The Great North Road
Jane wakened suddenly, into terror. The jolt from sleep was down to some external factor, not a bad dream, not a gradual returning from unconsciousness. He knew this feeling; Stanley grizzling in his cot. Cherry knocking over the pot of toothbrushes in the bathroom. A sound had brought him back. Something near. He sat up in the deckchair and felt his muscles complain. No light in the cracks of the delivery chute. The luminous hands of his watch shrugged at him: ten past two in the morning.
He hadn’t thought to equip himself with a weapon, but maybe he needed to. What if there were squads of armed soldiers sweeping the area, briefed with orders to shoot any survivors to prevent the leak of damning information? He clenched his eyes tight. Nothing was too bizarre now.
The sound came again. A scrabbling, a skittering. Like loose plaster. Maybe that was all it was. He called out. His voice sounded nothing like his own. He felt already that he was losing the sense of who he was. He had made a place for himself in the world, defined himself by his job, his behaviour, his appearance. All of that was shot to pieces. There were no rules. There were no guidelines. For the first time in his life he had no idea of what might happen. Probability had become obsolete.
Jane stood up and there was a responsive scratching noise. Mice, he thought. Or rats. Probably as spooked as he to find something breathing in the neighbourhood. He climbed the steps back into the pub and felt his way in the dark to the foot of the stairs leading up to the living quarters. There was a bathroom here. He tried the taps. Cold water sputtered and gushed into the basin. He peeled off his clothes and the bicycle mask and, holding his breath, splashed his face, feeling the growth of a week’s worth of stubble. He towelled himself dry and replaced the mask. He moved through to a bedroom and opened a wardrobe, grabbed a handful of shirts and tried one on. Too large, but at least it was clean. It made him feel happier. He stole some jeans and a belt and pulled on his own boots. A long leather coat and leather gloves. There was a mound on the bed; he left it undisturbed. On a dressing table was a tealight in a red glass container. He lit it with a wax-coated match from the First Aid box. He avoided the bedroom door dotted with Spider-Man stickers and drew his shivering shadow along the corridor to the living room.
The living room was large; a dining table and an upright piano dominated one half. A fruit bowl contained mouldering shapes; their smell was cloying, dusty almost. A woman in black underwear was reclined on the sofa, a magazine opened on the floor beside her. A mug. A bar of chocolate. She glittered at him, her flesh pitted with shards of glass from an exploded window. He went to it and looked out at the silent village. Lightning pulsed in the clouds like something trapped, desperate to be set free. It afforded him views of desolation. Cars turned over in the road, windshields spidered with cracks, tyres gone. Bodies lay in the street. A house burned: orange, restive eyes shivered in blistered sockets. Behind him, a page of the magazine turned. He imagined her stroking the ball of her thumb across the death-dry edge of her swollen tongue. He removed the mask and vomited hard. He spat and choked against the fire in his throat and nostrils, then rinsed out his mouth with water from a bottle. He trudged downstairs and pushed his way out into the street. A bicycle could wait. He didn’t want to stumble upon any more nasty little surprises in these homes. Get pounding. Put some miles under you.
He was grateful of the dark as he made his way to the edge of the village and the dual carriageway. Suggestions and shapes and murmurs remained so. The sea was an urgent incessant complaint to his left, restless beneath a sky that, even at night, roiled with sombre colours, a melancholy oil painting failing to dry.
The A1 would take him all the way to London. The thought of a ribbon of Tarmac connecting this shattered community with his son’s feet quickened his blood. He imagined his boy sitting on the doorstep of the flat in Sevington Street, with Walter, grubby and matted, next to him. The big smile when he saw his dad. The leap into his arms. His little boy, so light, as he swung him up for a kiss. The astonishing colour of his eyes. Beize green with an outer rim of cobalt. Freckles and milk teeth. He could feel his warmth, could smell the magic of his hair, his scalp.
He suddenly, reflexively, shouted his son’s name. He realised he was running, sprinting, as if he might cover the hundreds of miles between here and Maida Vale before dawn. He wanted his boy so badly he thought his heart would clench itself into a knot. Tears drizzled across his vision; he had to stop. He dropped to his knees and cried so violently it felt as though he had pulled a muscle in his chest. He was nodding. Cars and lorries and coaches threw freakish shapes across the lanes for miles in either direction. He wished he’d been caught in this. He wished he had never left his family. He cursed the moment he had signed up for diving lessons and applied for a job on the rigs. He wished he had been infertile and had never met Cherry. He wished for utter oblivion.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
He was fooling himself. This was no isolated event. The whole country had been hit by this. Depth, he thought. Cherry might have taken him on the Tube. He might be safe. He must be safe.
He kept his eyes on the ground and watched it disappear under his feet. At the English border he passed three flagpoles bearing flapping black scraps; a blistered sign might have bade welcome to his country. He did not look up. He didn’t know how far he had walked before the light changed and began to creep across the rocky coastline and seep through the mist, to bring edges to the darkness. He rummaged in cars, trying not to touch their ruptured occupants, until he had found a pair of sunglasses in a glove compartment. All the time he was trying to quell his panic, trying to assess himself for the signs of shock. It would be almost criminal to survive whatever had happened only to succumb to heart failure. When the traffic became too much for him to deal with, he cut across a field to the railway. The rain came again; it never really went away, just a variation between gossamer breath and tropical muscle.
At Berwick-upon-Tweed he climbed up on to the railway station platform and angled along Castlegate. He had to step over the bodies of three people who had dropped dead in the entrance of a Somerfield supermarket. The windows had survived but were little more than opaque mosaics. Rats had been at their faces and fingers. Rats too had ransacked the shelves. Plastic-wrapped loaves of bread had become culture specimens. Popcorn had exploded out of its microwave-ready packaging and created a foam in the aisle. Racks of vacuum-sealed ham slices were molten twists of biltong. Cans were pitted and scarred. He saw a tooth embedded in a plastic container of washing detergent. The newspapers and magazines were shredded, leeched of colour.
The freezers had all failed. The smell of rot permeated the bicycle mask, but it didn’t spoil his hunger. He headed into the storage space at the back of the shop; here there were tinned foods that had survived any damage. He wrenched open the nearest thing to him: a can of pilchards; wolfed them down. He hated pilchards, but flavour and texture meant nothing: he couldn’t taste anything beyond the chemical coating that layered his throat. He ate a can of corned beef and a can of pears. He felt the flakiness that comes with low blood sugar dissipate. He welcomed the false optimism that always accompanied a full stomach. He searched the delivery bay at the back of the shop and found a dead man who had been welding a broken railing to a gate. His goggles were by his side; Jane put them on, discarding the sunglasses. He transferred a Stanley knife from the toolbag to his rucksack. He moved back through the shop and found a crate of glass bottles of water, shrink-wrapped plastic torched off. He drank half a litre; it tasted funny – maybe it had boiled inside the glass – but he kept it down. He placed a couple of the bottles in his rucksack.
He stopped in the town centre at a camping shop and took a waterproof coat and hat. He found some more gloves; the current ones smelled scorched, were already weakened across the backs where the rain settled. He thought again about a weapon, not for use against any foe — he doubted the rats would grow any more confrontational — but as reassurance, insurance. He had the Stanley knife, but he didn’t think he could use that; it would be too much like an insult to Stopper’s memory.
He walked down to the parade of shops, but there was no chance of a gun here. Again he thought of breaking into some houses; surely there were hunters in this bucolic part of the country? His own grandfather had owned a shotgun, and he was from industrial Widnes. But he didn’t feel as though he could stomach the inevitable bodies. Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it was the fear of finding someone alive.
He shuddered, shook the feeling out of him. It was just an inevitable result of so much open space. You grew used to the silence quickly, especially coming a little inland, away from the waves. You went beyond that super-attenuated aspect, flinching at every sound, every shadow. You learnt the beats of the humdrum quickly. It would spook him now, to see someone moving through the streets, or hear them calling to him from a rooftop. But he had to hold on to the hope. Accidents happened. People survived. It could only be a matter of time.
No hope here though. The soles of his feet slapped echoes around the walls. He thought he could hear his own breath reflected back at him, but it might have been the churning sea, still audible over half a mile away. Skirls of glistering dust swept along the street, creating little dunes and hillocks where it met overturned cars, doorways, corpses. Behind a bus slewed across the thoroughfare, Jane was shocked and excited to see a horse lying at the mini-roundabout on Marygate, where the West Road reached out across the old bridge. The horse seemed badly injured, but there was life in it yet; it was struggling to get up. Jane hurried to it, wondering if it might help him to cover ground more quickly if he could nurture it back to health. He stopped twenty feet shy of the creature, hope puddling out of him. The horse was dead. What he thought was life was the writhing of rats animating the horse from within. He turned away sharply and followed the road south, wondering how long it might be before he was given the same treatment.
He crossed the river Tweed via the railway viaduct. He stopped counting bodies in the water when he reached fifty. A train was halted halfway across the bridge. Burnt strips of curtain danced from the left-hand windows. As he neared the train he saw a woman’s arm resting casually on the windowframe, fingers splayed slightly, as if she had been holding an apple. Something, perhaps the rain, perhaps a crow or rat, had stripped the flesh to the bone. He strode past the windows, boots crunching on gravel and glass, and did not look in at the sunken creatures in their seats. He stepped around more bodies that had either been thrown free of the train or jumped, in extremis, perhaps with their lungs already boiling up in their throats.
He was beginning to wish that he had stayed on the road, but a glance to the parallel bridge showed him traffic piled up; an articulated lorry jackknifed, hanging over the side, somehow defying gravity. He kept his eyes on the horizon, looking for a break in the mist, a return to normal cumulo-nimbus and cirrhus. Already, the thought of blue skies was difficult to remember. The colour seemed too unnatural, too bizarre. Everything was muted, dun. There was nothing to claim his attention; no boats offering rescue, no packs of rescuers hunting through the wreckage for survivors. Only the heat and the diffuse light in those deep-shade zones of rust and ochre, fading now, suggested that it was daytime. Lightning skittered on the underside of the cloud-mass, like a white spider clinging to the ceiling. More fires raged in a cluster of houses on the south bank of the river. Smoke rose from others nearby; the rain was doing nothing to check the flames. Jane wondered if its astringent qualities were feeding them in some way.
At the other side of the viaduct, he checked his watch. Gone three-thirty. How much ground had he covered? He checked his map. Five miles, roughly. Slow going, but still he was exhausted. It would take a long time to come back from these past five days; perhaps he never would, fully. He didn’t want to be walking in darkness if he could help it. A trip might result in a broken ankle, or a bloodied face. He doubted even his basic qualification in First Aid would help him if he was infected with some of the filth swirling around the sky.
He found an inn at the fork of Main Street and Dock Road and kicked in the door, wondering for a foolish second if he should have knocked first. Close to rest now, he felt exhaustion turning his sight grainy. His feet were heavy on the stairs. On the first floor he opened doors into rooms until he found one unoccupied. The windows were shattered, but the wind coming in from the sea was wailing against the back of the inn. He sat at the dressing table and wiped the mirror clean with his forearm. A wild man stared back, hair greasy and lank, fringing eyes that were deep-set, red-rimmed, grey-socketed. A beard, something he had never allowed beyond a day’s stubble at most, aged him. He was shocked to find patches of white in the hair around his chin.
He placed his valuables — the keys to the London flat, his letter from, and the photographs of, Stanley, the filters for the bicycle mask — on the table. He drank some water and opened a tin of tuna. Already he was sick of cold, canned food. He wondered, very briefly, if the horse might have made good eating. Could anything that had been cut down by whatever it was? He might end up with a belly full of radioactive waste.
Would Stanley recognise him like this? He eased off his jacket and boots and shook plaster dust and pebbles of glass from the counterpane, then he crashed on to the bed. The ceiling was covered in cheap woodchip wallpaper, painted magnolia.
‘Looks like rice pudding,’ he heard Stanley say. ‘Can we have some rice pudding?’
Jane reached for his rucksack and picked through the tins. ‘Fraid not, badger,’ he said. ‘But we’ve got some custard in here. That do?’
‘With sponge,’ Stanley said. ‘Chocolate sponge.’
Cherry giving him her look, the look that said, Sugar? At this hour? You deal with the fallout then.
The light faded. The pillows were soft, the mattress firmer than he liked, but it was better than the lifeboat. A hammock of knives would have been more comfortable than the lifeboat. He stayed awake longer than he expected to. But he was so tired. He ached in so many places it was difficult to locate the pain. He listened to the agonised scream of the wind, and beneath that the surge of the ocean. It was like a muscle working itself bigger. He imagined it rising, assuming shapes far more sophisticated than it ought to, flying at the towns and cities on the apron of land like a streetfighter with its blood up. Bodies torn to nonsense by its rage. Buildings subsumed. Scarlet spindrift.
The door creaked.
He came out of a sleep he didn’t realise he had entered. His head was treacly, unresponsive; he turned to the sound too slowly: now others were joining it. Footsteps, but they were too light, too swift. Surely whatever it was would have cut the distance to the bed much before now. Jane couldn’t pull himself out of sleep’s suck. Fear helped. He blinked, but though he was ridding himself of sleep, he couldn’t shake the shadows from his eyes. He thought he felt movement on him, but it was just his body tangled in the duvet. He kicked it away from him, sure there were rats trying to climb on to the bed. He saw the horse’s body rippling and could not stop his mind’s eye picturing his own body move like that.
Lightning slashed through the room; Stopper was outlined before him, heralded by a rackle of thunder. The footsteps had been made by the spatter of his blood as it drizzled out of the wounds in his arm. Hacked flesh slopped around his exposed tendons like the jaw of a dead animal. More lightning drew Stopper closer. Jane saw things writhe in his emptied eye-sockets and he wondered for a moment if it might be the other man’s dreams. But then Stopper was leaning over him and trying to cut into his forearms with the blade. He couldn’t control the knife though; the severed muscles in his arms would not do as he wanted.
Stopper’s lips, curiously thin, split open. ‘Pleased to see me?’ he asked, and his breath was foul with oil, with decay. The words were like a cork popped clean of a bottle: shadows welled out of him, blood and sea-water and prawns bloated by the feast he had become.
Jane closed his eyes. Stopper didn’t leave him. His retina clung to his image, red in the black. ‘Stopper,’ Jane whispered. ‘Jesus.’
When he opened his eyes again, light had returned to the room. He gazed down from the bed, expecting to see the hotel-room floor matted with all kinds of filth, but he could see only his boots, and a layer of that invasive, pervasive dust.
He yawned and stretched and sat up. He rubbed his eyes. The howl of the wind and the crash of the sea. Rain was sudden buckshot against the rooftiles. In this strange daylight, though, the weather’s menace seemed reduced. He went to the door and peered down the corridor. One time there might have been the smell of breakfast, the sound of muffled showers and doors breathing closed on their hydraulic hinges. Now there was just the wind moaning across broken windows and buckled doors.
He went to the bathroom and tried the taps. Nothing but a dusty cough. Out of habit more than need he pocketed the wrapped tablets of soap and the mending kit. He inspected his body in the mirror, checking for cuts or bruises to suggest internal bleeding, but he was clean. He eased his boots back on and turned his mind to the next portion of his journey. He took out the map from his jacket pocket and spread it on the bed. Belford was around thirteen miles from here. Could he do that in a day? Heavy boots and heavy weather? He reluctantly traced his finger further north, further away from Stanley, back towards Berwick. Haggerston. About half the distance. That would be his first target. See how late in the day, how frazzled he was by then.
His hands shook as he folded the map and stowed it back in his pocket. Weak. He lifted the curtain and looked out at the sky. Brooding, thick, low. But at least the mist seemed to be dissipating. Perhaps if he got on to high ground he’d be able to look for survivors. He was thinking of freshly squeezed orange juice, bacon, with tomato ketchup, and moving to the dressing table when he stopped.
Next to his belongings lay a large, white-tipped feather.