The Refuge – chapter three
Eventually the chicken whisperer returned. The three of them talked for a few minutes and then quite suddenly there seemed to be nothing more to say. Getting to their feet, they set off, heading back down the mountain, moving quickly and easily now that they were not loaded down.
They had to very careful as they approached the edge of town, not wanting to be caught now that they were so close to making their escape. But the streets were almost empty. Anna’s cell phone showed the time as 1.15 am. All the houses were in darkness as they walked. They moved in silence, only speaking in a hurried whisper when necessary. The sound of vehicles reached them and they stepped right back into deepest shadow and watched as another military convoy drove by within a few feet of them.
After the vehicles had disappeared into the night, Mark whispered to Anna,
‘That’s the second time I’ve seen a convoy heading out of town today.’
‘Me too,’ Anna told him. ‘Perhaps this means everything is going to be okay? If they are pulling out, then maybe we’re at peace again?’
‘I don’t think so, somehow.’
‘But if they are withdrawing their troops?’
‘I don’t like the look of it. Something is going on.’
Mark parted from the others to return to his own place. Anna felt a great surge of emotion at their parting. She was afraid to let him go, afraid she would never see him again. She hardly dared to think about the next few hours, afraid that events would overtake them and their plan would fail. The waiting was so hard.
But at the same time, the thought that they might successfully escape also terrified her. What if they did make it to the refuge? It would mean the end of life as they knew it, leaving behind all that was familiar and convenient, to live a precarious life as their ancient ancestors had once done, scratching a thin existence on the plain in the mountains, and unaware of the fortunes of the larger world.
Anna paused at the door into the house. Did they even have the right to survive or escape where others couldn’t and wouldn’t? Should they tell everyone about the place, take them all with them? Should they knock on every door and tell people to pack and get ready to leave? But she had effectively tried that in her news articles. A face-to-face approach might work better, but who knew? And how could she do it? Just bang on doors and tell them? Feeling tearful and uncertain, she let Dan and herself into the house.
Her mother and sister-in-law had waited up for them, and wanted to know all that had happened. Anna and Dan sat down with them in the sitting-room, sipping tea and describing everything to them. Just as dawn was breaking, at a few minutes before five in the morning, they got up and began to go their separate ways to bed for a few hours’ rest.
They had only made it as far as the top of the stairs when loud explosions shook the house, seemingly to its very foundations. Looking out the windows, they could see everything around them appeared engulfed in flames.
War had arrived, but whether too late or too early, Anna couldn’t decide.
Stunned but needing to move fast, Anna raced downstairs, pulling her mother with her. She could hear her nephew and niece crying. More explosions rocked the house and she fell to her knees. Shaking, pulling herself upright, her only concern was for her family, to be sure they were safe. More explosions sounded, she and her brother scooped up the children and they all piled out of the house. All around them, she could hear screams and the sound of collapsing buildings.
At the end of the long garden behind the house, huddled beneath the thin shelter of an apple tree, they could see planes still circling overhead, dropping their loads wherever they willed. So that’s why the soldiers left, Anna realised, they were ordered away to safety. She passed her nephew to her mother and raced out to the front driveway to check the rest of the street. The house across from them was rubble. There was no sign of the five occupants. With no street lamps left standing, the only light came from the flames of the explosions. The light showed the gutted remains of homes on either side of her. There were a number of houses still standing, theirs included, and Anna was convinced she saw a figure in the upstairs window of a house across the road and a down a little. She waved frantically to the person or persons, yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’ The figure moved away and Anna hoped they had understood. Flames licked at fences, trees and garden sheds, engulfing everything. Cars were upturned, twisted, burning.
Looking about her, fighting down the urge for flight, or to give in to the rising hysteria, to just stand there and scream, Anna tried to pull her shattered thoughts together, trying to assess where the blasts had hit. Flames and smoke came from the direction of Mark’s area, and she felt a cold wave of fear grip her, icy in the pit of her stomach.
‘OhmyGodohmyGod,’ and she barely knew she was saying it.
More planes were overhead. Dan was pulling her arm, slowly she became aware of it and turned to him.
‘Anna! Anna! We have to go. Now! We can’t wait!’
He was right. If they waited, it would be too late.
He marshalled the family into a tight huddle in the shadows near the street, ready to set off. Anna was frantically looking around for her cats. It looked as if she would have to leave them after all.
‘Bedding! We need bedding! And clothes!’ she suddenly shouted, galvanised into action. She ran for the house. ‘I’ll throw stuff out of the windows.’
‘Anna! No, there is no time!’ He made to follow her, but she stopped him.
‘No. You pick it all up. Make it into bundles. Don’t come into the house, it’s too risky. If anything happens, just go. You know the way.’
She ran from room to room with a feeling of every second making a difference, a bizarre image flashed into her mind, of a sleek game-show host smiling in approval at every extra item she caught hold of and lobbed out of the window. From time to time the house shook as more bombs fell nearby, but not on them, not yet, not till we’re gone, oh please God, please, save us.
She saw the cat carrier on the dining table, and incredibly, one of the cats was inside it, cowering in terror, its tail scorched. She murmured to it as she closed the lid, a brief prayer of thanks slipping from her lips as she scooped up the carrier, and made her way out, and a dustpan and brush—could maybe come in useful—it was just there, like another bonus prize and so she grabbed it. And there by the front door was the other cat, hunched in a corner, eyes wide. Coaxing it gently and aware of the time rushing by, she got close enough to the terrified creature to lunge at it, couldn’t believe she caught it, shoved it in the carrier and locked the lid without the first cat escaping. It had never been this easy taking them to the vet.
Out to the back door, and a vegetable peeler and a small sharp knife from the worktop in the kitchen were slipped into her back pocket. Wrenching open the door she stepped out into the garden that was wreathed in smoke yet brilliant with red light from the fires all around.
She stepped outside, glancing back to look back at the house, and then she saw it, the large plastic box containing all the seeds she’d bought and saved. On a reckless impulse she scooped up the tiny busy-lizzie seedling from the kitchen window ledge. She poked it inside the plastic box and ran, leaving the door open, ran to her family, and they hurtled along the narrow street between the wrecked row of houses. Anna was dimly aware of parts of the street, and other streets beyond, bursting into dirt and flames, the house across the road now gone, no sign of the person she had waved to. Then their house received a direct hit and was reduced to screaming, glaring rubble, curtains in flames flapping to the ground.
High on the plain above the town, in his look-out, Bob Eden snapped his telescope closed, and with a grim look, he turned to head back to the farmhouse. It took him some while to get there, long enough to rethink and double rethink what they were about to do. But really, he thought with sorrow, there was no choice.
When he reached the farmhouse, and went inside, he found his wife carefully labelling a batch of newly-filled jars. She had written the variety and date on the small, white rectangles in her small, neat handwriting. When each jar had been labelled, she set it on the shelf next to all the others. The work of hours: she had laboured in the garden, at the sink, at the stove, at the table and now, here in the chill atmosphere of the scullery, she put the finishing touches to the long preserving process, standing back to observe with pleasure the ranks arranged with military precision. And now she would have to leave it all behind.
Bob felt sad for his wife. After forty-three years of marriage he knew that her preserves were important to her, and remembering many long, isolated winters, he thought of the sharp and sweet tastes, the colours, the textures of the preserves and recognised they had often enhanced what was a rather dull diet, and a lonely life. He dropped a kiss on her hair.
‘Sorry, sweet-pea, it’s time to go.’
She looked at him. Looked at the jars. No time for that now. She took off her apron, folded it neatly and laid it on the table. She wiped her eyes, smoothed her hair. She took a last look around her home, and sighed, sadly.
Then turning to him to take his outstretched hand, she said, ‘I’m ready, dear.’
They’d got out. That was the one thought that kept occurring to her. They had got out. With no time to count their blessings, they scurried along, Anna leading the way, through the rubble-strewn, derelict streets. She spared a moment to wonder why there was no one else about.
They didn’t survive, she realised as she looked at the wreckage all around. We were up, awake, aware of the danger. Hard on that thought came another: I should have done more. And she was choking on tears for all those thousands killed in their beds.