The telly is on. Your eldest is deeply involved in her mobile phone. The middle one is doing homework – reluctantly – at the dining table, and the youngest one is running a brightly coloured plastic car across your face, and occasionally the cat, whose tail twitches up each time it happens, like a warning cobra. Sooner or later the scenario with the cat is going to end badly, but it hasn’t yet. There is nothing on the telly, so of course you’re watching it.
Then there’s an awful crash – the sort of sound that unequivocally signals that something very, very bad is happening – from the front door. You give your spouse the sort of look that says “keep an eye on the kids”, and they understand, and you leave them, skidding out onto the tiles in your socked feet, wishing you hadn’t kicked your shoes off because somehow not having shoes on makes you feel infinitely more vulnerable. The hall light was off, so you can’t see well, but what is very obvious immediately, is that there are people in your hall – more than one person – and the front door is off its hinges. You hear the sound of a cordless drill. You give a shout and step forward, but there is a whole bunch of people, not just one or two. They push past you into your living room. You hear the kids cry out and run back in there, but they’re not being hurt.
The new people walk in and sit on your sofa. They change the tv channel. Your spouse and kids are all gathered at the dining table, looking very scared, and you feel you ought to say something, so you do, asking these people – and damn, they’re a burly bunch – what they think they’re doing. A few more come in from the hall. You can hear the drill being used again, and some banging. Out of the corner of your eye you can see people filing into the house, heading down the hall to the kitchen.
The people on the sofa don’t answer you. They don’t acknowledge you at all. Your heart races. From the kitchen, the unmistakeable sound of the kettle being filled. Someone puts something in the toaster. You exchange an angry, baffled look with your partner. You say: “I think it’s a good idea to get the kids out, while I call the police.” And they agree. You both shepherd the children past the strangers on the sofa, and into the hall where there is a pair of large men, one of them wiping his hands on a rag. They walk past you towards the kitchen, without acknowledging you. Your spouse asks them who they are. There is no indication that either of you have been heard.
And the front door is gone. In its place is a great steel plate, with an enormous lock on it. A lock that requires a key. A key you don’t have. Your spouse says: “The front window.” You nod. You all head there, where the large sash window can either be broken or opened. Because now you just want to get out. But there are steel plates over the front windows. There are now steel plates over all the windows, or men putting them in place, who wordlessly push you away, push you back as you try to get out.
You pull your mobile phone out and try to call the police. There is no signal. The land phone has no dial tone. Just a single, flat note that goes on for ever.
The two of you decide to go upstairs and barricade yourselves in a bedroom. But when you get there, there are people in the main bedroom. You all end up in one of the kids’ rooms, a chair pushed under the doorknob. Everyone looks pale, wide-eyed. You hug the kids and try to sound reassuring, and after they go to sleep, you look down and notice that your hands are shaking. You still have no shoes on. They’re in the living room, behind the door. You remember kicking them there. There are steel plates over the windows in this room, too. You both try, but you can’t move them. You go down and try engaging with the strangers again, but they act as if you are a ghost. They are making dinner from the contents of your fridge. They are moving your furniture. When you get very angry and scream at them, they stand together and stare at you.
You are defeated.
You return to the room and all of you pass the night there, and maybe they’ll be gone in the morning. Maybe none of this is real. You hope.
But in the morning you awake curled up on a too-small bed half under your son’s tiny duvet. The one with rocket ships on it. The child’s elbow is planted squarely and painfully in your ribs. None of this can be real.
You go downstairs. A load of people are eating breakfast. They give you food – not what you would have had for breakfast, but what they want to give you. Just enough for you, and your spouse, and your children. You try reasoning with them again. They do not respond. You cook breakfast, your back prickling with the presence of the new people, waiting for someone to do you some violence, but aside from the violence already done to your psyche, nothing happens. You take breakfast up to your family. On the way, you check behind the door for your shoes, which by now have achieved a disproportionate importance to you, as if everything will magically come right again, if only you put your shoes on.
They have gone.
The new people start to demolish the downstairs part of your house. The TV is broken and thrown away. The internet is removed. You find the remains of the smashed-up keyboard on a windowsill. Everywhere is dust and rubble. You pick your way through it to prepare dinner, high stepping over loose bricks and what used to be a nice carpet.
After a couple of days of it you experience something you’ve never experienced before: a kind of madness, a kind of panic attack. You unilaterally decide that you’re going to hack your way out of this, and back to your life. Back to all your lives. So you search through the house for weapons, and you find a piece of scaffold pipe they’re not using downstairs, in the demolition. You pick it up, gritty in your hand, which is sweating. There is yellow paint on one end of it. You launch yourself at one of the strangers, and there is a fight: silent and wretched, just his breath and yours, and he is bigger than you, but you kill him. When you have finished you stand over him, panting, and the end of your scaffold pole is red.
The other strangers are looking at you. They don’t say anything. They go upstairs and kill two of your children. They break your spouse, so that they never heal.
It goes on for a year, two, five, a decade, two, three, four. You eat what you are allowed – just enough for everyone, but nothing spare. The lights go on when the new people want them to. They go off when the new people want them to. The phone never works. You try shouting for help, but nobody outside can hear. If you shout too loudly, the new people come and start breaking things. There aren’t many things left.
You are never permitted to leave your house again. You will live and die here. So will your remaining child.
With thanks for inspiration, to Seumas Milne’s article in the Guardian.