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.