He wore a suit that was thick and white, like wedding cake icing. A lurid pink shirt. Momentarily his leathery pink face squinted up as he deciphered a road name high on the stained wall, then he staggered on against the dry wind.
Gusts of wind twisted and sprang the branches of the great plane trees of the boulevard. This afternoon it coiled and weighted them to breaking point and above the man in the suit they bent under full sail, loaded with leaves. The expense! he thought. All that precious water it must take. He shook his head. The trunks of the trees were shrouded, all but lost in the green. They showed only momentarily an ash-grey streak of trunk, a lightning strike of living wood.
A few spots of rain spattered the man’s immaculate suit and he frowned. None had been forecast till winter. He picked up his pace, taking long rapid strides that belied his short stature. He glanced up at the sky, a luminous, white screen shading to silver and grey in the west.
He checked his inside pocket for the envelope, felt its ragged papery edge, and pushed the buzzer to enter a building on his right. Behind the narrow door a short, tiled corridor led past rows of disused mailboxes and shiny metal water meters. Pretty much all the displays on the meters were in the red, or even had the Emergency Ration Used icon. It’d been the same in New York. Or worse. And he didn’t want to think about Las Vegas.
He took the corridor to a steep wooden staircase that wound back on itself immediately and climbed out of sight. He began to ascend, each footstep striking dully on the tarnished wooden steps.
At the fifth floor, breathing heavily, he knocked on the only door. He waited, nervously clenching and unclenching one fist. Footsteps approached the door on the other side. The spyhole darkened and then the latch clicked open. An old woman was revealed, dressed entirely in red.
“Ah, George, come in.” She stepped back in mock appreciation. “Nice suit.”
“I’ve got it Mrs C,” he said hurriedly, moving just inside the apartment and turning towards her as she closed the door. He stood there nervously like a schoolboy in the headmistress’s office.
“Well, let’s see it then,” she said. “But come through to the sitting room, it’s going to be a fantastic storm.” She led the way through the cluttered flat, the old furniture and stacks of vinyl records, without looking to see if he was following. She wore a skirt and several layers of cardigans and shawls, each item a different shade of red. Her pure white hair was pulled back from her face. She had an elegant, aristocratic profile. She didn’t smell too good, but then who could afford to wash regularly these days?
The next room was half empty, everything had been cleared to the back of the room, away from the glass doors that opened out onto the balcony. They were wide open. A couple of plastic inflatable armchairs faced the doors.
“Have a seat,” she gestured grandly. “Tea, George?”
While she poured the tea from a pot on the floor next to one of the armchairs, George eyed the balcony. Spots of rain darkened the floor in front of him and he edged his bright blue plastic armchair back a little.
The old woman laughed and handed him a bone china teacup.
“So George,” she said. “How are your allergies?”
“Not good Mrs C, not good.” He sighed. “Aquagenic urticaria now.”
“Poor George.” She patted his hand.
“You’re very kind Mrs C.”
She sipped her tea with an expression of satisfaction.
“Was it difficult to get hold of?” she asked.
“Well, it wasn’t easy. I’ve worn out my welcome in the States.” Too right he had.
“I hope it was worth it, George. They didn’t give you any trouble bringing it in?”
“Oh no. They didn’t even look at it.”
“You have such an innocent appearance, George.” She smiled.
He shifted in his inflatable armchair, which made it squeak. “They really only check for drugs and explosives these days.” He made a self-deprecating gesture. “They think our side sends everything through the net.”
“Yes. Thank God I never got the hang of that. Beastly things, computers.”
“So, uh, d’you want it now Mrs C?”
She paused. The treetops were level with the apartment, and George observed they were raging like a sea as the wind blew through them. His right hand itched where a drop of rain had hit. He glanced at the skin, red and raw already.
“Put it on the side there,” she said. “How long is it since you’ve seen a really good rainstorm now?”
“A long, long time, Mrs C. I think I saw one with my Dad.” He lowered the tatty envelope carefully onto the floor. “Couldn’t we just watch it with the windows shut?”
“Oh no, George. That really wouldn’t be the same at all.” She grinned, her eyes bright.
“And the payment?” he asked. “Hate to be so direct, Mrs C.”
“Oh don’t worry about that George,” she replied in a tone that couldn’t be argued with. “Now, what we need is some music!” She went over to the back of the room where a record player was sitting on a sideboard and selected an aged LP that was propped against the wall. “Night on a bare mountain,” she pronounced enthusiastically and set the vinyl down on the turntable, lifted the needle arm. A crackling emerged from speakers lost in the debris stacked against the back of the room, then the first notes could be heard.
“How long have you been with us George?” she asked as she curled up in her green plastic armchair like a cat.
“Oh, well I’ve been doing the odd job for… must be ten years now. Yes, since the first water shock in ‘23.”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes closed. George couldn’t be sure if she was replying to him or just thinking out loud. “The world’s changed a lot in ten years.”
“There’s still a need for people like us though,” George replied hastily.
The rain began to fall heavily. George slipped his hands protectively inside his jacket pockets. A few minutes passed. The music was picking up tempo.
“I’d really be happier if you would take a look Mrs C,” he said. “Just to check it’s all in order.”
“Oh, very well, George,” she said, irritated, opening her eyes and returning from whatever place the music transported her to. She reached down to the envelope that George had placed between their armchairs and expertly slitted it open with a finger. He tried to peer at it and see what it was he’d been carrying. He knew their usual disguises for sensitive information and about reading only every third word. He was guessing it was the desalination breakthrough, everyone was after that.
The storm broke. Rain lashed the streets outside as the lightning flickered and a second later the thunder cracked and rolled overhead. Five stories below, the road was rapidly soaked, rain bouncing off its watery surface. Rain darkened the floor of the room too, puddling near the windows. The very air smelled of rain, much to George’s discomfort. He visibly shrank back into his armchair.
Mrs C. was absorbed in the contents of the envelope. “Of course we’ll have to get the boffins to take a look at it…” She leafed through the rest of the documents then turned to him.
She patted his knee reassuringly.
“It’s good, George, it’s good. You’re one of our best. No need to worry about your future, yet.”