Chapter 28

Wednesday night. Nine o'clock.

Michael cooked a meal for himself, Carl and Emma. He seemed to have allowed himself to relax slightly now that there was a decent physical barrier between them and the rest of the world. Emma noticed that he had now started to occupy his time by doing odd jobs around the house. She had casually mentioned that a shelf in an upstairs room was coming loose from the wall. By the time she'd next walked past the room Michael had completed the repair. Each one of the survivors had an increasing, burning desire  -  almost a guttural, basic need in fact  -  to keep themselves occupied. Keeping busy helped them to forget (almost to the point of denial) that the world outside their door had crumbled and died.

The three of them had been sitting in the kitchen for the best part of two hours before the meal was ready and Michael was finally in a position to serve dinner. It was the longest length of time that they'd willingly spent in each other's company since the trip to Byster a few days earlier. The atmosphere was subdued and low as was to be expected. Conversation was sparse. Michael busied himself cooking (as usual), Emma read a book and for the most part, Carl did very little.

Emma found some wine. She had discovered a few bottles hidden in a dusty rack wedged between two kitchen units and she'd wasted no time in uncorking a bottle of white and pouring out three large glasses, passing one each to Carl and Michael. Carl normally didn't drink wine but tonight he was ready to make an exception. He wanted to get drunk. He wanted to be so fucking drunk that he couldn't remember his own name. He wanted to pass out on the kitchen floor and forget about everything for as long as was possible. He wasn't even that bothered about waking up the next morning.

The food was good  -  probably the best meal they'd eaten together  -  and that, combined with the wine, helped perpetuate an uneasy sense of normality. That sense of normality, however, had the unwanted side effect of helping them to remember everything about the past that they had been trying to forget. Michael decided that the best way of dealing with what they'd lost was to try and talk about it.

'So,' he began, chewing thoughtfully on a mouthful of food as he spoke, 'Wednesday night. What would you two usually have been doing on a Wednesday night?'

There was an awkward silence. The same awkward silence which always seemed to descend on any conversation that dared to broach the subject of the way the world had been before last Tuesday.

'I'd either have been studying or drinking,' Emma eventually replied, also sensing that it made sense to talk. 'Or probably both.'

'Drinking midweek?'

'I'd drink any night.'

'What about you, Carl?'

Carl toyed with his food and knocked back a large mouthful of wine.

'I was on call,' he said slowly. He was obviously unsure about talking about the past. He had only just begun to speak and it was already hurting him. 'I couldn't drink in the week but I'd make up for it at the weekend.'

'Were you a pub or a club man?' Emma asked.

'Pub,' he replied, very definitely.

'So what about your little girl?'

There was an awkward pause and Emma wondered whether she'd gone too far and said the wrong thing. Carl looked down at his food again and swallowed a second mouthful of wine, this one emptying the glass. He grabbed hold of the bottle and helped himself to a refill before continuing.

'Sarah and me used to walk down to the local in the afternoon,' he began, his eyes moistening with tears. 'We were part of a crowd. There was always someone in there we knew. We'd start drinking around three or four o'clock and then leave just before closing. There were always kids Gemma's age there. They had a play area and she had her friends and they used to...'

When the pain became too much to bear he stopped and drank more wine.

'Sorry,' Emma mumbled instinctively. 'I shouldn't have said anything. I wasn't thinking.'

Carl didn't respond.

'Why shouldn't you have said anything?' Michael asked.

'What?'

'Why are you apologising? And why don't you want to talk about it, Carl?'

Carl looked up and glared at the other man with tears of pain streaked down his face.

'I don't want to talk because it fucking well hurts too much,' he spat, almost having to force the words out. 'You don't know how it feels.'

'I've lost people too...'

'You didn't lose a child. You don't know how that feels. You couldn't.'

Michael knew he was right. He wasn't sure whether it was sensible or stupid, but he desperately felt that he should force this conversation to continue. He had decided that they wouldn't be able to move on and make something of the rest of their lives until they'd managed to sweep away the remains of the past.

Carl was staring into space again.

'I'd give anything to be back in lectures again,' Emma sighed. 'Stupid isn't it? Before I used to do anything I could to avoid them, now I just want to...'

'You just can't imagine what this feels like,' Carl said under his breath, interrupting her. 'This is killing me.'

'What is?' Michael pressed gently.

'Every morning I wake up and I wish that it was over and I was dead,' he explained. 'Every single day the pain is worse than the last. I still can't accept that they've gone and I just...'

'It hurts now but it will get easier,' the other man said, beginning to regret his earlier words. 'It must get easier over time, it must...'

'Will it? Know that for a fact do you?'

'No, but I...'

'Just shut your mouth then,' Carl said, his voice suddenly surprisingly calm and level. 'If you don't know what you're talking about, don't say anything. Don't waste your fucking time trying to make me feel better because you can't. There's nothing you can say or do that will make any of this any easier.'

With that he got up and walked away from the table without saying another word. For a few long seconds the only sounds to be heard in the house were heavy, lethargic footsteps as Carl dragged himself upstairs and shut himself away in isolation in his room.

A short while later Michael opened another bottle of wine. He didn't ask, he just poured Emma another glass. She didn't resist.

'Really fucked up there, didn't I?' he said quietly.

She nodded.

'We both did. It's obvious he's struggling. I should never have asked him about his little girl.'

Michael immediately became defensive again.

'Maybe not, but I still think he's got to talk,' he explained. 'Jesus, we can't move on until we've dealt with everything that's happened. We can't start to build anything up until we've sorted out everything that...'

'Have you dealt with everything then?' she asked, cutting across him.

He paused for a moment and then shook his head.

'No,' he admitted. 'Have you?'

'I haven't even started. To be honest I don't even know where to start.'

'I think we should all start with what hurts the most. With Carl it's his daughter. What about you?'

She drank more wine and considered his question.

'Don't know really. Everything hurts.'

'Okay, so when does it get to you the most?'

Again she couldn't answer.

'Don't know. I was thinking about my sister's kids yesterday and that really bothered me. I didn't see them that often, but the thought that I might not see them again...'

'Where did they live?'

'Overseas. Jackie's husband got moved to Kuwait with his job for a couple of years. They were due to come back next summer.'

'They still might.'

'How do you reckon that then?'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'We still don't know for certain that any other countries have been affected by this, do we?'

'Not for sure, but...'

'But what?'

'But I think we would have heard something by now, don't you?'

'Not necessarily.'

'Oh, come on, Michael. If there was anyone left we would have heard something. You said as much back in Northwich last week.'

At the mention of the name of the town they'd fled from Michael immediately began to think about the crowd of survivors left behind in the shabby surroundings of the Whitchurch Community Centre. He pictured the faces of Stuart, Ralph, Kate and the others and wondered what had become of them. Fortunately, before he had time to think too much, Emma asked another question.

'So what about your family then?'

'What about them?'

'Who do you miss the most? Did you have a partner.'

Michael took a deep breath, stretched and yawned and then ran his fingers through his hair.

'I had been seeing a girl called Marie for about six months,' he began, 'but I haven't thought about her at all.'

'Why not?'

'We split up three weeks ago.'

'Do you miss her?'

'Not any more. I don't miss my best friend who she was screwing either. There are plenty of other people I miss more.'

'Such as?'

'Such as my mum. Last night when I was trying to get to sleep I was thinking about her. You know that feeling you get when you're just about to go to sleep and you think you can hear a voice or see a face or something?'

'Yes.'

'Well I thought I heard my mum last night. I can't even tell you what it was I thought she'd said. I just heard her for a split second. It was like she was lying next to me.'

'That was me,' Emma smiled, trying desperately to make light of a conversation that was becoming increasingly morose.

Michael managed half a smile before returning his attention to his drink. Emma studied him intently. A very private and independent man from day one, she was beginning to see signs that there might be more to him than she first thought. He was blunt, opinionated and occasionally aggressive, but she was beginning to see that despite his seemingly self-centred emotions he was genuinely concerned about Carl's and her own welfare.

The conversation in the kitchen continued as long as the wine lasted. As time passed by their discussions became less in-depth and focussed and more trivial and trite to the point where, by the early hours of Thursday morning, almost everything they talked about was insignificant and inane.

During the hours they spent together, Emma and Michael learnt about each other's strengths, weaknesses, hobbies, interests, phobias and (now pointless) aspirations and ambitions. They talked about their favourite books, films, records, televisions programmes, concerts, musicians, actors, foods, politicians, authors and comedians. They learnt about other redundant aspects of each other's lives  -  their religious beliefs, their political views and their moral standings.

They finally made their way up to the bedroom they innocently shared just before two in the morning.

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