There before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest… Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other…There before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand…There before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death”
Extracts from Revelation, Chapter 6 (NIV)
In a high-end car showroom somewhere in outer London, the glass door of the manager’s office swings open.
‘Another visitor,’ announces the receptionist, showing a man into the room.
‘Bro!’ says the manager from behind the desk, rising from his seat and stretching out a cuff-linked arm.
‘Mate!’ says the visitor, wiping his hand on his jeans before offering it.
‘Alright, love?’ he adds.
The first visitor, nursing a coffee near the desk, nods and smiles in return.
‘So,’ says Conquest, sitting back down behind the desk.
‘So,’ says War, drawing up a chair.
‘So,’ says Famine, stirring another sugar into her coffee. ‘We meet again.’
‘Not like the boss to be late,’ says Conquest, checking a chunky gold wristwatch. ‘How’d you get here, bro?’
War thumbs over his shoulder, through the glass walls of the showroom. Behind Famine’s black Land Rover Discovery 3 (parked rakishly within inches of the front door), a row of gleaming white Audis is interrupted by a dull red taxi with a large dent on the bonnet.
‘Mine,’ says War, pocketing his car keys.
‘Shouldn’t you be driving a tank?’ asks Conquest, wrinkling his nose. He pours a coffee and pushes it towards War.
‘Ha,’ says War. ‘You forgot the new strategy, mate.’
‘No I have not, bro,’ says Conquest, straightening his back. ‘Wait til the boss gets here and you see my presentation. The new strategy is working out beautifully for me.’
‘And for me,’ says War, ignoring the coffee and folding his arms.
Famine slips the pack of complementary biscuits off War’s saucer and begins to quietly tear it open.
‘Been going well since ‘45, as it happens,’ says War.
‘When the boss goes, “Never mind horses and swords and even bombs and tanks” – he’s like, “We’re using a new kind of vehicle now, if you get my drift.”’
‘I know,’ says Conquest. ‘So I – ‘
‘I’m not finished!’ says War. ‘Make men slay each other, that’s my remit. So while everyone thinks it’s peacetime and there’s no more world wars,’ he jabs a thumb at his chest, ‘I’m out a-slayin’. You might have fancy presentations and spreadsheets and what-nots. Well, I can give you figures that’ll make you weep. Make men slay each other? Just in this country alone, mate, just in one year, I’ve had nearly 2,000 slain by each other!’
‘Bravo!’ says Famine, through both biscuits.
‘Alright!’ says Conquest. ‘I just…’
‘Not on battlefields, mate,’ War booms, leaning forward to prod the desk. ‘On the roads. That’s where the action is. No one knows it’s me. It’s all “accidents”, innit, mate? Bike under a car. Boom! Sorry mate, didn’t see you. Lorry driver checks his mobile – boom! Whole family wiped out.’
‘Woah! Easy, bro,’ says Conquest, raising his hands in surrender. ‘I hear you. Respect. Have some coffee.’
War glowers and huffs but he leans back and the red subsides a little from his face.
‘So that’s great,’ repeats Conquest, when War’s mouth is safely full of coffee. ‘Good job. Serious respect. But can I just add one thing…?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘To do what you’ve been doing, bro, meeting your targets like that, you need back-up. You need infrastructure. You need me.’
‘What, selling poncy cars?’ says War.
Famine laughs, emitting a fine spray of biscuit crumbs.
Conquest smiles. ‘No,’ he says, smoothly. ‘Conquering. Taking the land, inch by inch, for our purposes.’
‘How’s that?’ says War.
‘Tarmacking it over, of course. Filling it with traffic. Your strategy don’t work without my ground work, bro.’
War is looking for his complementary biscuit. Famine avoids his eye.
‘I’ll give you an example,’ says Conquest. ‘Take the A10. That’s a road you’ll know well.’
‘Too right,’ says War, giving up the hunt. ‘Blinding, the A10. Took five young men in one night on that road, only last week. I got a special call from the boss.’
Conquest smiles indulgently. ‘Before the new strategy,’ he says, ‘that road was useless. It had bike lanes nine foot wide on each side.’
‘Bike lanes?’ says Famine.
‘Yes. Built just before the war. Now those lanes are driving lanes or parking lanes. You want to see people trying to ride bikes on that road!’
Conquest starts to count on his fingers. ‘I’ve put multiple lanes on motorways. They never learn it soon slows the traffic down again. I’ve built ring roads and gyratories and flyovers. They’re fun, but even better, I’ve run motorways right through neighbourhoods. This North Circular – he jabs a finger in its general direction – that’s bashed down whole streets of houses, and now you can barely get from one side to the other without a car. What a victory!’
War nods grudgingly and draws breath to speak.
‘That’s not all,’ says Conquest, raising a finger. ‘This is my favourite bit. I’ve even taken the residential streets. No one’s stopping the traffic taking short cuts through those side streets, isn’t it? You got an app in your taxi, shows you the short cuts?’
‘I have, mate,’ says War.
‘Exactly! Straight through people’s neighbourhoods. As many cars as I like – 2,000, 3,000 cars or more a day down some of my handy shortcuts. See? The traffic takes over, and no one bats an eyelid. People just accept it. Everyone knows the rules: pavements are for people, but the road is for cars.’
‘And sometimes the pavement, too,’ adds Famine.
‘Yeah, true!’ Conquest is grinning widely, flashing a gold tooth. ‘I’ve got them all buying cars and owning cars like it’s a human right,’ he waves his hands at the array on the forecourt, ‘and they all need parking! So people turn their front gardens into driveways. And they drive back and forth over the pavements. And they park on the pavements. It’s all become mine. You can stand at the top of some of these streets where people live and it’s like a sea of metal.’
War is now nodding vigorously.
‘That’s right, mate! And there is nothing what takes peace from the Earth like people fighting over parking and “You scratched my car!”’
They guffaw and high-five each other.
“I tell you what, Conquest, thanks to you, people don’t know their neighbours no more. None of this kids kicking a ball about in the street or neighbours chatting and whatnot. No one knows no one, and I tell you, mate, it may not start an outright war but it sows the seeds. It sows the seeds,’ and he taps the side of his nose.
Famine clears her throat. ‘It’s half past, and he’s not here yet.’
‘Well,’ says War. ‘First time in all these years – a few minutes here or there don’t change much…’
Conquest turns to Famine. ‘Something different about you these days. Is it – have you changed your hair…?
Famine laughs, setting two of her chins wobbling.
‘No one’s asked me about my strategy,’ she says. ‘I know what you’re thinking. Famine’s let herself go.’
She gestures to her plus-size dress. The men start to protest but she shushes them.
‘This is my strategy,’ she goes on. ‘There’s more than one type of famine. There’s more than one way to abuse a body. And I have to hand it to you boys. Your conquest, and your war, have led nicely to my famine, just like the old days.’
She looks pointedly at the empty plate on the desk. Conquest mumbles to himself about biscuits and starts rifling through drawers. She sighs and laces her fingers together across her stomach.
‘Do you remember what the kids used to do, before we changed tack?’
War looks at her blankly.
‘Come on, you said it yourself. Played football in the street. Skipping and hopscotch and all that. And then they were free-spirited little things, roaming all over the place without an adult in sight. “Get out of the house and don’t come back til tea time!” That’s what the grown-ups used to say. They would wander for miles.’
‘Until…’ says War, the glee beginning to dawn on his face.
‘Exactly. Until.’ Famine re-crosses her legs, although this is only possible at the ankle. ‘They wised up to your tactics, War, and the parents started keeping their precious darlings off the roads. Or inside their cars. It was safer that way. But that’s where I come in. These kids have been kept indoors for so long, playing on their screens – they don’t know what their legs are for anymore! Certainly not for burning off calories.’
She snorts with laughter, slapping a barrel-like thigh.
‘None of this “going to school on your bike”. I have Mum drive them to the school gates, mounting the pavement in her 4×4, reversing into the road and all sorts. If he’s not run over, Little Johnny only has to step from the car door straight into the school. He gets to his desk barely awake with a Coco Pop still stuck to his cheek. Lucky if he gets ten minutes’ exercise at break time. It’s wonderful.’
‘Bravo indeed!’ guffaws War. ‘And once they do get to travel on their own, they have the road sense of a dodo. Never think to look before they step off the kerb.’
He smiles to himself, reliving some fond memory or other.
‘So I hope you’ve noticed,’ says Famine, leaning forward as far as possible (not very), ‘that the obesity stats are rising and rising. Especially for kids. Which means diabetes and heart disease and cancer and all that. And whenever it makes headlines, the media starts panicking about chips and fizzy drinks…’
‘…and no one thinks about the roads!’ finishes Conquest, and for a moment no one can speak for laughing.
Until there is a knock at the glass door. Everyone stops.
‘It’s the boss,’ says War.
The door opens and Death steps in.
* * *
‘Mr… Jeff,’ says the receptionist behind him.
‘Sir,’ says Conquest. They all stand, except Famine, after an initial half-hearted attempt.
The receptionist is oblivious to the sudden drop in temperature. Instead she is frowning at the brown, drooping leaves of a large potted orchid just inside the office door.
‘I only watered it this…’
‘Take it away,’ says Conquest.
She takes the pot and clacks away across the showroom floor.
‘Welcome, sir,’ says Conquest.
Something is clearly wrong. The immaculate suit, the shades and the Californian tan can’t hide it.
Conquest gestures towards the coffee but then lets his hand fall. Death stays standing.
‘Let’s get on with this,’ he says.
‘Right,’ says Conquest. ‘I’ll just fire up the laptop. I was planning to kick off with…’
‘What were you three talking about?’ says Death. ‘As I was coming in. Something very funny.’
Death takes off his shades, and gazes around the room with a tight smile. ‘Anyone?’
‘Well, sir,’ begins Famine with a chuckle somewhere high up in her throat. ‘I believe I was talking about the school run. It seems that kids in this country have lost the use of their legs, sir.’
She finishes on a slightly high-pitched squeak that was supposed to be a laugh but changed its mind.
Death smiles and nods. ‘That is what you said, yes. But you were thinking…?’
Famine fiddles with her necklace.
‘When you’re ready.’
‘Well, sir, I was thinking…’
‘…one of these mothers, at these schools…’ prompted Death.
‘Yes, sir, I had remembered, as it happens, that one of the mothers does come, as it were, without a 4×4.’
‘She’s a bit of an outlier though, if I’m honest. The others consider her a bit, you know…’
‘How does she bring her child to school, then, Famine?’
‘Her children,’ says Famine weakly. ‘I mean everyone thinks she’s mad. Very dangerous, very…’
‘On a bike!’ blurts Famine. ‘On… a one of those box-bike things. Cargo bikes.’
She shuts her eyes and moans quietly, fanning herself with her hand.
‘Interesting,’ says Death.
He finds a chair, sits down and crosses his immaculately creased trouser legs. ‘Please do carry on. I’ve held this meeting up long enough already.’
Conquest is back on his feet, tapping at his laptop. ‘So, let’s start with road space, shall we? Got some stats here you should see. The projector is just…’
‘Road space,’ repeats Death.
‘Yes, sir. As I was saying to the others, sir, we’ve made vast gains in taking over public space, space that previously people could…’
‘One reason I’m late,’ says Death, examining his fingernails, ‘was the roadworks.’
There is a sympathetic murmur from the others.
‘Yes, roadworks. On the A105. It appears that they are building cycle lanes.’
There is a moment’s silence. Then the three all start to speak at once.
‘Shut it!’ roars War. ‘One at a time. Sir, with respect, those bike lanes are not a problem. The public thinks they’re a joke. Plus, I’ve used them to start a few battles of my own.’
‘Oh?’ says Death.
‘Yes sir,’ says War, ‘everyone’s fallen out over it. I got the shopkeepers claiming their businesses are doomed because no one will be able to park. I got the drivers screaming abuse at anyone they see on a bike, even mums with tots on the back. I got the residents at war with the council and the council at war with itself.’
‘And,’ says Conquest, ‘they’re totally drilled in my school of thought. Can’t take road space from cars! There’ll be gridlock! Cycle lanes cause pollution! Love that one…’
Death is quiet.
‘It’s going our way, sir,’ says Famine cautiously. ‘Self-driving cars are nearly here. People will be driven from door to door. It won’t just be the kids – no one will remember how to use their legs.’
‘Ah, yes,’ says Death, thoughtfully.
There is an almost audible sigh of relief in the room.
‘Self-driving cars do seem like the answer,’ says Death. ‘So much safer than conventional cars. We can lull the world into trusting them, relying on them completely… Or we could, that is…’
He turns to look at War.
‘…if the whole façade hasn’t been blown away in Arizona.’
‘Too soon, War, much too soon,’ says Death. ‘I can’t imagine what you were thinking. Leave that one pedestrian alone, and in a few years, we could have harvested millions.’
‘Yes sir,’ says War.
Conquest clears his throat.
‘As you can see on the screen, sir, starting with residential neighbourhoods, we are now taking 85% of public space for… ow!’
He glares at Famine, rubbing his elbow. She nods urgently towards Death.
Something is wrong. Something is very wrong. The paleness is back in his face and there is a slight tremor in the hands resting on the knees. His eyes are squeezed shut. The row of orchids on the windowsill behind Conquest’s desk have silently shed their flowers, all at the same time.
‘Residential,’ says Death eventually ‘…neighbourhoods.’
Nobody says a word. Even the projector stops whirring, abruptly.
‘Do you know,’ (when Death whispers it is worse than shouting) ‘the main reason I am late?’
It is a rhetorical question.
* * *
Later, no one could be sure whether the scene played itself out on the screen of Conquest’s projector, or was lasered directly onto their retinas – but no one had any doubt about what they saw.
Death rides in a pale Mercedes taxi. He is late for the meeting after a twenty-minute detour caused by the roadworks, but the driver knows ‘a good short cut’. They swing into a side street – and stop dead.
The driver swears. A ROAD CLOSED sign stands in the centre of the carriageway. Behind it is a temporary orange road barrier, and behind that the road is full of … the vision snaps into focus as Death leans forward and peers through the windscreen … children. Dozens of children. Children on bikes, children on scooters, children skipping with ropes, children chalking the tarmac. Children children children, all over the road.
A smiling middle-aged woman wearing a hi-vis vest with a whistle around her neck approaches the taxi.
War, Conquest and Famine hold their breath, expecting the smile to freeze and the woman to crumple to the ground. But she doesn’t. (Perhaps the resulting paperwork would not make it worth Death’s while.)
‘It’s our play street today. Residents’ cars only,’ she says to the taxi driver. ‘You can turn the car there, if you…’
‘Alright, will do,’ says the driver, his hand on the gear stick.
‘We are not turning around,’ says Death.
‘You what?’ says the driver.
‘Proceed,’ says Death, louder.
The driver stares at him, then grimaces at the sudden pain in his head. Rubbing his temple, he pokes his head out of the car window. The woman is walking away.
‘Sorry, love’, he says, ‘Got a resident here.’
‘Oh?’ she says, turning around. ‘What number?’
‘Seventy-four,’ says the driver without missing a beat.
The woman looks puzzled. She comes closer and peers at Death through the window.
‘There is no seventy…’ She breaks off, wincing. Then after a moment the smile returns, if a little strained.
‘I’ll walk you through. Put your hazards on please, driver.’
The projected memory becomes so intense at this point that all three viewers feel their eyes burn; the light is almost unbearable as it unfolds in slow motion. Death, in a pale Mercedes, is driven at walking pace behind the middle-aged woman. The sun glances off the street and the playing children and the woman’s whistle. At her signal the children part reluctantly to either side – holding scooters, skateboards, a ball – waiting to surge back onto the tarmac again as soon as the car is gone.
One child looks straight at Death as he passes, and sticks out her tongue.
Suddenly the vision picks up speed. It fast forwards. The ROAD CLOSED sign is replaced by a large wooden planter filled with flowers, blocking the road at one end. There is only room for a bike to pass. Beyond it, bike stands and trees take the place of several parking bays; on the road, two girls do slow loops on roller blades, while a white-haired woman watches from a bench on the pavement. An adjoining road has three boys with a football. On the next street a cat sunbathes on the tarmac; two men sit on a low wall talking; the loudest sound is birdsong. Only the occasional car comes in or out of these streets, crawling along at low speed.
The rat runs are closed. The people have taken back the neighbourhood.
The vision ends in a blinding white flash and the three find themselves in the glass office, clutching their heads and groaning. Soon Famine is rummaging for peppermints in her handbag while Conquest reaches for the stricken projector, swearing. So it’s War who says, ‘Where’s the boss?’
Through the glass walls they finally make him out, walking away at a slow, deliberate pace between the rows of white cars, hands clasped behind his back. It’s quite hard to see him, because every row of cars he passes bursts into flames. Black smoke billows around him.
Famine’s hand is clapped to her mouth.
‘Not my taxi, mate…’ groans War, but it’s too late.
Conquest watches his progress, and nods.
‘Game over,’ he says, almost to himself. ‘Time for a new strategy.’