in. Bamf took the drum from Florence, who hovered by the door eyeing up the guard. He eyed her back.
‘You looking at something?’ she asked coyly.
‘Maybe I’m lookin’ at you,’ he replied in a cocky voice. ‘What time you off duty?’
Bamf appeared behind the guard, a wooden club in his hand.
‘Right now, actually,’ she chirped.
The club came down on the back of the man’s head, and he slumped to the floor with a groan. Bamf took his gun. Inside the store-room, Zach was pulling a long coil of rope from his pack. There was no food here, it was all hardware, fuel and other odds and ends. Florence searched the unconscious guard and found his keys. Unlocking another door, she had to stifle a cry of delight. There were shelves and shelves of tins, packages, boxes and containers. They each grabbed as much as they could carry in their bags and made their way back to the first store-room.
Zach cut a piece of rope several feet long, soaked it in petrol and dunked one end into the open petrol drum. Then he waved them out of the room and trailed the rope across the floor and out the door. Pulling a lighter from his pocket, he flicked it and held up the flame.
‘We need to get out of here,’ he said, and then he lit the end of the rope.
The flame caught, and swiftly ran down the petrol-soaked rope and into the store-room.
They were about to head for the front door, when they heard voices from outside. Moby and Olga were barking angrily at the guards. They were on their way in.
‘The stairs!’ Bamf hissed.
The three saboteurs had started up the stairs just as the flames reached the drum of petrol. Seconds later, the store-room was an inferno, fire bursting through the door and spreading across the ceiling. Moby and Olga slammed the front doors open to find their fortress was ablaze.
Moby saw Zach’s feet just turning the corner on the stairs. The rebel leader let out a roar, threw off his top hat, drew his automatic and charged up the steps after him, with Olga tight on his heels.
* * * *
Bamf’s strength began to fail him as he climbed the stairs. Past the first floor, then on towards the hatch that led up through the floor of the watch-tower. His knees and ankles ached, and he was out of breath before he reached the hatch. He had once been a fitness fanatic, but hunger had eaten away at his muscles, drained him of energy. Below them, he could hear footsteps clattering up towards them.
Florence and Zach had stopped behind him.
‘Come on!’ he bellowed at them, coughing from the effort.
He had the gun raised as he rose through the hatch. There was a man and a woman standing watch. Bamf, exhausted and scared, raised the assault rifle and fired before they could bring their guns to bear. The shots were wild as the gun bucked in his hand, but he hit both of the rebels, killing the man and putting two bullets through the woman’s side. He dragged himself up onto the floor of the watch-tower, avoiding the blood that was spilling across the floor. His stomach cramped up and he would have vomited if there was anything to throw up. Even in this harsh and desperate time, he’d never killed anyone before.
Florence and Zach came up behind him. Florence picked up one of the other guns and fired down through the hatch, screaming as she did so. Zach took the rope from his pack, but then noticed a rope-ladder bundled up in the corner. Grabbing that instead, he climbed out of the watch-tower, scrambling down to the roof of the court-house and starting for the back of the building.
A bullet took Florence through the shoulder, and she was spun around before falling to the floor. Smoke was rising up through the stairwell now, and from out of that smoke came Moby, the automatic in his hand. Bamf went to fire at him, but the gun clicked uselessly. Out of ammo. With a frustrated cry, Bamf threw himself at Moby.
They tumbled down into the heat and smoke down the stairs, straight into Olga, who dropped her sub-machine-gun as she fell under them. Bamf got in a couple punches to Moby’s jaw, then pulled the knife from his belt. He slashed at the rebel leader, cutting a hole in his jacket, but Moby caught the knife blade in his hook and yanked it from Bamf’s weak fingers. Bamf kicked out at him, but Moby knocked the foot aside.
Moby sneered. He was a hardened killer, well-fed, and pumped up on vitamin shots. This empty, starving man was no challenge for him. Coughing against the fumes, Moby glanced around for his gun. When he couldn’t find it, he shrugged and pressed the tip of his hook against Bamf’s throat.
Bamf was staring down at something in Moby’s pocket, visible through the tear in the man’s jacket. He reached out and wrenched at the tear. A small grease-stained paper package fell from the pocket and bounced down the steps. Moby froze, then looked back, just in time to see Olga pick it up, a frown on her face. She unwrapped it and gasped in shock, then dropped it in disgust, her unbelieving eyes raised to meet Moby’s.
‘A sausage roll!’ she blurted out.
‘It’s not mine!’ Moby protested.
‘It was in your pocket! It’s half-eaten!’
‘Darling, it’s not what you think . . .!
The anguish of betrayal was written all over Olga’s face. She looked up the stairs, then down into the flames that had reached the first floor, as if seeking some answer to this horror. But then a coldness settled over her.
‘Olga . . . my love,’ Moby began, letting go of Bamf and standing up straight.
Olga drew her revolver from its holster and without any further hesitation, put a bullet between Moby’s eyes. Bamf scrambled backwards up the steps, thinking he would be next, but then she threw the gun down the stairs, sat down and burst into tears.
‘Go,’ she said hoarsely, gagging in the smoke.
He didn’t need telling twice. Almost overcome by the smoke, he barely reached the hatch to the watch-tower, his stomach heaving and his head spinning. He wouldn’t have made it up out of the hatch if Florence hadn’t been there to help. She slumped back as once he was up, pressing a piece of rag against her wounded shoulder. They had intended to climb down from the roof using their rope, but Bamf and Florence could never manage that now. But Zach had found that rope-ladder, and had just finished tying it off at the roof at the back of the building. Parts of the roof were starting to cave in, collapsing into the fire below. With great difficulty, they climbed down those two storeys, Zach supporting Florence as best he could.
As they stumbled away from the burning building, the weight of the food in their packs was almost more than they could bear, but there was no way they were letting it go.
‘What now?’ Florence asked as they staggered on into the cool night.
‘Now?’ Bamf coughed and spat something from his throat. ‘Let’s see what we’ve go to eat.’
Zach was rooting through his bag.
‘Lentils, hummus . . . tofu. Damn. No meat. No cheese. Jesus, even some baked beans would have been nice. I’d kill for a sausage roll.’
‘Come to think of it,’ Bamf grunted, ‘I think I can wait until we get somewhere safer. And keep your voice down, there’s people out there with very strong feelings about sausages.’
They walked as best they could, disappearing into the darkness that shrouded the streets of Monaghan. Behind them, the flames consumed what remained of the old courthouse. The smell of burning food carried for miles.