We found Denise three days later. She was cold, wet, tired, hungry and above all very frightened and we - well, more accurately I - found her cowering behind the freezers in a damp out-of-town supermarket.
Three days later? Well, if you really want me to I can give you a step-by-step, blow-by-blow account of what happened when we ventured away from the garage but, in all honesty, you might find it a bit dull. It was fairly uneventful – a bit of a relief after all the B-movie antics of the day before. So, long story short – because it wasn’t all about guns and running and explosions.
After a fitful hour’s sleep in the cab of Blake’s jeep we stumbled out into a cold, dewy morning. We found the showroom’s service station, which we hadn’t noticed when we’d driven in earlier in the gloom. Blake crowbarred the door and I busied myself gathering up sandwiches and drinks from the not-very-chilly chiller cabinet (plus a few bars of chocolate to satisfy my sugar craving) as he managed to get the petrol pumps working. He filled up the jeep’s tank and as many canisters and containers as he could find and loaded them into the jeep with all sorts of other assorted bits and pieces – candles, torches, batteries; anything which might be of practical use somewhere down the line.
Back in the cab we feasted in silence, munching on sandwiches, pies, crisps and chocolate, all of which we washed down with fizzy Diet Coke. It was the finest meal I’ve ever had.
We buckled up and prepared to leave the garage shortly after 9 a.m. Just before Blake started up the engine we heard a distant sound - a dull ’whoomph’ – which was unmistakably an explosion. I gazed down into the city, and I was shocked to see a raging fire somewhere in the vicinity of the civic centre, plumes of greasy smoke rising up into the morning sky. There were a few more fires too, dotted here and there. I turned to Blake, puzzled.
‘What’s going on’ I said.
Blake turned the ignition key and the jeep’s engine roared into throaty life. ‘Don’t get excited. There’s probably no-one down there. It’s just another reason to get away from built-up areas. Gas leaks, faulty electrical wiring…when whatever happened happened the other night it probably didn’t shut down all the power stations. Places are just going to go up. Cities will burn. D’you want to ring 999 just in case?’
I ignored the comment and looked away from the window. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said as frostily as I could manage.
We trundled out of the garage. I was quietly contemplating what I’d just seen – the city starting to disintegrate – and realising just how distanced I’d already become from what I would come to regard as ‘my old life’. Now and again I’d glance across at Blake; he wasn’t the small-talk type - besides which he was lost in concentration as we drove through a suburban wilderness, a part of the outskirts of the city I’d never had much cause to visit. The tree-lined streets and avenues looked frighteningly similar to the part of the city I’d called home and I began to realise just how homogenised and insular my life had been just a few hours before. I’m ashamed to say I felt a thrill of excitement, a sense of liberation as I realised there could be no going back. Things weren’t going to return to normal. There was no cavalry ready to stampede over the horizon to put it all right again. I wasn’t ready to accept that I might never see Lis again yet but I was starting to accept that this was my life from now on. Life in a world as alien to me as if I’d fetched up on Pluto.
Blake pulled over to the side of the road. We were in ‘identikit street’, a road designed and built by council planners with no sense of imagination or originality. ‘I have no fucking idea where we are,’ said Blake, his hands tightly gripping the steering wheel as if he was battling to control his impotent rage. ‘This place is like a bloody maze. How could you live like this?’
‘It might help if we had some idea where we were going,’ I said boldly. Blake said nothing but I could see he was quietly simmering. Then he seemed to relax – he almost smiled, for God’s sake. He reached behind him and burrowed about amongst all our booty. He found what he was looking for and casually tossed a small A-Z folded street map into my lap.
‘Look for Covington Road,’ he said as I started to unfold the little booklet. ‘That’s where we are now. We just need to get away from all these bloody streets and…shit, shit, shit!’ Blake slammed the jeep into reverse and I looked up to see the cause of his outburst. Three wraiths were out there, just a few feet away from the jeep, bearing down on us with that disturbing motionless gait. ‘Hang on!’
I hung on to my seatbelt as, with a familiar squeal of tyres, Blake spun the jeep round and ran through the gears as the jeep roared off back in the direction we’d just come from.
Hang on, I did say ‘long story short’ back there, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that little close encounter and thought it was worth mentioning because, at this stage, the wraiths were still very much an unknown quantity and we not only had no idea what they were and where they came from, we equally didn’t have a clue where they’d pop up next. Nothing much has changed in that respect.
Anyway, courtesy of my hitherto-unsuspected map-reading skills, we managed to shake off suburbia and we headed for the hills – literally. The city was nestled in a low valley and we managed to find our way to a road which led in two directions – out onto the motorway or up over the hill towards the next valley which wasn’t quite so densely-populated. The road rose steadily; to the right it looked down over an industrial estate – one or two fires were burning vigorously and looked set to spread right across the estate and God knew where else beyond – and off to the left was a heavily-overgrown area called Leckington Forest. I was familiar with Leckington as it had been fundamental to some of my more vivid childhood nightmares. Before the city grew into a modern monstrosity in the mid-to-late 1990s, the forest overlooked the city like a dark green frown. There’d been rumours that the forest had a bit of a history – witchcraft rituals and so on – back in the 17th century and there was something about the place which seemed to resonate with the past even though the hill road which bordered it and the buildings which had sprung up alongside it had robbed it of much of its mystique. But even as an adult I still found it eerie and forbidding; this dense cluster of tall, tightly-packed trees, their green canopies hiding multitudes of unspoken and unspeakable sins. It was the sort of place I could imagine coming alive at Halloween – naked chicken sacrifices, virgin deflowerings, men in robes bearing bloody daggers. Hammer horror stuff really but Leckington Forest made me think that way.
As Blake changed gears to navigate his way up the winding hill road, I tried to look straight ahead because I didn’t want to look at the burning industrial estate and I didn’t want to look at the forest, even though it was the middle of the day and reasonably bright. Bugger me if I didn’t inadvertently glance off to the left at one point and I swear to you I could see something weaving in between the trees – little pillars of shivering white which could have been ghosts but in all probability were wraiths - if they weren’t the same thing. I looked away pretty sharpish, as you can imagine.
We came upon the cottage a few minutes later. Well, Blake came upon it really. We were some distance up the hill and fortunately thick vegetation off to the right obscured any view down over the industrial estate and the city itself which would have been in plain sight by now. Blake suddenly slammed on the brakes and if I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt I’d probably have sailed right through the windscreen. Cheers, Blake.
Fearing more wraiths I gripped the dashboard and scanned the road ahead. But Blake wasn’t looking in that direction. He was looking at a gate and a gravel drive beyond it just off to the right. ‘What is it?’ I said.
‘Not sure,’ said Blake quietly. ‘Maybe somewhere we can bivouac for a day or two.’ To my alarm Blake undid his seat belt, grabbed a rifle and opened the door.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to bivouac just yet – even if I knew exactly what bivouac meant. Surely we were still too close to the city? After all, we’d only been on the road for a couple of hours, and at least half of that time was spent driving round and round in circles.
I didn’t fancy getting out of the cab – it felt warm and safe – but then I didn’t much fancy staying there on my own either. Blake was wasting no time. He was rattling the locked gate. He jumped over it and disappeared from view as he strode up the drive, gravel scrunching underfoot. Cursing and swearing, I unclipped my seat belt, quietly opened the door in case the sound attracted unwelcome attention, and hurried after him.
By the time I caught up with Blake he was at the door of a small, rather quaint cottage at the end of the drive, maybe fifty feet from the main road. It was picture postcard stuff; a two-storey whitewashed cottage, ivy around the door and crawling up the walls, a well-kept front garden, a small ornamental well in one corner, a red mini parked at an angle outside the adjoining garage. Blake moved cautiously around the building, trying the doors and windows. I hovered by the front door, looking anxiously back down the drive, making sure I could still see the jeep where we’d left it. Blake returned a couple of minutes later. He was smiling.
‘Self-sufficiency types,’ he said. ‘Vegetables, fruit, the lot out back. Potatoes, apples…not a bad haul.’
‘No-one at home?’ I said hopefully.
Blake pulled a face. ‘What do you think?’
‘So what do you want to do?’ I said, a tacit acceptance that, for the moment, Blake was our leader. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a power struggle; besides which, I still needed Blake far more than he needed me.
Blake grinned, turned round and gave the front door a hefty and unnecessarily noisy kick. It gave a crack and flew open. Blake grinned at me again, raised his rifle, and strode purposefully into the cottage.
Cursing under my breath, I followed him inside.
It was a sad, sad place.
The cottage clearly belonged – had belonged – to an elderly couple. They were everywhere, in the floral, old-fashioned, comfortable furnishings and curtains, the musty books on the shelves – a mixture of military biographies and histories and farmhouse cooking and gaudy Victorian melodramas, the his’n’hers clothes in the wardrobes (lots of tweeds, hiking boots, heavy greatcoats) and the fussy little kitchen dominated by a well-used Aga. I felt desperately unhappy as we investigated the empty, cheery rooms; I felt like an intruder callously invading someone else’s space and time. By the time we’d searched the place from to bottom – and it didn’t take very long – I almost felt as if I knew the people who lived here. He was in his sixties, big, bluff, white handle-bar moustache and loud booming voice. She was mousy and long-suffering, her white hair tied back in a bun, spending her time in the kitchen baking bread and watching her husband pottering happily in the garden. Where are they now? I wondered as I stood in the kitchen and looked out at the square garden with its rows of cabbage patches, the apple trees, the greenhouse full of tomatoes and strawberries. What had become of them?
‘This’ll do.’ It was Blake, in the doorway behind me.
‘Do for what?’
‘For now,’ he said. ‘It’s quiet, it’s off the beaten track, it’s easily defensible. Well-placed too.’
‘You want to live here?’ I said wearily.
Blake grimaced. ‘I don’t want to live anywhere. But we need to rest up, take stock, make plans. This is as good a place as any.’ He turned and disappeared into the adjoining living room.
I couldn’t be bothered to argue. There was no point. Besides, what was there to argue about? Blake was probably right. If it wasn’t here it would be somewhere else. I didn’t much fancy another night in the jeep but then I didn’t really fancy violating someone else’s home either - even if those people had disappeared forever to God knew where. I looked around the kitchen, the tiled walls, the spice rack, the utensils hung on nails, the cupboards, the racks of plates…
There was a sign on the wall just alongside the kitchen doorway. Flowers curled around comfortable, ornate lettering: ‘NO PLACE LIKE HOME’.
I suddenly felt more miserable and desolate than ever before. My earlier elation at my newfound freedom had deserted me. I felt dead inside.
So it was that we moved into ‘Ivy Cottage’ (no, really…well, it could have been worse, ‘Dunroamin’ or something). It wasn’t a very taxing move; we didn’t have van loads of furniture and treasured tat in packing crates to find a new home for. Blake shot off the rusty lock on the gate and reversed the jeep up the drive. Incredibly, he’d half-inched a couple of chunky padlocks from the filling station so he re-secured the gate before unloading all our ill-gotten gains on the sitting room floor.
By nightfall we were in. Blake considered shoring up the front door with planks of wood but decided against it in case we needed to make a quick escape. He propped a couple of chairs against the door and stood back to survey his handiwork with amused satisfaction.
I had no idea how to fire up an Aga or what you did with one when you did. Blake was willing to have a go but I didn’t much fancy burning the cottage down in our first night in situ. Luckily the old couple’s self-sufficiency hadn’t prevented them from filling the garage with gas canisters and Primus stoves and I found some still-fresh bread and thawing frozen food in the freezer. I grabbed what looked salvageable and manage to rustle up a bizarre meal of bread, pizza and fish fingers.
So Blake and I led a quiet, rustic existence in the cottage for a couple of days. Blake spent his time studying maps and sharpening knives and stripping down rifles. Nice work if you can get it. I wandered around the garden and dug up any useful crops – what was the sense in leaving them to wither and die? Neither of us ventured from the cottage and luckily it seemed that we were out of sight enough not to attract the attention of any passing wraiths. My secret fear was that the wraiths could and would just materialise from nowhere – we’d seen them do it already. So even though I was unutterably exhausted I found it difficult to sleep (there were two bedrooms and Blake and I had one each, in case you were wondering) because I kept imagining closing my eyes and opening them to find something white and shiny and very horrible looming over me. So I’d doze for a bit and wakeup with a start when the house creaked or the wind rattled at the windows.
I tried not to think long-term. Short-term was bad enough. Obviously we couldn’t spend the rest of our lives holed up in Ivy Cottage but it offered a respite of sorts, a chance to recharge our batteries, gather up our energy before thinking about what to do next. It was on the third day that Blake announced it was time to go shopping.
‘It’s time to go shopping,’ he announced as he bit into a slice of slightly-stale toast. I’d scraped most of the mould off and hoped he wouldn’t notice. I daresay he’d eaten worse. I was tucking into corn flakes doused in bottled water. Not as bad as you might think.
‘Shopping? Shopping for what?’ I said between mouthfuls. Blake shrugged.
‘Anything we can find. We’ve got to start hoarding. Any non-perishable foods, tools, weapons…the stuff out there won’t last forever.’
‘So you think there are other people?’ I said. In our time in the cottage we’d kept ourselves to ourselves; any conversation had been peremptory and superficial. I don’t think either of us was ready to look at the bigger picture in any real detail yet. I was glad of the chance to talk about something other than what to eat next.
‘I suppose there must be,’ he said grudgingly. ‘And wherever they are they’re going to be stocking up too. We don’t want to be left with nothing.’
‘So what are you suggesting?’ I said.
‘There’s that retail park, you know it? McCardle Valley?’ I knew it. It was a curious thing. By the end most people didn’t bother much with town centres for their shopping needs. The malls had arrived. Great big sprawling developments, out-of-town, blocks of shops offering huge bargains on warehouse goods, everything from clothes to jewellery and food and all points in between. The great unwashed would descend on these places (mainly at the weekends, turning them into my dictionary definition of Hell on Earth) in their vans, their family saloons, their trucks, and spend hundreds upon hundreds of pounds on things they really didn’t need but just couldn’t resist because it was all so damn cheap.
McCardle Valley was one such place. Discount stores and garden centres on one side, huge supermarkets – three of the buggers, all competing feverishly against one another – on the other. It had been open for about two years and it was practically a magnet for anyone in a twenty-mile radius with a credit card.
‘I just think we ought to get there before someone else strips the place – if they haven’t already,’ said Blake.
Personally I wasn’t convinced that anyone else - still assuming there actually was anyone else - would be organised enough yet to even begin thinking about looting (for that’s what we were talking about) but he certainly had a point. Our supplies were becoming depleted and even if we weren’t planning to live out our lives in happy retirement at Ivy Cottage we’d need to restock at some point just to get us through the next few days.
So I didn’t argue with him. God knows I didn’t want to go out there again – out on the streets, out in the open – but we couldn’t just sit in the cottage and wait for life to pass us by.
After three days in Ivy Cottage we set off together in the jeep and headed for McCardle Valley, about six miles away out in the countryside.
That’s where we met Denise. Did I mention Denise?
THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.