(copyrighted material Caron Allan)
They had not been walking for very long before her brother took her arm and pulling her close to him, he spoke in her ear.
‘We’re being followed.’
‘What?’ It took her time to take in one more piece of information on top of the delicate balance she was striving to maintain between the information from her senses—the sight, sound and smell of bombed houses, fire, smoke and rubble, the heat of the flames burning her face, the taste of dust and soot on her tongue—and the information from her brain—she was a fugitive, a refugee as she struggled to walk along the street with two cats in a carrier and an armful of towels and sheets, knowing that she no longer had a working bank account, a home, a bed, mascara, or a change of underwear.
‘Behind us, to the left. A boy. Tall, skinny.’
She glanced back and saw him. The lad turned away as if contemplating the ruin of a church, but she had already seen him watching them.
He was very young, only in his mid-teens, and as Dan had said, very thin. As she watched him for a few more seconds, she realised she knew him as one of a group of cocky teenagers that had been in the habit of hanging around town, laughing and wrestling with his mates, presenting a confident, even arrogant face to the world. Now his face was greyed with dust and his shoulders sagged. He looked very young. And at the same time, very old.
He glanced in their direction again, and turned away abruptly once more when he realised she was watching him. She shook her head, uncertain what to do. He did not approach them, but he was clearly in need of help.
She turned to her brother, and said, ‘I think…’ but she was interrupted by a voice.
She turned to see an elderly man hobbling towards her from another direction, he leading a little child by the hand. He drew near to Anna and in the firelight she could see the clean bright trail of tears down his face.
‘I don’t know what to do. Can you help us? I was at my daughter’s,’ he waved a hand behind him at a pile of masonry. Then reached the same hand trembling out to take hold of her arm.
‘Please. Where do we go? What do we do now? I just don’t…’
The child, a little girl, was in pink pyjamas and clutched a pink teddy.
‘She lives next door—she was thrown out of the window by the blast—she’s not even got a scratch on her—but no one else…’
Anna did not recognise the elderly gentleman, but she was shocked to recognise the little girl. An image came to her mind, a fleeting picture of a scene from only a few weeks earlier. A little girl splashing merrily in puddles in her new, Christmas-red wellies, whilst her mum called to her from behind a pushchair, ‘Come on, sweetheart, we’ll be late for nursery.’ Anna’s eyes welled with tears.
Helplessly she looked back the way they had come. Amongst the noise of the planes overhead, bombs still dropping, suburbia burnt out and buried, they were the only ones there. She looked at her brother. At her mother, vaguely noticing that she was struggling along with a couple of quilts and a garden hose. For a moment a detached part of Anna’s brain wondered about the hose then she thought, fair enough, a hose might be useful. At this stage, how could they tell?
Dan stepped forward and took the old man’s arm.
‘Come with us. We know somewhere. It’s a long way, but it’ll be safer than here.’
And now, Anna saw the teenage boy was approaching them, breaking into a run.
‘Don’t leave me! Please!’ All his customary bravado gone; he was just as scared as the rest of them.
He joined them, taking the huge bundle of bedding from Sophie, and as a group, they resumed their hurried journey.
Planes overflew them, dropping their final payloads and turning to head for home. It was over. For now. The humans scurried along like desperate rats, helping one another to scramble over the debris blocking their path, weaving their way around craters and mounds of rubble and the twisted, blackened scrap that had once been top-of-the-range cars. Anna found herself crawling and whimpering in fear like some wild thing, starting in terror at every sound, no conscious thought in her head but to survive.
It wasn’t until they had almost reached the meeting point that Anna thought again about Mark, and painfully, wondered if he was safe. Although they had not expected to meet again so soon, he would surely know she would wait for him. Under these circumstances their only hope would be to set off immediately, whatever they had previously planned.
The meeting place was a ruined concrete bus shelter—ruined long before the night’s bombs had begun to fall—ruined by bored kids with too much energy. Cautiously approaching with her group, Anna could see a number of people standing there. Mark was there, at the front. Clearly, he had been looking out for her. She set down her cat carrier and the bundle she carried and ran to him, and he swept her into his arms. She stepped back almost immediately and took a look at him.
There was a cut across his left cheek. Apart from that, and the look in his eye, he seemed unhurt. She waved a hand to indicate the others with her.
‘I’ve got a couple of volunteers.’
He smiled. ‘Me too.’
Now she could make out the shapes of a young couple with two very small children and an older couple with two teenagers, the girl was crying.
‘We’ve all only got what we had on at the time,’ Mark began to apologise to the new people, ‘and I don’t know what we’ll do for food for everyone.’
‘Let’s just get to safety and worry about the details later,’ one of the men said.
Anna picked up the cat carrier, gathered up her bundle, only to be relieved of it by one of the teenagers.
‘Taking them for their shots?’ Mark asked, indicating the cats. Anna gave him a nervous smile.
‘I always intended to bring them along, I was just too afraid to tell you. I mean, I know it’s just sentimental and impractical, but…’
He grinned at her. His hand on her arm reassured her.
‘This one followed me home,’ he said. He pointed into the shadows at his right and after a second or two, Anna could see a German Shepherd lurking wearily. ‘He won’t eat much, honest, I’ll feed him out of my pocket money.’
‘Is he yours?’
‘Yes, I got him from a rescue centre about six months ago. And I just couldn’t…’
‘I know. And it’s okay.’ Anna looked behind her at the group of strangers standing awkward and uncertain. ‘We can’t stay here, we need to get moving.’
Mark turned to address the group.
‘We’re heading up into the mountains. There’s a place there we know. We hope it will be safe, but there’s no guarantee. And we haven’t got much food. It’s up to you whether you want to come with us or not, though I think it’ll be safer than staying here. It’s not an easy path, although we’ll help anyone who needs it, obviously.’
There was silence for a minute, broken by the sound of an explosion somewhere in the town, then by the sound of another building crumbling to the ground, sending another shower of dust into the smoke-clogged atmosphere.
‘I’ve got nowhere else to go,’ said the old man who still held on to the hand of the little girl with the teddy.
‘Neither have we,’ said the mother of the teenagers.
‘Okay then, it’s this way. Watch your step, everyone, and if anyone needs to rest, don’t be afraid to call out. Let’s go.’
Leading them off into the foothills that preceded the mountains, almost immediately Anna felt her muscles screaming with the effort of making the climb for the third time in a little over twenty-four hours. But the group moved on in silence. No one spoke, no one asked for a break. They all just followed doggedly onwards, reliving their own private nightmares.
Just by the opening into the mountain they all halted and looked back at the town far below. It seemed as if the whole place was on fire, but the flames were no longer bright because heavy black smoke hung over the town, filling the valley. Visibility was down to practically nothing, the risen sun was completely obscured and dull heavy silence covered everything.
And this won’t be the only town to have suffered, thought Anna. All across the country it will be the same story: towns burning, a handful of survivors trying to reach safety. They’re trying to kill us all.
They stepped inside the mountain. The children needed to be reassured because of the darkness and the older people and pregnant Sophie needed to be helped over the uneven and at times treacherous pathways that wound deeper into the tunnels.
By the time they reached the last big cavern, they all needed a longer rest. Inside the mountain, they felt a measure of safety. Everyone was utterly exhausted emotionally as well as physically. The strange unreality of the situation kept them quiet, speaking softly, moving carefully. Towels, blankets and quilts were spread on the ground to make the rocky floor more comfortable and they all managed to squash down together.
Mark handed water bottles around, and it seemed an appropriate time to introduce himself.
‘My name is Mark Winter. I’m thirty-seven. After ten years in the army, I became an advisor on military affairs. I’m a friend of Anna’s, and we’ve been planning our escape to this place for almost a week now, in anticipation of the very thing that happened tonight.’ There were a few murmurs of acknowledgement and some nodding of heads. Anna stood up so everyone could see her petite frame.
‘I’m Anna, Anna Marcus. I’m thirty-two. I used to be a journalist but I lost my job when I did a story about the threat of aggression from the nation that was our greatest ally. You may have seen it on the television, it made a bit of a splash in the media. Um, this is my mum, Marion, and my brother Dan, his wife Sophie, and their children Megan and Liam.’
‘Hi everyone, I’m Dan. I’m thirty-six. I’m a general practitioner, and our home was bombed the night before last and we lost everything, so we made our way here, hoping we’d be safe. I’m ashamed to say that I ridiculed Anna’s theories and even got angry and refused to listen to her. Until yesterday, when everything she’d said suddenly came true.’
‘And I’m Sophie, I’m thirty-four. I’m a nurse. And as you can see, I’m pregnant, seven months to be exact. Our daughter Megan is ten and our son Liam is eight. Mum?’
‘Hello everyone. And thank you all for all the help you gave me on the way here, I’m not as nimble as I once was. My name is Marion, I’m a widow, oh and I suppose I could just mention that I’m sixty-four, but don’t tell anyone.’
The tired, anxious faces turned towards her just about managed a smile. There was some hesitation about who should go next, but in the end the elderly man said,
‘I’m Leonard Williams and I’m seventy-six. I was spending a few days at my daughter’s house…’ He had to pause for a moment to control his emotions, finally adding in an unsteady voice, ‘This little girl is Alice and she told me only three days ago that she is three and a half, and she lived next door to my daughter’s family. And her teddy is called Pinky.’
The tall, thin teenage boy was next, speaking very quietly, his eyes fixed on the ground.
‘I’m Malcolm. I’m fourteen. I only—made it—because I went out to smoke a cigarette in my Dad’s shed and look at some magazines I’d got hidden out there. I’d been out most of the night at a club, even though I was underage. No one in my family knew I smoked, they wouldn’t have—wouldn’t have liked it—and now they’re all…’ He wasn’t able to say any more. Leonard put an arm round the boy’s thin shoulders and handed him a pristine folded handkerchief.
The young woman with small children spoke next.
‘I’m Sandy, and this is my bloke, Dave. Our children are Jack, he’s three, and Daisy, she’s eighteen months old. We only got out because Daisy cried and woke me up. Oh, and I’m twenty-seven and Dave is twenty-four. I work as a nursery nurse and Dave is a plumber.’
The last family introduced themselves. The dad did the talking.
‘I’m Paul, I’m forty-six and I teach History and French at the local Grammar School. This is my lovely wife,’ and here Anna had to suppress a smile, it seemed surreally like being at a dinner party, ‘Her name is Barbara, and I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you she’s forty-three, she teaches Maths and Biology at the same school. She loves cooking and—never mind—I forgot where I was for a moment. These are our children, Stephen who is nineteen and training to be a teacher of Physics and Chemistry, and our daughter Elizabeth who is seventeen and doing her A levels.’
They all looked at each other. Still shell-shocked, there was nevertheless a more relaxed feeling now. They were getting to know one another and they were all in the same boat. They were therefore, friends.
Mark cleared his throat loudly to get their attention. Everyone looked at him.
‘The next part of the journey involves going through a very narrow tunnel. Please don’t be alarmed, it’s perfectly safe, and quite short, but it is a bit daunting if you’re nervous of enclosed spaces.’
‘Like me,’ Anna volunteered with a wave of the hand and a wonky smile. The others were looking uncomfortable.
‘Obviously this is going to be a tricky one for the older people and for you too, Sophie,’ Mark said, indicating her belly. ‘But we’ll do all we can to help. We’re not in any rush, we can take it slowly, so there’ll be no need for any of you to feel under any pressure.’
‘What’s on the other side?’ Malcolm asked. Mark gave him a huge bright smile. Anna felt that it warmed the whole room.
‘A nice little tunnel, high enough to walk upright, then there’s a huge cave, and beyond that, the outdoors, a plain with grass and trees and the open sky, our new home. Yesterday Anna referred to the place as the refuge, and after what’s just happened, that’s exactly what it will be.’
‘Can we go there now?’ Marion asked. Mark shook his head.
‘I think it would be best if we got some sleep first.’
‘What, here?’ Marion frowned.
‘What’s wrong with here?’ Mark asked, but gently.
‘Well I just don’t know if I’ll be able to get any rest, not just because it’s inside, but well, I think I’ll be worrying about this narrow bit you talked about.’
‘The air isn’t very good in here,’ Barbara pointed out and a couple of others nodded in agreement. Mark looked around.
‘So are we saying we all want to move on straightaway?’
With nodding and assenting, the consensus was yes, they wanted to move on right away.
‘Okay then.’ Mark said.
It was decided that Anna would go first, with her mother behind her. Now Anna was faced with the problem of the cat carrier she had anticipated the night before. She wondered how Mark’s dog was going to get through. Then there was Leonard. And Sophie.
Feeling the first beads of fear sweating onto her lip and the palms of her hands, Anna tried to pull herself together. She didn’t want to frighten the children, some of whom were already whimpering.
She walked into the tunnel, then stooped to go along the next lowest part, then she got onto her knees to crawl forward, making her way to the narrowest point of the tunnel. At this point, as she had expected, the cat carrier could no longer fit into the space available.
‘You’ll have to take them out and fold the carrier flat,’ Marion told her from behind, reading her mind.
Two of the men had been needed to help Marion get down onto her knees, and she was just able to crawl along like that, although a sudden rush of heat from her left knee told her that she had gashed it on a protruding point in the rock. She had no idea how she was going to make it through the next part of the tunnel, but she had come this far, she was not prepared to give up now. It helped her to concentrate on the problem of Anna’s cats and how her daughter was feeling about being in the confined space.
‘They’ll run away, they’re terrified,’ Anna wailed. Marion patted her daughter’s shoulder.
‘I don’t think so, lovey. They’ll hide for a while, then explore their new territory, but they’ll stay near you because they know you, you mean safety and food. You’ll see. But anyway, sweetheart, there isn’t really any other choice.’
Anna was forced to admit the truth in that. Her fingers fumbled on the catches as she opened the carrier door and with a heavy heart she watched as the two cats streaked off into the darkness, vanishing from sight. At least they had gone in the right direction, she thought, and they’d probably reach the plain before any of the humans. She folded the carrier flat, stood the box of seeds and a few other items on top of it, and began to push it ahead of her into the narrow part of the tunnel, all the while trying to distract her mind by thinking about the cats.
Behind her, Marion was awkwardly trying to lie down on her front in such a position as to wriggle forward without putting too much weight on her bad hip. She couldn’t seem to do it, and she was having trouble getting her breath.
‘Oh Anna—help me, love—please. I can’t, I can’t—do it.’
But Anna couldn’t reach back to her mother and there was no room to turn around.
‘I’ll have to go on ahead, out the other end and turn around to come back in again. Just try to keep calm, Mum. Think happy thoughts, you’re completely safe, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.’
Behind Marion, Malcolm began to realise that all was not well. He wondered about applying a little pressure to the older lady’s feet, pushing her along a bit.
‘Oi, Mrs—er—Marion. I can push you if you like?’
Dimly aware of his suggestion, Marion opened her eyes, willing herself to think of wide blue skies and trees and the gentle cooing of wood pigeons.
‘All—all right, dear. If you wouldn’t mind.’
She couldn’t raise her voice very much, fear had taken her breath. But a slight pressure, gradually increasing, on the soles of her feet showed that he had heard. She tried to brace her legs against the pressure and was propelled forward an inch or two. Then he began to push again.
She had only made a little progress when a louder, closer scrabbling and breathing told her Anna was on her way back. The mother clutched gratefully at her daughter’s hands.
‘Oh sweetheart. I’m so sorry, it’s so silly of me.’
‘It’s okay Mum. It’s okay. I was exactly the same the first two times I had to go through this bit. I know it’s really scary but we’ll soon be out, you’ll see. I’m going to try to back up, and pull you with me at the same time.’
It seemed to take them a lifetime to get out into the wider tunnel at the other end. After several stops to try to catch their breath, and not having enough room to wipe the sweat or sand out of her eyes, Anna finally fell back into the wider space and hauled her mother out behind her. They fell onto the floor, crying with relief and hugging one another, and then Malcolm, young, undaunted, ready for adventure, was springing to his feet by their side, followed by Dan and his two children, both white with terror, and Marion and Anna were obliged to get up and move over to make more room.
Dan was anxious about his wife. Anna, Marion, Malcolm, Megan, Liam, Leonard and Alice sat on the rocks and floor in the wide storage cavern, chickens clucking excitedly, protesting at their confinement and insisting on food, and beyond the gloom of the cavern, there was a tiny patch of sunny grass. Anna looked around for a sign of her cats but couldn’t see so much as a whisker of either of them.
At their feet were the few items of bedding they had managed to grab. Alice hugged her teddy and cuddled close to Leonard. Liam and Megan stayed close to their grandmother who held them close, her hands still shaking.
Dan went back into the narrow tunnel to try to help his wife. It had been decided to try to push her through on her side, to try to minimise the possibility of her getting stuck and also to prevent too much bumping of her belly.
But Sophie was struggling to breath properly and was finding it difficult to move herself along. Mark was behind her trying to push, and Anna could hear Dan murmuring soothing words to her. They were barely moving more than an inch at a time. No one else could do a thing, and they watched helplessly, waiting for sight of Dan’s feet.
Malcolm and Marion had taken Liam and Megan out onto the sunlit grass, and soon Malcolm came back to speak to Leonard,
‘It’s brilliant out there!’ he said, bouncing on his toes. They all turned and looked and saw the grassy plain stretching before them, bright with sunshine, unveiled and beautifully eden. Everyone smiled.
On an impulse, Anna got up and ran to the narrow mouth of the tunnel, crawling inside until she reached Dan. Around his body she called to Sophie.
‘Sophie, the sun is shining out here. It’s so beautiful. Liam and Megan are playing out there on the grass. They look like a pair of little angels. Come on, love, you’ve got to see this.’
In the silence following her words, she could hear Sophie softly weeping. Anna felt Dan move. He was leaning over to stroke Sophie’s cheek.
‘Come on, darling. You can do it. One more push should do the trick.’
‘I’m not in labour yet, you know!’ she tried to laugh. She took a fresh if shallow breath and pushed herself with all her might, wincing with pain at the stinging of her grazed hip, knees and hands. She propelled herself forward by another two inches and bumped Dan’s head on the tunnel roof. He backed up and tried to get a hold on her to bring her with him.
By the time Sophie emerged and was helped across to sit on a rock by Dan and Anna, she was exhausted. The rest of the group now began to emerge from the tunnel, distressed by the long delay and the emotionally draining experience of crawling through the narrow tunnel in near darkness.
Mark’s dog came through on his belly, his head lowered as he whined and nervously licked his nose.
But everyone was through, and all their belongings with them. As a group they stepped out of the shadows of the tunnels and onto the grass. Standing together in the sunshine and looking about them, their broken spirits soared. They had made it.
‘Welcome to the refuge,’ said Mark and he too looked around at the green grass, and the mountain ridge running around the edge of the plain, a wall of rock between them and the rest of the world. ‘I just hope we’ll be safe here.’
Beyond the refuge, at the foot of the mountains, the town, like most of the country, was in ruins. Not even one house was left untouched. Across the whole nation, the missiles, bombs, and gunfire continued to rain down on villages, towns, and cities. Millions of people, and even livestock and other animals, lay dead or dying. Smoke rose across the land, spiralling up into the sky seemingly to encircle the sun.