Chapter 7

Carl eventually returned to the other survivors and found them sitting in a rough circular group in one corner of the dark main hall. Some sat on chairs and benches whilst others were crouched down on the hard linoleum floor. The group was gathered around a single dull gas lamp and a quick count of the heads he could see revealed that he seemed to be the only absentee. A few of the poor bewildered souls glanced up at him as he approached.

Feeling suddenly self-conscious (but knowing that he had no reason to care) he sat down at the nearest edge of the group. He sat down between two women. He'd been trapped in the same building as them for the best part of a day and yet he didn't even know their names. He knew very little about anyone and they knew very little about him. As much as he needed their closeness and contact, he found the distance between the individual survivors still strangely welcome.

A man called Ralph was trying to address the group. From his manner and the precise, thoughtful way that he spoke Carl assumed he'd been a barrister or, at the very least, a solicitor until the world had been turned upside down yesterday morning.

'What we must do,' Ralph said, clearly, carefully and slowly and with almost ponderous consideration, 'is get ourselves into some sort of order here before we even think about exploring outside.'

'Why?' someone asked from the other side of the group. 'What do we need to get in order?'

'We need to know who and what we've got here. We need food and water, we need bedding and clothes and we should be able to find most of that in here. We also need to know what we haven't got and we should start thinking about where to get it.'

'Why?' the voice interrupted again. 'We know we'll find everything we need outside. We shouldn't waste our time in here, we should just get out and get on with it.'

Ralph's confidence was clearly a professional facade and, at the first sign of any resistance, he squirmed. He pushed his heavy-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose with the tip of his finger and took a deep breath.

'That's not a good idea. Look, I think we've got to make our personal safety and security our prime concern and then...'

'I agree,' the voice interrupted again. 'But why stop here? There are a thousand and one better places to go, why stay here? What makes you any safer here than if you were lying on the dotted white line in the middle of the Stanhope Road?'

Carl shuffled around so that he could see through the mass of heads and bodies and identify the speaker. It was Michael, the bloke who had cooked the soup earlier.

'We don't know what's outside...' Ralph began.

'But we've got to go out there eventually, you accept that?'

He stammered and fiddled with his glasses again.

'Yes, but...'

'Look, Ralph, I'm not trying to make this any more difficult than it already is. We've got to leave here to get the supplies we need. All I'm saying is why bother delaying it and why bother coming back? Why not go somewhere else?'

Ralph couldn't answer. It was obvious to Carl and, probably, to pretty much everyone else, that the reason Ralph didn't want to go outside was the same reason Stuart Jeffries had admitted to wanting to stay trapped in the hall earlier. They were both scared.

'We could try and find somewhere else,' he began, hesitantly, 'but we've got a shelter here which is secure and...'

'And cold and dirty and uncomfortable,' Carl said quickly.

'Okay, it's not ideal but...'

'But what?' pressed Michael. 'It seems to me that we can pretty much have our pick of everywhere and everything at the moment.'

The room fell silent for a few seconds. Ralph suddenly sat up straight and pushed his glasses back up his nose again. He seemed to have found a reason to justify staying put.

'But what about the music and the fire?' he said, much more animated. 'Stuart and Jack managed to bring us all here by lighting the fire and playing music. If we did it again we might find more survivors. There might already be people on their way to us.'

'I don't think so,' said Michael. 'No-one's arrived here since me. If anyone else had heard the music they'd have been here by now. I agree with what you're saying, but again, why here? Why not find somewhere better to stop, get ourselves organised there and light a bloody big bonfire right in the middle of the road outside?'

Carl agreed.

'He's right. We should get a beacon or something sorted, but let's get ourselves safe and secure first.'

'A new beacon somewhere else is going to be seen by more people, isn't it?' asked Sandra Goodwin, a fifty year-old housewife. 'And isn't that what we want?'

'Bottom line here,' Michael said, changing his tone and raising his voice slightly so that everyone suddenly turned and gave him their full attention, 'is that we've got to look after ourselves first of all and then start to think about anyone else who might possibly still be alive.'

'But shouldn't we start looking for other survivors now?' someone else asked.

'I don't think we should,' he replied, 'I agree that we should get a beacon or something going, but there's no point in wasting time actively looking for other people yet. If there are others then they'll have more chance of finding us than we'll have finding them.'

'Why do you say that?' Sandra asked.

'Stands to reason,' he grunted. 'Does anyone know how many people used to live in this city?'

A couple of seconds silence followed before someone answered.

'About a quarter of a million people. Two hundred thousand or something like that.'

'And there are twenty-six of us in here.'

'So?' pressed an uncomfortable looking Ralph, trying desperately to find a way back into the conversation.

'So what does that say to you?'

Ralph shrugged his shoulders.

'It says to me,' Michael continued, 'that looking for anyone else would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.'

Carl nodded in agreement and picked up where Michael had left off.

'What's outside?' he asked quietly.

No response.

He looked from left to right at the faces gathered around him. He glanced across the room and made eye contact with Michael.

'I'll tell you,' he said quietly, 'there's nothing. The only people I've seen moving since all of this began are sitting in this hall. But we don't know if it's over. We don't know if we're going to wake up tomorrow. We don't know if what happened to the rest of them will happen to us.'

Ralph interrupted.

'Come on,' he protested, 'stop talking like that. You're not doing anyone any good talking like that...'

'I'm trying to make a point...'

Michael spoke again.

'Since this all started have any of you heard a plane or helicopter pass overhead?'

Again, no response.

'The airport's five miles south of here, if there were any planes flying we'd have heard them. There's a train station that links the city to the airport and the track runs along the other side of the Stanhope Road. Anyone heard a train?'

Silence.

'So how many people do you think this has affected?' Carl asked cautiously.

'If this was the only region affected,' Michael answered, 'logic says that help would have arrived by now.'

'What are you saying?' a man called Tim asked quietly.

Michael shrugged his shoulders.

'I guess I'm saying that this is a national disaster at the very least. The lack of air traffic makes me think that it could be worse than that.'

An awkward murmur of stark realisation rippled across the group.

'Michael's right,' Emma said. 'This thing spread so quickly that there's no way of knowing what kind of area's been affected. It was so fast that I doubt whether anything could have been done to prevent it spreading before it was too late.'

'But this area might be too infected to travel to,' Tim said, his voice strained and frightened. 'They might have sealed Northwich off.'

'They might have,' Michael agreed. 'But I don't think that's very likely, do you?'

Tim said nothing.

'So what do we do?' an unsure female voice asked from the middle of the group.

'I think we should get away from here,' Michael said. 'Look, if I'm completely honest I'm just thinking about myself here and the rest of you should make your own minds up. It's just that I'm not prepared to sit here and wait for help when I'm pretty sure that it's never going to arrive. I don't want to sit trapped in here surrounded by thousands of bloody bodies. I want out of the city. I want to get away from here, find somewhere safe, make myself comfortable and then just sit and wait and see what happens next.'

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