I stood on the pavement opposite Harrods, waiting for a break in the sheep. Alice clutched my hand tightly, gazing in awe at the huge flock as it ambled past.
‘Daddy,’ she said, stretching out the second syllable in the way a seven-year-old does when she’s about to ask a difficult question, ‘what’s outside the em?’
‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘Nothing you need worry about.’
The sheep passed on their way to Hyde Pastures and we crossed Knightsbridge, picking our steps between the piles of dung and the ragged islands of tarmac.
‘Miss Galsworthy says there are people outside the em, Daddy.’
‘They’re not really people. They’re savages. Not like us at all.’ I was going to have to speak to the head teacher about Miss Galsworthy.
We pushed through the doors into Harrods and made our way to the food hall. On one table women were washing the dirt off a pile of carrots; on another an elderly man was butchering a lamb.
‘Daddy,’ began Alice, ‘how big is the em?’
My response was automatic, the answer having been drilled into me when I was a year or so older than Alice.
‘It’s 188 kilometres long, by six lanes wide,’ I parroted. ‘The walls are one lane thick on either side, and the middle four lanes are patrolled by specially trained guards day and night so we can sleep safely in our beds. Legend has it that it took 25 attempts to build the em.’
I haggled over a couple of mud-encrusted potatoes, and bought a lamb chop for us to share.
‘What’s a lane, Daddy?’
‘It’s an old measurement. Most vegetable farms are about two lanes wide.’
We left Harrods and started the slow walk home, Alice stopping to look in every shop window and gawping at the displays of woollen clothing and leatherwork.
‘When was it built, Daddy?’
I stopped, and looked down at her inquiring face. ‘Why all this sudden interest? What has Miss Galsworthy been saying to you?’
‘Just that there was a time before the em, when we could go and visit people outside, and when people from outside could come and visit us in London.’
Miss Galsworthy would have to go. I’d speak to one of my contacts on the school board. Such talk was seditious.
‘We don’t really like to talk about it,’ I told Alice.
‘But when was it built, Daddy?’
‘No-one really knows, Alice. Some say it was built during the oil wars, when the savages started their raids on London. Some say it was originally built by the scrap.’
‘The scrap we use to build our farm tools. Once upon a time, it used to walk around all by itself.’
‘Oh Daddy,’ said Alice, ‘that’s just a fairy tale.’
We’d taken a detour through Kensington Kitchen Gardens to look at all the vegetables, and we were both tiring from the journey. I didn’t want to have to carry Alice all the way home.
‘I really don’t want to talk about the em any more, Alice. Some things are better forgotten about.’
‘No, Daddy, I’m asking about bridges.’
‘What sort of bridges?’
‘Bridges over the River. Miss Galsworthy says that once upon a time the bridges used to go all the way across, and that people used to walk over them and that people used to go to the other side and that people from Sarf used to come to our side and that people from Sarf didn’t want to hurt us like they do now.’
I stopped, knelt down and took both Alice’s hands in mine.
‘Nobody’s trying to hurt us,’ I told her. ‘The people in Sarf… well, they’re a little bit different to us. Sarf isn’t really London, you see, even though they think it is. We share our food with them—we give them meat and vegetables, and they give us wheat to make bread. But we don’t really mix with them.’
‘And the bridges? Is it true about the bridges?’
I paused for a while, thinking back to the stories my grandfather used to tell.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘once upon a time the bridges did go all the way across the River. But then we had a falling out with the people in Sarf. There were too many arguments about who got the scrap, and who got the sheep. So the government decided it would be best to break the bridges so that they couldn’t get to us. Once in a while, though, the government sends people across Tower Bridge to meet the people in Sarf.’
‘But Tower Bridge is broken too, Daddy.’
‘No, Alice, it just looks like it. The two halves can join together again. It takes a lot of strong men to pull on all the chains to make it happen. Would you like to see that?’
‘Yes of course Daddy! Can we go today? Please can we? Please?’
‘Not today, Alice. But maybe one day. Come on, let’s see if Piccadilly Circus is on today.’
We walked up Bayswater Road, peering through the railings at the cows and sheep grazing. We hurried past Tyburn, keeping to the far side of Marble Arch to shield Alice from the gallows. We almost ran all the way down Piccadilly, Alice dragging me along in her eagerness. The wide pavements allowed us to admire the roadful of marrows, as young children scampered between the rows plucking out the weeds.
As luck would have it the Circus was in full swing—acrobats vaulted over hay bales, clowns did pratfalls and jugglers tossed burning torches in the air. High above, a brightly painted Coca Cola banner fluttered from one of the buildings. It was starting to get dark, and dozens of tallow candles were being lit, filling the air with the smell of animal fat.
‘Oh Daddy, I do love it here,’ said Alice.
‘Of course you do,’ I replied. ‘London’s the greatest city in the world.’