From the author: A fable of renewal in a world that has faded away
“Any ol' iron?”
Tatter Jansen always followed the same route. She was a Rag and Bone Man: she collected junk left out on the kerb and took it away. She lived out past the suburbs in a junkyard as old as the city, if not older. She would zig-zag through the streets, looping around the ring-road, until over the course of a week she had covered every mile.
The only street she avoided was on the other side, the Southside, where Old Man Trouble lived.
At first, she drove a battered diesel truck, then one day she gave it up and made her rounds on a horse and cart. Some people—like Mrs Johnson—asked her where the truck had gone, for they were concerned and worried that business was bad.
“I recycled it,” she replied proudly, “Just as I recycle your antiquated fridge-freezers and cookers, your furniture, your books and your paintings.”
When Mrs Johnson and the others looked closely, they saw that the cart was made from the wood of broken tables, and Tatter sat beaming at the front, curly chestnut hair to her shoulders, almond eyes glinting; her seat a throne made from a threadbare upholstered armchair.
“Bring out your bones!”
The traditional words were a spell cast by the rag and bone men, summoning the residents from their houses. They would drag out their old scrap, unwanted belongings, their broken things. A spell to help cast out the old sins, and cleanse our souls, to ward off the Devil, some said.
On 47th Street, named for the revolution that year which nobody quite remembered, a wealthy family had put out a disused bicycle, a box of books, and a clothes maiden. Tatter stopped to examine them. She read a whole story from their detritus: a child had obviously grown up, her things now left for others. Tatter took them all. The bicycle could be passed along, or used for gears, chains and wheels in other projects. The books would teach her things to do with her scrap, and then she’d pass those on too. She moved the drying frame to a different part of town, where life was harder. She always found new things to do with things abandoned and unloved.
The rag and bone men sound old car horns to declare themselves.
It was a tradition, after all, and Tatter inherited the horn just as she had inherited the yard, the truck, and then the horse. The horn was out of tune, forever stuck on a sour note.
On the boulevards where the children played, she’d roll slowly past, letting the horse set the pace. The kids would follow behind, shouting obscenities and laughing, so she’d shout obscenities back, or call for their mothers. She enjoyed the game of it. If a boy or girl were particularly persistent she’d reply, “Careful now, or I’ll take you over to his mansion on Southside and let him deal with you.”
But the kids knew that she never went over to Southside. It was the one place she avoided, so they stuck out their tongues and waggled their thumbs. She would get down from her perch, take off the greatcoat she’d found outside the St. James mansion, roll up her sleeves as if to chase them, and then her scowl would turn into a smile, she would laugh and hand out some of the books and toys that she collected.
Year in and year out, her routine around the city persisted. The children grew up, married, had children of their own, and they in turn chased Tatter’s cart, or stopped to pet her horse, or shout the obscenities of the day. Tatter also persisted. She wore the same coat, even as it grew threadbare. She patched it up with red strips taken from a bedspread and felt resplendent. She tied the rest of the fabric to her wheels and put a bow by the horse’s ear.
She was once asked when she was going to settle down and have children of her own. She let out a throaty laugh and replied, “On the day I can make children from scrap and sinew!”
One day, she found a trove on the pavement. The houses near the dried-up canal were clearing out, so workers were boarding up the windows and doors. The bulldozers would likely move in and then the area would start again from scratch. By the side of the road, there were ovens and refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and sofas, books and clothes, suitcases and knickknacks.
She stopped by one house to take the bigger items, then realised that someone was watching her.
She was only a few blocks from Southside. In fact, if she jumped over the back fence of that house, she’d be there. In his domain.
“That’s a fine haul there, isn’t it, Ms Jansen.” Old Man Trouble stepped out of the doorway and sauntered down the path. He wore a very impressive suit, the blue sort with stripes that the City-boys wear in the banks. He held a briefcase in one hand, a piece of paper in the other.
“Repossession is ten-tenths of the law, I feel.” He handed her the paper and spread his arms, encompassing all of the objects on the verge. “These are not for you.”
Tatter was afraid. She backed away carefully, muttering apologies under her breath, thrusting the paper back to him. Then she stumbled on the hem of her coat and fell onto a box of jewellery, scattering the contents across the dry grass. She scooped some of it up, meaning to put it back in the box. Trouble raised an eyebrow slowly, and Tatter let everything fall to the ground and rushed back to the cart.
She flicked the reins with one hand, urging the horse to take her away as fast as possible, and found that there was something in the other. She clutched it so tightly that she did not look at it until later.
It burned that Old Man Trouble had claimed the boxes left for her, but there was nothing to be done except go about her business: collecting and redistributing, making-do and mending.
Another day, the lights went out.
Everyone grumbled, but nobody seemed able to do much. When Tatter pulled up on her horse, blowing her horn and hollering cheerfully, old Tom Smith ambled outside to talk.
“It’s very odd, Miss Jansen.” Tom was always so formal. “There’s been no word, but no one seems alarmed. It’s as though everyone was waiting for this to happen.”
Tatter thought of the house clearances, then nodded thoughtfully at Tom and went to the back of her cart. She lifted out a car battery that had been left for recycling, then reached for her tool kit. After half an hour she helped the old man get some lights working, at least for a day or two, and continued on.
The lights didn’t come back. There was a fault in the electrical grid, allegedly, and it was too costly, or too difficult, to reconnect the city. When the residents complained to the council they were invited to move out, to move closer to civilisation.
Tatter did not realise that she had left civilisation.
Her yard was filled with surplus engines and motors and so she set to work bringing them back to life, finding alternative power for the city. She worked long and hard, and for days she neglected her route.
Every night she looked at the trinket she had taken—not on purpose—from Old Man Trouble. It was a simple iron key that fitted into the palm of her hand.
When she resumed her rounds, she brought light. She could not replace the streetlamps, but she brought lanterns that used pedals, solar panels, and batteries. People needed stoves and fireplaces too, and luckily her yard had a corner filled with wood-burners. She couldn’t restore them fast enough, so she gave lessons in the schools, and the children used the metal workshop and the art room to repair and then paint the old ironwork.
The days were long and the air warm, for it was late in the summer. Only Tatter thought about the winter. For everyone else, the days became a street-party celebrating the end of all that they knew.
People dragged their useless appliances out onto the pavement. There were too many for Tatter, but she started to think about what she could do with them. She would pick up a few on each trip, she decided.
In the cold of winter, the people of the city started to drift away. A delegation met Tatter in the snow and solemnly handed over the keys to their houses.
“We may return,” declared Tom Smith the Younger, “So please take only what you need, and use it with our blessing.” She was honoured by their trust. More so when, as the winter became spring and the years turned on, more and more of the people brought their keys to her and asked her to mind the city.
She still played with the children on her rounds, but there were fewer and fewer as the days went by. Instead of starting families they moved away, leaving their keys with Tatter. The schools closed one by one, hospitals too. Tatter and her horse toured each to see what had been left behind. She took the choice medical equipment for her yard and a potter’s wheel and clay from the crafts room at one of the schools. She didn’t know what she could do with it, but she filled her cart nevertheless.
One day, there was no one left.
She rode the cart slowly along the empty streets. The parks were overgrown with dry weeds; the gardens of the fancier houses had become cruel thorn jungles. She hoped that in time the city would bloom again.
She continued her rounds but became confused by the city’s new topography and found herself in Southside. She told her poor old horse off, demanding that she take her home immediately, yet they got lost again, eventually returning to the same corner. And then a third time.
The corner was outside Old Man Trouble’s mansion.
He stood on the pavement by his gate, resplendent in a long black morning coat. Beside him, a pair of suitcases and a silver vintage car: a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, perhaps.
“Ms Jansen! Watch over my city for me while I’m gone, will you?” He finished loading up and slammed the boot, then jangled some keys.
Tatter shuddered at the thought of keeping his keys with all of the others, but he put them in his pocket, save one, which he used to start the car.
She had not heard such a roar in many years. She was no longer used to it, for the motors she re-made were quiet: they purred or chittered, clanked and hissed. Trouble’s automobile growled like an angry horror.
Trouble sped away and Tatter stroked the nag’s nose thoughtfully as he charged up and down every street, tracing her old route through the city, overlaying her steps with his noxious exhaust.
Tatter climbed back on the cart and urged the horse to take her home. The mare refused to move.
“Come on you stubborn fool, let’s away from Trouble’s place. There’s nothing here for us and never has been.”
The horse turned her head, her sad eyes unreadable, but she didn’t move.
“What is it?” Tatter became exasperated.
Then she heard a sound. “Did you hear that, old friend?”
The horse did not reply.
She alighted and walked up to Old Man Trouble’s gates. The mansion was dark at the end of the drive, but maybe… Unlike the rest of Southside, his garden was not rampant and his windows weren’t boarded up. The dead city seemed to pause at his garden. Could she see a glimmer of a light in an upstairs window? She cupped her ear and waited.
There it was again. A cry.
A soft one, distressed, coming from the mansion.
“Did you hear that?” she said again. Her companion snorted and shuffled her hooves.
She rattled the gates. “It’s locked. We’d better go.”
Her horse snorted again. Why would there be anyone left here, of all places? Tatter thought.
“You’re right,” she sighed, “but how do I get in?”
The horse did not reply.
She remembered the key. She had kept it in her pocket all this time, and when she needed to concentrate, to imagine a future for the things she was repurposing, she would twirl it from finger to finger.
The key fit Old Man Trouble’s lock perfectly. She pushed the gates wide and led her steed slowly along the driveway. “I don’t want to leave you all alone back on the street,” she told her friend, but the truth was she didn’t want to go up to the house alone.
Trouble’s residence was splendid. It had large windows that looked out onto a green lawn. The walls were painted white, with a scarlet trim around the window-frames.
Tatter cupped her hand to her ear again. “Can you hear it now, Nag?”
The cry was louder, clearer: definitely coming from indoors. It was the mewling of a baby.
She looked into her horse’s eyes and the horse looked back at her, then she tried the key in the door.
It opened first time.
The hallway was dark, except for a lit candelabrum in the middle of the room. It cast just enough light for her to see that the furniture was covered with white sheeting. Maybe she was wrong, the city was not dead, but in stasis, ready for someone to come back, sweep away the sheet, shake off the dust and start again. But who was it waiting for?
The baby’s cries were louder and sounded more anxious. She picked up the candle and set off up a staircase to the side of the vestibule. She shouted, “I’m coming, my sweets!”
The baby went silent.
She ran through the high-ceilinged rooms of the first floor. The candle cast half-formed and ominous shadows, and the deeper through the corridors she weaved, the more dust she disturbed. Breathing became difficult, and the smell of decay harder and harder to stomach.
Cobwebs filled every corner of the bedroom, and at the centre was an old wooden crib, its sides heaped with grime. She hesitated at the doorway. What kind of world had the child come into? Perhaps she should leave the child to Trouble and go back to her rounds.
The baby puled pathetically, as if all its strength had been used, and Tatter made her choice. She reached in and stroked the pallid head, then lifted the girl out of the crib and held her. She was so cold.
She could not leave such a sickly infant in the lair of Old Man Trouble, and yet she was terrified. She reminded herself of his request to mind the place and said, “Well! Let’s go home then, poppet.” She retraced her steps, her feet writing a pattern in the dust all the way back to the staircase.
The mare was pushing her head in through the doorway, worried and urging her mistress to hurry. Tatter clattered down the stairs, stumbling with her precious cargo, catching her feet at the last moment.
“Are you anxious, my love?” she said to the horse, “Look who I found!” The baby yelped softly, exhausted.
Tatter carefully led her companion away from the mansion. They set off as fast as they could back to the junkyard.
Tatter’s scrapyard was once surrounded by a high mesh fence topped with barbed wire. When Tatter took over, she donated the wire to a farmer with a flock of mischievous sheep. Then, when the fence rusted and began to crumble, she planted flowers and bushes, and made a pathway for visitors. Her philosophy was to allow other scavengers access to her yard, for it was better than abandoning it to rust or rot.
She kept a warehouse full of all the things she couldn’t regenerate or repurpose yet, but everything had its time, and often that time came again, just as it had for the wood-burners and the batteries. She had stacks of computers and typewriters, fridges and sofas and, next to those, the medical supplies and the wheel from the school.
Tatter brought the infant into the workshop and contemplated her next action. The child was turning blue, and she knew that death was staking its claim on the tiny body.
Tatter was the inheritor of the rag and bone tradition. Her ancestors would dismantle and sell what they could for scrap, rendering down carcasses and bone for soap and glue, and she felt pride in all the new ways she had found to keep waste from the landfill.
But how to restore a child? Nothing seemed to work the way it ought: the little girl breathed with a wheeze, moved her limbs awkwardly as though her bones were twisted out of shape, and her heart beat three times as often as it should.
She placed the infant on the workbench and sighed when she grew still. The horse whinnied and Tatter responded, “Yes, yes. I’d better be quick! What if this poor thing is the last? When did we last see anyone apart from that old devil? It feels like yesterday but it could be last year or a hundred years.”
What if she was the last little girl and Tatter gave her a city with no people? Who would be her playmate or her teacher or her friend? For Old Man Trouble the little girl was just another piece of treasure, to be hoarded and wasted: the last human child! Tatter decided that she could bring her back, make her new and worry about the world later, so she closed the door to the workshop.
She surrounded herself with all that she had accumulated: the cardiac monitor and the surgical tools, the potter’s wheel and clay. She fired up the generator and spread its solar panels across the yard.
Tatter worked for six days and six nights, and the work was desperately hard. Lightning flashed from the workshop, and a storm sat over the city, pounding it relentlessly with thunder and rain.
The little girl’s grasp on life was tentative. When Tatter could no longer hear the thump-thump of her tiny heart, she took apart an old timepiece and built a clockwork heart to help her. The tick-tock of this contraption brought the rhythm back under control, but then she realised that the beat was too strong, and she felt the baby’s body begin to convulse. She ran out into the yard to find something to ease the pressure.
An old bicycle pump attached to the clock solved that problem, but then she realised that the girl was no longer moving her arm and that the tendon had sprung. It would heal but she augmented it with some of the springs and gears from a gentleman’s watch, the works of which she’d never quite been able to repair. Then she found that the baby’s limbs were too weak, and so she had to bind bone and steel to make them good and strong.
On and on she worked and with each new difficulty, she found something to save the day. Throughout the struggle she knew that something important was within her shaping, and she knew that she must not fail.
On the seventh day, Tatter emerged triumphant, bearing not one but six beautiful children to proudly show to the horse. The only solution for the over-beating heart was to divide it, then divide it again. She took the essence of the girl and used every ounce of her knowledge to create a family.
The first was a daughter named Morning, the second a son called Night. The third was named Salt, and his twin was Sugar. The fifth was Sorrow, and her sister was Respite. They blinked away the afterbirth and regarded their new mother—and her steed—with curiosity and mischief.
The mare stamped her feet approvingly. Tatter spread her arms in wonder and surprise. “Once I started, it seemed that there were many children trapped inside the one soul, and all I had to do was bring them forth.”
The toddlers, already growing, chased each other around the cart, weaving between the horse’s legs and hiding behind their new parent.
The sun was high in the sky, and Tatter realised that she had to show them their city, imprint its pattern on their being, so that they understood their inheritance.
She strode out into the yard and waited for her brood to follow. She hoisted them one by one onto the cart, where they jostled each other and giggled.
They set off to make their rounds. She let the horse follow the familiar routes once more, but their pace was slow, and she noticed how tired her companion was. She dismounted and walked alongside to lighten the load. Tatter tied her white hair in a knot behind her head.
There were new shoots on the verges and flowers were sprouting as they rolled past. She wondered when the season had turned to spring again.
They reached the house where she’d taken Old Man Trouble’s key. The children, now rambunctious, leapt down and rattled the boards, sneaking in through the windows and running out of the doors bearing oddments and paraphernalia. She bade them to return everything but said nothing when they laid the items on the kerbside.
Tatter did not resist when the horse led them through Southside and stopped outside Old Man Trouble’s gate. The twins, Sugar and Salt, pushed at the gates and as they swung open, the rusty lock fell to the ground. The children gambolled onto the old devil’s garden and began to do handstands and somersaults. Everywhere they played, the dry grass sprang up, verdant and thick.
Tatter and her six children might restore the world, if only they walked the city enough times.
“Ms Jansen! Ms Jansen!” His voice was cracked, as though he had drunk no water in an age. Old Man Trouble walked gingerly up his drive, using an ornate cane to keep upright. He wore a plain black suit, one fit for the coffin.
“It is good that you’ve kept my home and my child safe. I thank you.” Tatter stepped up, ready to drive him away, but then the children gathered round, their faces filled with wonderment, tugging at his coat and trousers.
“I thought you’d gone with the others, to find where civilisation still holds true?” Tatter challenged him.
His smile wavered, “Only here, Tatter, only here.”
Young Sorrow led him out onto the lawn and they sat. Respite joined them and opened a book she must have brought from Tatter’s workshop. She was the youngest and began to read, in a clear and mellifluous tone.
When she was done, Trouble lay down on the grass and went to sleep. He snored softly, like the old man that he was. Tatter held her finger to her lips and ushered the children back onto the cart.
The horse pulled the rickety vehicle along the rest of the path, past tumbledown houses and across decaying asphalt. The children jumped out to play through the ruins, and everywhere they ran, plants began to bloom, the land to renew. The children made garlands from the flowers and wore them, resplendent, placing one on Tatter and one on her horse.
Tatter walked sadly alongside, rheumy eyes weeping, until their walk and their work were finally done, until the rags and bone, scrap and sinew were restored. Then the children kissed and hugged their mother and set out into their world.
© 2020 Jonathan Laidlow
About the Author
Jonathan Laidlow grew up in the northwest of England, near the Sellafield nuclear power plant, which regularly leaked. He has one good leg, one good eye, and one good ear… He lives in Birmingham, UK. His publications include “The Astronaut Tier” at Metaphorosis and Starship Sofa, “Darner” at Strange Horizons,“Obtrusion Rate” at Liminal Stories, and "Inundated" here on Curious Fictions. He tweets @burtkenobi and blogs occasionally at jonlaidlow.com.
This story originally appeared in Cossmass Infinities.