It was twenty past nine before Michael, Carl and Emma actually sat down together in the same room. They were in the kitchen. Carl and Emma sat in stony silence opposite each other around a circular pine table while Michael struggled to scrape together some breakfast from the meagre scraps remaining of the limited supplies they'd brought with them from the city.
The atmosphere at Penn Farm was heavy and subdued. Michael felt low - perhaps lower than he had done at any time during the last few days - and he was struggling to understand why. He'd expected to feel a little better today. The three of them had, after all, stumbled upon a place where they could shelter safely for a while. A place which offered isolation and protection and yet which was still comfortable and spacious. He looked out through the wide kitchen window and down onto the farmyard below and decided that it must have been the slight elation they'd felt last night that was making the cold reality of this morning so hard to accept.
The baked beans he had been cooking had started to stick to the bottom of the pan and spoil.
'Something burning?' Carl mumbled perceptively.
Michael grunted and stirred and scraped the beans with a wooden spoon. He hated cooking. The reason he was preparing the meal this morning was the same reason he'd been the first to cook food at the community centre back in Northwich. He had no community spirit and no real desire to please the others. Cooking was nothing more than a brief distraction. Rescuing the burning beans somehow stopped him from thinking about the world outside and all that he had lost for a few precious seconds.
Dejected and distant, he served up the food and carried the first two plates over to the table. Emma and Carl looked at the breakfasts which clattered down in front of them with disdain and disinterest as neither was feeling at all hungry. Each plate had on it a large serving of baked beans, a dollop of stodgy scrambled egg (prepared from a dehydrated mix usually used by mountaineers) and three hot dog sausages which had been boiled in brine. Emma managed half a smile in acknowledgement but Carl did not. He sniffed and stared at his food feeling exhausted and nauseous.
Emma picked up a fork and began to poke and prod gingerly at the food. She looked across at the other two and noticed that they were both doing the same. Each one of the survivors seemed to be trying their damnedest not to say or do anything that might result in them having to talk to or even look at the others. All three of them were being gripped tight and suffocated by a now familiar paradox - they each craved the security and normality of conversation, but they knew that such a conversation would inevitably lead to them talking about things that they were each doing their best to try and forget.
As the long minutes dragged on, Emma's patience wore thin. Eventually she cracked.
'Look,' she sighed, 'are we just going to sit here or should we actually think about doing something constructive today?'
Michael looked up and rubbed his tired eyes. Carl started to eat his food. Filling his mouth with burnt beans, undercooked sausage and powdered egg gave him an excuse not to have to talk.
'Well?' Emma pressed angrily.
'We've got to do something,' Michael quietly agreed. 'I don't know what yet, but we've got to do something...'
'We need some decent food,' she said, pushing her untouched breakfast away.
Michael thought for a moment.
'There's bound to be other things we need too.'
'I don't know...clothes, tools, petrol...'
'We need to know what we've got here first.'
Carl watched Emma and Michael intently as they spoke, following the conversation, looking from face to face.
'You're right. First thing we should do is go through this house from top to bottom and see exactly what we've got. Space is going to be limited in the van so we don't want to be doubling up on anything.' Michael paused to take a breath. 'Carl, do you know what you'll need for the generator?'
Startled by the sudden mention of his name, Carl dropped his fork.
'Do you know what you need to get the generator sorted?' he repeated, annoyed that the other man hadn't been listening.
He shook his head.
'No, not yet. I'll have a look later and try and work it out.'
'We should get it done straight after breakfast,' Emma suggested. 'I think we should check the house out from top to bottom then get out, get what we need and get back as quickly as we can.'
'The sooner we get started,' Michael added, 'the sooner we get back.'
He didn't need to say anything else. Emma was already up and out of her seat. She scraped her untouched food into a black plastic rubbish sack and swilled the plate in a bowl of cold water in the sink. Without saying another word she quickly smiled at the two men still sitting at the table and ran upstairs to start working, cleaning and searching her way through the farmhouse.
Prompted to move by Emma's sudden actions, Michael too jumped up and started to busy himself. Carl on the other hand was in no rush. He stayed sat at the table toying with - and occasionally eating - the cold food on his plate.
Last night the three survivors had made an unspoken agreement to stay at Penn Farm for the time being. It seemed relatively safe, secure and comfortable and had the potential to be much, much more. It was only as they scoured the house for supplies that the true potential of their location finally became apparent to Emma and Michael. Carl acknowledged it too, but he was still unsure. He wasn't yet completely convinced that they were safe anywhere.
Emma began at the top of the house and worked her way down. She started in an odd-shaped attic bedroom which Carl had quickly claimed as his own yesterday. The dull room was lit only by the light which trickled in through a small window at the front of the house. Other than a bed, a wardrobe and a couple of other items of furniture there was little of note to be found there.
Michael worked his way through the rooms on the second floor. Three more reasonably sized bedrooms and an old-fashioned but practical bathroom. He uncovered little that he didn't expect to find. Clothes (far too old, large and worn for any of them to consider wearing), personal possessions and trinkets and little else. As he sat on the edge of the large double bed that Emma had slept on last night and looked through an obviously antique jewellery box he found himself suddenly fascinated by the value of the items it held. Less than a month ago the rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and brooches (which, he presumed, had belonged to Mrs Jones - what had happened to her?) would have been worth a small fortune. Today they were worth nothing. Conversely the comfort of the wooden-framed bed he was sitting on made it worth millions in his eyes.
By the time Carl forced himself to get up and go outside the other two had almost finished. They met in the hallway and walked to the back door where they stood together and planned their next move. Buoyed by the unexpected novelty of finally having had something constructive and purposeful to do for a short while, Emma and Michael talked with what could almost have been classed as enthusiasm about the rest of the day which lay ahead of them. Michael had a grand plan to fill the van with supplies, make themselves safe in the grounds of the house and get the generator working. Much as it still reminded him of everything he'd lost, his aim was to get a television or stereo working by the time darkness fell. He wanted to bring beer back to the house so that he could drink and forget. He knew that it would only be an illusion of normality, and he also knew that when it finished the pain of reality would be almost unbearable, but that didn't seem to matter. He knew that the three of them were mentally and physically exhausted. If they didn't force themselves to stop soon then it would only be a matter of time before someone cracked. He was damn sure that, having survived so far, he wasn't about to go under.
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