Authors: Paul Grzegorzek
Ralph muttered something too low to hear and picked up speed again, leaving the 4x4 behind in moments. He didn’t drive quite as fast as before, however, and after another twenty minutes we reached a crossroads with a sign showing that Milford was only two miles away.
Not long after he took the turn we began to see houses, just one or two at first, but then more and more until we were driving along a street, semi-detached properties overlooking the road with large front gardens and driveways.
Most of the gardens had people in them. Some just milled about, but not a few had barbecues going, presumably to use up the last of the meat from the fridge or freezer before it spoiled.
Each and every one, however, turned to stare as we drove past, some pressing against their fences to get a better look while others waved at us to stop.
“Should we stop?” I asked Ralph uncertainly. While none of them had the fevered, desperate look from the airport or the air of violence the youths in Redhill had had, I still wasn’t comfortable being in the position of having the only working car for miles around. Despite the shotguns, it would be far too easy for someone to just take what they wanted, and I gripped the weapon tight as my stomach began to churn.
“No”, Ralph said, looking back in the mirror, “I don’t reckon they can tell us anything we don’t know already”.
We drove on in watchful silence, Ralph taking a snaking route through the village as the houses went from semi-detached to terraced, then got smaller and smaller until they seemed to crowd in on each other. I didn’t need Ralph’s warning to know that we were entering a much less salubrious area.
“Emily lives here?” I asked, keeping a careful eye on a small group of lads who had jumped to their feet at the sound of our engine and were now watching us in turn, their faces unreadable.
“A few streets over. This is the quickest way”.
I pointed to half a dozen men sitting in garden chairs in the street, empty beer cans littered around their feet as they watched us pass.
“I think the long way might have been better”.
He nodded, his face grim.
“Think you might be right, but too late now”.
As I looked up at the houses, I could see faces pressed to the windows, the whole street seemingly watching us pass. Ralph put his foot down, taking the next turn and I sighed with relief as they disappeared from view.
The street we were on, however, seemed little better. Two lads in their twenties were cycling towards us, bulging backpacks slung over their shoulders and scarves pulled up over their faces despite the heat.
“No points for guessing what they’ve been doing”, I said as we passed them, their looks changing from challenging stares to open fear as I
hefted the shotgun.
Ralph just shook his head, saying nothing, and took the next turn into a street that seemed tidier, the houses slightly larger and the gardens well looked after.
“This is it, number 24”, he said, pulling over and looking up and down the street before getting out.
I followed suit a little more clumsily, trying to keep my weight on my good leg, hold the shotgun and look around to make sure we were safe at the same time.
There was no one in the street, although I could smell barbecuing meat from not too far away and hear the faint buzz of conversation. Several of the houses, however, looked as though they’d been broken into, doors yawning wide and windows smashed.
Having decided that we were relatively safe, Ralph marched up to the door of the nearest house and knocked loudly. I followed more cautiously, still looking around to make sure that no one was watching us.
“Emily, it’s Dad”, he called, face pressed to the glass of the front door, “I’ve come to take you home”.
After a few moments, I saw a shape through the glass as someone approached from the other side, then the door opened on the chain. I couldn’t see past Ralph, but from the smile on his face I knew it had to be Emily.
The door closed again and then opened hurriedly, a hand beckoning us inside.
“Get in, quick”, she said from behind the door, “it’s not safe outside”.
Ralph hurried in and I followed, Emily closing the door behind us. I turned and stuck out my hand to introduce myself, but instead of shaking hands with the dowdy, fifty-something school-teacher type I’d been expecting, I found myself face to face with an attractive woman of athletic build who was several years younger than me, with short brown hair and hazel eyes that looked me up and down challengingly.
“I don’t mean to be rude”, she said to her father, ignoring my hand, “but who the hell is this?”
For the first time since I’d met him, Ralph looked uncomfortable.
“Emily, this is Malco
lm, er, Malc, he calls himself. He and his friend Jerry pitched up in our barn last night and your mum decided to take them in against my better judgement. Turns out they’re ok, though, we used Jerry’s car to get here and Malc agreed to come and help”.
She switched her gaze back to me and I felt like a fly under a microscope. Her eyes dropped to the shotgun, then travelled down to my ankle, the bandages showing above the tongue of my trainer. Finally, she shrugged and held out her hand.
“Hi, Emily. Sorry to be rude but the last twelve hours have been… difficult. No one knows what’s happening, but there are no police anywhere and some of my neighbours have started helping themselves to anything or anyone who takes their fancy. I’ve been barricaded in my bedroom most of the day, listening to them going from house to house. I’ve got no idea what’s happened”.
“It was a solar flare”, I said, “my friend Jerry is an astrophysicist, he can explain it properly when we get back. Which we’d better do as soon as we can if things are as bad here as you say”.
I looked meaningfully at the door and she nodded.
“I’ve packed a bag already, I was going to wait for nightfall and then cycle to the cottage”, she said, “wait here and I’ll grab it”.
She gave Ralph a quick hug and a smile, then disappeared upstairs to return a few minutes later with a camouflage Bergen backpack, heavily laden and tied down professionally. She had also changed into a pair of black combat trousers and a green t-shirt, and had a small bum-bag cinched around her waist.
“Right, I’m ready”, she said, “let’s go”.
I’d been expecting a long wait while she packed, and was greatly relieved that we would be going so quickly. Being in a town was making me nervous, and her retelling of events from that morning had made me even more so.
Hobbling to the door, I opened it and stepped outside, only to backpedal rapidly, almost banging into Emily as she came out behind me.
There, standing around the car with everything from baseball bats to golf clubs, were almost a dozen men ranging from eighteen to fifty, and every one of them was staring as us in a way that made me know deep in my bones that they were itching to use them.
I stopped, my back pressed up against Emily as she in turn halted. The men waiting for us were an unkempt lot, mostly unshaven and overweight, a few in tracksuit trousers or shorts while the others wore jeans. The only clean-looking thing about them was their footwear, almost all of them wearing brand new, gleaming trainers of varying designs that looked fresh out of the box.
“We don’t want no trouble”, one of them called out, taking a half step forward, “just give us the car keys and them shotguns and you can go on your way”.
My heart was thumping so loudly that it was a wonder the others couldn’t hear it. I’d all but forgotten the shotgun, dangling uselessly in my left hand. Ralph hadn’t, however, and a pair of barrels slid into view over my right shoulder, pointing directly at the man who’d spoken.
“How’s about you lot bugger off before I fill you full of holes?” Ralph suggested, his tone as hard and unfriendly as it had been the night before.
I studied the man who had spoken while I waited for his answer, trying to decide how this would play out.
He was in his early forties, at best guess, with greasy salt and pepper hair that hung to his shoulders, swept back and held in place with a pair of new sunglasses, the label still attached to the frame. I didn’t need to be a genius to figure out where both those and the trainers had come from.
His broad, hairy chest and cannonball-like stomach were barely covered by a grubby white vest, almost the same colour as his grey tracksuit trousers in places.
His eyes were what drew me though, two small, brown orbs that flickered over us constantly, weighing, assessing, calculating the way I imagined a horse trader would look over a field of brood-mares.
He watched us for a long moment, then slowly put the golf club he was carrying up on his shoulder, looking for all the world like he was having a catch-up
with his mates outside the pub instead of having his life threatened with a shotgun.
“You got four shots”, he said, leaning back against the car, “and there’s twelve of us. I reckon you can wing what, three or four of us, maybe five, before we get ya.
It comes to that, you and your mate ‘ere’ll get proper fucked up, and girly’ll get another type of fucking, you get me?”
He leered as he spoke and some of his friends laughed, but I could almost hear Ralph’s finger tightening on the trigger.
The whole situation was about to go rapidly downhill, and I had to do something, anything to stop it from devolving into bloodshed.
Before I could think it through and change my mind, I stepped forward and snapped the shotgun up to my shoulder, pointing it directly at the speaker.
“Seems to me like you’ve got it wrong”, I said, frantically dredging my memory for everything I’d ever learned about shotguns. “First, the spread on these is enough to catch every one of you if you come at us”.
I measured the distance by eye and plastered on what I hoped was an evil smile.
“You’re what, twenty feet away? Not even the old man can miss at that range. You know what happens when shotgun pellets hit someone?” I forged on, not giving their leader a chance to speak, as I saw more than a few of them look at each other and begin to mutter, one actually edging behind the car.
“Well the pellet, which is lead, is poisonous anyway, but the worst bit is the sepsis that sets in because each pellet pushes any clothing it passes through into the wound. So you survive the blast, but after a couple of days you start getting sick and even though you think you’ve got the pellets out, your wounds start to ooze pus. Then you start
getting a fever and you end up on your back, getting worse and worse because all those tiny little pieces of cloth are
inside your body
, poisoning your bloodstream and killing you day by day”.
Almost all of them were looking at each other uncertainly now, and one reached out to touch their leader on the shoulder, but he batted the hand away and brought his golf club across his body as if it might protect him.
“And we don’t need to fire right away”, I continued, almost babbling now but determined to get out of this alive at any cost, “we can just wait until you’re a few feet away and fire, and the first couple of you will get cut in half. Who fancies that then. You?”
I pointed the gun towards a brute of a man standing at the back of the car. He’d been in the process of moving towards the back of the group, but now he froze, shaking his head a barest fraction.
“Thought not. How about you?” I swung it towards a lad no more than eighteen, making his blond mullet quiver as he shook his head.
The leader finally found his voice. “Bollocks. No way can you get us all, we’ll fucking tear you apart”.
I nodded in agreement. “You’re right, we can’t get you all, but I reckon that if you come for us fewer than half of you will be standing by the time it’s done. Not good odds for you, is it?”
He struggled with this for a moment, then turned to one of the lads at the back, almost out of sight behind the car.
“Trev, do me a favour?”
Trev nodded. “Sure dad, what?”
“Run back to the house and get everyone else who ain’t doing nothing and bring ‘em back, will ya? If he wants to play numbers, we’ll give ‘im numbers”.
The lad glanced at us nervously and then took off like a hare, keeping the car between us and him until he was well out of range.
“So”, the speaker said, “give it five minutes and there’ll be fifty of us, and then you’re fucked. So what you gonna do about that?”
As he spoke
he was edging back into the crowd, using the others to block him from view as he worked himself around the car.
“Got any bright ideas?” I muttered over my shoulder, having played my hand and lost.
Emily laid a hand on my arm.
“Yes”, she said, “we get back in the house and go through the garden and into the fields, then wait until they get bored. They’ll leave eventually, and then we can c
ome back for the car. Dad?”
“Not much else we can do”, he growled.
“Fine”, I said, “let’s do it”.
Before the group could react, Ralph’s shotgun barrels disappeared back over my shoulder and I heard him retreat into the house. Emily went next but kept a hand on the back of my t-shirt, guiding me back through the doorway.