My heart is thumping and sweat is pouring down my face. I can't think straight. God knows how I'm managing to keep flying. My legs are shaking with nerves and I can hardly keep the wings of the plane level. I've got to keep going. I'm approaching the airfield from the wrong direction but it doesn't matter. There's no-one else left up in the sky. I can't see anyone moving down there. Surely someone should have been out here to help by now?
I have to leave my landing a little longer than I'd like. What's left of Ellis' glider is strewn across the middle of the landing strip. There are pieces of plane and God knows what else scattered all over the place. I can't risk hitting any of the debris. I manage to put the plane down in half the distance I'd usually need. I kill the engine and sit and wait for the propeller to stop moving before I move. I don't want to go out there. I can't see anything or anyone moving. I can't sit here all day. I slowly climb out of the cockpit of the tug and just stand there for a moment, listening to the loudest, most overpowering and terrifying silence I've ever heard.
What the hell has happened here?
There are bodies at the side of the airfield. Without stopping to think about what I'm doing I find myself walking towards them. These aren't people who were flying. There are a couple of faces that I recognise - Meade's daughter is one of them. The rest, I think, are the remains of the men and women visitors who weren't flying. They're dead. They're all dead. As cold and lifeless as the rest of their colleagues who are scattered in pieces around here.
Inside the office I find Chantelle Prentiss, our Admin girl, dead at the front desk. The phone is off the hook next to her upturned hand. It looks like she was in the middle of a call when it (whatever it was) happened. I pick up the phone and lift it to my ear. Silence. I hang up and try to dial out but there's no answer on any number. After a while the phone stops working completely.
The world is dead.
I'm up in the plane again, flying round and trying to find someone else who's left alive. There's no-one.
The whole damn world is dead.
'So what time will you be home tonight?' asked Mrs Appleby, staring with frustration at her daughter across the breakfast table. Sometimes trying to get information out of Juliet was like trying to get blood out of a stone.
'I don't know Mum...' she began to answer, in a quiet, mumbling voice that her mother had to strain to hear.
'Because you know how your dad gets if you're not back when he's expecting you,' Mrs Appleby interrupted.
'I know, but I can't help it if I have to stop back...'
'He has to have his meal before half-six otherwise it keeps him awake all night. And you know how he likes us all to eat together. It's an important part of family life.' 'I know.'
'Dad just likes his routine, that's all. And he likes to know where you are. He likes to know that you're safe.'
'I know that too, Mum, but...'
'But what, love?'
'I'm thirty-nine for God's sake.'
Juliet Appleby closed the front door behind her and walked down the garden path to the car, pulling on her coat and brushing her long, wind-swept hair out of her eyes. She glanced back at the house before unlocking the car and getting in. There they were. She could see them both hiding behind the net curtains, pretending not to watch - Mum in front, trying not to be seen, and Dad standing just behind her. Hiding behind Mum, that was where he seemed to have spent most of his life, she thought. Inside the house he was king, and he let the two of them know that constantly and in no uncertain terms. Stick him outside and force him to face the rest of the world, however, and he couldn't cope. The accident twelve years ago (which was still a taboo subject that they weren't allowed to talk to him about) had destroyed his confidence and unbalanced his temperament. He didn't seem able to interact properly with anyone outside the small and tight circle of the immediate family. Outside Dad would always get aggressive or angry or confrontational with some poor unsuspecting person and it would inevitably be left to Mum or Juliet to smooth things over and sort things out.
Juliet sat down in the car and started the engine. Poor Mum, she thought. She'd dedicated her life to Dad. She'd put up with years of his moaning and his mood swings and his tempers. Sometimes, though, she was just as bad as he was. As Dad relied on Mum, so Mum seemed to rely on Juliet. And who was there for her? No-one. On the few occasions that she'd been brave enough to start talking about leaving home and setting up on her own it was usually Mum who played the sickness card and who came up with a list of reasons why she couldn't leave and why she had to stay and why they needed her around. She believed it. Each and every time she heard it she believed it. Why would they lie to her? Her friends at the nursery told her that she should just pack her bags and leave. But it was easy for them. She'd left it too late, and now she was trapped, spending her time being paid to look after other people's children when she should have been raising her own. Fat chance of that ever happening. She hadn't ever had a 'proper' relationship. Men were either put off by the fact that she behaved like a timid old-maid trapped in a younger person's body, or Dad managed to put them off for her. She'd long since stopped dwelling on all that she had gone without physically, but she often thought about the cruel irony of her situation - there she was, a thirty-nine year old virgin, surrounded constantly by the fruits of other people's sexual encounters.
A quick wave to Mum and Dad (even though they thought she couldn't see them) and she was off. A ten minute drive into the centre of Rowley and she'd be there.
Juliet always seemed to be the first one to arrive at work. She was always there ages before anyone else. At the time she arrived at the nursery each morning there were usually only one or two other people around - usually just Jackson the caretaker and Ken Andrews, the deputy head of the infant school to which the nursery was attached.
'Morning, Joanne,' smiled Andrews, waving across the playground. Bloody man, she thought. In all the years she'd been working in and around the school he'd never got her name right. Occasionally she thought he did it on purpose to try and wind her up, other times she decided he was just plain ignorant. But the fact of the matter was he continually got her name wrong because he rarely had any reason to speak to her about anything of importance and also because she'd left it too long to correct him without there being more embarrassment on her part than his. To say that Juliet melted into the background was something of an understatement. Years of her overbearing parents had virtually destroyed her self-esteem. Juliet had reached the point where she preferred it if no-one noticed her.
As usual the caretaker had opened up the prefabricated hut they used for the nursery class. The classroom was always cold first thing in the morning, even in summer, and this September morning was no exception. Her breath condensed in billowing clouds around her mouth and nose and the low temperature made the tips of her fingers feel slightly numb. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. Half an hour until the children were due. Probably twenty-five minutes before any of the other classroom assistants and nursery teachers would grace her with their presence. As low, depressed and dejected as she could ever remember feeling, she began to prepare the room for the morning's activities.
What the hell was that? Juliet stopped what she was doing and looked up. Fifteen minutes now to the start of class and she'd just heard an almighty crashing noise just outside the door. It sounded like kids messing around on the concrete steps which led up to the classroom. It sounded like they'd thrown something against the door. Juliet didn't like confrontation. She kept her head down, hoping that whoever it was would go away as quickly as they'd arrived. Maybe they'd just miss-kicked a football or something...
Suddenly another sound, this one very different to the first. It sounded like someone coughing and choking, but it couldn't have been, could it? Juliet crept cautiously towards the window and looked outside. The playground was empty and still with the only movement coming from the birds flying between the roof of the school building and the rubbish bins and back again. She was about to turn round and go back to what she'd been doing when she noticed it. She had to stand on tip-toe and crane her neck to see properly, but she could definitely see a foot sticking out over the edge of the steps. So there were kids messing around after all, she thought. With her pulse racing (she didn't like it when she didn't know what was happening) she walked over to the classroom door and pressed her ear against it. She couldn't hear anything outside. Very slowly she pushed the door open. Lying on the steps in front of her was the dead body of Sam Peters, one of the boys who had been in the nursery class last year. Panicking, she immediately slammed the door shut again and leant against it. Not knowing what she was going to do, and overcome with sudden nervousness and disorientation, she slid down to the floor and held her head in her hands. There was no question that the boy was dead. She'd never seen a body before but she knew he was dead. His frozen face was all twisted and contorted with pain and there were dribbles of blood on the front of his yellow school sweatshirt.
No-one's coming. Christ, no-one's coming.
Twenty minutes later and still no-one else had arrived at the school. Juliet had been counting on someone else finding Sam's body on the steps. She'd planned to act dumb and pretend she hadn't known he was there.
Someone else should have been here by now. Where were the other children?
Marie and Dorian, two of the other nursery helpers (who travelled to work together), should have arrived at least five minutes ago. So where were they? Were they outside? Had they found the body and had she just not heard them? Unlikely. She crept towards the window and peered outside again. She could still see Sam's foot. He was still there.
As the minutes ticked by her conscience finally got the better of her fear. She had to do something. She couldn't just sit there knowing that the poor boy was out there on the steps.
The main school office was directly across the playground from the nursery hut. Juliet decided she'd have to make a run for it. She'd open the door, run down the steps and then find the headteacher or the deputy head and tell them what had happened, despite the fact that she didn't know what the hell was going on herself.
She had to do it now.
Juliet put on her coat and, taking a deep breath, opened the classroom door and burst out into the open. Forcing herself to look anywhere but down at the body on the steps she half-jumped, half-tripped over the boy's corpse, landing awkwardly, twisting her foot and almost falling over. Managing to keep her balance she ran across the playground with the sounds of her footsteps, her heavy, frightened breathing and the thumping of her heart ringing in her ears.
The headmaster of the school was dead. She found him in the corner of his office, buried under a pile of papers that he seemed to have knocked off his desk when he'd fallen to the ground. She found the school secretary dead in the short corridor which ran between the office and the staff room, and in the staff room she found three dead teachers.
In a vacant, disorientated daze Juliet roamed round the silent school and then the surrounding streets looking for someone to explain to her what had happened.
Quarter past five.
After what had happened at the school Juliet returned home before midday and had found both of her elderly parents dead. Mum was in the bathroom, sprawled across the floor with her knickers round her ankles, and Dad was (as always) in his armchair, staring up at the ceiling. Dribbles of blood had run down his chin and trickled down the front of his shirt. She'd wept for them both of course (especially Mum), and had felt a real sense of devastation and loss. But after a while the hurting feeling had, unexpectedly, started to fade. In the strangest, perverse kind of way, she began to enjoy the freedom that the dark day had unexpectedly given her. She'd never had the house to herself like this. She hadn't had to eat at any particular time (not that she felt like eating anything anyway) and she hadn't had to sit through Dad's choice of television programmes (not that the television had been working). She hadn't had to explain her movements every time she got up out of her chair. For the first time in a very long time she felt free.
Juliet's small, quiet and fairly insignificant world had been turned upside down. She'd seen hundreds upon hundreds of bodies littering the streets and hadn't known the reason why any one of them had died. She'd tried to make contact with her few friends, her neighbours, the local police and pretty much everyone else she knew in the local vicinity but she hadn't been able to reach anyone. Her telephone didn't work. There were no answers when she knocked on the front doors of the houses of friends and family. Frightened and bewildered, but also feeling strangely empowered and stronger than she had done for a long, long time, she sat alone in her bedroom and waited for something to happen or someone to come and help, not that anyone knew she was there. At the end of the first day she moved Mum and Dad into the back room. When she woke up on the second day she dug two deep holes in the garden and buried them both. Dad had always wanted them to be buried together. She knew that Mum would have preferred them to be close but slightly apart. She'd still loved Dad but, like Juliet, she'd had enough of him too. KAREN CHASE
'What the hell do you call that?'
I looked at him for a second. Trick question? What did he expect me to say?
'I call it your order,' I answered. 'Full English breakfast. Bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, mushrooms, hash browns and baked beans.'
'Doesn't look like the picture in the menu.'
He opened the menu up, laid it out on the table in front of him and jabbed his finger angrily at the photograph at the bottom of the breakfast section.
'I know, but that's only a representation...' I tried to explain.
'But nothing,' he interrupted. 'I appreciate that there will inevitably be differences between a photograph and the actual meal, but what you've brought to me here bears very little resemblance to the food I ordered. The bacon's undercooked. The mushrooms are overcooked. The scrambled egg is lumpy. Do I need to go on?'
'So do you want me to...' I began.
'That was what I ordered,' he sighed, tapping the photograph with his finger again, 'and that is what I expect to be served. Now you be a good girl and run along back to your kitchen and try again.'
A genuine complaint I can deal with, but I have a real problem when people try and patronise me. I was so angry that I couldn't move. It was one of those second-long moments which seemed to drag on forever. Did I try and argue with this pathetic little man, did I tell him what he could do with his bloody breakfast, or did I just swallow my pride, pick up the plate again and take it back to the kitchen? Much as I wanted to go for either one of the first two options, commonsense and nerves got the better of me. I picked up the plate and stormed back to the kitchen.
'Bloody man,' I snapped as I pushed through the swinging door. In the kitchen Jamie and Keith, the two chefs on duty, stopped playing football with the remains of a lettuce and stood and looked at me.
'Who's rattled your cage?' Jamie asked.
'Fucking idiot outside. Wants his breakfast to look exactly the same as the picture in the menu.'
'Tell him to fuck off and get a life,' Keith sighed as he kicked the lettuce out through the back door.
I stood and stared at the pair of them, waiting for either one of them to move. 'What do you expect me to do about it?' mumbled Jamie.
'Make another bloody breakfast,' I answered, 'you're the cook, aren't you?'
Christ, these two were stupid. Jamie was still looking at me with his mouth hanging open as if I'd just asked him to prepare forty meals in ten minutes. All I was asking him to do was his job. It was what he was being paid for, for God's sake. If he'd done it right first time he wouldn't have to do it again now.
'Fucking hell,' he complained as he snatched the plate from me. He studied the faded photograph on a copy of the menu stuck to the wall and took a clean plate from the cupboard. Then he took the food from the original plate, rearranged it on the clean one, warmed it up in the microwave and then slid it across the work surface towards me.
'You expect me to take this out to him?' I said, not quite believing what I was seeing.
'Yes,' he grunted. 'Looks more like it does on the menu now, doesn't it?'
Keith started to snigger from behind the newspaper he had picked up.
Knowing that there was no point in arguing with either of the chimps I was working with I picked up the plate and turned back round. I stood behind the doors for a couple of seconds to compose myself and looked out through the small porthole windows into the restaurant. I could see my nightmare customer sitting at his table, looking at his watch and tapping his fingers on the table impatiently, and I knew that whatever I did he was going to give me a hard time when I went back out to him. If I went back too quickly he'd accuse me of not having had time to prepare his food properly. If I kept him waiting too long he'd be just as incensed... I decided to wait for a few seconds longer.
Customers were the worst part of my job, and today I had been landed with the very worst type of customer. We got all sorts of passing trade at the restaurant, and there tended to be a couple of customers like this one coming in each week. They were usually travelling sales reps who were stopping in the motel just up the bypass. As a rule they were all badly dressed, loud, rude and ignorant. Maybe that was why they did the job they did and spent their time travelling around the country? Perhaps their wives (if anyone had been foolish enough to marry them) had kicked them out? Perhaps that was why they all came in here with an attitude like they had something to prove. Bastards the lot of them. It wasn't my fault they were so bitter and insecure, was it?
I pushed myself back out through the door and stood cringing next to the customer's table.
'That's better,' he said to my surprise as I put the plate of food down in front of him. Thank God for that, I thought as I quickly began to walk away.
'You're welcome, you wanker,' I muttered under my breath.
'Just a minute, girl,' the customer shouted as I reached the kitchen door. The three other customers in the restaurant looked up and watched me walk back to the table.
'Yes, Sir?' I answered through gritted teeth, doing my damnedest to remain calm and polite and not empty his pot of tea into his lap.
'This is cold,' he complained. He skewered a sausage on his fork, sniffed it and then dropped it back onto his plate in disgust, sending little balls of dried-up scrambled egg shooting across the table.
'Is it really?' I asked with obvious sarcasm and mock concern in my voice. 'Yes, it is,' he snapped. 'Now you listen to me, missy, you scuttle back over to your little kitchen right now and fetch me a fresh breakfast. And while you're there, send the manager out to see me. This really isn't good enough.'
There may well have been some justification to his complaint, but the tone of his voice and the way he spoke to me was completely out of order. I wasn't paid enough to be patronised and belittled. It wasn't my fault I had bills to pay and no other way of getting the money to pay them. It wasn't my fault that...
'Are you going to stand there looking stupid all day,' he sneered, 'or are you going to go somewhere else and look stupid instead?'
That was it. The customer is always right, they say, but there are limits. Here at the Monkton View Eater, it seemed, the customer was always an asshole.
'Look, I'm sorry if the food isn't up to the standard you were expecting,' I began, somehow managing to still sound calm, even if I didn't feel it, 'I'll get that sorted out. But there is no need to be rude to me. I'll go and get you...'
'Listen,' he said, the slow and tired tone of his voice indicating that it was a real effort for him to have to lower himself to speak to me, 'I'm really not interested in anything more you have to say. Be a good girl and fetch me my food. You are a waitress. You are here to serve me. And if I want to be rude to you then I'll be as rude as I fucking well please. You're paid to take it.'
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