Michael Collins was the last to arrive at the hall but the first to get his head together. More than his head, perhaps, it was his stomach that forced him into action. Just before midday, after a long, slow and painful morning, he decided it was time to eat. In the main storeroom he found tables, chairs and a collection of camping equipment labelled up as belonging to the 4th Whitchurch Scout Group. In a large metal chest he found two gas burners and, next to the chest itself, four half-full gas bottles. In minutes he'd set the burners up on a table and was keeping himself busy by heating up a catering-size can of vegetable soup and a similar sized can of baked beans which he'd found. Obviously left over from camps held in the summer just gone, the food was an unexpected and welcome discovery. More than that, preparing the food was a distraction. Something to take his mind off what had happened outside the flimsy walls of the Whitchurch Community Hall.
The rest of the survivors sat in silence in the main hall. Some lay flat on the cold brown linoleum floor while others sat on chairs with their heads held in their hands. No-one spoke. Other than Michael no-one moved. No-one even dared to make eye contact with anyone else. Twenty-six people who may as well have been in twenty-six different rooms. Twenty-six people who couldn't believe what had happened to the world around them and who couldn't bear to think about what might happen next. In the last day each one of them had experienced more pain, confusion and loss than they would normally have expected to suffer in their entire lifetime. What made these emotions even more unbearable today, however, was the complete lack of explanation. The lack of reason. Coupled with that was the fact that everything had happened so suddenly and without warning. And now that it had happened, there was no-one they could look to for answers. Each cold, lonely and frightened person knew as little as the cold, lonely and frightened person next to them.
Michael sensed that he was being watched. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that a girl sitting nearby was staring at him. She was rocking on a blue plastic chair and watching him intently. It made him feel uncomfortable. Much as he wanted someone to break the silence and talk to him, deep down he didn't really want to say anything. He had a million questions to ask, but he didn't know where to start and it seemed that the most sensible option was to stay silent.
The girl got up out of her chair and tentatively walked towards him. She stood there for a moment, about a metre and a half away, before taking a final step closer and clearing her throat.
'I'm Emma,' she said quietly, 'Emma Mitchell.'
He looked up, managed half a smile, and then looked down again.
'Is there anything I can do?' she asked. 'Do you want any help?'
Michael shook his head and stared into the soup he was stirring. He watched the chunks of vegetable spinning around and wished that she'd go away. He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to start a conversation because a conversation would inevitably lead to talking about what had happened to the rest of the world outside and at that moment in time that was the last thing he wanted to think about. Problem was, it was all that he could think about.
'Shall I try and find some mugs?' Emma mumbled. She was damn sure that he was going to talk. He was the only person in the room who had done anything all morning and her logic and reason dictated that he was the person it would be most worth starting a conversation with. Emma found the silence and the lack of communication stifling, so much so that a short while ago she'd almost got up and left the hall.
Sensing that she wasn't going to go away, Michael looked up again.
'I found some mugs in the stores,' he muttered. 'Thanks anyway.'
'No problem,' she replied.
After another few seconds of silence, Michael spoke again.
'I'm Michael,' he said. 'Look, I'm sorry but...'
He stopped speaking because he didn't really know what it was he trying to say. Emma understood, nodded dejectedly and was about to turn and walk away. The thought of the stunted conversation ending before it had really started was enough to force Michael to make an effort. He began trying to think of things to say that would keep her at the table with him. It was involuntary at first, but within seconds he'd realised that he really didn't want her to go.
'I'm sorry,' he said again. 'It's just with everything that's... I mean I don't know why I...'
'I hate soup,' Emma grunted, deliberately interrupting and steering the conversation into safer, neutral waters. 'Especially vegetable. Christ, I can't stand bloody vegetable soup.'
'Nor me,' Michael admitted. 'Hope someone likes it though. There's four tins of it in there.'
As quickly as it had began the brief dialogue ended. There just wasn't anything to say. Small talk seemed unnecessary and inappropriate. Neither of them wanted to talk about what had happened but both knew that they couldn't avoid it. Emma took a deep breath and tried again.
'Were you far from here when it...'
Michael shook his head.
'A couple of miles. I spent most of yesterday wandering around. I've been all over town but my house is only twenty minutes walk away.' He stirred the soup again and then felt obliged to ask her the same question back.
'My place is just the other side of the park.' She replied. 'I spent yesterday in bed.'
She nodded and leant against the nearest wall.
'Didn't seem to be much else to do. I just put my head under the covers and pretended that nothing had happened. Until I heard the music, that was.'
'Bloody masterstroke playing that music.'
Michael ladled a generous serving of beans into a dish and handed it to Emma. She picked up a plastic spoon from the table and poked at the hot food for a couple of seconds before tentatively tasting a mouthful. She didn't want to eat but she was starving. She hadn't even thought about food since her aborted shopping trip yesterday morning.
A couple of the other survivors were looking their way. Michael didn't know whether it was the food that was attracting their attention or the fact that he and Emma were talking. Before she'd come across he'd said less than twenty words all morning. It seemed that the two of them communicating had acted like a release valve of sorts. As he watched more and more of the shell-like survivors began to show signs of life.
Half an hour later and the food had been eaten. There were now two or three conversations taking place around the hall. Small groups of survivors huddled together while others remained alone. Some people talked (and the relief on their faces was obvious) while others cried. The sound of sobbing could clearly be heard over the muted discussions.
Emma and Michael had stayed together. They had talked sporadically and had learnt a little about each other. Michael had learnt that Emma was a medical student and Emma learnt that Michael worked with computers. Michael, she discovered, lived alone. His parents had recently moved to Edinburgh with his two younger brothers. She had told him that she'd chosen to study in Northwich and that her family lived in a small village on the east coast. Neither of them could bring themselves to talk much about their families in any detail as neither knew if the people they loved were still alive.
'What did this?' Michael asked. He'd tried to ask the question a couple of times before but hadn't quite managed to force the words out. He knew that Emma couldn't answer, but it helped just to have asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
'Don't know, some kind of virus perhaps?'
'But how could it have killed so many people? And so quickly?'
'Don't know,' she said again.
'Christ, I watched thirty kids die in just a couple of minutes, how on earth could anything...'
She was staring at him. He stopped talking.
'Sorry,' he mumbled.
'It's okay,' she sighed.
Another awkward, pregnant pause followed.
'You warm enough?' Michael eventually asked.
'I'm freezing. I tell you there are holes in the walls of this place. I stood in one corner this morning and I could push the bloody walls apart! It wouldn't take much to bring this place down.'
'That's reassuring, thanks.'
Michael shut up quickly, regretting his clumsy words. The last thing anyone wanted to hear was how vulnerable they were in the hall. Shabby, ramshackle and draughty it might be, but today it was all they had. There were countless stronger and safer buildings outside, but no-one wanted to take a single step outside the front door for fear of what they might find there.
Michael watched as Stuart Jeffries and another man (whose name he thought was Carl) sat in deep conversation in the far corner of the room with a third figure who was hidden from view by Jeffries' back. Jeffries had been the first one to arrive at the hall, and he'd made a point of telling everyone who'd arrived subsequently that he'd been the one who had found their shelter as if they should be grateful. In a world where position and stature now counted for nothing, he seemed to be clinging on desperately to his self-perceived 'status'. Perhaps it made him feel important. Perhaps it made him feel like he had a reason to survive.
The conversation in the corner continued and Michael began to watch intently. He could sense that frustrations were beginning to boil to the surface by the increasing volume of the voices. Less than five minutes earlier they had been mumbling quietly and privately. Now every survivor could hear every word of what was being said.
'No way, I'm not going outside,' Jeffries snapped, his voice strained and tired. 'What's the point? What's outside?'
The man hidden in the shadows replied.
'So what else should we do then? How long can we stay here? It's cold and uncomfortable in here. We've got no food and no supplies and we've got to go out if we're going to survive. Besides, we need to know what's happening out there. For all we know we could be shut away in here with help just around the corner...'
'We're not going to get any help,' Jeffries argued.
'How do you know?' Carl asked. His voice was calm but there was obvious irritation and frustration in his tone. 'How the hell do you know there's no-one to help us? We won't know until we get out there.'
'I'm not going out.'
'Yes, we've already established that,' the hidden man sighed. 'You're going to stay in here until you fucking starve to death...'
'Don't get smart,' Jeffries spat. 'Don't get fucking smart with me.'
Michael sensed that the friction in the corner might be about to turn into violence. He didn't know whether to get involved or just stay out of the way.
'I know what you're saying, Stuart,' Carl said cautiously, 'but we need to do something. We can't just sit here and wait indefinitely.'
Jeffries looked as if he was trying desperately to think of something to say. Maybe he was having trouble trying to reason the argument. How could you apply any logic and order to such a bleak and inexplicable situation? Unable to find the words to express how he was feeling he began to cry, and the fact that he was unable to contain his emotions seemed to make him even angrier. He wiped away his tears with the back of his hand, hoping that the others hadn't noticed, but knowing full well that everyone had.
'I just don't want to go out there,' he cried, finally being honest and forcing his words out between gasps and sobs. 'I just don't want to see it all again. I want to stay here.'
With that he got up and left the room, shoving his chair back across the floor. It clattered against the radiator and the sudden noise caused everyone to look up. Seconds later the ominous silence was shattered again as the toilet door slammed shut. Carl looked at the man in the corner for a second before shrugging his shoulders and getting up and walking away in the opposite direction.
'The whole bloody world is falling apart,' Michael said under his breath as he watched.
'What do you mean falling apart?' Emma asked quietly. 'It's already happened, mate. There's nothing left. This is it.'
He looked up and around at his cold grey surroundings and glanced at each one of the empty shells of people scattered about the place. She was right. She was painfully right.
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