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Breadcrumbs

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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