(copyrighted material Caron Allan)
Very early the next morning, seemingly just moments after putting her head on the pillow, Anna and her mother were awoken by urgent pounding on the back door. Still in her pyjamas, Anna ran downstairs. From the safety of the hallway, she peeked through the tiny crack between the kitchen door and the jamb, not willing to be seen or to unlock the door until she knew who was knocking.
Her brother Dan was standing there in the pre-dawn half-light. Anna could hardly take it in. There was desperation on his pale face as he continued to pound the door, frantic to get his family indoors and undercover. She ran to open the door. He pushed her aside to usher in his two young children and his pregnant wife, slamming the back door and locking it behind them. He pulled them all into the hall, closing the kitchen door for privacy then turned to hug her.
Before she could speak, he said, ‘Anna, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I should have listened to you. I’m so sorry for what I said.’
She waved away his apologies with happy tears and hugged the rest of the family. Her mother now appeared on the stairs, anxious to know what was going on and they were all caught up in the blur of greetings and hurried explanations as they moved into the sitting-room.
He told her what had happened. Their town had been shelled. Most of their street had been destroyed, along with the majority of their neighbours and friends. The attack had been so unexpected, a vicious breach of the promised peaceful coup. Dan and his family had been out, illegally visiting Dan’s in-laws, and only saw the carnage on their return.
‘We were still a mile from home when we saw the first signs that something terrible had happened. The local streets—total devastation—we just—there was nothing we could do.’
‘We tried but… we turned the car around and went back to my parents’, but by the time we got there, their house was completely gone! We hadn’t even seen anything, no aircraft, no convoys, nothing. There was just a huge crater where we had been sitting only hours before! And the smoke! There was no sound except the sound of the flames, and a couple of car alarms further away. We tried to help, but… So we came home. Not a soul—it was terrifying.’ Sophie, her sister-in-law, said and began to weep. The children sat white-faced and uncomprehending, clinging to their parents. ‘There was nothing—nothing left.’
‘And there was nothing we could do, it was already too late,’ Dan added. He was a doctor, his wife a nurse. Anna knew their first instinct would have been to help. ‘We just didn’t know what to do. By that time we realised there were still planes overhead, so we just—gave up—we drove here, it took us half the time it usually takes, I must have done a hundred and twenty all the way.’
‘All those people,’ Sophie said.
This is just the beginning, Anna thought, shaking her head in horror. What she had feared, believed and yet at the same time, hoped would never happen. It was happening right now.
Less than a month earlier, she had tried to tell what she knew, to warn everyone, so that there would be time for local and central governments to take action, so that people would know what was being kept from them. But no one had wanted to listen. She had lost her job, been beaten, threatened with imprisonment, and much worse, her family threatened, if she spoke out. She had been forced to leave her own home in a hurry, desperate to reach her family in time, only to have the worst row of her entire life with her brother, who had turned her out of his house and refused to take her calls. She had taken refuge with her mother and begun to think she had been wrong.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Dan said again, ‘I should have listened. I should have trusted you. You wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t true. My own sister. I should have believed you. I shouldn’t have…’
She took his hand, but said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could say. Then, Dan and Sophie’s daughter, Megan, ten years old, looked up at her father and asked,
‘Are we all going to die, Daddy?’
Dan burst into tears, clutching the child tightly, and Anna felt the tears in her own eyes, emotion and fear burning in the back of her throat.
She could not leave them behind. They would have to come too. This time they would not refuse to listen to her. But she said nothing for the moment. It would be better to talk to them without the children present. She must tell her mother, brother and his wife all about her plans and enlist their help.
Would they agree to go with her and Mark? Could they possibly…? It was unthinkable surely but… What if they refused? Was it possible that they would prefer to stay in familiar yet dangerous surroundings rather than take the chance of going somewhere unknown, where the risks could not be balanced or quantified because they were a total mystery?
What would Mark say? He was a good man. She found it impossible to believe that he would raise any objections. If there was one thing they would have at the refuge it was plenty of room, but food, water, those were quite another matter. And would Sophie, at seven months’ pregnant, be able to get through the tunnel?
The crazy thought popped into her head that her sister-in-law could live in the cavern with Anna’s mother until after the new baby—another mouth to feed—was born.
She dismissed the notion as insane; she was just panicking. But at the same time, the situation seemed hopeless, complicated, fraught with difficulties and drawbacks that threatened to outnumber the advantages. But what were the alternatives? How could they choose? It seemed they were out of choices. There was one thing, one overriding truth Anna knew: she could not, would not abandon her family.
So there would be seven of them going to the refuge. Eight if you included the unborn baby.
At least Dan and Sophie had valuable medical skills. Anna could picture her brother wading into the smoking debris of ruined buildings in his street last night, desperate to help, desperate to find the survivors and patch them up, sending them on their way whole of body if not of spirit. His torn and filthy clothes bore witness to the fact that he must have tried to do exactly that. Another good man.
Anna’s mother made them all tea and toast, and the ordinariness of it was comforting. The children were washed, dried, warmed with hugs, though no one knew what to tell them. Finally, exhausted, her sister-in-law and the two children fell asleep on the sofa, and Anna’s mother draped blankets over them.
Anna took her mother and brother into the dining area at the other end of the long room and motioned for them to sit at the table.
‘I need to talk to you both,’ she said. This was the make or break moment. They were curious but took their seats and waited for her to begin. Their curiosity turned to astonishment as she told them about the plan she and Mark had formed.
An hour later it was fully daylight and they were still talking. Their reactions had been predictably mixed. At first they had been disbelieving, then her mother had started to say they should leave her behind, that she couldn’t leave her home, that she would only hold them back, she was too old, it would be too difficult. Anna’s brother had dealt with that by the simple expedient of saying, rather angrily,
‘Oh don’t be so bloody melodramatic, you’re coming with us!’
After their initial doubts, they began to realise this was likely to be their only—rather slim—chance. As Anna revealed the holes in the plan, the uncertainties, the bits they just didn’t know, her brother swept it all aside impatiently with comments such as, ‘We’ll face that when we come to it,’ or, ‘Let’s just wait and see.’ He’d gone from unbeliever to fully committed, enthusiastic new convert. Anna’s mother still didn’t want to believe it would ever happen, but agreed to accept whatever they all decided. So long as they were together, that was all that was important to her.
For Anna, it was as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Her brother and his family would come too. It would all be managed somehow, no matter how. Obstacles would be overcome. They intended to survive.
Overtaken by events, Anna remembered Mark did not know about the extra people. She had arranged to meet him at their usual place one hour after dark, to start taking equipment and food up into the tunnels, ready for their arrival. Then according to their new plan, they could transfer everything at their leisure to wherever they decided to base themselves.
She had a list of items she needed to obtain, and at nine o’clock, she and her brother set off to buy as much as possible.
When they reached the town centre, even though the shops were just opening there were hordes of people thronging the counters and aisles and checkouts, all desperate to buy as much as they could in the hope it would see them through whatever lay ahead. Everyone was desperate for news, gathering in small anxious groups under the watchful eyes of patrolling soldiers, who smiled forced cold smiles at the children and exchanged odd looks with one another. News-hoardings, too late to print the news of the first bombings, still proclaimed the growing tension between the government and their ‘advisors’ from the occupying forces. And everywhere Anna looked, people were talking and speculating and looking fearful and the patrols were looking more and more edgy. It was only a matter of time before there were violent confrontations between the two opposing sides.
‘I’ve got to get some money out before we can get on,’ Anna told her brother, who only had a few pounds in his pockets. Anna withdrew money from her bank’s ATM without incident, but had to wait in a queue for nearly forty-five minutes to do so. She was worried that by the time her turn came, the machine would be out of cash, but miraculously it wasn’t. It seemed everyone else was stripping their accounts as a precaution, though probably they did not know just how bad things really were. She worried whether activity on her bank account was still being monitored, and whether she was likely to receive an unwelcome visitor, for it seemed unlikely the government had not kept track of her movements. But so long as they came for her after tomorrow night, it would be okay, it would be too late. All she and her family had to do was survive until then.
‘Let’s split up,’ Dan said. ‘We’ll get more done. This is going to take a lot longer than we expected with everyone else panic-buying too.’
She agreed, and gave him half the list and some cash and they separated.
He was right. The queues everywhere were much longer than she had anticipated. Panicked, people were stockpiling bottled water, tinned foods and toilet tissue. Anna just grabbed what she could, queued to pay, then carted it all home only to leave it for her mother and Sophie to unload as she returned to the shops again to get more.
By the end of the day, every surface seemed stacked high. It had taken all day to get everything they could, and yet still Anna was afraid they had forgotten some vital item. When she would have liked nothing better than to sit and rest, finally it was time to go and meet Mark, taking Dan with her.
Dan had told Sophie about the plan when the children were helping their grandmother to make the evening meal. Initially Sophie had been sceptical, trying to persuade them that attacks on villages and towns the previous night had been terrible, but isolated incidents, that ministers would negotiate, and peace would soon prevail. For a while it had looked as though she would refuse to go, but they wore her down in the end, determined to convince her until eventually she burst into overwrought tears, saying over and over again that all she wanted was for the children to be safe.
Conversely, Anna began to worry more and more that they were about to make a huge mistake, and that she was really just the scaremonger the press had accused her of being. Perhaps there really would be a real, lasting peace? What if it was best that they stayed put, hunkered down and put their trust in the nation’s leaders to bring about peace? Much as she kept telling herself that flight was their only option, much as she kept reminding them there was still such a huge risk, her mother and brother now refused to hear her. They were ready to take the chance. Anna had a terrible sense of the burden of responsibility.
So when night came, it was a relief to slip out of the house and away from the tension that the children could not have failed to notice, even if they could not understand. It felt good just to be doing something.
It was cold as well as dark. A light rain began to fall and the sky was thick with black and blacker clouds, indicating heavier rain to follow. It was after curfew, of course, and the streets were silent. Here and there stood an abandoned car, doors left open as the driver had been forced to leave his or her vehicle once the ration of petrol had run out. Journeys would have to be continued on foot.
The food and equipment they carried loaded into rucksacks and bags weighed on them heavily, but they continued to pick their way carefully, Anna in front to guide her brother through the deepest shadow and quietest places, knowing they still had a long way to go before they could relax their guard. She wondered if she would be able to make it that far with her load. The journey to the tunnels and back would take most of the night.
Mark was waiting for her in the usual spot, and until she was within three feet of him, he was completely invisible to her. He was shocked to see someone else with her.
‘Anna? What’s going on?’ He sounded tense, and she hurried to explain.
‘This is my brother Dan. He and his family got bombed out last night. They’re from Northway. They—they want to come with us. There’s Dan, his wife and their two children. And another on the way.’
There was a long silence. Then Mark said, ‘Okay, then.’
The men shook hands. She was surprised and relieved at how readily Mark agreed to the change of plan and seemed to have no problem at all with an extra four people joining them.
‘Glad you’re all okay,’ Mark told Dan. ‘There will be plenty of room for us all up there. We’ll just have to grow more food to feed a larger group. But at least we’ll have the manpower to do it.’
He was carrying a massive, military-style rucksack on his back that looked as though it was packed solid. In front of him he was lugging a long, shallow crate covered with a heavy blanket. And a couple of buckets and pans and a small toolbox lay on top of that. When he made no explanation, Anna asked,
‘What’s in the crate?’
But after giving her a grin she could only just make out through the shadows, he just turned and set off at such speed that she had no choice but to abandon her curiosity and hurry to keep up with him, not wanting to lose him in the darkness. She wondered if she could borrow the crate for her cats, but felt it was unlikely they’d fit inside.
They moved on towards the start of the foothills on the south-easternmost end of the small range of mountains. To begin with, the going was still mercifully even, the path wide, the upward slope a gentle one. But the weight of their burdens meant they had to stop frequently to rest or to change their grip. Long before they reached the halfway point, Anna felt she couldn’t go another step. She fixed her eyes on the ground and tried not to think about the work still ahead of her. The journey stretched on into the night. Heavy rain began to fall; the cold wetness only made their burdens heavier and more cumbersome. The journey began to assume the proportions of a never-ending drudge.
And then they began to climb. The slippery path became more rugged, narrower, more twisting. Mark and Anna turned on the lamps on their helmets, but the small cones of light only illuminated their immediate space, so that every step was a step of faith, and Anna could only just make out the path at her feet, and the shape of Dan in front of her.
She felt certain she could go no further. Discouraged by the seemingly endless journey, her strength had slipped away down through her boots. The men seemed to be feeling the same. By unspoken consent they rested for nearly twenty minutes, and no one spoke, even though the town was far behind them and they were now relatively secure. The only sound was that of their heavy breathing. Anna began to feel that she had been fooling herself. This escape to the refuge could never work, it was all too hard, she thought. She felt like giving up.
But she hadn’t the energy to try to explain, and when the other two collected their burdens, it was easier to do the same, and they resumed the trudge up to the entrance to the tunnels, doggedly pushing on, too tired to speak, each one occupied with the enormous task of simply placing one foot in front of the other. The refuge seemed further away than ever. Anna struggled to draw in a breath as she walked. She was stopping every few feet, almost dropping with exhaustion.
And then they saw it. The small black hole, blacker than the rest of the black stone, little more than a crack in the mountainside, hidden from the town below by the angle of the outcrop in front of it.
As soon as they had climbed inside, they sank to the floor in the wide tunnel-mouth, thankfully shedding their loads and for several minutes their only concern was to catch their breath. Then from out of the darkness came a sound that made Anna scream, practically jumping half out of her skin.
It was a cockerel crowing. Realisation made her angry and she turned on Mark, who was laughing, and punched him on the arm.
‘You bastard! That scared me! You’ve got a bloody chicken in there!’
Mark grinned at her fright, but he looked a bit embarrassed. He pulled the cover off the huge crate he had been carrying, and she and her brother were able to discern feathery bodies and beaks.
‘Actually, there’s one cockerel and seven hens. It is kind of a squash for them, poor things, but hopefully it’s not for much longer.’ He bit his lip, waiting for her reaction, then when she just stared at him, he added, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’
Recovering from the surprise, but unable to break the beady gaze of a red-brown hen, Anna said,
‘It’s a brilliant idea!’
Mark relaxed back against the wall, clearly relieved. He closed his eyes.
It was as if several pieces of puzzle slotted together in her mind. Suddenly Anna felt positive once more. She could feel excitement coursing through her veins. She knew it for certain now. This was going to work!
‘Wow! This place is amazing!’ her brother said. He stood up, reaching out a hand to touch the walls where they were illuminated by the circle of warm light from the helmet lamps. He was looking around him with that same sense of wonder Anna and Mark had felt the first time they saw the cave. She smiled.
Then it hit her. She remembered what lay ahead of her. Another trip through the narrow tunnel. Not just one trip, in fact, but now there would be three more: through, back again, and tomorrow when they made their final escape, through again. Panic gripped her, forcing out all her happier feelings. For a moment she thought she was going to vomit. Taking deep breaths in an effort to calm herself she tried to push down her fears and concentrate on the sunny grass plain beyond the darkness.
‘Are you okay?’ Mark asked. She took a moment to answer.
‘I think so. I’ve just realised that our change of plans means two extra trips through my favourite tunnel…’ She tried to laugh it off.
‘Your favourite tunnel?’
Mark explained what she meant. Her brother told Mark about his pregnant wife. There was a long silence. No one knew what to say to that.
They got to their feet, picked up food, chickens and everything and began to make their way carefully through the shadowy inner world of the caves, paying close attention to the uneven floor and the ceiling and walls that occasionally dipped in more than usual.
After a number of stops, finally they halted in the large cavern which immediately preceded the narrow crawl way that led to the entrance out onto the plain.
Anna was trembling from head to foot. She had told herself over and over that she could do this, had already done it twice and emerged safely. Now she was just muttering, ‘OhmyGodohmyGod’ over and over again to herself as a semi-hysterical mantra. Sweat ran on her brow, top lip and down the middle of her back. Her face was white in the gleam of the lamplight. Mark said,
‘Stay here. There’s no need for you to make this trip. I’ll go through and then your brother can follow, we’ll take as much as we can through, but we haven’t got much time, so it’s probably best if we just leave stuff right here. I don’t see that it will matter. We’ve got to come back this way later.’
She knew she should have insisted on going with them, knew she should have done her bit, she should have fought down her fear. But she didn’t. She gave her helmet to her brother, choking back the urge to sob with relief. She stayed there sitting on the floor in the dark, waiting for their return, straining her ears to hear their every sound until she could hear nothing at all and the last glimmer of light had gone.
She waited there with the now-silent chickens for what seemed like hours. Gradually growing calmer, feeling her pulse rate slowing back to normal, she was thankful at being spared the tunnel. She leaned back against the cave wall and tried to think of anything they might have over-looked.
Bedding. It came to her immediately. What had she thought they would sleep on, keep themselves warm with? She shook her head in disbelief. Sleeping bags. Eight of them. Maybe some of those foam camping mattresses that roll up. What else might they need? Clothes. Not just for now, but for in five years’ time, or whatever, if they were still there then. Her brain threatened once more to become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what they were planning to do. How long would they be able to manage up here on the plain? Would they even survive the first winter? All at once it seemed such a crazy idea again. Her emotions yo-yoing, she asked herself, how could this possibly work?
A slight sound reached her ears, followed by another. A faint thinning of the darkness soon became a light. Then they were back. The chickens murmured an anxious greeting, and Anna flung herself at the man. Mark catching her and holding her close to him.
‘Lonely?’ he asked, teasing. His lips brushed her hair and in the unaccustomed moment of intimacy, she realised she would have welcomed more. But this was not the time or place. Trying to keep things light she said, she said with forced cheerfulness,
‘Thought I’d been abandoned!’
‘I would never walk out on my chickens,’ he laughed, but he squeezed her shoulder.
Anna’s brother was pale, and the hand that straightened his helmet was not completely steady.
‘You were right about that tunnel. Bloody hell! It was definitely a case of keep moving and think happy thoughts, or else I think I would have started screaming. I won’t be heartbroken if I never get to do that trip again.’
‘Unfortunately…’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I know,’ sighed Dan. ‘At least twice more.’
‘I’m going to shove the chickens through and leave them in the entrance cave on the other side with the rest of our stuff. Anna, you know the other tunnel I found yesterday on our way back? We’ve decided to use that as a storeroom.’
Then he and the crate were gone again, leaving Anna and Dan together. Dan sat on a rock.
‘Sophie will never get through there, even if she wasn’t pregnant. And it’ll be next to impossible to get the kids through there. Then there’s Mum…’
‘Don’t worry about it now. We’ll manage it somehow,’ Anna said. ‘We’ve got no choice.’ They sat in silence. Then Dan said,
‘Are you and Mark…?’
‘No.’ She said it a little too firmly and knew she was lying. Her brother shifted on his rock.
‘He seems like a great bloke.’
‘Yes, he is. But we’re just friends. We met when he saw my article. He was an advisor on military affairs. Let’s just say he held views similar to mine and fell out of favour just as I did.’
‘And how did you find out about this place?’
‘It was a favourite place with hikers, climbers and pot-holers. I came across it when I was researching a different article for extreme sports. I came up here and tracked down an old chap who had been a guide. He brought me up here almost a year ago, showed me the way in, but neither of us was in a fit state to go inside the tunnels, he was too old and fat and needed a walking stick to get about, and I was in a strappy top and high heels. But he told me there was a way to get through all the way to a hidden plain inside the mountain. The idea of it captured my imagination. I never did get around to using it in a story—I’d just started my most recent, shall we say, my most infamous—investigation. Unfortunately, the guide had a stroke and died about three months ago, poor chap, so I never did get to see him again. I persuaded Mum to move up here, thinking it would be good to have a bolthole when things started to get nasty in London. But I’ve never actually been right through to the plain until Mark and I did it yesterday.’
‘A plain?’ Her brother was anxious to be sure. She smiled.
‘In the middle of the mountain?’
‘Got it in one!’
‘Fuck me!’ said her brother the family medical practitioner. He held her gaze for a moment, and she saw him relax.
‘That’s okay, then.’ He nodded.