I 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
explained why that would not be possible, or not from the ground anyway. It would be a different story if they’d had a balloon to take them a few thousand feet up into the air. Then on a clear day it would be quite possible to see the coast of Holland, and even beyond, not to mention Northwick and the nearby counties of England. I’ve never forgotten that. I still hope one day to see those places for myself.
“How many of them do you think there are? Altogether?” Terry asked as she stirred the porridge.
Adam continued polishing his boots. “I’d say something like eighty, no more and including officers. Not that many really, except they’ve got guns of course.”
Rob joined in. “I think it’s nearer sixty, maybe even fewer. I’m starting to recognise some of their faces now. I’d say about ten stay permanently on the Sea Princess. Then they’ve got the four machine gun posts. I’ve never seen any more than five of them at any of those. There are about half a dozen at the radio station plus about twenty sailors billeted around the town.”
“Soldiers,” Terry corrected.
“Those are the boys, like Neil mostly,” Rob continued. “Seems peculiar to me they’ve done that, don’t you think? Why split up your force when they would be more effective being kept together as a fighting unit?”
“Yes, it does seem odd,” Adam replied. “What do you think, Alice?”
Alice continued cutting bread but did not reply immediately. She was troubled by the turn in the conversation and sawed the knife backwards and forwards slowly through the bread, although the blade had ceased to make any downward progress. Abruptly, a swim of tears distorted her vision until she was seeing the bread and the knife as if through the bottom of a thick glass bottle. The first tear wet the back of her hand, then another dropped on to the table top. Her hair had fallen forward and it was as if her voice was coming from behind a thick curtain, little more than a whisper puncturing the room’s thick silence. “His job is to kill us,” she said slowly. “If they are attacked and have to retreat to the ship, their orders are to kill as many of us as they can in whatever way they can as they leave.”
The knife fell with a clatter to the table. Alice was fully crying now, one arm propping her up, the other hand shielding her eyes. Terry immediately crossed the room and held Alice tightly around the waist. She too had begun crying. The two girls embraced and held each other. The boys remained motionless. Rob watched Adam’s face for a cue, but whatever his thoughts were, his face remained impassive.
As quickly as they had arrived, the tears had stopped. Alice sniffed and wiped her face on the tea towel. She pushed Terry's hair back and kissed her forehead. “Of course, he said it’s highly unlikely it would ever come to that. I mean…“
“The bastard. The cowardly bastard!” Rob’s voice was nothing more than a strangulated whisper. “We’ve tried to be pleasant to him and…“
Terry wore her open-mouthed shocked expression. “Rob Seamarsh! That’s just not true! You have never, ever tried to be pleasant to him,” she observed coolly. “Underneath that uniform he’s just a frightened boy; like you, Rob. You’ve never given him a chance. You hated him from the moment he walked in.”
It was bizarre. Terry was sticking up for the boy with the gun, whose orders were to murder them all. But like Alice, she plainly believed that Neil would never carry out such an order. He would never harm them. How could he? He was becoming just another one of the family, another mongrel stray.
Rob rose from his seat so quickly his chair toppled backward and crashed against the dresser. He looked around frantically, then he spied Neil’s mug. He lifted it from the table and flung it into the fireplace. It smashed loudly and fragments rebounded and skittered across the kitchen floor. “And you’re an idiot! You’re bloody mad!” he yelled at Terry. “You too, Alice. You’re both nuts. And why are you spending so much time with him? What do you do when you go off on your bikes? You’d better watch yourself. You don’t want to be branded a collaborator, do you? A traitor?”
Without waiting for a reply he snatched up the egg basket, wrenched his jacket off the back of the chair and strode across the room. The outside door slammed behind him.
Time had somehow ground to a halt; Alice felt like she had been physically attacked. She watched through the window as Rob picked up a splitting axe and attacked a pile of logs with ten times the force needed to split the wood. It was like all the air in the room had been temporarily removed and replaced with nothing, just a deep, ringing silence. Then Adam rose from his chair. He crossed the room and put his arm around Alice’s shoulders. “And I say ‘Well done Alice!’” he said as he squeezed a hug. He seemed genuinely pleased at what had just happened. “Take no notice of Rob,” he continued matter-of-factly, as he tied his laces. “We need all the information we can get. Go for as many walks as you like with him, if it softens him up. Have you learned anything else so far?”
Without warning the tears returned with a vengeance. Domestic chores were now completely forgotten. Alice sunk on to a kitchen chair and planted her elbows on the table. She held her head between her hands and sniffed and bubbled, her face mostly hidden by hair but streaked and blotchy with tears and snot, her head propped in a triangle of misery, her soul’s ragged ends exposed like high tension wires.
Terry attached herself once more, this time to Alice’s neck. Adam stood patiently with the tea towel, waiting for the moment to pass. “Oh why, oh why?” she wailed on, sniffing and bubbling to Terry’s accompanying cooing and pacifying subsong. “He, I, oh…“
When at last it was over and the tea towel had once again been put to good use, Adam spoke. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
Alice looked up at Adam, who was smiling kindly. “Yes, there is more,” she sniffed. “The killing is a kind of test, Neil said. If they pass the test they get to leave along with the others.”
“And if they fail the test?”
“Then I suppose they don’t go home.”
“But I don’t understand,” Terry chipped in. “Why a test? What are they testing?”
“Loyalty, basically,” Adam said. “And blind obedience. Carry out any order, any atrocity, no questions asked. What does that tell you about everyday life in Wendon?”
Alice looked up at her brother. “That’s it. You get it. To be in the Wendon Militia you have to be like them. You have to be ready to kill at a moment’s notice. Kill anyone. Even your fellow soldiers or shipmates, or people like us. Ordinary people.”
“Even your own family. Clever,” Adam added. ‘A loyalty test. Total, unthinking, unquestioning loyalty. Of course.”
Alice rose and held Adam’s arm tightly. “They want everyone scared stiff, too petrified to put up any resistance. There are no rules, only their twisted rules. There are no rights. We are their slaves in all but name.”
Adam gave a low whistle. “Wow, Sis. I think you should talk to — no I won’t say her name, but our officer group should hear this, but not from me, from you. They wouldn’t thank me for a garbled version.”
Terry detached herself from Alice and poured out a mug of tea and another for Alice. “So, if the mission is a success then the test will never happen.” Terry clinked mugs and raised hers high in the air. “To the mission!”
Alice did not respond. She had recovered her composure and sipped her tea quietly, but her face remained dark and troubled. “I don’t think it’s quite that simple, Terry my dear. Life never is. Neil thinks the loyalty test will happen anyway when they leave, whether or not the mission is a success.”
Alice pulled on Neil’s arm to slow him down as they climbed the steep slope. “My Dad’s on the Sea Princess, at least I think he is,” Alice said as they paused for breath on their climb up The Downs. They had just completed their second delivery to the caravan at Newmans. The day was warm and overcast – rain was not far away but the youngsters had decided to chance catching a shower. Both had thought it well worth the risk to prolong the morning, just so they could talk more, share more, just be in one another’s company for a while longer without the need to be cautious, wondering who might be watching or listening. They had left their bikes by the roadside and had started up the chalky slope following a sheep path. It seemed a world outside time. The hillside sang with the buzzing and fluttering of a hundred different insects pursuing their single-minded destiny among the ox-eye daisies, rambling vetches and low, aromatic herbs of the flower-rich sward. Here and there, where the grass became a carpet of sheep-nibbled shortness, pink and purple spikes of meadow orchids stood erect among the fescues and polypodys like tiny, improbable fairy wands. As they climbed Alice sampled the different leaves to remind herself of some of the botany Don had tried to pass on to her. She was pretty sure she remembered correctly marjoram, oregano and thyme, and she pulled off sprigs here and there and stuffed them into the front pocket of her smock.
They crossed a dry valley and climbed the opposite side to reach a plateau, a natural spur where the ground levelled somewhat, and there they stopped and sat and looked out over what was to Alice her entire world. The westerly airflow, slow and thick with moisture, allowed only a very limited view. “It’s sweaty Betty today, that’s for sure,” Neil remarked, and wiped his perspiring face with his cap. Alice fished in her bag and retrieved a paper-wrapped slice of flapjack. She broke it in half and offered a piece to Neil. “Here, Rob’s finest,” she said and registered a feeling of mild filial pride. “One day he’ll make some lucky girl a fine wife.”
Neil accepted the snack with a quiet chuckle, but said nothing. He knew better than to make any direct reference to Rob, for what could he say that didn’t sound presumptuous? He offered Alice his canteen and she drank gratefully. Then he waited, for he knew from even such a brief acquaintance, that something was troubling her, and that sooner or later he would hear about it. She leaned over and kissed him on the ear. “It’s like we’re the only people on Earth,” she said.
“Or in heaven,” the boy replied. “The only difference being that this won’t last forever. We know that for a fact. But then nothing does, does it?”
“What can you tell me about the Sea Princess? You know my dad is on board. I can visit him, the Commander said. Would they really let me see him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to Commander Savage, but I hear the others talking about him. He is not a nice man, but you already know that. As for the ship itself, well we were only on board for a couple of days. They took us down the Tamis to Mersea and we stayed there in huts for about a week. One day the wind farm ship appeared. We were taken out in lifeboats and had to get aboard by climbing up a rope net that had been thrown over the side. We were taken below and given some floor space in an empty cargo bay to lay out our sleeping bags. The older men, the ones who are close to the Commander, they were already on board. They always refer to themselves as navy. They call us army. Some other men, the ones who talk like you, they seemed to be running the ship, or at least they were the ones doing all the jobs. I suppose they are the real crew. Apart from the canteen and the washing area we didn’t see much else, and as I say it wasn’t long before we arrived here and were going ashore.”
“Did you see a jolly-faced man with a big grey beard, quite stocky; he would have been working in the galley, cooking or serving your food, most probably?”
Neil thought. “Yes, I think so. Most of the men I saw looked pretty miserable, but he didn’t. I think he winked at me when he served us breakfast.”
Alice laughed. “That’s my dad, all right. Nothing ever gets him down for very long. He was the only cook before the ship was taken over, so I expect the others were there helping him against their will. He’d be enjoying that.”
“Sounds to me like he’ll be OK; who in their right mind would shoot the cook?” The youngsters both laughed at the thought. They finished the flapjack and lay back, resting on their elbows. Alice’s face had cleared and she smiled in a way that made her look very young, like a small child basking in a deserved compliment. Slotted between the slow, rolling nimbus a temporary opening had allowed a hazy trickle of sun to searchlight the hillside to the south. Alice watched as the luminosity made its stately progress downhill towards the sea. Briefly, the town was transformed into something quite magical, like an illustration from a book of fairy tales; a shining jewel, defined on three sides by the marshes and on the fourth by the sea. In the harbour were the two ships, berthed on opposite sides of the harbour wall, so tiny as to seem like toys that could be picked up and examined and put back again.
A faint, high sound broke the silence and the mood. Reality had intruded once more. “That’s the fridge factory hooter,” Alice said. “Must be ten o’clock; morning tea break.”
“Better move, then,” Neil replied. Two hours, and I’m on duty.”
As they stood Alice asked “Does anyone ever say anything to you about this, about me?”
Neil replied with a mild chuckle. “Think you’re important, do you? In short, no. The older men call us the Boys’ Brigade. Our use to them is not much more than as a body holding a gun, to walk the roads and be a presence, but not much else. The real soldiering, or sailoring if you like, is done by the older ones, the Commander’s hand-picked inner guard. All of them have seen years of fighting. The fact they are still alive tells you something about their nature. They give me the shudders, to be honest. But in short they don’t take much notice of us. As long as we turn up on time and follow orders and ‘show respect’, then they’re happy.”
The children began to make their way back down to the road. They held hands when the steepness of the descent was not too severe and chatted on about anything and everything. Alice felt at times as if she was floating rather than walking; she knew that every detail of today would stay with her forever.