The outbreak began in New York. Within days it had spread throughout the world. Nowhere is safe from the undead.
Britain is under quarantine. Curfews, rationing and martial law have been implemented, but it’s not enough. An evacuation of all the indefensible inland regions has been planned. The entire population will be relocated to enclaves being established around the coast. To get there, they will have to walk.
For George Tull, Mary O’Leary and the other residents of the Waverly-Price Retirement Home, walking to the coast is not an option. They wait for rescue, but when it becomes clear that they have been abandoned, George is left with a terrible choice; stay and fight to save the people he loathes, or leave and abandon the woman he has come to love.
George Tull glared at the television as the Foreign Secretary pontificated on the need for... George wasn't sure. He'd turned the set on hoping to hear the news but expecting to hear nothing more than the oft repeated phrase, “There are no major outbreaks in the UK or Ireland”. Instead he'd had to endure yet another rambling speech from the ageing politician.
“What's happened to the PM?” George asked himself quietly. “Haven't heard from him in, what, a week?”
The Prime Minister had appeared on television on the evening of the 20th February, as the world was reeling from the news of the outbreak in New York, but George couldn't recall having seen or heard of him since. Not when the curfew was announced and the Army started patrolling the streets shooting anyone they found out at night, nor when the supermarkets were closed and the rationing started. Not even when the BBC started broadcasting the video of that plane being shot down by the RAF over the Channel.
Now he thought about it, the government announcements were made either by the Foreign Secretary or, since the establishment of the cross-party Emergency Cabinet, Jennifer Masterton. George liked her. She'd always seemed trustworthy, honest even, at least for a politician. Now though, he wasn't so sure.
A small part of him, the part George liked to think of as his internal optimist, had been surprised at how quickly Britain had been turned into an armed camp. The cynical part, a much larger part since his wife died and he'd had to move into the home, was surprised that they'd waited until the undead walked the streets before they'd abolished the rule of law.
“The Super-Rabies Pandemic is a challenge to us all...” the Foreign Secretary went on.
“Bloody liar,” George muttered as loudly as he dared “Call it what it is. They're zombies. Even I know that.”
He'd only learnt what a zombie was after he'd persuaded Mr McGuffrey, the home's manager, to allow him to have a television in his room. That was about a month after his arrival at the home, two years ago. The rule forbidding them in residents' rooms was bent for George on the strict understanding that this would keep George out of the Sun Room and away from the other residents. Watching the plethora of late night films was one of the few new pleasures he'd discovered since his wife's death. Before, when he'd had a house of his own, he hadn't watched horror movies. His wife hadn't liked them. Even old Hitchcock films had her leaving the room.
“Poor Dora,” he murmured.
His wife had died four years earlier, when he was sixty three and she fifty nine. He'd lost his job a few months later when the company he'd worked for went under. It was just one more victim of the recession, whose demise rated no more than a few lines on the local news. Most of their savings had been spent on every possible unapproved procedure, foreign specialist and overpriced herbal remedy the internet could discover. He'd even, unbeknownst to his wife, re-mortgaged the house. When it was repossessed he'd sold almost everything they had owned, scraping together just enough to cover the road tax, petrol and the monthly payments for his private health insurance.
His former secretary had let him live in her summer house for most of that year but when illness had forced her mother to move into the three bedroom semi, he'd moved out. He didn't want to be a burden, not to anyone. He'd left in the middle of the night and drifted south, sleeping in his car at grubby lay-bys, until he arrived at Dover on his sixty fourth birthday. It was only the sturdy construction of the barriers that had stopped him driving his car over the cliffs.
He'd taken it as a sign. Of what and from whom, even now he wasn't sure. He spent that year living in his car, stretching the little that he had, waiting for his sixty fifth birthday. His insurance policy, the one he maintained even when he didn’t have enough to eat, guaranteed him a place in a retirement home at the age of sixty five, subject to a medical exam. After a year of little food and virtually no sleep he'd failed the physical with flying colours.
“Liars!” George muttered as the picture changed to a segment on a former supermarket, now part of the nationalised chain of Food Distribution Centres. “That's the same one as yesterday. Same people too. That one there, the one with the scar, I remember her. And yesterday you said it was Crewe and today you say it's Bournemouth. Liars,” he muttered again.
He hated muttering. He wanted to shout. He loved to shout at the TV. That used to be one of the few pleasures he'd allow himself. Always make sure your desires are attainable, his old man had told him. It was almost the last thing he'd said before he'd dropped dead from a heart attack aged 41. George had lived his life by that aphorism, eschewing dreams of sun-kissed islands for less lofty, but more easily attainable homely comforts.
Whenever he'd start ranting at the weatherman or some hapless presenter, Dora would head off into the kitchen “to make some tea”. She knew it was a sign of a bad day at work needing to be vented away, but the sight of his blustering tirades always made her laugh and whenever she'd start laughing, so would he. That had been the secret of their happy marriage, knowing when to laugh together and when to do it alone. Thirty happy years and two thoroughly miserable ones as he helplessly watched her waste away.
He checked the time, 11:30. Lunch was served at 12:10 sharp. You weren't allowed to be early, that was frowned upon, but these past few days if you turned up after quarter past you'd probably find the staff had disappeared back to their lounge, leaving those residents who were there to freely help themselves to food meant for the late-comers.
“Bloody thieves. Carrion, that's what they are, picking over the carcass whilst it's still warm,” he muttered, but more quietly than before. He wasn't sure if they could kick him out now there was a curfew but he wasn't going to risk it. He knew for certain that there was enough food in the home to last everyone for weeks. He'd seen the store room.
“We've got to prepare, Mr Tull,” McGuffrey had said. “We don't know how long it will have to last. This crisis could go on for weeks. Months even, and what will we do then, eh?”
Except that George had seen McGuffrey load a tray of tinned sweetcorn and another of broad beans into a suitcase and wheel it down the drive and up the path towards the grace and favour cottage he had at the top of the cliffs. George tried to remember when that was. The 24th, he thought. Time was so hard to keep track of in the home, where weeks just merged into one another and months weren't as important as seasons. He'd watched McGuffrey go back and forth three times that day and twice the next. On the 27th he had confronted him.
“Just keeping it safe, Mr Tull. Besides,” McGuffrey had added with a wink, “it's not like the old dears need all these calories, is it, eh?”
Then he'd just smiled and walked off. That evening there had been a knock at his door. “Your medicine Mr Tull,” the nurse had said. Thanks to a private exam, courtesy of his insurance plan, George had ensured he was prescribed nothing stronger than vitamin tablets, which he got from the chemists at the shopping centre in Lower Wentley. He didn’t have medicine, certainly none in the evening when all they doled out were sleeping pills to keep the residents quiet. The nurse had walked in carrying a tray covered with a metal warming dish.
“Mr McGuffrey says you're to take this, as required, before bed.” She'd lifted the cover, as if she was a magician doing a trick, and there on the tray was a half bottle of Scotch. He didn't drink, not since the week after he'd arrived at the home and began to work out a plan of escape. He'd given the bottle to Mrs O'Leary instead.
George changed the channel again. ITV was showing a match. He bent forward and peered at the top left hand corner of the screen. Arsenal 1 - West Ham 2. The elapsed time read 56:18. He lent back in his chair and tried to lose himself in the rest of the game. It was hard. His mind kept turning to the world beyond the Channel and the Atlantic. There wasn't much news coming in from overseas any more, but reading between the lines it seemed as if Britain was one of only a handful of functioning societies left.
It was a week since McGuffrey and the nurse had tried to bribe him, as if a cheap bottle of whisky was going to keep his silence. He'd tried to complain. He'd waited until he was sure the staff had either gone home or had retreated to their break room for the evening and then he'd called the hospital. He'd called Help the Aged, he'd called his MP, the police, the local paper and the BBC. At least he'd tried to. None of the numbers worked.
He checked his watch again. He'd never been one for eating lunch, preferring to work through and leave work early to spend more time with his wife. He didn't want to be late, though, because the food wasn't for him, it was for Mrs O'Leary.
She'd gone in for an operation in January. The week she was away was the loneliest of George's new life. He'd visited her twice, the first time he'd got a lift from the Vicar, the second time he'd taken the bus. Or, to be precise, three buses and a long wait in the rain. When he'd arrived he'd been soaked. The nurses had made such a fuss he wasn't sure they were going to let him leave. In the end one of them took him home at the end of her shift. Mrs O'Leary had found the whole thing hilarious and not a day went by since then that she hadn't reminded him of it.
Since her return from the hospital, she had been confined to bed except on the days when the physio visited. After he left and before having to suffer through the indignity of the hoist to return her to bed, George would take her for a walk in one of the home's wheelchairs. She could manage pushing herself a short distance, but after a couple of circuits of the one storey complex George would have to take over. The visits by the physio and their promenades outside had stopped after the petrol stations had been closed. Since then the only staff who came in were the ones who lived in the village. He'd asked them to move her out of the bed, but, hiding behind some non-existent health and safety regulation, they had refused.
He'd been hoping that perhaps someone would come and collect her. She had a grandson in Ireland who had visited just before Christmas. He'd stayed for a week at the pub in the village, hired a car and taken them both out every day. George had tried calling him too, but to no avail. He wasn't sure what the grandson would have been able to do anyway, now that the airports and ferries had been closed.
He had tried, on his own, to lift her into the wheelchair and he thought he could manage it, but; “If you can barely lift me down, how on Earth are you going to get me back up to the bed?” she'd asked, in her soft Irish brogue.
Arsenal scored an equaliser. He checked the time again. 11:47. Still too early.
There were seventeen residents left in the home. The living dead, he'd called them up until a few weeks ago, but only within Mrs O'Leary's hearing. That didn't seem quite so funny now.
She was sixty nine years old and the only resident confined to a bed. George, at sixty seven was the youngest. The others were old enough to remember the War, but young enough that none of them had had an active part in it. To them it was a time of rose tinted rationing and halcyon summers where adults had far more to concern themselves with than truant delinquents. They'd grown up in a time when it was more than acceptable for places like the home to display signs reading “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish”. By the disdainful way that he and Mrs O'Leary were treated it was clear that they wished they were still living in them. George didn't mind so much, not since he'd come up with his plan.
On Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, George worked for four hours a day in the back room of Mr Singh's electrical shop in the village, learning how to fix computers and home appliances. He didn't get paid, that would have invalidated his insurance, but he got fed. They were proper meals too, not like the textureless, tasteless mush the home served up three times a day. It had taken months, but he'd finally learnt enough to get an interview lined up at the refurbishment company in the business park at Lower Wentley. If he got the job he would earn enough to rent a place of his own. It would only be something small, nothing like the house he and Dora had had, probably one of the pokey little studio flats they were building out by the train station. It would be small, but it would be his.
Then there had been New York. The 20th February. Dora's birthday. He'd watched that on the TV in the shop with Mr Singh and his wife. Everyone in the country had watched that, everyone except the residents of the home. They'd not even known about it until he'd got back. He'd told them or, rather, he'd tried to.
The only television in the home, other than his, was in the Sun Room, a dreary den of easy clean sofas and Formica tables. He'd raced in and turned the set on. Old Mr Roberts had turned it off after a few minutes, saying scenes like that “were an unwarranted disturbance”. But it had been on long enough for everyone there to see a blood stained creature, its back broken, its legs twisted, tear a woman apart outside a shopping centre.
When George had started to protest at Roberts turning it off, McGuffrey had just said “What does it matter? That's far away. Not our concern, is it?” So George had retreated back to his room and watched the reports as they came in. He stayed up all night, sitting bare inches from the screen the volume on low, pausing only to walk down the corridor to keep Mrs O'Leary informed.
That night, he'd not slept. Early on the 21st February he'd opened his box and taken out the remains of his life savings. He'd gone to the reception area and waited anxiously for the doors to be unlocked. Then he'd walked down the drive to the footpath that led through the woods and down to the village. He'd been waiting outside when Pauline Fellows came to open the organic grocers. He'd spent £150 on tins and packets of food. She wouldn't sell him any more.
It had taken him five trips to carry the food the hundred yards to the flat Mr and Mrs Singh had over their shop. By the time he had collected his last few bags, Pauline had thrown the closed sign over the door and was emptying the shelves into the back of her car.
He got back from his seventh trip to town at half past five, just as the dinner bell was sounding. Exhausted, and with the doors to the home about to close for the day, he'd deposited his haul in his room and gone to the dining hall. He'd toyed dispiritedly with his lacklustre shepherd's pie, then visited with Mrs O'Leary for half an hour before heading back to his room and collapsing in front of the television. He was just in time to hear the news that there were zombies in Paris and that France was being torn apart by riots. They had nationalised the press soon after that.
West Ham scored. It was a marvellous goal. The striker tackled a mid-fielder just outside the West Ham goal, ran with the ball all the way up to the half way line and then kicked it all the way down the pitch. The goalie didn’t see it coming until too late. He dived. George wasn't sure that the ball was going in, but, with less than an inch to spare, it slammed into the bottom left corner of the net. That should have had supporters from both sides leaping to their feet. It was the sort of thing you paid the astronomical price of a season ticket for. But there was no crowd, the stands were empty. The matches were played, but no one was there to watch. He didn't even know who the players were, it certainly wasn't the team they'd been fielding a month before.
He checked the time. 11:51. Stiffly, he got out of his chair and turned the set off. He'd like to see the final score, but the match would be replayed later. He could watch it then. Or he could watch a different game. Who won, who lost or even who played the game didn't matter, not any more.