Alice cover 0012. The Meeting

The disease had burnt itself out after a year, although at the time nobody actually knew this. The Goodfleet lifeboat crew saved my life. They 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?

Where was Father? Was he, like Harry and Jim, a captive on board the Sea Princess, or was it worse than that? The casual brutality of the invaders could not be denied. Alice opened her eyes. From the end of the quay, she could still see the dead man. He had been dragged out of the way to allow the sailors room to work. Someone had covered his head with a coat. The ship’s crane had lowered a lorry on to the dock. More men with guns had disembarked and immediately began filling the first vehicle as a second, swaying on the jib of the deck crane, descended towards the dock.

In the town, most shops had already closed, while others 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. Most were Adam’s age or even younger. Some 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 after Vic found her one evening huddled in a sleeping bag in the front garden of Number 38, cold, shivering and alone. She had run away from the traveller camp, she said. And, Dad being Dad, he’d offered her a bed for the night. She never left. Terry’s slight stature made even Alice seem tall, which she wasn’t especially. 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. Given to tantrums and crying fits with no apparent cause, she found trusting anybody a trial and flatly refused ever to be left in the house alone with Adam or Rob, and Rob had petitioned Dad more than once to try to return her to the traveller camp. But whenever Terry caught wind of it (which she always did, being no fool), she made such a fuss that Dad lacked the heart to take it further. However, over time things changed. A different, less angry, less fearful girl emerged and, in the end, even Rob changed his mind. 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 the room. 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. With her red hair loose and covering her shoulders, she resembled a huge doll whose face and limbs had begun to melt. A yellow safety helmet with a lamp 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 spotted 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 almost certainly be bitten for her trouble. She turned to Rob. “You know what’s happening? We all have to be in the Town Hall by two o’ clock. No exceptions. I saw it all down at the dock when the ship came in. No sign of Dad. They are serious; we’ve got to get her up.” She motioned towards Marsha as if they were discussing 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 below ground with no hope of rescue. Apart from the mechanical ticking of the bedside clock, the room had fallen 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 thronged street below. Never had she seen anything like it. A steady stream of townsfolk of all ages, from babies to the very old, walked, with differing speeds but a single direction, along Walsham Road. The whole town looked to be on the move, advancing toward the Town Hall. Even the ancients were being carried or wheeled along in pushchairs, while the sick hobbled or moved with sticks while children danced between them in ignorance of the purpose of this extraordinary gathering. 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 in an age.

How strange families are, she concluded, and turned back to be struck, and not for the first time, by the oddity of her own. What a job they had taken on here. If only Dad had been home, he’d have shifted her. She checked her watch again. With 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 churned with bodies. 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, along 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’d had to leave her. “Stay away from the windows,” Rob advised 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 every person using duplicate lists. When everyone had been counted one of the invaders stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled, and from a side room, the tall man Alice recognised as the Commander entered and ascended the stage. A deafening pistol shot fired without warning immediately silenced the hall. “Sit, all of you!” he barked. Everyone, old and young, sunk to 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 six 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 briskly away. Several people began sobbing; somewhere in the room, a baby started wailing. 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. Immediately, the murmuring and weeping diminished into silence. Alice glanced around. Two uniformed men holding machine pistols across their chests guarded every doorway. These large men with their cruel, unsmiling faces, undoubtedly well trained and unquestionably ruthless, were an entirely different species to the boys that Alice and Terry had just seen riding in the back of a lorry.

“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 already have guessed what that is. You will cooperate fully, if you wish to live, if you wish your families to live. Firstly, we will be taking your ship, the Endeavour. We have brought with us the requisite engine parts, taken from her sister ship. You will help us to repair the engine and prepare her for sea. It may come as a surprise, but we have been observing you for some time. Where we are from, your community is quite famous. Stand, if you are Royal Navy.”

Twenty men, who had been sitting with their families in different parts of the room, slowly rose to their feet. They stood erect and proud: experienced, weather-beaten men in their forties and fifties, 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. Another sweep over their heads with the brandished pistol quickly suppressed a fresh outbreak of crying.

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.

“Where I am from, your little towns are famous. You are the plucky North Sea folk who defeated the Great Death.” The statement ended with a choking grunt that might have been amusement; to Alice he sounded out of practice. He hawked and spat onto the ballroom floor before continuing. “When we are victorious, your men may return home. On the other hand, if they refuse to join us and instead choose to fight 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 had ended. A man at the back of the room raised his arm. Alice recognised him as Adam’s boss at the refrigerator factory, a great hairy bear of a man, not especially tall but broad and solid like a post box. His improbably muscular forearms, thatched with a forest of ginger hair, displayed tattoos that spoke of an army past. Afraid of no one, he had a formidable reputation as a fighter, a man who had never been known to lose a scrap. And, as Alice well knew from her visits to Adam at the fridge works, he always reeked of ancient sweat. Known universally as the Gaffer, it appeared nobody knew his real name, not even his wife, for she too called him that. Alice could quite believe that even a bullet would do little 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 should the rest of us do, meanwhile?” the Gaffer asked with steely-cored civility, his arms folded across his chest like two veiny hams.

“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 a half mile from shore will be deemed a target. There will be an eight pm curfew. Anyone, and I mean anyone, seen out after curfew can expect to be fired on.”

“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 boundary 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 survived the Great Death when very few others did. Perhaps even now, at this very moment, the Major is organising his men to counter attack. Perhaps he will come here and arrest us all.” The Commander smiled coldly. His eyes flicked over to the door, where Alice could see his speech making had generated 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.

A collective gasp of horror and disbelief ran through the hall. The Major, still dressed in pyjamas, head drooped and silent, hung between the two servicemen. His dressing gown, blood-spattered and torn, hung open. His feet were bare and clumps of grey hair, matted and uncombed, hung across his bruised face. “My God,” Adam uttered to no one in particular.

Alice felt her breath leaving her and she clung to Adam’s arm, barely able to continue watching this shocking, obscene spectacle. Terry uttered a cry of deep despair and turned away to muffle her grief in Alice’s jacket.

“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 shied away and covered their ears as the shot exploded across the room. As the round smacked into the shield a chunk 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 finally it came to rest. The shattered symbol of their hometown dangled drunkenly and now 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 one other but said nothing. The guards stood aside and people began filing out of the hall in stunned silence.

****

The Seamarshes walked home together, accompanied by Don, a family friend and Alice and Rob’s teacher, who Alice had invited round for tea. 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. His usual attire comprised dark trousers held up with a thick leather belt, an open-necked shirt of some sort (or a t-shirt if sweltering), 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 walked past a daydreamer, a man so deep in thought as to be unaware even of their existence. His acquaintances knew better; despite this impression of other-worldliness, Don missed very little.

 Terry had released Alice and now clung to Rob, who, despite his sullen and resentful mood, 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 comprised everyday townsfolk who he and his core of regular soldiers trained in the military arts as best they could with their limited resources. This man, who had acted so decisively and with such deadly severity at the time of the Great Death, was Goodfleet’s saviour. His prompt, if ruthless actions, plus a good deal of luck, had kept the disease from overwhelming the town. 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? However, more urgently, the most important question of all: where was Dad?