By eleven o'clock on a cold, bright and otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning in September over ninety-five percent of the population were dead.
Stuart Jeffries had been on his way home from a conference when it had begun. He'd left the hotel on the Scottish borders at first light with the intention of being home by mid-afternoon. He had the next three days off and had been looking forward to sitting on his backside doing as little as possible for as long as he could.
Driving virtually the full length of the country meant stopping to fill up the car with petrol on more than one occasion. Having passed several service stations on the motorway he decided that he would wait until he reached the next town to get fuel. A smart man, Jeffries knew that the cheaper he could buy his petrol, the more profit he'd make when it came to claiming his expenses back when he returned to work on Friday. Northwich was the nearest town, and it was there that a relatively normal morning became extraordinary in seconds. The busy but fairly well ordered lines of traffic were thrown into chaos and disarray as the infection tore through the cool air. Desperate to avoid being hit, as the first few cars around him had lost control he had taken the nearest turning he could find off the main road and had then taken an immediate right into an empty car park. He had stopped his car, got out and ran up the side of a muddy bank. Through metal railings he had helplessly watched the world around him fall apart in the space of a few minutes. He saw countless people drop to the ground without warning and die the most hideous choking death imaginable.
Jeffries spent the next three hours sitting terrified in his hire car with the doors locked and the windows wound up tight. The car had only been delivered to his hotel late the previous evening but in the sudden disorientation it immediately became the safest place in the world.
The car radio was dead and his phone was useless. He was two hundred and fifty miles away from home with an empty petrol tank and he was completely alone. Paralysed with fear and uncertainty, in those first few hours he'd been more scared than at any other point in the forty-two years of his life so far. What had happened around him was so unexpected and inexplicable that he couldn't even begin to accept the horrors that he'd seen, never mind try and comprehend any of it.
After three hours cooped up in the car the physical pressure on him gradually matched and then overtook the mental stress. He stumbled out into the car park and was immediately struck by the bitter cold of the late September day. Almost as if he was subconsciously trying to convince himself of what he'd seen earlier, he silently walked back towards the main road and surveyed the devastation in front of him. Nothing was moving. The remains of wrecked and twisted cars were strewn all around. The dirty grey pavements were littered with cold, lifeless bodies and the only sound came from the biting autumn wind as it ripped through the trees and chilled him to the bone. Other than the corpses that were trapped in what was left of their cars there didn't seem any immediately obvious reason for any of the deaths. The closest body to Jeffries was that of an elderly woman. She had simply dropped to the ground where she'd been standing. She still had the handle of her shopping trolley gripped tightly in one of her gloved hands.
He thought about shouting out for help. He raised his hands up to his mouth but then stopped. The world was so icily silent and he felt so exposed and out of place that he didn't dare make a sound. In the back of his mind was the very real fear that, if he was to call out, his voice might draw attention to his location. Although there didn't seem to be anyone else left to hear him, in his vulnerable and increasingly nervous state he began to convince himself that making a noise might bring whatever it was that had destroyed the rest of the population back to destroy him. Paranoid perhaps, but what had happened was so illogical and unexpected that he just wasn't prepared to take any chances. Frustrated and afraid, he turned around and walked back towards the car.
At the far end of the car park, hidden from view at first by overhanging trees, stood the Whitchurch Community Hall. Named after a long forgotten local dignitary it was a dull, dilapidated building which had been built (and, it seemed, last maintained) in the late 1950's. Jeffries cautiously walked up to the front of the hall and peered in through a half-open door. Nervously he pushed the door fully open and took a few tentative steps inside. This time he did call out, quietly and warily at first, but there was no reply.
The cold and draughty building took only a minute or two to explore because it consisted of only a few rooms, most of which led off a main hall. There was a very basic kitchen, two storerooms (one at either end of the building) and male and female toilets. At the far end of the main hall was a second, much smaller hall, off which led the second storeroom. This room had obviously been added as an extension to the original building. Its paint work and decoration, although still faded and peeling, was slightly less faded and peeling than that of the rest of the rooms.
Other than two bodies in the main hall the building was empty. Jeffries found it surprisingly easy to move the two corpses and to drag them outside. In the hand of a grey-haired man who looked to have been in his early sixties he found a bunch of keys which, he discovered, fitted the building locks. This, he decided, must have been the caretaker. And the equally grey-haired lady who had died next to him was probably a prospective tenant, looking to hire the hall for a Women's Institute meeting or something similar. He heaved the stiff and awkward bodies through the doorway and placed them carefully in the undergrowth at the side of the building.
It was while he was outside that he decided he would shelter in the hall until morning. It seemed to be as safe a place as any in which to hide. It was isolated and although not in the best of repair, it looked strong enough and seemed warmer than the car. Jeffries decided that there didn't seem to be any point in trying to get anywhere else. The only place he wanted to be was back home, but that was a few hours drive away. He quickly convinced himself that it would be safer to stay put for now and then to try and get petrol in the morning. He'd siphon it from one of the wrecked cars outside.
As the light began to fade he discovered that there was no electricity in the hall. A quick run to the end of the car park revealed that it wasn't just the hall that was without power. The entire city for as far as he could see was rapidly darkening. Other than a few flickering fires he couldn't see any light - not even a single street lamp - and as he watched it seemed that the world around him was being steadily consumed by the thick shroud of night.
Being a hire car, there was nothing to help inside Stuart's vehicle. He cursed the irony of the situation - he kept a blanket, a shovel, a toolbox, a first-aid kit and a torch in the back of his own car. If he'd only made the journey in his own car then he would at least have had some light. All that he had now was the hire car itself. He toyed with the idea of leaving the front door of the hall open and shining the headlamps into the room but he quickly decided against it. Although he seemed to be the last person alive in the city, shutting the door made him feel marginally safer and less exposed. With the door shut and locked he could at least pretend for a while that nothing had happened.
Just before nine o'clock Jeffries' solitary confinement was ended. He was sat on a cold plastic chair in the kitchen of the hall listening to the silence of the dead world and trying hard to think of anything other than what had happened today and what might happen to him tomorrow. A sudden crash from outside caused him to jump to his feet and run to the front door. He waited for a second or two, almost too afraid to see what it was that had made the noise. Sensing that help and explanations might be at hand he took a deep breath, opened the door and ran out into the car park. To his left he could see movement. Someone was walking along the main road. Desperate not to let them go, he sprinted up the bank to the railings and yelled out. The shadowy figure stopped, turned around and ran back to where Jeffries stood. Jeffries reached out and grabbed hold of Jack Baynham - a thirty-six year old bricklayer. Neither man said a word.
The arrival of the second survivor bought a sudden hope and energy to Jeffries. Between them they could find no answers as to what had happened earlier, but for the first time they did at least begin to consider what they should do next. If there were two survivors it followed that there could be a hundred and two, or even a thousand and two. They had to let other people know where they were.
Using rubbish from three dustbins at the side of the hall and the remains of a smashed up wooden bench they built a bonfire in the centre of the car park, well away from the hall, the hire car and any overhanging trees. Petrol from the mangled wreck of a sports car was used as fuel. Baynham set the fire burning by flicking a smouldering cigarette butt through the cold night air. Within seconds the car park was filled with welcome light and warmth. Jeffries found a compact disc in another car and put it into the player in his. He turned the key in the ignition and started the disc. Soon the air was filled with classical music. Sweeping, soaring strings shattered the ominous silence that had been so prevalent all day.
The fire had been burning and the music playing for just under an hour when the third and fourth survivors arrived at the hall. By four o'clock the following morning the population of the Whitchurch Community Hall stood at more than twenty dazed and confused individuals.
Emma Mitchell had spent almost the entire day curled up in the corner of her bed. She'd first heard the music shortly after ten o'clock but for a while had convinced herself that she was hearing things. It was only when she finally plucked up the courage to get out of bed and opened her bedroom window that it became clear that someone really was playing music. Desperate to see and to speak to someone else, she threw a few belongings into a rucksack and locked and left her home. She ran along the silent streets using the feeble illumination from a dying torch to guide her safely through the bloody mass of fallen bodies, terrified that the music might stop and leave her stranded before she could reach its source.
Thirty-five minutes later she arrived at the Community Hall.
Carl Henshawe was the twenty-fourth survivor to arrive.
Having left the bodies of his family behind, he had spent most of the day hiding in the back of a builder's van. After a few hours he had decided to try and find help. He'd driven the van around aimlessly until it had run out of fuel and spluttered and died. Rather than try and refuel the van he decided to simply take another vehicle. It was while he was changing cars that he heard the music.
Having quickly disposed of its dead driver, Carl arrived at the hall at day break in a luxury company car.
Michael Collins had just about given up. Too afraid to go back home or indeed to go anywhere that he recognised, he was sat in the freezing cold in the middle of a park. He had decided that it was easier to be alone and deny what had happened than face returning to familiar surroundings and risk seeing the bodies of people he'd known. He lay on his back on the wet grass and listened to the gentle babbling of a nearby brook. He was cold, wet, uncomfortable and terrified, but the noise of the running water disguised the deathly silence of the rest of the world and made it fractionally easier to forget for a while.
The wind blew across the field where he lay, rustling through the grass and bushes and causing the tops of trees to thrash about almost constantly. Soaked through and shivering, Michael eventually clambered to his feet and stretched. Without any real plan or direction, he slowly walked further away from the stream and towards the edge of the park. As the sound of running water faded into the distance, so the unexpected strains of the music from the car park drifted towards him. Marginally interested, but too cold, numb and afraid to really care, he began to follow the sound.
Michael was the final survivor to reach the hall.
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