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They slept for hours, the emotional toll of the events as draining as the physical. By the time everyone was up and about again, Anna’s phone—no messages—told her it was five o’clock, the sun was still above the horizon but a dirty haze drifting upwards from the town threatened to block its light altogether. It would be dark very soon.
‘We need to make a fire,’ said Paul. ‘We will have to boil the water to kill off impurities, but then we can use it to cook our food, make a cup of tea, wash, whatever, and the smoke from our fire won’t be detected because of all the heavy smoke from the bombing.’
Everyone looked at him. He was right. But…
‘We don’t know where the water is,’ Anna admitted, feeling guilty, even foolish. ‘That’s why we brought some bottled water with us.’ A few people looked at her with concern. Then they turned back to Paul.
‘Another thing,’ she admitted now. ‘It never occurred to me before, but should we be concerned that someone might see smoke from our fire?’ Now she was worrying about what else she might not have thought of. An accumulating weight seemed ot be on her shoulders. What if this whole idea of escaping had only brought them closer to danger?
‘Perhaps we can manage by only lighting a fire at night?’ Barbara suggested. ‘Or will that be even more visible?’
Mark stood up. ‘We’ll worry about that later. The two most immediate concerns are a shelter for everyone for tonight, and we need to find water.’
Malcolm put a hand up, like he was in school. ‘I’ll look for water.’
‘Okay,’ said Mark. ‘Be careful, obviously, and try to keep us in sight, we don’t want you to get lost.’
‘I get you, man.’ Malcolm fist-bumped Mark then set off immediately, walking away quickly across the grass.
The other teens, Stephen and Elizabeth went off together in the opposite direction, also on the search for water.
‘Surely this cave will be a good enough shelter?’ Sandy said.
‘Maybe. But it’s a bit small. We didn’t expect to have this many people,’ Mark said.
Dan added, ‘The cave will be fine if it rains or if the night is very cold. But otherwise, I don’t see why we can’t sleep in the open. There’ll be more room, and if we lie close together, around the fire, we should be warm enough.’
‘Like in the cowboy films,’ Leonard added helpfully, and Anna had to smile as she formed a mental picture of Leonard in his slippers, sipping a mug of cocoa sitting in an armchair, watching the television. Not something any of them would be doing for a long while. If ever again.
It was decided Dan, Paul and Dave should go off in search of firewood, taking Liam and Megan with them, and Leonard, Marion, Alice and Jack trotted along behind them holding hands, already firm friends. Mark and Anna went off to explore generally, taking the dog. Sandy, Sophie and Barbara stayed behind and started rummaging amongst the rucksacks and bags, sorting the bedding and unpacking the food, laying out all the stuff that Anna, Dan and Mark had brought with them the night before last as well as the few bits and pieces people had managed to grab as they ran out of their homes when the bombing started, whilst Daisy sat in the middle of the bedding, playing boo.
‘Look at us now,’ Sandy remarked. ‘If you’d told me a week ago…’ The others just shook their heads, it was all too much to take in. Mark was running back.
‘I’ve just remembered the chickens,’ he said, ‘I left them cooped up in that crate. I’m hoping that if I let them out, they will stay with us and not take themselves off. Have you found their food yet?’
He wrestled with the fastenings of the crate, and soon the rather irritable chickens were stretching their necks, flapping their cramped wings and pecking reproachfully at the ground. Barbara found the small sack of chicken feed and passed it to Mark. He sprinkled a handful of the food on the ground at his feet and the chickens rushed over, jostling with one another crossly to get to the food.
Leonard, Marion and the little ones were coming back with a few sorry sticks that would get a fire started. Whilst Leonard got to grips with laying the fire in his best boy-scout manner, Marion cooed excitedly over the chickens.
‘It’s been fifty years since I looked after chickens,’ she said, and she took over the watching of them from Mark, who ran off back to Anna.
She was standing at some distance on a raised platform of rock, looking about her, watching everyone. At some distance she could see the men, with Liam and Megan capering about, the sound of their laughter reached Anna and Mark, and near to the entrance to the cave, the women and Leonard were talking, whilst Jack was running about making traffic noises, Daisy was chattering happily in baby-talk, and even Alice, who had as yet not spoken a word, was watching the chickens, holding Marion’s hand, her teddy clutched close to her chest.
Anna scrubbed the tears away from her eyes, shaking her head in wonder.
‘They’re so resilient, the children. Look at them,’ she said to Mark. They watched them for another minute or so before a shout from their right made them look round. Malcolm was waving an arm.
‘Water!’ he shouted.
Mark leapt down and began to run towards him, Anna hard on his heels. The others had scooped up the children and were hurrying over. Malcolm was pointing, proud and excited at what he had found. Mark clapped him on the shoulder.
A thin trickle of water bubbled out of a crack in the rock-face. On the ground, there was a pool the size of a small garden pond, with a sand and shale bed easily visible through crystal clear water.
Mark tasted it, cupping water in his hand and bending his head as he raised the hand up to his mouth.
‘Bloody hell, that’s cold!’ he laughed and to her surprise he splashed the remaining water drops in Anna’s face. She screamed in shock and made a half-hearted attempt to return his splashing as everyone laughed.
Dan tasted the water too. The doctor gave his approval. ‘It tastes so clean, I’m not sure we need to worry about boiling it. I’m no expert, but it seems okay. In fact, I don’t think anything has ever tasted quite this good.’
They all crowded round to taste it.
‘I think we should camp here,’ Mark said, indicating a small clump of trees just a few metres away. ‘They may not be very densely planted, but at least the trees will offer us a bit of shelter.’
‘It’s still only the start of spring.’ Marion pointed out. ‘In a few weeks’ time, the trees will have their leaves, so they’ll offer us more protection. Especially from the air.’
It was a good point, although a sobering one. They began to walk back to collect their things a few at a time and transfer them to the new site. Leonard had to put out his old fire and start a new one. The chickens had to be wrestled, grumbling and pecking, across to the new spot, too. The first task, once everything had been brought to the new campsite, was to fill the kettles and make some tea.
If Mark and Anna were gratified by the speed with which everyone fell to and got on with things, they knew it was because everyone wanted to be kept busy. No one wanted to have too long to think about what had just happened. They all needed something to give them back their security and sense of the normal. And they all really needed that cup of tea.
But there were only four mugs. They all politely held back from taking the first cups of tea when it was finally ready twenty minutes later. But soon someone took one, and then the others followed with comments like, ‘Well if no one else wants it, I might as well,’ or ‘The sooner I start, the sooner this cup can be used by someone else’. A second, third, and a fourth round of teas were made, and Anna thought she could see this becoming a kind of ceremony or tea ritual as in some other countries. The children were persuaded to drink some warm water or hot chocolate. Some food was prepared, the first anyone had eaten since the previous evening. Everything took so long to do, and there was only one pot large enough to make food for everyone. They settled for a stew and by the time it was eaten it was nine o’clock, dark, and the evening was rapidly growing cool. They were all glad to sit by the fire.
Miraculously, Anna’s cats returned, skirting a wide arc around the dog. They huddled next to Anna on a spare corner of a quilt, and purred as she gave them some of her stew. She felt a huge sense of relief at seeing them again, and made sure to stroke them and fuss them, using the opportunity to check them for any injuries. But apart from the singes she had originally noticed, they seemed fine.
Even the dog was happy to drink some warm water and eat a little of Mark’s stew and some bread. The dog, Zack, was very nervous, and shied away from sudden movements and noises, huddling close to Mark. Mark said that Zack had already been a nervous dog before the bombs fell. It was the reason why Mark had taken pity on him and chosen him at the rescue centre.
But that the dog had suffered during the night’s bombings and fires and needed attention was clear. He had lost half his tail, and there was a long, thin gash across his back with some singeing to the fur. Mark carefully cleaned the wounds, and although the dog whined, it submitted to the ordeal. There was nothing else to do other than let the animal rest and feel safe.
The chickens pecked happily amongst the trees, finding insects and unknown things to satisfy them, and showed no indication of wanting to wander off. The next day, Mark planned to make them a proper shelter with a run, but for the first night, they would have to go back into their crate. At least they would be safe in there.
With the meal over, and the hard day’s trek taking its toll, they began to feel drowsy. They arranged the bedding in a circle around the fire. The little children were tucked up under the covers, and soon drifted off to sleep whilst the adults sat and talked and made plans, or just stared into the fire.
Some of the men decided to make a trip back to the town. They needed to know what the situation was—were there any survivors? Was there even the remotest possibility that some semblance of normal life could still carry on? If there was life of any sort going on in town, those who were going—Mark, Paul, Dan and Dave—would assess the situation, and decide if it seemed likely they could all return to the town or whether it was best to simply bring back whatever they could to the refuge.
If their only choice was to scavenge and leave, they were to bring back as much food as possible, and more bedding. And anything else they could manage that seemed like a good idea. Marion asked for paper and pens.
‘Why?’ Mark asked.
‘I want to write a journal. I think it’s important to remember our experiences, to write down what we go through. Whether we live here for the rest of our lives, or whether we go back next week, these are unique experiences. I think we should keep some kind of record of them. But if you can’t manage, then don’t worry about it, food and bedding is obviously far more important.’
‘We’ll get them for you, Marion.’ The four men said goodbye to the group. Paul kissed his wife goodbye, Dan kissed his, and Dave kissed his partner, Sandy, and Anna was aware of an acute sense of disappointment when Mark just gave her an awkward smile and turned to walk back to the tunnels.
At the entrance to the cave, they turned and waved, Mark and Dan put on the pot-holing helmets, clicking on the lamps, then all four of them ducked into the cave and the denser shadows swallowed them up. The waiting had begun.
The little children were asleep, but everyone else sat awake. The drowsiness from relaxing and eating after their traumatic day had given way to an anxious need to await the four men’s return with. Talking could only keep them occupied for so long and, in the silence of their own thoughts, memories of what had happened came crowding back. They mourned for friends and loved ones, for neighbours lost in the night. Some of them wept, some were angry and frustrated. One by one they ran out of words, falling silent around the fire, the half-light shadowing their faces and bringing a privacy that cloaked their raw emotions, though Zack’s anxious whining made everyone edgy. The long night stretched ahead of them.
Leonard got to his feet. He carefully took a flaming stick from the fire, and holding it aloft like a torch announced,
‘We need a loo!’
There was no way anyone could argue with that. All afternoon and early evening, people had been getting up off their bit of blanket and announcing they were ‘just going to stretch their legs’ before disappearing for a minute or two behind the furthest tree for a few minutes whilst everyone else politely looked away.
Leonard took up the garden trowel Anna had bought the previous day in the supermarket, and he set off. Looking back over his shoulder he called,
‘I take it we all prefer that last tree?’
A chorus of assents and laughter sent him smiling on his way. Anna thought what a sweetie he was, and that it was a good thing someone had been a boy scout. Presently they could hear the sound of digging and eventually he returned, tired but triumphant.
‘I’ve dug a big pit,’ he announced. ‘It’s a squat and aim job, I’m afraid, but the best I could do under the circumstances. The pile of dirt next to the hole is the flush, just chuck some down there after you’ve ‘been’. That way we’ll have less smell and fewer flies. By the way, the hole is quite deep, so we’ll need to be careful the children don’t fall in!’ He’d left the flaming stick pushed into the ground to make it easier to find the ‘bathroom’, and now Marion and Sophie took the clothesline and a sheet across there. They tied a length of the clothesline to the trunks of two well-placed trees, and hung the sheet on it as a curtain, thus providing a degree of privacy for the users of the latrine.
The excitement they all felt over this small advance was out of all proportion, but it gave them the illusion of coping, of still being in control of their own fates and apart from that it was the closest thing they had to a luxury bathroom.
To Anna it seemed that they were coping magnificently, and she felt it boded well for the future, even if they stayed in the refuge indefinitely, which was by no means certain. It was likely, she had no doubt, that they would soon be able to return to their towns and rebuild their homes and their lives.
‘Now,’ said Leonard. ‘What shall we do tomorrow?’
‘Let the chickens out,’ said Elizabeth.
‘Feed the cats and dog,’ said Malcolm. He had gone to sit with the dog to try to calm him. Evidently it had worked, for Zack was now sound asleep, dribbling on Malcolm’s knee. Malcolm stroked the dog’s singed fur with gentle fingers.
‘Never had a dog,’ the boy said gruffly.
Sandy patted his shoulder. ‘Me either,’ she said, and her voice cracked.
With emotions still very close to the surface, it took only the slightest thing to bring them out. Everyone was feeling raw, frightened and bereft. Sandy glanced at the others, tears glinting in the light of the fire. ‘Do you think my Dave will be all right? I didn’t want him to go. I’m scared I won’t see him again. What if he doesn’t come back?’ She began to sob. Marion drew her into a hug. Everyone offered reassurances, the other women saying they felt the same. Anna stayed quiet, not feeling able to claim her man.
Stephen said suddenly, his voice sharp with emotion, ‘I should have gone! I’m a man, I should be doing my bit.’
‘It’s not about being a man, Stephen, and besides, we couldn’t let too many people go,’ Anna said. ‘You can go some other time. And you have been doing your bit, Stephen, you needn’t feel bad.’
‘Not as much as them. All I’ve done is a bit of fetching and carrying.’
‘That’s all there has been for any of us to do so far, love,’ said his mother. ‘But I’m sure there’ll be a lot more demanding stuff over the next few days.’
‘Like what?’ he asked, but partially mollified.
‘We need some major digging done,’ Anna said. ‘We’ll need to start planting seeds to grow crops in case we’re still here in a few months’ time. And to grow crops, first we need to dig a field. You’ll be needed for that, I won’t be able to manage it all on my own.’
‘What else is there?’ Malcolm asked.
At the same time, Marion said, ‘Surely we won’t still be here in a few weeks, let alone months!’
Anna didn’t want to respond to that. How could any of them know? Until the others came back and told them what, if anything, was happening in the town, they had no way of knowing what the future held.
‘A run for the chickens,’ Elizabeth said, ‘just like in the film!’
That was the second time Elizabeth had reminded everyone about the chickens, and Anna was pleased that she was interested in them. Anna added, ‘And we might need a fence to go round us, around the camp. Then there’ll be firewood to get—that will be a constant requirement.’
‘I think we need to explore the plain thoroughly and even make a map,’ Barbara said. ‘In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to map the caves and tunnels too.’
‘I’m worried Jack and Daisy will go in there and get lost, so I think that’s a great idea,’ Sandy answered. There were understanding nods from the others. It was a reasonable fear.
‘Maybe we can put up a fence, like a stairgate, to stop them getting in there,’ Stephen said. ‘We might be able to fit it across the entrance to the cave.’
Everyone agreed that was a sensible idea. Stephen’s face was flushed with pleasure by the light of the fire.
Sophie had said very little, and now Anna turned to her, concerned. ‘Are you all right?’
Sophie managed a smile, she looked shattered.
‘I’m okay. Just knackered. I need to rest, that’s all. It’s all been a bit much.’ She bit her lip, as if she wanted to say more but was unsure whether she should. No one spoke and then she burst out, ‘I don’t see the point of being here! We’ve got no clothes, hardly any food, hardly any bedding, no roof over our heads, nothing. How can we survive like this? How long will it be before we starve? Or freeze to death if there is a really cold night? We’re kidding ourselves we can live like this. We’re no better off than if we’d stayed put.’
Her outburst was followed by a shocked silence.
‘If we’d stayed put, we’d be dead,’ Marion reminded her, a little sharply. ‘Or have you forgotten the bomb that fell on the house?’
‘Maybe we’d be better off dead!’ snapped Sophie, and struggling to get to her feet, she wandered away and stood on the edge of the firelight, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed. Anna didn’t know whether to go to her, or leave her be, and as she agonised over what to do, she came to feel she’d left it too long and so she stayed where she was.
Eventually Sophie came back but she did not sit down with the group, she lay down on the ground next to her sleeping children, her back to the rest of the group. No one spoke for an hour.
With a groan, Paul dragged himself through the final stretch of the narrowest part of the tunnel and emerged with a feeling of profound relief into the wider section on the other side. The other three were waiting for him.
‘I have to say, and don’t think I’m being ungrateful, but I hate every second of going through that bit,’ he told them.
Dave laughed, a little shakily. ‘Mate, you’re not the only one!’
‘Maybe tomorrow we should try some of the other tunnels, we might find another way through.’
‘Imagine,’ said Mark. ‘A way to get from the refuge to the outside without going through that tunnel!’
‘It’d be bloody fantastic,’ Dan agreed. He began to head out. ‘Come on you lot!’
The climb down to the town seemed so much faster and easier without carrying loads. Even in the dark they managed it quite comfortably. But once they reached the outskirts, they halted in the shadows to observe the scene and in part to steel themselves for what they would see.
Ruins smouldered all around. Dense, choking smoke hung in the air, catching at the back of their throats as they tried to breathe. There was the sickly smell of death about the place. And silence clung about them like cold wet rags. How could this have happened so quickly?
They waited for a few minutes in the shadows, but seeing nothing additional to cause concern, very slowly, very carefully they moved into the town.
Shops and offices had been bombed as well as houses, but there was no one around. Feeling like looters, the four men stepped in amongst the ruins and began to retrieve anything that looked useful. By the light of their torches, they grabbed a selection of sleeping bags from the camping shop, using them to do duty as sacks to carry other things.
‘More cups!’ Dan called, and threw them in. Plastic and tin plates and cutlery followed right behind, and another large pan and a kettle. Next were some waterproof trousers and jackets, rolled up very small, then some thick socks. Mark slipped a compass and a couple of multi-function utility knives into his pocket. Two more ground sheets were shoved into one of the sleeping bags, along with some matches and a pair of hurricane lamps wrapped in brushed cotton plaid shirts, and three packs of tealight candles.
Reluctantly they dismissed the idea of lugging tents back with them in view of all the other items they needed. Mark suggested they might come back later. They added a large number of stretchy multi-purpose cables to their collection and moved on to another shop, a large department store.
They found children’s goods, and selected some warm, practical clothes, a few books and toys, a ball, a couple of soft toys, some crayons and drawing paper. This all went into another of the sleeping bags which were already growing heavy.
The next shop was a small supermarket. They grabbed butter and milk as desirable extras, jars of marmite and peanut butter, tins of beans, meat and tuna, a couple of small brushes for washing dishes, a couple of tin opener, onion, garlic, carrots, heads of broccoli and potatoes were tucked into every cranny and pockets, some blocks of old-fashioned soap for clothes-washing, and some gentler soap bars for people-washing.
‘Should we get some tampons and things?’ Dan asked. The other three looked at him, embarrassed and unsure. They shrugged their shoulders.
‘Might as well, the ladies will need something. I don’t see them finding clumps of grass much use.’ So he hefted in a large number of different products into the last sleeping bag, hoping there would be something for everyone. He threw in packets of multi-vitamins too followed by paracetamol and throat pastilles and disinfectant. If only he’d brought his doctor’s briefcase, he thought.
They kept packing it all in: tinned fruit, dried fruit, nuts, more dried milk, some bags of pasta, several notebooks and pens for Marion, tea bags, cocoa powder, tomato puree, stock cubes, firelighters, more matches, some instant noodles, bags of rice and a large plastic mixing bowl, a plastic jug, toothbrushes and some tea towels all went into the fourth sleeping-bag, and it was declared full. Dan tied the top with a length of string he cut from a ball he found in aisle 7, along with a pair of scissors from a shelf close by. The rest of the string and the scissors went into his jeans pocket. He placed the sleeping bag by the exit, on the summit of a heap of broken bricks and twisted metal.
In an aisle labelled ‘seasonal goods’ they found a range of spring gardening equipment, and helped themselves to a couple of spades and large forks, and a quantity of other gardening items including packets of seeds. Each man grabbed himself a couple of folding chairs.
They reluctantly realised they couldn’t possibly carry anything else—it would be a tremendous task to manage what they already had—and they headed for the exit.
‘What’s that?’ Mark asked, halting abruptly. He looked out into the street, cocking his head to listen. They set down their loads and held their breath. Soon they could all hear it. A faint, distant rumbling.
‘Is that thunder?’ Dave asked, puzzled.
‘No! Come on, let’s go! Across there!’ Mark grabbed his stuff and raced for the door, the others right behind him, clutching their burdens and still grabbing anything else they could squeeze into their pockets or inside their shirts.
When they reached the street, it became clear the noise was coming from the south side of town, and whatever it was, it was drawing closer. They halted in the shadows. Dawn was still an hour off.
‘Is that what I think it is?’ Dan asked. Paul and Dave just looked blank. Mark nodded.
‘Tanks,’ he said grimly. ‘Yes. Come on, guys, we’re out of time.’
Struggling with their heavy burdens, they raced as fast as they could for the shadows, ready to head out of town. In the distance, behind them, they could now see lights could bouncing off the smoke, heralding the approach of a new convoy of military vehicles.
They paused to get their breath, watching the approach with horror. Dave looked at Mark.
‘Hard to say, as it’s dark. Depends if the roads are clear. About half an hour, maybe. Enough time for us to get most of the way up the path through the foothills. We’ll be well out of the way by the time they reach this part of town.’
As he watched, a slight movement on the far right of his field of vision caught his attention, and turning, he saw another person watching the lights approaching from a broken doorway. Dave nudged Mark.
‘Better go and get them. They can’t stay here.’
Mark nodded, and leaving his load with the others, he ran towards the figure, keeping well into the shadows as usual.
‘Hey you!’ he called. The person nearest started on seeing him, poised herself for flight. Up close, Mark could see it was a young woman, very young. Her clothes were dirty and torn, and her arms and face were also sooty and badly scratched. She was shaking from head to foot.
‘I thought we were the only ones left!’ And she began to cry, clutching at him. ‘Everyone’s dead! All of them!’
Mark put an arm round her shoulders, saying,
‘I know, love, I know.’ He looked past her to see the forms of two men with her. They were keeping to the shadows and watching him warily. Mark motioned to them, saying ‘Come with us. Tanks are on the way, you can’t stay here.’ They began to move then, the young woman still clutching his arm as if afraid to let go. They reached Mark’s friends in a moment.
‘What’re your names?’ he asked.
‘Hannah,’ the woman told him, and the two men reached past her to shake hands and now Mark could see one of them clutched a sports bag so tight, it could have been a member of his family.
‘Shouldn’t we go?’ the man said.
‘Yes, of course. Time for introductions later.’ Mark picked up his load again, and they set off as quickly as they could, not daring to stop and look back at the convoy’s inexorable advance. As they began the climb, covering the ground with the rapid movement only absolute terror can induce, they managed to find the breath to explain to Hannah that there were more people waiting. She had taken a couple of the folding chairs from them, glad to help in return for rescue and the hope of human contact. The new man who carried nothing also took some of the burden from the others, but the one with the sports bag continued to hug that and that alone, talking to no one and helping no one but himself.
When they reached a safe spot to rest beneath some trees, they halted, breathing hard, and looked back towards the town, pausing just long enough to watch the first of the heavy tanks pulling into the street where they had just been ‘shopping’ a short while before. Then they had to get moving.
The seven of them finally ducked into the tunnels. They did not rest but pushed on, weaving their way through the tunnels in record time in spite of all they carried. They paused for breath once more in the large cavern, explained to Hannah and the two men the nature of the narrow tunnel. She looked even paler than before, if possible, but she said nothing and just nodded then followed on after Mark and Dan, eventually emerging on the other side, clearly relieved to be out of the tight space. This time, as they emerged from the mountain and onto the plain, feeling the cool night air on their faces and glimpsing the flames of the campfire away across the grass, they felt as if they had come home.
Anna saw them first. Sitting upright, but drowsy, her back against the trunk of a tree, she picked out a slight movement, then another against the black hulk of the mountain. Relieved, she called out to the others.
Straining their eyes in the dark to see them, counting the figures to be sure they had all come back, Leonard and Sandy both said at once,
‘They’ve got people with them.’
Within another minute the approaching group had arrived. Zack gave a soft woof, and waved his half-tail, and Sandy ran to her boyfriend. Barbara and her children got up to greet Paul, and Dan, seeing Sophie was asleep with the children, went first to his mother then to Anna. Mark came over too, Leonard got up to slap him on the back and to say how glad he was to see them back safely, then Mark turned to Anna, and kissed her full on the mouth, both of them pulling back afterwards a little surprised.
Hannah hovered on the edge of the firelight, unsure what to do.
‘Hello dear,’ Marion said, going over to her. ‘I’m Marion. Come and get warm.’ She guided the girl over to the fire, and put a blanket round her. The kettle was set on the fire to bring back to the boil, and tea was made. Hannah clutched her cup of tea, the first thing she’d had to eat or drink in almost thirty-six hours. Marion gave the girl some stew.
Dan introduced Hannah to the group and they all greeted her, telling her she was very welcome. Then they all turned to look at the men with her, and the two men drew forward with obvious reluctance and said hello.
‘I’m—er—Reg. Reg—er—Bailey, that’s it,’ the one with the sports bag added as if he couldn’t believe he’d thought up such a great story on the spur of the moment. It was so clearly not his real name, but everyone simply smiled politely and chose not to notice. The other man mumbled hello and gave his name as Sanjay. He sounded too upset to bother to lie. Both men were thin and anxious and dishevelled. Room was made for them by the fire and they got the first cups of tea.
Then Dan and Dave told everyone what they had seen, and after everyone had had a hot drink sharing the four mugs—for the sleeping bags had not yet been unpacked—the fire was banked up and put out, just in case the convoy of tanks had been accompanied by planes.
‘We don’t know if the invasion forces know about this place. Hopefully not, as even locally it’s not much more than a myth, but obviously we’ve got to be very careful. We must listen out for planes or any other sound from outside. We’ll keep under the trees unless we’re sure it’s safe,’ Mark said.
‘Should we go back into the caves?’ Marion asked. ‘That might be safer.’
‘That is an option,’ Mark said, and Dan agreed, adding,
‘I doubt we need to do that yet, but it may be something we need to keep in mind.’
‘I agree,’ Anna said. ‘The only thing that worries me is the possibility of them actually entering the caves. Do you think that’s likely?’
‘I hope not,’ Mark said, ‘Frankly I don’t want to contemplate that. Let’s just say it’s possible and leave it at that.’
‘Let’s bring everything in under the trees a bit more,’ Anna said, and she went to drag the crate of chickens back under the canopy of the trees.
‘What about the latrine?’ Leonard asked. The other men looked puzzled. Leonard explained about their new loo. Mark and Dan went to inspect Leonard’s work, and came back full of approbation.
‘It’s quite well under the tree, anyway,’ Dan said. ‘Hopefully once the leaves come out on the branches, the loo will be completely invisible from the air. Maybe we could put another branch over the top just to make sure. It’s a very nice loo, thank you,’ he added, and Leonard laughed. Stephen and Malcolm went off with a new mini-saw Mark had obtained at the camping shop, and they managed to cut a sturdy branch off one of the other trees and tie it into the branches overhanging the loo.
When they went off, Dan said, ‘Hmm, two teenage boys, a saw and a dark night. Think I’ll get a few bandages ready.’ But he was too lazy to move and continued to sit on his pile of bedding. Shortly the lads returned, full of praise for the sharpness of the saw, and the job had been completed without any human digits or limbs being lopped off.
There was nothing else to do other than sleep. The sun was only just rising, so they had a few hours before they needed to begin sorting through the new acquisitions. Everything was simply tipped into heaps so that the new sleeping bags could be used.
None of them knew if they would be caught by the invading forces, or whether they would continue to attempt to build themselves a new life on the grassy plain. They were a little like the pioneers of centuries gone by, living in the moment, just with the few things they had, and each other. It seemed pointless to worry about it straight away. They were there. They were warm and safe. They slept.