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Christine rarely remembered her dreams but of late those she recalled had veered too often into nightmare, waking her in a cold fearful sweat. Jeering faces stared into hers; she saw her friends flayed, gutted, bleeding. Mother’s face shattered into floating smuts; Father melted into a puddle the colour of skin; her brother cooked to ash and blown away on silent winds; herself bound, alone with her pain forever.

She woke, barely able to shake off the terror and ponder why she had been so stupid as to sleep another night on the couch. The light of the day had climbed through the window and tiptoed its silent way across the floor, dust motes dancing in its wake. Christine caught it as it stalked the couch where she lay, basking in the colour and movement of the television. The morning sun washed the pixels pale and painted daylight on the yellow-white walls, erasing the blue of television.

The volume on the flat screen was down so low it was almost muted. Hands gesticulated, mouths moved, the twitches of noise that snuck out reminding Christine of moths beating themselves to death against a light fitting or wasps trying to escape a jar. Dut dut, dut dut.

Somebody must have changed the channel to the 24-hour news while she had been sleeping; she fumed at whoever it was and switched channels at random. Anything but the news.

She could not sleep, she could not wake, she could not think. She stared, half-blind, at the cold screen of her smartphone.

Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails. Safetynet informed her of the latest fads, the latest fashions, the latest pointless things it had calculated she needed.

Safetynet informed her of the latest fads, the latest fashions, the latest pointless things it had calculated she needed.

Safetynet reminded her that there was a new album by the band it thought was her favourite; that there were clothes she might like in the spring collection at what it thought was her favourite boutique; that her hairstyle, snapped by the selfie cam on her phone, was out of fashion. Safetynet asked if she would like to ‘click here’ to make an emergency appointment with a stylist; whether she would like to one-click-buy the album. Safetynet reminded her that it was her birthday in a month, told her she had no emails. Safetynet said there had been three attempts to enter the city illegally yesterday – contained and neutralised by Security before anyone inside was endangered – and 22,219 attempts to illegally access Safetynet in the past week.

Safetynet told her there were no emails.

She glanced up irritated when the flatulent hiss of bus air brakes sounded in the street outside, considered complaining but couldn’t be bothered.

A short, distracted time later Christine heard the expected scratch of a key trying to find its keyhole, the soft clunk as it slid home, the click of the door lock disengaging. She did not hear the door open, someone must have oiled it, did not look up as it clicked near-silently closed.

Someone’s shadow drifted past, throwing her face into darkness for a moment while she read something on her phone she did not really care about. She heard ‘morning miss’ in a false-cheerful tone; lost interest the moment the shadow had gone. She did not care where the servants went or what they did as long as they did their work quietly and, most importantly, didn’t bother her.

As she lay on the couch, the staff worked around her, like ghosts; as silent as they could manage, almost as invisible as she desired them to be. They might not have bothered turning up, except that she knew that she would be aware of the mess if they didn’t; would be aware if the kitchen was not stocked with snacks or if dinner was not made. If not, her mother would ensure she knew all about it.

Mother would force her to care.

As the sunlight approached the couch on spider-light feet, she dropped her phone and entered another dreamless sleep.

She woke when the sun should have been beating her face sore, cutting her eyes to ribbons, and noticed that someone had closed the curtains to protect her from its rays.

The smell of her house, the smell she had come home to during her years of secondary school, was again in her nostrils: dinner in a bain-marie and some unidentified floral-scented cleaning products that staff were instructed to use. Mother liked the scent; Christine was less keen but it was as much a part of her life as her own smell, or of Mother’s perfume, or Father’s stale cigar and whiskey sweat.

She checked her phone again. She had waited months, for what felt like years, for a message that had not come, a promise that had not been fulfilled.

She had waited months, for what felt like years, for a message that had not come, a promise that had not been fulfilled.

Perhaps the promise could not be kept; could never be kept. Perhaps something terrible had happened.

Something more terrible.

The panic penetrated her surface and shook the core of her being.

No longer able to rest she stalked the house, looking for trouble, though what trouble she sought was impossible to identify. Her home was completely empty; she could feel the walls keening with loneliness.

Mother floated through the front door on a cloud of perfume and stale booze. Her outstanding capacity for talk and her even more legendary ability to stay till the end of any event must finally have been expended.

She gave Christine a robotic hug, disappeared upstairs before returning wearing a dove-grey lounging ensemble, then poured a glass of red from the open bottle on the kitchen bench.

‘Hello, dear.’ There was too much evidence of drink in Mother’s usual manicured voice for the wine in her hand to have been her first. ‘What did you get up to today?’

Christine shrugged. ‘Mostly sleeping, I guess.’

‘Perhaps you could have gone and had a haircut. You need to get rid of that ridiculous student hair; maybe have a chance to find a husband. My stylist can possibly fit you in. Would you like me to call him?’

There was a shallow arrogance to Mother’s tone that Christine didn’t like. She wanted her mother to go out again. ‘There’s plenty of time to get a haircut later, once I work out what I want to do next year,’ Christine diverted.

Mother shrugged, rolled her eyes and said, ‘What’s there to work out?’ Glass empty, she wobbled on her stiletto heels back into the kitchen to pour another drink.

‘You could get yourself some decent clothes at least,’ Mother said, just loud enough for Christine to hear.

Christine sat and stared without seeing the television, watching the flutter of colour, the movement of nothing. Words appeared and disappeared, scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Christine did not bother reading them, she knew what they would say. She didn’t need to watch the news to learn fear.

She didn’t need to watch the news to learn fear.

They were safe there at home, safe in their town. She knew that. They all knew that.

Mother knocked back glass after glass as if it was a race; as if she was worried someone would storm the house and steal the wine before she could drink it all; as if she was worried she would die and there would be full bottles left in the cellar to mourn her. The bottle emptied with a last despairing ‘glug’; Mother drunk-stumbled to the wine rack to open another, struggled to strangle the top off the bottle, looked satisfied when the seal cracked.

The roar of an engine echoing from the garage signalled Father’s arrival. When he entered there was no glass in Mother’s hand, no half-drunk bottle. The only wine not in the rack was the customary bottle open on the table ready for dinner – carefully chosen, by the cook or somebody, to match whatever it was they would be eating.

Later, they collected their dinner from the kitchen buffet, presented the same choices as the day before. Christine watched her parents filling their plates, taking great care to at least change the quantities of each item.

The meal was silent, but not in the ‘we’re too busy shovelling food in our faces to talk’ way. The three of them ate like people who had hours to complete the meal but had nothing left to say to one another. Christine barely ate; Mother and Father had small and pointed forkfuls.

At the end of the meal, Christine made to stand and walk away. Father looked up from his glass. His face turned from pinkish to whitish as it left the well of light reflected from the wine.

‘Christine, please. I have something to say.’

‘Yes, Father.’

He grimaced. She didn’t know what else to call him; no way she was going to call him ‘daddy’.

‘It’s your twenty-first birthday in a month.’

She knew that, obviously; Safetynet Social had probably reminded him only hours before; when it reminded everybody else in town. Well everyone who followed her socials, at least.

‘You did remarkably well at university. I’m proud of you,’ he continued. She knew that too, not the pride bit though; she had not thought him capable of pride in others. She still didn’t. He had never shown her any evidence of genuine pride.

She wondered if there was a point to his words. ‘It was quite surprising,’ he said.

She waited, not with patience, but rather with a practised ability to shut down her brain and suppress her mouth whenever her parents were talking; particularly Father. Nobody needed to hear what she was thinking.

‘Yes, Father,’ she said to move things along as her mother raised her glass to her face and hid behind it.

‘Tomorrow we are going out together, as a family. I have a surprise for you. A birthday present.’

He stood abruptly and strode from the room. Christine could hear his heavy tread thumping slowly up the stairs before the door closed, so quietly she could not be sure it happened at all. She looked at her mother, saw the confusion she felt mirrored on that familiar face, so like and unlike her own. Father, he of the slow anger and the always heavy tread, was silent upstairs; a silence that seemed impossible when the noise of him overhead had been so much part of Christine’s life.

The bottle on the table ran dry. Mother stared at it hungrily like she would wring it out if she could imagine it would work. She glanced at the wine rack in the kitchen, back at Christine, then peered blearily upstairs in the direction of her bedroom. Eventually her eyes landed back on the rack. ‘Drink?’

Christine was so shocked to be offered one she could not immediately think how to answer.

‘I don’t really drink,’ Christine replied after the silence had sat on her ears a little too long.

‘“Don’t really” is not the same as “don’t”,’ said Mother as she almost managed not to wobble into the kitchen for yet another bottle and an empty glass.


This is an edited extract from Enclave by Claire G. Coleman, (Hachette Australia), available now at your local independent bookseller