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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 1

Alice cover 001Invasion

My name is Alice Seamarsh. I am fourteen years old. I’ve lived in Goodfleet my whole life, just about. I’ve never been very far; there’s nowhere else to go anyway. More than anything, I want to travel. I want to see something of the world. The land can no longer be travelled safely – a few roads are still maintained but over time the majority have become virtually impassable. The fields and meadows are long gone, filled up with nature. Like the forests, the rivers have reasserted their rights over their dominion. There are too few travellers to open new routes. The way out is over the sea.
Once I went to Northwick with Dad, a few years back now. It’s about twenty miles away. It’s the city where I was born, but I remember nothing about that, of course, because I left there while still a baby. It’s a strange place; street after street of empty houses, with overgrown gardens and boarded-up windows. So sad.
Trade is everything, really. If people don’t get greedy then anything is possible. We live by trade – it gets us the things we need or want that we can’t provide for ourselves, not that there are a huge number of these. Before the Great Death we were a small town that was doing not too badly for itself. The fishing had taken a turn for the better and up to twenty small boats called Goodfleet their home. On the industrial estate people made things. They made things out of wood and metal and plastic; they used lathes and lasers and forges and presses; they made boxes and printed books, they repaired coaches and lorries. They even brewed beer and made jam and cheese. And all that was going on when the plague struck. So I suppose, if you had to choose somewhere to survive the most devastating pandemic in human history, then you could do it in a far worse place than Goodfleet.
I live with my mum and dad and brothers and sister at 38 Walsham Road. It’s a bit of a crazy house, usually chaotic and noisy with people constantly coming and going. Rob, Terry and I go to school two days a week and the rest of the time we work or keep house. That’s not school as you might know it, but I’ll explain more about that later. In Goodfleet in 2026 if you don’t work you don’t eat. Even lazy Marsha makes trinkets and mends clothes and knits, or she used to. It’s Rob’s last term of school and I have one more to go after that. If your parents are willing to pay, you can go to school until you are fourteen, but most children don’t stay beyond eleven or twelve. After that they’re expected to earn a living. After the summer I don’t know what I will be given to do but I’m hoping I’ll be chosen to be a teacher at the Library.
I do most of the selling at our market stall and Terry helps me. She has a special way of sweet talking customers that amazes me, she’s so funny and quick. That’s not me. If I don’t take to someone right off, then I won’t be bothered to try and sell them anything. I slapped a bloke once who made a lewd suggestion. He was most insulted.
Rob is a home bird. He does most of the shopping and cooking and keeps the house running, and never happier than when he’s up to his elbows in a big bowl of bread dough or out the back boiling up a washing copper full of beetroot. Marsha, that’s Rob’s mum, is completely useless these days. She spends most of the time in bed, literally, and Rob waits on her and that bloody annoying poodle of hers. I tell him not to but he doesn’t seem to mind. People aren’t even supposed to have dogs, but everyone turns a blind eye. It’s Marsha, after all; she’s like the town’s mum.
Dad is away at the moment. He’s cook on the Sea Princess, the wind farm maintenance ship. They can be away for months at a time. I worry about Dad. Rob and I talk about him a lot. It’s dangerous work on the ship but it earns him credits, so we never go without electricity unless there’s a general power-out.
Sometimes the ship goes across to Holland to refuel. That’s another place that came through the Great Death better than most. They have kept part of one of the refineries going with oil they get from the north. So there must be people up there too.

“Dad’s home!” Terry yelled up the stairs.
Alice looked up from her teeth-brushing and met in her father’s old shaving mirror the bright, round-eyed gaze of a girl, fourteen years old now, nearly fifteen. Not a woman yet, but not far off. Her hair was not exactly blonde but not exactly brown, either. It had a tendency to frizz, so she washed it no more often than she had to. During the day she tied it tight back in a practical ponytail, which emphasised the roundness of her face, with its small nose and round cheeks, freckled like hens’ eggs and already tanned although it was still only May. Her resting face was full-lipped and serious, almost sad; not a pretty face, perhaps, but ‘striking’, as Don always said, perhaps even beautiful. But when her face broke into a smile it was completely transformed. Her widely-set, sea-green eyes opened, and her smile, displaying her regular, ivory teeth, was generous and inviting; a smile that bade you to share in her delight. She was a tomboy perhaps (her sparse wardrobe contained not a single dress), but unquestionably all girl.
Alice spat, rinsed, and yelled back “Are you sure this time?” She stood erect, pulling down her t-shirt and stuffing it into her jeans. Her ponytail had accidentally flopped into the basin and she swished her head from side to side in an effort to stop the water dripping down her back. Dad had been gone for three months, his longest voyage ever. He would see quite a difference in his daughter.
At the harbour, a crowd had gathered. Spirits were high and people talked excitedly about the return of a ship that had been thought lost. The last contact with the vessel had been over five weeks previously. The ship was close enough now for someone with binoculars to shout confidently “It’s the Sea Princess all right.”
Twenty riggers and technicians plus a permanent crew of ten had spent four months servicing the Northwick Array, the largest installation of wind turbines in the North Sea. The 180 generators could supply far more electricity than either Northwick or Goodfleet would ever need, but it was partly insurance that every turbine was maintained in good order, and partly a collective act of faith that sometime in the future the surplus energy would be required; one day, it would be put to good use. A time would come when people would again feel ready to begin spreading out of the safe enclaves that had sustained them through the anxious years since the Great Death.
Alice looked around at the crowd but still there was no sign of Rob. “He’s probably haggling with some stallholder over a piece of halibut,” Terry said happily, and held on tightly to Alice’s arm. “Will Vic bring us something, do you think?”
“Usually does, doesn't he? ’specially if he’s been over to Holland.” Sometimes, if it had been a particularly long voyage, the ship would put in at Rotterdam to refuel. Oil traded for refrigerators. Refurbishing fridges and freezers was one of Goodfleet’s biggest industries; no, the biggest. Alice’s older brother Adam was an apprentice at the works, learning how to bend metal tubing and repair motors. He was a handsome boy of eighteen, the eldest natural child of Marsha and Vic Seamarsh. He enjoyed physical action – rugby, football or going out on a fishing boat with his mates, and wouldn’t in a million years think of joining Alice for an afternoon settled in a kitchen armchair with a thick book borrowed from the Library, not that he was thick or anything. His girlfriend Debbie, on the other hand... What did he see in her? Alice had asked herself this question more than once as she had prepared tea, while the leggy and undeniably pretty Debbie practised some new dance routine around the kitchen table. As Dad was fond of saying, there’s no accounting for taste.
The ship was close enough now to make out some of the men on deck. Alice recognised Jim Stevens and Harry Meadows. They returned the crowd’s waves but did not smile. At last, the Sea Princess pulled alongside the dock. Alice didn’t recognise the dark-skinned man, dressed in a white polo neck jumper, who threw a rope over to several men standing below on the quay. They made an instinctive grab for it. They secured the first rope and then another to bollards fore and aft. The crowd, which had fallen quiet, moved forward. A grey-haired woman standing near Alice cried out “Oh, thank God they’re safe!”
Then the deck was busy. White-uniformed ratings carrying automatic weapons emerged from doorways and began to assemble on the foredeck. They wore peaked caps; none smiled. The grey-haired woman clutched her mouth. A man shouted in puzzlement “What’s all this, Harry?” A few had guessed what was happening and turned to try and push their way back through the crowd, but most people just stood and gawped. Alice knew instinctively that she needed to escape from this scene. She heard Terry cry out and realised how tightly her hand was being gripped. The mob still pressed forward; there was no way they would be able to move now.
The assembled ratings came to attention as three officers, dressed in dark naval uniforms and peaked caps, emerged from the bridge and climbed down a ladder. A gangplank was lowered to the dock and the white-jumpered men trotted down to form lines on either side of the walkway. As the three dark-uniformed men descended to the dock the ratings once again came to attention, their boot heels clicking noisily, their shining weapons held diagonally across their chests. People began talking to one another, their voices urgent and occasionally loud and then, like a classroom of noisy schoolchildren receiving an unexpected visit from the headteacher, the babble dwindled once more into silence.
The three men stood in a line with the tallest and oldest man in the centre. “My name is Commander Savage,” the central figure said to no one in particular. “Who is in charge here?” The faces in the crowd looked at one other. There was some muttering. “I said who’s in charge?” This time there was no mistaking the seriousness of the question. The man looked round at the lines of armed ratings. Each man visibly stiffened and cocked his weapon. “I won’t ask again.”
Someone shouted “Send for the Major!” A boy Alice recognised as Davey McSweeney was pushed out of the crowd. Everyone watched as he ran down the dock, picked up a bicycle, and cycled unsteadily away into the town. Joe Morris stepped out of the crowd, his face red and sweating. He pulled off his cap and mopped his face before speaking. “He’s gone for the Major, sir. He’s the one in charge, if anyone is. He reports to the governor in Northwick every week, so I suppose you could say he’s in charge, although actually...”
“Shut up!” the man barked. “I wish to speak with everyone in one hour, including your Major. Is that understood?” Behind her, Alice heard someone being sick. The man who appeared to be in charge approached a woman at the front of the crowd. He bent down until his face was only inches from hers. “Where is your meeting place?”
It was Mrs Bentley. She let out rooms to sailors, and told fortunes. Her boarding house was in Alice’s street. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the Town Hall is the largest building in town,” she quacked. “We hold dances there.”
The man smiled bleakly. “Oh do you? How nice.” His voice sounded vaguely foreign, like an actor in one of Don’s old black and white films, but there was no mistaking the flat vowels and glottal stops of a Wendon man. Then he lifted his face to address the crowd. “Pass the word,” he yelled. “I expect everyone to be in the Town Hall...” he glanced at his watch, “at two o’clock. That means everyone. No exceptions.”
A rat-faced man standing on a fish box at the back shouted over the crowd “B...but my mother’s bedridden. The doctor said she can’t be moved. She...” The man’s voice died away. He watched as the tall man unholstered his pistol and pointed it towards him. The gasping crowd pushed away from the rat-faced man to leave him standing alone, frozen on his box, his mouth working silently like a landed fish. “No, I, no!” The man raised his arms and held out his hands as if he was going to push the bullet away. “I only...”
The day slowed and then stopped. Alice watched the man, his greasy hair long over his collar, his face stubbled and deeply lined. She recognised him from the Saturday market, where he had a soap stall. There was still time to stop this, nothing had happened yet, but there was no time and the gun bang burst like a balloon in her face. The shock wave burst over the crowd like a wind-slammed door. It was as if the day had been lifted up and set down again exactly as before, except now the scene contained a dying man. He had been shot through the lung and he gurgled and gasped, spouting a crimson froth as he sank to his knees, his expression incredulous, his chin and neck drenched with bright red frothy blood. No one moved to help him as he froze in space, then toppled sideways and fell to the ground in a heap, his eyes staring and unfocused. The man lowered his pistol. He looked over his left shoulder and gestured with his head for a rating to attend his words. “Take ten of these people on board and lock them in the cage.”
He addressed the crowd once more. “If any of my men are stopped from performing their duties, if anyone tries to do anything heroic to disrupt our mission, you will never see these people again. Now, move away from here. Leave the dead man. You have one hour. Now go!”
People muttered to one another as they dispersed in twos and threes and hurried off to spread the word. They had been careless, they had been tricked, and they had been invaded.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 2

Alice cover 001The Meeting

I don’t know where my parents are. They are almost certainly dead because they would surely have come looking for me after the worst period of the Great Death had passed, and they never have. The disease had burnt itself out after a year, although of course at the time nobody actually knew this. My life was saved by the Goodfleet lifeboat crew who found me floating out at sea in a rowing boat. Two other babies in the boat had died of the cold but I was the tough one who’d clung on. How desperate must your parents be to do that? To put you in a rowing boat and send you away down the river, just on the off chance someone would find you and take you in? Vic Seamarsh, one of the lifeboat crew who found me, he took me home. He is my dad now, and Rob’s and Adam’s, and Marsha is Mum, although I never call her that. The Seamarshes kind of adopted me, unofficially because such things were very informal at that time, and in fact still are. It’s like all the recognised rules and laws and customs about such matters were scrapped; nobody could be bothered with the niceties when the main concern was survival. It became essential that everyone could be trusted to act with the noblest of intentions. Those that chose not to, the looters, the hoarders, the selfish ones, well, they didn’t last long. Either the Army dealt with them or the townspeople did. Another body on a pile of bodies made little difference, even if their throat had been cut. They say more than a few old scores were settled back in those times.
I can’t recall the world before the Great Death. Adam was eight when it started and he would remember that world, but he’s not much of a talker. I’ve heard plenty of stories though. Goodfleet is the only inhabited town on this coast. Northwick, about fifteen miles from here, is double the size and population and is the capital of our region. The villages are abandoned and empty now and nature is busy removing them from existence. Some people tried to stay put and survive but there just weren’t enough of them to make a go of it. If they didn’t give up and move into Northwick, people say they either starved or turned mad and killed themselves. In the early days the scavvies would now and again chance upon a family that had somehow clung on against the odds and was scratching an existence of sorts, but even they are all gone now, just dust on the wind.
Dad says it’s our strange geography of hills and rivers and marshes we have to thank for our survival; that and probably about a million other strokes of luck. Northwick was fortunate to have a garrison of troops based in the castle. The commander there saw what needed to be done to save the town. He simply divided it in two. Anyone showing any signs of the plague was taken across the river and left there. Nobody who was taken over the river ever returned. Most Northwick people live close to the castle now. These days I don’t think there’s much actual threat from outside – Northwick, a bit like Goodfleet, is protected by the marshes and the river – I just think people just feel that bit safer close to the castle walls, close to the garrison of soldiers who are the law and order. A few times over the years raiders have tried to come up the river, but the Army always catches them. They hang a few as a warning before sending the rest back the way they came.
The Great Death happened the year after I was born. Some people call it the Calamity and I’ve even heard it called the Judgement. But the Great Death is what it was. It started spreading out from China in the autumn of 2013 and by Christmas it was everywhere. Nothing could stop it and no one was safe from it, or so it seemed. The only way to survive was to keep away from it. The old and the young died first, and in cities it was everyone, just about. They couldn’t stop the spread. Goodfleet came through it better than most towns. We have the Major to thank for that. Him, and the sea, and of course the marshes.
When the Army took over, the Major made sure no strangers got in. Those who showed any signs of the disease were taken out of the town in lorries. They were never seen again. Nobody talks about those times. You won’t get anything out of the men who served with the Major; I know, I’ve tried. They guarded the roads and the beaches day and night. Shot anyone they saw, everyone they saw. That’s how Rob lost his brother. I’ll tell you about that another time.

Where was Father? Was he, like Harry and Jim, a captive on board the Sea Princess? Or was it worse than that? There was no disguising the casual brutality of the invaders. Alice opened her eyes. From the end of the quay, she could still see the dead man. Someone had covered his head with a coat. He had been dragged out of the way to allow the sailors room to work. The ship’s crane had lowered a lorry on to the dock. More men with guns had now disembarked and immediately began filling the first vehicle as a second was lowered. In the town, most shops had already closed and people tied down the covers on their market stalls. Alice had never seen a moving truck before and she and Terry stood transfixed as it slowly rumbled past. The canvas sides had been rolled up. The soldiers sitting in the back held their rifles between their knees and stared out at the town. As the lorry passed Alice studied their young faces. The majority were Adam’s age or even younger. Most tried to look stern but several smiled and one even gave the girls a small wave.
“Wonder where they’re going?” Terry said as they hurried through the crowds towards Esplanade Street.
“They’re going to set up defensive positions,” Alice said confidently. “I overhear Adam and Dad talking about it sometimes; you know, army stuff. They do exercises, the reservists. Dad loves it and Adam is thinking about doing a year full-time as one of the Major’s regulars. Even Don does the yearly weapons refresher, and we all know how he feels about the military. Next, they’ll take over the radio station, if they haven’t already. Probably make their HQ up by St Michael's. You can see over the whole town from there. I wonder where the Major’s men are. It’s a bit puzzling we haven’t heard any fighting.”
“Well, it’ll liven the place up a bit anyway,” Terry said with a grin. That was Terry. Never down for more than a minute. Evidently, even the sight of a man dying hadn’t bothered her for too long. She gripped Alice’s arm and gazed up at her big sister, smiling, her chocolate eyes narrowed by the sun, her head pressed into her side.
Terry had come to live with the Seamarsh family two years ago when Vic found her one evening huddled in a sleeping bag in the front garden of number 38, cold and shivering and alone. She had run away from the traveller camp, she said. So, Dad being Dad, he offered her a bed for the night. She never left. Terry was small enough to make even Alice seem tall, which she wasn’t particularly. Her lightness and grace immediately struck anyone meeting her. Terry delighted in movement, and constantly skipped and twirled as she walked, like an Indian dancer acting out a story from the Ramayana. In the early weeks and months, Terry's admittance to the Seamarsh household had caused nothing but problems. She was given to tantrums and crying fits with no apparent cause. She found trusting anybody a trial and flatly refused ever to be left alone in the house with Adam or Rob, and Rob had petitioned Dad more than once to try and return her to the traveller camp. But whenever Terry caught wind of it (which she always did – she’s no fool) she put up such a fuss that Dad did not have the heart to take it further. But over time, things changed. A different, less angry, less fearful girl emerged, and in the end even Rob was won over. Secretly, Alice thought, he had probably even come to like her. Now, Alice could not imagine life without Terry around.

******

Back at Walsham Road Alice had quickly caught Rob up with the morning’s events. Half an hour remained until the deadline.
“Marsha! You have to get out of bed. This is serious!” Alice opened the curtains, allowing daylight to flood in. Showers of dust swirled and danced in the brilliant sunbeams and made Alice cough.
“Miss Havisham’s done a poo on the dinner tray. Be an angel...” A woman in early middle age, but who could have passed for sixty, looked briefly over her reading specs before returning to her book. Her red hair was loose and covered her shoulders. She resembled a huge doll whose face and limbs had begun to melt. A yellow safety helmet with a torch attached to the front sat on the bedside table, which also held several lipstick-smeared coffee cups and a saucer of extinguished cigarette ends. As she approached the bed Alice could see the unmistakeable head of Miss Havisham, poking out from the crook of Marsha’s arm, pop-eyed and furious.
Rob had appeared in the doorway with Terry. “Bad Miss Havisham,” he said, as if speaking to a naughty child. With a wagging finger he reproved the poodle half-heartedly and crossed the room to retrieve his mother’s tray. The dog leapt out from its fleshly retreat and stretched to its full twelve-inch height with teeth bared, growling menacingly, daring the children to come closer. Alice felt like slapping the dog across the room but knew she would probably get bitten for her trouble. She turned to Rob. “You know what’s happening? We’ve all got to be in the Town Hall at two o’ clock. No exceptions. I was at the dock when the ship came in. No sign of Dad. They mean business. We’ve got to get her up.” She motioned towards Marsha as if discussing moving an awkward piece of furniture.
“C’mon, mum,” Rob began. “We’ve all got to go to a meeting at the Town Hall. The Major needs to speak to everyone. You need to get dressed. Where are your jeans?” Alice couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Marsha fully dressed.
Marsha sniffed. She didn’t smile. Her gaze became unfocussed and vacant, like a miner trapped far underground with no hope of rescue. Apart from the mechanical ticking of the bedside clock, the room was still. While Rob worked gently on his mother with quiet appeals to reason that alternated with whines of desperate pleading, Alice parted the lace curtains to observe the street below. She had never seen anything like it. It seemed like the whole town was on the move, making their way towards the Town Hall. A steady stream of townsfolk of all ages, from babies to the very old, were moving, with differing speeds but all in the same direction, along Walsham Road. Even the ancients were being carried or wheeled along in pushchairs, while the sick hobbled or moved with sticks and children danced between them in ignorance of the purpose of this unprecedented assembly. Alice thought she knew everyone in town but there were faces here that were new to her, people who it seemed had not set foot outside for a very long time.
How strange families are, she concluded, and turned back to be struck, and not for the first time, by the oddity of her own family life. What a job they had taken on here. If only Dad had been home, he’d have shifted her. She checked her watch again. There was barely half an hour left, thirty minutes to persuade her to move; to get dressed and to walk the half mile to the meeting. It wasn’t looking good.

******

The Town Hall ballroom was packed. Alice had never seen so many people in one place before. Even the New Year Ball was not this well attended. She could see Adam waving, and with Rob and Terry she pushed her way through. They had four minutes to spare; Marsha had proved to be immovable and in the end they had had to leave her. “Stay away from the windows,” was Rob’s advice as they left.
Members of the Town Council were organising everyone alphabetically so they could be checked off the register. They stood with the Sterlings, the Simmonds and several families of Smiths. Men of the invasion force kept a close eye on proceedings and re-checked everyone using duplicate lists. When everyone had been counted, a signal was given and from a back room the tall man Alice recognised as the Commander entered and ascended the stage. A deafening pistol shot fired without warning immediately silenced the room. “Sit, all of you!” he thundered. Everyone, old and young, found themselves a space on the floor. Still holding the pistol, the Commander turned to a squat, dark-skinned officer, who handed him a piece of paper. He scanned it quickly then handed it back. “There are sixteen names and addresses. Find these people and bring them here. If they refuse, kill them,” he ordered.
“Sir!” The dark-skinned man saluted flamboyantly, turned on the spot and marched smartly out. Several people began sobbing; somewhere in the room a baby began crying loudly. The Commander had not yet holstered his gun and he lifted his arm once and swept it backwards and forwards above the terrified faces of the townspeople. Straight away, the subdued murmuring and weeping diminished into silence. Alice looked around. Every doorway was guarded by two uniformed men holding machine pistols across their chests. These weren’t the boys that Alice and Terry had just seen riding in the back of a lorry. These were large men with cruel, unsmiling faces, undoubtedly well-trained and undoubtedly ruthless.
“We intend to stay for several months,” the Commander began. “Our mission may take the whole summer. We will leave when we have secured what we came here for. Some of you may have already guessed what that is. Firstly, we will be taking your ship, the Endeavour. You will help us to repair the engine and prepare her for sea. You see, we have been observing you for some time. Your community is quite famous where we are from. We have on board the requisite spare parts, taken from her sister ship. You will cooperate fully, if you wish to live; if you wish your families to live. Stand if you are Royal Navy.”
Twenty men, who had been sitting with their families in different parts of the room, slowly got to their feet. They stood erect and proud, weather-beaten and experienced men in their 40s and 50s, still a crew. “Go with the midshipman,” the Commander ordered, “you begin work immediately.” The men kissed and hugged their loved ones, with many having to shake off the hand of a wife or detach a child from their leg before they could move away. A fresh outbreak of crying was again suppressed by another sweep over their heads with the brandished pistol.
When the navy men had left the Commander continued. “We come in peace,” he said, attempting a smile. “We mean you no harm. You and your communities are of no interest to us. What we require, what we demand, is your assistance, and that begins with the surrender of the Northwick garrison. We have released what remains of the Major’s guard to take this message to Northwick. The garrison there will hand over their weapons and submit. They will come with us to fight for North Wendon against the South. It will tip the balance in our favour, we feel sure. Your little towns are famous where I come from. You are the plucky North Sea folk who defeated the Great Death.” The man emitted what might have been a laugh, but it was hard to tell; to Alice he sounded out of practice. He continued. “When we are victorious your men may return home. On the other hand, if they refuse to join us and choose to fight instead we will sever Northwick’s electricity supply permanently. We can do this, make no mistake. Your switching station is in our hands. we will then use the Endeavour to raze the city down to the bricks.”
The Commander folded his arms across his chest and looked into the air; apparently the announcement was at an end. From the back of the room a man Alice recognised as Adam’s boss at the refrigerator factory raised his arm. He was a great hairy bear of a man, not especially tall but broad and solid like a post box. His improbably muscular forearms, covered with a forest of ginger hair, displayed tattoos that spoke of an army past. He had a formidable reputation as a fighter, a man who had never been known to lose a scrap. As Alice well knew from her visits to Adam at the fridge works, he always reeked of ancient sweat. He was known universally as the Gaffer. It seemed as if nobody knew his real name, not even his wife, for she too called him that. The Gaffer was afraid of no one and Alice could quite believe that even a bullet wouldn’t do more than slow him down. The Commander may have shared that view. He eyed the Gaffer from the stage, the displeasure plain on his sour features. “Yes? What is it?” he said, his voice terse and impatient.
“Sir, what will the rest of us do, meanwhile?” the Gaffer asked politely, although there was a steel core to his voice.
“You will return to your normal lives, of course. You will have a few extra mouths to feed and no one will leave the town. Try to leave the town and you will be shot. Life in Goodfleet will carry on. My men have control of the two roads and the switching station. Inshore fishing is permitted but boats going more than half a mile from shore will be deemed a target. There will be an 8pm curfew. Anyone, and I mean anyone, seen out after curfew can expect to be fired upon.”
“But I’ve got animals on The Downs,” a man near the back of the room shouted out.
“Then I advise you to stay away from the top fence. Anyone approaching the Scrubland will be deemed a threat and treated as such. And by now you should know what that means.”
The Commander turned to go and then paused before turning back. He playacted deep thought for a few seconds and wagged a finger in the air, as if searching for the exact words. “I imagine at this point that some of you, maybe most of you, are already thinking of ways you can get rid of us. That you are tough, resourceful people is beyond doubt. After all, you have survived when very few others have. Perhaps even now, at this very moment, the Major is organising his men to counter attack. Perhaps he will come here and arrest me and my men.” The Commander smiled coldly. His eyes flicked over to the door, where Alice could see his speech was generating some amusement among the guards.
The Commander holstered his pistol and then clapped his hands theatrically. The stage curtains parted, as they did at the beginning of the Christmas pantomime. Two sailors entered from stage left, dragging a third figure between them. “This man will not be coming to your rescue,” the Commander said without emotion.
The hall gave a collective gasp of horror and disbelief. It was the Major. The sight was truly shocking, obscene even. He was dressed in pyjamas. His dressing gown, blood-spattered and torn, hung open. His feet were bare; clumps of grey hair, matted and uncombed, hung across his bruised face. Terry gave a cry of deep despair and clung to Alice’s arm, sobbing. “My God,” Adam uttered to no one in particular.
“Make no mistake,” the Commander said with finality, “all resistance will be crushed. Take him to the ship.” The Commander once more unholstered his pistol and cocked it flamboyantly before aiming at a large painted wooden shield, the Goodfleet coat of arms, which hung on the balustrade of the upstairs gallery. The people below cowered and covered their ears as the shot exploded across the room. As the round smacked into the shield a piece flew off and spun into the crowd below. The townsfolk watched in dismay as the damaged emblem, loosened from the wall, swung, pendulum-like on its one remaining fastening, until it finally came to rest. The shattered symbol of their home town now dangled crookedly and threatened to fall on their heads.
“Believe me when I tell you, the town of Goodfleet is entirely at my mercy,” the Commander finished. “Remember what you have seen and heard today. Now, leave.”
Mothers hugged their children and men looked at each other but said nothing. The guards stood aside as people began filing out of the hall in stunned silence.
The Seamarshes walked home together, accompanied by Don, who Alice had invited round for tea. Don was a family friend as well as being Alice and Rob’s teacher. Tall and angular, middle-aged now but still with a good mop of greying, wavy hair, he dressed the same summer and winter, no matter how foul or fair the day: dark trousers held up with a thick leather belt; an open-necked shirt of some sort (or a t-shirt if it was really hot), and a blazer, of which he had a collection of three. The grey one, which he wore today, Alice always thought made him look rather like a heron (or a caricature of one anyway) – studious, measured, thoughtful, walking slowly and deliberately, with his hands held behind his back. A casual observer might assume they had just passed a daydreamer, a man so deep in thought as to be unaware even of their existence. His acquaintances knew better; despite this impression of absent-mindedness, Don was unvaryingly watchful, and missed little.
Terry had released Alice and now clung to Rob, who, despite looking sullen and resentful, allowed her to remain attached. Adam peeled off as they passed the end of Factory Lane, claiming he had an important order to get finished for Monday.
Alice walked with Don. “The Major looked far smaller than I remember him,” she said.
“Poor man,” Don replied quietly. Even Don respected the Major and always made time for his occasional visits to the Library. He had dropped in only recently; a tall, proud man, always immaculate in his uniform when on official business but with a common touch that allowed people to speak to him without fear of rebuke or dismissal. He would listen to anyone’s concerns, especially if it touched on the security of the town. His volunteer army was made up of ordinary townsfolk who he and his core of regular soldiers trained in the military arts as best they could with their limited resources. He was the man who had acted so decisively and with such deadly ruthlessness at the time of the Great Death. That, and luck, had kept the disease from entering the town. And now the invaders had broken him.
Alice’s head swam with questions. What had happened to the others, the twenty regular soldiers who kept order, patrolled the boundaries and guarded the switching station? How had they been captured, even before the ship docked? And how much of what the Commander said could be believed? But above all of these, the most important question: where was Dad?

The Meeting

I don’t know where my parents are. They are almost certainly dead because they would surely have come looking for me after the worst period of the Great Death had passed, and they never have. The disease had burnt itself out after a year, although of course at the time nobody actually knew this. My life was saved by the Goodfleet lifeboat crew who found me floating out at sea in a rowing boat. Two other babies in the boat had died of the cold but I was the tough one who’d clung on. How desperate must your parents be to do that? To put you in a rowing boat and send you away down the river, just on the off chance someone would find you and take you in? Vic Seamarsh, one of the lifeboat crew who found me, he took me home. He is my dad now, and Rob’s and Adam’s, and Marsha is Mum, although I never call her that. The Seamarshes kind of adopted me, unofficially because such things were very informal at that time, and in fact still are. It’s like all the recognised rules and laws and customs about such matters were scrapped; nobody could be bothered with the niceties when the main concern was survival. It became essential that everyone could be trusted to act with the noblest of intentions. Those that chose not to, the looters, the hoarders, the selfish ones, well, they didn’t last long. Either the Army dealt with them or the townspeople did. Another body on a pile of bodies made little difference, even if their throat had been cut. They say more than a few old scores were settled back in those times.

I can’t recall the world before the Great Death. Adam was eight when it started and he would remember that world, but he’s not much of a talker. I’ve heard plenty of stories though. Goodfleet is the only inhabited town on this coast. Northwick, about fifteen miles from here, is double the size and population and is the capital of our region. The villages are abandoned and empty now and nature is busy removing them from existence. Some people tried to stay put and survive but there just weren’t enough of them to make a go of it. If they didn’t give up and move into Northwick, people say they either starved or turned mad and killed themselves. In the early days the scavvies would now and again chance upon a family that had somehow clung on against the odds and was scratching an existence of sorts, but even they are all gone now, just dust on the wind.

Dad says it’s our strange geography of hills and rivers and marshes we have to thank for our survival; that and probably about a million other strokes of luck. Northwick was fortunate to have a garrison of troops based in the castle. The commander there saw what needed to be done to save the town. He simply divided it in two. Anyone showing any signs of the plague was taken across the river and left there. Nobody who was taken over the river ever returned. Most Northwick people live close to the castle now. These days I don’t think there’s much actual threat from outside – Northwick, a bit like Goodfleet, is protected by the marshes and the river – I just think people just feel that bit safer close to the castle walls, close to the garrison of soldiers who are the law and order. A few times over the years raiders have tried to come up the river, but the Army always catches them. They hang a few as a warning before sending the rest back the way they came.

The Great Death happened the year after I was born. Some people call it the Calamity and I’ve even heard it called the Judgement. But the Great Death is what it was. It started spreading out from China in the autumn of 2013 and by Christmas it was everywhere. Nothing could stop it and no one was safe from it, or so it seemed. The only way to survive was to keep away from it. The old and the young died first, and in cities it was everyone, just about. They couldn’t stop the spread. Goodfleet came through it better than most towns. We have the Major to thank for that. Him, and the sea, and of course the marshes.

When the Army took over, the Major made sure no strangers got in. Those who showed any signs of the disease were taken out of the town in lorries. They were never seen again. Nobody talks about those times. You won’t get anything out of the men who served with the Major; I know, I’ve tried. They guarded the roads and the beaches day and night. Shot anyone they saw, everyone they saw. That’s how Rob lost his brother. I’ll tell you about that another time.

 

Where was Father? Was he, like Harry and Jim, a captive on board the Sea Princess? Or was it worse than that? There was no disguising the casual brutality of the invaders. Alice opened her eyes. From the end of the quay, she could still see the dead man. Someone had covered his head with a coat. He had been dragged out of the way to allow the sailors room to work. The ship’s crane had lowered a lorry on to the dock. More men with guns had now disembarked and immediately began filling the first vehicle as a second was lowered. In the town, most shops had already closed and people tied down the covers on their market stalls. Alice had never seen a moving truck before and she and Terry stood transfixed as it slowly rumbled past. The canvas sides had been rolled up. The soldiers sitting in the back held their rifles between their knees and stared out at the town. As the lorry passed Alice studied their young faces. The majority were Adam’s age or even younger. Most tried to look stern but several smiled and one even gave the girls a small wave.

“Wonder where they’re going?” Terry said as they hurried through the crowds towards Esplanade Street.

“They’re going to set up defensive positions,” Alice said confidently. “I overhear Adam and Dad talking about it sometimes; you know, army stuff. They do exercises, the reservists. Dad loves it and Adam is thinking about doing a year full-time as one of the Major’s regulars. Even Don does the yearly weapons refresher, and we all know how he feels about the military. Next, they’ll take over the radio station, if they haven’t already. Probably make their HQ up by St Michael's. You can see over the whole town from there. I wonder where the Major’s men are. It’s a bit puzzling we haven’t heard any fighting.”

“Well, it’ll liven the place up a bit anyway,” Terry said with a grin. That was Terry. Never down for more than a minute. Evidently, even the sight of a man dying hadn’t bothered her for too long. She gripped Alice’s arm and gazed up at her big sister, smiling, her chocolate eyes narrowed by the sun, her head pressed into her side.

Terry had come to live with the Seamarsh family two years ago when Vic found her one evening huddled in a sleeping bag in the front garden of number 38, cold and shivering and alone. She had run away from the traveller camp, she said. So, Dad being Dad, he offered her a bed for the night. She never left. Terry was small enough to make even Alice seem tall, which she wasn’t particularly. Her lightness and grace immediately struck anyone meeting her. Terry delighted in movement, and constantly skipped and twirled as she walked, like an Indian dancer acting out a story from the Ramayana. In the early weeks and months, Terry's admittance to the Seamarsh household had caused nothing but problems. She was given to tantrums and crying fits with no apparent cause. She found trusting anybody a trial and flatly refused ever to be left alone in the house with Adam or Rob, and Rob had petitioned Dad more than once to try and return her to the traveller camp. But whenever Terry caught wind of it (which she always did – she’s no fool) she put up such a fuss that Dad did not have the heart to take it further. But over time, things changed. A different, less angry, less fearful girl emerged, and in the end even Rob was won over. Secretly, Alice thought, he had probably even come to like her. Now, Alice could not imagine life without Terry around.

 

******

 

Back at Walsham Road Alice had quickly caught Rob up with the morning’s events. Half an hour remained until the deadline.

“Marsha! You have to get out of bed. This is serious!” Alice opened the curtains, allowing daylight to flood in. Showers of dust swirled and danced in the brilliant sunbeams and made Alice cough.

“Miss Havisham’s done a poo on the dinner tray. Be an angel…” A woman in early middle age, but who could have passed for sixty, looked briefly over her reading specs before returning to her book. Her red hair was loose and covered her shoulders. She resembled a huge doll whose face and limbs had begun to melt. A yellow safety helmet with a torch attached to the front sat on the bedside table, which also held several lipstick-smeared coffee cups and a saucer of extinguished cigarette ends. As she approached the bed Alice could see the unmistakeable head of Miss Havisham, poking out from the crook of Marsha’s arm, pop-eyed and furious.

Rob had appeared in the doorway with Terry. “Bad Miss Havisham,” he said, as if speaking to a naughty child. With a wagging finger he reproved the poodle half-heartedly and crossed the room to retrieve his mother’s tray. The dog leapt out from its fleshly retreat and stretched to its full twelve-inch height with teeth bared, growling menacingly, daring the children to come closer. Alice felt like slapping the dog across the room but knew she would probably get bitten for her trouble. She turned to Rob. “You know what’s happening? We’ve all got to be in the Town Hall at two o’ clock. No exceptions. I was at the dock when the ship came in. No sign of Dad. They mean business. We’ve got to get her up.” She motioned towards Marsha as if discussing moving an awkward piece of furniture.

“C’mon, mum,” Rob began. “We’ve all got to go to a meeting at the Town Hall. The Major needs to speak to everyone. You need to get dressed. Where are your jeans?” Alice couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Marsha fully dressed.

Marsha sniffed. She didn’t smile. Her gaze became unfocussed and vacant, like a miner trapped far underground with no hope of rescue. Apart from the mechanical ticking of the bedside clock, the room was still. While Rob worked gently on his mother with quiet appeals to reason that alternated with whines of desperate pleading, Alice parted the lace curtains to observe the street below. She had never seen anything like it. It seemed like the whole town was on the move, making their way towards the Town Hall. A steady stream of townsfolk of all ages, from babies to the very old, were moving, with differing speeds but all in the same direction, along Walsham Road. Even the ancients were being carried or wheeled along in pushchairs, while the sick hobbled or moved with sticks and children danced between them in ignorance of the purpose of this unprecedented assembly. Alice thought she knew everyone in town but there were faces here that were new to her, people who it seemed had not set foot outside for a very long time.

How strange families are, she concluded, and turned back to be struck, and not for the first time, by the oddity of her own family life. What a job they had taken on here. If only Dad had been home, he’d have shifted her. She checked her watch again. There was barely half an hour left, thirty minutes to persuade her to move; to get dressed and to walk the half mile to the meeting. It wasn’t looking good.

 

******

 

The Town Hall ballroom was packed. Alice had never seen so many people in one place before. Even the New Year Ball was not this well attended. She could see Adam waving, and with Rob and Terry she pushed her way through. They had four minutes to spare; Marsha had proved to be immovable and in the end they had had to leave her. “Stay away from the windows,” was Rob’s advice as they left.

Members of the Town Council were organising everyone alphabetically so they could be checked off the register. They stood with the Sterlings, the Simmonds and several families of Smiths. Men of the invasion force kept a close eye on proceedings and re-checked everyone using duplicate lists. When everyone had been counted, a signal was given and from a back room the tall man Alice recognised as the Commander entered and ascended the stage. A deafening pistol shot fired without warning immediately silenced the room. “Sit, all of you!” he thundered. Everyone, old and young, found themselves a space on the floor. Still holding the pistol, the Commander turned to a squat, dark-skinned officer, who handed him a piece of paper. He scanned it quickly then handed it back. “There are sixteen names and addresses. Find these people and bring them here. If they refuse, kill them,” he ordered.

“Sir!” The dark-skinned man saluted flamboyantly, turned on the spot and marched smartly out. Several people began sobbing; somewhere in the room a baby began crying loudly. The Commander had not yet holstered his gun and he lifted his arm once and swept it backwards and forwards above the terrified faces of the townspeople. Straight away, the subdued murmuring and weeping diminished into silence. Alice looked around. Every doorway was guarded by two uniformed men holding machine pistols across their chests. These weren’t the boys that Alice and Terry had just seen riding in the back of a lorry. These were large men with cruel, unsmiling faces, undoubtedly well-trained and undoubtedly ruthless.

“We intend to stay for several months,” the Commander began. “Our mission may take the whole summer. We will leave when we have secured what we came here for. Some of you may have already guessed what that is. Firstly, we will be taking your ship, the Endeavour. You will help us to repair the engine and prepare her for sea. You see, we have been observing you for some time. Your community is quite famous where we are from. We have on board the requisite spare parts, taken from her sister ship. You will cooperate fully, if you wish to live; if you wish your families to live. Stand if you are Royal Navy.”

Twenty men, who had been sitting with their families in different parts of the room, slowly got to their feet. They stood erect and proud, weather-beaten and experienced men in their 40s and 50s, still a crew. “Go with the midshipman,” the Commander ordered, “you begin work immediately.” The men kissed and hugged their loved ones, with many having to shake off the hand of a wife or detach a child from their leg before they could move away. A fresh outbreak of crying was again suppressed by another sweep over their heads with the brandished pistol.

When the navy men had left the Commander continued. “We come in peace,” he said, attempting a smile. “We mean you no harm. You and your communities are of no interest to us. What we require, what we demand, is your assistance, and that begins with the surrender of the Northwick garrison. We have released what remains of the Major’s guard to take this message to Northwick. The garrison there will hand over their weapons and submit. They will come with us to fight for North Wendon against the South. It will tip the balance in our favour, we feel sure. Your little towns are famous where I come from. You are the plucky North Sea folk who defeated the Great Death.” The man emitted what might have been a laugh, but it was hard to tell; to Alice he sounded out of practice. He continued. “When we are victorious your men may return home. On the other hand, if they refuse to join us and choose to fight instead we will sever Northwick’s electricity supply permanently. We can do this, make no mistake. Your switching station is in our hands. we will then use the Endeavour to raze the city down to the bricks.”

The Commander folded his arms across his chest and looked into the air; apparently the announcement was at an end. From the back of the room a man Alice recognised as Adam’s boss at the refrigerator factory raised his arm. He was a great hairy bear of a man, not especially tall but broad and solid like a post box. His improbably muscular forearms, covered with a forest of ginger hair, displayed tattoos that spoke of an army past. He had a formidable reputation as a fighter, a man who had never been known to lose a scrap. As Alice well knew from her visits to Adam at the fridge works, he always reeked of ancient sweat. He was known universally as the Gaffer. It seemed as if nobody knew his real name, not even his wife, for she too called him that. The Gaffer was afraid of no one and Alice could quite believe that even a bullet wouldn’t do more than slow him down. The Commander may have shared that view. He eyed the Gaffer from the stage, the displeasure plain on his sour features. “Yes? What is it?” he said, his voice terse and impatient.

“Sir, what will the rest of us do, meanwhile?” the Gaffer asked politely, although there was a steel core to his voice.

“You will return to your normal lives, of course. You will have a few extra mouths to feed and no one will leave the town. Try to leave the town and you will be shot. Life in Goodfleet will carry on. My men have control of the two roads and the switching station. Inshore fishing is permitted but boats going more than half a mile from shore will be deemed a target. There will be an 8pm curfew. Anyone, and I mean anyone, seen out after curfew can expect to be fired upon.”

“But I’ve got animals on The Downs,” a man near the back of the room shouted out.

“Then I advise you to stay away from the top fence. Anyone approaching the Scrubland will be deemed a threat and treated as such. And by now you should know what that means.”

The Commander turned to go and then paused before turning back. He playacted deep thought for a few seconds and wagged a finger in the air, as if searching for the exact words. “I imagine at this point that some of you, maybe most of you, are already thinking of ways you can get rid of us. That you are tough, resourceful people is beyond doubt. After all, you have survived when very few others have. Perhaps even now, at this very moment, the Major is organising his men to counter attack. Perhaps he will come here and arrest me and my men.” The Commander smiled coldly. His eyes flicked over to the door, where Alice could see his speech was generating some amusement among the guards.

The Commander holstered his pistol and then clapped his hands theatrically.  The stage curtains parted, as they did at the beginning of the Christmas pantomime. Two sailors entered from stage left, dragging a third figure between them. “This man will not be coming to your rescue,” the Commander said without emotion.

The hall gave a collective gasp of horror and disbelief. It was the Major. The sight was truly shocking, obscene even. He was dressed in pyjamas. His dressing gown, blood-spattered and torn, hung open. His feet were bare; clumps of grey hair, matted and uncombed, hung across his bruised face. Terry gave a cry of deep despair and clung to Alice’s arm, sobbing. “My God,” Adam uttered to no one in particular.

“Make no mistake,” the Commander said with finality, “all resistance will be crushed. Take him to the ship.” The Commander once more unholstered his pistol and cocked it flamboyantly before aiming at a large painted wooden shield, the Goodfleet coat of arms, which hung on the balustrade of the upstairs gallery. The people below cowered and covered their ears as the shot exploded across the room. As the round smacked into the shield a piece flew off and spun into the crowd below. The townsfolk watched in dismay as the damaged emblem, loosened from the wall, swung, pendulum-like on its one remaining fastening, until it finally came to rest. The shattered symbol of their home town now dangled crookedly and threatened to fall on their heads.

“Believe me when I tell you, the town of Goodfleet is entirely at my mercy,” the Commander finished. “Remember what you have seen and heard today. Now, leave.”

Mothers hugged their children and men looked at each other but said nothing. The guards stood aside as people began filing out of the hall in stunned silence.

The Seamarshes walked home together, accompanied by Don, who Alice had invited round for tea. Don was a family friend as well as being Alice and Rob’s teacher. Tall and angular, middle-aged now but still with a good mop of greying, wavy hair, he dressed the same summer and winter, no matter how foul or fair the day: dark trousers held up with a thick leather belt; an open-necked shirt of some sort (or a t-shirt if it was really hot), and a blazer, of which he had a collection of three. The grey one, which he wore today, Alice always thought made him look rather like a heron (or a caricature of one anyway) – studious, measured, thoughtful, walking slowly and deliberately, with his hands held behind his back. A casual observer might assume they had just passed a daydreamer, a man so deep in thought as to be unaware even of their existence. His acquaintances knew better; despite this impression of absent-mindedness, Don was unvaryingly watchful, and missed little.

 Terry had released Alice and now clung to Rob, who, despite looking sullen and resentful, allowed her to remain attached. Adam peeled off as they passed the end of Factory Lane, claiming he had an important order to get finished for Monday.

Alice walked with Don. “The Major looked far smaller than I remember him,” she said.

“Poor man,” Don replied quietly. Even Don respected the Major and always made time for his occasional visits to the Library. He had dropped in only recently; a tall, proud man, always immaculate in his uniform when on official business but with a common touch that allowed people to speak to him without fear of rebuke or dismissal. He would listen to anyone’s concerns, especially if it touched on the security of the town. His volunteer army was made up of ordinary townsfolk who he and his core of regular soldiers trained in the military arts as best they could with their limited resources. He was the man who had acted so decisively and with such deadly ruthlessness at the time of the Great Death. That, and luck, had kept the disease from entering the town. And now the invaders had broken him.

Alice’s head swam with questions. What had happened to the others, the twenty regular soldiers who kept order, patrolled the boundaries and guarded the switching station? How had they been captured, even before the ship docked? And how much of what the Commander said could be believed? But above all of these, the most important question: where was Dad?

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 3

Alice cover 001The Lodger

The Major says we need to build up our population again and that suits some of the town girls. Girls here are encouraged to marry young and start a family straight away. One girl I talk to in the market is having a baby soon. She doesn’t know who the dad is but everyone is really pleased for her anyway. She will get a house and be looked after until the baby is a year old. Then she’ll start work again and the baby will be cared for by an auntie. Not a real auntie, but a woman whose job it is to look after small children – anybody’s. The girl’s name is Ronnie. She’s younger than me, by the look of her.
Sometimes boats arrive to trade. Usually we recognise the boat and one of ours goes out to see what they’ve got, but we never let them land. There’s still a lot of distrust. Our fridges and freezers are known far and wide and we’ve had visitors from as far away as North Africa. They bring us cotton cloth and oranges and dates and they take away our wool and apples and fridges.
Anchored by the outer harbour wall is an old navy minesweeper. The Endeavour’s been there since the Great Death. What was left of her crew brought her in, tied her to the harbour wall and opened the sea cocks. The engine was ruined after they scuttled her, but even today the guns are still in good working condition. Some of the old crew live on her with their families and keep everything shipshape. They even re-floated her a few years ago. Those guns help keep us safe. That, and the marshes.

After the meeting, Alice, Rob, Terry and Don returned to the Seamarsh house. In the large kitchen of 38 Walsham Road Rob busied himself with preparing afternoon tea. In the garden Terry and her best friend Emma played families with Raffles, a large black and white tom cat who had attached himself to the family several years ago. “Another stray to add to the collection,” Vic Seamarsh had said at the time. Alice looked out of the window to see Emma pushing Raffles round in a bassinet dolls’ pram while Terry busied herself setting up a picnic, complete with plastic tea set, on the lawn. Like a scene from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, numerous dolls and teddies had been arranged around a red and white chequer table cloth. It reminded Alice of just how young Terry still was.
“Try some of my fruit bread, Mr Donaldson,” Rob said, and held out a plate piled with buttered slices of mahogany brown loaf. “I’ve used some of the dried fruit I made last summer. What do you think?”
The loaf looked rich enough to be Dundee cake. Don picked up a slice and bit into it. The fruit flavours sang of summer – cherry, grape, apple and something that tasted like citrus, but couldn’t possibly be. He eyed Rob and tilted his head questioningly. Rob grinned. “It’s lemon peel. I’ve grown a small lemon tree in the glasshouse. Dad brought the seedling back from Holland. God knows how it got there. It produced a couple of small fruits last summer.”
“Rob, you are a marvel, a domestic genius. Now if only you could magic up a pot of Indian tea I would declare this the best afternoon tea I’ve had in twenty years.”
Although he tried to hide it Rob was unquestionably pleased with this praise and a smile flicked on and off across his normally serious face. Rob was six months younger than Alice and was, like Adam, the natural child of Vic and Marsha. In appearance he resembled his mum more than his dad. He was already a well-built lad and would need to watch out later in life that his body didn’t turn to fat, as his mother Marsha's had so plainly done. The fashion in Goodfleet was for boys to have cropped hair, but, Rob being Rob, he wore his long. When he was cooking the straight, dark brown fringe had a tendency to flop in his eyes and when he regarded you it was like he was looking from behind a fly screen. “And what do you think, Sis? Good?”
Alice took a bite. “Mmm, it’s the smell that hits you first; so rich and exotic. It’s how I imagine a tropical island might smell; pineapples and coconuts and bananas. Have you ever been somewhere like that, Don?”
“Me? No. Never went that far south. Maybe a couple of trips to the land of Waki Baki in my youth, I vaguely seem to remember.”
“Where’s that?”
Don chuckled. “Nowhere. It’s an old joke. Best talk to your dad if you want stories about exotic places. Vic is very well-travelled; as no doubt you know. I did Europe as a student and once had a family holiday in Greece, but mostly it was Bournemouth or Scarborough or Scotland. I got to know this island pretty well in my travelling days and I’ve never regretted it. At the time I thought it was the best place on earth to live. Maybe it still is, who knows? But my travels never smelled like this. Fish and chips, more like.”
Alice and Rob laughed at this and in their warm kitchen on that May afternoon, the situation, grim as it was, began to feel somehow less serious. The detail in everything began to return: the clouds were back in the sky; Wilbur, an ancient tabby and the Seamarsh’s other cat, reappeared on his chair (although he’d probably been there asleep all along, just unnoticed); the old railway clock above the Welsh dresser resumed its loud, slow tick.
“I’ll make some more tea for Mum and catch her up with events,” Rob said, and rose from the long table that filled the central space in the kitchen.
Occupying one corner of the long table, Alice and Don sat facing one another. “So, nothing’s changed but everything’s changed, it seems,” Alice sighed.
“You’ve summed it up nicely, Alice,” Don replied. “Nobody knows how this will end, but we can be pretty sure that life will never be the same again.”
“Did you believe what that man told us, that they mean us no harm?”
“We come in peace, my arse,” Don replied with a world-weary stare into the middle distance. “They weren’t exactly palsy-walsy in the Town Hall, were they? I think it’s fairly safe to assume that they are essentially a bunch of cold-blooded killers who will do whatever is necessary to secure their objectives.”
“Are you worried?”
Don drew in his lips and puffed out his eyes. “Well, I suppose I should be; I suppose we all should be, but to be honest I can’t be bothered. If you think about it, in a way we’ve been living on borrowed time for years. It’s always been Wendon, hasn’t it? I mean from where any trouble would come. The thing is, we’ve known about the threat for ages, and lo and behold, here it is, and yet people act surprised. We tried our best to ignore it but it didn’t work, did it? Always confront your demons. Whoever made up that stupid piece of advice ‘get thee behind me, Satan’ was an idiot.”
“Just hearing you say that makes me feel a bit better, like we have a choice in how we react to all this. But how do you do it, how do you make yourself not worry?”
Don smiled his kind smile and patted Alice’s hand. “It’s an age thing, probably. Anyone my age has seen an awful lot of death. The past decade has seemed to me like something of a miracle, like sheltering in the eye of a hurricane, a collective holding of the breath. And over the years people have put the suffering and brutality and loss of earlier times to the back of their life and got on with the business of living. In a way, it’s how we should always be; let our hopes die and live like tomorrow will never come.”
Rob had prepared a tray of tea for Marsha. “Alice, open the door for me will you?” he said, and left with a full tray that he knew would assure him a hug from his mum, provided Miss Havisham was asleep.
“So, do your best not to worry, sweetie, and I’ll see you tomorrow at school? Not for much longer though, eh?” Don said finally. He stood and picked up his cap. It never reached his head. Without warning, a shattering crash from the room above cleaved the day in two. A shout of “No! No! Oh no!” rang out, followed by a howl of desperate despair, then a rapid drum of feet pounding down the steep stairs accompanied by a long sickening yodel of anguish, which only stopped when the door burst open and Rob, eyes streaming, framed the doorway.
“It’s Mum!” he wailed. “They shot her! They’ve killed her! Oh Alice, she's dead!”
Don reacted first. “I’ll take Terry and Emma for a walk,” he said calmly, standing and pulling his jacket from the back of the chair.
Alice had also stood and moved instinctively to hug and comfort the sobbing Rob, saying small soothing things as one did to a young child who had fallen and grazed a knee. She nodded to Don, who put on his jacket and cap.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.” he said simply, then he turned and left by the back door, leaving the two children consoling one another in their misery.
******

That evening the children ate in silence. Terry had ‘been allowed’ to have tea at Emma’s house as a treat, and had yet to be told of Marsha’s death. The best place to do this would be at the Library, with Don present, Alice had decided. The calmness and order of that space would hopefully help her to break this terrible news, and there was nothing to be gained by letting Terry see what had happened. Adam had taken the news as Adam took pretty much everything – calmly and outwardly stoical. Alice knew from past experience that it would take him a while to move from that position. “Do you want to see her?” Alice asked, after Adam had sat for a while. “I’ll come with you if you like.”
Adam shook his head. “Not tonight,” he murmured, almost inaudibly. He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled deeply and then stood, carefully avoiding Alice’s eyes and instead moving over to the window. He looked out into the garden. Rob was standing in one of the flower beds, stripped to the waist and hacking furiously at a half-unearthed apple tree stump. Adam estimated he was probably expending about five times as much energy as was actually needed for the job as he swung the mattock furiously again and again, his boy’s face red and sweating and desperate. Adam could easily imagine what Rob must be thinking.
It had already begun to get dark when there was a knock on the front door. Adam answered it, to be confronted by four soldiers carrying a long package. “We’ve come for the body,” said one of them unceremoniously, and without waiting for a reply pushed past him and mounted the stairs, followed closely by the other three. Alice and Adam followed, and watched as the men unpacked the parts of a plywood coffin and fitted them together. Only one of the soldiers, the eldest one, seemed to know what he was doing and gave orders to the other three who, Alice noted, were little more than boys. They stayed long enough to witness the grisly process of trying to fit Marsha’s stiff, heavy corpse into the assembled box.
The struggle to get the coffin down the stairs was almost comical, like a sketch from a Laurel and Hardy film Alice had once watched at the Library. In the end they let the box slide down the longest flight of stairs, slowing its descent with two ropes. When it had been loaded on to the lorry the soldier in charge ordered the men into the back and then marched across to the house. He held up a list attached to a clipboard and ran his finger down the page. Then he looked at the house number and finally at Alice. “The Seamarsh family will take in one soldier,” he barked. “They will be responsible for housing and feeding him. Any questions?”
Alice had a hundred questions, like ‘why us?’ and ‘for how long?’ and ‘what is his name?’, but she satisfied herself with just one: “When will he arrive?”
“Wednesday, seventeen hundred hours, when he goes off duty,” the sergeant replied. Then he turned and bawled at the lorry “Madden! Show yourself!”
The hairless, moon face of a boy no more than fifteen years old appeared at the tailgate of the lorry. The sergeant pointed at the house. “This will be your digs, Madden. Come here after patrol with your kit and this um ...“ He consulted his list again. “Miss Seamarsh will show you your room.”
“Aye aye, Sarg.” The soldier replied and then disappeared once more into the back of the vehicle.
The lorry started up and after a noisy meshing of gears slowly moved away up the street. Alice turned to go inside but paused when she spotted Terry and Emma at the top of the road. She watched as Emma peeled off and opened her front gate. Terry skipped the rest of the way down Walsham Road, swinging her bag of toys and singing something Alice could not make out. “What did they want?” Terry said when she reached the front steps.
“Oh, they just told us we’d be putting up a soldier. It’s just for a while.”
Terry folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip, her face mimicking cartoon indignation. “What? That’s so unfair! Why us? We don’t have any spare rooms, do we? And I’m not moving out of mine for some poxy soldier,” she said, her fists clenched and her voice trembling with outrage.
Alice held Terry's shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to move rooms. We’ll find somewhere for him.”
******

The following day was the Wednesday Market. There were fewer stalls than was customary but most people had taken the Commander’s words at their face value and were attempting to carry on with their lives as normally as possible while being watched by the soldiers and sailors of an enemy force whose intentions were far from benign. Terry and Alice had been at their stall for several hours already, but sales were practically non-existent. The food sellers were busy, however. The bread and cheese stalls had been completely emptied by eight o’clock and the fish stalls were still mobbed as people fought for the remaining plaice and herring and mackerel. Terry had soon tired of hanging about doing nothing and had whined so much that Alice had asked the next-door stallholders to mind theirs while they went for a walk.
Inevitably, the girls drifted in the direction of the harbour and eventually halted in front of the Esplanade hotel. They sat and rested on the hotel wall for a while and watched with interest the comings and goings of the invaders. The dock gates had been closed for the first time in Alice’s memory. Nobody gained access without first presenting their identity card at the guard hut that had been set up next to the pedestrian gate. Even then, few gained access.
“I wonder what he’ll be like.” Terry’s wistful innocence caught Alice off guard. “The soldier.”
“Oh, I’ve seen him,” Alice replied. “He’s quite good-looking. I mean, he’s not ugly or hunchbacked or anything,” she added quickly. Alice felt her cheeks and neck grow warm and she looked out to sea. The air was so sharp and clear that it made the distant bank of wind turbines, with their sluggishly rotating blades, seem closer to shore than usual. Remarkably, looking to the south she could just make out the tops of the Wendon Array, some forty miles distant. Some turbines were still intact, some had missing blades, but none turned. These neglected wind generators had fallen into disrepair many years ago. Dad said they had mostly been stripped of their cables and instrumentation during visits over the years by the Goodfleet maintenance boat. The hold of the Sea Princess was loaded with spares of everything that might ever need replacing on their own turbines.
Terry looked at Alice, who had begun fiddling with the toggles of her duffle coat. “The boy’s been told who we are. His sergeant pointed me out to him when they came to the house yesterday.”
“I wonder, why us?” Terry didn’t sound in the least concerned, like it was just another part of the same adventure game, which in a way it was, only adventure games didn’t as a rule involve killing real people. Alice shivered. She thought back to the blood and mess in Marsha’s bedroom; the spray of bullet holes across the wall, the butchered carcase of Miss Havisham in the tiny bathroom. Good looking or not, this boy was part of an invasion force that had proved itself to be ruthless and utterly determined.
The girls slid down off the hotel wall and made their way up Sheep Street back towards the market. “You’d better get some extra bits in to feed our unwanted guest,” Alice said with exaggerated cheerfulness. “We wouldn’t him complaining to his sergeant we weren’t feeding him properly, would we now?”
Terry glanced up at Alice and caught her grin. “That’s right,” she joined in. “Otherwise, he might shoot the lot of us!” The girls laughed loudly, causing two soldiers on the opposite side of the road to stop and look them up and down. They swiftly ducked their heads and walked on, hand in hand, until they reached the corner of the market. They stopped and Alice took Terry's arms and looked into her face. “Tomorrow, after we’ve set up, Adam’s going to help you run the stall. I’ll wait with you until he arrives.”
“What? Why?” Terry almost wailed. This was most unusual. She didn’t like the sound of this at all.
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him that you’re in charge.”
Terry looked slightly mollified at this news. She, Terry, would be in charge. “So what will you be doing then that’s so urgent?”
It’s just that I’ve already promised Don to help at the Library and I can’t let him down. Rob will come up at three to help pack away, then I want you to meet me at the Library at four. There’s something I have to tell you. It’s about Marsha.”
“Don’t tell me she’s decided to get up!” Terry laughed loudly, and looked slightly put out by Alice’s lack of response. “OK, tell me tomorrow. But why not just tell me now?”
Alice sighed. “You’ll have to trust me that there is a good reason. OK?”

******

Although there were probably as many stalls as usual for a Wednesday, there was little of the normal bustle and hubbub. In fact, the square was practically silent, hushed like a church. Stallholders stood quietly by their goods while customers picked their way in silence among the baskets of fish, fruit and veg, general groceries, spare parts, furniture, tools and leather goods. Pinched and anxious faces only glanced at the merchandise before the eyes flicked up to scan the perimeter of the market. The militia had set up two posts on opposite corners of the square, each consisting of a lorry and a site hut from which, at intervals, soldiers entered and left. They did not cross the market but instead patrolled the outside in twos. It was the younger soldiers who did most of the walking. The older men tended to stay close to the hut. They had radio handsets attached to their uniforms and talked into them at intervals. Occasionally, a Land Rover would turn up. This was how the senior ratings moved about; the Commander’s elite guard, the ones in white polo neck jumpers and peaked caps who were never seen without a submachine gun strapped to their chest. They were the least friendly of all. Their suspicious eyes and cruel mouths made Alice shudder at the sight of them. This breed of human was outside of her experience; they made her flesh creep. At their direction the ordinary soldiers would sometimes move among the stalls to single out a face that had caught the attention of these elite officers. They would then manhandle the unlucky individual at gun point through the market and bundle them into the back of the patrol vehicle. Sometimes the man might reappear on the street many hours later, often with a bloody shirt, black eyes and bruises; sometimes they would not be seen again.

******

After they had returned to Walsham Road with the handcart of unsold stall goods Alice had allowed Terry to go round to play at Emma’s, pushing the cart the final few hundred yards by herself. The soldier had already arrived at the house and sat on the front steps with his kit bag and rifle. He did not seem unduly bothered that he had been kept waiting. He smiled as Alice approached the house. Alice did not return the smile and pushed past him to open the front door. She led him upstairs.
“This will be your room.” Alice held the bedroom door and allowed the boy to precede her into Marsha’s bedroom. She watched his face as he looked around. The boy slid the kit bag off his shoulder and allowed it to fall to the floor with a thump. The curtains were half-closed but the afternoon sunlight fell in a wide band of lighted colour across the carpet and up the cheerful wallpaper, which Alice realised she’d never really looked at before. Blue sailing ships and lighthouses, jolly sailors pulling on a rope, that sort of thing. The room was still and silent and rather stuffy. The boy’s gaze moved slowly from the window to the double bed and then on, to take in the simple furniture – a dressing table with a large, oval mirror, a writing desk, a tallboy and, behind the door, a dark wardrobe on top of which were heaped a number of ancient hat boxes. Slowly, his eyes returned to the bed. Above it was a diagonal line of black holes that began in the headboard and ended close to the ceiling. He glanced at Alice and made as if to speak, then closed his mouth again. He cleared his throat and smiled faintly. “It shouldn’t be for long. Once...”
Alice cut him off “Will it be OK? The room.”
“What? Oh, yes. Yes, it will be fine, fine.”
“We eat at six. Are you hungry?”
“Starving.”
“You can meet the others then.”
“Sorry, er, I don’t know your name. I can’t, not tonight. Not that I don’t want to, you understand, but I’m on duty again. We’re short-handed for patrols because of – no, I shouldn’t be telling you this. Tomorrow; if I can get off I’ll meet them tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The boy smiled, but it did as much good as smiling at a statue. “Please yourself,” Alice replied without emotion, then turned and left the boy with his bag, standing alone in the centre of the room.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 4

Alice cover 001The Library

To me and to many others the most important building in Goodfleet is the Library. Don says he wished the town council shared that view because one day the place will fall down around his ears if it doesn’t get more regular maintenance. Peeling paint and a leaking roof are only the grossest signs of the current neglect, according to Don. Anyway, it’s certainly the most imposing building in the town, bigger even than the Town Hall. It’s where we go to school and where I like to spend time if I’m not working and want to get out of the house. I do more teaching than lessons these days, but I always look forward to Don’s occasional tutorials. Every term he sets the seniors going with a project and expects us to put in our own study time. I’m doing one at the moment called ‘A hundred years ago’, which is about life in Goodfleet in the first half of the last century.
Rob hasn’t been to classes for months – I think he’s more or less given up. Rob is like my best friend. We have grown up together. I am kind of his big sis, I suppose, although there’s actually less than a year’s difference in our ages. But I’ve always looked out for him. I suppose I am more worldly wise. We can read each other’s thoughts, more or less. But he’s changed lately. He doesn’t talk to me the way he used to. We never used to keep anything from one other but these days he can be quite moody, guarded even. He even tries to avoid me sometimes, either that or he’s all over me, wanting to wrestle and sit on me. He’s taken to commenting on what I wear and how I’d better watch out or some boy will be after me. Well, I don’t have any shortage of boy interest but I’m not in any hurry. I’m not like Ronnie, knocked up already. Still, her mum’s pleased enough and will support her and the baby when it comes. When Rob starts that talk I give him the brush off, then send Terry in to cheer him up and tickle him. It never fails. She tries to make him laugh and says “I love you, Rob, marry me!” then they start fighting and Rob always wins, of course – he’s a strong boy – but even when Rob has her pinned to the floor Terry still says she wants to marry him, and I think she means it in her ten-year-old way. I used to join in to defend her, but these days I don’t bother. It’s not the same now.

“You never let me do that anymore,” Rob said resentfully as he scraped a plate of chopped leeks into a saucepan of boiling water. “You used to like me brushing your hair.”
Alice was already late for school. She felt like saying something cutting and unkind. Instead, she smiled at him in the mirror. “Well, times change, I guess. We’re growing up, aren’t we? You know.” She brushed her hair even more vigorously until it shone, then tied it back into a ponytail. She regarded herself in the mirror. The spring sunshine had darkened her freckles and made her eyes seem larger, rounder somehow. Not at all bad looking, young lady, she thought to herself. “You know, you’re the best brother a girl could have,” she enthused. That sounded false, she said to herself regretfully, even though she meant it. In a fluster she made a grab for her jacket and bag and headed for the door.
But Rob wasn’t satisfied. “But we’re not actually related, are we?” he returned, pausing from his soup making, eager to prolong the challenge. “Not blood related, anyway. That makes a difference, don’t you think?” He folded his arms and watched the soup bubble gently. He regarded Alice from beneath his eyebrows.
“Does it?” she said, not really wanting the exchange to continue. She could sense where this was heading. It had been building for a while, but now most definitely wasn’t the right time to resolve it, she thought. If only Father was here. “Right, well I’m going. See you later. Help Terry unload the cart when she gets back, will you, and don’t forget to give her a ‘well done’.”
Rob scowled and scraped his chopping-boardful of carrots into the proto soup. “I don’t deserve this!” he yelled after her as she closed the kitchen door.

******

When Alice arrived at the Library it was almost mid-morning. She had needed to help Terry set up the market stall. It was definitely a two-girl job fitting the frame together and attaching the canvas sides. Hard, heavy work but at least it hadn’t been raining. A soaking from rain made the canvas twice as heavy and much more awkward to handle. Nevertheless, Alice felt weary as she walked up the front steps of the old town Library. It was a massive, columned structure, built in a time when buildings were expected to last. The brick façade and tall, blinded windows conveyed a sense of significance, of gravity and seriousness of purpose. The Library owed its survival of all the many traumas and upheavals of the past ten years in part because of the building’s personality, if mere bricks and mortar can be spoken of in such terms. But just by walking up to its tall, darkly-polished hardwood front doors one felt a natural urge to show respect, to lower one’s voice, to mind one’s Ps and Qs. Making sure the windows were always clean and the floors always polished and the toilets always hygienic was the most important task one could be given, Don always told anyone tasked with a job on the cleaning rota. And now she understood his reasoning.
Once inside the Library, Alice made for the largest of the side rooms where she knew she would find Don teaching. It was noisy as usual. Maisie, a cheerful twenty-year-old who was the nearest thing there was to a nursery nurse, sat on the floor of the room’s centrepiece – a sunken rectangle of space that acted as a central gathering point for assemblies and singing sessions, surrounded on three sides by broad steps that could seat thirty children or more. She was reading with six youngsters while encouraging them to act out the story. A bear hunt was in progress, Alice guessed. She remembered doing the very same thing many years before. Maisie lived in Alice’s street. She was an only child and lived with her mum and gran. There were no men in the house, not permanent ones anyway, and Vic had done his best over the years to help them out, which might have meant giving them a box of fruit and veg from the Seamarsh garden or perhaps mending something broken, if he could. A few years ago Adam had developed a bit of a thing for Maisie and for a whole summer they were rarely seen apart: the tall, muscular Adam and the slight, dark-haired Maisie, who dressed like a boy. With her flat chest and cropped hair she could have passed for a male, except that her sculpted face was far too handsome and her hips far too curved for anyone but the most myopic observer to make that mistake. And then Maisie decided she preferred the company of girls to that of boys and so that was the end of that, although the two had remained good friends. Alice liked seeing them together because Maisie made Adam laugh so much, and there wasn’t much that made Adam laugh, and certainly not his current girlfriend.
Don sat at the head of a long table sandwiched between two tall racks of books. He had his back to her, busy with a group of children doing some kind of arithmetic lesson. They were learning to work with money, an essential skill in a society that relied so heavily on trade. In front of each child was a small stack of plastic coins of different denominations – paper money had disappeared years ago – from £2 coins down to pennies. This was Don’s group of slow children; no ordinary child would need to be taught something they used every day, picked up by watching the grown-ups buying and selling, haggling and bartering in the shops and the market. Everyone was acutely aware of the value and the price of everything, everyone counted out their money carefully, and woe betide any child who gave the wrong change or who was careless enough to tender the wrong amount when shopping for their mother. A curse followed by a whack round the ear was the usual punishment, even for small children. Where money was concerned you quickly learned to get it right.
Don glanced up and acknowledged Alice’s arrival with puffed-out cheeks and pop eyes. His smile was one of relief and welcome. He waved her over. “Be a sweetie and take over here, would you? I need to see a man about a dog.”
“Sure. Is Maisie OK getting the food ready?”
“All done. Back shortly.” He rose and straightened up with a grimace. “Been sitting too long. We’re adding and subtracting in tens, or trying to. We’ll get there.”
Alice slipped into the warm seat and surveyed the young faces. She knew them all, and their families, and they knew her. Two girls and four boys, aged between six and ten. A long-faced boy sitting on her left was trying to make one big tower with his coins. By the look of him he hadn’t had a decent wash in weeks and he stank of fish and wood smoke. He was Michael, the fish curer’s boy; ten years old but without the intelligence to match his age. He’d been coming to the Library ever since Alice could remember, but in all that time had made next to no progress. A four-year-old could outwit him. But “one day, one day Alice, the penny will drop.” That was one of Don’s favourite sayings. Ironic in their current situation. On Alice’s right, next to a shaven-headed girl, sat eight-year-old Jade. She wore just a t-shirt and had been sat on a folded towel. Her pants and smock had been pegged to a window opener where they hung limply in the May sunshine.
Alice got on with the lesson. It was easy to tell that the boy at the far end of the table had been helping Don make up the powdered ink because his face was spattered with dark blue dots. The boy’s heavy-lidded eyes flicked randomly around the room, as if he was following the flight of a dawdling bug. His mouth sagged far enough open to provide it with a neat hidey hole, should it ever wish to land. Not for the first time, Alice wondered if there was much point to all this, given the time and personal energy being invested in these young people. It might actually be easier, not to say more useful, to try and teach a horse to count. Some people said that was at least possible.
Alice’s brief daydream melted abruptly when a cold hand gripped her ankle. Badly startled, she watched as a boy’s grubby face appeared from the shadows beneath the table and proceeded to rest its chin on her lap. The lad’s expression could only be described as idiotic, imbecilic even; a mouth full of broken and blackened teeth fixed in an expression superficially resembling pleasure, but on closer inspection more like that of someone enduring a vicious pinch. Alice pushed at his greasy forehead. “Danny Green,” she said wearily, “get out of there now, and sit down. You want to eat, don’t you?”
“I love you, Alice,” came the thoughtless reply. A string of drool left a dark trail across Alice’s smock. The head disappeared and then re-emerged, next to the empty space beside Jade. Danny nodded in Jade’s direction. “She wet herself again.” Alice fought the urge to give up and admit defeat even though the chances of these children ever becoming numerate seemed about as likely as finding a mermaid’s slippers.
The Library provided a dinner of sorts for all the children who attended school. It was one way to encourage their families to send them, because many saw no point in teaching their children things they would never have a use for in their daily lives. “Who cares what happened with Churchill and Hitler in 1940?” “My boy could be down on the dock making up fish boxes or mending nets. He doesn’t need to know about poetry or the capital of Turkey.” “So long as she can write her name and read a list, and sew and cook, the rest don’t matter.”
The world will recover one day, Don was fond of saying. People will want to recreate the world as it once was. They will want to make the world a better place for their children, because people always have. It’s the human story. The world still had a memory of itself from the time before the Great Death. Everyone over the age of thirty was a neuron in the collective brain of that time, but the memory was weak and patchy, especially in the warmer parts of the world where almost everyone had perished. Meanwhile, it was everyone’s sacred duty to pass on the old knowledge.
Alice helped Don and Maisie as they handed out the packed lunches. Each box contained a hunk of brown bread, a matchbox-sized cube of yellow cheese, a carrot, a hard-boiled egg (unusual and a treat) and a small, badly-scabbed green apple. The children sat in a silent circle on the Library floor and ate with vigorous, unswerving dedication. Despite the fact that David had stuck the long handled spoon deep into his mouth, most children had still helped themselves to a generous dollop of Maisie’s pickle.
Around twenty children were in attendance that day. Some would have been called infants in the old days, but most were between eight and eleven. Some were young teens, like Alice. Most of the girls and even a few of the boys were dressed in a t-shirt and shift dress, which had begun life as plain navy blue but in most cases had been personalised with embroidery, tie-dying and beads. Just a little bit ironic, Don had said more than once when sitting with Alice and observing his motley class. At long last, the hippies were about to inherit the world.
The room was silent apart from the low background murmur of mastication and suppressed belching. From outside the distant shouts of men giving and receiving commands drifted in through the open window. Closer now, under the window, the grunting and cursing of a fish trader could be heard as he pushed his loaded barrow up the street to the market square. Then a new sound, one that Alice had never heard until yesterday; the clatter and slap of a lorry engine. The vehicle was descending the hill, slowing as it approached the esplanade, with squealing brakes and an inexperienced crunch of cogs as its driver attempted to change down through the gears. The olive green canvas top edged past the windows, watched in silent fascination by the children. Many of the boys left their food to stand on the benches and peer out at the passing spectacle. Then the lorry was gone and the boys returned to their places. Not a word was said, and in the distance the truck could be heard accelerating away along the sea front.
“Sorry about your mother,” Don began. “If you...”
Alice shook her head vigorously, her eyes fixed on her plate. “No, I’m fine. It’s OK. We’re OK. Adam’s been great, so’s Rob. Thanks for taking Terry out of the way.”
“Will there be a funeral?”
“Doubt it. We were just talking about how we were going to get her downstairs, you know, after we found her. It was horrible. Until yesterday I’d never seen anyone dead before. Then four soldiers turned up, just walked in. They didn’t say anything to us, just pushed Adam out of the way so they could make up a cardboard coffin on the floor beside the bed. Even with four of them they were having trouble lifting her, so in the end they just rolled her off the bed and into the box. We just stood there, watching them clamp the lid on with straps and then lift it down the stairs. She’d always said the only way they’d get her out of that room was in a box, and she was right. I nearly laughed out loud at that point but I managed to stop myself. If I’d started I wouldn’t have been able to stop, I knew that. Those boys really had to work hard getting her out to the lorry – you know how fat she was. I almost felt sorry for them.”
“She’ll be missed by everyone; don’t you think? I bet she embroidered half the smocks in this room. Everyone knew her, everyone visited her. She didn’t need to go outside; instead the world came to her. What did your neighbours do? You know, when they were putting her in the lorry?”
Alice took Don’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder. “The neighbours? Well, they started to come out for a gawp, needless to say. They’d come out and stare at two cats having a scrap. It was getting on for dark by then. The truck was surrounded by about twenty of them, all craning their necks to try and get a good look. Then the soldier with stripes pulled out his pistol and cocked it above his head. You’ve never seen folk move so fast. Within twenty seconds they’d all scuttled back inside. We stood watching until the lorry had gone. But before they left the sergeant came over and told us we would be putting a soldier up. He’s going to have Marsha’s room.”
Don sat straight up and looked at Alice. “What? You mean he’s been billeted on you?”
Alice nodded. “If that’s what you call it, then yes. He’ll be staying until the job is complete, the sergeant said. We have to feed him and do as we’re told, pretty much. Marsha wasn’t my real mother, you know.”
“Yes, I know. You came from Northwick, didn’t you? I remember you telling me this a long time ago. Alice in the bulrushes,” he chuckled.
Alice didn’t return the smile. “What’s going to happen, Don? Is this the end?”
If Don was at all scared, he didn’t show it. He gave Alice’s hand a squeeze and she leaned her head back on his shoulder.
“Best case? I suppose they will take what they want and leave. Why would they want a single village when they can have the whole coast? Once they have repaired the Endeavour they can do whatever the hell they like. Their first job will be to secure their electricity feed from the wind farm. Then they will neutralise Northwick. In the meantime, they spread terror until they are completely sure that nobody will dare to resist. I don’t think there’s enough of them to do it any other way. But it does make their control just that little bit more precarious.”
“And when they leave? If we’re of no more use to them what’s to stop them killing us all and moving their own people up here? Nothing. Is there?”
Don gave a snort. “I think that’s about as likely as finding a left-handed python. No, I just can’t see it myself. Can you imagine a thousand Wendonites dumped in an empty fishing town? How would they feed themselves? What would they do? They wouldn’t survive even one North Sea winter. And we are survivors, Alice. Never forget that.”

******

The conversation ended naturally and both turned to complete tasks begun earlier, Don to repairing a book trolley whose castor had fallen off, Alice to finishing her piece of writing, entitled ‘The rise of Hitler’. When the trolley was once again functioning properly Don set it on its wheels and begun to fill it with books from a pile on the floor. “Did I see Terry come in just now?” he called across to Alice.
“Think so, yes. She must have left the stall with the Johnsons. We have an arrangement – we keep an eye on theirs and they keep an eye on ours, in case one of us has to run an errand and leave the stall unattended. Either that or the boys packed it up early. Trade’s pretty dead at the moment.”
“Well, you know where she’ll be,” he said, standing and holding his sides as he arched his back straight.
Alice watched as he stretched. He was still lean and muscular, and despite the occasional mild complaint about aches and pains, remained as agile as a man twenty years younger. His dark hair was greying now at the temples and although the hairline had receded over the years it would still pass for a full head of hair. Normally he kept it brushed back but any leaning over would cause it to flop in his eyes, and now he swept it back with his free hand as he searched around on the desk top with the other. His spectacles were in his top pocket, as Alice indicated with her eyes. They smiled at one another and Don gave a wink of thanks.
“How old are you, Don, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind at all,” he replied cheerfully. “I’m old enough not to remember my first serious kiss, put it that way. I’m sixty this year, but I guess age is just a number, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually tell you very much about someone other than the year they were born, which in my case was 1965. It’s your outlook that’s the important thing. Physically, I’m in better shape that some thirty-year-olds I could name, though obviously my skin tells a different story.” He looked thoughtfully at the backs of his hands, then turned them palm upwards. He stiffened his fingers until the lines on his palm darkened and stood out. “I’ve carried this set of lines since birth,” he said, and slowly traced the letter M on his palm with an index finger. “These are still my baby hands, larger and older now but they are the hands I was born with. It’s odd how the skin on your palms and the soles of your feet doesn’t seem to age like the rest of your body covering. These hands will die when I do and their job will be done.”
He continued to regard his hands thoughtfully, turning them over several times and flexing his fingers, as if to remind himself of their miraculous existence. Then he reached over and took one of Alice’s hands by the fingers and held it gently. Alice watched, fascinated by his absorption in the meticulous examination of her palm, as if he was seeing a hand for the first time. “Hands are beautiful aren’t they?” he said, letting go of her fingers, and then he glanced up and regarded Alice, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Does my age matter to you?” he said.
“No, not at all,” Alice replied quickly. “It makes no difference. You are the youngest old person I know.”
Don looked pleased. “Thanks, and if that’s in any measure true then I have you and the other children to thank, because it’s you who keep me feeling young.” Then his face became serious. And now I think you have a date with Terry. Let me know how it goes.”

******

Alice found Terry in the Local History room. She was leaning on the sloping glass front of a cabinet of jewellery items – necklaces, bracelets, rings, pins and medallions. Her precious sketch book, one of a boxful rescued from a village book shop on a scavvy run last year, was open in front of her. Alice watched as she alternately peered in through the glass and then drew on her pad. She was so completely absorbed in her task that it was only when Alice came and stood at her elbow that she become aware of her presence.
“That’s beautiful, Terry,” Alice said appreciatively. “I love the way you have organised the page, and the detail in that ring is just amazing. You have a real talent.”
Terry glanced up at Alice. She studied her face briefly before deciding her praise was honestly intended, then she leaned across and kissed Alice’s cheek. “Do you want to be going?” she asked. “I know we have to pack up the stall and the Johnsons go at four. I sold the road bike you and Rob built last week and got eighty quid for it!”
“Oh, well done Terry! No, no big rush. The boys are going to pack up today, remember? Ten minutes?” Alice leaned back on the cabinet and surveyed the room. Although she had spent many hours in this museum room it never failed to capture her imagination. The room itself was as much a museum piece as the majority of the displays. It had remained frozen in time for half a century or more. The original glass and hardwood cabinets, fitted at the time of the Library’s opening in the late nineteenth century, still admirably served their original function and looked so solid and fit-for-purpose that they might yet do so for another hundred years. Alice had swept the room and dusted and polished these display cases hundreds of times over the years. With her hands clasped behind her she paced slowly along, looking from time to time into this cabinet or that, until she reached her favourite exhibit – a life-sized tableau that occupied the entire end wall of the room. It depicted one of the few events in history that had any significance beyond the local area, ‘The Siege of Goodfleet Manor’.
The tale of the ‘siege’ and its consequences was undeniably a simple one but its intrinsic fairy-tale qualities had, over the centuries, allowed it to assume the mantle of a legend. The story tells how, one dreary December afternoon, Sir Thomas de Brock, while returning on horseback after a drinking session in the town had, while riding at a reckless pace, allowed his steed to run over and crush beneath its hooves, a child. The horse had then reared and thrown off its rider. Within an hour the mount had returned riderless to the manor house. Lady de Brock had immediately sent some of the men out to look for their master. Some hours later they had found him lying in a ditch, snoring and still drunk. It did not take long for the sequence of events that had led to the child’s injuries to emerge. Despite this only being the daughter of a commoner, it was clear, given Sir Thomas's previous history of shameful behaviour unbefitting a nobleman, that it was bound in the end to lead to trouble. The men left the dying child still lying in the road and carried their master home. But as it happened, this was no ordinary peasant girl. She was the town’s Queen of the May, the Golden Child, a girl of such radiant beauty and innocence that everyone who met her instantly loved her, so the legend goes.
True to his cowardly nature, the next day Sir Thomas fled to Wendon, pleading urgent court business and hoping thus to lie low until the furore had passed, as it had done on so many previous occasions. But this time it was different. It did not take long for the circumstances of the tragedy to become generally known. So incensed were the townspeople at the wrongness of the girl’s death that they formed a gathering in the market square where they resolved to march on the manor house and demand justice for the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, for that was the girl’s name. Thirty men, some armed with farm tools and some with more formidable weapons of war: long-handled billhooks, pikes, flails and maces, set off for Goodfleet Manor. In the modern age of firearms, the blood-curdling terror that could be induced by the sight of a band of muscular peasants armed with bludgeons and weapons of sharpened steel has been lost to the popular imagination. Alice eyed the pole-mounted blades of sharp iron, the choppers and spiked hammers whose sole reason to exist was to cause injury and death, and shuddered.
Outside the gates of Goodfleet Manor, Sir Thomas’s servants met with the mob. They were without doubt sympathetic to the townsmen’s cause and did not attempt to stop them from entering the precincts of the house since, indeed, they had already made sure that the whole town knew of the outrageous circumstances of the child’s death. On finding out that Sir Thomas had fled to Wendon the mob was initially at a loss for a way to proceed. Then someone suggested that Lady de Brock should be made to pay a visit to the parents of Elizabeth Semmes, to arrange for compensation and to offer them an apology. There was no question of harming her – justice was the issue here, not revenge.
The museum tableau illustrated the moment in the story when the distressed lady, accompanied by her own daughter, is dragged in front of Elizabeth’s grieving parents who stand at their cottage door, inviting her to enter. Five of the townsmen, life-size mannequins armed with weapons of war, dominate the scene. They flank the figures of Lady de Brock and her daughter as they make their way towards the cottage door. Alice had stared into these hard, peasant faces countless times over the years, and to her they had become real people with names and histories. She had even made up back stories for each of them and written for every one of them a biography that told of their life in war and peace.
The only record of what Lady de Brock saw within the cottage comes from a letter written to her husband and found among her possessions after she died. She describes the dead girl as indeed the Golden Child: beautiful, with long chestnut brown hair and a delicate face of intelligence and sweetness. She had been laid out in her Queen of the May dress, the simple coffin garlanded with aconites, mistletoe and ivy. But the legend does not end with a simple apology from Lady de Brock. Still angry at the disappearance of Sir Thomas, the crowd determined that Lady de Brock would dig the child’s grave, and her own daughter must help her. And so the digging began, and went on for hour after hour until the grisly task was completed and the child’s parents were able to lay their daughter to rest. The story concludes with the death of Lady de Brock a week later from a chill she caught that day, and her daughter being given into the care of the Semmes family who raised her as their own.
Sir Thomas never returned to Goodfleet. He was reported to have been killed in a duel at a tavern in Whitechapel. The manor house was pulled down by the townspeople and the de Brock lands were seized by the crown and remained in the king’s ownership until sold to a local man by a hard-up Richard III.
Terry stopped drawing and put down her pencil. She went and stood in front of Alice and picked up her hand. “Look at her sad eyes,” she said, pointing at the figure of Lady de Brock. “What do you imagine she sees when she goes inside the cottage? Just a dead child? I wonder how beautiful she really was?”
Alice shrugged. “The Golden Child? Who knows? Every child is a golden child to somebody, or should be. Her Ladyship, on the other hand, well she had everything, didn’t she?”
“Do you think so? Made a pretty poor choice of husband, don’t you think? Didn’t get that one right, did she? What a bastard.”
“True. But I wonder how much choice women had in those days? I don’t imagine they hooked up because he was cute and she was a babe. I’ve never forgotten something I overheard Dad saying to Don once, when they were drinking upstairs in the Library. ‘All men are bastards, Don, and I include myself in that definition.’ Dad said that.”
“Do you think it’s true?” Terry's face displayed a mixture of shock and glee. She had just been given a peek through the curtains into the murky world of adults, to be both thrilled and repelled in equal measure. Thomas de Brock was a bastard, no doubt about it. But Don? Alice’s dad?
Alice pulled Terry down to the floor and the girls sat cross legged in front of one another. “There’s no way to say this gently, so I’ll just say it,” Alice said, trying to keep her voice even. “Some soldiers came to the house on Tuesday, when we were at the Town Hall. They killed Marsha. Sorry just to say it, but best you know.”
She let Terry wail and howl until she was finished, but knew that this would be the last time the child would shed tears over Marsha’s death. That was part of history now; another rock added to the heavy sack that every mortal soul seemed destined to carry around on their back. Perhaps Vic was right. Perhaps all men were bastards.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 5

Alice cover 001The Offer

There’s talk of draining the marsh again, or at least part of it, so we can grow more food. Our numbers are increasing, which is great, but it does put a strain on everything. At the moment there are few people who are too old to work, but that will change in time. By and large, we are a healthy lot. Everybody is active and we eat a basic diet, but it’s not like the Middle Ages or anything. We know so much more than they did. We can make an amazing variety of things from materials the medieval peoples had no idea about. We know how the body works and how to stay healthy. We can fix teeth and correct defective vision with glasses. We don’t salt our fish or meat for winter, we brush our teeth and we don’t crap in our drinking water. And we can make and use electricity. Knowledge is precious.

It was Adam’s turn to cook the porridge; Alice’s to make the sandwiches. Rob was busy outside, turning over the soil in a flowerbed near the big glasshouse. The room was warm and full of cooking smells. The kitchen was far from modern, even judged by pre-Great Death standards, but it had worn well. The cream paint had blistered in places; the furniture was ancient but serviceable but this was in essence a work room. It was by far the busiest place in the house, and by common agreement it was Rob’s Kingdom. The large iron range could run on any fuel but it was chiefly wood that supplied the heat, and occasionally coke if any had been brought back from a scavvy run and the Seamarsh house was high enough up the waiting list. The stove was kept burning summer and winter. The kitchen was dominated by a large rectangular table situated at its centre, around which were placed eight matching wooden chairs with dark green tartan seat cushions. A washing rack hoisted to the ceiling was full with what you would expect to see. Two large sash windows faced south and admitted enough daylight to make electric light unnecessary on a May morning, even one as misty as it was that day. Years ago the large, L-shaped garden had been made even larger by realigning the fences of the adjacent houses (with the town council’s permission, of course) and was now managed intensively by the Seamarshes for food.
Alice put Adam’s lunch into his knapsack and looked over to where he stood, head down, studiously engaged in the process of making lump-free porridge. Alice could only see his back but imagined the seriousness of his expression. He was even successfully managing to ignore the presence of his girlfriend Debbie, who had flopped, eyes closed and outwardly lifeless, in the corner armchair, but who, to Alice’s annoyance, managed to intone just about once every minute a feeble “Is it ready yet?” Every few moments Adam tipped the saucepan towards him and lifted a ladleful of porridge up to his face to inspect it before letting it pour back in. At last, he seemed satisfied. He lifted the pan and placed it on the breadboard in the centre of the table and stood arms akimbo, his expression one of mild satisfaction. He called over to the supine Debbie “Wakey wakey, sleepy head. Your porridge awaits.”
“Your toast would await too, if you’d sliced some bread and put it on the hob like I asked you to ten minutes ago,” Alice added drily. She found Debbie irritating and dull as Sunday but in the interest of good family relations did her best to hide these sentiments.
Adam glanced towards Alice and noticed she was watching him. He untied his apron and hung it up. “Lump-free porridge,” he smiled. “Mum would have approved.”
Alice jolted. It was like a huge electric current had passed through her, gripping her innards and twisting them into a spastic knot of fear and abhorrence, as if a premonition had suddenly become a dreadful reality. So it was undeniably true. Marsha had gone, was gone, forever. Their world had been stripped of its last adult, and since he was now the eldest it fell to Adam to be the one in charge. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him yet. Careful Adam, almost a man now. He would look after them well, Alice felt sure. She glanced towards the ceiling and listened. No sound came from the room above. No creaking floorboards as Marsha crossed from the bed to the bathroom. No tick, tick, tick of small doggie paws as Miss Havisham scampered behind.
A sullen Debbie plonked herself at the far end of the table and pulled up her legs. She alternated slurps of porridge with attempts to drag a brush through her blonde tangles and all the time glaring at Adam as if it was his fault she wasn’t happy. For his part Adam looked completely unbothered. Terry had silently entered the room and sat demurely as Adam served the porridge. Usually Terry ate breakfast in vest and knickers but today she was already dressed and ready for school. She had even brushed her hair, which always made her look older and more grown-up. She noticed Alice staring and made a face. “What?” she said with mild irritation. Adam added milk to her plate and pushed the honey her way. He looked at Alice and briefly eyed Terry, who ate her porridge with muffled slurps. Alice turned back to her sandwich-making. “Cheese and lettuce OK for you?” she asked.
Terry nodded. “No pickled onions, thanks. Where’s Rob this morning?” She put down her spoon and pushed away her empty plate. From outside came the sound of hammering. “Is that him?” she asked. Adam nodded. “What’s he doing?” First she looked at Adam, then at Alice, but neither looked like they were about to give her an answer. She crossed to the window and pushed herself up so she could see out. “Adam, what’s he doing? He’s hammering a stake into the flower bed. Why?”
Adam looked over to Alice, who now stood with her back to the worktop. She gripped the sink and ran a hand over her cheek. “Well...” she began, but was interrupted by the sound of Rob kicking mud off his boots. All eyes turned to the door as he entered the kitchen, boots in hand.
“Well, it’s done,” he said quietly to nobody in particular. “I think I’ll plant a tree on her next winter.”
Terry's mouth hung open briefly, a picture of shock and disbelief, and then she was running, pelting down the room to grab Rob round the waist and press her face into his stomach. “Oh Rob, poor, poor Rob!” she wailed, on and on.
Rob touched her hair gently. “There, it’s OK, don’t cry, it’s done now.” But the howling and sobbing continued until a large wet patch had appeared on Rob’s shirt.
“Come on,” Alice said quietly, and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, but Terry wriggled to shrug them off. Then she turned and faced the others, anger now etched into her features. “You!” she pointed accusingly at Adam, “and you!” It was Alice’s turn to be in the frame. “You left him to do it on his own! You could have helped!”
Adam shrugged. “You didn’t want any help, did you mate?”
Rob shook his head and finished drying his hands. “Nope. I could manage,” he said mildly.
“But you must have wanted help,” Terry wailed, the tears starting once more. “You couldn’t possibly have...”
Suddenly a light went on in Alice’s mind. She knelt facing Terry and took her hands. “It was Miss Havisham. Rob buried Miss Havisham. It’s all over now.”
Terry stared at Alice, and then exhaled hard enough to cause Alice to blink. For a few seconds it was difficult to tell whether Terry had begun to laugh or had sunk back into further misery, but to everyone’s relief it was the former. The three youngsters, now all kneeling, hugged and laughed and hugged some more. Adam came over and joined them, and though he remained standing his deep slow chuckle chimed with the joyful noises of the others.
When the laughter finally subsided it was time to leave the house. “Family meeting tonight,” Adam reminded the others as he and Debbie left the room.

*****
*
It was a slow day. The mist hadn’t lasted long but now it had begun to rain. Alice was bored. She sat under the awning of their market stall listening to the patter of fine drizzle on the canvas cover overhead. It was cool for May and she wore a long, thick jumper over her dungarees, one of Marsha’s ‘specials’ made from home-dyed wool. It must have been years old because Marsha gave up dyeing long ago and hadn’t knitted anything for several years. Alice had squashed her slender legs beneath her in the ancient canvas folding chair that had managed to endure far beyond its maker’s anticipated lifetime, always threatening to collapse or rip, but never actually doing so. Open on her lap was a large art book, full of reproductions of the work of a 20th century English watercolour artist, currently Alice’s favourite. In his time the artist had painted landscapes and rooms, work scenes often empty of human life and yet bursting with energy and mystery. The pictures reminded her of views she had seen the one time she’d been out with the scavvies. He had painted views that depicted mile after mile of empty landscapes and deserted farms, except that today if you looked for these landscapes you’d not find them anywhere in all of England. They had vanished years ago beneath the expanding forests. The seemingly unassailable human dominance of the landscape for thirty centuries had taken only ten years to completely unravel. Except for the farms adjoining Goodfleet there were no ploughed fields and no farm animals any more. Fields everywhere had begun turning back into forest. Their edges were no longer sharply defined by walls and fences. The fields had disappeared. They had become scrub, an unending sea of bushes and weeds stretching the length and breadth of the land and already much too thick and tangled to walk through. Everywhere, ditches and drains had become choked with weeds. They had filled with decaying plant matter until they no longer carried rain off the land. In the winter months huge areas of low-lying land now lay under water. Winter floods were normal, drowning farms and villages and roads. The rivers had reclaimed their flood plains. In fifty years all traces of a farmed landscape would be history; memories only visible in photographs and the work of artists like this one.
Alice flicked over the pages of her book, lingering on her favourites. She liked best the paintings of southern chalk hills with their ancient carved animals and giant men, and the harbours and beaches that reminded her of home. Alice felt comfortable in this artist’s world. It was recognisable for the most part, familiar even. Cities played no part in his realm. Some of his paintings showed scenes of people at war. The individuals depicted were not fighting, though, but carrying out ordinary, everyday jobs like writing, sitting at a desk, talking on the telephone, resting. One showed men scraping ice and snow from the wings of a military plane. Alice tried to imagine standing close to it as it took off. The air blast from the propeller, the wave from the helmeted pilot, and the incredible roar of the engine as it started to move forward. Watching some of Don’s old films had allowed Alice to imagine what this might feel like, but that was hardly a substitute for the real thing any more than a picture of a pineapple could be compared with tasting a mouthful of the actual fruit.
Unexpectedly, the page became noticeably darker; a shadow had cast itself across the book and roused Alice from her reverie. She glanced up. The shadow belonged to a woman, a virtual silhouette against the bright grey sky, an avian head poking out of a black rain cape. The sharp nose darted quickly to left and right like a scrawny pullet, the unblinking eyes missing nothing, the dark brown hair, coated in fine rain droplets, tied severely back. Alice recognised the lined, solemn face as that of Witchety Susan, a market trader whose reputation as a drunkard and a brawler ensured that most people treated her with a grudging respect, if only out of fear. Witchety Susan picked up a bicycle pump and tested it by giving it several hard pumps while covering the end with her finger. The escaping air made a quacking noise that under different circumstances might have made Alice giggle. The woman returned the pump to the rack. “You Vic Seamarsh’s kid, ent you?” Without waiting for a reply she continued “I sin you lookin’ at us wi’ a spyglass.”
Alice felt her cheeks warm. She closed her book and stood. The woman sounded matter-of-fact and not at the moment particularly hostile, although her reputation around the town was for belligerence, especially after a lunchtime spent in the Wheatsheaf. Alice decided to brazen it out. “So what? I was just birdwatching.” This was the first time the two had spoken in the four years since Alice had begun selling in the market.
The woman began a wheezy laugh that quickly evolved into a hacking cough. “Birdwatchin’, eh? Nuthin’ much down there t’ see, apart from poultry.” The woman picked up a puncture repair kit and studied the label before fixing her gaze on Alice.
Despite the woman’s fearsome reputation, Alice did not feel particularly intimidated. “Do you live at Newmans, then?” Alice decided the woman had not come to cause trouble, though plainly she was after something.
“Newmans? I thought all you young ‘uns called ‘im the Mereman.” The rattling cackle made a brief reappearance. “As you know, I sell ‘is birds and ‘is eggs, but I’ll be stopping soon.”
“Oh? Why?” Alice did not bother hiding her puzzlement. Why was Witchety Susan telling her this?
The woman sniffed and rubbed a hand up and down one cheek. “I’m dyin’. I can feel it. There’s somethin’ inside me growin’, and it i’n’t a baby. ‘e’s goin’ to need somebody to sell ‘is birds and ‘is eggs. You want the job?”
The question hung in the air. It sounded as much instruction as invitation. Alice looked at the woman as she continued to finger the trays of trinkets and spares. Through all the wrinkles and broken veins Alice could clearly perceive the face of a young and good-looking girl, frightened and lonely, still in this world but preparing soon to leave it. She hesitated, still incredulous, unsure of what to say next. “Me? You’re joking. But you’re not joking, are you? But tell me, why have you chosen me?”
“Well, why not? Don’t tell me you make so much from your bikes you don’t need the cash. That girl you tag around with, she could run this easy, ‘til she gets herself knocked up anyway. She got all ‘er wits, that’s common knowledge, and she’ll need ‘em. Good job she got a guardian angel.” The woman once more leaned forward and coughed violently, then spat before Alice could look away.
Alice felt out of her depth. What guardian angel was she talking about, and why would Terry need one anyway? More urgently, how did the Mereman even know of Alice’s existence, let alone want to offer her a job? “Did he ask for me?” she blurted. She could hardly believe what she was saying. It was preposterous. They’d never met, even casually, although Alice had fantasised about doing so many times. Like the time she imagined she’d found an injured seabird and had taken it to him so he could nurse it and make it fly again, then after the bird was well they had released it somewhere together out on the marshes. That kind of thing.
“He knows, he knew, your father.” Alice must have looked very puzzled, because the woman continued “No, not your real dad, Vic I mean. They knew each other at school, then they worked on the boats together for a couple o’ years before they joined up. They were in the same company but different platoons. They drank together, though, even though Jack rose up to a captain. Your dad was ‘appy stayin’ as a private soldier in the cookhouse.”
Alice gripped the table tightly. The world she knew, or thought she knew, had tilted unexpectedly and come to rest at a dangerous angle, suddenly lopsided. She was sitting in the middle of a see saw, and unless she held on to something there was a danger that at any moment she might slide off. She righted herself but discovered she was completely unable to think of what to say next. What was it this woman wanted? Then it struck her that this was her moment. “I want to meet him first, you know, to discuss terms.” She hoped this sounded like a businesswoman talking and not a silly child.
Now the woman scowled. She threw down a bike spanner she had been fingering. “No. ‘e won’t meet with you. There i’n’t no way. For ten year ‘e hant spoke to nobody ‘cept me. Lissen. You get to keep ‘alf of all you make on ‘is stall. You spend the rest on what’s on ‘is list, what you can get anyway. You leave ‘is stuff in the caravan an’ pick up the new list. ‘e’s got an agreement with Mickey Davey to waggon ‘is birds into town. All you have to do is ‘ang ‘em up and sell ‘em. And I know you can do that, girly. They say you’re the best trader they seen in the market for a long time. You got a level head and don’t get flustered when some o’ these men tries to get the better of you. You can drive a bargain, and you’re honest. Not bad for a fourteen-year-old, boy or girl.”
Alice felt her cheeks flush. She wasn’t used to hearing good things about herself, except from her dad or Don, but then he was generous about everyone. In the end she said “I’ll think about it. I’ll need to talk to the others.”
“You do that, girly. Now, ‘ow much for this lantern?”

******

“I don’t like it,” Rob said immediately as Alice broke her news. The four youngsters were eating their evening meal in the kitchen of 38 Walsham Road. Terry flicked a pea at Rob and prepared to dive out of her seat for a mad chase around the table, but Rob ignored her. He hated change; to his way of thinking, no news was always the best news. As a rule, Adam was neutral. He liked to wait to hear the detail of any update before offering an opinion. But Alice had told them everything. Even while relating what she remembered of her conversation with Witchety Susan she wondered again if she had dreamed it. It did still sound incredible, unbelievable even.
Rob stared grimly at Alice, his hands held out in exasperation. “What about the bike stall?” he whined. “We’ve spent years building that business. It works well and gives us a steady income. This is mad; why change things?”
Alice turned to Terry. “You can run the bike stall, can’t you? Rob, she’s nearly eleven now. And I won’t be far away. She does run it some days when I’m at the Library with Don. Anyway, you’re the mechanical genius. I just do the easy stuff.”
Rob looked slightly appeased and stirred the custard pan in silence. Terry, looking momentarily delighted at this turn in the conversation, decided to join in. “That’s right, Rob. And Emma could help me,” she chirped, sounding more assured than she now looked, having clocked the change of expression on Rob’s face.
“That simpleton?” he snorted, and eyed the ceiling in disbelief. “If that’s a serious suggestion then God help us all!” Alice bit her lip. This wasn’t going well at all.
“But you like Emma,” Terry protested. “You spend enough time with her when she’s round. Last week...“
“I was showing her how to make bread. She was interested,” he countered, less than convincingly. As his gaze slid sideways he pursed his lips as if about to break into a whistle.
“Ooh, she was interested,” Terry mimicked. “Then why won’t you show me how to make bread, you meanie?”
“Because you want to do it too quickly. And you don’t listen. Remember the shortbread?”
“Oh, God. Don’t remind us,” Adam added with a contrived groan. He grinned at Terry and received a flicked pea in return. Then he turned to Alice, serious now. “So what do you think, Alice? It would mean less time helping Don, probably, and I know that’s where your heart lies, not selling ducks.”
This was unexpected. Under Adam’s seemingly neutral question she glimpsed a partisan interest. He knew something about this situation that she didn’t. She filled pudding bowls with rhubarb crumble and passed them to Rob who bad-temperedly ladled on custard and skated the dishes across the table. When all had been served and were fully occupied emptying their bowl, Alice took her chance. “What do you know about the Mereman?” she asked as casually as she could.
Apart from the usual dinner sounds the room was silent. Even the familiar background murmur from outside was still, and seemed to amplify the ticking of the railway clock that hung above the dresser. Adam chewed slowly and cleaned his plate with care. When Rob’s custard was on the menu he’d even been known to lift his plate and lick the rim. Eventually he gave up on finding any more and put his spoon in the bowl, leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head, as Father always did after a good meal. But unlike Vic, Adam did not follow this with a loud belch. Instead he smiled and said “Rob, that was a damn fine dinner.”
Although Rob had heard this many times before, nevertheless he floated around the table collecting up the dishes, which was actually Terry’s job but she was still finishing. Alice remained seated opposite Adam, watching him and waiting. At last he said “I, for one, think you should take the offer. It sounds like a money maker to me, and who couldn’t do with a bit more security in these troubled times? It’s not much more than two day’s work, if you think about it. The birds practically sell themselves and you’ll probably be sold out by lunchtime. You can still keep half an eye on the bike stall. Not that I think you’ll need to,” he added quickly as Terry, who had finished eating now, crept up behind him and crooked her arm around his neck and while growling began mock-biting his ear. He pulled her round to sit on his lap and looked over to Alice.
“But the Mereman; Witchety Susan says he knows Dad. They were army mates. But Dad never said anything about it, even when he told me off for going on the marshes and spying on him.” A feeling of resentment began to rise inside Alice, as if somehow her dad had tricked her or cheated her by not sharing this information. It was something else to discuss with him when he came home.
“Dad doesn't talk about his army days much, even to me. Once or twice he’s taken me to the pub where his old crew usually drink. There’s about ten of them, all from the same regiment, most from the same company. Four of them are officers. The ranking officer is a woman they call Twiggy. Don’t know why, because she’s not exactly thin. I’ve heard them mention the Mereman. His real name is Jack Newman.”
“What did they say about him?”
“Not much, really. He was an officer, a captain. Apparently he was the best shot in the regiment. Dad said he’s seen him drop a roe buck from half a mile away. One clean shot in the neck. His army career ended badly. One day they were on patrol, somewhere abroad, and his squad was ambushed. Except for him they were all killed, and he was taken prisoner. He was missing for two years, then turned up one day at an American base. He’d escaped and made his way across the desert alone. He was hardly recognisable. Nobody thought he would live, he was so thin and frail and burned by the sun.”
“And what happened?” Terry asked.
“Well, he recovered. He must be incredibly tough. For months he couldn’t speak. He just cried and screamed. They didn’t let him return home until he was practically well. They were waiting for him to tell them what had happened. Apparently, he never did. Physically, he made a full recovery, mentally he’s a mess.”
To Alice, the Mereman's life alone on the marshes suddenly made complete sense. “Poor man,” she murmured. And now his lifeline to the outside world was about to be taken away from him as well. In that moment Alice resolved her thoughts. She would take the job.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 6

Alice cover 001The Soldier

We don’t have much contact with the outside world. About once every three months we have a visit from the Northwick governor. He and the Major give us the latest news at the town meeting, well what they want us to hear, anyway.
Even now everyone lives in fear of the plague’s return so the Army will not allow in anyone from beyond our region. Everyone has an ID card, which must be carried at all times, and woe betide you if you can’t show it. You can listen to the radio of course, but how much can you believe of what you hear? Our local station is just official announcements, old records, gossip and somebody guessing what the weather’s going to do. Apart from a Dutch station (that unfortunately broadcasts in Dutch) the continent has been quite silent for years. The most powerful broadcast comes from Wendon, the old capital. It still claims to be the national government, though the men here say ‘we’ll see about that’.
People have long feared the south. It’s a brooding presence, just over the horizon. Out of sight but not out of mind. They know we are here; they tell us on the radio that they are coming to ‘re-establish control’. People have said for years it is only a matter of time before they attempt some kind of invasion. Others disagreed, saying they were weak and disorganised, still fighting among themselves. No one knew for certain, until now.
The big prize for Wendon of course is our electricity supply – the giant wind farms that are carefully guarded and controlled by Northwick. The main substation where the high voltage cables come ashore is just north of our town. Always well-guarded, it’s a place you keep away from. The boys up there are known to be very trigger-happy – shoot first and ask questions after.

It was Friday when the soldier joined the Seamarsh family for the evening meal. The kitchen was warm, as always, but especially so today. Friday was bread day and the oven had been on all afternoon. Every window had been opened to its widest. Above the usual kitchen sounds distant street noises could occasionally be heard – children’s shouts, church bells and sometimes indistinct men’s voices; now and then a passing lorry or a distant rifle shot. The nights were stretching out as summer approached and early evening sunshine slanted across the worktop, making the steam from the saucepans of carrots and peas resemble the billowings of a garden bonfire. The big table was laid for dinner and everyone, apart from Rob, had taken a seat.
The soldier had removed his jacket and sat at the end of the table nearest the door to the rest of the house. Predictably, Terry had grabbed the chair next to him.
“Where’s your rifle, then?” Rob said as he dolloped badly mashed potato somewhat forcefully onto the queued plates. Every serving was accompanied by the loud dink of the serving spoon hitting a plate.
“Unless we are on patrol we must always have them secured,” the boy replied mildly. “Mine is padlocked to the bed frame with a bike lock. And the magazine is here,” he said, tapping his shirt pocket. “You can understand why.” His tone made Rob’s bad-tempered enquiry sound rather foolish.
“Just your sidearm, then,” Adam said through a mouthful of food. The boy nodded. “So, what do we call you?”
“Private Madden.”
Terry looked up at him with her most innocent face. “Can I call you Tony?” she asked sweetly.
The boy looked startled. “What? No. Why? That isn’t my name.”
Alice and Adam tried not to giggle as Rob’s serving spoon dinged a load of mash on to the next plate with even more violence.
“Well, what is it then?” That girl could charm the birds from the trees, Alice thought. Even so, it might be for the best if she called Terry off, just in case their guest had a short fuse. “That’s enough, Terry,” she reproved.
“No, it’s OK, I don’t mind. My first name is Neil, but you are supposed to address me as Private Madden. It’s company orders.”
“Oh, OK.” Terry seemed satisfied and turned back to her meal. The violently served mash had spread itself over half the plate and she used her fork to push it up into a heap. Peas from the freezer and fish from the market completed the plate, plus some roasties and Rob’s magic gravy, of course. It could make practically anything taste of something. “So, is it alright to call you Private Neil?” she added, speaking earnestly to her pile of mash.
“Terry, stop it. That’s enough!” Alice scolded, trying her best to sound angry, while Adam covered his mouth and turned away feigning a choking cough.
The boy looked around the table. His expression spoke more of misery than anger. Even Rob picked up on it, and as he sat down picked up the pan of roast potatoes. “Here, help yourself. Take what you want,” he said, nodding at the pan.
Neil pushed his chair back and rose from the table. “Actually, I’m not that hungry, thanks all the same. I think I’ll get some sleep. It’s a six o’clock start tomorrow.”
The door closed and the room was left silent. Alice, Terry, Adam and Rob ate without conversation, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Adam finished first. “Well, what did you make of that, then?” he said.
“He seems pretty thin-skinned, if you ask me,” Rob said dismissively. “He’ll have to toughen up a bit if he wants to stay a soldier.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t use us for target practice,” Alice added as she began to clear the table.
“I think he’s nice,” Terry put in.
“I think he’s nice,” Rob mimicked nastily. “You’ll get us all shot, you will.”
“She didn’t mean any harm,” Alice replied, “did you?”
Terry fumbled in her tunic pocket and pulled out a folded envelope. “I found this in his jacket. Shall I read it?”
“Bloody Norah!” Rob wailed. “See what I mean?” He leaned across the table and made to grab the letter but Terry quickly pulled it out of reach, only to have it taken by Adam.
Alice covered her mouth. “Don’t read it, Adam. It’s none of our...”
Too late. “So, what have we here, then?” Adam said, and began to unfold the letter. Alice glared at Terry and cocked her head sharply in the direction of the door. Terry caught on immediately. She slipped off of her chair and stole across the room on cartoon tiptoes. After listening for a few seconds she eased open the door. The hallway was empty.
Adam handed the thin notepaper to Alice. “It’s from his mother. He must have gone to a training camp of some sort before coming here.”
The letter went round the table. Alice waited patiently for her turn. Oddly, no one made any comments about what they were reading. At last, Rob handed the letter to Alice. She held it to her nose and inhaled. It was an old habit, sniffing things, but somehow it made objects more real for her. The paper smelled faintly of apples or roses, the smell of summer.
The contents of the letter were unremarkable – just a mother’s letter to her son. Clearly, he was loved and missed. And yet, Alice thought, it was a glimpse into lives lived outside her experience, in a place that wasn’t Goodfleet. In that moment she felt a deep yearning to one day walk out of this town, the place that had kept her safe for her whole life. It would undoubtedly involve danger, yes. But what new knowledge might she gain, what new friends might she make?
Now, Alice looked hard at Terry. “OK, missy, now you listen carefully. You are to replace this letter immediately. Do you understand?” Terry nodded solemnly. “Did you go in his room?”
Terry feigned affront. “No! Certainly not. I found it in his jacket pocket. It’s hanging by the front door.”
“Anything else in the pockets?” Adam asked.
“Nothing. Just fluff. Oh, and a hand grenade. Joke.”
Alice held the paper to the light. “I’ll bet this was made recently. It’s proper paper, not like that grey rubbish we have to use at school. Boy, I’d love to get my hands on a few pads of this stuff.”
“You’ll have to talk nicely to Private Madden, then, won’t you?” Adam said with a grin as he tucked the letter back into its envelope.
“Or marry him!” Terry added, and quickly ducked to avoid a swipe from Alice’s tea towel.
Just as she was about to flee Adam caught Terry by the arm. He held her by both arms and looked into her face, and wearing his most serious expression he said “Now, Terry Silver, I think that’s quite enough of your nonsense. Rob’s quite right. We don’t want to upset our uninvited guest unnecessarily by doing something stupid. So, there’ll be no more going in his pockets, no more flirting, and absolutely no going in his room. Understood?”
Terry nodded unhappily. She had never been told off by Adam before, and she didn’t like it. He sounded like Vic when he was laying down the law, which in a way was reassuring, if momentarily painful. Nevertheless, she would make sure that it didn’t happen again.

******

Since it was market day for the Seamarshes Alice and Terry were first up. It was decidedly cool and both girls had put on big top coats over their smocks. The sun was not yet strong enough to provide much warmth, but nevertheless it promised to be a fine day. One side of the birdhouse roof dripped with melted frost and beneath it several sparrows fought over the latest offerings of crusts and bacon rind, cheese ends and cooked potatoes.
“Do you want a hand with those?” It was the soldier, standing in the kitchen doorway as Alice and Terry loaded the handcart with the day’s sales goods. Terry flashed Alice a cheeky grin as she swung another fish box full of bike parts on to the front of the cart. Most of the remaining boxes contained a hotch-potch of repaired toys, ornaments and bric-a-brac. On top the girls had tied two bicycles – a mountain bike and a child’s three-wheeler. These would fetch as much as the rest put together, provided people were in the mood to buy.
The boy leaned on the door frame while Terry tied down the bikes, her lips pursed in concentration. Alice looked slightly alarmed. What would be a suitable response? “Er, thanks, but won’t you get into trouble? Collaborating with the enemy and all that?”
If Alice thought this would put him off she was mistaken. “Perhaps.” He indicated with a nod a long coat and hat hanging on a nail inside the outhouse. “I could wear those.” Alice covered her mouth and glanced at Terry, who had convulsed in a fit of silent giggles. The boy unslung his rifle and let it rest against the outhouse wall. He beckoned to Alice as one would to a nervous animal. “Let me try them on,” he said, his faint smile enough to convince her of his honest intent. Once she registered the soldier's seriousness Terry quickly regained her composure and handed him the fedora. The long, flapping overcoat and wide-brimmed hat had instantly transformed the boy into a walking scarecrow. Nobody would have taken the figure to be a soldier. He slid his rifle between two rows of boxes and turned to the girls. His face was hard to read as he said “Is it best to push or pull this thing?”
They took the back alleyways through town and met no one. The long grind up Marshall Street was far easier with three and they made it to the top of the road without pausing once. “It’s left here,” Alice shouted from the rear of the cart. At the junction Neil stood up and said to Terry “Does this thing have a handbrake?” He removed his disguise and retrieved his gun. “I’ll leave you here. I’m going... well, never mind. See you later.”
“Sure, see you later. And thanks,” Alice replied, smiling.
“And if you get fed up with soldiering we could make it permanent,” Terry chipped in. The boy plonked the hat on her head and draped the coat over the cart. “And you’re cheeky,” he said mildly, and winked as he shouldered his rifle and turned to go. “See you tonight, then.” And he was gone, away round the corner at a marching pace, his steel-shod boots clicking over the cobbles. The two girls looked at one another. “Did that really just happen?” Terry asked as she made to resume their journey.
“Weird, wasn’t it? Weird, but kind of nice,” Alice replied. Terry looked at her inquisitively, but decided to say nothing and they continued on their journey to the market.

******

After tea Alice busied herself in the vegetable garden. The onion bed needed weeding and the others were all busy doing other things. Rob had gone with Terry and Emma to look over the latest finds brought back by the scavvies. Every year the roads became more and more difficult to use. The metalled surfaces were starting to break up and blockages by fallen trees became ever more common the further the foraging crews went. Removing a rusting car from a country lane could cost them several hours – a lorry meant finding an alternative route. The scavvy gangs went out three or four times a year, normally: March (as long as it hadn’t been a particularly wet winter, in which case many roads would still be under water), May, June and July. August and September were the main months of harvest and every spare body that could lift a bale of straw or lead a horse and cart was needed on the farms. On this trip they had managed to get through to the large village of Heysham St Mary, about twenty miles south west of Goodfleet. They found no signs of recent occupation and had been able to take their time, stripping the shops and houses of the most valued items and loading them on to the horse-drawn hay carts. Anything electrical always had top priority, along with tractor parts and tools. Kitchen appliances that looked in working order were taken whole. Fridges and freezers were the most highly prized. Electric motors were unbolted from washing machines and driers (everybody in Goodfleet used the communal laundries). Computers were always in demand, as were kettles and toasters. The Seamarsh family were interested in bicycles.
Alice tipped a bucket of weeds into the open compost bin and made to settle once again to her weeding, when she heard a voice. “Want a hand? Again?” The soldier stood in the kitchen doorway, squinting against the low glare of the evening sunshine. Next to the back door a fledgling blackbird landed awkwardly in the shrubbery. It eyed the boy first with one eye, then the other, turning its head this way and that, before starting to feed on the mahonia berries. The boy stepped out of the doorway and unslung his rifle. He removed the magazine and emptied the firing chamber before leaning it against the wall. Then he took off his jacket and hung it over the weapon, removing it from the scene. He picked up a bucket and took up a position opposite Alice, where he knelt and began work.
“Did you see your dinner?” Alice said. “It’s baked sausages.”
“I’ll get it later,” he replied. The two worked in silence for several minutes. A starling had brought its brood to feed at the bird table, and for a while the quietness was filled with their raucous screeching and chatter as they squabbled over bacon rinds and crusts. For no detectable reason an imaginary enemy sent them off over the gardens in close instinctive formation like a squadron of tiny fighter planes.
Alice pushed herself onto her feet using the rim of her filled bucket. Neil looked up. His face showed pain. “I’m sorry for what happened to your mum,” he said. “You know it’s...“
Alice cut him off. “Sure, thanks. I know,” she said impatiently. “But why? I don’t understand why. Do you know why they did it? She wasn’t a threat to anyone.” She realised that this was really the first time she had given it any thought. The senseless wrongness of Marsha’s death unexpectedly boiled to the surface, like fizz rising inside an opened pop bottle. Tears, she knew, would not be long in following.
The soldier looked down and examined the dandelion seedling in his palm, as if it contained a truth that might be revealed through prolonged inspection. At last he said “It was an accident, I think; a stupid bloody mistake. The gun went off. I’ve heard as much in the guard hut.”
“Do you know who?” Alice gripped the rim of the bucket tightly, like a sea-sick mariner fighting the urge to vomit. She stood and leaned against the compost bin. Neil stood also and they faced one another. He hesitated, and then made to speak, but before he could utter a word Alice cut in. “No, don’t answer. What does it matter anyway? It won’t bring her back, will it?”
The boy looked down. He dropped the weed into the bucket and walked over to the wall where he picked up his coat and rifle and silently went inside. So that was that. Alice continued with her weeding. The anger had quickly left her. Had it really been an accident, just a stupid mistake?
After a few minutes the soldier reappeared holding his dinner plate. He sat down on the back step and began his meal, closing his eyes at intervals and lifting his face to the evening sun. Alice was about finished. She tipped the last of her weedings into the compost bin and wondered what she should do next.
The boy seemed keen to talk. “You have a pretty nice life here, don’t you?” he began.
Alice wasn’t particularly interested in responding to what sounded a little like a challenge. “I suppose so, yes. Why, don’t you?” she returned curtly, but immediately regretted it. Her response was needlessly cutting, cruel even, she belatedly realised. She knew full well that these young soldiers were not here of their own free will. Most were conscripts of some sort; she knew that much from the gossip she overheard in the market. Their fate had been forced on them by circumstance just as much as hers had. Her untethered hair had fallen across her eyes and she parted it with the back of a sweaty hand. She breathed a deep breath and then regarded the boy standing before her, holding his empty plate. “I mean, at least you’re seeing something of the world, aren’t you? I’ve never been further than Northwick.”
“I’d rather be home,” he replied simply.
In that moment Alice felt she wanted to know more, in fact she wanted to know everything; to hear the story of his upbringing, who his parents were, about life in Wendon, and the story of how he became a soldier. What should she say? Then she had an idea. “Have you ever been down to the marshes?”
“No, never. We don’t bother to patrol down there. Why would I want to go there anyway? We know nobody lives there, nobody important, anyway. The marsh can’t be crossed without a boat. It isn’t of any relevance to the mission. The Commander says it isn’t worth bothering about.”
“Somebody does live there. The Mereman has his chicken farm. I’ve got to take him some errands tomorrow. You could help if you like.”
For a moment the boy looked almost happy. As he thought about the offer his face changed. The frown relaxed and his smooth, pale features became more boyish and open, his usually narrowed gaze softer and rounder. The change made his military uniform seem even more out of place than before. “Yes, I’d like that very much,” he replied. “What time are you going?”
“Early,” Alice said. “We’ll need to load the bikes first, which will take a while because we’ll need to get them balanced or they’ll never survive the potholes – there’s a lot of stuff to take down there. Say 5.30?”
“Perfect. I don’t need to report until the afternoon. See you at 5.30.” And with that soldier picked up his rifle and left for his next patrol.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 7

Alice cover 001The Commander

After it became clear that this was probably the end of the world the Major ordered the flooding of the fields behind the town. All the pumps were switched off and the sluices opened. In came the sea and inundated the fields and once more Goodfleet became an island, more or less, safe between the sea and the river and the marshes. Like the olden days.
Nobody here starves. Compared to most, we’ve adapted pretty well. The town is about half the size it was but we all work together to keep everything going. All the empty houses are kept windproof and watertight. We trade fish and sheep and cattle for the things we need like paint and wood for building and repairs. The Major gets us the extra things the men need to run the maintenance boats that go out to the wind farms. I’ve never tasted a pineapple or a banana – they’re just something you see in books – but I’d like to one day. I mean, someone must still be growing them surely, or maybe they will just grow naturally in some abandoned field or plantation somewhere. There must be more communities like ours.
About once a year we might see a boat that’s come a long way and not just from up or down our own coast or the near continent. We have traded our fridges and beer for cotton or oranges or olives or wine – practical stuff usually. Dad says if you can’t eat it or wear it, you probably don’t need it.

Classes were finished for the afternoon and the last few children lingered in the classroom area, playing a board game, chatting or just rolling on the cushions. Don sat with a mug of tea, looking at the children’s writing for that day while listening to Daisy, a frail, red haired eight-year-old, as she read to him from a reading scheme book. The calm atmosphere ended abruptly with a disturbance, in the form of heavy footsteps and loud male voices, emanating from the main lobby. Don stopped and looked over his spectacles to identify the source of the commotion. Sharply-peaked caps and polished black boots, white naval uniforms and serious male faces left no doubt as to the identity of the visitors. Two ratings stepped ahead of the rest, their machine pistols held across their chests, the polished black barrels pointed downwards but held so that they could be brought instantly to a state of readiness. The guard of six reached Don’s desk and came noisily to attention. They parted evenly to leave a clear avenue for the seventh member of the party. Between the rows sauntered the man Alice had seen on the first day, down at the dock. It was he who had shot and killed a market trader and, to make his closing point at the big meeting, had shown them the sad spectacle of the Major. It was the man who had authorised the murder of her mother – Commander Savage.
Don closed the reading book and lifted the child off his lap and set her down on the floor. He pointed in the direction of the others. “Run along, Daisy,” he said calmly. He moved his glasses to the top of his head and pushed himself on to his feet. Then he brought his hands together in a peace gesture and gave a slight bow. He did not speak, but instead waited for the other.
The Commander was not expecting this and looked slightly quizzical, discomfited even. “You are in charge of this...“ He waved his hand in a semicircle.
“A place of learning is how I like to think of it.” Don’s voice was friendly, encouraging even. “My name is...“
“I know what your name is. I am Commander Savage and I...“ The Commander stopped and looked down. Jade, the six-year-old daughter of a girl who had a dressmaking stall in the market, had attached herself to the man’s leg. She gazed up at her captive and smiled sweetly, exposing a mouthful of small, uneven teeth. Don bent and gently prised her arms open. She yielded and allowed Alice to take her hand and lead her away. “Bye,” she said, and gave the Commander a small wave, which was not returned.
The Commander’s tone exposed his annoyance, “So, Mr Donaldson. I don’t think I’ve seen so many books in one place. Sadly, most of our libraries were destroyed during the worst of the early years. What is that smell?”
“Smell?” It was Don’s turn to look puzzled. “Do you mean the soup? We, the children that is, had carrot and onion soup today.”
“No, not that. Something else. It smells like trees. I remember this smell from long ago. Yes, long ago.”
Don thought and then he understood. “Ah, I think you mean the floor polish. It’s perfumed with pine resin. When our supply ran out we found out how to make it. Someone did, using pine resin from the forest. You can buy some in the market to take home.” Don spoke to the Commander like he might be passing the time with a visiting tourist.
“But how could you find out something like that?”
Don looked round at the area to his left. At the tables four people, two men and two women, sat hunched over books, reading and making notes. The Commander followed his gaze. So inconspicuous were they that it was only now that he saw them. Then he looked back at Don, who then mirrored the Commander’s previous hand gesture. His expression clearly communicated his thoughts, that what was displayed in front of them was self-evident, and answered the man’s enquiry in full.
The Commander was silent. Then he held up an index finger and wagged it in Don’s direction, not aggressively but as if it was marking time with his thoughts. “There is a place for you in our society, I feel sure, Mr Donaldson. You, and your books. Yes. When we leave, you will come with us. You will join us in our endeavour to rebuild our society. You will be welcomed, I assure you, and well rewarded.”
“That’s very kind, but no thanks,” Don returned mildly, as if he was declining the offer of a second biscuit with his tea. “Assuming that was an offer and not an order. My place is here, Commander. These are my people.”
The Commander scowled and made as if to spit, but then appeared to change his mind. “Your people, as you term them, are ignorant peasants with no interest in your books and ideas.” In an instant the Commander’s voice had turned cold and distant. Clearly, this was a man to whom people did not say no. With a sour grimace he kicked over a pile of books waiting to be re-shelved. “When we leave you will come with us. You are right, you do not have a choice. When we are ready to leave I will send men to begin clearing the bookshelves and packing them away. They will be taken to the ship and you will follow them, in handcuffs if necessary. You can bring your girl too, of course,” he said. He nodded towards Alice, who was picking up the scattered books and putting them on a trolley.
“She’s not ‘my girl’. Her name is Alice. She goes to school here,” Don said quietly.
Glad to have been included in the conversation at last, Alice stood. She placed her hands on her hips, her eyes defiant, eager to speak up for Don and for herself.
“Come here, girl,” Savage ordered. She stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. With its hollow cheeks and permanent tan, this was not an English face; this was a man whose history lay somewhere to the east of this island. His narrow lips were not red but some undefinable dark colour, and although he had probably shaved that morning his face was already darkly shadowed. His mouth terminated in downturned corners, undoubtedly shaped by the endlessly repeated expression of a great disappointment with things and the consequential instigation of a great deal of cruelty. Beneath his coffee-coloured eyes, narrowed as if constantly squinting against a bright light, baggy zones, swagged with darkness, spoke of a chronic lack of rest. It was a face that chimed resonantly with its owner’s name.
Alice plucked up her courage and then spoke. “My father is on your ship, I think,” she said. “Vic Seamarsh. Do you know him?”
He dismissed her question with a wave of his hand. “You’ll have to forgive me, child, but I’m afraid I haven’t yet learned the names of all my guests.” He smiled and looked to his men, who dutifully chuckled at the absurdity of the idea.
“He’s the cook. He’s quite fat now and he jokes a lot, and laughs a lot. If he was there you would know him,” Alice replied.
Savage began playacting the puzzled routine that Alice had seen before. “Well, let’s see. Yes, now you come to mention it, I do know your father. In fact, he served me breakfast just this morning, brought it personally to my cabin.” Savage smiled and fixed Alice with a penetrating look. “Would you like to see him?”
Alice thought she might faint. Her legs had turned to water beneath her and she gripped the trolley to steady herself. Not trusting her voice to give away too much she simply nodded.
“Good. Then come and visit. I will arrange for you to meet with your father. Now we must go. Think carefully, Mr Donaldson, about my offer.”
Don said nothing and watched as the men turned and marched out of the Library, the Commander in the lead. He descending the front steps two at a time, his guards marching quickly behind, attempting to keep up.
Don sat back in his chair and dragged his hands down his face. He looked across at Alice, who was stacking the last of the books that had been scattered across the floor by the Commander’s boot. He could see the contents of her mind clearly written in her features but resisted the impulse to comfort her with words he did not mean. When she had finished Alice kicked a bean bag across the floor and sat beside Don’s chair. She pressed her lips together and attempted a smile but knew her eyes still articulated her emotional state. It was unusual for anything to bother Don, but clearly the Commander’s visit had left its mark. The last of the children had gone home, leaving just a few of the regulars sitting at the reading desks or shuffling around the book cases in search of, who knew what? The Library would be closing soon anyway.
Alice sat quietly, hoping Don would be first to speak, but she could tell from his distant gaze that this was unlikely. He noticed her looking up at him but instead of speaking he rested his hand on her head and smiled one of his many different smiles, smiles that over time Alice had come to recognise as a kind of shorthand intended only for her, for the standard smile broadcast to others she knew indicated kind-heartedness, but nothing much else. His current smile also contained ‘don’t worry, it will be OK’. And as she returned the smile she felt instantly better.
“So, what will you do?” she asked, and immediately felt a slight tension rise in her shoulders as she prepared herself for the reply. It seemed the world she had known for most of her life was collapsing like a house of cards. But a house of cards could be rebuilt, so long as none of the cards had been lost. Alice looked up and let her eyes travel around the room. The solid walls around her seemed to be listening to her thoughts. Their strength, their endurance through time, their very surrounding presence made her fears seem rather ridiculous and small. It simply wasn’t possible for all of this to be blown away by the whim of a single man, was it?
Don shifted in his chair but still did not reply. He also looked about him. The last of the readers slipped on his jacket and waved to Don as he pushed through the swing doors. Don returned the wave but did not smile this time. “I’ll miss that if I go. That man’s been coming in here for most of his life, far longer than I’ve been around. What do you think will happen to him when he can no longer come here?”
Alice had no answer. “And will you go?” There was no good reply possible, but nonetheless Alice knew she had to voice the question.
“I don’t seem to have much choice, do I? Men like Savage are used to taking whatever they want, and if for some reason they can’t have it, well then to their way of thinking it’s better that nobody has it. If you were me what would you do?”
“Go, I suppose. At least that way the Library survives, and so do you.”
“That’s my thought as well. Otherwise, I could quite imagine his parting gift to the town would include burning the place down, probably with me inside it.”
They both laughed at this. Alice knelt up on the bean bag, serious again. “Maybe I could go with you, like he said, help you run the new library. He seemed to expect it anyway. He must think I’m your assistant or something.”
Don looked down at Alice. This time the smile was just kindness. “Yes, something like that, I suppose. But it’s out of the question. Your family need you here, sweetie. They’d take a pretty dim view of your departure, and rightly so. No; if I go, I go alone.”
Before Alice could think of a reply Don had risen from his seat and crossed the floor to the staircase leading to the upper floor. He gripped the hand rail and turned to face her. “I feel tired, all of a sudden. I need some thinking time. Be an angel and turn all the lights off, would you? You can lock up and I’ll talk to you later in the week, perhaps.”
Alice watched as Don mounted the stairs, two at a time, and disappeared from view. She sat in his chair and looked around her. The building she had called her second home for the past eight years, a Victorian legacy that had served the town for a hundred and thirty years, looked more fragile, less solid somehow, as if its walls might crack and crumble under the pressure of sound from without: the rumbling lorries, the whipcrack rifle shots, the male shouts, the hobnail crash of boots on cobbles. This could not be the end; it could not. Not without a fight, anyway.

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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 8

Northwick640Click for larger image

Newmans

Rob won’t come near the marshes. He says the place is full of ghosts, and if you’re down there as it’s getting dark on a lonely winter afternoon then I for one could believe he might be right. But for Rob it’s more personal. He was a twin but his brother died in a shooting, caught by a patrol whose orders were to shoot on sight. Jamie was only five but they shot him anyway. He shouldn’t have been on his own but he was. The twins and Dad were out eeling. Dad was down the bank with Rob checking the traps when he heard the shot. He guessed straight away what had happened but could do nothing apart from stuff his knuckles in his mouth to stop himself from screaming, and lay against the bank. Dad and Rob watched as Jamie rolled down the

Read more: Alice Seamarsh Chapter 8
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Alice Seamarsh Chapter 9

Jealousy

Alice cover 001I used to think that I’d like to be a scavvy when I was a bit older. They work in teams, making sure every last bit of waste is put to good use. When they aren’t sifting and sorting the rubbish or overseeing the compost-making they go out into the villages and strip houses and farms and look for anything useful. It’s been going on since the Great Death, three or four times a year in the better weather but the journeys are getting longer and longer. It’s dangerous work and scavvy gangs always take a couple of the Major’s men with them. The dog packs are the biggest danger, up to thirty animals roaming the land looking for anything they can overpower and eat. You see the scavvies setting off on a tractor and trailer with a hut on the back in case they are stuck out overnight. A couple of horses and carts follow behind. I got to go once last year, but only because Dad was in the party. I couldn’t wait to go on my first scavvy run. I’ve always loved the idea of journeying into the unknown, getting away from the familiar and everyday routines of Library and Market, always seeing the same faces and hearing the same small talk.

My favourite place in Goodfleet is at the top of The Downs, where on a good day you can see for twenty miles or more in either direction up and down the coast. Always, the most mysterious place is the line where the sea meets the sky. That is where I want to go, beyond the known, beyond our little town. Once, when I was smaller, I asked my dad if he could get me a big telescope so I could take it up to the top of The Downs. It would allow me to see further, perhaps as far as the coast of Europe or even beyond. He’d laughed and then

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