31 December 2019

New Year's Eve. At home and no visitors expected. A brilliant Christmas in the Peak District with la famille. A day of brilliant winter sunshine and not a breath of wind, so what could be better...

Beach 111. Rumbled

I can’t recall the world before the Great Death. Aged eight when it started, Adam would remember that world, but he’s not much of a talker. I’ve heard plenty of stories though. Goodfleet is the only settled town on this coast. Northwick, about twenty miles from here, is double in size and population and is the capital of our region. The villages were abandoned and now lie empty; nature is busy removing them from existence and soon it will be as if they never existed.

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 in and move into Northwick, people say they either starved or went mad. From time to time in the early days, the scavvies would chance upon a family that had somehow clung on against the odds, still scratching an existence of sorts, but now even they are gone, like dust on the wind.

Alice stared at the caravan ceiling. She hadn’t noticed when the drumbeat of the rain had ceased. Driven by a fresh southwesterly wind, for hours it had been breaking in waves like a tide on the roof of their tin palace. Now, the wind had eased and the rain had stopped. Earlier that morning it had soaked them as they’d cycled down to the farm. Fortunately, they had managed to light the wood stove and, in an attempt to dry their jackets, had set up a washing line in front of it. 

Veer had already finished dressing. Alice grabbed her jeans off the fireguard and quickly pulled them on. “There’s someone outside,” she whispered. She twitched the curtain and wiped a small round hole in the condensation. Rob was outside, walking slowly around the caravan. Alice held a finger to her lips and pulled Veer down to sit beside her on the edge of the bed. They sat huddled, not daring to move, hardly daring to breathe, allowing their eyes to do the talking. Underneath the raw fear, Alice felt a strange new excitement welling up from within her. She gripped Veer’s hand and brought it to her mouth, locking her eyes to his, waiting. A tiny sound, a scuffle from outside, broke her attention; her focus switched to the main room. The noise came from the outside door. As they watched, slowly, little by little, the door handle began to turn. Then it stopped and slowly reversed direction. The door stayed shut. Gradually, Alice felt the tension begin to subside. She held Veer’s hand in her lap and whispered, “Let’s not go just yet.”

Veer put his arm around her shoulders and held her while they waited. A cursing shout followed by a loud bang made them both jump. Rob had either punched or kicked the side of the caravan. A muffled wail of pain preceded the sound of the gate clanging shut. Then silence. Alice leaned her forehead on Veer’s arm and rested there for a few moments, feeling his warm, soothing breath on her neck. The world had retreated once more. And in that moment, in that place, a brand new feeling had been born within her. It was something like the tranquillity she felt when deep inside a favourite book, wrapped in its story, absorbed by its images. This, however, was so new that she could not name it, but she sensed its depth. Looking at Veer, submerged in his presence, she hoped with all her heart that he shared this feeling. She wanted them to stay like this forever.

Inevitably, the outside world soon returned. The indignant bellow of a steer somewhere out on the marshes disturbed Alice’s thoughts and the feeling began to fade, like the story in a shut book. Alice chanced another glimpse out of the window, to see Rob cycling furiously up the track, splashing through every puddle as he went. She returned to the bed. “He’s gone,” she said. She reached her arms up, locking her hands behind Veer’s neck, and rested her head on his chest. “Cheeky bugger’s using the best bike in the shed. Terry and I spent two days rebuilding that. He’d better clean it up after he’s used it,” she said happily, and they kissed.

“Good thinking, bringing the bikes inside,” Veer said. “Do you think he knows?”

“Well, he certainly suspects, that’s for sure. He’s not stupid.”

“You thought he’d never come to the Mere, didn’t you?”

Alice looked thoughtful. “I did, but plainly I was wrong.”

Veer felt completely out of his depth. He had landed in the middle of a family quarrel, and it wasn’t even his family. He was the cuckoo, squatting in the centre of a once-cosy nest. “Well, I don’t think he came down here out of brotherly concern, do you? I guess you underestimated his feelings,” he said despondently.

“I guess I did, or maybe I simply didn’t want to think about it. But it’s his own fault. I tried to tell him.”

“That doesn't change anything though, does it? I guess I’m going to have to keep my distance from now on.”

“No!” Alice cried. “You can’t mean that. I need this. I need you.”

Veer cupped her face with his hands. “I …” His reply was interrupted by a gentle knock on the caravan door.

“Who can that be? It can’t possibly be Rob,” Alice whispered, panic clearly written in her features.

Veer swallowed. “Only one way to find out,” he said, his voice little more than a croak.

Alice unlocked the door and swung it open. A huge man, dressed in a black oilskin suit and black wellington boots, stood outside. His shaded face, framed by the stiff hood, did not look hostile. It was a lived-in face, stubbly and tanned. The only other visible part of him was his fingertips, which he used to scrape back his wet hair. “I thought it was about time we met,” he said. The man regarded her with an air of detached amusement. It was as if he knew her, as if he was aware of her entire life story. “I’m Jack Newman.” He held out a hand.  

Alice gripped it and they shook. “I’m Alice. I…” she faltered. She wondered if he expected her to come outside. It sounded daft inviting him into his own caravan.

Then he looked past Alice and addressed Veer. “Why not put the kettle on, son? I’ve got some rolls and butter here,” and he held up an old shopping bag.

Jack Newman was a big man. Though the oilskins would have made anyone look huge, he more or less filled them. Standing in front of the stove, he pulled the jacket over his head and dropped it onto the floor where it stood, stiff and unsupported, like the top half of a charcoal snowman. The bottom half he kept on, slipping the braces off his shoulders as he sat down opposite the children. His bare, muscular arms, resting on the table between them, revealed scars and army tattoos.

The kettle boiled and Veer filled the teapot. He arranged the tea things on a tray and carefully brought them across to the table, in a manner that suggested he might be attempting to cross the room on a tightrope. Newman pulled out a large knife and deftly sawed the rolls in half. Then he unwrapped the block of butter and used the knife to complete the preparation of their snack. Alice poured the tea and passed mugs to the others. She watched as Newman gripped the steaming mug with his massive hands and lowered his face to cool it with his breath before taking a tentative sip. A rash of small scars tumbled down the left half of his face. One side of his nose appeared sawn-off, eroded by some abrasive force to be replaced later by a knob of scar tissue, leaving one nostril enlarged and ragged-edged, like an Easter bonnet left outside in a rainstorm. Gazed at for long enough, that nostril would expand to fill the entire room like a livid, fleshy cave.

Newman acknowledged the children’s stares with a deep, throaty chuckle. “Twenty years ago, nearly. My third tour of Afghanistan. I was captured when our half-track was blown up by an IED. All the others were killed. I wouldn’t talk, so the Taliban dragged me down the road behind their Toyota for a bit. That was only the start of it. Two years later, I escaped. Nice people.”

The three sat in the bay window. Outside, the world continued, oblivious to the drama unfolding within. Jack Newman was huge, and sitting next to the young soldier it brought home to Alice Veer’s slightness and inexperience. Newman cradled his mug with large, work-hardened hands. Chipped and dirty nails told a story of much hard graft and little self-care. Between sips of tea and mouthfuls of bread and butter, Alice studied the Mereman’s face. With noticeable cheekbones and an aquiline nose he looked more continental than English, and if it hadn’t been for the bright blue eyes Alice would have assumed he was Italian. He looked about thirty-five, although to have been a contemporary of her father he had to be ten years older. His broad forehead also bore scars, one wound track curving up from above his left eye and disappearing into a mop of curly black hair. And those blue eyes, alert and watching, darting from left to right, missed nothing.

 “I didn’t think I’d ever meet you,” Alice began. “Witchety Susan said…”

For a split second, the Mereman’s eyes flashed and skewered Alice with a laser-like stare. Then the energy evaporated and he looked down into his drink. “That woman was my saviour,” he said simply. “She stuck by me when I was broken. Part of the cure was staying away from other people, and it worked. She was very protective.” The man leaned over slightly to give Veer the gentlest of nudges, as if he had just shared a secret with a friend.

His slight, crooked smile emboldened Veer. “So, you’re normal now?” he ventured.

The Mereman let out a booming laugh and slapped the table, making all the mugs jump and slide. “Normal? No, not normal, son. After all, who is? You? No, not normal. I still have the nightmares, I still have the panic attacks in the middle of the night, and I’m still a highly suspicious S. O. B. But in the end we change, we all change. And when finally, we can see things without the crap goggles on, then whoopee-do, it’s a new world.”

Veer sat very still, like an animal at the bottom of a trap, expecting at any moment for a hand to reach in and snap its neck. Jack gave the frightened boy another sideways glance. “You don’t have to be scared of me, son. I know you’re with them, but you’re also with her. You're with them but you probably don’t want to be. They told you it wouldn’t be for long. Am I right? Now things have got complicated. You’ve found something here that’s worth fighting for, and you weren’t expecting that, were you?” Briefly, his eyes rested on Alice. “And that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

How could this man know so much, have sensed so much within five minutes of their meeting? It was as if he had been spying on them, and unlikely as that was, it was an idea that remained with Alice as they finished their drink. Then she said, “Do you know what’s been happening in town? A week ago…”

“Yes, I know. I know about the invasion.”

“But how? You never leave here, do you? Or do you?”

This idea had never previously occurred to her, but before she had time to think further, the Mereman tapped the side of his nose and smiled crookedly. “Oh, I have ways of finding things out,” he replied. “Actually, I visit town quite regularly; it’s just that nobody ever sees me. I can tell you how many you’re up against, I can tell you their weak spots – unfortunately not many – and I can tell you that you don’t have long. The engine repairs on the Endeavour are almost complete. They will sail soon to carry out their plan.”

“And then?”

“If they are successful they will leave. I feel certain about that. There are too few of them to leave a garrison and, let’s face it, with the Endeavour under their command they can stroll back into Goodfleet any time they like. The thing is these people are city folk at heart, Alice. Their dream is to rebuild their city. That’s right isn’t it? What’s your name?”

“Veer. Yes, it is. I suppose it is.”

“A city of savages, if these people are anything to go by,” Alice said with bitterness. “No different to the Nazis. I don’t mean you, Veer, or your mum.”

Veer continued to stare silently into his drink. He looked as despondent as he had on that first day when Alice had shown him Marsha’s room. Then he looked up at Alice, his eyes on the brink of tears. “Honestly, it’s not like that, not really. Away from the river, it can be quite peaceful. People get on and make the best of things, in the same way they do here. The trouble is there are always threats from outside, from the south. This was meant to be the end of all that. If we got the electricity, the gunship, and the extra troops, it would turn the tide. We could defeat the south and make peace. It could all be over in a year.”

The Mereman began to laugh, and the laugh continued and grew louder and louder, stretching out for a long minute, long after the irony and naivety of Veer’s words should have spent their force. Abruptly, the laughter died, punctuated with the terse coda, “Now, let’s think, where have I heard that one before?”

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