By Ian Hobson
In early 2003, as America, Britain and Spain pushed for war without UN agreement, I wondered where it might lead. Meanwhile a deadly virus was beginning to spread…
Billy stretched and yawned and scratched his beard. “You awake, Jan?” he asked, quietly. There was no reply. He began to cough and rolled onto his side, holding a hand to his chest. As the coughing subsided he reached for the torch that lay on the floor of the car beside his boots. He switched it on and raised himself up on one elbow to look into the back. Jan’s sleeping bag lay on the rear seat with the zipper unfastened, but the impression of her body still evident. Billy turned his head as he tried to see through the steamed up windows and front windscreen into the darkness of the basement car park. But he saw nothing; just a little daylight that filtered through the rubble-filled hole where the main entrance had once been.
There was a click as the nearside rear door opened and Jan climbed in. “Morning, sleepyhead,” she said. “The rain’s stopped.”
Billy lifted himself up on his elbows again and grinned at Jan, who leaned over the seats and kissed him full on the lips.
“Who taught you to creep around so quietly?” Billy asked, as Jan flopped back into the rear seat of the Peugeot 406. In the torchlight, Billy studied Jan’s face for a moment. He thought she was beautiful, despite her pale and wasted features, and once again he realised how glad he was to have found her. With virtually the whole population of Britain – and for all he knew, all of Europe – evacuated or dead, it seemed like a miracle that they had found each other.
“You did, my love,” Jan replied. She returned Billy’s gaze, but hid her worry behind a smile. She had heard him coughing as she returned to the car, and wondered if it might be radiation sickness – or the virus. His cough always seemed worse at night and first thing in the morning.
“What’s for breakfast?” Billy asked.
“Well, Sir, we have tinned tuna, tinned tuna or tinned tuna.” For several days now, this had been their mealtime joke. They had found twenty-one cans of tuna in the Peugeot, together with the body of the driver, whose name, according to his credit card, was R. G. Walker. His body now lay buried beneath rubble outside, and the car had become their temporary home – not as plush as The Queens Hotel, a few blocks away, but safer.
“Oh, in that case, I’ll have tinned tuna.” Billy unzipped his sleeping bag and scratched his ankle. “A slice of bread and butter to go with it would be nice though.”
“Hmmm, fresh crusty bread smothered in butter,” said Jan, “and a nice hot cup of…”
“Oh, stop,” said Billy, “I can’t bear it.”
“You started it, Lover… We must find something soon though. We’re down to three cans. And that bottle of water we started yesterday…”
Billy began to cough again but soon brought it under control. “Yeah, I know. It’s our last.”
“There’s always rainwater,” suggested Jan. That barrel you left under the fall pipe’s full now.”
“Good, I could do with a wash. But we don’t drink rainwater unless we have to,” replied Billy, lifting his legs over the gear lever and reaching for his boots. “We better move on today, we’ve exhausted this area.” He opened the glove box and reached for his soap before opening the passenger door. “I think I’ll have an all-over wash before breakfast.”
“Hmmm, can I help?” replied Jan, with a giggle.
Feeling better for having a thorough wash and another shared can of tuna, Billy and Jan cautiously left the basement via the rear emergency exit, which was still intact. Outside the clouds were thinning, and a little watery sunshine was beginning to filter through. They were getting used to seeing the sun again. For weeks they had thought that the warnings of an everlasting nuclear winter might be accurate.
Billy stooped to pick up the two plastic bottles that he had filled with rainwater earlier, stowing them in his rucksack before following Jan as she climbed over the rubble. A Barclays Bank sign lay propped against what was left of a stone wall, and a huge rat scurried beneath it as the two approached.
“Which way?” Jan asked, looking around at this now familiar part of the city. Somehow she had grown accustomed to the devastation. Though here was not as badly damaged as other places they had travelled through.
“We’ll head up past the supermarket that we visited the day before yesterday, and then we’ll head north again,” replied Billy, as they began to pick their way across the debris-filled street. More rats scurried away from a corpse that lay half buried as they approached. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and find another car with some petrol in the tank… How are the new boots?”
“They’re okay,” replied Jan, giving the corpse a wide birth. “I could do with some more socks though.”
“Me too. We’ll keep an eye out for a store once we’re passed the supermarket.”
Billy took the lead but stopped at the corner of the street beside a burned out building. The air smelled of soot and rain. He peered around the corner before continuing on. Jan followed, a few paces behind. They moved quickly, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, their eyes darting from window to window and door to door – where there were still windows and doors. They knew that they were not the only survivors.
It took almost two hours to get to the supermarket. They hurried past, knowing that there was nothing edible left inside. It had been looted and emptied a long time ago, maybe even before the bombing had stopped. And there were bodies; fresh ones, some with limbs hacked off. They knew what that meant. More than anything, they feared the cannibals.
Further on there were more corpses, but these were much older, scarcely more than skeletons in tattered clothing. Some had their hands tied and all had been shot through the head. Probably looters caught by the military when they were still operational, Billy thought. He stopped beside a tree, which stood undamaged on a street corner. It had shed most of its leaves and they lay in drifts; a sign that winter was on the way. Billy wondered how they would survive the winter. He knew that their best chance was to keep moving north. The Scottish parliament had declared Scotland neutral, refusing to be a part of the war. And many people had fled there, until the borders had been closed.
“Billy.” Jan came up behind him. She was an inch taller than Billy, and two years older. But with Billy she felt safe; much safer than when she had been alone. She pointed towards a small hatchback further along the street. “I think there’s a body in that car.”
“Worth a look,” said Billy, as he set off towards it. Abandoned cars were usually empty, of both bodies and petrol. But a car with a body in it might just have petrol as well, and with luck, a battery that was not flat. “You stay on this side of the road, Jan.”
As Billy got closer he saw that it was a Ford Fiesta, and that there was a human shape in the drivers seat. He froze as he saw movement but then continued as a magpie came out of the open window and took to the air.
The keys were in the ignition, and from her clothing, Billy could see that the diver had been a female, though her skull was picked clean. A few flies buzzed in and out of it as she sat staring down the street through empty eye sockets. Billy walked around the car, first checking that the tyres were inflated and then opening the driver’s door. He took a grip of the woman’s sleeve and pulled her out of the car, leaving a trail of maggots as he dragged her into the road. The mess in driver’s seat was worse than that in the Peugeot, and Billy was inclined to turn away. But he leaned inside, checked the position of the gear lever and then turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned and failed to start, but the petrol gauge needle began to rise. Billy beckoned to Jan, and she came running across the road.
“I think we might be in luck. The tank’s more than half full,” he said. “I don’t fancy sitting on that though.” He gestured towards the driver’s seat. It was stained with more than just dried blood, and there were bird droppings on the steering wheel and passenger seat.
“We can sit on our towels,” Jan suggested. “It’s time we found some new ones anyway… There’s a hairdressers over the road. Shall I take a look?”
Billy looked across the street. “Okay, but be careful. I’ll take a look at the engine.” He opened the Fiesta’s bonnet and checked the oil and water. Jan dropped her rucksack onto the rear seat and then crossed back over the road to the hairdressers.
The window was shattered, and the glass crunched under Jan’s boots as she stepped over the sill and walked past a row of washbasins and overturned chairs. She stopped for a moment and looked at herself in the wall-mirror. “Look at you, Janet Miles,” she said out loud, “you’re a walking skeleton”. But vanity was no longer a priority, and she moved on towards the door at the back of the room. She tried the door and found it locked. But Billy had taught her how to kick open locked doors, and it sprang open at her third attempt; releasing the now familiar smell of death.
Two blond-haired corpses, a woman and a child, sat in an easy chair, clinging to each other in death, as they must have in life. Probably suicide, or perhaps victims of the mysterious virus that had claimed so many lives, Jan thought. Terrorists had been blamed for the virus, though it had never been proven, and Jan wondered if it was just nature’s answer to an overpopulated world – or some kind of divine punishment.
She looked around the room and then walked over to a large wall-cupboard and cautiously opened the doors, finding exactly what she was looking for: a neatly folded stack of towels. She grabbed an armful, but as she turned she noticed a refrigerator standing against the far wall.
Outside, Billy had checked the car over, spread their towels on the front seats, and was ready to leave. He called Jan’s name and ran across the road to see what was keeping her. But as he entered the shop, Jan came through the rear door carrying an obviously heavy cardboard box with several towels balanced on top.
“Here, take these,” she said. “I’ll just go back for the rest.
“What’s in here?” Billy asked, as he took the load from Jan.
“You’ll see,” Jan replied, disappearing through the door once more.
Billy hurried back to the Fiesta and opened its rear door. “Oh you beauty!” he exclaimed, as he stowed the box and looked inside it. “Fosters lager… and three bottles of water… Brilliant!” But his joy was short lived.
“Billy!” Jan was outside the hairdresser’s shop, her arms filled with large plastic bottles. She looked panic-stricken and was staring along the street. And as Billy followed her gaze he saw three men running towards them. “Run!” he shouted, before slamming shut the Fiesta’s rear door. Their two rucksacks almost filled the rear seat, so as Billy scrambled into the driver’s seat, he opened the passenger door for Jan, who was now racing across the road, still carrying the bottles. Billy turned the key in the ignition, praying to a God that he no longer believed in, that the car would start. The engine turned but failed to start, and Billy cursed himself for not starting it before. But as Jan ran around the back of the car and leaped into the passenger seat, he tried again, this time depressing the accelerator pedal, and the engine came to life.
The first of the three men – a tall and powerful looking white man with tattooed arms and a shaved head – was now only a couple of strides away, and as Billy put the car into reverse gear and let out the clutch, the man lunged forward and grabbed hold of the Fiesta’s wing mirror. But as the engine roared and the car sped backwards, with its gearbox wining, the man was pulled off his feet and dragged along the road until the wing mirror snapped off in his hand. The man hit the ground hard but immediately rolled over and sprang upright, as if made of rubber, and uttering a long string of obscenities, he threw the wing mirror at the retreating car and it bounced off the bonnet.
Billy swung the car in an arc, bumping over debris in the road and almost colliding with a lamppost, before changing into first gear and speeding off down a side street. “That was… too close for comfort,” he said to Jan, his heart racing.
Jan was shaking like a leaf, yet still clutching the three plastic bottles of Diet Coke that she had found in the hairdressers. “Do you think they were…”
“Whatever they were and whatever they were selling, we don’t need it,” interrupted Billy. He turned right at the next junction and was relieved to see that the road was reasonably clear for several blocks. He wrinkled his nose and glanced at Jan. “What’s that smell?”
Jan set the bottles down on the floor at her feet. “It’s just the Coke bottles. They were in the bottom of a fridge with a load of bad food.”
“And you found some beer!” Billy was grinning now.
“Yeah… and more water, and six tins of baked beans.”
“No, they’re in the box. It was on top of the fridge. I thought it was probably empty but…” Jan began to laugh, and as Billy laughed with her the sun broke through the clouds.
Billy took his first sip of lager for more weeks than he could remember, and let out a long sigh. “Do you want one?” he asked Jan.
She was stooping over a tin of baked beans that was balanced somewhat precariously on their camping stove. She turned down the flame and gave the beans a careful stir. “What, a whole can to myself?” she asked.
“Well, I think we’ve earned a can each today,â€™ Billy replied. They had travelled well beyond the city, but with difficulty, as the roads were littered with abandoned cars and, in some places, bomb craters. Finally, late in the afternoon they had stopped beside the road in an area that looked untouched by war.
“I think these are about ready,” said Jan, as she shut off the gas. They set the hot tin can on the ground between them and groaned in delight as they took turns to eat with their only spoon.
When the beans were finished and the can scraped clean, they sat on the ground for a while and slowly finished their lagers. “Shame about the radio,” said Billy. “I never thought to search the woman’s clothing.” The Fiesta had a radio but the removable fascia was missing.
“We’d probably just get static or foreign languages again,” Jan replied. “In any case, I think no news is good news. Hearing about the nuclear strikes in the south put me off TV and radio for good.”
“I know what you mean… Just before the battery in the Peugeot fizzled out, I picked up another report,” said Billy. “More nuclear strikes in Europe.”
Jan just stared at the ground, but Billy got to his feet. “It’s not our problem,” he said, regretting mentioning it. “We have to think of ourselves… Did you say there were more tins in the box?”
Jan nodded, close to tears; she had spent the previous summer in Paris. “Two have no labels, but the other one’s pineapple rings.”
“Shall we have them now?” Billy asked. “We’ve not had any fruit since we found that orchard.”
“Okay,” Jan replied, standing and following Billy over to the rear of the Fiesta. She put her arms around him and clung to him as he reached into the cardboard box and took out the remaining tins.
“Bloody hell, look at this,” he said. Jan looked over Billy’s shoulder and watched as he pulled an old newspaper from the bottom of the box. The headline read:
IRAQ WAR COULD LEAD TO WORLD WAR III – WARNS HISTORIAN
Billy shrugged and tossed the newspaper aside. “Okay, lets have some pineapple… Then we’ll take a look at that farmhouse over there. Maybe tonight we’ll sleep in a bed for a change.” he said.
“Not just sleep, I hope,” said Jan.
They had survived another day. And though they were unaware of it, it was exactly one year since World War III had begun.