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?”
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.