Chapter Nineteen

Jack Baxter left his room and walked to the end of the corridor. He wasn't planning on going anywhere in particular, he just needed a change of surroundings. Like many of the other desperate individuals sheltering in the university, the relative quiet and lack of distractions in the building had left him with nothing to do but dwell on the inexplicable hell that his life had become. Jack had spent most of the day sitting on the end of his bed just thinking. He couldn't even remember what he'd been thinking about.

At the far end of the corridor was a narrow square landing leading onto a staircase. Floor to ceiling length windows let the grey autumnal light seep inside.

Jack stood a short distance away from the nearest window and peered down into the mass of dark, decaying bodies still being drawn towards the university and, in particular, the accommodation block.

Why did they stay, he wondered? He took a few cautious steps forward. His position was too far and too high for him to be seen by any of the bodies but he still took care to stay to the side and try and keep out of sight. He was terrified that one of the corpses might see him and start to react. He imagined the effect of that single reaction running through the entire crowd. He'd seen it happen several times before today - a slight disturbance in one part of the huge gathering would spread across the immense gathering like a shock wave. It had happened when the woman had jumped to her death from the window earlier.

He could just about see her from where he was standing. Poor cow, he thought. He couldn't help thinking that she was better off where she was now. 'Bloody mess, isn't it?' a sudden and unexpected voice said from close behind him. Jack quickly turned around to see that it was Bernard Heath. He'd noticed that Heath seemed to have a real problem with being on his own. He could often be seen walking around the building in search of someone to be with.

'Sorry, Jack,' Heath continued, 'I didn't mean to disturb you. It's just that I saw you standing here and I thought I'd check that you were...' 'I'm fine,' Jack said quietly, anticipating his concerns and truncating his sentence. Heath took a few steps forward and peered down into the rotting crowd. 'I reckon this lot will start to disappear sooner or later,' he said with a tone of unexpected optimism in his voice.

'As soon as something happens somewhere else to attract their attention, they'll be off.' 'Like what?' Jack asked. 'There's not really very much going on out there, is there?' Heath didn't answer.

'I'll tell you what's getting to me,' he said instead, his voice quiet and tired and unexpectedly candid, 'it's how slowly everything seems to happen around here. I mean, I'm sitting downstairs with the rest of them and no-one says a word. I look up at the clock and get distracted. Next time I look at the clock it feels like ages later but only a couple of minutes have gone by...' 'That's why I'm out here,' Jack mumbled, still staring into the dark crowd below. 'I was just sitting in my room staring at the walls and going out of my bloody mind.' 'Have you tried reading?' 'No, have you?'

'I did,' he said, scratching the side of his bearded face. 'I used to lecture here. I went back to my office a couple of days ago and picked up a few books. Brought them back with me and sat down to read one but...' 'But what?' 'Couldn't do it.' 'Why?' He shrugged his shoulders and rubbed his eyes. For a moment Jack looked up from the bodies and stared into the other man's drawn and weary face. 'Don't know,' he answered slowly.

'I just couldn't do it. I started to read a novel. I got through a few pages before I had to stop. All it did was remind me of what's happened and what I've lost and...' He stopped talking, feeling suddenly awkward and somewhat embarrassed that he was letting his feelings show so readily again. 'So what happens next then?' wondered Jack, sensing Heath's pain and making a conscious effort to change the focus of the conversation from dwelling on what had gone to trying to look forward. Heath went through the motions of thinking carefully for a few moments. It was pointless really - he'd spent most of the last week pondering endless variations on the question he'd just been asked and in all that time he hadn't managed to find any answers. 'Sit and wait,' he said eventually. 'Is that it?' 'I can't see that there's anything else we can do.'

For a while the two men stood side by side in silence and looked out over the remains of the diseased, battered world. Several minutes later Heath walked away, soon followed by Jack who dejectedly made his way back to his room.

He lay down on the bed and tried to sleep. Sleep was just about the only way he knew to block out the nightmare for a while.


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