And Finally, It Begins…
No matter how old Michael got, when he cried in Chris’ arms, he became that red-faced screaming baby in the delivery ward again, and Chris’ instinct to protect him burned as brightly as it ever had.
Shivering by the slightly ajar window, the heating having been cut off months before, the eight-year-old boy looked at his father. He wore a mask of grief that twisted his dirty face. “Why, Dad?” He mewled. “Why did they do it? Why did they leave us?”
After running a hand through his thick and, at forty-two, prematurely white hair, Chris pulled his son closer, not only to comfort Michael but also himself. “I don’t know why your mum chose to leave with your sister. Things are quite a mess at the moment, and maybe she was worried that they wouldn’t get any better.”
Big innocent blue eyes stared up at Chris, searching for the truth as the boy asked, “But things will get better, won’t they? They have to.”
Chris swallowed and looked around the room. They were in the guest bedroom. They’d chosen it because it was small and therefore easier to keep warm. With no gas and electricity, they had to resort to smothering themselves with as much bedding and blankets as they could find. They had so many dirty sheets on the floor that it was impossible to see the blue carpet beneath. The thick red velvet curtains were permanently drawn to combat the chill emanating from the windows, but they blocked out most of the light, making the gloomy room a breeding ground for depression. The entire wardrobe of each family member sat in the corner in one huge pile like a compost heap. When Chris drew a deep breath that reeked of mildew, he told his son what he believed to be a lie. “Yes, Michael, they will.”
“What if they don’t?”
Chris knew that Michael could see straight through him. He’d have given every drop of blood and his final breath to give his son a guarantee that things would get better. But he couldn’t. They currently existed in a world without precedent. Life was now a desperate struggle. Looking at the small, dirty boy in his arms, he had to swallow the lump rising in his throat and blink away his tears. “All I can really promise you…” he coughed to clear his throat, “…is that I will do my best to look after you. I will do everything in my power to…” Before he could finish, a loud crash exploded outside.
In the past, Chris would have rushed to the window if he’d heard such a disturbance. Now he was much more cautious because ‘get off my land’ didn’t quite cut it anymore. He pulled the curtain back slightly and peered out.
The cold breeze hit him, and he flinched. Although it was winter, they left the window slightly ajar to try and let the smell of four dirty bodies out of their living space. As a result, there was more ice on the inside of the glass than the outside.
Their home was one of six large and detached red brick houses in a gated community. The houses horseshoed around a road that was wide enough to u-turn a bus in. Even looking at it now, with the overturned bins and abandoned toys, Chris could still see Michael and Matilda playing outside with their friends. The gates were made of iron, painted black, and did an effective job of keeping people out when everyone was living under the previous, if tenuously balanced, capitalist society. Back then, a gate meant keep out and was effective at enforcing its will. Things were different now. All that was left of the old social structures were memories. New rules were being established, and to survive you had to evolve. Failure to do so invariably resulted in death. With this in mind, Chris’ plan to hide away like a scared fox in a hole didn’t seem like such a good idea. Especially now the hounds had arrived.
“What is it?” Michael asked as he stood on tiptoes to peer through a gap in the heavy curtain.
A black and battered Ford F-150 had rolled through the gates. In spite of the superficial damage, it still looked relatively new. Chris assumed the huge truck must have been taken from the forecourt no more than six months ago because the angry and pockmarked paintwork showed no signs of rust. It didn’t have licence plates, so he couldn’t be one hundred percent sure of its age, but he felt like it was a good hunch. He wondered for a moment where in London one would get such a car until he remembered the American car importer a few miles south. He assumed the driver was local.
A huge battering ram protruded from the front that looked like a steel pillar of about six feet long by four feet in diameter. It gave the truck a fierce nose that looked like it had been utilised many times. Its effectiveness was clear to see because the black gate that had once provided the family with such a strong sense of security had been cast aside like it was made out of cardboard. It now lay useless and mangled like a barely identifiable body part of someone who’d stepped on a landmine.
There were seven men in the back of the truck. They were filthy and bulked up with layers of clothes to combat the January chill. The youngest, Chris guessed, was in his mid-twenties, the oldest no older than fifty.
Chris looked at their weapons and saw steel bars with spikes, baseball bats wrapped in razor wire, long knives and swords, and even a tennis racket that looked like the edges had been sharpened to be as keen as the deadliest blade. Each weapon, without exception, looked like they could end a life with great efficiency. From looking at the fierce men with their deep frowns and blood-splattered clothes, Chris had no doubt that they already had.
He finally replied to his son in hushed tones, the fear of these men discovering them clinging to him like frostbite. “They look like looters.”
After weaving into the middle of the cul-de-sac, the truck finally came to a halt, and the men on the back vaulted off, weapons raised and ready for action. While grinding his jaw, a habit Chris was only ever aware of when a headache kicked in, he said, “We need to be very careful around these men. They’re dangerous. Very fucking dangerous.”
The childish innocence in Michael’s wide blue eyes showed how he was more shocked by his dad swearing than the fact that looters were outside their house. He then said, “What do we do, Dad?”
After a pause, Chris said, “We wait, son.”
The cab door opened and out stepped a slim man with black hair and a red face. He looked like he was in his mid to late thirties. His angry skin appeared to writhe like his body was a prison of rage—a prison where the ratio of guards to inmates was stretched so thin that chaos could erupt at any moment. The blue suit he wore had crusty patches of what Chris could only assume was dried blood. It was as stiff as wood. In his hand was a sawn-off shotgun. It was clear to see that he was the leader. Chris could only see dark shadows where his eyes should be, and the man reminded Chris of a shark.
One of the men from the back of the truck, a short and lithe, red-haired weasel of a man who had the razor sharp tennis racket, called to the leader, “Dean, which house first?”
It seemed that even this question annoyed the tetchy man, who, without saying a word, pointed the barrel of his gun at number one in the close.
Chris only remembered that Michael was watching too when he said, “That’s Tommy’s house.”
Gathering his son in his arms, Chris told his next lie. “Don’t worry, Michael, Tommy will be okay.” What else could he tell him?
The roar of another diesel engine hailed the arrival of a second Ford F-150. This one was blue and had a cage on the back that was full to bursting with enough food to feed a small army, which is exactly what they were. It was mostly packets of dried food and tins, but there was a live pig tied up and stacked like all of the other objects in the congested cage. It looked exhausted, and even if it wasn’t bound as tightly as it was, Chris thought that it would have still been as inactive. It stared ahead with its tongue lolling from its mouth like it was dying of thirst.
When the truck stopped, two more men emerged. One was a slight, dark-skinned man in a trench coat that looked like he should be on the early train to the city rather than with this collection of thieves and murderers. The driver was a huge black man who was at least six feet and four inches and was dressed in blue jeans, thick boots and a heavy sheepskin jacket. He was built like a heavyweight boxer and dressed like he was delivering a skip. He walked around the truck, his breath visible in the cold January air, and shook the cage at random points.
The leader, who seemed to respect this man more than the last one he’d spoken to, asked, “Everything okay, George?”
Chris thought he saw disdain in the hulking man’s eyes when he looked over, but it was hard to tell from this distance. He didn’t seem to share the other’s excitement for what they were about to do. His large face had soft features that suggested he had a compassion that was contrary to the hive mind.
“Everything’s fine,” he called back. “I just wanted to check that nothing’s worked its way free on the journey.” His kind eyes gazed at the pig while he stroked it, and his mouth moved as he spoke to the animal. Chris couldn’t hear what he was saying. Raising his voice, he then said, “We hit a few potholes on the way in. You know what these fucking roads are like now.” He then pulled his coat tight against himself and shivered.
Michael looked up and whispered, “They have a lot of food.”
Chris nodded. “They do, son.”
“Do you think they’ll leave us some if they come into our house?”
He put his hand on Michael’s little head and said, “I hope so.”
Wishing he’d made his son come away from the window before the third truck pulled in, Chris nearly vomited from what he saw.
Staring at a blue truck, identical to the second, Michael’s innocent face fell slack. Pulling his blonde fringe from his eyes as if un-obscuring his view would show him a different reality to the one unfolding outside, he said, “What’s that truck for, Dad?”
Like the second truck, this one also had a cage welded to the back. The cage was about the same size as the other one, but instead of being loaded with food, it was full to bursting with women. They were pressed against the bars like battery hens, and they shuffled in the cramped space like veal in crates. Deciding it was time to be more honest with his son because their survival would likely hinge on his cooperation, Chris said, “It’s for keeping women.”
Finding the scene outside too upsetting, Chris looked at his son and brushed his fine hair from his wide eyes. “I don’t think so; I think they’ve stolen them and taken them as slaves. It would appear that they’re looting for women and girls as well as food.”
Although Michael only said, “Oh,” his little face looked like he was trying to comprehend the fact. “Why would they steal women?”
“Because they’re bad men.”
Sounding hopeful, Michael said, “Do you think Mum and Matilda are in there? Maybe we could steal them back?”
Another truth that Chris had chosen to withhold from his son was the whereabouts of his mother and sister, but now wasn’t the time to reveal it. Looking out of the window again, pretending to scan the dirty and broken faces in the cage on the back of the third truck, Chris said, “I can’t see them.”
“Hmmm,” Michael said thoughtfully, and then added, “Do you think they’ll leave my chocolate? I’ve been careful to make that lasts as long as possible. I’ve sucked just one square every night.”
Blinking the tears from his eyes, Chris pulled his son’s ration-emaciated body tightly to him. Like everything else in the house, Michael smelt of mould. Chris shivered as he said, “Maybe.” Clearing his throat quietly, he repeated, “Maybe. What we need to accept is that they will take whatever they want, and there are too many of them for us to argue.”
Michael said another, “Hmmm.”
Chris scanned the room again. With no television, no electricity, no gas and no physical energy because of their poor diet, the life they’d chosen beneath the bedclothes had seemed to be the most sensible option at the time. Chris didn’t see what moving would achieve, especially as the open road stank of human waste because of overflowing sewers. The life he’d chosen for them had seemed sustainable. Or rather, it had until now.
Looking again at the truck with the women, Michael said, “What do you think they do with the little boys? Will they take Tommy prisoner? Will they take me prisoner?”
Looking at the leader and his blood-encrusted suit, Chris swallowed back the bilious burn rising in his throat and tried to speak, but his face buckled out of control.
Michael, who was staring at what was happening outside with his jaw hanging limp, didn’t notice.
Drawing a thick and stuttered breath, Chris said. “I don’t think they will. I don’t think they make little boys prisoners.”
“Thank God,” Michael said with relief.
Looking away again, Chris blinked as a solitary tear ran down his cheek. He felt like a fool for not seeing this coming from a mile off because the signs had been there months before. He thought about the conversation he’d had with his boss just over a year ago.