There she sits, the woman, in the burnt out husk that used to be a bus stop. Or possibly a tram stop. No-one, truth be told, would be able to tell you for sure. The facts, like the structure’s shape, lost forever to the annals of time. But the bench remains. And so does she; the woman. Withered, yes. Weary, of course. But she remains.
Heavy drops of rain sporadically drip down onto her from somewhere high above. She doesn’t bother to look. Not interested in the source. All that matters is the end result, not the sequence of events that takes you there. This she knows. This she believes to be true. One of the raindrops slides slowly down her face. It weaves through each of the numerous wrinkles carved into her skin. It drops to the ground. The wrinkles. She’d learned to accept them long ago. They were a fact of life. Irreversible. You learn to accept that which you cannot change. But did there have to be so many? ‘Like an ordinance survey map’; ‘like the craters on the moon’; ‘like an international conference of wrinkled prunes’. Those were some of the kinder comments she’d heard. The nastier ones she tended to dismiss. It was human nature after all. To mock that which is different. To be wary about those that deviate from the accepted norm. The Old Woman, though. That one hurt. She had to admit. That one did sting.
You see, she’s not old. The woman. Not by any conventional sense at least. Old-But-Not-Old. That’s how she referred to herself. And the others. The other women. There’s about a dozen of them. Still living. Still walking around The City. Scorned, mocked, shunned. The Old-But-Not-Olds. The ones who dared to resist. The ones who ultimately failed. The ones who must now bare the scars of that failure.
It was a few years ago now. She can’t remember when exactly. Time and age lose their meaning, lose their permanence even, in a situation like this. But they were in the early 20’s. Her and the others. She knew that. It was very shortly after The Regime had risen to power. They were young. Attractive. Vibrant. Intelligent. That’s why they were chosen. Diamonds plucked from the rough. They should have been pleased. Should have felt privileged. Especially when compared with the treatment of the majority of the other women in The City. Obedience. Acquiescence. That was the only price they had to pay for a life of luxury. A life better than that of their fellow citizens. One not of squalor or degradation. That was how The Regime phrased things, anyway. But she wouldn’t have it. Nor would the others. Caged animals they would not be. Docile, passive concubines they would not be. Resist they would. Fight back they would. But of course, as we already know, this failed. The wrinkles on her face illustrated this fact if nothing else.
The Regime managed to get wind of their plot. The women. Less a plot, more a resolve. The resolve to overpower their guards and break free from the Headquarters. To somehow escape The City, to get help. To inform someone, anyone, of their suffering. But one of the women broke. Too crippled by fear. Too worried about reprisals, about repercussions, should the plot be discovered. Too focussed on the promise of her own salvation at the expense of the others. She confessed all, believing the regime would take pity on her. Award her confession with the absolving of her previous crimes. That they would thank her. Thank her they did. But that was all. She ultimately suffered just like all the other women. They injected her with the chemical just as they did the others. You see, one thing The Regime despised more than the thought of betrayal was weakness. When this woman confessed the plans of the plot they didn’t see loyalty. They didn’t see courage. They saw only weakness. They saw a pathetic creature scrambling to save her own existence. As much as the others should be, and were, punished they had a grudging respect for their courage and resolve. They would suffer, of course they would, they couldn’t be allowed not to, but there was respect there, make no mistake. She thought she would be able to walk the streets of The City unlike the others. Her face, her body, untarnished. But no. She walks as the rest of them do. Wrinkled. Scarred. Another Old-But-Not-Old to be scorned, mocked, shunned.
The chemical injections were frequent and harrowing. The chemical eating away at their flesh, their blood cells. Aging the women. Stripping away their beauty, purging them of their youth. It left them wrinkled, weak, defeated. They weren’t to die. No, The Regime were adamant about that. They were to be released back onto the streets. To be seen, and recognised, as permanent reminders. For the citizens. For themselves. Reminders of the punishment should you go against The Regime. Reminders that your life is no more than a plaything in the hands of The Regime. To be moulded. To be discarded. However they see fit. And so they were. Released, that is. Sent back amongst their people. People they had so recently been elevated above. Now seen as no more than the permanent living monuments they were.
The rain falls harder. It ricochets off the woman’s every joint, every crease. A drop falls onto her lips. She blows at it slightly, trying to send it from her lips. But her eyes remain fixed. On the building across from her. The huge, grey, sterile, featureless, almost-monolithic building. The Headquarters. The hub of The Regime. She sits here everyday. Staring. At the building. At the source of the torment. At first The Regime would send out guards, often soldiers, to dismiss her. To threaten her. But after a while they started to ignore her. She was harmless. Beaten. Broken. And, in their minds, it was, if anything, good to have a display of their strength, their authority, close to the Headquarters every day. A warning for all others. Over time she would give up, they surmised. Over time her resolve, her anger, would lessen.
That’s the thing about time, though, the woman thinks; there’s plenty of it. Enough for everyone. Time enough for the punishers to become complacent. Time enough for that complacency to become dangerous, to become hubris. And time enough for the punished to beginning planning. And when you have the time to plan – the time to plan every eventuality, every hurdle, every variable – you can make sure that plan is the best it can be.
Her eyes flit to the left quickly. And then to the right. Across the street, at the foot of The Headquarters, two familiar faces walk hurriedly in opposite directions. Two of her fellow Old-But-Not-Olds. Each seem to pay the other no heed. But the woman smirks. Just slightly. The smallest of smirks. Invisible to most. She slowly lifts herself off the cold, sodden bench. The smirk widens as whispered numbers sneak out from her lips…
The woman watches as a huge explosion rips through the lower section of The Headquarters. She turns and begins to walk away as the building buckles and starts to slowly collapse. The sound of screaming and emergency sirens collide in the air. A distance blast echoes into the air from across The City. And then another. And another. With each blast the woman’s smirk increases. She continues to walk away, her pace calm, as the rain gently weaves and caresses its way through the wrinkles on her face once again.