Chapter 11

Despite the fact that each one of the survivors had reached new levels of emotional and mental exhaustion, not one of them could even contemplate trying to sleep. This lack of sleep meant that the disparate body of frightened and desperate people were becoming even more frightened and desperate with each passing minute. The hall was lit only by a few dim gas lamps and the odd torch, and this lack of light seemed to compound the disorientation and fear felt by all of them. By midnight the tensions and frustrations felt by even the most placid members of the group had risen to dangerously high levels.

Jenny Hall, who had held her three month old baby boy in her arms as he died on Tuesday morning, had dared to complain about the food she'd been given earlier in the evening. Although she'd meant nothing by her innocent comments, the cook  -  the usually quiet and reserved Stuart Jeffries  -  had taken it personally.

'You stupid fucking bitch,' he screamed, his face literally millimeters from hers. 'What gives you the right to criticise? Fucking hell, you're not the only one who's had it tough. Christ, we're all in the same fucking boat here...'

Jenny wiped streaming tears from her face with shaking hands. She was convulsing with fear and could hardly co-ordinate her movements.

'I didn't mean to...' she stammered. 'I was only trying to...'

'Shut your mouth!' Stuart shouted, grabbing hold of her arms and pinning her against the wall. 'Just shut your fucking mouth!'

For a second Michael just stood and watched, stunned and numbed and unable to quite comprehend what he was seeing. He quickly managed to snap himself out of his disbelieving trance and actually do something to help. He grabbed hold of Stuart and yanked him away from Jenny, leaving her to slide down the wall and collapse in a sobbing heap on the dirty brown floor.

'Bastard,' she spat, looking up at him. 'You fucking bastard.'

Michael manhandled Stuart across the room and pushed him down into a chair.

'What the hell is going on?' he demanded.

Stuart didn't respond. He sat staring at the floor. His face was flushed red. His fists were clenched tight and his body shook with anger.

'What's the problem?' Michael asked again.

Stuart still didn't move.

'Not good enough for her, are we?' he eventually muttered.

'What?'

'That little bitch,' he seethed. 'Thinks she's something special, doesn't she? Thinks she's a cut above the rest of us.' He looked up and stared and pointed at Jenny. 'Thinks she's the only one who's lost everything.'

'You're not making any sense,' Michael said, sitting down on a bench close to Stuart. 'What are you talking about?'

Stuart couldn't  -  or wouldn't  -  answer. Tears of frustration welled in his tired eyes. Rather than let Michael see the extent of his fraught emotion he got up and stormed out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

'What was all that about?' Emma asked as she walked past Michael and made her way over to where Jenny lay on the ground. She crouched down and put her arm around her shoulders. 'Come on,' she whispered, gently kissing the top of her head. 'It's all right.'

'All right?' she sobbed. 'How can you say it's all right? After everything that's happened, how can you say it's all right?'

Kate James sat down next to them. Cradling Jenny in her arms, Emma turned to face Kate.

'Did you see what happened?' she quietly asked.

'Not really,' Kate replied. 'They were just talking. I only realised that something was wrong when Stuart started shouting. He was fine one minute  -  you know, calm and talking normally  -  and then he just exploded at her.'

'Why?'

Kate shrugged her shoulders.

'Apparently she told him that she didn't like the soup.'

'What?' asked Emma incredulously.

'She didn't like the soup he'd made,' Kate repeated. 'I'm sure that's all it was.'

'Bloody hell,' she sighed, shaking her head in resignation.

Carl walked into the room with Jack Baynham. He'd taken no more than two or three steps when he stopped, quickly sensing that something was wrong.

'What's the matter?' he asked cautiously, almost too afraid to listen to the answer. The atmosphere in the room was so heavy that he was convinced something terrible had happened.

Michael shook his head.

'It's nothing,' he said. 'It's sorted now.'

Carl looked down at Emma on the floor and Jenny curled up in her arms. Something obviously had happened but, as whatever it was seemed to have been confined to inside the hall and resolved, he decided not to ask any more questions. He just didn't want to get involved. Selfish and insensitive of him it may have been, but he didn't want to know. He had enough problems of his own without getting himself wrapped up in other people's.

Michael felt much the same, but he found it impossible to be as private and insular as Carl. When he heard more crying coming from another dark corner of the room he instinctively went to investigate. He found that the tears were coming from Annie Nelson and Jessica Short, two of the eldest survivors. The two ladies were wrapped under a single blanket, holding each other tightly and doing their best to stop sobbing and stop drawing attention to themselves. Michael sat down next to them.

'You two okay? he asked. A pointless question, but he couldn't think of anything else to say.

Annie smiled for the briefest of moments and nodded, trying hard to put on a brave face. She nonchalantly wiped away a single tear which trickled quickly down her wrinkled cheek.

'We're all right, thank you,' she replied, her voice light and fragile.

'Can I get you anything?'

Annie shook her head.

'No, we're fine,' she said. 'I think we'll try and get some sleep now.'

Michael smiled and rested his hand on hers. He tried not to let his worry show, but her hand felt disconcertingly cold and fragile. He really did feel so sorry for these two. He had noticed that they had been inseparable since arriving at the hall. Jessica, he had learned from Emma, was a well-to-do widow who had lived in a large house in one of the most exclusive suburbs of Northwich. Annie, on the other hand, had told him yesterday that she'd lived in the same two bedroom Victorian terraced house all her life. She'd been born there and, as she'd wasted no time in telling him, she intended to see out the rest of her days there too. When things settled down again, she'd explained naively, she was going to go straight back home. She had even invited Jessica over for tea one afternoon.

Michael patted the old lady's hand again and stood up and walked away. He glanced back over his shoulder and watched as the two pensioners huddled closer together and talked in frightened, hushed whispers. Clearly from opposite ends of the social spectrum, they seemed to be drawn to each other for no other reason than their similar ages. Money, position, possessions, friends and connections didn't count for anything anymore.

***

Emma was still sitting on the floor two hours later. As half-past two approached she cursed herself for being so bloody selfless. There she was, cold and uncomfortable, still cradling Jenny Hall in her arms. What made matters worse was the Jenny had herself been asleep for the best part of an hour. Why am I always the one who ends up doing this, she thought? Christ, no-one ever bothers to hold me and rock me to sleep. Why am I always the one giving out? Emma didn't really need any help or support, but it pissed her off that no-one ever seemed to offer.

The hall was silent but for a muffled conversation taking place in one of the dark rooms off the main hall. Emma carefully eased herself out from underneath Jenny and lay her down on the floor and covered her with a sheet. In the still silence every sound she made, no matter how slight, seemed deafening. As she moved Jenny's body she listened carefully and tried to locate the precise source of the conversation. She was desperate for some calm and rational adult company.

The voices seemed to be coming from a little room that she hadn't been into before. Cautiously she pushed the door open and peered inside. It was pitch black, and the voices stopped immediately.

'Who's that?' a man asked.

'Emma,' she whispered. 'Emma Mitchell.'

As her eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness of the room (which was, surprisingly, even darker and gloomier than the main hall) she saw that there were two men sitting with their backs against the far wall. It was Michael and Carl. They were drinking water from a plastic bottle which they passed between themselves.

'You okay?' Michael asked.

'I'm fine,' Emma replied. 'Mind if I come in?'

'Not at all,' said Carl. 'Everything calmed down out there?'

She stepped into the room, tripping over his outstretched legs and feeling for the nearest wall in the darkness. She sat down carefully.

'It's all quiet,' she said. 'I just had to get away, know what I mean?'

'Why do you think we're sitting in here?' Michael asked rhetorically.

After a short silence Emma spoke again.

'I'm sorry,' she said apologetically. 'Have I interrupted something? Did you two want me to go so you can...?'

'Stay here as long as you like,' Michael answered. Emma's eyes were slowly becoming accustomed to the darkness and she could now just about make out the details of the two men's faces.

'I think everyone's asleep out there. At least if they're not asleep then they're being very quiet. I guess they're all thinking about what happened today. I've just sat and listened to Jenny talking about...' Emma realised she was talking for the sake of talking and let her words trail away into silence. Both Michael and Carl were staring at her. 'What's the matter?' she asked, suddenly self-conscious. 'What's wrong?'

Michael shook his head.

'Bloody hell,' he sighed, 'have you been out there with Jenny all this time?'

She nodded.

'Yes, why?'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'Nothing, I just don't know why you bother, that's all.'

'Someone's got to do it, haven't they?' she replied nonchalantly as she accepted a drink from the bottle of water that Carl passed to her.

'So why does it have to be you? Christ, who's going to sit up with you for hours when you're...'

'Like I said,' she interrupted, 'someone's got to do it. If we all shut ourselves away in rooms like this when things aren't going well then we haven't got much of a future here, have we?'

Emma was immediately defensive of her own actions, despite the fact that she'd silently criticised herself for exactly the same thing just a few minutes earlier.

'So do you think we've got a future here then?' asked Carl. Now Emma really was beginning to feel uncomfortable. She hadn't come in here to be picked on.

'Of course we've got a future,' she snapped.

'We've got millions of people lying dead in the streets around us and we've got people threatening to kill each other because someone doesn't like soup. Doesn't bode well really, does it?' Michael mused.

Another silence.

'So what do you think?' Emma asked. 'You seem to have an opinion about everything. Do you reckon we've got any chance, or do you think we should just curl up in the corner and give up?'

'I think we've got a damn good chance, but not necessarily here.'

'Where then?' she wondered.

'Well what have we got here?' Michael began. 'We've got shelter of sorts, we've got limited supplies and we've got access to what's left of the city. We've also got an unlimited supply of dead bodies  -  some of them mobile  -  which are going to rot. Agree?'

The other two thought for a moment and then nodded.

'And I suppose,' he continued, 'there's also the flip-side of the coin. As good a shelter as this is, it's fast becoming a prison. We've got no idea what's around us. We don't even know what's in the buildings on the other side of the street.'

'But it's going to be the same wherever we go...' Emma remarked.

'Possibly. Carl and I were talking about heading out to the countryside earlier, and the more I think about it the more it seems to make sense.'

'Why?'

Carl explained, remembering the conversation he'd had with Michael a few hours ago.

'The population's concentrated in cities, isn't it? There will be less bodies out in the sticks. And less bodies equals less problems...'

'Hopefully,' Michael added cautiously.

'So what's stopping us?' Emma asked.

'Nothing,' Michael replied.

'Are you sure that you want to go?'

'Positive.'

'And what if no-one else does?'

'Tough. I'll go on my own.'

'And when are you going to go?'

'As soon as I can. I'd go tomorrow if I could.'

Emma had to admit that, arrogant and superior as he tended to sound, Michael's logic and reasoning made sense. The more she listened to and thought about his proposals, the more hopeful she became. Fired up with a new found enthusiasm and purpose, the three survivors talked through the first few long, dragging hours of the new day. By four o'clock that morning their plans were made.

***

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