"I'm telling you, that car moved."
"Trust me, it moved. I saw it."
"That's not even a car."
You might be wondering what I'm doing here, in the rolling green countryside, peering at a speck in the distance that might or might not be a car with a woman old enough to be my mother.
"Then why did it just move?"
I sighed and swung my rucksack off my shoulder. Of course, this was not how I saw myself five years from then. I was supposed to be successful. I was supposed to have the trophy wife, the 2.4 kids, and the holidays in Spain with all the other successful people. Mixing with the other salesmen, exaggerating sales targets and past victories hard fought in the salesroom. Instead I was looking for my binoculars to prove to Wendy that she was wrong.
She couldn't help it, of course. She wanted it to be a car almost as much as I did. Sometimes the mind plays tricks on you. You hear things. You see things. Sometimes you see movement when you know there is no one there. There had been no one there for roughly six months now. Just me, Wendy, Steve, Jane and the Teacher.
Steadying the binoculars by resting my elbows on my knees, I searched for my target.
"Sorry love, it's only a log." Even as I said it, I realised I'd seen that log hundreds of times before, and not really registered it.
The disappointment showed in her face, and I gave her a weak smile.
"Come on," I said. "Let's get back. The others will be wondering where we've got to."
And so I grabbed the trolley on wheels, its old lady tartan looking ragged and worn, and we headed for what we liked to call home.
We walked in silence. The phantom car incident walked between us, blocking out all conversation. I felt for Wendy. She had been getting increasingly jumpy, seeing things on a regular basis. Now, if she spotted something, like the boy who cried wolf, we would react with suspicion rather than eagerness.
Even her appearance had started to suffer. When she had run into the path of my car, even though she was almost hysterical, she still had clean clothes and hair, and impeccable makeup. She was used to the finer things in life, that was sure, and when they inevitably ran out, she coped by sliding into depression. Her once thick blonde curls were now showing the natural grey at the roots, and hung in greasy strands to her shoulders. Her makeup was applied with less care each day, and she had been wearing the same dress now for a week. Pretty soon Steve was going to say something, and Steve didn't hold back on people's feelings when he said something.
Wendy's husband had been one of the last to die. Thankfully, they didn't have any kids, so she had sat in the same house, in the same room as her dead husband until she had heard me driving past. By that time, I was beginning to think I was all alone, and although I'd have preferred to have found Kelly Brook, or even Fearne Cotton, it was amazing just to have someone else to talk to.
Disease, plague, fever; call it what you will, but it swept through the population so fast, no one knew what had hit them until it was too late. The symptoms were sore throat, followed by a mild fever for roughly one day, then the patient would lapse into a coma from which it would take them anywhere between one to three days to die, depending on how strong they were. The most they could do was to crawl home, pull the sheets over their head and hope it was quick. Doctor's surgeries and hospitals were quickly inundated. They were quick to ascertain that there was little they could do, and so began turning people away. When things turned ugly, as they were sure to do, armed guards were stationed at the hospitals, and the televised pictures of gas masked soldiers firing on their fellow countrymen as they rioted and tried to storm the gates of the hospitals will stay with me `til it's my turn to go.
Of course, those pictures were some of the last to make it onto the tiny portable in my student flat. I watched the carnage from the safety of the sofa with my two flatmates Mickey and Gav. Gav was already hacking and coughing. Within the week, I was alone. Well, I had their bodies for company, but the idea didn't appeal to me much. I must admit, at that stage I had resigned myself to wait for my turn. Each morning I anticipated the sore throat, or the temperature that would herald my untimely passing. Each morning I awoke in the rudest of health, feeling strangely cheated.
Almost exactly one week from the first tentative reports of the disease I was living in a ghost city. It had been so quick; the media hadn't had a chance to give it a catchy name. I dubbed it `The Fever`. Not very imaginative I know, but come on; I was a bit shell shocked by it all.
So there I was knocking around our once great capital city with nothing for company apart from a novelty blow up doll Gav had received for his last birthday. In case you're wondering; no I didn't. I tried the phones, but they were all dead. My mobile had no signal; even the Internet had shunned me. The jolly jangling radio stations had all been replaced by white noise and the multitude of television stations had been reduced to grey snow. I had seen films in a similar vein, but it was no fun finding myself in the starring role.
The power failed four days after Mickey died. I remember it went out while I was cooking a juicy steak I had liberated from our local supermarket. It was almost midnight and I had my favourite Prodigy album blaring out of my new stereo, also looted. The silence was a shock, after the steak had stopped spitting and hissing, and it was only then that I realised I had tinnitus. From then on, the city wasn't a nice place to be. Once the fires started I decided it was time to go back to the old homestead.
"God, I'm starving." I said it more to fill the awkward gap left by Wendy's bitter disappointment than as a statement of fact. Truth was, the scent of decay was everywhere. The crops rotting in the fields blew gentle smells of death towards us. The worst of the rotting bodies had been and gone, but I had yet to rediscover my appetite, missing now since the fever began.
"You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain," Wendy snapped at me. I understood her frustration, but she should keep that God stuff to herself. I wanted to scream at her to look around and tell me which part of this landscape from hell had the touch of Jesus about it, but I didn't. I sensed she was near to breaking point, and I couldn't carry her back home.
And so we trudged back along the overgrown road, avoiding the same old wrecked van, with me dragging that bloody trolley on wheels laden with our supplies for the week. Maybe there were better places to hole up and get on with the grim business of survival, but there was a kind of poetic justice for me to bring these people to my old home. Mainly because I knew it would be empty. One of the worst things in the early days of carefree breaking and entering was the confrontation of various dead people in different stages of decomposition. The novelty of rooting through other people's possessions was short lived; tempered by meeting the occupants face to rotting face. I had no wish to start removing them either, and when the various house fires all over the city started to join up, massing into yet another cleansing great fire of London, I felt the urge to see my old village again.
Easier said than done, of course. Most of the roads were blocked by the idiots who were trying to flee the scene in the thick of the virus. And some of them were still in their cars. As it was, I drove in circles for the best part of three days around the west end and city centre in a string of stolen vehicles, blaring the horns while drinking whiskey and shouting and swearing at the top of my voice. I told Wendy I was looking for other survivors. Truth was I nearly shat myself when she ran in front of my car; a rather lovely Porsche that I had almost managed to keep dent free. I was lucky not to mow her down. Still, if she hadn't have turned up, I would almost certainly have gone crazy. As it was, we had nothing in common apart from the fact we were still alive. It took us another day to walk past all the blocked roads, which is where we found the Teacher.
He was sitting on the roadside, looking at his bare feet. I though he was another corpse at first, but his skin was still pink, not the pale grey that seemed to be all the rage all of a sudden. We would have walked straight past him if it hadn't been for Wendy. She spotted his bald head rocking back and forth, and when she laid a hand on his shoulder, he looked up at her with vacant eyes. That was the thing about the Teacher; he wasn't all there anymore. At least 60 years old, his thin grey hair had retreated around the sides of his head, leaving the crown bare. He was haggard and tall, with the start of an unplanned beard well underway. He had been wearing a pair of dirty brown cords and a checked shirt covered with a beige cardigan with leather patches on the elbows. Whether or not he was actually a teacher I don't know, but the image fitted, and so he earned his name. He stood when told, walked when told and helped out when told. In fact he would do almost anything when told, which had led to some tension when Steve got drunk and bored. The one thing he wouldn't do was talk, or indeed think for himself. Nevertheless, he wasn't technically dead, and so he was recruited onto the survivor's team.
We were almost back now; I could see the plume of wood smoke clear as a beacon over the treetops. That was another reason why I wanted to hole up here; although none of my friends could understand it, my parents lived a life of frugality. They had no electricity, no running water, and no gas supply. They had been authorities on the Iron Age, and as such, had modelled their life on their passion. At least they had the patience to wait until I had moved out, but I had still learned how to draw water from the well, make a fire and chop wood. In fact, I had mastered hundreds of techniques of keeping the 21st century at bay, and had secretly enjoyed it. The house itself was all stone blocks and thatched roof with a stream gurgling past the back door. Most modern houses had rendered themselves obsolete with the passing of mankind, so I headed to the one place I knew I could feed myself, clean myself and be warm. This; and the fact that I knew my parents had both travelled to Yorkshire to undertake an archaeological dig of a recently discovered Iron Age settlement, so there would be no unpleasant surprises waiting for me on my arrival. I tried not to think of their fate, but hoped that they had found comfort in each other when their time came.
And so it was, as we passed through the thicket of trees surrounding the boundary of the gardens, we arrived at what had become home for the five of us. The front door was open and Wendy took the trolley inside to store our ill-gotten gains in the larder. I skirted the house and followed the stream towards the rear of the property where I could hear Steve's chastising voice carry on the breeze.
"Oh for God's sake, man. Watch what you're doing."
I made a mental note to have a word with Steve about the whole `God` thing. He was chopping logs by the side of the house, and the Teacher was loading them into a wheelbarrow, only the load was dangerously high and had started to topple. For all his scolding, Steve should have known to keep and eye on the Teacher. He was like the broom in Fantasia; you could set him a task, and he would do it until you told him to stop. If you didn't, he would continue until he dropped. Jane was sitting in a chair to the side, letting the sun warm her pale skin. She looked up as I approached.
"Oh, hi there." It was a warm day, and she had found a bikini top to wear with her oversized shorts. It didn't fit her flat chest, and folds of spare material hung in wrinkled flaps. Steve swung the axe in a high arc and buried its head into the chopping block.
"Alright mate?" he asked, wiping his hands on his discarded T-shirt before putting it back on. "You get everything?"
"Yeah, pretty much. There's not much left at Sainsbury's though."
"Right," he replied. "Guess we might have to move on to Tesco's."
He seemed distracted. I noticed that Jane must have cut his hair again. He liked it as short as possible, and any more than two weeks growth was unacceptable. As he ran his hands over his cropped hair, he stole sideways glances at Jane, who appeared completely oblivious to the attention. We had come across them as we fled London in a black cab. Quite ironic I thought. As we swung over the M25, their campervan veered into our road on a collision course. Despite our situation as quite possibly the last people on earth, Steve had still taken time for a little road rage. That was the thing about Steve; he was a thug, pure and simple. His beady eyes were forever looking shifty, and his jailbird tattoos were faded and poorly drawn. He was in his mid forties. He was a hard worker and didn't mind doing the lion's share of the graft, but there was always the spectre of his temper, which was never very far from the surface.
He had met up with Jane as the others were still dying, and when they found themselves alone, Steve had taken control of the situation, which suited Jane down to the ground. She was one of those women who needed taking care of. She wouldn't last five minutes by herself, and so when Steve had dragged her out of the familiar surroundings of her home, she had complied without protest. When Steve had insisted they journey to London to look for survivors, she had followed. And when Steve had suggested that, as possible the last man and woman alive they become lovers, she had given herself without hesitation. From time to time I caught her looking at me in a way that made me uncomfortable. No-one had mentioned trying to repopulate the world yet, but I'm sure she was thinking of covering all bases, so to speak.
"That should be enough logs for a few days. Get the Teacher to help you put them round the front, and then I'll put the kettle on."
Steve hadn't liked taking orders from me at the start, but it quickly became apparent that I was the only one who could make this new lifestyle work. Since then, we had fallen into our roles with surprising ease. Steve did most of the donkey work, the Teacher was there to be used as and when appropriate, Wendy and I were foragers and Jane… Well, Jane didn't really do much. She stuck close to Steve and did some cooking, but that was really it. Days like this she could be found lounging on an old chair, sunning herself. I tried to involve her, but she had Steve to protect her, and the one thing that I was aware of was that we must all get on.
Later on, we gathered around the rough oak table in the kitchen and sat down to a delicious dinner of spaghetti hoops. The kitchen was a dark but hot room. It doubled as dining room, reception, and living room. In fact, the entire cottage consisted of the kitchen and two bedrooms, which were located through two doors set into the wall opposite the large fireplace where we did the cooking. Rough oak was the theme here; rough oak doors, rough oak floor, and rough oak benches against the rough oak table. The thatch of the roof disappeared to the hole where the smoke could escape, and although not accurately Iron Age, the windows were set with the kind of glass that caused whatever you viewed through it to be twisted and distorted into a grotesque parody of itself. To look through the kitchen window was to gaze upon a nightmare scene of yellowed grass and crooked trees on the twisted hilltop. True, it wasn't the kind of affluence that Wendy was used to, neither was it the institutionalised Formica and lino that Steve had grown accustomed to, but it was home, and the only home that could still function in these dark times. Wendy had made some soda bread and we ate in silence, lit by the open fire we used to do all our cooking on, heating up the water, and relied on for heat in the cold of the night. Steve was the first to break the silence.
"I could murder a steak."
Jane agreed with Steve. Big surprise.
"Well, there are still a few cows alive in the fields around," I said. "Feel free to butcher one and we can dine like kings."
"I might just do that."
I knew he wouldn't. He had been threatening to do that for weeks.
The thing was, all the perishable food had, well, perished by now. To tell the truth, our visits to the supermarkets were getting more horrific each time. Not only were they in pitch blackness, but all the leftover meat and vegetables had long rotted, and the freezers were rancid with mouldy water. We operated by torch, using batteries taken from the ends of the aisles, and hit the canned food section. This was the last resort in convenience foods. The rest of the supermarket was crawling with the scratching and shuffling of various scavengers. We got in and out as quickly as possible.
It was getting harder to get around as well. Cars and vans littered the roads and driveways, but by now the batteries were all dead. Not only that, but it wasn't easy to siphon fuel into the remaining working cars, so we were reduced to getting around on foot. That wasn't too bad as long as our supplies were within walking distance, but I feared we had nearly picked the local Sainsbury's clean, and the nearest Tesco's was at least double the distance. We had our chickens, of course, but I might be tempted to do the butchering myself in a week or so. Not that they laid many eggs anyway.
"No meat, hardly any fucking eggs." Steve was stabbing at the soupy mess smeared around his plate with his fork. I had seen him like this before, and didn't like where it was going. "No ice anymore. Warm cow's milk. I can't cope with this."
His stabbing got more extreme with each syllable. I could sympathise, but getting worked up would solve nothing.
"Calm down, Honey," Jane said, laying a comforting hand on his arm. Quick as a flash he whipped his arm away from her touch, sending a pewter tankard of water to tumble off the table and bounce against the flagstones, spreading its contents across the stone floor.
"Don't tell me to calm down, babe," he hissed. Jane looked genuinely scared, as if she always knew about Steve's inner demons, but never expected them to be directed against her.
"I'm sorry love. I just thought…"
"That's your problem, isn't it?" Steve turned on her, and even in the dim firelight I could see colour flushing his cheeks with rage. "You don't think at all, do you?"
"We're all in the same boat here, mate." It was rubbish, but it was the best I could do in the circumstance. Steve fixed me with his beady eyes.
"This is your fault. You led us here, and you're making us live like fucking savages." Flecks of spit flew from his mouth as he ranted. Wendy spoke up.
"He brought us here because this is the only place we can survive. This place doesn't need electricity or gas. We've got running water, fuel for the fire, shelter; everything we need."
"Everything we need?" Steve laughed. "What about meat? What about cold beer? What about football on the telly and an American Hot pizza? I'm fed up of chopping wood. I've had enough of pulling that fucking bucket of water up from the well. I can't stand the smell of those fucking chickens, and they don't even lay fucking eggs. What's the point of living like this? This isn't living."
"No," I replied. "It isn't living, but it is surviving. And, believe it or not, Steve, we are the lucky ones; because the last time I looked around, do you know what I saw?"
"Fucking no one."
Steve hung his head and I knew he was beaten. He was still as tense as a tiger, waiting to pounce, but the fight had left him impotent. Jane put her hand back on his arm and he let her. The only sound was the teacher scraping the last of the spaghetti sauce with a spoon, and then Wendy stood and collected the plates. Steve was staring at his tankard, lying in the corner. He pointed at it and the teacher followed his finger.
"Pick it up," he said. Dutifully, the teacher lurched over and retrieved it for him. I let this one go for the sake of us all getting on again, but I didn't like the way he used the teacher as a robot. I resolved to keep a close eye on Steve in the future.
Despite this, the next morning, following a breakfast held in almost complete silence, Steve disappeared. I was mending some of the thatch over Wendy's bedroom when I realised I hadn't seen Steve since then. I thought he was weeding the vegetable garden or mucking out the goats, but when I asked Jane where he was, she just sat in her chair, sunning herself and shrugged. Wendy was inside, scrubbing the kitchen clean and the teacher was sweeping the front of the yard when we all heard it. It sounded like the most inhumane screaming I have ever heard, because I suppose that's exactly what it was: inhumane. I dropped from the ladder as Jane sprung to her feet and Wendy came crashing through the door to the kitchen. We all stopped, dumbfounded, and stared into the distance where we thought the awful racket was emanating from. In the distance, past dense woodland, was a field with a few rather forlorn cows feeding from the scraggy grass. When we took up residency here, we helped ourselves to a couple of cows in calf, for milk, and set the others free. However, most of the others seemed happy to remain where they were. There was grass in abundance, and a shallow stream running through the field, so we let them get on with it. Over the last few weeks though, a number had dropped dead and the others all looked emaciated. I would have liked to take care of them all, but we were having a hard enough time looking after ourselves. As I looked from Jane to Wendy I could see in their eyes that we were all thinking the same thing. I turned back towards the direction of the screams and realised that lying underneath the howls was another tone; that of a chainsaw.
Before I knew what I was doing, or why I was doing it, I had broken into a run, past the well, to the bottom of the garden and had vaulted the low stonewall that marked its boundary. In minutes I was charging through the dark woodland, jumping or ducking branches as they swung towards me, my feet crashing through the undergrowth. My breath came in harsh pants, but my feet showed no sign of slowing. The sunlight lay ahead of me, flickering through the branches like a strobe and the birds shouted their warnings from the safety of the treetops. I had loved this wood when I came to visit my parents; had enjoyed taking early morning strolls through its cool landscape, but now it just represented fear. Fear of what I would find on the other side.
The sunlight was getting stronger now, a sure sign that I was nearing the woods edge. As I burst through the undergrowth to emerge blinking in the sudden light of the sun I paused, aware of the sound of birdsong and nothing else. The road led along the far side of the field. On this side and both the others, a tall hedge ran its length with a narrow gate in the far corner to allow ramblers through. I turned to the gate in time to see a ghastly apparition emerge from it. I used to love what my flatmates called `Slasher` films. You know, the ones with the pretty girl being chased by the homicidal maniac in any variety of masks. What greeted me that morning was as close to that as I would ever care to get.
The first thing I could see was blood. In fact the only thing I could see straight away was blood. It was Steve, of that I had no doubt, but he was all over crimson, dripping with the life blood of one of the unfortunate cows. He saw me and stopped, the only thing I could see apart from the shiny red liquid were his eyes, which were wide and white. He was breathing hard and as we looked at each other, he began to smile. I think I found that the most disturbing. It was then that I noticed in one hand he had my father's chainsaw, and in the other he pulled the shopping trolley. The trolley was still recognisable by its tartan pattern, but the lower half had taken the familiar red tint of blood, and the liquid was seeping through the bottom, creating a small puddle around the white plastic wheels. As we faced each other I realised I had no idea what I hoped to achieve by coming here. For all I knew, and by the mad look in Steve's eye, he was going to fire that chainsaw up again and advance at me. I think if he had, my legs would have refused to work. They were already exhausted from the frantic pace I put them through to get here and, just as if they were in Steve's power to bring me here, they would have stopped there and let him bring the rasping chainsaw to me. As it was, Steve simply patted the handle of the trolley and said one word:
Finally I found my tongue.
"What have you done?"
He continued to smile. It was only then that I saw he was dressed only in his boxer shorts. Apart from that he was naked and covered in cow's blood. It smothered his hair, covered his tattoos and gave him the impression of a man stripped of his skin. He gestured towards the field.
"It was your idea. I thought, why not?"
"Why not?" I wondered to myself. Why not take a chainsaw, a blunt chainsaw I might add, to a still live cow. "I never thought you'd do it."
I realised how weak that sounded as it emerged from my mouth. Steve laughed again.
"I couldn't take another can of spaghetti. I can't stand the stuff. Never could, never will. These poor sods here are on their last legs anyway. If you ask me, I did this one a favour."
"No, Steve. It would have been doing them a favour to put them to sleep humanely. What you've done here is nothing short of torture."
I realise that talking to a man who has just carved up a cow with a chainsaw in that manner probably wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done, but if it affected him, he didn't show it.
"Oh, grow a pair, would you? You telling me you don't want steak for dinner?"
And for a second I saw his point. This was a world without rules. The old laws went out the window, along with electricity, the phone system and hot and cold running water. We were back to the old ways of fending for ourselves. If we needed something to survive, we should take it. But the more I looked at Steve, the more sick to the stomach I got.
"You're crazy," I told him. And as he laughed I turned and walked back into the woods. As I disappeared into the undergrowth I could still hear him call me.
"Hey, at least help me carry something here. You can take daisy if you like."
I got back to the cottage first, and so was able to take Wendy out with the pretence of looking for poles for the vegetable garden. I could tell she could guess why I dragged her out, but if she did know, she didn't protest. After a fruitless hour or so looking through the hedgerows for suitable sticks, we returned to the cottage wary of what we would find. As it was, we walked in to a scene of rural bliss. Steve had washed the blood off in the stream and had put some smart clothes on. He had attempted to shave, and Jane was wearing a summer dress that I recognised as belonging to my mother. It suited Mum better.
We ate in silence, the crackle of the fire and the scraping of our cutlery on the earthenware plates my parents had received as a wedding present. The atmosphere was as thick as the gravy Jane had conjured up to go with our steaks. The meat was tough, stringy and incredibly chewy, but I had never tasted meat so good, once I managed to block that image of Steve coated with the lifeblood of the poor unfortunate cow that is. When we were finished, we cleared the table and pulled the benches around the fire as the sun dipped low in the horizon. There was an abundance of firewood in the woods around the house, and although the weather was fine, once the sun hid itself behind the skyline, the temperature dropped significantly. I looked around our gang. It was a wonder we were all still breathing the air, which had never tasted so fresh, but I wondered for our future. We were so disparate it seemed only a matter of time before something gave. As if reading my mind, Steve turned to me and grinned.
"Nice chainsaw your Dad's got." He paused, as if in thought. "Had," he corrected himself.
"Really?" I tried to make it sound as non-committal as I could without incurring the wrath of Steve, which I could sense lurking just below the surface.
"Oh yeah. Don't recognise the make, but it cuts through cow like a hot knife through butter."
Wendy began shifting uncomfortably in her seat, and I could feel my stomach knotting around my dinner, threatening to betray me. The teacher gazed vacantly into the flames.
"Of course, I had to give it some beans to get through its neck. That was the hardest part."
Wendy ran her hand over her face and I guessed her stomach was in sympathy with mine. I didn't want her to vomit in here; that would certainly send me over the edge. In contrast, Jane was sitting comfortable next to Steve, gently resting her head on his shoulder, seemingly without a care in the world. What was left of it.
"The only other problem was when the intestines got caught in the teeth." He laughed. "They started wrapping around the chain like silly string."
"Listen, Steve," I began, thinking to diffuse the situation. He turned to me with a gentle smile on his face. In the firelight, it took on a sinister edge.
"Eh?" It was all my muddled brain could come up with.
"I assume you were going to thank me for providing us all with enough meat to last a couple of weeks. It was your idea, after all."
"My idea? I never meant like this."
"Then how? Tell me, please, because I'm dying to know." He gazed around the room. "Look at this place. You say your parents were into the Iron Age stuff? Do you think they would have slaughtered their livestock any different if they had had a chainsaw?"
"I think they would have tried to minimise the suffering of the animal, yes."
"Oh for fuck's sake, grow a pair would you?" Wendy stirred again, but I couldn't tell if it was as a result of the chainsaw talk, or the use of a profanity. "I gave us a solution to our problem. And what when this supply runs out? Will you man up and do the next one? Or the Teacher?"
At the mention of his new name, the Teacher turned from the fire with an expectant look.
"Stand down, Mungo. He hasn't got the touch. You need a special kind of feeling to slide a knife into something living and feel its body shudder as it gets weaker and weaker…"
"I'm going to bed," Wendy announced loudly. She scraped her chair back abruptly and almost ran out of the room. Steve was shaking with mirth, biting his lip to stop him laughing out loud. I looked at Jane, who shrugged.
"Do you want to go make sure Wendy is OK?" I asked her.
"She'll be fine."
"She needs to take the rod out of her arse," Steve said. I sighed. It was true, she could be uptight and critical of our living arrangements, but when you considered what she had come through, I thought she deserved a little respect, although Steve could never see this viewpoint. I looked at the teacher for support, he had turned his gaze back to the flames as they leapt and cracked amongst the logs, his thoughts were locked deep down inside. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed?
Steve leaned over to me. "Seriously mate, if this is it, and we are the sole members of the human race to have scraped through, then the future of humanity is on our shoulders. Now, me and Jane might be able to knock out a sprog or two, it might be up to you to dust Wendy out and give her a go."
I turned to look at him, trying not to feel intimidated by him. Jane had said nothing, but was watching me in that way again, as a starving dog will look at a plate of meat. I don't know what made me more uncomfortable.
"You listen to me, Steve. That woman has endured the most horrific shit imaginable. Now I know we all have to a degree, but that doesn't mean you can't treat her with respect. I want you to apologise to her first thing tomorrow, do you understand?"
Steve fixed me with a dead stare. The only life was the fire flickering in his eyes. It might sound suicidal to talk to a borderline psycho like Steve like that, but I had learned that, due to his obvious past incarcerations, he had been trained to respond to authority. The hard part was facing him down in the first place. Suddenly his face cracked into a grin.
"Yes sir, first thing in the morning sir."
Jane must have sensed that Steve had used up most of his luck, as she started stretching and yawning in an exaggerated manner.
"Come on, baby. Come to bed." She stood up and ran her hand over the stubble on his head. He closed his eyes as she stroked him.
"Goodnight faggots," he said as he jumped to his feet and lead Jane into their room, slamming the door behind them.
I sighed and joined the teacher looking deep into the fire, trying not to notice my shaking hands. There were only two bedrooms to the house, both leading from the kitchen. Wendy had been given one and Steve and Jane had been given the other. The teacher and I slept in the kitchen, on a couple of mattresses on the floor. I looked back over at the teacher, and he leaned into the heat of the fire, seemingly unaware of the exchange that had just taken place. He was sitting too close and was starting to glow. I laid a hand on his arm, which was so hot it burned. He didn't seem to notice.
"Time for bed, mate," I said. He blinked slowly as he processed this information, and then rose to his feet, shuffled over to the corner and collapsed onto his mattress, wrapping himself in his blankets. Out of habit, I checked my watch. It was only 9:30, but since the collapse of civilisation as we knew it, we had fallen into a routine of early to bed, early to rise. It certainly seemed to help us stay healthy, but as for the other two, we didn't seem to have much luck with them.
I was just planning what to do in the morning when the sound of giggling came from behind Steve and Jane's door. I tried to ignore it, but the giggling turned to the low sound of voices, which turned to muffled moaning and gasping. This was joined by the sound of rhythmically creaking wooden floorboards and Steve's animal panting. I had been afraid of this. Their lovemaking, if you could call it that, had begun to take on a more enthusiastic tone. They had begun by being discreet, even sneaking out of the house to go to the stable block, but now it seemed all inhibitions were cast aside and if they were to enjoy each other, then we all had to listen. The one mercy was the duration. Regular as clockwork, I knew once Steve's moans reached a certain crescendo I had to count to 10, wince as he bellowed his climactic profanities, and it would be all over.
I used a long stick to play around in the embers. Silence had returned to the stones and the ashen logs crumbled and sent a cascade of sparks racing up the chimney. I tried not to think too hard about the future any more; just to get through each day seemed fraught enough, but it was times like these I felt a responsibility for these people, no matter how stupid and angry they were. I glanced over at the teacher who, having been told to go to sleep was now gently snoring. I gazed at him for ages trying to wonder what he had seen that had made him shut down. I was pondering his behaviour when it occurred to me; I was actually jealous of him.
As usual, I was the first awake, my back complaining about the thin mattress on the stone floor. I stretched out the aches and pains and raked the fireplace ready for today's blaze. I would have woken the teacher to go and fetch the water, but he looked so peaceful I decided to get it myself. Having set the fire going, I pulled on my boots and took the first cautious steps outside.
The sun was just cresting the trees on the horizon, and the light radiated through the clouds, making them glow a brilliant red. I remembered what this meant for shepherds, and grabbed the pan from the hook by the door. My legs felt like stone after my trip to the supermarket the previous day, although we had all never been so healthy. I kicked through the long grass on the way to the well, my footsteps shaking the dew from the blades. Once I had raised the bucket and decanted the clear water into the pan, I returned to the kitchen and filled the kettle, setting it over the fire where the crackle and spit of the wet underside woke the teacher.
"Morning mate," I said, not expecting a response. "Come and sit at the table, and I'll make the tea."
Dutifully doing as he was bid, next the door to Wendy's room opened and she shuffled out. Even by her standards over the last few weeks she looked bad. Her eyes were red rimmed as if she hadn't slept at all, her hair was flatter and greasier than ever and all life appeared to have been sucked out of her. She collapsed in a chair next to the teacher, but didn't acknowledge his existence at all.
"Morning Wendy," I said. "You OK?"
Her head was down, and her hair covered her face. She moved her head to the side as I spoke, but made no attempt to reply.
"How'd you sleep?" I persisted. I assumed she was still mad at Steve and felt a little angry myself that she was taking it out on me. I turned to face her just in time to see her sliding off her chair onto the flagstones. Quick as a flash I was by her side, rolling her onto her back and checking for a pulse. As with the teacher her flesh was burning, but with a sickening realisation I knew it wasn't because she had been sitting near the fire.
"Steve," I shouted. "Get in here now." As I looked up, I saw the teacher calmly sitting at the table waiting for his tea. Steve's door flew open and he tore out, wearing only his boxer shorts. Jane followed pulling one of Steve's T-shirts over her head, but not fast enough to stop me seeing the dark patch between her legs. Steve stooped next to me, looking at Wendy's pale face.
"What's up with her, then?" he asked.
"I don't know. She just passed out. Help me get her into her room."
Steve stood up and punched the teacher on the arm. It wasn't a hard punch, but he still rocked in his chair.
"Oi, Mungo. Get her legs."
The teacher stood and grabbed Wendy's legs in his calloused hands while Steve took her arms and I supported her head. We shuffled into her bedroom and eased her onto her bed. I could feel the bedclothes were wet with perspiration and Wendy's breathing was raspy and shallow. Jane poked her head around the doorframe, her eyes wide with shock.
"Get a cup of water and the cleanest rag you can find," I told her, "Now," when she continued to stare.
I realised that I hadn't been inside this room since I used to stay here in holidays. I glanced around and noticed that every surface had a framed picture of Wendy and her husband. Sometimes her husband alone, smiling into the glass eye of the camera; sometimes the two of them, holding hands, dancing, or sitting at a dining table, raising their glasses to the scene unfolding in the bedroom.
Jane had returned with the water and I dabbed Wendy's brow with the damp rag. She moaned and cracked her eyes, finding me with her glassy stare. She tried to speak with her brittle voice.
"Sssshhh," I soothed.
We remained like that for what seemed like hours. The teacher stood at the foot of the bed, where he had remained since we lay Wendy there, staring at something only he could see. Steve paced, working himself up into a frenzy, only talking to snap at Jane when she tried to slip her arm around his waist. She backed away into a corner, looking like a trusting puppy that had just been beaten. I stayed at Wendy's bed, mopping her forehead, trying to get her to sip water and just soothing her when she occasionally stirred and tried to rise. While she was sleeping I felt a hand on my shoulder. I knew without looking it was Steve's.
"We need to talk, mate."
I nodded, without taking my eyes off Wendy. The colour had drained from her face, leaving a ghostly grey pallor. Her eyes seemed to have sunken slightly and were rimmed with black. Her breath came in short rasps and whenever I touched her brow, she was burning up.
"OK Steve," I said, and we shuffled quietly into the kitchen, the teacher coming when I touched his arm and pointed the way.
Steve had settled into a chair and Jane was fussing around the kettle, making tea. I didn't know whether I hated her for that or loved her.
"We gotta go," Steve said. He sat back in the chair as if he had debated long and hard and finally delivered the killing blow.
"Go? Where?" It was all I could think of.
"You know what's going on in there." He jabbed his thumb in the direction of Wendy's door. "We've all seen it before. We got to get out. All of us."
It was Jane's turn to talk. "She's dying, already dead to us. We've got to get out before we're next."
I looked at her. She seemed so much smaller all of a sudden. I noticed she was trembling, but I felt no pity at that moment. Behind her the kettle began to shriek.
"Where do you think we can go, then?" I said. "Hop in a car and drive to paradise? Leave Wendy to her fate?" My voice had been rising and must have been audible in Wendy's room, but I knew she couldn't hear us anymore.
"Look around you, mate. Don't you see?" Steve was eerily calm, but I sensed the rage lying just below the surface. "Wendy's got the fever. It must have mutated or something. We escaped it first time round, but now it's back and it wants us all."
"And you think you can outrun a virus? You're grasping at straws. We don't know that's the fever, and even if it is, we were all in there long enough to make running away like shutting the barn door after the horses have bolted."
I tried to keep calm, but Steve had just voiced my biggest concern. It was as if he had looked into my head and read my mind. Wendy was dying; that was a cold hard fact. At best she had 3 or 4 days, but we had all been exposed to her. It was already too late to run.
"What can we do, then?" Jane was near hysterical. The kettle had built its scream into a banshee wail, but she didn't appear to notice it. I walked past her and hooked it off the fire. The sudden silence was broken by the sound of Wendy's choking cough from the other room.
"All we can do is wait," I said. "Wait and tend to Wendy. She needs our help, and we are not going to desert her. Am I clear?"
I was looking directly at Steve when I said that, and didn't miss the look in his eye. Although he replied, "Yes sir", it was a look of hatred.
That was all 3 days ago. Wendy didn't last the night. As Steve had pointed out, the virus had mutated, only it had returned more powerful. We didn't stand a chance. Jane was next; her death screams still ring in my ears. While she was fading away in bed, the teacher dropped like a stone. He had obviously been suffering for a while, but didn't have the sense to stop working, or to lie down. Soon after Steve and I buried Jane and the Teacher next to Wendy, Steve began coughing blood. He might have lasted longer if he hadn't given in to his rage. He damn near pulled the house down; smashing windows and doors off their hinges, breaking every plate and glass he could find and finally putting a crack down the centre of the oak dining table. That last one impressed me, despite my terror.
Through it all, I was guilty to discover that I remained in the rudest of health. Even as Steve turned his rage against me and swung his impotent fists against me, I was easily able to swat him away until he sank to his knees and I helped him to his final resting place.
Only now, as I sit in perfect isolation at the cracked table, did I wake to the discomfort of a sore throat. A few months ago I would have said it was nothing, shrugged it off and got on with my day. But today, I know it for what it is.
So here is my tale. As I come to the end of it, I feel glad I have passed on what happened here, with possibly the last 5 members of the human race. But if that is the case, then who will read it?