I used to think that I’d make a good scavvy. They work in teams, making sure every 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 ever 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.
“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 the officers. Not that many really, except of course they have guns.”
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 have the four machine gun posts. I’ve never seen any more than five of them at any of those. There are half a dozen based at the radio station plus about twenty sailors billeted around the town.”
“Soldiers,” Terry corrected.
“Those are the boys, like Veer 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 a bit odd,” Adam replied. “What do you think, Sis?”
Alice continued cutting bread but did not reply straight away. Although the knife continued slowly backwards and forwards, the blade had ceased its downward progress. Abruptly, a swim of tears distorted her vision. The first tear wet the back of her hand, then another dropped on to the tabletop. Her hair had fallen forward, hiding her face. “His job is to kill us,” she said slowly, her voice, little more than a whisper, sounding muffled like it originated from behind a heavy curtain to break the room’s thick silence. “If they are attacked and have to retreat to the ship, as they leave their orders are to kill as many of us as they can, in whatever way they can.”
The knife fell to the table with a clatter. Fully crying now, Alice gripped the table edge and with the other hand shielded her eyes. Immediately, Terry flew across the room, to enclose her waist in a tight hug. She too had begun crying. The two girls embraced and held each other. The boys stayed motionless. Rob watched Adam for a cue; whatever his thoughts were, Adam’s face remained impassive.
The tears stopped as quickly as they had arrived. Alice sniffed and wiped her face on the tea towel, then 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 hissed, his voice no more than a strangulated whisper. “We’ve tried to be pleasant to him and…”
Terry adopted her open-mouthed shocked expression. “Rob Seamarsh! That is simply not true! You have never, ever tried to be pleasant to him,” she observed coolly. “Underneath that uniform he’s basically 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. Here was Terry, sticking up for the boy with the gun, whose orders were to murder them all. Like Alice, she plainly believed that Veer would never carry out such an order. He would never harm them. How could he? Before much longer, he would have become another addition to the family, another adopted mongrel stray.
Rob rose from his seat so quickly his chair toppled backward and crashed against the dresser. He looked around frantically and then, spying Veer’s mug, he lifted from the table and flung it violently into the fireplace where it smashed loudly, fragments rebounding and skittering 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.
It felt like time had slowed and then stopped, as if all the air in the room had been sucked out and replaced with nothing, just deep, ringing silence. Alice could feel her hands trembling, as if Rob’s verbal assault had been physical. Numbly, she watched through the window as he picked up an axe and violently attacked a pile of logs, using ten times the force actually needed to split the wood.
Then Adam rose from his chair and crossed the room. He put his arm around Alice’s shoulders and pulled her to him. “And I say ‘Well done Alice!’” he said, and squeezed a hug. His delight seemed genuine. “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, hard tears returned, domestic chores 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 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 close by with the tea towel, waiting for the moment to pass. “Oh why, oh why?” she wailed on, sniffing and bubbling to Terry’s attentive cooing and pacifying subsong. “He, I, oh…”
When the tea towel had once more been put to good use and finally she had become calm, Adam spoke. “There’s more, isn’t there?”
Alice looked up at Adam, his comforting smile inspiring her to continue. “Yes, there is more,” she sniffed. “Veer said the killing is a kind of test. If they pass the test then they’ll get to leave along with the others.”
“And if they fail the test?”
“Then I suppose they don’t go home.”
“Sorry, 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 gripped Adam’s arm. “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 about 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 before raising hers high in the air. “To the mission!”
Alice did not respond. By now, 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. Veer thinks the loyalty test will happen anyway when they leave, whether the mission is a success or not.”
Alice pulled on Veer’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,” she said as they paused for breath on their climb up The Downs, having just completed their second delivery to the caravan at Newmans. The day had become warm and overcast, with rain probably not far away, but both youngsters had thought it well worth the risk of catching a shower to prolong the morning. They could talk more, share more, and simply be in one another’s company for a while longer without feeling 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. 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 tidiness, pink and purple spikes of meadow orchids stood erect like tiny, improbable fairy wands among the fescues and cowslips. As they climbed, Alice sampled the different leaves in an effort to remind herself of some of the botany Don had tried to pass on to her. She felt 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 here they stopped and sat and looked out over what to Alice was her entire world. The westerly airflow, slow and thickly humid, allowed only a very limited prospect.
“It’s sweaty Betty today, that’s for sure,” Veer 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 Veer. “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.”
Veer 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 as theirs, that something troubled her, and that eventually 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 already know that. But then nothing does, does it?”
“What can you tell me about the Sea Princess? You know my dad is aboard. 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 then you already know that. As for the ship itself, I don’t know much because we were only on board for a couple of days. They took us down the Tamis to Mersea, where we stayed in huts for 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 they threw 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 appeared 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, quite stocky, with a big grey beard? He would have been working in the galley, cooking or serving your food, most probably.”
Veer thought. “Yes, I do remember him. Most of the men I saw looked glum, but he didn’t. I think he winked at me once when he served us breakfast.”
Alice laughed. “That’s my dad, all right. Nothing ever gets him down for long. He was the only cook before the invaders took 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. To the south, slotted between the slow, rolling nimbus clouds, a temporary opening had allowed a hazy trickle of sun to searchlight the hillside. Alice watched as the brightness made its stately progress across the fields towards Goodfleet. Briefly, the town 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, Alice could see the Endeavour and the Sea Princess, berthed on opposite sides of the harbour wall, but from here tiny enough to imagine as toys that she might pick up, examine, and then replace.
A faint, high-pitched 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,” Veer replied. Two hours, and I’m on duty.”
As they stood, Alice asked, “Does anyone ever say anything to you about this, about me?”
Veer 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 handpicked 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. So, the answer is no, 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 youngsters began to make their way back down to the road. They held hands when the steepness of the descent allowed and chatted on about anything and everything. At times Alice felt like she might be floating rather than walking; she knew that every detail of today would stay with her forever.