Surviving The Evacuation, Book 4: Unsafe Haven
“Sooner or later, you have to trust someone.”
“There are no reported outbreaks in the UK or Ireland.” That is what the government broadcast. Nilda didn’t believe it. Not trusting the authorities, she, and her son, Jay, stay behind when Penrith is evacuated. After weeks of rationing, there is little food left in the small town in Northern England. Soon, she discovers that there are many other survivors competing for it. Choosing diplomacy over violence, she attempts to forge a community out of a disparate group of survivors. As the number of the undead grow, she realises that they will have to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Nilda travels north into Scotland, but death follows, and she is forced to leave once more.
Joining with others who have survived the evacuation, she finds not all of them have the same motives. Some, like Tuck, Sebastian and the Abbot of Brazely only want to help. Others, like Harper and Rob, only want to help themselves. Whilst Chester and the new Mayor of Anglesey have their own agenda, one at odds with Nilda’s quest; to find a safe haven for her son.
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Part 1: Outbreak
Penrith, Cumbria, Northern England
“I don’t understand why we don’t go on the evacuation,” Jay said.
“Because I don’t trust the government,” Nilda replied.
“Yeah, Mum, you already said that. But you didn’t say why.”
She reached across the small table in the small kitchen of their small house and took her fifteen-year-old son’s hands.
“It doesn’t feel right. I can’t say what about it I don’t like, but this plan of evacuating everywhere inland seems like it’s beyond what the government would be able to do. Not just ours, but any government.” She saw the frustrated confusion in her son’s eyes and took a moment to marshal her thoughts. “You saw the police at the supermarket?” She refused to call it a Food Distribution Centre.
“And how they were dressed in military uniform? Carrying rifles?”
“Yeah, but that’s what you’d expect, isn’t it?”
“You’ve been watching too many bad TV shows,” she said, although he hadn’t been watching any these past few days. Since the phone networks went down, and the TV broadcast nothing but football and emergency government missives, he had actually been leaving the house. Due to the curfew, he hadn’t gone much further than the backyard, but he had been going out. She’d been relieved at that. The teenage isolation into which he’d sunk as his grades had slipped over these past few months had begun to worry her.
“Do you know how long it takes to learn how to use an assault rifle?” she asked. “You can’t just give someone a gun and call them a soldier.”
“Maybe, maybe not. You don’t know,” he said, stubbornly.
“The police wouldn’t choose to go armed. You see, that’s the problem,” she said, trying a different tack. “I mean, they actually had a ballot and voted against carrying guns.”
“Yeah, but that was before, Mum. It’s all changed.”
Nilda closed her eyes, and took a breath. Her son was right. It had all changed, and just in the space of a few short days. But she knew she was right, too. He really didn’t understand. It all stemmed from the lack of any solid information. When the radio broadcast that there were no reported outbreaks in the UK or Ireland, Jay believed it. Though she wanted to, Nilda couldn’t. The last report she had believed said the virus was sweeping through North America, Europe, and Africa. The way she saw it, that meant there would be billions of people trying to get away from those countries. They would all hear the same message stating that Britain was safe. It was inevitable they would head to the UK and bring the virus with them. There was no way of preventing it, there was simply too much coastline to be protected.
“Alright, ask yourself this,” she said. “Why are the police now dressed in Army uniforms? What good exactly is that camouflage pattern here in the streets of England?”
“I don’t know, Mum, and the thing is, neither do you. I mean, unless you have some reason to think they’re lying, then we should trust them, right?”
No, they shouldn’t, but she couldn’t quite explain why not to her son. There was nothing tangible behind her wariness. It was just a gut feeling that they were safer on their own. As she gathered her thoughts in preparation for another assault on his uncharacteristic reasonableness, there was a knock on the back door.
“Stay here,” she hissed.
“It’s only Mr Baker,” Jay said. Ignoring his mother, he went to open the door.
They lived in a two-up, two-down terrace in a part of the small town that the council had tried to forget. The bedrooms upstairs were just that, with enough space left over for a small wardrobe. Most of Jay’s clothes were in a dresser on the small landing. Nilda had only two well-laundered outfits for work, and had become used to ignoring the snide comments from her clotheshorse colleagues. Downstairs was the living room, the wall of which the previous owner had partially knocked down during an evening that was never explained to the court’s satisfaction. It was this that had caused the council to put the house up for sale. Unable to afford a contractor, Nilda herself had completed the work that debauchery had begun and had knocked through the living room into the kitchen. But that had been the extent of the improvements she’d been allowed to make. Her house, with its eighteenth-century frontage and cobbled backyard, was under a preservation order. All the houses in the terrace were, including the one opposite belonging to Sebastian Baker.
“What do you want, Sebastian?” Nilda asked, as she went to stand in front of the now open back door.
“Look,” he said, quietly, “I know you’ve got food—”
“We’ve just enough for the two of us,” she said firmly.
“You’ve got more than that,” Sebastian said. “You’ve enough for the two of you for three months. I helped you carry it in from the taxi, remember?” She did. Times had been tough since the recession began. Her hours had been cut, her wages frozen. For two winters in a row they had had to forego heating in order to buy food. Their car had been sold, but even then she’d often gone hungry in order that her son had enough to eat. The moment that she found a second job, stacking shelves during the middle of the night, she’d decided they would never go hungry again. She’d kept three months’ food in the house ever since. She’d have liked to have kept more, but there just wasn’t room.
“But don’t worry,” Sebastian continued. “I’m not here to beg. I’m guessing you’re going to stay put tomorrow.”
“We haven’t decided yet,” she lied.
Sebastian looked past her through the kitchen to the small living room, as if taking in the complete lack of packing.
“Well, I’m going,” he said. “Sooner or later you’ve got to trust someone. For good or ill, that time is now.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling her,” Jay said.
“What,” she asked again, though this time more loudly, “do you want, Sebastian?”
“Since I can’t take everything with me,” he replied, “I thought I’d give you what I’m leaving behind. In the days to come, it might help.”
“Like what?” Jay asked with excited curiosity.
“Well, it’s nothing much. Just my spare camping kit, some tools. That sort of thing.”
“Oh, cool!” Jay stepped forward. Nilda raised her arm to stop him from going outside.
“And what do you want in exchange, Mr Baker?” she asked, coolly.
“Nothing,” he said.
“I don’t believe that.”
The older man tilted his head to one side, and sighed.
“In a few days’ time,” he said, “when the silence descends and the power is cut, you’ll start going from house to house looking for the things that you need. It’s rather obvious that you’ll begin with mine. You won’t see it as such a great crime robbing from me as you would from an unknown neighbour. I thought I would pre-empt your descent into criminality and offer you what I had.”
She eyed him with even more suspicion. He just smiled.
“Well, come on,” he finally said. “I’m not carrying it over for you.” He turned, walked across the small alley, opened the five-foot high wooden gate, and entered his back garden.
“Mum. He’s being nice,” Jay whispered.
Nilda closed her eyes. Sebastian was always being nice. That was the problem.
“Fine. Go on. I’ll follow.”
Jay pushed his way past his mother and walked quickly - at fifteen he was too cool to run - across the yard. Nilda took a moment to lock the back door and followed through their yard, across the narrow alley and into Sebastian’s garden.
Where hers was very definitely a yard, used for very little except storage, his was a garden. Dotting the small space were pots, some filled with evergreens, and others with empty earth in readiness for a spring planting that now would never come. No windblown leaves ever found sanctuary there, nor moss a foothold. Even the chipped and worn cobbles had been dug up and replaced.
Walking through the back door, Nilda found her son picking through the items stacked neatly on Sebastian’s kitchen table.
“I’ve brought down what I think would be most useful,” Sebastian said without pre-amble, as Nilda closed the door. “There are two stoves. They burn paraffin, or paraffin gel. That’s the stuff in the toothpaste tube.” He pointed. “I haven’t used it since last summer, but it should be fine. You’ll have to find some more fuel. I’d suggest the camping shop on Packard Street. They don’t keep it out on display, but in a metal box out in a storage cabinet next to the bins behind the shop.”
“Why do they keep it there?” Jay asked.
“Well, Jay, because it’s incredibly flammable,” Sebastian said with the patience of a man who’d been teaching for the past thirty years. “If they have it inside, then their insurance premiums go up. But they have to stock it because it’s one of the things you can’t send through the post, again because it’s incredibly flammable.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah.”
“There’s a good little camping kettle here, and a saucepan and frying pan.”
“We’ve got utensils,” Nilda said.
“These are compact. If you do decide to leave, you’ll want to pack light. There are some boots here that should fit you, Jay. They’re well-worn, but waterproof. There’s a first aid kit, some fire proof matches,” he pointed at the items on the table, “and… well, you can go through the rest yourselves.”
“Don’t you want to take any of that with you?” Nilda asked.
Sebastian pointed through the door to the front room where a packed bag leant against an over-stuffed bookshelf.
“I’m taking all I can. But you heard what they said. Bring what you can carry, but you’ll have to carry everything you want to bring. Speaking of which, you’ll need bags.” He picked up a black, drawstring bag.
“Amity Finacial,” Jay read.
“They didn’t notice the spelling mistake until after they’d printed twenty thousand of them,” Sebastian explained. “They gave them out to all the sales reps, even us part-timers. There’s a box of them up in the spare room. And there’s some other things in there you might want. Help yourself to everything. My spare food is down here.” He bent down to open a cupboard. Neatly lined up inside three wicker baskets were a few cans, packets, and jars.
“That’s kind,” Nilda said. “Thank you.”
“It’s not really,” he said. “And it’s really not very much, but it might help. If you stay.”
“I’m not planning on leaving,” Nilda finally admitted. “That’s our house. Our home.”
“Just remember that circumstances may change. A time may come when you have no choice but to leave. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. That’s what I’ve tried to do, although in recent years I’ve just hoped for things to stay the same. Speaking of which, there’s this. I definitely can’t take it with me.” He pulled out one of the chairs tucked under the table. On the seat was a bundle tied up in cloth. He picked it up and unwrapped it.
“That’s a sword!” Jay exclaimed.
“A gladius. The type the Romans used. It’s a replica, but it’s an old replica. An antique in its own way. I shouldn’t really have it at all, but it was, broadly speaking, my retirement plan.”
“I don’t know what you think we’re going to do with it,” Nilda said.
“I think you do,” Sebastian replied. “Let’s just say that with what’s coming, it’s better you have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”
“Is that some old Roman saying?” she asked.
“No, Mum,” Jay said. “That’s from Lord of the Rings.”
7th March - Evacuation Day
Jay was woken by the sound of people in the street outside. When he came down to the kitchen he found his mother sitting by the window, peering out through a gap in the curtains.
“What’s for breakfast?” he asked, blearily.
“Porridge. It’s on the stove.”
“Enjoy it while you can. It won’t last for ever, and when it’s gone you’ll look back and wish for nothing more.”
“Yeah, I doubt that,” he muttered, as he emptied the saucepan into a bowl. “Is everyone leaving?”
“It seems so,” she said, her eyes glued to the procession of evacuees filling the street.
“It sounds like it. What about Mr Baker?”
“He left at half past five this morning.”
“But that’s before the curfew lifted.”
“I don’t think that matters today. Or after today.”
“Are you sure about staying, Mum?” he asked.
“I am.” She’d watched her neighbours leave, chivvying each other along. As far as she could tell, they were the only ones staying in the terrace.
Jay ate in silence. When he’d finished he looked up to find his mother watching him.
“So, what now, Mum?”
“We need to go out for supplies,” she said, when Jay woke the next morning. On the kitchen table was a road map.
“You mean looting?”
“You can call it that if you want. But there’s no law and order anymore, Jay. No crimes. No authorities.”
“Yeah, alright,” he said, uninterestedly. “So, what are we looking for? We don’t really need food.”
“Yes, we do. There’s enough here to last us until the end of May, but we’ll need more. At least enough to get us through until autumn.”
“Well, my dear,” she said in a sweetly patronising tone she knew he hated, “that’s when we can harvest anything that’s been planted in the farms hereabouts. You see here?” She pointed at the map. “That’s Crockett’s farm. You know, the place we used to go to just after we moved in?”
“No. Not really.”
“They had that old tractor for kids to climb on. You used to love sitting in that thing. Always said you were going to be a farmer when you grew up.”
“Did I? I don’t remember. Why did we stop going?”
“Because you got older. You decided you didn’t like it after they got rid of the animals,” she said with a wistful sigh. “But the fruit trees there should keep us going for a few months. Maybe.”
“If the birds don’t eat the fruit first.”
“Yes,” she said, “and that’s another thing, we’ll have to work out how to trap them.”
“Yes, if you want fresh meat. After autumn we’ve got to think about winter, and then there’s next spring. But that’s a problem for tomorrow, or next month. As is going out to the farms and seeing what’s already been planted. Today we need to find all the food that’s been left behind. I think, with the two of us, we need about four times what we’ve got at the moment.”
“What about the things Mr Baker left us?”
“That was mostly carbohydrates and coffee. We need vitamins and fibre and protein.” She saw his blank expression. “Fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat,” she added.
“We could get some vitamin tablets,” he suggested.
“We probably will, if we can find some. But food is better. Now, come here and look at the map. Where would you start?”
He glanced at the map but found it was an unfamiliar way of viewing the town. The glance turned into a glare.
“Why don’t we start with the houses around here?” he asked.
“Because we know they’re empty.” As she had watched people join the evacuation, she had crossed her neighbours’ names off a list. “We can go through these houses in the evenings when it’s too dark to go to further afield. But today, we want to start with the places other people might go. Places we might find more than just the scraps left over after the rationing.”
“Like one of the supermarkets?” he guessed, then changed his mind when he saw his mother’s expression. “No. Not after the rationing.” He turned back to the map, as if willing it to reveal its secrets by concentration alone. Then he smiled and stabbed his finger down in triumph. “Packard Street! The camping shop that Mr Baker talked about.”
Packard Street was off a side road at the unfashionable end of the town centre. The shops there sold the essentials, often in bulk, but without the profit margin to afford the higher rents afforded by somewhere with a greater foot traffic.
“Good. That’s what I was thinking. They said they’d cut off the power when the evacuation began. I’m surprised they haven’t done it already. Either it couldn’t be that easy disconnecting the homes from the grid, or with no businesses or industries running, there’s more than enough capacity. Whatever the reason, the power will be cut, or a transformer will blow, or a tree will fall on an overhead line. We’ll be without electricity soon, and we need to be prepared.”
“So we start by getting the fuel for cooking.”
“And heating and boiling water. But fuel is just our starting point. They’ll have other things in that shop. Maybe there’s some energy bars or dehydrated meals. We need things that have a long shelf life. There’s a cake supply shop next to it. Here.” She pointed at the map.
“Won’t the cakes have gone off?”
“They didn’t sell cakes. Mostly they sold tins and moulds and utensils, but they also had a range of icing and decorations. That’s just coloured sugar stamped into shapes. I don’t think anyone would have thought to loot there. And if they have, it’s only a short walk to the high street.”
“But if the supermarkets are empty, won’t the butchers and bakers be cleared out as well?”
“Yes, but think about all the other places you find food. Think about the offices above the shops. They have break rooms, and those always have biscuits. Then there’s the cinema. There aren’t many calories in popcorn, but some is better than none. It might be worth looking in the Salvation Army place. They were running a food-bank over the winter. I doubt they’ll have much left, but it’s worth trying.”
“I dunno,” Jay said sceptically.
“Well, we won’t know until we check for ourselves. Now, listen. This is important. It’s possible that we’re the only people left in town, but there might be others and there might be people out in the countryside who come looking for food. And there’s still the government. Perhaps they’ll have patrols roaming around to deter looters.”
“You think they might?”
“I don’t know. They’ll probably need everyone they can get to keep those enclaves in order. But it’s possible. So if we hear an engine, then we hide. If we get into any trouble, then we run. We definitely don’t try and fight. Understand?”
“You think we might have to?” He spoke with blithe unconcern, but she could see the worry in his eyes.
“Not yet. But we should be prepared for it.”
“Then we should take the sword Mr Baker left.”
“Really? And you know how to use it, do you?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s the pointy end first.”
“It’s not a joke, Jay. A sword’s like a gun. You have to know how to use it, and more than that, be prepared to stick it in someone’s gut, and turn and twist the blade, and—”
“I’m serious. If you go around carrying a weapon like that, then you need to be ready to use it. Otherwise someone will take it from you and you’ll end up on the other end of it. So, we’ll leave the sword here, but…” She hesitated, then stood up and walked over to the small cupboard under the stairs. She opened it and took out two cricket bats. One new, the other well-worn, both mementos of Jay’s brief dalliance with the sport before she’d run out of money to pay the fees.
“These’ll do. No one will want to steal them, but should give someone pause. Now, get your shoes on. And don’t forget your scarf. It’s cold out.”
He grunted a pro-forma protest before pulling down the red and blue striped scarf from its peg.
The streets were empty, but they weren’t clear. The instructions on the emergency broadcast had been explicit. Bring clothes, a blanket and food. Beyond that, evacuees were allowed to bring whatever they could carry. Judging by the bric-a-brac of discarded electronics and clothing, prams and pushchairs, walking sticks and suitcases, people had left their homes carrying far more than they were able.
“What are you doing?” Nilda asked, when Jay dashed across the road and bent to pick something up.
Jay held up a smartphone, “Do you know how much this is worth?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s worth absolutely nothing. Try it. There’s no signal. No Internet. I doubt even the GPS will work.”
“I bet you’re wrong,” he said, flipping his fingers across the screen. “Oh,” he added with disappointment. “It’s locked.”
“The pinnacle of human civilisation,” she said. “More computing power in the palm of your hand than was used to land Neil Armstrong on the Moon, and it’s just worthless junk.”
“Yeah.” Jay made to throw it away, but stopped. Instead, with care, he laid it down on a garden wall. Nilda sighed.
They walked slowly, Nilda listening carefully for any vehicles. All she heard was a low susurrus drifting across the street as the damp morning breeze rustled the refugees’ discarded gear.
“Keep your eyes open,” Nilda said, softly. “Look out for twitching curtains, or tidy lawns, or anything that might suggest someone else has stayed in the town.”
They didn’t see any such sign until, a quarter of a mile away from Packard Street, Nilda grabbed her son’s arm.
“What?” he asked, affronted.
“Tell me what you see,” she said, pointing ahead of them.
“Nothing. Someone’s just cleared some of the road.”
“Right. Someone. People. So keep your ears and eyes open.”
Her heart sank with each step as she realised the cleared path led to directly to the camping shop. A few dozen yards further on, as the road curved, she saw two cars that had been parked in a V-shape to block the street. At a junction a few hundred yards further down she saw another similar barricade. She stopped. So did her son.
“What do we do now?” Jay asked.
“Now we go,” Nilda said. “Come on.”
Before they managed four steps, a man’s voice called out.
“What d’you want?”
As Nilda turned around she saw it wasn’t a man, not really. The speaker was only a few years older than Jay. Certainly he was far closer in age to him than to her.
“We were looking for supplies,” she called back. “For our stove. We thought the shops might be open.”
“Open?” he scoffed. “What? You think the shops would actually be open to sell stuff?”
“We just needed some fuel for our camping stove,” she replied, keeping her tone light and airy as if, despite all evidence to the contrary, it was just another ordinary day.
“Camping?” Now he sounded confused.
“Hence why we came to a camping shop,” she said, adding, “I’ve got cash.”
As they’d spoken the young man had stepped closer, and she was able to see him properly. He was tall and thin but neither wiry nor athletic, just skinny thanks to the fast metabolism of youth. He was dressed in a black leather jacket that looked suspiciously new, black jeans that she doubted had been washed since they’d been blasted with sand in some sweatshop, finished off with bright red trainers that hadn’t been designed for running.
“What’d I want with cash?” he asked, as he climbed up onto the roof of the nearest car. “The shops are closed.” First, he raised his arms above his head, then his voice to carry above the deserted streets. “The world’s ended. It’s all ours now. Ours!”
Nilda nodded slowly. She knew exactly which movie he’d copied that line from. It might even have been intimidating if he hadn’t tried to copy the accent too.
“This is yours, is it? Your territory? You’re claiming it?”
“That’s right,” he said, pulling out a skinny black-papered roll-up from his shirt pocket. “It’s all ours.” He lit the cigarette.
Nilda nodded again, looking around. She’d thought he was too confident to be on his own.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” she said, breaking the silence a few seconds after it had become uncomfortable. “My name’s Nilda.”
“What?” he asked, the fake accent slipping.
“Nilda. That’s my name.”
“Yeah? I thought you didn’t look like you came from around here,” he drawled in a tone she’d heard many times before, though usually from someone much older.
“What’s your name?” she asked, keeping her tone friendly despite her growing unease.
“Why’d you want to know?”
“I’m just being polite since it seems we’re going to be neighbours.”
“Neighbours?” And again he sounded confused.
“Well, as you say, this is your territory. You’ve claimed it first. We’ve claimed everything west of the railway line. That’s ours.”
“Yours? Just the two of you?”
“Oh no. There’s a lot more of us than that. I could go and get them, if you like.”
The man eyed her for a moment, then half turned around.
“Oy! You lot! Get out here!” he yelled.
Five figures slouched out of a doorway behind him. They all seemed a similar age; all were male, strutting with that testosterone-fuelled invulnerability of the naive-young, and all were armed with a variety of blades that looked like they’d come from the butcher’s shop down the road.
“Is there trouble, Rob?” asked one who was twice the width and at least a third taller than the rest.
“No,” Nilda said. Looking at the men - though youths would be a better description - she guessed they’d been in the same class at school, or had dropped out of it together. “There’s no trouble. We’ll be seeing you, Rob.”
She turned, nodded to Jay, and they walked away.
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