40

Michael came in from outside.

‘We’ve got a problem,’ he said, his face flustered. Immediately concerned, Emma stopped what she had been doing and rushed out to him in the hall.

‘What is it?’

‘The van,’ he replied. ‘It’s completely fucked. There’s oil and all kinds of stuff leaking out. Looks like something’s cracked underneath.’

‘So can you fix it?’ she asked. A sensible question. Michael shook his head despondently.

‘I haven’t got a bloody clue,’ he admitted. ‘I can drive a car, fill it with petrol and change a tyre but that’s about all. I wouldn’t know where to start with something like this.’

‘So what do we do? Can we get by without it?’

‘We can, but we’d be taking a hell of a chance. What if the same thing happens to the Landrover?’

‘So what do we do?’ she asked again.

‘We go out and get ourselves another van,’ he replied.

And so, less than an hour later, Michael and Emma again found themselves leaving the relative safety of Penn Farm and heading back towards one of the dead villages dotted around the decaying countryside.

For once Michael’s usually keen sense of direction let him down. Distracted by a body lurching out at them from out of nowhere at a cross-roads, he took a wrong turn which soon led them out along a long, straight stretch of narrow road. The road climbed for more than a mile before becoming flatter and more level. At the top of the climb the trees and bushes which had surrounded them before and obscured their view disappeared. Everywhere suddenly felt empty, spacious and open. Intrigued, Michael drove through an open gate and into a wide field dotted with a handful of cars. They had arrived in a dusty, cliff-top car park where, from the far side of the field, they could see out over the ocean. Neither of them had thought that they were this close to the coast. In the confusion and disorientation of the last few weeks their whole world felt like it had been pulled and twisted out of shape beyond all recognition. Maps and atlases had been forgotten and put to one side as they had struggled to survive from day to day. Strange as it seemed, the ocean had been the last thing that Michael had expected to see.

A little more relaxed than they had been before (perhaps because for once they couldn’t see a single body nearby) they drove to the area of the car park which afforded them the best view of the seemingly endless expanse of water below them and stopped. Michael switched off the engine and slumped back in his chair.

‘Screwed that up, didn’t I?’ he smiled.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Emma mumbled as she wound down her window slightly. The noise of the wind and the sea was loud and welcome. As well as shattering the otherwise all-consuming silence of the world for a while, it also camouflaged any sound which the two of them might make.

The sight of the ocean filled Michael with an unexpected combination of emotions. He had always loved the sea as a child, and seeing it now made him remember a handful of memories of childhood holidays, when the sky had always been deep blue, the sun huge and hot and the days seemingly endless. The memory of those long-gone innocent days filled him with a now familiar sadness and grief. But those heavy, desperate feelings were also matched by a slight elation because, for once, the two of them were free from the confines of the farmhouse and the barrier and, for a short time at least, away from the millions of bodies which plagued their lives.

‘Safest thing to do would be to take one of these cars,’ he said, gesturing out across the car park. ‘We’ll find the one that’s in best condition, empty it, and then drive it back.’

Emma nodded and continued to look out over the sea.

‘Think it’s safe to get out?’ she asked.

‘Don’t know,’ he replied. ‘There’s nothing about. As long as we stay close we should be okay.’

Needing no further encouragement, Emma opened the door and stepped outside. The blustery wind was strong and refreshing and it carried with it the unmistakable smell of the salty water below. She looked out towards the horizon and just dared to imagine for a few seconds that nothing had happened. She had tried to do it many times before but there had always been something in her line of vision to remind her of the limitations of the shattered shell of a world in which she existed. Looking out over the uninterrupted water, however, for a short time at least it was relatively easy to pretend everything was okay. She took a few steps further forward and looked down onto a stretch of sandy beach. Her heart sank as she watched a single staggering body tripping and stumbling through the frothing, splashing surf. Each advancing wave knocked the pathetic creature off-balance. She watched as it struggled to stand, only to be knocked over again when the next wave came. There was a second body in the water wearing only a pair of swimming trunks. Obviously the unfortunate remains of an early morning bather from a couple of weeks ago, the bloated, swollen and discoloured body was gradually being washed ashore.

Michael hadn’t seen the bodies. He was still daydreaming as he sat down on the grass next to their vehicle.

‘You know,’ he began, ‘sitting here you could almost convince yourself that nothing had happened.’

Emma said nothing. Having had the same thought just a few seconds earlier, the appearance of the bodies in the surf below had depressed her. She didn’t think it was fair to spoil her friend’s enjoyment of the moment.

Michael stretched out on the grass, lying back and resting on his elbows. He looked over at Emma and smiled.

‘Know what I want?’ he asked.

‘What?’ she wondered, feigning interest.

‘A sandwich,’ he replied. ‘I want a big, thick sandwich on freshly baked, crusty bread. I want salad, sliced ham, grated cheese and mayonnaise. Oh, and I’ll have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice to wash it down with.’

‘We’ve got tinned ham and a little bit of mayo back at the farm,’ Emma said, sitting down next to him. ‘And we’ve got orange cordial.’

‘Not the same really, is it?’

She shook her head.

‘No. Think we’ll ever eat like that again?’

Michael thought for a few moments.

‘We might do. I bet we could make bread and cheese eventually, and we could have ham if we can catch and kill a pig. And I suppose we could grow fruit and vegetables if we set up a greenhouse…’

‘You should get yourself an allotment,’ she joked.

‘I could do,’ Michael said, semiseriously. He sighed sadly and looked up into the sky. ‘I don’t know, it’s fucking stupid, isn’t it?’

‘What is?’

‘Everything we’ve just said. In a few seconds we’ve managed to come up with about six month’s work. Six months to get a fucking salad sandwich and a glass of orange juice…’

‘I know,’ she sympathised.

Michael yawned and stretched. He looked across at Emma who suddenly seemed to be deep in thought. He had learnt recently that this was not always a good sign. It was okay to think for a while, but concentrating too deeply on everything that had happened often caused real problems.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

She smiled and nodded and looked down at him.

‘I’m okay,’ she replied, giving little away.

‘But…?’ he pressed, sensing that she needed to talk. He stared at her and, once eye-contact had been made, she realised that she couldn’t avoid answering him.

‘Are we really doing the right thing here?’ she asked.

‘What, sitting in a car park looking at the sea?’ he replied flippantly. Unamused, Emma shook her head.

‘No, I’m talking about the house and being out in the countryside.’

Michael sat up attentively, sensing the seriousness in her voice.

‘Of course we are,’ he answered defensively. ‘Why, are you starting to have doubts?’

‘What is there to have doubts about?’

‘Whether we should ever have left the city? Whether Carl was the one who was right to go back there?’

‘I’m not having doubts…’

‘So what is it then? Don’t you think we can make anything of what’s left?’

‘I’m not sure. Do you?’

‘We might be able to. The bodies are rotting, aren’t they? They should disappear over time and if we could…’

‘What about disease?’

‘There are a thousand hospitals up and down the country full of drugs.’

‘But we don’t know which drugs to use.’

‘We can find out.’

‘But if we’re sick and we need to get drugs, we’ll need to know what disease we’ve got, won’t we? How do we diagnose that? Do you know the difference between malaria, typhoid and gout for God’s sake?’

‘No, but there are books…’

‘So what chance have we got?’

Michael stood up and walked over to Emma. Although she still tried to avoid eye contact, he positioned himself directly in front of her so that she had no choice but to look up into his face.

‘We’ve got a chance,’ he said, his voice sounding quiet and strangely hurt. ‘Okay, I accept that it might not be much of a chance, but to me it’s a fucking chance all the same and I’m going to take it.’

‘I know,’ she sighed. ‘I’m sorry…’

The couple were silent for a few seconds. Both stared into the eyes of the other, their minds full of confused thoughts.

‘Look, let’s get back,’ Michael said eventually. ‘It’s not safe to be out here.’

With that he turned away and looked around the car park. About a hundred yards away from them was a car. Nothing special – just an ordinary family-sized saloon – but it was the biggest car in the field. With Emma following close by, he walked over to it and opened the door. The remains of the driver and his female passenger sat motionless in their seats. They were both dressed in business clothes and Michael wondered what they had been doing sitting in this exposed and isolated place so early on a Tuesday morning when the catastrophe had first struck. An illicit office affair perhaps, or a married couple passing the time and spending a few precious minutes together before heading off to work? Regardless of the reason, he carefully leant inside the car and undid both seat belts. Cautiously (and with a look of disgust and concentration on his face) he took hold of the driver and dragged his corpse across the grass, leaving it on the ground alongside another car. He then returned and did the same with the passenger. The least he could do for them, he thought, was leave them together.

The keys were still in the ignition. He started the engine and gestured for Emma to get inside.

‘Follow me back,’ he said, suddenly anxious and feeling uncomfortably vulnerable now that they were making a noise which might alert any nearby bodies to their presence. ‘Okay?’

She nodded and sat behind the wheel. Michael ran over to the Landrover, started it up and pulled away.

In convoy the two cars drove out of the car park and back towards the farm.

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