Chapter Twenty-Three

I can usually get from the flat to Harry's house in around fifteen minutes but it took almost an hour to get here today. There's still not a huge amount of traffic about but some roads are inaccessible. Some are backed-up with slow moving queues, others have just been blocked off.

Harry's pretty shaken up like the rest of us although he won't admit it. He's subdued and much quieter than usual. Liz phoned him and told him I was coming to get him but he hasn't got anything ready. I'm upstairs with him now, helping him pack an overnight bag. He seems lost and helpless like a little kid. He keeps asking me questions he knows I can't answer. How long will I be away? What do I need to take? Will we be safe at your place?

Harry's house is quiet and dark. It's rare that I ever go upstairs. The place is small but it's still far too big for him alone. The rooms that Liz and her sister used to sleep in have been left untouched since they moved out and one side of Harry's bedroom is a shrine to Sheila, his late wife. She's been dead for three years but there are still more of her things in the bedroom than Harry's. The whole house is full of clutter. Old sod never throws anything out. He just can't let go.

I wanted to be in and out of here in minutes but Harry's delaying things again. I need to get back to Lizzie and the kids but I'm stood here watching him checking everything's switched off and then checking that he's checked everything. I want to tell him that I don't think it matters anymore but that's only going to make things worse so I just humour him and try to hurry him along. My head is spinning. I really need to talk about what's happening but Harry's not the person I want to talk to. I don't know who is. I need to talk about the half-dead man on the landing and about what I saw in the convenience store this morning. I can't get the image of the kid beating her mother out of my head. Could one of our kids attack Lizzie like that? Could that be happening right now while I'm stood here wasting my time with this stupid old man? I bite my lip and try and stay calm. I can't show any emotion. I don't want Harry thinking I'm a Hater.

'Come on,' I say, interrupting him as he walks around the ground floor of his house, checking the windows and doors are locked for the third time, 'we need to get moving.'

I expect a sneering reply because that's what I usually get from Harry. He's a loud and opinionated old bugger who doesn't think much of me. He assumes he knows more than me about everything and he never takes kindly to being hurried or told what to do. I'm surprised when he just nods, picks up his bag and slowly walks towards the front door. I take the bag from him and put it in the car, leaving him to lock up his home.

'Quiet, isn't it?' he says as we drive back towards the flat. He immediately regrets his words as we pull onto a main road which is solid with traffic. We join the back of the queue. It's slow but it's still moving and I can't think of a better route home. I decide to sit tight.

'You okay, Harry?' I ask.

'Fine,' he mumbles. 'Bit tired, that's all.'

'Trouble sleeping?'

He nods his head.

'Something happened around the back of the house last night,' he explains, his voice quiet. 'There was a fight or an accident or something... lots of screaming, lots of noise...'

The traffic has slowed down again to almost a complete standstill. It's stop-start all the way.

'Don't know what's going on here,' I mumble.

The road we're crawling along runs past the front of a row of houses before swinging up and left over a bridge which spans the motorway below. As we follow the arc of the road the reason for the delay becomes apparent. There's a steady stream of cars leaving the motorway and rejoining the town traffic. We grind to a halt again mid-way over the bridge.

'What's the hold-up?' Harry asks, looking around curiously.

'No idea. Must have been an accident or something...'

'That's not an accident,' he says, peering out of his window and tapping his finger on the glass. I sit up in my seat and lean across him to try and see whatever it is he's looking at. There's a blockade of some kind stretching right across the motorway. There are dark green military juggernauts straddling both sides of the road. Armed guards are manning red and white-striped barrier gates while other soldiers direct the queues of approaching traffic. What the hell are they doing? Unless I'm mistaken, the cars trying to leave the city are being stopped. They're not even being searched. They're either being marshalled up the slip-road and straight off the motorway or they're being sent round through a hole that's been cut in the central barrier and forced back the way they came. The traffic is being channelled back into town.

'Don't want us to go far, do they?' Harry says, watching the cars below us as we begin to shunt forward again.

'Thought they said they were getting things under control.'

'What?'

'I was watching something on the TV just before I came out to get you. They said the situation is being brought under control.'

'Well this is probably part of that control, isn't it? They need to know where everyone is...'

'Do they?'

'How can the authorities protect us if they don't know where we are?'

I don't bother answering him. The fact that I've just seen a substantial military presence out on the streets doesn't inspire me or fill me with confidence. If anything it makes me feel worse.

As we move away from the motorway the traffic begins to thin out again. I put my foot down and continue towards home.

My nervousness and paranoia is increasing by the second. I need to be back with my family.

The streets we're driving through now are uncomfortably silent and still. It all looks and feels perverse. The country seems to be tearing itself apart with unprecedented levels of violence, so why is everywhere so quiet? The normal human reaction to a threat like the Haters would be to stand and fight but today we can't. These people are sick. They're driven by a desire to kill and destroy and, from what I've seen, they won't stop until those desires have been satisfied. To stand and fight against them would mean displaying the same emotions as they do. It would be self-destructive. To fight back is to risk being called a Hater too. All we can do is keep ourselves to ourselves and not retaliate. The population is withdrawing from each other in fear. Fear of everyone else and fear of themselves.

We finally pull up outside the apartment block and I get Harry inside. I'm about to go back out to get his bag from the car when I spot a solitary figure walking down the street. Instinctively I wait in the shadows until I'm sure they've disappeared before setting foot out in the open again. Christ, I'm too scared to risk even being seen by anyone I don't know.

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