Chapter Five

By the time Clare and Jack reached what had been the main shopping area of the city it was almost completely dark. Neither of them wanted to be outside at night. The world had been turned on its head and ripped apart in the last week and nothing could be taken for granted. In daylight it was difficult enough to try and keep track of what was happening around them. In darkness it would be virtually impossible. Jack gently pushed Clare towards Bartrams department store.

A huge and imposing building at the best of times, it had long been a focal point for city shoppers. Now, drenched in crimson-black gloom and crisscrossed by angular shadows cast by the moon above, its tall, grey walls and many small, square windows made it appear unnervingly prison-like. `We can stop here tonight,' Jack whispered. `There'll be food and stuff inside. We'll be okay here.' Clare didn't reply. Exhausted and dejected, it was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. She hadn't said very much since they'd been together. A few tearful sentences when they'd first met and a few grunted words since then had been all. Jack didn't push her to make conversation. He felt and understood her pain. He was hurting too, of course, but he'd suffered loss like this before. Clare, he assumed, hadn't.

He tried to help her but his well-meaning words appeared to have very little positive effect. `I know it's hard,' he'd said a while back as they'd followed the main road into the remains of the high street. `My missus died last year. I know what you feel like. You think you're hurting so much that you'll never get over it but you will. Believe me, it will get easier.' `How can it get better?' she'd cried. `How can it get better when I've lost everything?' Other than that Clare hadn't responded. Even Jack didn't know if he really believed what he was saying.

At least he'd had a reason and an explanation for the loss he'd suffered when his wife passed away, even if it had been impossible for him to accept why Denise had died. Clare's loss had been completely unexpected and without any justification or obvious cause. Jack had looked long and hard into her drained and emotionless face as they had walked. How scared and bewildered she must have been feeling inside. He'd never had kids of his own but he'd often wished that he had. His brother had a couple of boys.

Stuart was eight and Danny had been five a fortnight ago. It hurt to think about them now because he knew in his heart that they were gone. Thoughts of families and children filled his mind with a multitude of nightmare scenarios. As far as he could see there didn't seem to be any reason or pattern as to who had survived this disaster, who had died or who appeared to at first have died but who had then dragged themselves back up again. What if young children had survived when their parents had died? How would they cope? How would they feed and look after themselves? For a second he pictured Danny, his youngest nephew, alone at home. Danny had done well in reception class at school.

He'd learnt to read a handful of simple words and he could write his name. He could dress himself, he could count up to twenty and, if he really tried, he could just about tie his shoelace in a proper double-bow. But Danny couldn't cook. He couldn't find medicine if he became ill. He couldn't light a fire to keep himself warm. He couldn't defend himself against attack. He simply couldn't survive... Their eventual arrival in the department store in the dead heart of the city brought Jack a welcome distraction from his increasingly dark, morbid and hopeless thoughts. The large store had just opened for business when the disease or virus or whatever it was had struck on Tuesday. A row of large glass doors along the front of the building were open and it seemed, fortunately, that the vast majority of those dead shoppers who had risen up again inside the shop had managed to stumble back out onto the street. Tired and emotionally drained, Jack and Clare wearily worked their way up through the store floor by floor. From the ground floor they collected scraps of food and extra clothing.

On the first floor there was a small hardware department from where they took torches and lights. Using the now stationary escalators running up through the centre of the building as a staircase, they then climbed up to a second floor furniture department. It seemed that the higher they went, the fewer bodies they came across. The clumsy figures couldn't easily cope with climbing up stairs but they were, of course, prone to tripping and falling down. Jack and Clare felt safer the higher they managed to get above ground level. The solitary moving body that they did find on the second floor (trapped between a chest-of-drawers and a fallen wardrobe in a bedroom furniture display) offered no resistance as Jack reluctantly bundled it into a nearby toilet and blocked its way out with a set of bunk beds. They spent a long hour together sitting on an expensive leather sofa, picking at the food they'd collected and sharing a few moments of fragmented conversation. Although it was relatively early (around half-past eight) the darkness, silence and strain of the day combined to make it feel much later. They were both exhausted. In what remained of their world everything seemed to take a hundred times more effort to do than it had done before.

And added to that, nothing could be done which didn't remind them both of all they once had but which now they had suddenly lost. By torchlight Jack flicked through a TV listings magazine he'd found in a dead shopper's bag. Most probably all of the celebrities pictured in the glossy pages were now dead. In any event none of it really mattered. What good were actors, presenters and celebrities now? `We'll have more luck tomorrow, I'm sure of it,' Jack whispered hopefully (although not entirely convincingly). `What do you mean?' Clare mumbled. `We'll find someone else.' `Where?' `I don't know. Look, this is a huge city. There must be more people left alive somewhere. You and I can't be the only ones left, can we?' She shrugged her shoulders. `Well we haven't seen anyone else, have we?' `They must be sheltering. I stayed at home for a while before I went out, I bet there are hundreds of people sitting in their houses waiting for something to happen. They'll have to come out sooner or later to get food and drink and...' Clare wasn't listening. She was crying again. Although he knew that he couldn't do anything to relieve her pain and fear, and even though he knew he wasn't the cause of her suffering, as the only adult around Jack couldn't help but feel responsible and protective towards her.

Cautiously he rested a gentle hand on her shoulder, and then reached across and pulled her closer. Half-expecting her to recoil and pull away, he was surprised when she did the opposite and leant her weight against him fully. `When is this going to stop?' she sobbed, drawing her knees up and making herself as small as possible. `Don't know,' he grunted honestly. `But what caused it all?' `I don't know,' he said again. `Will it happen to us? Is it just taking longer for us to...?' `I don't know, Clare,' he sighed with a hint of resigned frustration clear in his tired voice. `I don't know anything and I can't give you any answers. I know as much as you do.' `But I don't know anything,' she protested tearfully. `Exactly.' A brief silence. `No-one had a chance, did they?' she mumbled. `There wasn't any time, was there? I mean, from the little I saw whatever it was that did all of this seemed to spread across the city like a fire. We don't even know how far widespread this is.' `How far do you think it's gone?' Jack stopped to think for a second. It was the first time for a day or so that he'd actually been able to stop and think about the possible extent of the disaster. `No idea,' he admitted. `But if this was a local thing then you'd have expected people to have arrived to help us by now.' `Maybe they don't think anyone survived?' `Possible.' `Or perhaps they can't get here?' `What?' `Maybe whatever it was that killed everyone is still in the air. Perhaps we're immune to it and they can't come here until it's cleared?' `Don't know. You might be right.' A difficult few minutes followed as both Jack and Clare stopped talking and withdrew to think about what had happened again. It was a natural reaction but thinking didn't seem to help anyone. There were no easy answers and, even worse than the frustration of not being able to understand, thinking inevitably turned into remembering. And remembering hurt. `Do you like this sofa?' Jack asked suddenly, making a deliberate attempt to start talking rubbish and stop trying to make sense of a senseless situation. Surprised, Clare managed half a smile. `Not bothered, why?' `Seen the price of it?' She was sitting on the price label. She sat up and looked at it. `Is that expensive? I've never had to buy a sofa.' `Expensive?' he said, shaking his head in mock despair.

`It's outrageous. Me and Denise kitted out our whole house for just a little bit more than that. And that was a few years back. It's this shop,' he continued. `This shop was always for people that had money or those that thought they had.' `My mum liked this shop,' Clare said quietly, still smiling faintly. `She used to bring us here when we were little.' `I think everyone's mums used to bring them here.' `What, yours too?' He nodded and sat back in his seat.

`Yes, been here for years this place has. It used to be the only place around that sold school uniform. I used to get dragged here once a year in the holidays to get kitted out. And shoes too. We used to get our shoes from here.' `Me too.' `Hated it. Me and my brother both hated it.' `Me too.' `You could see the other kids going through exactly the same thing. There would be loads of us all lined up against the wall to have our feet measured. And we'd all start the next school term with the same shoes...' Clare managed a stifled laugh and sniffed back another tear. `I'm tired,' she said quietly. `Let's go to bed,' he grinned, shining his torch across the store to a line of seven double beds for sale. The survivors gathered their belongings and silently made their way across the shop floor to the beds. Jack found duvets and pillows from another nearby display and tore off their plastic packaging as Clare sat down on the bed in the middle of the row of seven. `You sure you're going to be all right here?' he asked as he passed her a pillow.

`I'll be fine,' she replied as she settled back and attempted to relax. `What about you?' `Oh, I'll be okay,' he said as he opened more bedding and threw it down on the bed next to Clare's. He dragged a small bedside table across the room and put a lamp on top of it. The small circle of yellow-orange light it produced was comforting. `Goodnight then.' `Goodnight.' Jack lay down and, after a few seconds of uncertainty, eventually closed his eyes. He was asleep in a surprisingly short time. He was exhausted. The mental and physical effort of just getting through each minute of the day had been relentless. Now that their conversation had ended the world was silent again save for the occasional noise made by one of the few bodies left trapped in one of the store's lower floors. Clare didn't like being alone. Unable to sleep as easily as Jack, she picked up her duvet and pillow and curled up next to him on his bed. Her hurried movements woke him for a moment. He knew she was in bed with him but he didn't react. Having her close was as reassuring for him as it was for her.


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