Sunday Story Time
Abbey Manor – from 2006, but I still like this one. I sent it to Interzone, although they didn’t bite. (Possibly not surprising – this version has been edited to get rid of Eggregious Semi-Colon Disease.)
(This was inspired by my experiences working in the fields of local government and mortgages. I’d write a book about them except I doubt that anyone would believe a word of it…)
Sylvia McGrath slammed the cheap grey handset down. She said, ‘I don’t believe it!’ The offending telephone sat guiltily on the desk in front of her.
On the desk opposite, Carla Vance looked up from her work. Sunlight slanted through the blinds behind her, leaving bright streaks across the papers on her desk. She brushed a strand of her auburn hair from her eyes. ‘What now?’
‘That was Mrs Kilburnie – again!’ Sylvia pointed at the phone.
Carla frowned. ‘I know the name…’
‘The woman I’ve spoken to three times this year. You know, the amazing wrecked flat? Whenever I think I’ve got it sorted out, it comes back!’ Sylvia’s chair creaked as she leaned back, running her hands through her blond hair. The chatter of the office and the hum of the air conditioning surrounded them in a susurration of noise. Through the half-open window nearby, scents drifted in from the rose bed outside. Some people were just visible in the distance, working in the vegetable gardens.
Carla blinked. ‘Oh yeah, I remember you said. She rings back and it’s always the same damaged kitchen, was it?’
‘Bathroom, actually.’ Sylvia rolled her grey eyes. ‘I gather she’s in one of those old Sixties tower blocks.’
‘Ouch. No wonder she’s cranky.’
‘Yeah, and it got shot up during the Invasion.’
‘I’m surprised it’s still standing,’ Carla said.
Sylvia nodded. ‘Me too. Anyway, I keep e-mailing the other people, you know, in Estates Reconstruction, get someone round there, patch it up…’
‘…and they don’t show up.’ Carla nodded sympathetically but she waved a hand around to encompass the office. ‘You and everyone else. They’re the bane of us all. Sometimes I think they exist just to make everyone in Social Services’s lives more difficult. They never seem to get anything done.’
‘They don’t, do they?’ Sylvia said. ‘No matter how many memos or emails or calls I do … they say they’ll look at it, but do they ever? Hell no.’
‘Too much damage, everywhere, I suppose. I guess it’s why the council hasn’t shifted us back to the city.’
‘I know, I know.’ Sylvia sighed. ‘Still, I sometimes feel like I’m talking to machines when I send these e-mails or ring those offices. Or the Aliens, for all I know – the other staff are about that hard to get sense out of! They seem useless.’
Diplomatically, Carla said, ‘I’m sure they try their best.’
Sylvia snorted. She glanced at the clock on her computer. She made a note on a scrap of paper with a pencil, then slipped the paper into her pocket.
Carla blinked. ‘What was that all about?’
Sylvia twitched, a shadow on her face. ‘Oh, just a project. Nothing important. You know, I might go to lunch – I’m starving.’
‘Okay. I’ll – oh, drat.’ With excellent timing, Carla’s phone was ringing.
Sylvia stood up and strode briskly from the busy office. She left the last rank of desks behind and entered the corridor. It was like walking onto another planet – suddenly she was in a richly-carpeted hall with elaborate décor and gorgeous Victorian gas lamps, all retrofitted for electricity. Everything was mahogany and gilt-edging. A short distance down the corridor and a left turn and she was walking into the main foyer. And it blatantly was a foyer, even down to the dusty souvenir stand near the door.
In happier days, before the council moved their desk staff here, this house had been a museum. Some time before that it had been the estate of a wealthy landowning family. Before even that, the site had been home to a monastery, until Henry the Eighth had sent the monks packing in the sixteenth century. All that remained of the monastery was a ruined chapel in the gardens and the estate’s name – Abbey Manor. When the social workers arrived, it had been hurriedly refitted as office space, but in the chaos of the Invasion the council had lacked time to gut the interior. It was one small mercy, Sylvia supposed. It would be a travesty to repaint a beautiful old building like this in NHS Blue.
Sylvia hovered at the foot of the grand stairway, feet scuffing on the shiny marble floor. She looked toward the refectory, then to the grand front entrance. The iron-bound oak-beam doors were invitingly ajar, letting in a wedge of summer sunlight. Sylvia nodded, smiling in sudden resolve – food could wait. Half an hour outside seemed like a good idea!
Moments later her heels were clicking on the stone steps outside as she walked to the gardens. Abbey Manor had been set in five acres of gorgeous formal gardens – even with the upheavals of the last few years, it still retained some traces of elegance. In the distance was the edge of the woods, and sunlight glinting from the lake. Sylvia could see the backs of people fishing. Between them and her, the old formal lawn had been torn up for rows of vegetables – busy figures moved to and fro amongst the crops. With the transport infrastructure of the region in ruins, getting supplies in from outside was seemingly-impossible. The social workers had to grow their own food.
Sylvia wasn’t due a shift in the gardens for another couple of days, thank goodness.
Sylvia shook her head, looking up at the quiet sky above. No contrails of aircraft marred it, nor sound of motors in the wind. It all seemed bizarre sometimes. Back when the Invasion began three years ago, when the Aliens’ craft had filled the skies of a fearful world, Sylvia had refused to believe it. Even when she saw those first missiles being fired on TV, and the fires, the blackened stumps of buildings and the columns of refugees fleeing Moscow and Karachi and Rio, she’d still doubted. It was too weird; it had to be a hoax. Even when the council ordered their staff out to the countryside, ‘just in case’, she was still sceptical. It held out even while the TV broadcasts became sporadic and the commentary hysterical. Like everyone else, she had seen that satellite shot of New York, with the mushroom cloud, and the expanding ring of torn cloud, like an inverted noose, yet still she had wondered if it was faked.
It had only finally become real for her on that terrifying day two and a half years ago, when the lights died and the phones fell quiet. She remembered walking the corridors of Abbey Manor, dazed, passing other stunned people. She recalled the eerie silence that held throughout the building, all the little things like fans and air conditioning and the quiet groaning of the radiators, things happily ignored until they cease. She remembered the smells, sweat, perfume and fear. She remembered that first night with no heating in winter and the cold creeping into her small room. She had huddled there amongst her blankets in the dark, afraid to move for fear of somehow summoning the Aliens.
Sylvia shook her head violently, trying to dispel the morbid recollections. Best to think of the present of the present. It was bad to dwell on the past.
She walked down the steps, nodding to various people whom she knew. She made her way out into the gardens, intending to do a circuit.
She was halfway around when she saw the familiar figure of Peter Carroll, over by the remains of the chapel. Carroll was sat there, leafing through some charred-looking papers. Sylvia wondered what they were. Intrigued, she headed over.
‘Hello Sylvia.’ Carroll – she never thought of him as Peter, it seemed too familiar for the man who ran Abbey Manor – was looking down. Carroll had arrived days after the power died. He had seemed surprised when he had walked into the manor – he had said he was amazed at the good condition it was in. He had told them the joyous news that the Aliens seemed to have departed. When they had asked about the council and the city, he had explained the council had sent him here to get the place set up to co-ordinate the rebuilding. Carroll had taken over the management of Abbey Manor and had quickly got things moving again.
‘Hello.’ The chapel’s remains were a mixture of nearly-intact walls and low heaps of rubble, all open to the elements. Sylvia sat herself on the nearest heap. ‘You’re back, I see.’
Carroll nodded. He was often away, walking to the city to meet with other council officials. ‘No rest for the wicked.’
‘What have you got there?’
‘Oh – some stuff I found in the city. Not important.’ He put them aside, but not before Sylvia caught a glimpse of a newspaper headline. They were yellowed and the edges of the sheets were burnt.
‘They look old.’
‘Yeah. Pre-Invasion.’ He shrugged. ‘I got taken with morbid curiosity.’ He looked up, meeting her eyes.
Sylvia smiled. ‘So, the city. Any news?’
He reached up to brush some hair aside and stared fingering his ear lobe. ‘Same as ever – much to be done, and frankly it’s still an absolute mess there. The electric’s still wobbly – they have power at the offices but elsewhere?’ He shook his head.
‘Just as well we have our own generator,’ Sylvia agreed. The Manor had been running on the ‘back-up’ generator since the day Carroll had arrived. No-one had thought to connect it before his appearance – without his arrival, Sylvia suspected they may still be stumbling around in the dark now. Carroll had become the guiding force around here. It sometimes seemed that he kept the Manor going by the sheer force of his will.
‘Yes, it is. Surprising foresight for the authority.’ They both chuckled at the expense of local government.
‘Talking of local authorities, any news on when we get to go back?’
Carroll looked at her, eyes haunted. ‘Not yet, Sylvia.’
Sylvia shook her head. ‘It must be about time.’
‘We’re better off out here, Sylvia. The city’s still in a state. Utilities, roads, the lot – everything got trashed. It’ll take forever to sort out properly. At least out here there’s hot running water on tap and regular power.’
‘I know.’ Sylvia pounded her hand with a fist, looking frustrated. ‘It’s just that we all feel so useless out here, just sat on the phones all day, telling other people what to do. If we could be there and doing things…’
‘Sylvia, what we – what you – do here is important.’ Carroll looked into her eyes. His face was intense. Somewhere in the background, a bird sang. ‘Without the co-ordination, things would be even worse. It makes a real difference.’
Sylvia sighed. ‘Here I have a single room – a converted closet barely wide enough for the bed. I have – I had – a house in the city. It wasn’t big – you know, two up, two down – but it was mine. My little garden was lovely. I’d sit in it and drink tea with friends at the weekend. I was about to get the bathroom done when the Invasion happened. I want…’ She stopped, tears glistening in her eyes. ‘I want to go home!’
Suddenly her cheeks were wet and she heard herself crying. Part of her mind stood back, chiding her for soppiness. Another part wailed with grief for the life now lost.
Awkwardly, Carroll leaned over and put an arm over her shoulders. He gathered her in. She sobbed into his shoulder. ‘Oh, Sylvia.’ His voice was pained. ‘Don’t we all! But we have to keep going, be strong – so we can help the others, the other survivors!’ He dabbed at her cheeks with a handkerchief.
Sylvia nodded, trying to swallow her sobs. He was right, after all. ‘Thanks.’ She sat up, ducking out from under his arm. ‘Thank you for that. I – I think I was overcome for a minute there.’
He nodded. ‘That’s okay. I feel the same way too, sometimes.’ He looked around himself, anywhere but at her.
Sylvia looked up at the blue sky. To change the subject, she said, ‘Isn’t it funny, how quiet the sky is now?’
Carroll twitched. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I can’t recall the last time I saw a plane go over.’
‘Well, I suppose aviation fuel’s probably rationed now.’ Carroll fingered his ear again, as if it were itching. ‘Not much of it about! Anyway, I had best be getting on – time’s wasting and all of that!’ He looked ostentatiously at his watch, then gathering his papers he sprang to his feet and hurried off. He did not give her even the one backward glance.
Sylvia sat there amongst the ruined splendour of the chapel. She watched him go with a puzzled look on her face. As his figure receded back into the manor, she looked back to the quiet sky, brows furrowed.
‘ “Not much of it about”. I guess not, then.’
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the bit of paper from before. She sat there in the shadows of the ruin, looking at it pensively.
Lunch saw Sylvia sat with Carla at a trestle table in a corner of the refectory. The large room was filled with the clinking of cutlery, the quiet chatter of people talking and the smell of today’s ‘special’, potatoes with cheese.
Sylvia poked at it with her fork. ‘How is this “special”?’ she said.
Carla shrugged. ‘I guess it beats starving.’
Potatoes with cheese. It had been lunch for months now. Cheese from their few, treasured cows, potatoes from the improvised fields outside.
Sylvia broke some off with her fork. She chewed on it. The potato was a bit tough. The cheese needed work, but it wasn’t the worst she’d had here. ‘At least the cheese hasn’t gone off this time,’ she observed.
Carla nodded. ‘Yeah. Makes you wonder when the city’ll get round to sending us some supplies.’
‘Yes,’ Sylvia said. ‘It does, doesn’t it?’
Carla glanced out the window. ‘We could do with some builders. A few new houses. Even a tent or two!’
Sylvia followed her gaze. They had the big picture window to their left. It looked out toward the village opposite the Manor, where the Social Services staff and their families actually lived. Six hundred and seventy people crammed into a place which had been built for less than two hundred. Most of the houses were occupied at capacity. Sylvia counted herself lucky to have even a single room to herself. She had said as much to Carla before.
‘I hear we have some new arrivals on the way.’
‘Yeah. Joan was looking ready to pop last time I saw her.’
‘She’s sharing a house with six others. How will the baby fit in?’
Carla laughed. ‘They’ll find a way – Steve’ll sleep on the porch if he has to. He was absolutely glowing at being a dad when I spoke to him.’
‘That’s good. What with his parents and his brother and sister all dead…’ Sylvia shook her head. They were known to have died. They had been in London when it was glassed. The family friend Steve had said they had been visiting had lived less than a mile from Rayne’s Park, and that had been Ground Zero. It had been sheer luck he was somewhere else at the time – a life saved by a cancelled train.
Carla sighed. ‘You know, I think Steve’s lucky.’
Sylvia blinked. ‘How do you work that?’
‘At least he knows, you see?’ She looked forlornly at her meal, stirring her food desultorily with her fork. ‘I don’t. I mean, I’m pretty sure, you know, but not completely. The doubt – it’s awful, just nagging all the time. I’ve tried e-mailing and I’ve even tried ringing them, but it doesn’t work. No answer.’
Sylvia frowned. ‘No, it doesn’t work, does it?’
Carla lifted an eyebrow.
‘Have you ever noticed that we never hear from anyone out here? I mean, aside from Estates Reconstruction and random callers in the city.’
Carla sighed. ‘Well, I suppose with the phones all screwed up…’
‘No. I – I find it odd that people don’t try and find us. You know, lovers, children, parents, friends. You’d think people would seek us out. We’re not that far from the city and we’ve been here two and a half years. And let’s face it, it’s not exactly a secret we’re here, is it?’
‘Well, the transport’s a mess. You remember that week, the first one, when we tried to get out? It’s a way to walk.’
Sylvia nodded. After the phones and the lights died, several people tried to find help. They reported that a few miles from the manor, the roads had been bombed to bits and were impassable. The station in the village was still intact – the Aliens had left touched the village – but further down the line the track had been cut off by a crater.
Sylvia drew a deep breath and released it slowly, nodding. ‘Well I suppose. But still, you know, you’d think at least someone would try and find us. And there are the calls.’
‘Well, the public do need our help, you know-’
‘No, I didn’t mean like that. What I meant was, the repetitiveness.’
‘You’ve lost me.’
Sylvia leaned forward, elbows on the tabletop. She lowered her voice. ‘That note I wrote earlier. That you asked about. It’s a little side-project of mine. I’ve skimmed off some paper for it.’
Carla looked shocked. ‘Sylvia! Wastage! You know how little we have!’
‘Yes, and that’s odd too. You’d think there’d be some attempt to deliver us the stuff we need, at least every now and then – helicopters, maybe. They could get in. But the calls – I noticed a while back, the same thing seem to keep coming back, like Mrs Kilburnie earlier. Last year, I started keeping a record. Names, subject, length of call.’
‘What a waste. And boring.’
‘No, not a waste at all. It’s not boring, it’s creepy. Do you know what I found?’
Carla shook her head, an uneasy light in her eyes. Around them, people carried on chattering over their meals. Cutlery clinked against crockery and the air smelt weakly of potato and cheese.
‘The same calls,’ Sylvia said, ‘come back. There’s a four-month cycle when they repeat. I can’t prove it, but I think if you taped them and played them back, they might even be word for word.’
Carla looked disturbed. ‘But – are you sure?’
Sylvia nodded. ‘There’s no doubt. Something’s going on.’
‘But – but what? We get calls from people, and you know…’
‘…And we get no news from the outside. We see no planes in our skies. None of our work ever seems to resolve anything. The people we talk to seem so dense sometimes, all the little things they just don’t quite understand. Whenever I talk to them, I feel like there’s some basic gap between my understanding and theirs.’
‘What are you implying?’
Sylvia quirked an eyebrow. ‘Are the people we talk to who they say they are? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.’
‘ “Wrong question”?’
‘I wonder if maybe the right question isn’t who they are but what they are. There’s something at the end of those phone lines, but I don’t think it’s human.’
Carla stared, aghast. She hugged herself, leaning back. The quiet noise of the refectory surrounded them.
‘You – you’re not suggesting-’
‘Oh yes. Yes I am.’
Sylvia’s voice was incisive and bitter. ‘Why was this village spared when the Aliens ravaged our planet? Why did they make every effort to cut us off – smashing the roads and the trains – but not touch a hair on our heads, trap a breeding population out here? I think it was no accident – we’re a zoo exhibit, like in America with the Indians penned in on their little reservations. They’ve stolen our planet, loaded up their celestial shopping trolley with real estate, but they’ve hung onto a few of us for laughs.’
‘But Carroll came here after it all went dark…’
A sudden, cool rage glinted in Sylvia’s eyes. She rapped her knuckles on the table. ‘Yes, he did, didn’t he? Our only visitor. How dodgy. You remember how surprised he looked when he got here? I don’t think he was ever from the council. If I took a knife and gutted him, I wonder what I’d find inside? Would there be a heart and lungs and a liver? Or would there be something else?’
‘You think he’s one of them?’
Sylvia shrugged. ‘I can’t prove it, but I’m beginning to wonder.’
Carla shook her head violently. ‘No, this is too much. Sylvia, you’re tired and upset. You’ve been working too hard. I think it’s getting to you. You’re shooting off into absurd, stupid conspiracy theories. The service users keep coming back to us because there isn’t money to do the jobs thoroughly, so things break again. And there must be some calls missing from this record of yours. People don’t come because the transport links are gone.’
Sylvia smiled lopsidedly. ‘No planes in the sky, no helicopters, no-one coming or going except Carroll. Sorry, Carla, it does sound like a cage to me.’
Carla abruptly stood up, knocking her chair back with a screech. Some people nearby glanced over their shoulders in passing interest. ‘Sylvia, I don’t think you’re well. I’m going to go to Carroll and tell him you need some time off, some rest.’
‘No, Sylvie, I’m sorry.’ Carla turned and strode off, heels clicking loudly on the linoleum.
Sylvia sighed and shook her head. She whispered, ‘You leave me no choice. I am not going to rot for the rest of my life in some alien zoo.’
* * *
Sylvia went back after lunch, for a while, but Carla was not there. She poked idly at her computer and took a few calls, but her motivation had gone. While at lunch earlier, she realised, her suspicions had finally crystallised. She no longer had any belief that the people she talked to were actual human beings with real needs. With each call she wondered if she was unknowingly starring on some bizarre alien TV-show. Perhaps, as she struggled to make sense of each garbled whinge from the handset, audiences of inhuman monsters were laughing at her, mocking her efforts.
At three o’clock, she glanced up.
On the other side of the room, Carroll was talking to a couple of the junior managers – and Carla! Even as she looked, they glanced her way. They started walking.
They were walking toward her.
They threaded their way through the desks. Each step brought them nearer. Carroll’s face was expressionless, but the grey of his eyes seemed steelier than normal. Around them, surreally, the chatter of the office carried on as ever. A monster walked amidst them and no-one even looked up!
Sudden fear gripped Sylvia. What did they want?
She knew, suddenly: her. It was her they were coming for. She had foolishly aired her suspicions. They knew she was onto them. Carroll’s kind had shown no compunction toward slaughter – surely one more death wouldn’t bother them?
Almost before she knew it, she slammed down the handset. She jumped to her feet and strode purposefully from the desk. She held her face rigid, determined to show no fear. They must retain some doubt – they must be wondering what she knew. If she moved fast, maybe she could escape.
As she moved between the desks, heading pointedly in the direction of the toilets, Carroll moved to intercept her. He was three desks away. No, two now. No, he was entering the row!
‘Sylvia, can I have a word-’
‘Sorry Mr Carroll, I need the loo.’ She looked ahead, focusing on the green door to the ladies’ as if it were a life belt.
‘Sylvie, it’ll only take a moment.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t wait any longer.’ Well, that much was true at least!
The door was just in front of her, Carroll just behind.
She opened the door, slipped through and shut it in his face. She pulled the bolt across. It clicked shut. She turned and called out, in false cheer, ‘I’ll just be a minute!’
She stood behind it. The door was a faded blue. With idle disapproval she noticed that the paint was cracked here and there. An old potpourri sat in a ceramic bowl in the corner. Its contents had been there a while – they no longer scented the room but just sat there looking tired and wilted.
She had a few moments to think. What to do? She looked around the small lavatory room for inspiration. There was the toilet and its cistern. On the opposite wall was the sink with its shiny taps. And on the wall in front of her, opposite the door, was a window!
Inspiration arrived. Desperate hope fluttered inside her. Maybe there was no-one outside?
There was a knocking on the door. ‘Sylvia! Open up!’
Over her shoulder, she shouted, ‘Go away! I’m busy!’
Her hands were fingering the latch. Quietly, she raised it. The window revealed the gardens, sunlight and nothing else. No-one stood nearby.
The window seemed small. Sylvia looked at it, dubiously. Could this work?
The knock came again; harder. This time, she saw the door rattle. Her decision made, she lowered the lid of the toilet and climbed onto it. She leaned out of the window, poking her head through, looking down. There was a flowerbed four feet below – a drop, but hopefully a manageable one.
She gripped the frame and began to haul herself out.
There was no room to sit up or try to turn around. The frame scraped her shoulders. With a resolute shrug, she dragged herself through. For a moment she teetered, balanced along her waist, then she toppled forward.
She landed in an undignified heap, with a thud. A cloud of dirt billowed around her. She heard the window bang shut above her, dislodged by her passage.
Sylvia lay there, stunned for a moment, head spinning. Then, dimly, she heard the knock and the muffled imprecations again. Urgency returned to her. With a groan, she stumbled to her feet. A quick inspection revealed some bruises but no sign of any real damage.
Thankfully, she had not pulled any muscles.
Sylvia turned and ran off toward her house.
She stood, looking in at her room. She had arrived to find the house empty, the front door open. Dirty boot-prints had led upstairs, to her room. Her door was open too and the contents of the room strewn everywhere – clothes, books, bedding, all thrown around into chaotic disarray. The drawers had been jerked from her chest. One of them lay broken beside it.
Sylvia entered the room. A quick survey confirmed her suspicions: nothing was missing except her little diary of calls. Sylvia nodded in grim satisfaction. ‘Quel surprise,’ she muttered with cynicism. She reached out and grabbed her green rucksack. Quickly she stuffed a couple of changes of clothes into it. She looked down and decided to abandon her skirt. She changed quickly to a more practical pair of jeans. Sylvia also ditched her work shoes for her old pair of walking boots. She bundled herself a couple of sheets into the bag – she might need them. She also grabbed her flash light. It was big and heavy and in an emergency, she supposed it might do as a club. She heaved it thoughtfully, then she tucked it into her belt.
Finally, she pulled out a booklet from amongst the chaos of items: her old Ordinance Survey map of the area. She had used it on walks in the countryside, in happier days. She was glad she had taken it with her to the manor – it was about to come in handy at last!
Hauling the bag onto her shoulder, she turned and left the room. She skipped down the stairs to the kitchen. She ransacked it for all the stored food, loading up a couple of cloth bags. She paused for a moment to wonder at her sudden guilt-free selfishness – just a couple of hours ago this would have seemed a sin, given the food situation! She smiled at the irony – just a few hours ago, she had still felt safe here.
She looked at the garden door – better to leave that way; she could get to the woods faster, with less chance of being seen and stopped. She would have to loop around to go the way she intended, but that was no real problem.
She put her hand on the handle and twisted.
* * *
Sylvia made it to the trees without seeing anyone. Her luck seemed to be holding so far. The buildings quickly vanished behind the wall of dense undergrowth. Insects buzzed at her and twigs crunched under foot. The Sun became an odd presence, glimpsed in dazzling flashes between the leaves. The air was scented with damp loam. She had to tread carefully for the ground was uneven under foot.
With the lumpy ground and her burden of items, Sylvia was immediately glad of her decision to switch shoes and skirt. Even though it had taken precious moments, she doubted she would have stood much chance of getting far otherwise.
Sylvia looped around the village in the woods, until her path brought her to the old A-road to the city. It was supposedly impassable by car but she wondered if perhaps it could be navigated on foot. Presumably it must be possible. Carroll had to have got here somehow in the first place, though she now doubted his claims of returning to the city regularly.
Her feet were loud on the tarmac. In places it was slightly melted in the summer heat. It was also crumbly – little weeds and the odd sapling or two were pushing their way up. Cracks and potholes were everywhere. After a couple of hours she came across a burnt-out car, sat askew on the verge. The glass was gone from its windows and its paintwork had been scorched off. Of its owner, she could find no sign.
She walked on.
After some thought and another mile or so of distance, Sylvia decided to draw back from the road itself, into the bushes. Although she would move faster on the tired tarmac, she would have a better chance of evading pursuers with some cover.
Time passed, amongst the rustling of leaves and the stirring of branches in the breeze. As she travelled, the road beside her began showing evidence of violence. She saw more abandoned cars, several of which had clearly been shot at. Once, she was appalled to find a stripped skeleton and some fragmentary clothing, lying in long grass beside the road. She chose not to linger to inspect the remains; rather it induced her to hurry.
The Sun moved in the sky and the day wore on. Sylvia stopped for some refreshment by a small pond amidst the trees. Her fear of pursuit was fading. She had seen no evidence of any other living person since leaving Abbey Manor. It occurred to her that she had travelled further in this single day then she had in years. She contemplated this notion as she munched a bread roll. Birds twittered merrily in the branches above her and leaf-scattered sunlight dappled the ground.
Shortly after her meal, she found herself beside a particularly battered stretch of road. The tarmac was so churned with cracks and craters as to be almost extinct. A few twisted heaps of splashed slag suggested the graves of more cars. Sylvia found the violence of the scene chilling – not least the way in which it was restricted almost in entirety to the path of the road. It seemed someone had been methodical in their murder.
She paused to stare at the horrific scene.
The first hint she had of trouble was the sudden silence of the birds. She blinked, then frowned. How puzzling.
There was a rustle somewhere nearby.
Sylvia caught her breath. Renewed fear trickled into her veins. Without conscious volition, the weight of the flashlight was in her hand.
The bushes some feet before her moved. She gawped as a huge black cat emerged!
This was no domestic tabby. It stood three feet high at the shoulder. The panther regarded her with cool disdain. It opened its mouth in a slow, feline snarl. Sylvia watched in horror as the sunlight flashed on its fangs. She thought of all the zoos, across the country, with smashed walls and no-one to watch their occupants…
The cat considered her. Nervous, she hefted her flashlight. It seemed a paltry defence. With a yawn of feline contempt, it visibly dismissed her. The panther turned tail and slunk off into the undergrowth.
Shivering despite the heat, Sylvia shook her head slowly. She glanced back, in the direction of that skeleton. An alternative suggestion for the lack of visitors suggested itself. She was unsure if it was better or worse.
The sky was stained in pastel reds and purples with the sunset as Sylvia finally emerged onto a very familiar rise. The edge of the city lay just beyond. A few more steps away from the forest behind and it should slide into view. Even as she eagerly strode forward, the carmine disk of the Sun touched the western horizon. It was a fittingly dramatic sunset for a dramatic day, she supposed. She felt weary right down to her bones; her legs ached from the effort of the day’s long walk and her shoulders were sore from the weight of her rucksack. She felt sticky and dirty from the exertion in the heat. She found herself longing for a hot bath and a glass of red wine!
Her tired feet scrunched on the unruly grass as she crested the rise.
There she stopped, staring. She had thought herself inured to horror, but Sylvia discovered she wasn’t. She surveyed the site of the city, laid out in the river valley before her, her pupils and her mouth wide in the dying sunlight.
Even garlanded as it was in long, irregular shadows, there was no mistaking the ruination of the city. No hint of rebuilding, whether Alien or human, marred the charred stumps and broken walls. Everywhere she looked she could see vegetation encroaching on desolation. Vines and trees sought to cover the broken teeth of office buildings and overflowing gardens spilled from the gutted corpses of houses. The twisted remains of streetlamps leaned like crazy fingers over the wrecked streets. Nowhere did she see movement or the gleam of artificial light. The middle sections of the city’s remains were sticking out of a vast lake, red like blood in the sunset – it seemed the river had burst its banks at some point.
Her worst, darkest fear lay confirmed before her. There was no council now, nor were there any survivors. It really all was a fiction. She sank to the ground, stunned.
It seemed somehow unsurprising that she now heard footsteps approaching behind her, clicking quietly on the road’s tarmac. What better place, she supposed, for the last confrontation?
The feet stopped, some way behind her. They waited politely, while she gazed out over the desolation. She wondered dully at it, then she supposed it was no real surprise. There was no point rushing this, nothing to be lost by allowing her this moment of mournful reflection.
Time passed. The Sun sank further. The feet waited. Finally, Sylvia decided it was time. She shrugged out of the straps of her rucksack – she felt she may as well relieve herself of that burden, at least – and she turned around.
Carroll stood, eight feet behind her.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘here you are. How did you catch up with me?’
‘I was here first.’ He pointed. She saw, off in the trees to one side, a battered-looking Land Rover. ‘The roads are useless, but if your car can go off-road?’ He shrugged.
‘I get it from petrol stations, here and there. The tanks are still full. Why wouldn’t they be? No-one’s tapped them for years. The same places I get fuel for Abbey Manor.’ He smiled lopsidedly.
Sylvia nodded. ‘You get it. Not anyone else. So there is no council.’
‘No. Well, not here, anyway. I haven’t been further away then what’s left of London, so I can’t say about the rest of the world. It’s pretty quiet down here in England, though.’
‘And your friends, the Aliens?’
The bloody sunset flashed like fire in his eyes. ‘They’re not my friends. They’re gone. Whatever it was they wanted, they got it and they’ve gone. I haven’t seen so much as a saucer in two and half years.’
‘So, no Aliens, no council. The callers?’
He shrugged. ‘I was a CompSci postdoc before the Invasion. We had a Turing machine we’d been playing with – a poor one, but for restricted conversations, like with customers, it’d do, just about. I mean, no-one expects service users to seem very intelligent, do they? And the device itself survived the Invasion. Plugging it into a generator and what was left of the phone system wasn’t difficult. Your e-mails and your calls come from there.’ He pointed across the valley, toward a somewhat-more-intact building.
She frowned. ‘Why?’
‘Why? When I stumbled across you lot, you were the only other survivors I’d met, and you were a sorry mess. Depressed, grief-ridden, listless – I thought I’d better do something, lest you all go out and top yourselves. I mean, for all I knew, there might not be anyone else.’
‘So you set yourself up as a manager and put us to work.’
‘Basically – yes. I thought I’d better keep you busy while I decided what to do next.’
She nodded. ‘Is that “next” ever going to arrive?’
‘It’ll have to, now, won’t it? You’ve found me out.’ Seeing the look on her face, he explained, ‘After a while it picked up a momentum of its own. I’d always planned to end the deception once people seemed okay, but I was never sure when the right time was. And to be honest, part of me enjoyed playing lord of the manor. Guess I over-reached myself in the end.’
‘You do realise I’m going to tell them the truth. At the Manor.’
‘I suppose so. But what next?’
She shrugged. ‘Maybe it’s time the people at Abbey Manor decided that for themselves, don’t you think? If we are all that’s left of humanity, maybe we should have some say in its future. Unless of course you plan to stop me?’
‘How exactly would I do that?’ He shrugged. ‘I’m not homicidal. Hell, I may even drive you back, if you want.’
‘So you aren’t going to stop me?’
He shook his head. ‘No.’
She turned back, to watch the sunset flaming in the sky.