I can't wait any longer.
I've been packing for months. I've hoarded my rations. I know where I'm heading. I just need to find the right moment to go.
They don't want me to leave, I'm sure of that, so I'll be sneaking away in the middle of the night. Tonight. They might guess where I'm going but they won't be able to follow me once I'm gone.
This will be the culmination of years of planning. Decades, even. I have enough food to last me for a week or so and I have all the maps I'll need. I've been gathering supplies over the last year. They haven't suspected anything, I've made sure of that. Who would suspect someone my age to risk everything for sentiment?
I ran my mind back over everything I had packed. A couple of thin ropes, a couple of tarpaulins, a blanket, four water bottles, a couple of changes of clothes and a hat. I carried a few bandages and I had as much food as I had been able to take which I hoped would last me until the end of the week if I rationed it. I'd also found my old passport which had expired decades ago. It probably wouldn't be much use but it couldn't hurt to carry it. I slipped it into my coat pocket.
I'd wanted to have a knife but there hadn't been an opportunity to steal one so I would have to do without.
My food situation was rather pitiful: some bread and cheese and some hard boiled eggs that I had managed to steal from the table, and some seeds and nuts from the store. I would have to keep an eye on my food but I wasn't too concerned; I'd be able to forage as I walked and I had some wire that I could use as a snare.
And most importantly, I had my sunphone. It was old but I would need it for the journey ahead. A good friend had wired a solar panel to the charging circuits years ago so I hadn't had to worry about power for a long time. It had an app with the maps I would need and it even had a translation dictionary; I would probably need it for the journey ahead.
The battery on my sunphone had died years ago. At best it offered a scant few minutes of charge so I was almost entirely reliant on daylight whenever I used it. I flicked back to the home screen before I turned it off. The cheerful faces of Seth's family greeted me as I did so and I stared at them, feeling the familiar twinge of guilt. The photo was many years old at this point and I hoped I would recognise them when I saw them. Seth, Hettie, Anne and Benjamin.
My room was uncharacteristically tidy. It wasn't much but it had been mine and I would miss it enormously. I looked around it for the last time and my gaze fell on the wooden cow sitting above my bed that Seth had whittled for me many years ago. I had always considered it a good luck charm of sorts and I added it to my bag - it wasn't heavy and it couldn't hurt to have a little extra luck on the journey ahead.
I would be sorry to leave and I wondered what they would say in the morning when they discovered my disappearance. The community had been my home for the past few decades and the people had become my family. Perhaps a mismatched family, but a family nonetheless. We looked out for each other, we took care of each other and we relied on each other. And that was the reason why I hadn't been able to leave any sooner.
I couldn't say goodbye to anyone either; they would have been suspicious and would have tried to stop me. I had said goodnight after dinner and disappeared off to my hut for the last time. The children had gone to bed shortly afterwards and most of the adults wouldn't have stayed up much longer. Joe would have done the last patrol of the evening and only a couple of watchmen would still be awake. And they wouldn't be watching for anyone trying to leave. Least of all me.
But I couldn't wait any longer. At 70, I was getting too old. I needed to find Seth before it was too late. Before it was too late for either of us.
It was several hours after sunset before I decided to risk leaving. I knew the places to avoid the dogs and watchmen. I would escape across the fields and take the track that would eventually lead to the roads. It was sure to be uneven underfoot in many places so I would be relying on my eyesight to avoid falling and twisting an ankle. The moon would provide enough light for me.
I had my bag and I was ready. I pushed the door open carefully, trying not to let it creak. I closed it quietly behind me and looked around for the last time. I would miss this place, but I couldn't stay.
It was nighttime but the moonlight illuminated everything with its silvery light. The conditions were as good as I was going to get. I made my way along the path keeping my footsteps as light as I could, and then I headed to where the hole in the hedge was. There had once been a gate there but we had removed it years ago for better access. I took one last glance behind me at the community, the place that had been my home for so long, and then I turned away. I would need as much of a head start as I could get.
I walked for a couple of hours. My bag was heavier than I would have liked but it was nothing that I couldn't handle. I knew I needed to head south and I knew that my maps would be fairly useless away from the main routes so I stuck to the road. The ground was soft underfoot due to the recent rain so I would be leaving footprints, but it couldn't be helped and I would be far away by the time anyone started to look for me.
The moon was nearly full and I had enough light to avoid falling down any of the large potholes in the road. I laughed to myself wondering what people from decades ago would have said if they could have seen the state of the roads these days. Living this far from any city, these roads would have been among the first for any council to have given up on. When money was scarce, it wasn't sensible to spend it to the benefit of only a few, and maintaining the main routes in and out of the cities would have been of much higher priority.
What remained of the road ahead of me meandered its way up the hill. I made my way slowly up it, pausing for breath every few metres, grateful that my body was used to exercise, even if I was not used to the weight of the bag which was already digging uncomfortably into my shoulders. By the time I reached the top, I was ready for a break.
I looked back. I could see the valley behind me illuminated by the moonlight. It wasn't the first time I had been up to the top of this hill, but this would be the last. I could see the forest on the far side of the valley where we collected wood. The sea glittered to the west and I could just make out where the community lay, although I was sure I was imagining the light from the lantern by the entrance to the hall. I could picture it, swinging gently in the breeze, lighting the way to food for us weary workers. In the old days, it would have been an LED light but these days the community tended to use fuel. Olive oil, beeswax and animal fat had all been used in recent years, collected ourselves or traded for food, seeds, wood and shelter from travellers passing nearby. There would be no such luxuries on the road ahead.
Although I didn't expect anyone to be following me, I stopped every now and then to see if I could hear anything. But I needn't have worried. Aside from my own breathing, I couldn't hear any evidence of another human being. Animals, on the other hand...
I jumped when a barn owl flew overhead, its almost soundless flight a stark contrast to its snowy white feathers illuminated by the moonlight. I watched it swoop sharply downwards and disappear from sight into the long grass before reappearing and flying off again. I liked to imagine that it caught a rat; that would be one pest that wouldn't try to steal food from the barn this year.
It was dark along the road, the moonlight blocked out by overgrown and unkempt hedges. But I couldn't be found here in the morning. I took a last glance behind me before heading over the top of the ridge and down into the next valley. If I could walk for another hour or so, I would be able to make my way into the forest at the foot of the valley and could set up camp there and get a few hours of sleep.
The stretch along the top of the ridge had been considerably easier than the path down into the next valley. The vegetation along the ridge was fairly sparse due to the winds; the valley tended to be considerably more sheltered. The terrain was steep and the surface was poor so I had to watch my footing. It wouldn't do to twist an ankle in the darkness, especially not on my first night. Fortunately, the road was clearly marked and the moon was high in the sky so I could see my way well enough. My bag was heavy and I stumbled a few times but was able to follow the old road without much trouble.
The community used the fields on either side of the road in this valley too. We had ploughed them a few weeks back and the first crops had already been planted. These fields would soon be filled with a selection of vegetables including potatoes and carrots, in addition to staples such as corn. We always worried about the diversity of the crops so moved them around the fields from year to year. Chemical pesticides and fungicides were no longer readily available so we did what we could to prevent disease and damage to our main source of food. We were lucky that so many vegetables had been genetically modified to make them more resistant to pests and the weather before the energy supplies dried up. I didn't like to think what our yields would have looked like if that hadn't been the case.
It had been a long day for me and I was exhausted by the time I reached the forest. I walked a little way inside so that the trees would hide me from sight, as well as offering some protection from any rain. I didn't want to be found in the morning. Of course, this shelter came at cost; it was dark and I could no longer see my way.
I felt for the rope in my bag and considered setting up my tent, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. I was still too close to the community and wanted to be on my way at first light. I pulled out the tarpaulin and blanket instead. I laid the tarpaulin on the ground and, after removing my shoes, I wrapped myself in the blanket. It would do.
Age 11, late spring
"You just get in the way."
I could still hear the words as I scrubbed furiously at the plate. Seth was out with his friends, probably playing football, and I was stuck at home washing dishes.
It wasn't fair. My friends were busy, Kevin was moving away, and Seth wouldn't let me join him when he said that he was going out. And Mum hadn't stopped him.
I put the plate down on the drainer. Harder than I meant to. I quickly checked it for cracks but it seemed to be alright. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Are you alright there, Tam?" Mum's voice floated in from the garden. "What was that noise?"
"It's fine." I was angry at her too. Couldn't she have let me go with Seth?
What was I meant to do anyway? Hang out by myself? Dad had disappeared again. He wasn't around much these days anyway, always off to the city and he'd never let me go with him.
"Maybe when you're older, Tam," he would say as he left. "I don't want you getting hurt." In other words, I just got in the way.
Of course my friends were allowed to go with their parents to the big city. Dan had sent me a photo a couple of hours ago of him and his sister standing in the crowds, and I'd seen a message from Ryan on our group chat saying he would be there. Even Ash was going, even though her family was new to the area and she rarely left the house for anything other than school.
And I was left at home with Mum to do the dishes.
I was still angry ten minutes later when the last spoon had been cleaned. I turned off the tap - no point wasting water in these droughts - and went outside to find Mum.
"All done?" She was smiling brightly from the vegetable patch in our small garden. "Would you mind giving me a hand?"
"I want to see Kevin."
"He's leaving tomorrow, isn't he?"
"That's why I want to see him."
Mum had never quite approved of Kevin. She didn't like the fact that Kevin was about ten years older than me and it didn't help that I'd picked up useful skills from Kevin such as pen spinning and lock picking so she usually insisted on Seth coming with me. Seth got on well enough with Kevin but he got bored easily and hated being seen with me, so visits were never as frequent as I liked.
I glared at Mum and she hesitated. "Alright. But I want you back before dinner. And I'm sure they're busy, so don't get in the way."
Don't get in the way.
But that was all I needed. I hurried to put my shoes on, and ran out the front door, letting it slam shut behind me. Mum could tell me off for that later.
It was another hot day and I could feel the heat radiating off the tarmac as I ran. Kevin lived at the other end of the town but that was only about ten minutes away at this speed. I didn't even need to worry about cars as most people would be in the city today. Like Dad.
Dad had explained it to me a few nights ago. The rationing system introduced by the government wasn't working and food and water shortages were as bad as ever in this year's heatwave. And deaths were at a record high. People needed to explain this to the politicians, Dad told me. Food and fuel supplies from abroad would make a big difference but they were refusing to do that. And that was why people were protesting. Because the government wasn't doing enough to help its people.
"It's not fair on your generation," he told me.
So today was a chance for anyone and everyone to make their way to the cities and protest outside the government offices. Schools and offices had closed for the day and a lot of public transport was offering free rides to and from the city centre. People were angry and wanted to make their voices heard.
I had made it to the high street by this time. The sun was beating down on my head and I wished that I'd brought a hat. But it wasn't far to go now.
I glanced around me. There were so many boarded-up shops. No-one really wanted to buy flowers these days. It didn't look like business was going well at the greengrocer's either, judging by the sad-looking baskets of fruit outside. And a lot of the family-run businesses were moving online to save costs. Like Kevin's family was doing.
I'd known Kevin for most of my life. His parents ran a phone repair shop and Kevin helped them out at weekends. I had spent more weekends than I cared to remember in that shop, helping out where I could. I liked watching them work and Kevin was always friendly towards me. And it didn't hurt that his mother was an excellent cook either.
"Don't get in their way, Tam!" Dad would shout whenever I ran off to see Kevin.
I arrived outside, sweaty and out of breath. Kevin's family lived above the shop and I looked to see if there was any movement from the upper storey. The windows downstairs had already been boarded up and I couldn't see in. I tried to slow my breathing and knocked loudly on the door.
Kevin's father opened it after a few moments.
"Tam?" He looked surprised but welcomed me with a smile. "One moment. Kevin! Tam's here!" he called back into the house.
I could hear footsteps from somewhere inside as Kevin made his way to the door. Kevin's father nodded at us both and disappeared into one of the back rooms.
"Tam? I wasn't expecting to see you." Kevin looked tired but he smiled when he caught sight of me. "Come on in."
"Can I help with anything?"
Kevin shook his head. "We've done most of the packing now." He led me through to what had once been the main part of the shop, now with boxes lining every wall. "I'll be sorry to leave." "Will you be back?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? There's no business here for us anymore, but I'll miss this place. I'll miss you, Tam."
I felt my eyes getting watery. I didn't like goodbyes.
"I'll miss you too."
He laughed. "Hey, no crying. You'll make me cry too!"
"Where will you be going?" I asked, wiping my nose.
"We'll be living with my aunt for a while. She can help us get set up again. Dad doesn't want to give up the shop completely so we'll be doing most of the business online but we'll have a smaller store. Repairs only, though."
"Are you going far?"
He nodded. "You'll still be able to talk to me though. I'm only at the other end of the internet. Hang on, wait here."
I stood still as Kevin disappeared from the room and I heard him climb the stairs. I looked around the room. I would miss this place too. I had spent many happy afternoons in here and I'd learnt a lot about electronics from Kevin and his parents.
"Here," Kevin had returned holding a small box. "This is for you."
I took it gingerly. "What is it?"
"Have a look!"
I lifted the lid and looked inside. It was a phone. Maybe the ugliest phone I had ever seen. It looked heavy and too big to hold comfortably, far from the sleek and shiny models I had seen advertised.
"Thanks!" I couldn't be rude.
But Kevin understood. "Don't look like that! This is a very special phone. Here." He pulled it out of the box. "One of our customers traded this in for a newer model. It's only a few years old and it's still pretty powerful. I've wiped it and put the latest OS on here, and the battery life is decent. More importantly," he turned the phone over so that I could see the back, "it has this, which you won't find on your brand new phones." A solar panel. "You won't need an electricity supply to charge it so you'll always have power."
My mouth fell open.
"That's awesome!" Power cuts were far too frequent these days.
"I know, right! And it's in a case that's meant to be waterproof, although I haven't tested that."
I looked at the phone with new eyes. Who cared what the phone looked like. This was better than anything Seth had.
"Thanks, Kevin. I'll look after it really well."
He grinned as he ruffled my hair. "I hope it lasts you for a while."
"But I didn't get you anything!"
He shrugged. "You've given me memories. Many happy memories. I've put some photos on there for you too. And some apps that might be useful."
I could feel a lump in my throat.
There was a loud bump from upstairs and both of us looked towards the ceiling.
"I probably ought to give them a hand," he told me with a sheepish grin. "You should head off home."
I nodded and Kevin walked me to the door.
"Thanks for everything."
He bent down to give me a hug. "Look after yourself, Tam."
Mum didn't look pleased with Kevin's present but she didn't try to take it from me.
"You're old enough to have one now. Make sure you take good care of it."
We sat down in the kitchen where it was a little cooler and Mum handed me a glass of water. I drank it greedily.
"I will." I hadn't had a chance to turn it on yet but I was curious about the photos that Kevin mentioned. I would wait until I was on my own to do that.
Seth made it back just before 6pm. He looked smug about something but wouldn't tell us what he had been up to. Mum just shook her head and dropped the subject as she went to make dinner.
I leaned towards him. "Did you go to the protests?"
He smirked. "Maybe." He already knew I wouldn't say anything to Mum.
At 6pm we turned on the radio to listen to the news. Unsurprisingly the protests featured heavily. Millions had turned out to make their voices heard and riots had broken out in several cities around the country. Several deaths were reported.
"It was meant to be a peaceful protest," Mum complained.
"Riots have more impact though," Seth told her.
"And cause a lot more damage," Mum snapped. "That money could be better spent on other things. Like food."
Seth didn't have a reply to that.
Mum had made a salad for dinner. Home grown tomatoes, home grown lettuce, home grown peas.
"When is Dad getting back?" I wondered.
"He's probably just been delayed. I'm sure the traffic is awful out there." But she looked worried.
We waited for half an hour and then ate anyway.
Dad never returned.
It felt far too early when I opened my eyes the next morning but the sun was already higher in the sky than I would have liked. I sat up slowly, feeling my bones creak as I did so. The ground was still damp from the rain but the tarpaulin had kept me dry. I staggered to my feet with a groan and stretched, then reached inside my bag for breakfast.
I was carrying as much as possible but I couldn't carry enough food to get me all the way to the south and unfortunately a lot of my food wouldn't keep more than a couple of weeks. I was going to have to beg or trade for food further down south. Today's breakfast would be bread and goat's cheese, stolen from the stores only yesterday. I was ravenous after last night's walk and I sat on my bag while I ate, pulling out my sunphone as I did so.
Surprisingly there was enough light to power it under the forest canopy and I waited impatiently while it booted. The smiling faces of Seth's family greeted me when the background image finally appeared and for once I didn't feel quite so guilty. I was on my way at last.
I loaded the maps app, half-hoping that it would know my position. But of course it didn't. The location functionality hadn't worked for years. Still, I had access to my decades-old maps, which was something. I wasn't sure how much use they would be on the journey ahead but they would be better than nothing. I took a guess at my location while I finished off my breakfast and worked out where I needed to go next. It wouldn't matter if I wasn't heading along the shortest route; most paths probably weren't around anymore. As long as I kept heading south I would be alright.
When I had eaten, I stood up and stretched. I couldn't delay any longer so I set off, heading deeper into the forest.
It was astonishing how quickly nature had taken over. A lot of this forest would have been planted in the first half of the century. That's not when people first realised the dangers of climate change but when they realised that it would affect them. So they panicked and started planting as many trees as they could to absorb as much of the carbon from the atmosphere as possible. Of course, many trees were then chopped down less than a decade later when fuel became scarce and undid much of the effort. Still, nature always found a way to survive, and this forest had probably been left largely untouched due to its isolation.
The forest was quiet. Aside from the roots underfoot trying to trip me up, the going was fairly easy. There wasn't much vegetation under the canopy as there wasn't enough light for plants to grow well. This meant that there weren't many brambles, for which I was grateful. In many ways, this journey would be a race against time and I didn't want to waste a morning stuck in a thicket of brambles if I could avoid it. I planned to stay in the forest for as long as possible. It would give me shelter from the sun as well as from the sight of other people. I wanted to remain alone for as long as I could. Plus, if the terrain stayed like this then I could make better time than along the old roads.
It was more difficult to navigate from under the trees but I could still work out which way was south. The sun rises in the east, after all. I looked at my sunphone occasionally, checking that it was still alive.
I heard the river long before I saw it, the sound of rushing of water unmistakable in the quiet forest. I followed the sound and headed downhill until I reached it, a fast-moving mass of water still swollen from the recent rains. I followed it upstream for several miles, looking for a good place to cross. It looked deep and I didn't want to have to swim. I was sure I was taking a large detour but slowing down was better than getting everything wet. The ground was much rockier and more uneven by the river and I was afraid of slipping and twisting my ankle. Still, it was peaceful here and I enjoyed listening to the sounds of the forest as I walked.
Everyone in the community would have been awake hours ago and I wondered what was happening. They would have noticed me missing hours ago. Was Joe angry? Were Ollie and Mia upset? More importantly, would they send a search party out after me? What I was doing was incredibly selfish. I had helped myself to the community's food and was leaving them a person short. And not just any person but one of the most experienced and knowledgeable. Part of me wanted to justify it by having lived there for so many years, surely I was entitled to be a little selfish?
Joe was right about the journey. He was usually right when it came to the community's welfare and I was letting everyone down by leaving and risking everyone's survival. And maybe I could never return. But I knew that I didn't have that many years left in me and I wanted - no, I needed - to see Seth again. The guilt felt uncomfortable. I tried to put it out of my head. I would find Seth.
It must have been late morning when I found the fallen tree across the river. I approached it cautiously. It had been old and tall but it looked like it would support my weight without any difficulties. Unfortunately the recent rain and the lack of sunlight on the forest floor meant that it was slippery. Poor footing and a heavy bag was not a good combination.
I glanced upstream, hoping that there would be another crossing point, but given that I had been walking for miles without finding anything better, this was probably the best I could hope for. I heaved the bag on top of the trunk and climbed up after it, groaning as I did so. I decided that it would be safer to crawl along the tree, even if it was much less dignified. It would spread my weight much better in case the trunk were to crack and my centre of mass would be lower so I would be more stable.
It wasn't far but I still breathed a sigh of relief when I made it to the other side. My stomach had been rumbling for some time so I pulled a bag of nuts out of my bag to eat as I walked. It would do as a snack.
It was only an hour or so later when the trees started to thin out and I could see the edge of the forest, and judging by the direction of the light, I was still heading approximately south which was good. With every step, the sunlight grew brighter, which would only help my sunphone. But it also meant that there were more plants on the forest floor, no longer having to compete with the trees for the sun's energy. It wasn't long before I was getting caught by brambles and I felt my coat rip as I forced my way through.
I was covered in scratches by the time I reached the edge of the forest and I took a moment to examine my coat. There was a large tear down the back. This was not a good start to my journey.
Walking towards the daylight, I found myself in a meadow filled with tall grass and wildflowers. The sun's light was dazzling after having spent the morning in the shade and I shielded my eyes as I looked around. I spotted what looked like an opening in the hedge opposite and started towards it.
Making my way through grass that came up to my shoulders was exhausting. The sun was beating down on me and I was sweating heavily before I was even halfway across. I had a short break while I drank from one of my water bottles and pulled out my hat from my bag; it would keep the sun off me. At least the sun would dry out the ground which would make walking easier.
By the time I reached the hole in the hedge I realised that I was going to have a problem. It was only spring but it was a hot day and I wasn't sure how long my water supply would last. I estimated that I would be fine for the day but I would need to keep my eyes open for any water source nearby. I had had about two litres of water when I set off, but I would need to stay hydrated and those two litres wouldn't last long. I didn't want to have to go back through the field to the river I crossed yesterday so I would do my best to ration my supplies.
The hole in the hedge opened up into another field with grass just as tall as in the last. I quickly decided that I needed to find my way to a road to make better progress, even if that came at the cost of a chance of meeting other people. I pulled out my sunphone. At least there was no chance of it dying in this sunlight. I wasn't completely sure of my location but the maps app suggested that if I headed west then I should come across a road heading south-east. Unfortunately that meant crossing the fields.
To cut a long story short, I found the road. It wasn't much of a road, but it would be far easier travelling along it than through the fields. I was exhausted by this time and it wasn't even midday. I took the opportunity to go to the toilet behind the hedge just before I reached the road. The ground was soft and digging a hole was easy here.
The journey along the road was pretty uneventful after having spent most of the morning fighting with grass. I sang to myself as I walked, enjoying the shade from the hedges along the sides of the road. I avoided the potholes and managed to not twist my ankle as the road surface crumbled away underfoot. I was pretty sure I knew where this road was going. There was a town marked on the map near the forest and, while there were likely to be other people around, it would probably be to my advantage to visit. I hoped that I could refill my water bottles and replenish my food supplies. There was no-one in sight but I wasn't alone. There was a blackbird singing loudly in the hedgerow alongside the road and I paused to look for it; it reminded me of home.
I arrived a few miles later. I passed a metal sign welcoming visitors to the town where the paint had started peeling off long ago. There had been a few cottages along the road as I approached then the hedges had started to thin out only to be replaced by houses and flats.
It was eerie. That was the only way I could describe it. Most of the houses were dilapidated and had gardens that had long overgrown. Paint was peeling off walls, windows had shattered, some roofs had fallen in. There was a neglected air to the place, it had clearly been abandoned for some time. I remembered living in a house like many of these had once been like not so long ago. They had been different times.
There was a strange silence. I was used to the sounds of the birds in the fields and the rustle of trees in the forests. Here, there was nothing. I wandered towards what would have been the town centre, keeping my eyes open for any sign of movement. My maps app would have been useful here but I didn't want to pull my sunphone out where there was a chance that other people might see it. It was too valuable for me to risk having it stolen.
A little further along and I came across what must have once been the high street, the shops looking as derelict as the rest of the town. This place must have been a supermarket, and its barn-like roof had probably only caved in recently. And that one looked like it had been a cafe or a restaurant; I could make out the chairs and tables inside. And another was clearly a church. Others were harder to guess. Perhaps a clothes shop? And that one might have been a butcher's.
I had an idea. I walked over to the one that might have once been a butcher's shop and pushed my shoulder against the door frame. I was a little surprised that it gave way so easily; the wood must have rotted.
It was dark inside and smelled damp and musty, with cobwebs and mould covering much of the window. No-one had been inside for years.
I pulled off my bag and walked behind the counter where there were several knives hanging up on the wall. They didn't look clean but they looked sharp and might be useful for the journey ahead. I examined them and chose a handful with short blades and one with a much longer blade. They would be useful for trading, or defending myself if absolutely necessary. Now I had to find a way to carry them without damaging my bag. Or myself if I were to trip. I ended up wrapping them in some mouldy cloths I found on the floor.
And then there was my water problem. There was a sink at the back of the room and I turned on the tap eagerly. But there was nothing. The water system probably hadn't been working for a long time and the water in the pipes must have evaporated long ago.
There was a faded and water-damaged photo of a man on the wall, grinning as he held up a string of sausages. I wondered who he was and what had happened to him. Perhaps he used to be the owner. It must have been a long time since he had been here.
I did my best to close the door as I left.
This was a rare opportunity for me and I wondered if there was anything else that might be useful to trade on the journey ahead. I also wondered why this town looked as if it had been left in a hurry.
I still hadn't caught sight of another person. This town would have been good for a small group to set up a community in. Although many of the houses were dilapidated, it wouldn't be too difficult to repair several for shelter. And presumably lots of other shops had useful wares too, if the butcher's shop was anything to judge by.
As I started to head out of the town, I caught sight of an overgrown vegetable patch in one of the gardens. The tomato plants looked dead but I still couldn't see any evidence of people so I didn't feel bad about helping myself to some of the carrots. I did my best to brush off most of the soil and ate them as they were. I couldn't afford to waste my water washing them and I'd probably eaten worse. I also picked a few onions to carry with me. I put them in my bag around the knives for extra padding.
An hour later and I was several miles away from the town before I risked pulling out my sunphone again. I was heading southwards and was wondering where I would pass through next. I could see I was heading towards some hills and the maps app told me that there would be another wood on the other side. More importantly, it looked like there was a river beyond the wood. I continued on my way.
I hadn't seen another person since leaving the community, which I was rather surprised by. It was very different from the journey to the community a few decades back. This journey would be fairly easy if it stayed like this.
It was evening by the time I reached the wood. I left the road and walked until I was hidden from sight before setting up camp. I found the rope inside the bag and tied it between two trees just above knee height. I placed one of my tarpaulins on the ground under the rope and threw the other one over it. It didn't take me long to find some wood and rocks that I could use as weights and I used them to anchor the tarpaulins into a triangular tunnel. It wasn't a great tent but it would do.
It had been a successful day, I decided, and I had a go at making a couple of rabbit snares with the wire I had brought with me. After all, I had knives now and could prepare meat. I didn't have any way of cooking the rabbit but the skins might be useful for trading.
Darkness fell and my sunphone died before I could finish writing up the day's events. I slept with a knife in my hand that night and felt much safer for doing so.
Age 11, summer
We couldn't stay in the city with Dad gone. Couldn't? Wouldn't. Mum wanted to leave as soon as the funeral was over. It was a quick event put together by some of our friends and was over as suddenly as it started. And then we didn't know what to do next.
Mum didn't want to be around here without Dad. And I could understand that. We had only moved to the area for Dad's job and without him there wasn't much reason to stay. But I didn't want to leave him alone in his grave.
We visited him most days. He was buried under an old oak tree in the corner of the cemetery. It was peaceful there and he might have liked the spot, but it was so hard going there and thinking of him all alone in the cold, dark earth. Mum brought flowers with us when she could. Usually wildflowers picked from the roadsides. I could tell she was taking it hard. I could hear her crying at night when she thought we couldn't hear.
I cried too. I would hide under my duvet and cry until I fell asleep. Like Mum, I didn't let anyone else know. Seth would have laughed at me and told me that I was too old to cry. And I didn't want Mum to worry about me.
But we were scared. Seth declared that we would be safe and he would protect us, but he always helped Mum lock the house up at night and he took his role very seriously. We heard stories about people breaking into houses in the neighbourhood, and there was always the fear that we would be next. Seth and Mum both took to sleeping with weapons next to them: Mum had a bread knife and Seth had found a crowbar somewhere. I was pretty sure that the crowbar wasn't Dad's, but neither of us questioned it or complained. And me? I kept a rope by the window so that I could escape if I had to. Mum wouldn't give me a knife and guarded the kitchen ones carefully, telling me that I was too young for such violence.
The days were empty without Dad and we did our best to live our lives as if nothing had happened while Mum made plans and changed her mind every few days. Neither Seth or I wanted to leave; we went to school nearby and we had friends a few doors down. But there was no denying that the food situation was getting worse and we had very little money. Mum made us promise to avoid the town centre. Riots were still taking place and she didn't want to lose us too. I had no problem with that but I was surprised that Seth agreed so readily.
We pretended that nothing was wrong and I would always tell my teachers that I was fine whenever they expressed concern. Because I was fine, unlike Dad who was buried in the cold, dark ground. So we continued as normally as we could, and if someone discussed their plans for the weekend with their father and then caught themselves and glanced guiltily at me, I pretended as if I hadn't noticed anything.
Lessons continued as normal, with the exception of gym. We were being discouraged from running around as food supplies were low and us "growing children" weren't able to eat what we needed, and I couldn't imagine it was any better for the adults. Many of my classmates had dropped out of school, but most of us stayed. Where would we go, and what would we do instead? Things would get better before long, we were told.
It was only a couple of months later that Mum announced that she had sold the house and that we were moving. We didn't even know that she had been trying. Seth was furious.
"Why didn't you tell us?"
Mum tried to placate him.
"We can't stay here, Seth. Not now that your father isn't here." We all watched the news and could see the unrest and violence growing by the day. Food shortages were becoming worse and it was rare to see fully-stocked shelves at the supermarket.
"I told you. I'll protect you. Both of you," he added with a glance at me. But Mum was already shaking her head.
"Seth, I want both of you to be safe. And maybe you'll thank me for that later. We're not going to be going far and we can come back when this is all over."
"We can?" I asked. Mum looked like she wished I hadn't been within earshot, but she answered me anyway.
"Of course we can. We're going to stay with family for the time being." Seth looked murderous. "It will be fun and we'll be back before long."
Needless to say that it wasn't fun. We packed everything in the house into boxes and helped load everything into the van that Mum had hired. I didn't know how she had managed to find the money to cover the cost of fuel for the journey, but neither of us questioned it.
Seth spent most of the last few days out of the house with his friends and Mum couldn't begrudge him that. We stopped going to school as there was really no point in continuing by then, but Mum let me visit my friends in the evening after school had finished for the day. The evenings were a little cooler and were a little more bearable.
We left early one morning while the sun was just peeking over the horizon. Mum left the key with our neighbour who wished us a safe journey and promised to deliver it to the new owners before midday. We caught the bus to the nearest station, and then took the first train of the day.
The train ride itself was unpleasant. The windows didn't open and the air conditioning was broken so the whole compartment was like a greenhouse. And it was packed. The operator had been cutting the number of services in an attempt to save energy and cut costs, so there were far more of us crammed into the space than there should have been on such a hot day. We were lucky to be able to sit together.
We didn't have much with us - some meagre food supplies and a bottle of water each. Mum spent most of the journey staring out of the window. I knew she hated the thought of leaving Dad behind but we couldn't have brought him with us. She had been against the idea of cremation, so burial was the only option.
I spent the first part of the journey looking at Kevin's phone. His sunphone, I had taken to calling it. There was a lot on it. I flicked through several photos of us. His parents must have taken them while I was helping out one day and I looked completely absorbed in whatever I was doing. Mum leaned over to have a look.
"That's very kind of Kevin."
I looked to see what apps were installed. There was a translation dictionary with several different languages, and there was an app for maps with what seemed to be the entire country already downloaded for offline use. Most of the device's space seemed to be taken up by those and I considered deleting them.
"Why would I need a dictionary?" I asked Mum.
She shrugged. "It might be useful. There are lots of refugees around here these days. Not everyone speaks the same language."
Seth was listening to music. He was leaning against the window with his eyes closed, looking utterly relaxed. He had stopped glaring at Mum by this point and seemed to be looking forward to travelling to the countryside. Music was something Kevin hadn't put on the sunphone, so I sat staring out of the window like Mum.
It was strange watching the greys of the suburbs become transformed into greens and browns. Flats turned into houses which turned into trees. Highways became roads became fields. The evidence of such a scorching summer was apparent, with what might have been landscapes of luscious green replaced by yellows and browns. Yet another nuclear power station looked like it was being built as we travelled up the coast.
Summer Zero, Dad had liked to call it. It was five years ago now, and all temperature records had been broken for about the twentieth year running. The news was full of stories about people dying of heatstroke and hosepipe bans were enforced with hefty fines up and down the country. The heatwave had been worse than that of the previous years by quite a margin and schools had shut for several weeks while they worked out what to do.
That was the year the food shortages had started. Hot sun meant that crops stopped growing and died. Pollinating insects couldn't survive in the heat. And it was a worldwide shortage. Food was imported from abroad but it cost more. We were told to ration what we could.
That was five years ago, and it was still getting worse. These fields should have been full of wheat and corn but whatever was growing in them looked half dead, wilting in the heat. We were taught at school that farmers got a good supply of water for their crops, even during the hosepipe bans, but most of it must have evaporated quickly in these temperatures.
Rationing, and energy-efficient food. That was the official line from the government. And perhaps it wasn't as healthy as it could have been but, given that supplies of chocolate and other such treats had dried up, our diets were probably a lot better than they might have been a couple of decades earlier.
We changed trains twice that day. Fortunately the other trains had windows that opened, even if they weren't any less crowded. It was early afternoon by the time we arrived at the final station.
Grandma was waiting for us there. She greeted us with a hug. Seth and I both tolerated it. We were both getting too old for hugs.
We were dismayed but not surprised to find that we would be walking the rest of the way. Mum berated Grandma for coming so far on her own. "You might have tripped and fallen!"
Grandma just laughed. "I'm both too old and too young for that." Mum shook her head exasperatedly.
It was about five miles to the house and my feet were hurting before the end of the road. I told Mum but she glared at me and said that we weren't going far and I would have to put up with it. Seth had to add something too.
"You're not a baby anymore, Tam." And that hurt. But I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that.
It was a hot day and it was a long walk. We stopped for breaks as often as we could but it took us the best part of two hours to reach the house.
It was an old farmhouse, the type with stone walls and flagstone floors. It stayed cool all year round and it was a relief to get out of the sun when we entered. Grandma disappeared into the kitchen to pour us all a glass of water each and I removed my shoes as soon as I could, marvelling at the size of my blisters.
Of course nothing had been unpacked, so we slept in between thin cotton sheets on the floor that evening. The house was big but not that big so I would be sharing a room with Seth until space could be made in the attic. Sharing a room with Seth was probably preferable to sleeping under a hot roof, anyway.
We started to settle into our new lives. Days turned into weeks which turned into months and there was never any mention of heading back to the city. We adapted quickly and settled into our new routines.
We started at the local school. The classes were a lot smaller than we were used to and I made some new friends. It was a long walk to school every day so I rarely saw them outside the school gates as I preferred to get home as early as possible to make the most of the daylight hours. Seth seemed to do the same.
Mum wouldn't let us walk to school when the weather was really bad, so Grandpa would teach us at home instead. He was a retired teacher and managed to make lessons fun, even if they weren't what we were supposed to be covering in school. There was an extensive library in the house too, so I would often hide in there with a book and pretend to be studying to avoid helping out in the garden.
We grew most of our own food. Grandma had shown us how to weed the garden, so that was my job a couple of times a week. It was dull work but necessary; it wouldn't do for the weeds to take over the garden. The one exception was the bottom half of one of the fields which was being left alone. Grandpa had hoped that it would be a sanctuary for wildlife, but I never saw anything other than bees and butterflies.
There were some sheep in another of the fields. Seth's job was to check on them every morning and ensure that none of them looked ill. He didn't like getting up early and grumbled every day but was always much more cheerful when he returned. Bess was the family collie and she faithfully accompanied him every morning, no matter the weather. She wasn't a trained sheepdog but she was always well-behaved around other animals.
The government message was to plant as many trees as we could, so we turned one of the fields into an orchard. It would take years for the trees to reach full maturity but we planted a good number of apple and pear trees, along with a few wild cherry trees. We would be able to harvest the fruit next autumn and the trees would help prevent soil erosion, not to mention removing some of the carbon from the air. Grandpa said that it wouldn't have much of an effect, but he supported the idea of the orchard for the food.
All too soon, summer was over and winter was well on its way. It became colder and the nights grew longer. Mum talked to the school about work for the winter and we found ourselves having daily lessons with Grandpa instead. It was cosy sitting around the table near the fire and Grandpa was a good teacher so we felt like we were learning. He always smiled when we mastered a new topic, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
It was early in the new year that the problems started. Mrs Wilson was our closest neighbour and she brought news that the bridge across the river had been badly damaged in one of the storms. It was still passable as long as you took care, but two kids from school had fallen in and had been swept away by the swollen river. They were presumed dead.
Mum had turned white at the news and had spent the evening hugging me and Seth. Grandma had said what we were all thinking: it could have been me and Seth instead if we had still been going to school. I felt guilty for being relieved, both for being alive and for avoiding the long walk to school every day. We were lucky to have Grandpa teaching us.
Food wasn't exactly plentiful that winter, but we didn't starve either. We lived off stews which were often purely vegetable-based but when Grandpa had one of the sheep killed, we feasted for days afterwards. I was envious of Seth being allowed help with that; Mum had said I was too young to watch and had made me help out in the kitchen instead.
Bess didn't survive the winter. That was the first time I saw Seth cry for many years. He hadn't known her long but they had become truly inseparable in that time. We weren't sure what killed her but she had struggled to get out of her basket in the days before she passed away and one morning she never woke up. It was a good way to go, Grandma told us. I wondered if we would have to eat her but Grandpa silenced me with a glare, explaining that Bess was family and that we shouldn't eat anything if we didn't know what it died of in any case.
We buried Bess in the orchard. Seth had stormed off afterwards and locked himself in our bedroom. He didn't answer the door to any of us and Mum told me to give him some space. I ended up having to pick the lock so that I could get to bed that night. Seth had fallen asleep, his eyes were red and he looked exhausted.
Winter ended at long last and spring was on its way. We were busy planting seeds for this year's harvest as soon as we could, and it didn't take long before all the windowsills in the house were covered with seedlings.
My birthday was quiet. There wasn't a cake; it was difficult to find sugar around here, but Mum had cooked a roast and I sat around awkwardly while the rest of the family sang Happy Birthday. Dad's absence was painfully obvious, his booming voice missing from the off-key cacophony that we called song.
As soon as the days were long enough, we returned to school. The bridge hadn't been completely repaired but it had been inspected and declared to be safe enough so we avoided crossing on the side with the damaged wall. Thanks to Grandpa, we hadn't fallen behind in our studies. Mum was pleased about this; we would both be taking big exams next year so we needed to keep up.
It was only a few months later that the school closed. Frequent power cuts combined with water shortages meant that the teachers couldn't safely look after the number of children on the site. It was a temporary measure, we were told, and we were given work to take home with us. When I walked home with Seth that afternoon he seemed rather pleased at the turn of events.
"This is great! We'll be able to get out of some of the work around the house."
"I'm not sure it will work like that," I told him cautiously. Mum would make sure Grandpa kept us occupied, either with studying or in the garden.
He shrugged. "Either way, we won't have to walk to school every day."
On the whole, it was probably good that it was raining. Yesterday had been warm and I had drunk my way through about half my supplies. Rain would be safer for drinking than river water.
I split the water between all four bottles and left them open to the sky. They wouldn't fill up by much but every drop would help.
I ate a couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast as I planned out my route for the day. I hadn't tried turning my sunphone on, partly because there was no point as it was dark under the trees and partly because I expected there to be other people nearby. Yesterday's plan hadn't changed - I would follow the road and head down to the river. And I would keep heading south. The cloudy sky meant that I would find it difficult to navigate by the sun so I would have to pay attention to where I was going.
After packing up the tent I checked my snares. I hadn't been optimistic but I was still disappointed to find them empty. Still, I could try again tonight.
I left my campsite as I had found it and headed back the way I had travelled last night. By the time I had reached the road I was already cold and wet and I shivered as I pulled my coat tighter around me. It was tempting to stay in the forest. Aside from being slippery, the ground was clear underfoot so I could make good progress and the trees would shield me from observers. However, the forest hadn't looked very large on the map and I couldn't risk being stuck in another meadow which would probably be even more impassable than the last one due to the rain.
The low clouds gave me poor visibility and I couldn't see more than a couple of hundred metres ahead of me. The wind whistled gently in the trees and made me feel like I was being watched, despite the fact that I hadn't seen another person for days.
I was surprised at how few people there were around here. This could be a good, green, plentiful area if carefully managed, and which could sustain many people. I wondered again what had happened to the residents of the town I had passed through the previous day and why there were no others living around here.
The community wasn't the only place left to live in the country. Traders passed by from time to time, and we would exchange stories with them. They told of other places like ours, of towns and of cities. Wild, lawless places where only the strong survived. Ollie and Mia had loved those stories and would beg for more, to which Joe would tell them that they had heard quite enough. Even Seth had left with traders only a few decades back. I suddenly felt quite isolated. What had the world been up to since I arrived at the community?
The road was starting to curve downhill. The overgrown hedges and the low cloud made it hard to get my bearings but I kept going; it wasn't as if I had other options. The surface was more sandy here than the tarmac I preferred. It made a satisfying crunching sound at every step. I stopped abruptly. There was something moving on the other side of the hedge and whatever it was, it was big. I strained my ears trying to work out if it was a threat.
For a brief moment there was silence, then a loud snort came from the hedge followed by heavy breathing. I approached it cautiously and tried to peer through the tangle of branches.
There was a big black eye staring back at me. A cow. I quickly moved away from the hedge. I certainly didn't want to enter that field. More importantly, cows meant that there would be people around. Heifers couldn't survive long on their own without being milked so there was a very good chance that there were people nearby.
I started walking again. I would have to hope that there wouldn't be many people out in the rain.
As it was, my luck held and I reached the river without seeing anyone. It was fast-moving but there was a bridge which I crossed without hesitating. If there were people nearby then they must have used it frequently so I had no reason to worry about it collapsing. I left my bag on the bank and retrieved my water bottles. The rain hadn't contributed much to the water levels this morning and I would be desperate for water after another hot day. I would have to take the opportunities that I could.
When we arrived at the community all those years ago, we quickly learnt that river water could be bad. It was much safer to drink fresh rain water as there was less chance of contamination. Several of us were sick after drinking from the river one year but fortunately no-one had died. Joe had reckoned that there was probably a dead animal upstream. That or sewage pollution. So we always boiled river water after that, no matter how thirsty we were.
But boiling water wouldn't be an option for me here. I didn't have a stove and I didn't want to make a fire so close to other people in case they found me. I wasn't even sure that I could make a fire here; everything was so wet. So I did what I could.
I emptied all the water I could into the first bottle and drank as much as I could from the others; I knew that the water I had in the bottles was safe. I took the remaining bottles down to the river bank and took out my hat from the day before. The hat wasn't waterproof but I could use it as a filter to keep out some of the larger debris from the river. It wouldn't stop pollution but it would be better than nothing. I placed the hat over the mouth of the bottle, then I leant over the river as far as I could until I could place the bottle in the fastest part of the flow. Fast-moving water meant that there was less chance of something living in it.
I would drink from the first bottle for as long as I could, and only then would I risk the river water.
It continued raining for the rest of the morning but I kept following the road. Each time I came to a turning, I guessed where south was and headed in that direction. I was cold and utterly miserable, longing for my little hut back in the community. I hoped that the others were staying warm and dry.
I hated myself for not going with Seth all those years ago, but there was no doubt that I did a lot of good in the community by staying. From helping raise Ollie and Mia to providing an extra pair of hands at harvest time, I pulled my weight without complaining. My knowledge had helped the community no end and I'd managed to impart as much of it as I could to the younger generations. I had always regretted not going with Seth but I couldn't bring myself to regret staying there.
I found a tree offering some shelter by the side of the road so I had my lunch under it. I wasn't eating as much as I should have been with all the exercise I was doing but I couldn't be sure where my next meal would be coming from so I was rationing my supplies as much as I could.
By mid-afternoon the weather had started to clear up and I found myself walking up another hill. I discovered I was heading far further east than I should have been but couldn't find a route southwards without either backtracking or leaving the road, neither of which I was keen to do. I kept going. I'd eventually find another road leading south.
By the time I reached the top, the clouds had mostly cleared and I was able to get an idea of my surroundings. I could just about make out the river I had crossed earlier in the day and there was a city to the east. The grey buildings sprawled over the land, a stark contrast to my much greener surroundings. I supposed that nature would have taken over the city in many places but I could imagine what it had looked like a few decades back. At least there wouldn't be cars around. These days the air was undoubtedly much cleaner without cars on the road burning up the precious petrol.
I laughed to myself, remembering. The governments had started raising taxes on petrol, trying to encourage people to switch to electric cars. This had been a good idea on paper but so much electricity was still produced from non-renewable sources that all this did was shift the pollution elsewhere.
And naturally, the taxes backfired. Protests were held. People couldn't afford to buy electric cars. There wasn't a second-hand market with cheap vehicles as electric cars weren't widely used, and realistically there weren't enough brand new cars around to supply the increased demand.
Nor was there the infrastructure. While every town had a petrol station or three, the only places to recharge electric cars were homes. And with so many people living in high-rise flats, lots of people didn't have the ability to recharge their vehicles.
So what did the governments do? They dropped the taxes and people went back to their fossil fuel-hungry cars. And they tried building the infrastructure. This took a couple of decades. A couple more decades where irreparable damage was done to the atmosphere.
Meanwhile the world had moved on. Protests weren't about cars at that point.
I squinted at the city. There was something moving there. Something big and shiny, judging by the way that the light was reflected. A car? Surely not. I stood up. I had delayed long enough. I needed to keep going.
I was heading south again. I had passed a roundabout and the road I was on was heading in the right direction. I had also turned on my sunphone and thought I had worked out where I was. My detour eastwards hadn't been too out of the way and I could keep going along this road.
I trudged onwards for another few miles. I wasn't drying off and the wind had started to pick up but at least it had stopped raining. I hoped that my bag had managed to stay dry; sleeping in wet clothes wouldn't be good and I couldn't afford to get pneumonia.
It was getting dark when I noticed smoke to the west and against my better judgement I turned towards it. I was wet and not looking forward to spending a night in my tent. Perhaps there would be people there who could offer shelter, or at least advise on somewhere to stay. We often did that in the community.
Shivering, I left the main road and headed towards the smoke. I considered hiding my bag under a tree in case I was going to be robbed but decided that a lack of a bag would be too difficult to explain. I walked onwards and it wasn't long before I heard a voice.
"Halt! State your name and intentions."
I couldn't see anyone but it wouldn't have surprised me if there had been a shotgun levelled at me. I turned in the direction of the voice and raised my hands above my head. I was shivering from the cold but I tried to appear unafraid.
"My name is Tam. I saw the smoke from your fire and I'm looking for shelter. I am cold and hungry."
There was a long silence. I wondered if I should walk away.
"Where are you from?"
I considered the question. The community had never had a name. It was always just the community. We were a group of individuals who had joined together to support each other and live together. We were stronger together than alone. I decided on the truth.
"A small village a couple of days' walk from here." I hoped that would be enough information for the voice but vague enough that they wouldn't be able to find it.
So I did. I pulled off my bag and sat on it, pulling my coat around me for warmth and trying not to shiver. I heard footsteps retreating towards the fire and it grew colder and darker and I was left alone with only my thoughts for company.
I pictured my home. I imagined Joe on his last patrol of the evening and I hoped that he was doing well. It was dark now so most people would have been in bed now; just him and whoever was on duty tonight would still be up.
At long last I heard footsteps approaching and I could make out the silhouette of a man and a woman coming towards me. They stopped a few metres away and I was startled by a torch being flashed in my face.
"What do you want?" the woman asked. I squinted against the light.
"Shelter, mainly. I was caught in the rain and I'm so cold." My teeth were chattering at this point.
"Brid tells me that you've been walking for a couple of days. Where are you heading?"
"It's a long story. I'm trying to find my family." Family. In recent years, family had become synonymous with the community. But family also meant Seth and those Seth loved.
"The last I heard, they were on the south coast. I haven't been able to make contact for the last few years." No need to say how many years.
She nodded to Brid who threw something soft at me. A blanket. I wrapped it gratefully around myself.
"There's a grove half a mile away where travellers stay. I'm sure you'll understand why we aren't too fond of visitors." She waited for me to nod before continuing. "How long do you plan to be here?"
"I'll be leaving in the morning. I'd be grateful for any guidance in this area. These are unfamiliar roads."
She turned to Brid and shot him a questioning look. He nodded at her and she walked off the way she had come. I was taken aback by her abrupt departure.
Brid carried a torch too, a wind-up one if I were to guess, and he gestured that I should follow him.
"Two days is a long time to be alone," he told me. I hadn't realised how tall he was. Without the light in my face, I could see him more clearly. He looked younger than me by at least a couple of decades and I wondered what his life had been like.
I considered that. "It's not so bad but I wasn't prepared for this much rain. Do you have anything I can make a fire with to dry my clothes out?"
"You're travelling and you can't make a fire?" He shook his head. "I can get you going tonight and I'll see if I can find something for you."
"Thank you." I was grateful.
"What's it like in your settlement? How many of you are there?"
Was this a probing question or just a friendly one? I couldn't tell.
"It varies but there are about twenty of us at any one time. The land isn't good but we get by. What's it like here?" I tried to keep the conversation going in both directions. I didn't want this to be an interrogation.
"It's much the same. We lost a few to illness this winter. We can't risk travellers bringing anything with them."
"I understand. I'm sorry." There was something unspoken here that I understood well. It was probably the same all over the country.
I must have been one of the last generations to have been vaccinated. As food shortages became more common, spending was prioritised on short-term survival over anything longer-term. Money wasn't being spent on researching diseases and developing and producing vaccines but instead went into procuring and preserving food. This prevented a great many deaths in the first few years but it wasn't long before diseases that had once been rare and preventable started coming back. Herd immunity could only do so much.
People started dying from these diseases. As society started to break down, it became more difficult to administer vaccines and once-rare diseases began to spread throughout the population with no immediate way of being stopped. The sad part was that it was only the children who would die as the adults had already been protected. It was difficult to make new vaccines when labs had been shut down and the scientists, like so many others, had left the cities to try to survive elsewhere.
Isolation was the obvious solution. People lived in small groups and tried to avoid interacting with others to prevent the spread of disease. It was why we had so many rules for travellers back in the community. It was also the reason why I could probably never return.
Brid broke the silence. "How many are you looking for?"
I gave a half-smile that he probably couldn't see in the darkness. "My brother, mainly. He married a few years back and went to live with his wife's family. Last time we spoke they had had a couple of children. I need to find him before it's too late." Too late to say sorry. "Do you have family too?"
"Some. I have a brother and a sister. I lost my parents to diphtheria a while back." He gave a sad chuckle. "The rest of us were lucky to survive."
"I'm sorry." There wasn't much else I could say. But he shook his head.
"We're all lucky to be here. It could be much worse." He led me through a hole in the hedge.
"What's it like around here?"
"It's generally a pretty decent place. We haven't had anything life-threatening for a while. We get raiders every few years but most of our visitors are like you and are just passing through."
Raiders. That was a word that would fill anyone in the community with fear. But the part about visitors was interesting. Visitors rarely came to the community. "Do you have many visitors?"
"A few a month. There's a dump a few miles away."
We reached a small wooded area and Brid pointed out a stream where I could get water. He told me to put up my tent and busied himself with assembling a small campfire for me. The wood was wet so it took a while to catch but there was a cheerful flame going by the time he left. I kept my distance throughout but thanked him profusely.
He just shook his head. "It's been nice to meet you, Tam." He threw his lighter at my feet and walked off.
The next year was difficult. Food was becoming increasingly scarce and power cuts started becoming frequent occurrences. Grandpa brought out an old wind-up radio from several decades ago and we spent evenings huddled around it, listening to news from outside and saying very little.
Riots were still happening. We listened as the newsreader informed us that the army had been brought in to several major cities around the country. Dozens of people had died in the clashes. Rationing was in full force everywhere and no-one liked it.
We had been given rationing cards. Grandma joked that it was like the war. Her grandparents had had a similar experience when supplies had become scarce last century and the government had introduced rationing to ensure that there was enough food to go around. The cause had been different - quantities of imported food supplies had been reduced by enemy attacks. Now the cause was much simpler - pestilence, disease and poor growing conditions meant that there simply wasn't enough food being grown to support the population.
Aside from the unrest caused by the introduction of a rationing scheme, the cards themselves often didn't work. It should have been a simple matter to present the card at the terminal; it would read how many credits for meat, dairy and sugar remained and block the purchase if the holder had overspent for the month. In reality, the increasing number of power cuts meant that it became more difficult to use the system. After a few months, shopkeepers would usually ignore rationing cards if food purchases weren't too large as the cards caused more problems than they fixed. This, combined with the fact that bank cards usually suffered the same problem, meant that an increasingly cash-based society could carry out more transactions off the books. A lot of people abused the system.
Of course they did, the police had bigger problems to worry about. After the army had been brought in, martial law was set up in some of the larger cities. Residents had a curfew and streets were patrolled throughout the night. We listened anxiously from our house safe in the countryside where we could grow as much food as the earth permitted us, and we thanked whatever deities might have been listening that we had left when we did.
The next few months were filled with news that applications to the army would no longer be accepted in certain areas. We spent days wondering why until Seth started up the computer during a particularly long period without a power cut and found a discussion forum online which was discussing the pros and cons of joining the military. Food seemed to be the main motivator for many. Mum burst into tears when Seth told us, and hugged us both tightly.
It struck me that we were approaching new times. Grandma and Grandpa were of the last generation of plenty. They had grown up long after the wars last century, in a time of peace and prosperity, and were living off the benefits from their parents' and grandparents' generations. They hadn't caused all the world's problems but they had benefited the most and were the only ones left so of course they got the blame.
And then there was Mum's and Dad's generation, where the population size had peaked and food started to become scarce. I knew that they had lived on a flood plain for a while as newly-weds as it was the only place they could afford and their stories about rising sea levels had always terrified me as a child.
And then there was Seth and me. We had already been pulled out of full-time education at school and, as Mum liked to remind us, we were so lucky that we had Grandpa around. We were fortunate, living in an area away from the pollution-filled cities where we could supplement our rations with whatever we grew ourselves. There wouldn't be a clear path forward for us. We probably wouldn't be getting jobs in the cities or learning to drive the same way older generations had done. We would be forging our own new path through whatever the world threw at us.
That summer was a particularly hot one and we had to work hard to keep the place running. We watered the plants every morning and did what we could to prevent them wilting in the heat. We made sure the sheep had enough water every morning, and that they had plenty of shade. We even helped Grandpa build a shelter for them to hide from the sun using wood from an old shed that had been in a state of disrepair. We checked the water in the sheep trough twice a day for any evidence of larvae. We didn't want any mosquitoes to start breeding nearby, especially with the radio reporting that cases of dengue fever were on the rise.
It was harder to get enough water for crops in the surrounding fields. We went out early every evening when it was starting to cool and sprayed them with water. The fields were big and the water supplies were extensive but they were far from inexhaustible and we didn't know how long the heatwave would last.
There was a hosepipe ban in place. The radio had announced it in the first week of the heatwave but Grandma had laughed and said that there would be no way of enforcing it around here. But we tried to avoid the hosepipe unless it was necessary. We used water as sparingly as we could and set up dozens of dew traps to collect what we could from the moisture in the air and put mulch around crops to try to keep the moisture in the soil. It didn't stop many of the plants wilting or turning yellow and dying but I didn't like to think what would have happened to the crops if we hadn't. It was back-breaking work in the sweltering heat, even though we avoided going out in the hottest parts of the day.
To make matters worse, none of us had been sleeping well in the hot weather. I spent the nights tossing and turning. Sleeping in a wet t-shirt helped in the early part of the night, and Seth and I moved our bedding into the sitting room where it was a little cooler. We were both pretty miserable and I had never seen Seth looking so defeated.
"It's not like we can go anywhere," he told me when I asked. "We have food and shelter here. And Grandma and Grandpa will never leave this place."
"I hate it here. I hate the heat and I hate the work. I want my friends and I want to go home." I was almost crying.
Uncharacteristically, Seth reached out to give me a hug. I hadn't appreciated how tall he had grown in the last year. We were both hot and sweaty and I pulled away quickly.
"I know, Tam." He didn't tell me that everything would be alright and he didn't offer any meaningless reassurances, but it helped to know that I wasn't alone in my thoughts.
Grandpa fainted a less than a week later. We found him in the orchard after he hadn't come in for lunch. We helped carry him inside and let him lie in a tepid bath while we tried to cool him down. Grandma took charge and helped him drink a glass of water while Seth stood next to him with a fan.
"Should I call an ambulance?" I asked at one point.
But Grandma shook her head. "We're miles away from anyone out here. They won't come. We just need to bring his temperature down."
Grandpa was badly sunburnt and his skin was blistering in places. It looked incredibly painful and he cried out when we moved him. He didn't seem to know where he was when we moved him to the sofa to rest.
Mum pulled us out of the room to help prepare dinner while Grandma stayed with him.
Although Grandpa was on his feet again the following day, he was far from recovered. We worried about him. He would complain of dizziness and nausea but he was stubborn and would leave the house to check on the sheep whenever there was no-one watching. As the youngest, it fell on me to keep an eye on Grandpa while the others kept the house running.
So of course it was me who was with him when he started to deteriorate. Except I thought he had just gone to sleep. I wasn't worried when he closed his eyes; he was getting some much-needed rest. I didn't panic when he slouched to the side; I thought he was tired. I didn't notice as his skin became more ashen because it happened so slowly. It was only when his breathing faltered that I realised something was wrong.
I tore out of the bedroom. I screamed for Mum. For Grandma. For Seth. I flew down the stairs and threw open the front door, screaming the whole time. Down the path I ran, my heart hammering in my chest. Where were they? I screamed again.
I found Seth first. He had heard me coming. He took one look at me and told me to stay where I was. He ran off towards the orchard.
I suddenly felt lightheaded. I sat on the ground carefully and felt the tears start to roll down my cheeks. It wasn't fair. Why did this have to happen? Grandpa didn't deserve anything like this. He was a good person and we needed him.
It felt like forever before Seth returned, with Grandma close behind him. I made it to my feet and followed them as they sprinted towards the house. Back along the path. Back through the doorway. Back up the stairs.
He had gone.
Grandma was already there and was bent over him, weeping, smoothing the hair away from his eyes. He looked peaceful and his eyes were closed. I was filled with horror. He'd died because I wasn't there. I had as good as killed him.
Seth was hovering next to Grandma, clearly unsure what to do. He turned to me.
I fled. I couldn't be there any longer. I ran back to my room and ran to my bed. I hid under the covers - who cared if my clothes were dirty - and lay there, shaking, the thin sheet held tightly in my fist.
"Tam?" I recognised Seth's footsteps and heard the door creak open. "Are you alright?"
Of course I wasn't alright. I didn't move but lay there in the darkness, wishing it would swallow me up and that I could stop existing. There was a sigh and the footsteps approached the bed. Seth pulled the covers back.
I wasn't prepared for the hug he gave me. It was fierce and warm and I threw my arms around him, hiding against his chest.
Neither of us said anything. Neither of us moved and it felt like hours before we broke apart.
"It's not your fault, Tam," he whispered. "You did everything right." He seemed to have aged considerably. He was the adult again and I was just a child. I said nothing.
"He hit his head when he collapsed the other day. There was nothing that could have been done."
I didn't reply. I just hugged him.
We buried him the following morning. Seth and Grandma had spent the night digging a grave next to where Bess lay.
I was numb. The reality hadn't yet sunk in and I kept expecting Grandpa to be there whenever I turned around, smiling at me with his eyes crinkling up in the corners.
Mum said a few words. How he was a good father, a good teacher, how the world would be a sadder place without him. She held Grandma's hand.
Grandma said little. The tears had stopped, but she looked pale and she probably felt as numb as me. Probably worse. They had been together for nearly fifty years. She must have felt like she had lost half of herself.
We tried to return to normal. The sun was shining, the crops needed watering and the sheep still needed to be fed. But Mum was growing increasingly worried about Grandma.
"She's missing him so much," she whispered to us one lunchtime.
We had noticed. Grandma wasn't eating anything, just staring off into space. Sometimes she would jump and spin around to face the empty doorway, smiling at something that we couldn't see before turning back to her plate and staring out the window. It was like she wasn't living in the same world as us anymore and barely spoke, barely reacted to us.
It wasn't a great shock when we woke up a week later to find that Grandma too had passed on. We buried her next to Grandpa and planted some wildflowers over where she and Grandpa lay. We hoped that they would grow strong and beautiful and bring something back to this place which had once seemed so full of life and now seemed so empty.
Wildflowers. Grandma would have smiled.
I turned my sunphone on. It had survived the rain, although I wasn't too surprised. Kevin had done a wonderful job at making it durable, although even he would have been surprised that it was still alive after all this time. Come to think of it, the manufacturer would have been too; devices like this were normally replaced after a couple of years, and this one was still going decades later.
Seth's family greeted me as I opened up the maps app to work out my route for the day and it didn't take me long to find the city and roundabout that I had passed yesterday. I started to zoom out, looking for any terrain that looked artificial.
There was a large patch of ground which looked like mostly dirt about ten miles south of the city. A rough track was leading up to it and I zoomed in as far as the app would let me. I could just about make out several, much smaller tracks that branched from it, outwards into the dirt. There was a good chance that it could have been a landfill site, the dump that Brid mentioned. I spent a few minutes more looking for anything else that looked promising, then made a mental note of the route I would have to take. I wouldn't be using my sunphone when other people might be nearby.
Soon it was time for me to packed up my tent and I left the campsite shortly afterwards. I was incredibly grateful to Brid for the lighter and it meant that I would be able to start a fire to boil water which would reduce my chances of getting ill if I needed to fill up from a stream again.
It was cloudy and damp but fairly warm out. I hummed as I walked, avoiding the potholes on this stretch of road. It looked like this had once been a dual-carriageway and I pictured cars tearing down it at speeds that I had long forgotten about. It had been a very different world. I ate onions with the last of my bread as I walked today. Perhaps not the most conventional meal, but it would suffice. I'd need to find some way of obtaining carbohydrates after today.
As I walked, I looked for anything edible growing in the hedgerows.
It had passed midday when I finally arrived and the place looked very little how I had imagined it. Old photos had led me to believe that there would be a tall mound of rubbish with seagulls circling overhead. But there wasn't. The site was large, I had known that from my maps app, but half of it was covered by tall, green grass interspersed with wildflowers. I hadn't been expecting that. Nature really could survive anywhere.
The other half looked more like my expectations. The site was being excavated; there was no other way to describe it. People were walking back and forth, some holding shovels, some bending over deep holes that had been dug into the surface. Every now and then, someone would give a triumphant shout and others would race towards them. There would be a loud cheer and more digging would commence. A few decades back I would have been horrified that there were so many children around a place like this. These days it was normal for them to help out as soon as they could.
I'd come this far and I was curious about what was going on. There was a roughly-built hut at the entrance of the site. I hesitated but made my way towards it; I didn't think I was the first visitor they had had but I wouldn't risk leaving my bag unattended around here. I peered in through the doorway.
There was a group of men around a table poring over something that I couldn't make out. They caught sight of me and froze.
"Hello." I gave them a bright smile. It sometimes worked on the traders visiting the community.
"Who are you?"
"I'm travelling south. Do you have any water?" It was a good enough reason.
One of the men stood up. It was dark so I couldn't see him clearly but even in silhouette he looked much bigger and stronger than me.
"What do you want?"
"Water, please." It couldn't be an unusual request, the people working in the dump needed access to water too.
"There's a river a couple of miles west. Anything here is for the workers."
That sounded reasonable. People looked out for their own.
"All right. Thank you."
I walked out of the hut wondering why I'd even come here. Had it been mere curiosity? Was I hoping that I'd be able to find things to trade further down south? I watched the people dig as I headed over to the site entrance. I'd wasted long enough; it was time to get back on the road.
I was stopped by a shout.
"Hey!" I turned to see one of the men from the hut running towards me. "You got anything you want to trade?" He caught up to me, looking out of breath.
"Not really. I'll head westwards and find that river."
He smirked. "We could give you water here for the right price."
"No, it's fine. But thank you for your offer." I turned back towards the road. This man was persistent and was the epitome of everyone I wanted to avoid on this journey.
"Don't be like that. Everyone has something they want to trade. And you won't get far without water." He grabbed my shoulder, pulling me back towards him.
I was becoming alarmed. "I said no, thank you." I wondered if any of the workers would be likely to come to my aid if I were to shout, or whether they lived in fear of this man. His grip tightened on my shoulder and he pushed his face into mine. I was a little taller than him but only just; I could smell alcohol.
He didn't have any time to say anything before I punched him. He certainly hadn't been expecting that, being hit in the face by a wizened 70-year-old. It wasn't very powerful but it made him let go of me. He took a step back, shocked, then gave a mocking grin and made a fist. "You really shouldn't have done that."
I was still undecided. Should I shout for help and hope someone could hear me or run away and hope he wouldn't follow? His face twisted into a leer as he caught my indecision.
I ran. Or rather, I walked off as fast as I could. My bag was heavy but I couldn't leave it behind.
He laughed from somewhere behind me. "You can't run far."
I ignored him and focused on the road. I couldn't afford to twist an ankle in a pothole now. I felt for the knife in my pocket. It was there. Good. And my sunphone was in a different pocket and not in my bag. Even better. I would drop the bag if I absolutely had to.
He stayed behind me. I could hear his footfalls and they weren't getting further away. I was scared and alone. My heart was thumping in my chest and I could feel the adrenaline running through me. Fight or flight? What did he want?
I managed a half-run. I heard him laugh. He kept pace with me easily.
"And now we're all alone." I swore. I'd done what he wanted. I should have run back to the site.
He caught me by surprise with a tackle from behind and I landed flat on my front. My bag weighed me down and I couldn't get back up. Then there was incredible pain as his foot made contact with my head. I rolled into a ball and tried to protect myself with my hands. I felt the bag being pulled off me.
I wasn't sure how much time had passed when I came to but it must have only been minutes. Someone was rolling me over. Gently. And a bottle of water was lifted to my mouth. I stared upwards uncomprehendingly, dazed.
"Can you walk?"
A pair of hands helped me to my feet. I looked up at my rescuer. Rescuers. There were three of them. And a young girl.
There was a horse-drawn wagon nearby, filled with what could only be described as junk. My rescuer led me to it and helped me sit down on the steps. I caught sight of my attacker nearby on the ground, blood running from several cuts on his face and a young man and a woman standing over him.
"How do you feel?" Concern radiated from his dark eyes.
"Sore." My voice had gone. I was croaking. "What happened?"
"We found him going through your bag. We guessed he attacked you."
I nodded. Even that hurt.
"Thank you." I just wanted to rest.
"Is anything broken?"
I tried moving. Everything hurt but it felt like everything was still on one piece. I shook my head.
The girl dragged my bag over to my rescuer and he lifted it into the wagon next to me.
"I think it's all there."
I nodded again. "Thank you."
There was an argument followed by some shouting from behind my rescuer. I tried to look around him but his body blocked my view. I heard a loud thunk followed by a groan.
"You came from the dump, right? We recognised him. We're heading there and then we'll be going south. We can take you somewhere to recover. That alright with you?"
I nodded again and my rescuer smiled. He threw me a blanket.
"Wrap yourself in that and get some rest." So I did. Unconsciousness welcomed me, and I, it.
It was getting dark when I awoke to the sound of hooves plodding along the bumpy road and a hushed conversation somewhere nearby. I reached up and found a bandage around my head. I lay still for a moment wondering where I was and then struggled to sit up. It hurt.
The conversation stopped and the younger man made his way towards me, picking his way carefully between the pieces of junk. His face came into focus and I tried to concentrate on it to stop the world from spinning.
"How are you doing?"
"Not well," I admitted. I was sitting upright with my back against the side of the wagon by this time and had no desire to move again. He knelt down in front of me and reached for the bandage around my head. I tried not to wince as he gently unwound it.
"You took quite a beating," he told me.
I tried not to stare at his scar as he did so but it was hard to miss, reaching from under his left eye and disappearing into his thick beard. I didn't want to ask about it.
I drew in a sharp breath as the bandage pulled against my wound.
The woman joined us and handed him another roll of bandages. I turned my attention to her as the bandages were reapplied but it was hard to make much out in the darkness beyond the fact that she had long hair.
"It looks worse than it is," she told me, handing me a bottle of water. "You were lucky."
I had a big headache and it hurt to breathe. I didn't feel lucky.
My rescuers introduced themselves. Jonathan was the man driving the wagon that I remembered from earlier and Amy and Jake were the couple. The girl was called Sue.
They were traders. They bought junk from the dump, took it to other people in nearby towns to find parts to make repairs, and then sold it on. A lot of what they exchanged wasn't for monetary purposes but for food and clothes too.
They asked where I was headed. I told them what I could about Seth and what I knew about his family and where he lived. And I told them why he had left and why I had to find him. I felt I owed my rescuers that much.
Sue kept me company for the rest of the evening. She talked non-stop about how the dump had worked. I remembered learning about it at school decades ago but it was interesting to see how the world had changed since I had joined the community.
People had thrown out anything and everything when they no longer had use for it, and it inevitably ended up in a landfill site. These were big holes in the ground, perhaps old quarries, which had been modified to prevent contamination of the surrounding area. And then the waste would be added.
Food, machines, wrappers, old clothes, batteries... if people didn't want it, it would be binned and would end up in one of these dumps which were fast becoming full due to an ever-growing population. It was only in the early part of the century when recycling started to take off that the amount of waste started to become manageable.
But landfill had problems. After the sites became full, they were sealed off and efforts were made to make them look presentable, by putting soil over the top and growing grass to cover up what lay beneath. Simple but effective, at least until the contents started to break down. Microbes turned anything organic into waste, so food scraps, excrement, anything that came from a plant or an animal would decompose, producing gases such as methane. And methane was a very nasty greenhouse gas.
So the people had the idea of capturing the gas and using it for fuel instead. It was better than risking an explosion inside the landfill. Except burning methane also released carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, albeit one not quite so nasty.
Jonathan explained that people stopped using landfill sites in the first half of the century. Waste incineration became more popular, partly because people ran out of space to put landfill sites and partly because energy could be recaptured from the heat. Of course, incineration had its own problems with waste material.
My rescuers helped me set up my tent that evening. They spent the night in a tent of their own pitched next to the wagon. I was relieved that I still had my bag and thanked them again profusely. I was reluctant to eat their food but they insisted. I was overwhelmed by their kindness.
I found myself comparing my rescuers to the community. Jonathan was clearly the Joe of the group. He was the leader and made the decisions. He seemed tough but had a kind heart. And Sue, with her naivety, optimism and innocence was clearly another version of Mia. Amy and Jake were a little harder to place but the way they interacted reminded me very much of Seth when he first met Hettie. Despite their tough exterior, it was clear that they cared very much for each other, and very little for the rest of the world. I couldn't begrudge them that. And I wished I had understood Seth better all those years ago.
I spent the summer in a daze. Mum insisted that we spent a minimum of an hour studying every day. She said we would regret it later if we didn't. It was hard. Grandpa had gone and learning from books wasn't anywhere close to learning from him. He could make even the dullest subject interesting and I was reminded of how much I missed him with every page I turned and every time I came across something I didn't understand.
Seth helped me where he could, but neither of us could put our hearts in it. We wanted to be anywhere but in front of the empty fireplace where we had spent so many happy evenings with Grandpa and his stories.
We asked Mum if we could move to the kitchen, to the bedroom, outside. Anywhere but near the hearth. She wasn't having it.
"There's nothing wrong with that table. You're staying there." We had rarely seen her so angry.
"Can't we sit outside, Mum? It's a nice day."
"If that table was good enough for your grandfather, it's good enough for you. I'm going to get dinner and I want to see you studying when I get back." Her tone allowed no disagreement.
I slunk back to my chair, sullen and silent.
Summer ended at long last. Grandma's and Grandpa's absence became easier to bear, although it was never any less painful whenever I thought of them. We helped Mum with the harvests, missing Grandma's admiration whenever someone found a particularly large vegetable. We thought of them whenever we went to pick apples from the trees in the orchard. Mum tended to avoid the place; it reminded her too much of them.
To keep ourselves busy we built an oven outside so that we could cook during the power cuts. We found a sheltered area behind the house and used the clay soil to make bricks. It didn't look like much but we wouldn't have to starve if there was no power.
I had found a particularly interesting book on electronics and I spent some of the few hours when I wasn't busy and it wasn't dark building a wind turbine. There was some scrap metal in one of the sheds and I had access to a saw. It wouldn't be the most efficient model around but it would give us free energy.
The area around the house was relatively exposed and we could expect a gusty breeze most days so we would be able to generate power for a lot of the time. Storing power would be another question as there wasn't anything around that would make a suitable battery, but I would work with what I had available.
There was some old corrugated roofing that I liked the look of. Presumably it would last well outdoors if it was designed for roofs. Unfortunately I needed something a bit flatter to work with, so I spent several days using a hammer to beat it into a better shape. This was repetitive and utterly exhausting and I was beginning to regret starting the project until Seth offered to help out. The two of us working together made much faster progress on flattening the material than just me on my own.
"You're on your own from here, Tam," Seth told me at last, after the final sheet had been finished.
I was fine with that. Now I could work on shaping the metal into something more useful.
I had decided to build a wind turbine with sails that would rotate around an upright pole. It meant that it would always be able to face the wind and there was a rusty bicycle in my pile of scrap metal with one wheel that still spun freely. I could install the bicycle wheel horizontally on top of a pole, and the sails would sit parallel with the pole. I would need some kind of support at the bottom to stop the sails from touching the post or each other but there was plenty of scrap metal available.
My first task was to cut the metal sheets into suitable sizes. After wearing out one saw, I decided to keep the sheets as they were and make the wind turbine larger instead. It wasn't going to be easy to get replacement saws and Mum scolded me when she saw the state it was in.
My next task was to bend the metal sheets into the right shape. I would need three sails to catch the breeze so that the wind turbine would act in a similar way to a water wheel. Each sail could be made out of a single metal sheet, and then I'd need to block off the sides so that the air couldn't escape too easily.
Bending the metal turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be. I had a thick pipe that I used as a guide so that the bends would be all the same size and shape, and I used it to curl one of the long edges of each metal sheet. I left the other flat. The resulting sail reminded me a little of a poorly-proportioned sledge.
I bent the short edges of the sails in a little and found some smaller pieces of metal so that I could attach them to each side to stop the air escaping. There was a hand drill and a box of nuts and bolts that I made good use of. And at last I had three rough but ready sails.
I took my time working out how to attach the sails to the wheel; I only had one wheel so I only had one chance to get it right. I spent an evening working out where the holes would go so that the sails would sit equal distances apart. After that, it was quick work to attach them to the bicycle wheel. I drilled holes in the wheel and the sails and screwed them together. Three screws for each sail - I didn't want the sails falling off easily.
This was where I noticed a problem. One of the sails seemed much heavier than the others, and although the wheel still spun freely, I didn't want the bearings on one side to wear out. I ended up taking what was left of the saw to the heaviest sail and trimming off as much excess metal as I could. Several blisters and a large gash later and the wheel was spinning much better. Mum forbade me from working on the wind turbine until my hands had healed.
The wind turbine was nearly finished by now. I had some long strips of metal that I fastened to the bottom of the sails so that the wind turbine would hold its shape. All that was left was to work out where it would sit and then sort out the wiring.
Seth helped me with the rest of the installation. I like to think he was impressed with my work, and I know Mum was. We had a rusty motor that we took apart to clean, then positioned it next to the bicycle wheel. The bicycle chain and gearing system were also given a good clean and fastened to the motor. The motor would act as a generator and convert the motion of the wind turbine into electrical power.
It was my idea to put the wind turbine on the roof of the garage. It made it much easier to connect it to the power supply than if the wind turbine had been in one of the fields. I was eager to get it done but Mum insisted on waiting for a calm day before letting us climb on the roof. Seth and I reluctantly agreed.
We decided that it would be a good idea to install a lightning conductor at the same time. After all, we were putting a metal object on the roof and connecting it to our wiring.
After weeks of hard work, we had a working wind turbine. We could use electricity again as long as the wind was reasonably strong. We decided to prioritise the fridge. A working fridge meant that food could keep for longer.
I received some unexpected news one evening. I turned Kevin's sunphone on and was surprised when it picked up a message from Ryan. The internet had been incredibly unreliable in recent months and it was rare to be able to receive any kind of phone signal so I wasn't sure when the message had been sent or what sort of journey it had had; it could have been sent months ago for all I knew.
Like us, Ryan had left the city. He was living on a farm down south and had seen Ash at a market that day. He asked how I was doing and hoped that the weather was good wherever I was. I sent a reply to him saying that I was living with family and that I missed the city. I sent similar messages to Kevin, Dan and Ash too. I wondered if any of them were able to check messages regularly.
It had become a lot colder. Golds, reds and yellows faded into greys, browns and blacks. It was to be our first winter without our grandparents and we were running the place by ourselves.
We listened to the shipping forecast every day. We were a good distance from the sea but it gave us some idea of what to expect and tended to be more reliable than the forecast from any of the other stations.
I received a reply from Ash about a week later. She was living near the sea on the east coast. Her message was short - just a couple of lines - but it was clear that she hated it there. She had always wanted to travel the world but our generation wouldn't have those opportunities. I felt sad for her - she had always wanted to get away from this country and travel back to the land where her parents had grown up. In recent years planes had been increasingly falling out of use as fuel prices skyrocketed. I hoped for her sake that living by the sea would give her some opportunities to travel. She deserved that.
Storm season was on its way. Winds were becoming stronger as the days became darker. There would be little risk of floods living as high up as we were but a few of the outbuildings could have done with some repair. I spent a couple of days following Mum and Seth around the place as they identified the buildings most at risk of damage over the upcoming winter. We never knew what sort of winter it would be - either bitterly cold or unusually warm. It wasn't the long, snowy season that Mum remembered from when she was our age.
There wasn't a lot that could be done to repair anything with the tools and materials we had available. We had no working car so we couldn't drive to the nearest DIY store. Most of the shops were closed anyway; there wasn't the same demand for non-food items that there had been a few years back. People were becoming more worried about survival than luxury items. Anything that we needed, we would have to grow or make ourselves, we couldn't rely on others. We had done fairly well up to this point but we couldn't make do forever.
The sheep still lived outside during the day but we started making plans to bring them indoors for the winter. They would need food to survive the next few months, and lots of it. Water too, although Grandma had rigged up a water collection system on the largest barns that would collect rain from the roof and divert some of it to troughs indoors. The rest would be stored in water butts until it was needed. We wouldn't have to carry any of our precious water out to the sheep.
Despite missing Grandma and Grandpa enormously, we were in fairly high spirits. We were working hard to prepare for the weather.
Winter arrived bringing storms with it. We sat inside the house, huddling around the fireplace for warmth, and listening to the wind howling outside. It was cosy. The sheep were safe in their barn and we read and told stories to pass the time.
The radio still worked most of the time so we listened to the news whenever we could. There wasn't much being broadcast these days but we could be found sitting around the radio whenever there was anything on.
The day that we heard about the problems they were having down south was the day the barn roof was blown off. We had spent the afternoon outside, running through the wind and the rain and doing our best to give the sheep some shelter. A lot of food was stored in the barn too, and we did what we could to protect it while being drenched by the freezing horizontal rain.
There wasn't much we could do. We decided to move the sheep to one of the other barns and carried as much of the straw and grain over as we could. None of us were going to risk climbing onto the roof in such poor conditions. It would have been almost certain death with the winds as strong as they were.
We sat around the kitchen table that evening, eating a watery stew while listening to the news. There were reports of hurricanes in other countries, with millions having lost their homes due to flooding and worse.
"It could be worse. At least we've still got our house," Seth joked.
Mum looked resigned. "It's been getting worse for decades. Countries can't help each other out these days, not when their own people are starving. There's not much that can be done for those people."
"They could always move," I suggested. "It's not so bad here."
She shook her head. "Lots of people can't afford to. And if people do move, they've got to be able to sustain themselves. There just isn't enough fertile land in the cooler climates to keep the whole world's population alive."
"What will they do? Can't anyone help them?"
"Most won't make it. It's hard enough to keep ourselves alive out here. People don't want to help each other if they know they'll be worse off." She shook her head. "There's not much that can be done at this point."
The weather hadn't done any of us any good. We all came down with colds and spent several days huddling miserably in bed. It was nearly a week before I felt back to normal. Seth was back on his feet a few days later. But Mum only seemed to get worse.
She was coughing badly by the end of the week and had a high temperature. She resisted us calling an ambulance for the first few days but it wasn't difficult to use the phone without her noticing. But when we tried there was no signal on the mobiles and the phone line seemed to be down.
We did what we could to keep her warm and to make sure she ate. She was shivering and coughing a lot and struggling to breathe.
But she stayed cheerful. "I'll be fine," she told us daily.
After losing our grandparents so recently, we didn't believe her. Seth was the one who made the journey over to visit Mrs Wilson one morning. I waited anxiously, trying to help her eat and drink and dreading her reaction when Mrs Wilson arrived.
We heard their voices when they returned and I watched as Mum's expression changed from surprise to horror when Mrs Wilson entered the bedroom.
"I'm fine," she rasped, before anyone could say anything. "It's just a bad cold."
I was grateful for Mrs Wilson's presence. She could be blunt and wouldn't stand for any nonsense.
"You are not fine," she told her. "Seth was worried enough to travel over to my place in this awful weather, and after looking at you, I can't blame him."
I knew what she meant. Mum's illness had already taken a toll on her body. She was weak and pale and her eyes were starting to look sunken. She might even have lost weight.
Mrs Wilson wasted no time. "You've got pneumonia," she pronounced.
I gasped. Pneumonia was treatable with the right medicines, but there were no medicines around and no doctors were contactable.
"I know. We'll do what we can." Her tone softened. "Tam, go and see if there's any aspirin in the house. Seth, can you boil some water?"
I ran out of the room. Medicines were kept in the cabinet in the bathroom and it didn't take me long to search through it. There was a half-full blister pack of tablets on the shelf. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I ran back to the room, and watched as Mrs Wilson handed two to Mum with a glass of water.
"You're taking these," she told her. Mum shook her head.
"I've already had some," she wheezed, pointing to the floor. There was an almost empty pack lying there.
Seth came back with a mug of mint tea. Mum sipped it slowly.
"There's not much that can be done," Mrs Wilson told us afterwards. "Keep trying the phones and I'll do the same. Keep her warm and make sure she drinks plenty of fluids. Warm fluids. I'll come back tomorrow to check on her."
Mrs Wilson was no doctor but we were grateful for any guidance.
After that, we rarely left Mum on her own. We took it in turns to sit with her and make sure she was eating.
I received messages from Dan and Ryan the following morning while Mum was sleeping. I had taken to carrying Kevin's sunphone with me so that I could have something to do while Mum was asleep. As desperate as I was for news, I tried the emergency number before doing anything else.
It rang. I held my breath.
The call dropped a few seconds later and my heart sank.
I glanced at Mum again. She was still asleep.
I spent the next few minutes reading over the messages. They weren't long, just a couple of paragraphs. They had both moved out of the city and were living and working on farms with their families. From the maps app on Kevin's sunphone, they were living about twenty miles from each other; certainly much closer to each other than to me. I was a little envious, although I couldn't imagine they could see each other regularly.
I glanced back at Mum. Her lips were turning a worrying shade of blue.
"Seth!" I yelled. Mum woke up. Oops. She started coughing and we were both equally horrified to see the blood on her hand as she lifted it away from her face.
"That's not good," she laughed weakly.
I heard Seth's feet coming up the stairs and the door flew open. He took one glance at her and spun around and sprinted from the room. He was back before I could react, a clean cloth in his hand which he handed to her. She took it without a word and wiped her mouth.
None of us could miss the way her hand was trembling as she did so.
"I don't think I'm getting better," she told us after we had helped her back into bed. Neither of us said anything. "Whatever happens, make sure you take care of each other."
"You're not going to die," I told her. "You can't."
But wishes were never enough. She passed away that night. We spent the morning digging her grave next to Grandpa and Grandma and utterly hating life.
"Why?" I demanded of Seth afterwards. "She didn't deserve that."
We were in the kitchen sitting around the table, tired from so much exercise that morning.
He gave a helpless shrug, then his eyes brightened.
I watched as he left the room. My heart was heavy and I'd never felt lonelier but I didn't feel like crying.
Seth returned holding two bottles of wine.
"I figured that we could use these. No-one's going to care that you're underage," he added. He walked over to the drawer that held all the kitchen implements and rummaged around in it, pulling out a bottle opener. There was a pop as the cork was removed and Seth handed me one of the bottles.
I eyed it suspiciously before taking a swig. I spat it out instantly.
"Ugh. That's disgusting."
He laughed, and there was another pop as he opened the other bottle.
"Adults seem to like it." He took a gulp from his bottle and made a face. "That is revolting."
The more I drank, the warmer and sleepier I started to feel. It wasn't like anything else really mattered anymore.
That was how Mrs Wilson found us the following morning, having passed out on the sofa and now with a splitting headache. She didn't say anything as she handed us a glass of water each, and I drank mine down without complaint. It was something for me to focus on; I couldn't look at her.
She handed Seth a roughly cut hunk of bread and passed another to me. I took it from her but didn't eat. I wasn't hungry.
I waited for her to start lecturing us, about how we were too young and were being irresponsible, and yet the disapproving looks never came.
"It's not fair," she told us at last, breaking the silence. "She didn't deserve that and nor do you but you've got to keep going, do you understand?" I turned my head towards her blearily, trying to make sense of her words through the pain in my head. I managed an unintelligible groan.
"They've all gone," Seth said hollowly. "It's just us now." His head made contact with the table.
She nodded again. "And that's why you've got to keep going." She rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then pulled him into a hug. He froze then wrapped his arms around her, his shoulders shaking. I watched bemusedly; Seth had never been fond of contact. "You too, Tam. You've got each other."
I leaned against the tree, my eyes closed and taking shallow breaths, wondering what I could have done differently. The obvious answer was to have avoided the dump. It would have saved me several miles of walking and all my injuries. But something told me that if it hadn't happened at the dump then it would only have been a matter of time before I was attacked elsewhere. My next question was what could I do to prevent it happening again.
I wouldn't be able to run like this. I could barely walk. I was in no state to fend off another attack. My best chances were with Jonathan's group, but that wouldn't be my decision. I was worse than useless like this; they didn't need someone like me tagging along and getting in the way.
Jake caught sight of me. The others were already packing up their tent.
"How are you feeling?"
"It hurts." I was feeling rather sorry for myself. Jake gave a lopsided smile.
"That was probably a stupid question." He handed me a cup of hot liquid. "Here, drink this."
I wrapped my hands gratefully around the warm cup and sniffed suspiciously. It smelled familiar. I glanced at him questioningly and he nodded.
"It's willow bark tea. It might help a little."
No painkillers in convenient tablet form these days. But willow bark tea had some similar properties to aspirin. It might help. I drank it down without questioning.
"What's happening today?" I asked. I sensed that they wouldn't just leave me here but that they wouldn't hesitate to do if necessary.
"We're going to head along to some of the nearby towns and trade yesterday's spoils. You're welcome to come as far as we're going."
"I don't know if I can ever repay you."
He gave another lopsided smile. "We're not asking you to."
He helped me pack up my tent and Jonathan insisted that I travel in the wagon again. The rest of them walked, although Sue would often jump in and sit next to me.
"Tell me another story, Tam!"
Amy had told me to tell her if Sue was being troublesome but I found I enjoyed her company and she reminded me of the children back in the community. She was very similar to some of the children there, especially Mia. That said, I was running out of child-friendly stories to tell from my own experiences. I wasn't sure what she had been exposed to but at the very least she would have seen me being attacked and her family stopping my attacker the day before and wasn't sure what her parents would approve of. I also wasn't sure what still existed in the world outside the community and what she would be familiar with. I reverted to some from my childhood instead. It had been a much quieter and safer world back then.
"When I was about your age, I lived near one of the big cities." I told her about the tall skyscrapers and the busy markets that had been nearby and where the best place to buy pastries had been. I told her about the motorways and railways criss-crossing the country and how my family would travel to the seaside every summer where we would spend a week playing on the beach. And I told her about the time I had flown in a plane when I was about her age and what the planet looked like from above the clouds. Sue was a good listener and only asked questions when I had finished.
We stopped by a river mid-morning and Jake and Amy filled up some large containers of water. "We'll be boiling them tonight," Amy told me, "It wouldn't do to get sick."
I caught sight of my reflection in the water and had to stifle a gasp. My grizzled hair looked long and matted, but that was to be expected after so many days on the road. It was my face that frightened me; I could barely recognise myself. Swollen in places, I was covered in cuts and had a black eye. I didn't like to think about what was under the bandages either. I swallowed and stepped back from the water's edge.
I did what I could to help out but I was still too sore and bruised to be able to lift much. Jake told me to sit back in the wagon.
We arrived in a small town in the early afternoon. This place was much like I had imagined towns to be outside the community. It wasn't exactly bustling with activity as it might have been a few decades back, but it looked in much better condition than the town I had passed through at the start of my journey.
Wind turbines sat on most of the roofs. A few were the sleek things I remembered from my youth, but most were rusty, rattling ones like we had back in the community. They could have very easily been put together from scrap metal over the years. A few roofs also housed what I recognised as solar water heaters.
As we travelled through, it was clear that a lot of repair work had taken place over the years, judging by the mismatched tiles on many of the buildings. The town probably would have housed a few thousand people a few decades back. I asked Jonathan what the population of the town was. He shrugged.
"These days it varies. Right now, probably a few hundred."
The population really had been decimated. I'd always thought that the traders had been exaggerating. It was one thing to hear about it but another to see its effects for myself.
I hadn't noticed before but the roads had been well-maintained around the town. The surface wasn't smooth tarmac but any holes had been filled in with dirt or gravel. It made the journey much more comfortable. I supposed that the town was busy enough to make the effort worthwhile.
"Where does this town get its money from?" I asked. The corner of Jonathan's mouth twitched.
"It's a trading town. Lots of people pass through here and the dump isn't far away so there's always good business." "Business for what?"
"All sorts. There are people here who specialise in tech from the old world. Every trading town will have people like that. Others are good at turning waste materials into usable ones. And then there's the livestock trading, although most of that is further down south."
"Where does the food come from? How do all these people eat? And drink?" I hadn't recalled passing any farmland on the way in.
"Again, more trading. The land further south is much more plentiful so lots of food gets grown down there and is brought back up here." He pre-empted my next question. "Most of it gets dried first. That makes it lighter and easier to carry, and it lasts for a lot longer." That made sense.
"Wells, mainly. Lots of these wind turbines will be able to pump it out of the ground. This place is small enough to sustain that way. And there's that river we passed if more water is needed for anything."
"But what about the dump? Doesn't anything get into the water from there?"
Jonathan shrugged. "It shouldn't do, but who can say? This place is pretty luxurious compared to a lot of the country and people won't complain if the water tastes a bit odd after having lived in far worse places."
I dropped the subject but resolved to avoid drinking water until we were much further away from the dump.
We passed other traders in the town. Most of them waved at Jonathan and asked how he was doing; they clearly recognised him. I stayed in the wagon. It had been a long time since I had seen so many other people and it made me nervous.
We stopped outside several places as we passed through and I watched as Jake disappeared inside laden with bags from the wagon before coming out empty-handed but looking rather cheerful and patting his pockets.
Finally we stopped outside what had once been a school. Jake offered to stay with the wagon while Jonathan passed several bags to Amy on the ground. Sue sat next to Jake. I hovered, unsure of what to do but Amy noticed my hesitation.
"Come inside and have a look," she invited. So I joined them on the ground and Jonathan passed me a bag. We headed in.
It was certainly no longer a school. What had once been the playground had been pulled up and replaced by rows upon rows of allotments. Some potato plants were already growing happily in the middle, along with what looked like runner beans up the side of one of the buildings. I could see carrots and tomatoes along with something that I didn't recognise but which looked like some kind of berry. I stopped to examine it.
In the community we always worried about food theft. It was another reason why we didn't like visitors. These crops would be very easy to steal at harvest time.
"How do they stop people taking the food?"
"Honesty, mostly." Amy had joined me. "And a bit of self-preservation. If someone steals then people won't trade with them. This place is busy enough that the townsfolk can survive without one or two traders."
"And people tend to carry weapons around too." Jonathan had walked over. "We have to. Too many raiders around." These days the very mention of raiders was enough to fill anyone in the community with terror. I wondered what it was like to meet them on the road without people around to help.
"Do you see raiders often?"
"A few. That's why we carry weapons." Jonathan's face had darkened and he turned away. I didn't ask any more questions. Amy shot me a look that I couldn't read and I followed them into the building.
It was dark inside but Jonathan led us through a set of doors that opened into a large, much brighter room. The furniture could very easily have been from when this place was still a school, with plastic chairs and folding tables laid out neatly. Men and women were working quietly, the tables covered in piles of electronics and pieces of plastic. Jonathan's gaze swept the room before landing on a woman sitting at a table at the back of the room who was watching us with beady eyes. Jonathan waved and we walked towards her.
She looked about my age with silver hair, liver-spotted skin and astonishingly piercing brown eyes. She was wearing a plain shawl and a scruffy shirt like so many of the others were.
"Welcome back, Jonathan." Her voice was thin and reedy but carried across the room. I didn't doubt that everyone had heard, although no-one paid us much attention. "You have a new companion. Who might this be?"
I held out my hand. "I'm Tam."
She shook it. "Lucy. You look like you've been in the wars."
"That's George's work," Jonathan broke in. "By the dump. He did it again."
George? Jonathan knew my attacker?
"My, that look nasty." She eyed me again. "Do you need anything?"
I wasn't sure how to respond. I certainly wasn't a medical professional but I'd hoped I'd be alright after a few weeks to recover.
"We did what we could. If there's a doctor around though..." Amy broke in.
Lucy nodded and beckoned to the woman on the table next to her. They had a brief but hushed exchange of words and the woman disappeared into one of the back rooms. Lucy shifted her attention back to Jonathan with an eager smile.
"And what have you brought me today?" She shifted some of her circuit boards to the side and looked at him expectantly.
The corners of Jonathan's mouth twitched. He lifted one of the bags onto the table and pulled it open. Lucy reached inside and lifted out an old smartphone from a few decades back.
"Very nice," she told him, "But these were very common in the old world."
"There are more in the bag."
Lucy pulled out several more phones, all of different makes, shapes and sizes. At the tenth one I stifled a gasp. It looked like the same model as my sunphone, albeit without all of Kevin's modifications.
Lucy missed nothing, of course. She looked at me and raised an eyebrow.
"I had one of those," I offered lamely. I wasn't going to mentioned that it was still in my possession and still in fully working order.
"I see." She said no more but started examining the phones, prying off the covers and peering inside with a magnifying glass. "You might as well take a seat," she added.
We watched her disassemble the phones one by one, make notes in a notebook, and then put them back together again. Periodically she would call one of the other people over, rip out a page from her notebook and pass it to them.
After about half an hour, a young man joined us. He walked towards us.
Lucy didn't look up. "Tam, this is the doctor. You can use the room next door."
The man held out a hand and offered a half-smile. Amy gently pushed me towards him.
"We'll wait here."
I shook the proffered hand and followed him out of the room.
The room next door was much darker but the doctor flicked the switch as he entered. I was amazed when the light came on; I hadn't seen such a thing for decades.
The doctor had seen my expression.
"You must be from out in the countryside?" he asked. "We have our own electric grid here using the energy from the wind turbines."
"It's been a long time since I've seen anything like this," I told him. "I've been living a rather isolated existence for the past few decades."
"Until recently, it seems. Do you mind if I have a look?" He gestured to my bandages.
He started to unwind them. "I should mention that I'm not officially a doctor. That's just what I get called around here."
"I guessed as much." With food shortages, disease and people fleeing cities, education had been less important than survival. In the community we had done what we could to educate the children, but it wasn't the same as the education I had received. I guessed that this doctor had had a similar set of teachers.
He winced sympathetically as the bandages were removed. "That looks nasty. Have you broken anything?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"The cuts don't look too deep. I have some ointment that you can put on them but there's not much more that I can do. I'll replace the bandages too."
I sat still while he finished.
"How did you become a doctor?" I wondered.
"I always liked helping people. I grew up in a small farming community where one of the other residents had been a doctor and she taught me everything I know. A lot of medicine from the old world can't be used. I don't have access to the drugs that she had had but we've been able to find alternatives for some of them. It's not the same but we do what we can."
It sounded like a similar situation to what we had in the community. We knew about keeping clean and had learnt about herbs to use through memory and trial and error. Disease was best prevented as cures became increasingly harder to obtain.
I thanked him when he had finished and he led me back to the others. I sat down next to Amy and watched Lucy work.
She glanced at me once or twice, always with an unreadable expression. At last she stood up and handed Jonathan a piece of paper. He took it without looking at it and put it in his pocket.
"It's always nice doing business with you." He held his hand out to her. She took it in her much smaller ones and clasped it.
"I hope I'll see you again soon, Jonathan. You always bring me such interesting things."
Amy and I got to out feet too. We followed Jonathan outside and joined up with Jake and Sue. Jonathan pulled the paper out of his pocket. He blinked at it.
"Well, that's a surprise."
Jake peered over his shoulder. "That's far more than I was expecting. What did you do?"
Amy was looking at the paper too. She laughed. "I think we have Tam to thank for this."
"What did I do?"
"Lucy prices everything based on its condition and how common it used to be in the old world. That's why she's the expert here: she was there while most of it was being made. Most of the good stuff was around long before we were born so we can't argue with her, but I bet she looked at you and decided to play it safe. She doesn't want to lose her reputation around here."
Jonathan cracked a smile and slapped me on the back. I managed to not flinch.
"Good work, Tam. We need to keep you around."
We stopped at a couple more places before Jonathan announced that we would be spending the night in the town. There was an inn on the outskirts that we would be staying in.
It was warm inside and there were electric lights. The innkeeper provided us with food. I wasn't sure what was in it, but I didn't care. We were occasionally greeted by people who knew Jonathan but we ate in silence for the most part. There was something I needed to ask, however.
The atmosphere around the table instantly changed. Jake glanced at Jonathan and then turned to me.
"He's my uncle."
"And my brother," Jonathan added. "He didn't always used to be like that."
I was confused. "You seem very different," I ventured. I didn't want to be rude.
"We chose different paths. We used to be partners and it was many years before he started working at the dump. It's once reason why we get such good deals there. Unfortunately he turned to drink. The hard stuff is difficult to get hold of but if he thinks that someone might have some and is any easy target he'll do what he can for alcohol or anything that can be traded for it." Jonathan looked dour. "He's pretty strong and as stubborn as anything. You were unfortunate."
"He's done that before."
"Yes." He didn't elaborate.
"But why hasn't anyone stopped him?"
"He's strong and well-connected. People are scared. Even I'm scared when he's in the wrong mood. But he's never done anything to me."
"And he doesn't like being bested," Amy added sombrely. "I'd try to avoid him in future."
I had a room to myself and was told that Jonathan would wake us up in the morning if we weren't already up by then.
The inn had power sockets but I wasn't sure if they would work. Still, I could run my sunphone from the electric light. It had been a few days since I had turned it on.
I spent some time updating my journal with the events from the last few days. And I worked out where I was on the map. I still had a long way to go.
We tried to keep everything running afterwards, but it was hard. Mrs Wilson dropped in to check on us from time to time but she had her own place to worry about and we could see that she was struggling just as much as we were. We woke up at dawn, toiled away at the land for hours, and then went to bed when it grew dark. My weeding task had turned into planting vegetables and looking after the sheep in addition to everything I had been doing previously.
I rarely saw Seth. He was busy ploughing fields. We had noticed last year that two of the fields surrounding the house had been left untouched and had tried to speak to the land owner to ask if we could make use of them, but our attempts to find him had been futile. Seth guessed that he had moved out of the area to be with family. Or maybe he had died. We decided to turn the sheep onto the fields to let them get rid of as much of the grass as they could, and then we would grow something there instead of letting the land go to waste. And if the owner reappeared, we could always share with him.
We had no fuel for any machinery so it was backbreaking work and I helped Seth out whenever I could. We tried to ration our food but we needed the energy so we tried to encourage as much of the edible wildlife to grow as possible. We devoted an entire corner of the garden to edible weeds: dandelions, nettles, clover. And of course any weeds I pulled out of the earth that might have threatened our crops got eaten if we thought they were edible. We even found some fungus growing on a tree that Seth thought was safe. He might have tried it if I hadn't begged him to leave it alone. I couldn't afford to lose him too.
Even though I rarely saw Seth, we had never got along better. We both knew that we had to pull our weights to survive and we trusted each other to do what needed to be done and to keep each other informed about developments. We had one important rule, which was to never get sick. We didn't have any medicine, and we only had a basic first aid kit: bandages, a few plasters and a bit of antiseptic cream. We couldn't afford to get ill.
Seth made sure that we were both keeping busy. He wouldn't let me stop to dwell on the past and I would quickly fall into an exhausted sleep every night. Instead I would make excuses to tend the orchard, taking whatever solace I could find from being near where they lay. They were gone but not forgotten and they wouldn't be for as long as I could help it.
We listened to the radio most evenings. There were growing numbers of reports of Marburg virus spreading throughout the country. The virus was spread by contact with bodily fluids so as long as we kept away from other people then we wouldn't be at risk. We were fairly safe being as isolated as we were and we avoided going into the town unless we had to.
We were lucky. The cities were not so fortunate. We listened with growing horror as numbers were reported. It was estimated that the fatality rates were as high as eighty percent in some areas and people were fleeing from cities.
"What do we do if they come here?" I asked one evening. I was greeted by silence at the dinner table. Did we help them and risk becoming infected ourselves, or did we leave any visitors alone to fend for themselves?
Seth decided that it would be a good time to revisit our studies and that it would be sensible to learn about how diseases were spread.
We worked so hard but by early summer the plants were half dead. There was never enough water so the plants looked withered with yellow leaves. Turning the taps on often resulted in brown sludge, and there was very little pressure; we didn't like to think what had happened to the rest of civilisation. We had considered transporting water from the river in the village but it was much too far to walk and we couldn't drive the car without fuel.
I couldn't even remember the last time I had taken a shower. We did what we could to conserve water - anything from the kitchen got reused, either for washing ourselves over a basin or for watering our crops. Sometimes both. We had enough to drink; Seth had insisted on that. We collected what we could from rainwater and boiled it over the fire to kill off anything that might have made us sick. We also set up as many dew traps as we could, and sometimes we could collect as much as a couple of litres in each. The precious water would be quickly swallowed up by the thirsty earth when we watered the plants in the cool of every morning.
We had also lost about half our crops due to pests. Leaves were eaten by slugs and caterpillars faster than they could grow which meant that that the plants couldn't get enough energy from the sun. I would get up early to remove as many slugs as I could find but the caterpillars were too well camouflaged to be easily found and we watched helplessly as plant after plant died. Seth decided that we should have used a net to keep moths and butterflies away from the plants; we had found a net in one of the outbuildings a couple of months back. It was probably too late at this point though, but we would be doing that next year. It couldn't hurt, at the very least.
It was difficult to find people to speak to, but we did what we could to keep an eye on what was happening in the outside world. The internet would go down periodically, sometimes for days at a time, but we tried to stay abreast of any developments, particularly any news from near where we used to live. Kevin's sunphone was worth its weight in gold. We often didn't have electricity, which we rarely noticed as we spent most of our time outside the house, but the solar panel meant that the power cuts didn't affect it. I would sit under a tree to eat lunch and would try to catch up on the news. I was a little surprised that I was still able to connect as we hadn't paid any bills for months, but I certainly wasn't complaining.
The news was generally bad. There were strikes and riots all over the country due to the food and water shortages, and services and infrastructure were failing everywhere. Every once in a while I received a message from one of my old friends, usually Ryan or Dan, asking how I was. I was never sure how to reply, so I would tell them that I was well and staying with family. Which was true.
It was often difficult to get the full story due to a patchy connection, but it was clear that this year's heatwave was causing problems everywhere. The death toll was at least in the thousands, either as a direct result of the heat, or a consequence due to the food and water situation. It looked like fuel was a problem too.
The sheep were suffering. I spent a morning with Seth trying to decide what the best option was. Their woolly coats were causing them great discomfort in the heat and we had shorn them once already this summer. It was always a struggle getting them enough water and some had passed away during the hottest periods. On the plus side, we had eaten like kings for days whenever that happened. We had no idea how to store meat for long periods without electricity and the internet wasn't much help with the few materials we had, so we took the logical option and ate as much as we could, roasting the meat in the wood-fire oven we had built outside.
The internet wasn't much help keeping the sheep alive either. We didn't have access to running water and we couldn't afford to waste any. Seth managed to rig up a solar powered fan in one of the shelters, and they seemed to appreciate it, but it wasn't enough. In the end, we gave them as much shade as we could and trimmed their coats every other week. There wasn't much else we could do. Grandpa would undoubtedly have had a solution, but we had none. My stomach squirmed at the thought of what he would have said at the state of the place. We had done our best but it hadn't been good enough.
The autumn harvest marked yet another disaster for us. The hot summer had meant that little had grown and all our hard work had been less fruitful than we had hoped. We blamed the increasing numbers of pests and decreasing numbers of bees and butterflies to help pollinate our crops. Seth and I stood forlornly staring at everything we had managed to gather, and it really wasn't much. I asked him if he thought we had enough to last the winter, and his reply, usually sounding so sure of himself, made my blood run cold.
"I don't know, Tam. I just don't know."
I didn't know what to say to that.
We had food. We had lots of food, but it was nowhere near as much as we had hoped for and we would need to keep some of what we had grown in order to feed the sheep over winter and to plant in the spring for next year's crops.
That evening, I sent Ryan and Dan messages asking if they had had good harvests this year. I never got a reply.
Autumn had been busy. As soon as the harvests were over we started planning what we needed for the next year. We made a list of what had worked well and what we needed to improve. We also decided to make use of more of the surrounding fields. The government wanted us to plant more trees? We would turn one of the nearby fields into another orchard. Apple trees would give us more food and we could let the sheep graze underneath in the shade. Of course, the trees had to be tall enough or the sheep would eat any leaves that they could reach.
Water had been one of our biggest problems. We hadn't had enough for the plants to grow well, and we could have kept the sheep cool if we had had more. And both of us would have liked to clean in something more than a basin every once in a while.
We needed more storage for our water. It would rain a lot over the winter but we didn't have a way of storing much. We had some big buckets and some big plastic containers that the sheep would drink out of, but very little else, and nothing at all that could be sealed. I doubted that ordering anything online would work these days, even if there was money available in the bank. I didn't have any good ideas but wondered if it was worth visiting some of the nearby houses over the next few weeks to see if there was anything that might be of use. If this area was anything like the rest of the country, lots of the homes would be empty and we might be able to take what we needed. I tried to not think of it as stealing. Seth looked conflicted but refused.
We also spent several days collecting wood. We were worried about the state of one of the older trees near one of the outhouses, so we chopped it down before winter started. We didn't want it to fall over and damage anything during the winter storms. And the more wood we collected now, the less we would need to leave the house once the cold started.
It had been a long time since we had seen another person, so Seth went to visit the Wilsons one afternoon to see how they were. There wasn't any need for us both to go, so I spent the afternoon chopping wood until my back hurt, and then picking blackberries in the hedgerows when I couldn't do any more.
It was almost dark when Seth returned and I was already in bed after having fed the sheep.
"Tam? Are you awake?" He looked incredibly weary.
"What's wrong?" I had been dozing.
"They're gone. Probably weeks ago."
"Mr and Mrs Wilson? Dead?" They weren't an old couple.
"Yes." He sat down on my bed and stared at the ceiling. "It was horrible. I had to break a window to get in, and the smell...", he broke off, shuddering. "They'd been dead for a while."
I could picture it. There would have been maggots. It had been a hot summer and I had seen it often enough with the sheep if they had wandered off and we didn't spot them immediately. I didn't want to think about what weeks would have done.
"Are you alright?"
"I hurt my hand. When I broke the window. It's a bit bruised. I'll be fine." He shook his head.
"What did you do?"
He smiled ruefully. "I threw up. I can't just leave them there but I didn't know what to do. We should have checked on them weeks ago."
"We couldn't. You know we couldn't."
"I still feel guilty. Maybe we could have done something."
"Not if we want to survive winter."
Seth snorted at that. "True."
"Let's get something to drink."
I climbed out of bed and Seth followed me to the kitchen. There wasn't any alcohol in the house anymore. That was probably a good thing though. I poured a glass of water and passed it to him. He stared at it moodily.
"What happens next? Do we need to bury them?"
"We ought to. It's just that..." he broke off again. I tried to imagine the state of a human body left after weeks in the heat. It wouldn't have been pleasant.
"Let's do it tomorrow."
After checking on the sheep the following morning, we left to walk over to the house. We carried a spade each as we weren't sure where the Wilsons kept theirs, and I took some gloves along. Seth wouldn't let us go inside the house until after we had dug the grave.
We found a quiet spot at the bottom of the garden and we spent the rest of the morning and half the afternoon digging until we thought it would be big enough for two people. Then Seth led us back to the front door.
I could see the window he had smashed to get in and watched as he reached through it to turn the handle on the other side. I was not prepared for the stench that greeted me as it opened. Fortunately neither of us had had lunch.
Seth led the way upstairs to the bedroom. I felt horrible walking into one of the most private places of Mrs Wilson's house, but it wasn't as if she minded anymore.
They were in there, lying on the bed, holding hands. They might have looked peaceful at the moment of their deaths but now, weeks later, their remains were grotesque. They were covered in flies and maggots, a writhing mess that would have made my stomach churn even without the smell.
We did our best to carry them out to the garden, one at a time, trying to avoid gagging. It was a lot easier to breathe when we got outside and I tried to avoid looking at the bodies any more than I had to. Seth was kind enough to let me walk in front. It wasn't a dignified end for either Mr or Mrs Wilson but we took solace in the fact that at least they had died together, and we stood in silence after we had covered the grave back up. Burying was the least that we could do for them.
We found a few stones to mark the grave and Seth said a few words. We headed back to the house.
It was a lot easier to be inside without the bodies nearby and we looked around, wondering what to do.
"I wonder what they died of," Seth broke the silence. "You wouldn't expect two people to just drop down dead at the same time."
I suddenly wanted to wash my hands.
"Maybe they were attacked," I offered. I hoped that there wasn't an attacker out there but I didn't like the thought of contracting some contagious disease.
I looked around the hallway. The layout of the house was very similar to ours. I headed through to the kitchen.
"What are you doing?"
Opportunities like this were rare so we started to look around the house for anything that we needed. There were some chemicals under the sink and I was pleased to find a bottle of bleach, even if it was nearly empty. It was large so would be a good container. I thought it might be a good idea to check out their medicine cabinet in their bathroom. As I started towards the doorway, I caught sight of a basket next to the kitchen table. I remembered Mrs Wilson telling us about her dog. Was the dog still here?
"There might be a dog around," I called. A grunt from one of the other rooms told me that Seth had heard.
"Tam?" Seth called me from upstairs a few minutes later. I joined him; he was back in the bedroom.
Seth pointed at the bed. It was dark in the room and it took me a couple of seconds to work out what I was seeing. The dog was curled up at the foot of the bed and, like his owners, was clearly dead. I gathered up some of the sheets and picked him up in my arms. Seth made sure my path was clear. We came to the unspoken agreement to bury him with his owners, so I watched while Seth started clearing the earth from the hole we had dug earlier. He didn't go down deep enough to uncover the bodies but we left the little dog lying there with his master and mistress and covered them all back up.
"Let's go home, Tam."
I remembered the bleach. "One last thing." I picked up the bottle from where I had left it in the kitchen then checked the medicine cabinet for anything useful. It was empty. As I turned to leave, I caught sight of the scratches at the bottom of the front door and felt a lump in my throat. I left the house before I could start crying.
"Let's go home."
I woke up to the sound of rain on the glass and lay still. It was only just starting to get light so we wouldn't be leaving for another hour or so. I stared up at the ceiling, enjoying the luxury of lying in a bed again. It was far more comfortable than the ground and it helped my injuries.
I had taken a shower the previous night to help my aches and I couldn't remember the last time I had stood under clean, warm, running water. We had usually bathed in the river back in the community. Downstream from where we drank from, of course. And in winter we would heat water over the fire. We used energy from the wind to pump water out of the river, but that mostly went on the crops. It was far easier to take ourselves to the river rather than moving the river to us. The community would benefit no end from the technology in this town, I was sure of that. I wondered how we had managed to stay so isolated after all this time. Not that isolation was bad.
Moving was still painful. I turned to watch the world outside the window, ignoring the ache in my neck as I did so. It was quieter at this hour than in the community. There was much less birdsong here. I found I missed it.
The dreary grey of dawn began to turn into gold. I rolled out of bed, wincing as I did so; I was still a long way from recovered after George's attack. I dressed slowly, wondering what to make of him. How did he and Jonathan end up so different? I worried for my companions' safety next time they visited the dump.
I met the others downstairs for breakfast. Sue still looked half asleep as she slowly ate a hard-boiled egg. The others were drinking some kind of tea. I helped myself to an egg and some bread.
"We'll be travelling through the next few towns today and tomorrow," Jake announced. "We have more to sell."
Breakfast was plain but filling. We ate in silence for the most part, with Jonathan telling stories of the old world to Sue to keep her distracted. The old world. The world I had grown up in.
And all too soon it was time to get back to the road. The innkeeper approached Jonathan to exchange a few words as we were leaving and I watched as Jonathan pulled out the piece of paper from Lucy and handed it over. I was surprised when the innkeeper pulled out an old phone from his pocket. It looked as clunky as mine but without the solar panel and I wondered where he had got it from. After looking over the piece of paper, the innkeeper entered something on the phone and passed Jonathan a small bag.
"That's our payment from Lucy," Jake told me.
"Minus the food and the accommodation," Jonathan added.
I watched Jake and Amy harness the horse to the wagon. They had refused all offers of help and I could guess why; they worked together like a well-oiled machine, as we used to say. Or maybe it was just out of politeness.
And then we were back on the road. I watched the houses become dirtier and more dilapidated as we began to move out of centre of the town, until at last we were alone on the roads again. The road surface also became noticeably rougher the further we travelled.
I took the opportunity to ask about the innkeeper's phone. Were phones common these days?
"Not exactly common, but many people do have them. They're not really used as phones these days though," Amy said.
Satellite usage had become expensive decades ago, I knew that. Money had become scarce and was being spent on food production. This meant that satellite maintenance had become underfunded and last I had heard, fewer satellites were being launched to replace older ones, although my knowledge was a few decades out of date. This meant that the remaining satellites had to deal with more traffic.
"What do people use phones for these days?"
"All sorts. There are still powerful computers inside those phones. There's the net, and they're good as organisers and calculators."
"It's an internet of sorts which people can connect to."
"There's still the internet?" I was surprised. I hadn't been able to connect to the internet for decades.
"Oh yes. It's not like it was when I was younger though. It's more like a series of small networks around towns with the occasional larger jump between towns. It's slow over large distances and not terribly reliable as the cables often break."
I was stunned. I'd tried contacting Seth periodically over the last few decades but hadn't been able to get any connection. And now Jonathan was saying that it might have been possible after all. I felt like I should have tried harder.
"Do you have a phone?" I was curious. After all, it seemed that Jonathan often dealt with them.
"Not anymore. I used to. It lasted a long time but I do without these days. I don't need one."
I entertained Sue with more stories as we travelled. She sat on Amy's lap today, asking questions as I told her about my childhood. She seemed fascinated with my experiences of school. I found it sad that Sue would never have the same opportunities that I had had. Would she spend the rest of her life on the road as a trader?
And I wondered what sort of childhood Seth's children had had. Would Seth have passed on everything he knew to them?
There would be a lot of travelling that day and we had a lot of ground to cover. I wasn't complaining; a longer journey would bring me closer to Seth. The wagon passed fields and forests and we met other travellers who would often exchange a few words with us. The sun was warm and it was a glorious day.
It was mid-morning by the time we arrived at the next town. This one didn't seem to be in such a good state of repair but had the same wind generators installed on as many roofs as possible.
"Will this place have electricity too?"
Amy gave me a strange look. "Of course." I wondered what she would have made of the community.
Like yesterday, we stopped off outside various buildings. Jake would disappear inside while we waited, and then we would continue.
"He's enquiring about prices and gauging demand," Amy told me. I hadn't asked but she must have seen my curiosity. "We don't have to sell here and we have our favourite merchants."
"What's inside these places?" I asked.
"Repairers, mostly. They turn what we bring into useful items."
While we waited, we spotted some children playing by the side of the road outside what might have been an old post office. Sue jumped off the wagon and ran over to join them. I imagined that life was especially lonely for Sue, always travelling and unable to make any meaningful friendships with people her own age.
Jake came back looking grim.
"Raiders," he announced. "A couple of days ahead of us. They've been this way."
"What did they do?" Amy had turned pale.
Jake waved his hand in the direction we were heading.
"Apparently it's bad through there. There was a lot of violence this time and several were badly injured." He kicked the side of the wagon.
"What do we do?" I asked. Jake looked at me.
"This changes nothing for us. We're fine as long as we stay behind them." He gave a lopsided grin. "We might even do better business than normal. The raiders will have taken as much as they could carry." His face returned to anger immediately afterwards.
Sue wanted to keep playing with her new friends so Amy stayed behind to watch her, agreeing upon a place to meet up with us later. We travelled towards the centre of the town.
It wasn't long before we saw the damage. Several houses had burnt down, their charred remains still smoking. Other places nearby had had their windows smashed.
"It's horrific," Jake said. I wasn't sure if he was talking to me or to himself.
"What were they after?" I asked.
Jake didn't answer immediately, he kept his eyes on the road.
"The usual, I expect," he replied eventually. "Food, water, clothes, electronics, building materials... They don't care about the rest of us. They take what they want and let everyone suffer. And the few who get in the way or stand up to them get hurt." He glanced at Jonathan who was sitting in the back of the wagon and who had, now I thought about it, been uncharacteristically quiet. "Are you alright back there?"
There was noticeable unease in the atmosphere so I offered to go with Jake the next time we stopped. We ended up in a dingy room lit by a yellow, flickering bulb with several women sewing nearby. I kept quiet while he offered sympathies for the town's loss and asked if anyone was in the market for replacements. There didn't seem to be a spokesperson in the room and the women took it in turns to give short, hushed answers to his questions.
Jake gave a rundown of what we were carrying in the wagon and asked if anyone knew who might be willing to buy. Several ears had pricked up at the mention of an old sewing machine and we were given directions to another part of town. We left after more pleasantries.
"We don't sell to them directly," Jake explained as we left. "It's not how most of these places work. We sell to the merchants - people who know what they're buying and who sell it on."
"That system seems open to abuse," I remarked.
"Sure it is. There's a lot of good stuff still around and a lot more bad stuff that passes as the good stuff. I'm sure it was different back in your day, in the old world, but that's how it is now. Most people don't have a lot of education so anyone with a bit of knowledge can make a good living. It's sad but true."
"How can anyone think that's fair though?"
"On the whole, it works out well for us traders. We have to sell at good prices. And the people buying don't have to buy from the same merchant so if they get cheated then they'll go elsewhere. And the merchant takes a cut."
I processed this.
"How did it work with Lucy? She set the price and the innkeeper paid you."
Jake laughed. "We know Lucy well. We've been trading with her for years. She gets us better prices than anywhere else around here when it comes to electronics. And the innkeeper is her son. We've known the family for a long time, that's how they do business."
"I see." That made some kind of sense. It was completely different from how the community worked but I'd been away from the world for too long to be able to judge.
Jake stopped just inside the door. "There's something you should know. My mother was killed in a raid and my father never really got over it. He's probably not going to be the best company for the next few towns."
I felt my eyes widen. "I'm so sorry."
Jake turned away. "Don't be. It's not your fault. And I was too young to remember her well."
Jonathan looked sullen as we rejoined him but he brightened up when Jake told him about a potential buyer for a sewing machine. Jake drove the wagon onwards.
I accompanied Jake during the sale. He had insisted and I was more than willing to follow him. As well as the sewing machine, he had also brought in a cracked breadmaker along with a kettle, heaters, and other appliances. The merchant hadn't recognised the breadmaker but seemed especially interested when I explained what it was, and insisted upon a closer inspection.
I wasn't sure that any of the appliances would work but Jake had sounded sure that they could all be repaired easily. All in all, we left considerably richer and Jake looked rather smug.
"Tam did an excellent job in there," he told Jonathan as we were leaving. "That merchant had no idea what that box was. Turns out that it was a breadmaker." Jonathan cracked a smile at that.
We met up with Amy and Sue a few streets later. Sue had fallen over and cut herself on something sharp.
"We'd better wash that," Jake told her. Sue had clearly been crying but she let Jake pick her up and sit her on the wagon steps. He took out some of the drinking water and carefully washed her knee making sure that there was no dirt left in the wound and then he bandaged it carefully, joking about it the whole time. Sue was soon laughing, any pain of falling over soon forgotten.
"Jake loves her so much, he'd do anything for her," Jonathan remarked wryly.
"We all would," Amy told him. Jonathan didn't deny it.
We spent most of the afternoon driving from building to building around the town, Jake lifting off bags and crates only for Amy and Jonathan to replace them with new ones. I helped out as much as my injuries and my companions would allow.
It only felt like a couple of hours later when we finished. I was surprised to find that it was getting dark and I wondered where the day had gone. We had planned to get to the next town before stopping for the night but with raiders nearby we didn't want to risk travelling in the dark. We stopped at another inn instead.
Amy had asked the innkeeper which direction the raiders had headed in. The news was greeted with grim faces; it looked like we would be following them again. The innkeeper had told us that the raiders had brought the net down during the raid but that the town had managed to get it back up again. A message had gone out warning the nearby towns about the raiders.
"At least they'll get more notice than we had."
As far as the innkeeper knew, the injured were still exactly that: injured but not dead. It was some reassurance.
Age 13, winter
We were prepared by the time winter arrived. We had plenty of wood within easy reach of the house and had done what we could to preserve our food for the colder months.
As it turned out, we did have enough to survive the winter. But only just. We rationed ourselves from the start and killed sheep when we needed to. We reasoned that fewer sheep meant more food for the rest of them.
Winter was dull. The days were short and the nights were long. We visited the Wilsons' house several times to see if there was anything that we could make use of. They had some other large containers, so we took those and used them to start collecting rainwater. The bleach bottle from the first visit had meant that we could clean out some of our other water containers, so we weren't too worried about contaminated drinking water.
When we weren't outside, we spent a lot of the winter around the fire reading books from the library. Seth taught me as much as he could from his last years at school and I listened greedily. It was a welcome break from physical exercise.
We read some of the classics together but I found I was able to lose myself best in the maths and science books. Grandpa had had some interesting books on engineering and I wanted to see if I could find some way of rigging up a solar panel to give us light indoors. We usually made do with daylight and firelight, and we had some wind-up torches for when we needed them.
There was one photo in one of the textbooks that really caught my eye. A photo of the Great Barrier Reef, taken in the very early part of the century, covered a double page in one of the geography textbooks. I spent a long time staring at the vibrant colours: yellows and purples and pinks surrounded by blue and orange and stripy fish swimming in the frame. The textbook went on to explain how most of the reefs had been bleached thanks to the changing climate and had a much smaller photo on the following page showing an utterly barren scene, the lively image a stark contrast to one that looked eerie and skeletal. I looked up to see that Seth had been watching me.
"Dad told me once," he began, "How everyone could see the signs. Things like those coral reefs were big warning flags to everyone. But not enough people acted fast enough and things got worse. It could have been done, he reckoned. We had the technology, but there was more money in using fossil fuels so not much happened."
"Could it have been done?"
He shrugged. "Dad thought it could have been, if everyone had made the effort. But people didn't do enough until they were affected themselves and by then it was too late for everyone."
This wasn't news. Everyone knew this.
"And now we're left like this."
"Mum and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa might still be alive if things had been different. Or they might not have been. But we'll never know."
I tended to stick to the science textbooks, but we both liked to read some of the fiction books from time to time and one in particular caught my attention. It was a retelling of some of the Greek myths, and I felt the story of Pandora's box was particularly apt. Zeus had entrusted a box to the care of humans and had warned them not to open it but Pandora's curiosity got the better of her. When she lifted the lid, she released all the illnesses and hardships out into the world that had been stored inside. When she managed to close the box again, all that remained inside was hope. Fossil fuels let humanity do so much, but at such a great cost. Fossil fuels were Pandora's box and we lifted the lid.
The next summer's harvest was as bad as the last. Fortunately we had made use of the surrounding fields so we had had more than we might have had, but times were bad. Months of hard work and we were barely managing to keep ourselves alive.
"What can we do?" I asked Seth one evening. We weren't going to be able to survive like this forever. The number of sheep had dwindled to almost nothing over the last year, which would mean that we would lose our main source of protein. We needed to stay healthy in order to keep ourselves alive.
Seth was chewing thoughtfully on a piece of grass. "I might have an idea."
I looked at him expectantly. What hadn't we yet tried?
"Don't get your hopes up. I've been looking online recently and there's a message board run by some of the cities out west. It's meant to be better over there. They're closer to the sea so the weather's a bit milder." Even though it frequently went down, it never failed to surprise me how much of the internet was still running. The big websites of the past had largely gone but lots of the smaller sites were still going strong.
"And you want to go over there?"
He shrugged. "It's an option."
"But we'd be starting from nothing."
"We've got nothing. We'd be starting with the experience of people living nearby who know how to look after the land, and the temperatures would be better. They want people to help look after the land. You've seen how we've struggled with just the two of us." He broke off suddenly. "I don't know. It's just a thought."
We might not have given it any more consideration but it was to be another harsh winter. We killed the last of the sheep for food long before the snows ended and barely made it through with the food from our stores. By the time spring arrived, it was an easy decision; we wouldn't survive another winter where we were.
The early part of the spring was spent preparing for the journey. We collected all the food that we had and spent a while working out our route. I found my old passport and collected Kevin's sunphone from the top of the bookshelf; I hadn't had to use it for months. Seth nodded approvingly.
"Kevin did well with that solar panel job." Seth had always been a little envious that he needed to use cables to charge his phone. I just laughed and slid it into my pocket.
We had collected some acorns the previous autumn and this seemed like a good opportunity to plant them; we wanted to leave the place in the best condition we possibly could. We spent most of a day burying them in one of the fields where the sheep had once roamed. We reasoned that the ground would have been well fertilised.
Finally, early one spring morning, we left the house for good. There was nothing left for us there. Just a library of books, the remains of our family and years of memories. We would both miss the place but we couldn't stay there anymore.
"Grow well, acorns," I murmured as we walked off down the road, my bag far too heavy and already digging into my back. I wasn't sure how I would cope for the next fifty or so miles.
I woke up to rain again. I lay listening to the sound of the raindrops drumming on the window while I enjoyed the luxury of once again lying in a large, clean bed. I was glad that I wouldn't be travelling alone on a day like today.
As I dressed, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My black eye was no longer a dark red but was starting to return to its normal colour although some parts were turning an interesting shade of yellow. At least it was well on the way to healing. I still ached in many places but two nights of sleeping in a bed had certainly helped. I did wonder if I would have been able to get up if I had been sleeping in my tent.
I wasn't sure if it was due to the journey, but I found I missed the community badly and I wished that I had said goodbye after all. I felt especially sad when I thought of the children. Who would be teaching them now?
With hindsight it had been our isolation and luck that had kept the raiders away. We were further from other settlements, and perhaps that had protected us far more than I had ever guessed. We had little of value to steal compared to these towns with their thriving markets and industries.
We had managed to get a lot of things right in the community. We knew and trusted and supported each other. We had everything we needed. But life in these towns was so different. The infrastructure bore little resemblance to that from the old world but these towns ran off the wind and had luxuries that we had never had in the community. Even if most of them seemed to have come from the dump and were the waste products of a life I had once known.
There was something that felt odd about this place but I couldn't put my finger on it. Perhaps it was the way that these towns were so much bigger than I was used to. People couldn't know each other half as well as we did in the community. It felt lonely here, despite the larger number of people.
I was one of the first downstairs this morning and I was joined by the innkeeper while I ate. He was an older man, maybe only a decade or so younger than me, and seemed so weary. I tried talking to him but he wasn't interested in conversation so I spent some time getting to know some of the other traders who had also stayed the night.
Judging by their enthusiasm, it seemed that this was a popular place to stay. I commented as much to one of them. She shrugged in response.
"Sure. It's cheap and the food's not bad. There's not much to complain about here."
"Except the raiders," broke in another, to general agreement.
"Forget the raiders. They've gone and it will be weeks before they're back."
I frowned. "Isn't there anything that can be done about them?" This was met with general laughter.
"Done about them?" one woman snorted, "Of course not. They'll kill you before you even think about it. And someone of your years ought not to go anywhere near them." There was more laughter.
This stung. I was fit and healthy after years of hard labour, not counting my recent encounter with George. So I did what any older person might have done in my situation and retreated into a dignified silence. The conversation eventually returned to more mundane matters, such as the price of chickens.
Jake, Amy and Sue had joined me by this point and were helping themselves to food.
"Jonathan won't be joining us just yet," Amy announced by way of a greeting. "We'll meet him at the wagon."
"Is he alright?"
"Yeah. This happens whenever we cross paths with raiders. He'll be back to normal as soon as we've lost them."
I helped Sue pour herself a glass of milk. She smiled at me.
"Why do they do this?"
Amy raised an eyebrow. "Raiders? Because they can. And because they have to. They don't know any other way of life and they'll starve without stealing from others. They probably enjoy it too."
"I'm guessing you don't have police anymore?"
Jake shook his head. "Nothing organised. You'll get some places with self-appointed enforcers. Other places just swallow their losses."
"Like here," he agreed.
"In the world I grew up in, we liked to think of ourselves as enlightened beings, far too educated to think about fighting each other. We weren't, of course. There was a lot of violence, especially in the big cities and the violence spread throughout the Great Riots. But stealing from each other as a way of life was almost unheard of."
"It's a different world," Amy said simply.
"It was unsustainable," I added. "We were living the way that our parents had lived, like their parents had lived, back through generations. We were using up resources faster than we could replace them. We didn't realise the problem at the time, and when we did we were too slow fixing it. We paid the price. The world now seems much less wasteful in that sense."
I considered. Maybe it was no better now. The coal mines must still exist. Maybe there were people digging black gold out of the ground even now so that they would have fuel. Without any rules or authorities to restrict such activities, the situation from decades ago wouldn't have a chance to recover. And arguably, who could blame such people? Everyone did what they could to survive. And with the world like this, knowledge was being lost as the older generations passed on. And the cycle would start again.
I suddenly didn't feel quite so hungry anymore.
We met Jonathan at the wagon. His mood was as bleak as the weather and he scowled at us as we greeted him. Jake passed him half a loaf of bread which he took without saying anything. We set off into the pouring rain, huddled under blankets in the shelter of the canopy.
"Where are we heading now?" I asked.
Jake looked back at me from the driver's seat.
"There's a small village a little further up. We've got some generator bits that we think they could make use of."
"What kind of generator?"
"Wind. It's not completely reliable but wind is free. Their generator broke when we were last passing through so we should be able to see these parts go, unless someone else got there first."
We continued in silence for an hour or so, just watching the world go by. Sue fell asleep against me and started snoring gently. I was surprised at how quickly she had accepted me as part of the group.
We passed a wind turbine as we travelled over the crest of a hill. This wasn't one of the small ones on a roof but one of the big ones that must have been at least a hundred metres from the ground to the top of the blade.
Up close, it was nowhere near as noisy as I might have been expecting. There was a bit of a swoosh as the blades passed by, and that was all. It was rather awe-inspiring to be in the presence of something so large.
"It generates enough power for the two nearest towns," Jake told me. "They keep it in good condition."
Sue had woken up and didn't look happy. She had buried her face in her mother's side and Amy had placed a protective arm around her. Amy noticed my concern and laughed.
"Sue doesn't like it. It's too big for her."
Sue whimpered and squirmed closer to Amy. I blinked.
"That's alright, Sue. I used to be scared of street lamps. They were too tall for me."
She emerged from under Amy's arm.
"Street lamps aren't scary."
"I know. It took me a long time to realise that though."
"Wind turbines are good," Jake broke in. "They give us energy." It sounded like he'd told her that many times before.
"I know. But they're still scary." Sue disappeared under Amy's arm again.
It had gone midday before we approached the village. Jonathan cautioned me to stay in the wagon.
"They don't like visitors," he warned.
The wagon trundled down a narrow lane for a couple of miles before widening into a clearing. I peered out. The track continued further into a forest, wide enough for the wagon, so I was surprised when we stopped and Jonathan and Jake climbed out. I followed them. Fortunately the rain had slowed to a drizzle.
"They'll have heard us by now," Jonathan murmured. "This wagon isn't the quietest way to travel."
I looked around. Sure enough, there was a group of people starting to emerge from the forest. My eyesight wasn't as good as it used to be but I was fairly sure a couple of them had crossbows levelled at us.
"Don't worry," Jonathan added quietly. "This is normal. No sudden movements." He raised his hands in the air. Jake and I copied him.
One person stepped forward from the group and walked towards us. She stopped about twenty metres away.
"Jonathan and Jake! It's good to see you again. And a newcomer too." Her voice wasn't loud but it carried through the clearing and we could hear her well enough.
"It's good to see you too, Marnie. It's been a while."
"Are you all well?"
"As well as can be expected. We've heard there are raiders around. Have they given you any trouble?"
Marnie shook her head. "We haven't seen any raiders for a while. Were you attacked?"
"Not us. But they're a couple of days ahead of us and caused some damage a few miles back."
As Jonathan and Marnie spoke, one of the group caught my attention. He was a young child, probably about the age of Sue, peering out from between the legs of the adults in the group. One of them bent down and spoke to him but he shook his head. Probably telling him to go back to wherever the rest of their community was.
"This is Tam," Jonathan's voice caught my attention.
"Pleased to meet you," I called to Marnie. She nodded graciously.
"I apologise for not coming any closer, Tam. We prefer to remain isolated here."
"I understand." And I did. This place was like the community I had come from. We had rules like these for a reason and we took what precautions we could to protect ourselves. We had never had crossbows, however. I wondered if they had ever been used.
As Jonathan negotiated a price for the generator pieces, I helped Jake carry them out of the wagon and over to one side of the clearing. Jonathan stopped Jake as he was carrying over a particular piece and held it up in the air, turning it around so that Marnie could see it from a distance. She nodded.
Afterwards one of the villagers placed a small sack on the other side of the clearing before retreating back to the group. Jake collected it.
"Nice doing business with you, Marnie. Is there anything else you'd like us to keep our eyes open for?"
"Solar panels," she called, laughing. "Any kind."
Jake pushed me towards the wagon. I climbed in as Jonathan bade the villagers farewell. He joined us shortly afterwards. I stayed silent as the wagon turned around and we headed back the way we had come, down the narrow lane.
"Well?" I looked up at Amy. "What did you make of that? That must have been an odd experience."
"It was similar to what we do at the community. Traders don't often visit but we have to take precautions similar to here. There's no direct contact with the visitor so there's less risk of catching something."
"Do you go there often?" I wondered.
"Usually whenever we pass by. They make good honey." Jake nodded towards the sack that he had brought in. Sue turned towards it eagerly. "Later, Sue. Not now."
"Do you have any idea how many live there?" I asked. "Is it a big village?"
"Probably around thirty or so," Jonathan called from the front of the wagon. "But we've never been any closer than that clearing so it's hard to tell."
Despite our eagerness to reach the next town, we set up camp in a field instead. We would have arrived long after dark and we weren't sure where the raiders were so we decided to play it safe. I was sure I would be rather sore the next morning after having slept on beds the previous two nights but at least I wouldn't have to feel guilty about living off money that wasn't mine.
We made a campfire and cooked stew. We kept it small in case the raiders were nearby; we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves easily out here. After we had eaten, it was still light enough to power my sunphone for a while. I estimated our location and managed a description of about half the day for the journal before the light became too dim to continue.
The walk was long. Long and arduous. I had thought that I was fit and healthy after all the exercise I had been doing over the last few years, but quickly learnt that I was not after finally reaching the top of the first hill. I pulled my bag off with great relief and flopped to the ground. Surprisingly, Seth wasn't in much better shape.
It must have been our diets, we decided. Too little protein and too little everything else, and after such a harsh winter too. Really, it was good that we were leaving as we clearly would have struggled to look after the land for another year. At least, that was what we told ourselves. We just weren't used to carrying all our belongings on our backs.
We carried all the food we had with us, as little as it was, but fortunately we had plenty of water. We had spent the previous evening boiling rainwater so that we wouldn't get sick. Unfortunately, water was heavy.
I won't bore you with the details of the journey. We met a few people, quite a few people, and they all eyed us with distrust, especially so when we told them where we were heading. Like us, they seemed to be individuals or small families, and most were doing better than we had been, although not by much. It was the season for sowing and we watched with envy as an electric-converted tractor ploughed a field that would have taken us days to do by hand.
We ended up camping for two nights and we were in good spirits the whole time. It hadn't rained and it hadn't been too hot. It had been our first camping adventure and we had had fun being able to take a break from the fields for the first spring in a long time.
It took us nearly three days before we caught sight of the city. We had made it to the top of a hill, and there it was, sprawling in front of us and stretching for miles. We had passed through countless towns, each filled with people less friendly than the last place, but the sheer greyness of the city in front of us caught me by surprise.
It wasn't as if it were very different from the place we grew up in. At this distance we could see the suburbs clearly: rows upon rows of houses with their small gardens, little cul-de-sacs winding their way between them.
"Where do we go?" I asked Seth. Now that we were nearly there, I was nervous.
"The city centre," he replied, sounding sure of himself. He led the way down.
The place wasn't packed but it had been a long time since I had seen so many people. Residents were tending their gardens, planting both vegetables and flowers. A few greeted us as we passed, friendlier than anyone we had met so far. We stopped to speak to several and they all asked where we had come from.
"That's miles away!" they would exclaim, followed by "You walked the whole way?! How long did that take?". We felt like minor celebrities. They gave us directions and we followed them, away from the greenery of the countryside and towards the dreariness of the city.
But it wasn't so dreary. In many ways, the changes this city had gone through were remarkable. We had never visited before, but we could tell that the solar panels on all the roofs must have been recent additions and there was a lot more greenery than I might have expected; the locals had clearly taken the government's message about planting trees to heart. It was bright and cheerful here. It seemed like a good place to live.
Many pairs of eyes watched us as we walked on, deeper into the city. It was far less populated than it must have been a few years back and we guessed that a good number of people had moved out to the countryside. The buildings were mostly well-maintained though. A handful of houses were boarded up and stood out starkly against their surroundings with their gardens wild and overgrown.
At long last we made it to the city centre. Like the rest of the area, this place was far greener than we had expected it to be, with plants growing up the building exteriors. The area had a neglected feel due to all the greenery in an otherwise-urban area, but the place was anything but that. Fences and walls had been replaced by small hedges, and parts of the pavement had been replaced by flowerbeds. The pillars at the entrance of the city hall were covered by vines, some just starting to flower.
We sat outside the city hall to eat, watching people go about their lives. They weren't wearing the business suits that I might have expected from several years back, but instead were wearing much less formal attire: t-shirts, jeans, comfortable footwear. But they looked relaxed. This was an area of plenty, a stark contrast to our struggles over the past few years in order to survive. Was this the city of the future?
There were far fewer cars on the road than I was used to and I guessed that the ones that I could see were electric or ran off renewable fuels. The fuel situation had been bad before we last left the city and I didn't want to think what it was like now. Instead, cyclists whizzed past us, along with the occasional bus. There didn't seem to be any real need for cycle lanes when there were so few cars around.
At last we stood up. It was time to head inside.
It was a warm spring day outside, but the city hall was dark and cold. The building was made of stone and felt horribly chilly after having spent the morning walking outside in beautiful sunshine. We made our way to the desk and greeted the man sitting behind it.
"Do you have an appointment?" He was staring at a tablet and hadn't looked up as we had entered. I glanced at Seth.
"Who are you visiting?"
"Not sure. We saw a message about help being needed." The man looked up, frowning at us. He seemed confused. "You had a scheme where people could come and help on the land in exchange for food and accommodation." The man's face instantly cleared.
"Ah, of course. You're in the right place." He smiled at us. "Would you mind waiting here and I'll fetch someone."
There were some chairs at the other end of the entrance hall and we made our way over to them. One had already been taken by an older woman. We smiled at her and took our seats.
I guessed that she would have been about the age of Grandma. Her long, grey hair was braided and hung over one shoulder and she was dressed simply in a plain shirt and long, brown skirt that seemed out of place here in the middle of the city. And she had piercing blue eyes. Eyes which were watching us shrewdly.
We exchanged some pleasantries with her. She was reporting the death of a family friend and the phone lines had been down.
"Not that people care much about little things like deaths these days." She even sounded like Grandma.
We exchanged stories. Like us, she lived off the land and had been having problems with crops. Unlike us, she sounded like she knew what she was doing.
"It's the bees," she told us. "And the butterflies. They've either been killed by pesticides or they've been unable adapt to this hot weather so they're not pollinating enough. And unfortunately the flies love this weather. That's why we've been seeing so many more of them.
"You're probably doing everything right. It sounds like you've been working hard enough. But it's not easy."
The clerk chose that moment to come back. We bade farewell to the woman and he led us down a hallway to a room. Unlike the rest of the building, the room was brightly lit by the afternoon sun. We sank into a comfy couch in front of an empty desk as the clerk told us that someone would be along shortly and to make ourselves at home.
"This isn't so bad," I began. I noticed a table opposite with a jug of water sitting on a white table cloth. I crossed over to the other side and poured myself a glass. "Do you want some?" I waved the jug at Seth.
He shook his head. "No thanks." He looked exhausted, eyes half closed. I joined him back on the couch.
We sat in silence for a while. It was good to sit down and rest my feet. I was feeling tired too. I closed my eyes, enjoying the comfort of the couch and letting myself relax into it.
It must have been at least ten minutes before Seth broke the silence.
"I wonder what's happening. They're taking a long time." I didn't answer. I was feeling incredibly relaxed and sleepy.
I felt the couch shift as Seth stood up and his shadow fell across my face as he strode over to the door.
"Tam?" I opened my eyes blearily. "Are you awake? It's locked."
"Huh?" I stood up. Or I tried to. The room spun as I did so and I quickly sat down. "I don't feel so well." My voice sounded strange.
Seth was by my side at an instant. He peered into my eyes. I was struggling to keep them open against the bright light.
"Can you hear me?"
"Yeah. I'm just so tired."
There was a clunk from somewhere behind me and I heard him swear.
"You've been drugged, Tam."
I heard the door knob rattle again followed by more swearing. There was a loud thud as Seth kicked the door.
"Hey! Let us out!"
There was no reply.
"Tam? Are you still awake? Your lock picking skills would be really handy right now."
I managed to stand up. The room swam. I only made it a couple of steps before Seth caught me.
"I can't..." It wasn't like I had any tools either.
I heard him rummage around in my bag.
"Here!" And then there was the sound of glass shattering. I turned around to see him standing next to a broken window holding a penknife.
Seth pulled me to my feet. He helped me over to the window and threw something over the broken glass so that I wouldn't cut myself. His coat, I realised belatedly. He helped me climb through. I landed on the ground outside with a thud. He followed me and dropped down much more gracefully.
And then we were outside. Seth was pulling me along and I was struggling to stay on my feet. There was a shout from somewhere behind us and I nearly fell as I tried to look behind me.
"Just keep going, Tam. I'll worry about them." Seth sounded tense. I tried to do as he said, one foot in front of the other.
Footsteps were getting closer. I felt him pull me sharply to one side as we turned a corner but I managed to stay upright. We were in another residential street.
There was an alley between two houses and Seth pulled us down it. I struggled to keep upright.
"Keep going, Tam." We were both short of breath and I could feel my heart hammering in my chest.
We emerged into broad daylight and Seth pulled me sharply to the left. We were in another street looking exactly like the previous one. I tried to get my bearings. There was more shouting from somewhere behind us.
"Quick. Here." Seth stopped suddenly and I ran into him. He steadied me as I tried to keep my balance. "Up. We can hide."
I looked in the direction he was pointing in. We were standing next to a fence. It wasn't that tall but I doubted I could climb it in my current state. I glanced at him. He was already bending down to give me a leg up.
I grasped the top of the fence and tried to climb but I wasn't moving as fast as I needed to. The footsteps were getting closer and there was more shouting. With a glance towards them, Seth grabbed my arm again and pulled me onwards.
Our pursuers were close behind now and gaining on us. We kept running, Seth steadying me. The adrenaline was certainly helping me fight against whatever had been in the water. There looked like a main road up ahead. Perhaps we could make it there?
A hundred metres or so. It wasn't much further.
Seventy. My lungs were burning, my head was spinning.
Forty. I nearly tripped again. Seth caught me.
Twenty metres. Another car drove past on the road.
Ten. The footsteps sounded so close now.
And we didn't stop. Seth pulled us out into the traffic, what little there was of it. A cyclist yelled from somewhere behind me. And a blue car stopped.
Seth didn't hesitate. He pulled the rear door open and pushed me inside, slamming the door behind me. He jumped in the passenger seat.
And we sped off.
I must have passed out soon afterwards. I awoke to find that I had a splitting headache and all the houses outside the window had been replaced by fields and trees.
"Seth?" I rasped. My throat felt like sandpaper and I had difficulty swallowing. He was sitting in the front seat.
"How are you feeling?"
"Awful." But at least the world had stopped spinning.
"There's some water by your feet, Tam." The owner of the voice was female and reminded me a little of Grandma. I recognised her from the city hall immediately. I reached down and felt around in the darkness, my fingers settling on something cool and smooth.
"This is Mary." Seth told me. "She's offered to give us a lift."
"Do you think you're going to be sick? I can stop the car."
I considered. "I don't think so but some fresh air would be nice." Seth opened the window a little. I leaned back against the seat, feeling weak, drinking greedily from the bottle.
Mary stopped the car a couple of miles further along anyway.
"Now that Tam's awake, let's talk." She climbed out of the car, smoothing out her skirt and adjusting her braid as she did so. She was short but had a surprising air of command. She beckoned to us to follow her. So we did.
I stretched, enjoying the feel of the sun's warmth on my arms again. It was a pleasant afternoon and I was feeling a lot better.
But Mary hadn't stopped for sightseeing; she didn't mince her words, fixing us with a steely-eyed look.
"You two seem decent enough, so I'm going to give you some advice and tell you to run as fast as you can away from here."
My mouth fell open. "But we've travelled so far. We can't go back."
"Tam's right. There's nothing left for us there but starvation." Seth looked furious. Desperate.
Mary looked like she was considering her next words very carefully.
"How many people do you think live in the city?"
I glanced at Seth, who shrugged. "I don't know. A few thousand?" I wasn't good at estimating.
"It's probably nearer a few tens of thousands. And that's nothing compared to what it used to be a few years back. Back before the food shortages and riots and plague." I nodded. I could picture the city being very similar to the area we had grown up in. They would have had the same problems we had had. "Where have you come from? The east? You'll have gone past all those neat little houses with their fancy little gardens to get there. So many people and so little space. They don't like to talk about it, because if they don't talk about it then it doesn't exist."
She sighed. "How do you think all the people living here in the middle of the city get their food? No-one around there looks starved or malnourished and yet there's precious little space for growing anything."
"From the countryside. Where we were going."
"You were going to feed the people who live there and get very little back in return. It would be your blood, sweat and tears that let these people keep living their comfortable lives."
"You're saying... slavery?"
She shrugged. "Call it what you like. You're no better off by the city than wherever you were before, unless you're one of the elite." Her face betrayed exactly what she thought of the situation.
We didn't say anything. I knew that Seth was thinking the same as me: what she was saying made a horrific kind of sense.
It was Seth who broke the silence.
"What would you suggest?"
She shrugged again and stood up. "It's up to you, but if it were me, I'd go home. Whatever went wrong over there, fix it."
"We can't. They're all dead."
She gave us an appraising look. "Then make sure you live on. Do something worthwhile." She shook her head. "Be free."
We didn't have a reply to that. We stood and waited.
"There's a town nearby," she told us at last. "Go there. They might be able to help. I can give you a lift most of the way. There will be somewhere you can live and you can grow your own food."
"We tried that," I told her. "We failed."
We left at dawn. I hadn't slept well after having spent the previous night in a comfortable bed at an inn. I still ached everywhere and I had struggled to stand up. Jonathan had looked concerned and helped me to the wagon while he packed up my tent himself. He wouldn't accept an apology. "It's not your fault," he told me. I was glad he was so accepting but somehow that made me feel worse. Age seemed to be catching up to me these days.
We were sitting under blankets in the wagon again. It wasn't raining this morning but the air was chilly.
"Why do we have dragon breath this morning?" Sue asked me.
"She's wondering why we can see our breath," Jake translated.
"It's because it's really cold this morning," I told her. "The air outside is colder than we are so the water in our breath is turning back into liquid water."
"You know how water can turn into ice when it's cold? And you know how when you boil water, it evaporates?" Sue nodded. "You've got lots of water inside you. When you breathe in, the air goes inside you and warms up. And because there's water inside you, when you breathe out again, some of the water ends up in your breath."
"But why do we breathe like dragons?"
"Have you seen condensation on windows?" Sue nodded again. "It's like that. The air we breathe out has lots of water in it and when it meets the air outside it cools down. So the water vapour in the air stops being in the air and starts becoming liquid water again. If it's cold enough outside, it might even become ice."
"Can we do that today?"
"What do you think? Is it cold enough for ice today?"
Sue considered and then shook her head. "I don't think so."
Jake laughed quietly.
Sue asked me lots of questions after that. She wanted to know the highest number I could count to and then gave me some (rather easy) maths questions. Apparently being about to add ten to a million made me a genius. But she was especially interested in the science of the world around us. She wanted to know why birds could fly and why snakes didn't have feet. She asked me why rain fell downwards but why the moon could always stay up in the sky. And she wanted to know how fast the fastest human being had ever gone.
I'll admit that I wasn't too sure about the last one. I guessed that it was either on board an aeroplane or a rocket. Sue didn't seem to mind.
"I'm going to go faster than that when I grow up," she told us proudly while I tried not to compare the speed of our horse-drawn wagon against the speed of a car on a motorway. Life moved at a very different pace here compared to my childhood.
It was only a little while later that Jonathan brought the wagon to a sudden stop and we all peered out. He pointed at the ground where the muddy surface was covered in fresh horseshoe prints.
"Look at that," he said.
"Raiders?" I asked.
"We don't know for certain," Jake added cautiously.
"We'd be crazy to follow them so closely," Jonathan told him.
Jake considered. "There's a turning in about half a mile. Whichever way they went, we can go the other." Jonathan opened his mouth. "What's the alternative?"
"We backtrack and find another route."
Jake shook his head. "We haven't passed another one for miles. It will be a long detour."
"Safety is more important than time." They glared at each other.
Meanwhile, Amy was bending down to examine the prints.
"They're full of water and it hasn't rained since last night, so the prints must be at least half a day old. I reckon we're safe to keep going."
"We don't know if the raiders have stopped," Jonathan snapped. "We're far too close to them."
She shrugged. "What do you think, Tam?"
I shook my head. "Sorry. You're more familiar with them and the area than I am."
"Let's go on," Jake told Jonathan gently. "It's only half a mile." Jonathan shook his head wearily and handed Jake the reins. He climbed into the back of the wagon and sat down without a word.
We travelled cautiously, listening for the sound of horses or anything that might have suggested the presence of raiders. Jonathan had his eyes closed and looked rather ill. I didn't know what to say.
At last Jake brought the wagon to a halt and stepped out. "We're at the turning."
Jonathan and I joined him on the ground.
"Which way did they go?" I asked.
It was just our luck that the road surface here was still in reasonable condition after having travelled over some very rough stretches. It made tracking much more difficult.
"The nearest town is that way," Jonathan told us, gesturing to the left. "But there's a river this way that would have been good to spend the night nearby."
"They'll have gone to the town," Jake decided. "It's what they do."
"They don't need to pillage every town," Jonathan chided him, but he climbed back into the wagon and let Jake take the reins without complaint.
I joined Jonathan in the wagon. He had his eyes closed.
"Are you alright?"
He opened an eye to look at me and then shut it again. "I hate raiders."
We stopped by the river for a break. Amy had been concerned that because we weren't heading towards the town, we wouldn't be able to sell some of the junk. Jonathan hadn't looked too worried.
"We'll find somewhere else. We always do."
The day had warmed up considerably and Sue had gone down to the river to go paddling. It wasn't too deep or fast-moving so we watched her from the bank.
"It's peaceful here," I decided.
"Tell us about Seth," Jake said. "What were you two like as children?"
I laughed at that.
"We fought a lot when we were young. He was much older than me and I was small and kept getting in his way. But we became much closer after our parents died. We ran a farm by ourselves for a few years and grew everything we needed. It wasn't easy but it brought us together."
"You ran a farm by yourselves? How old were you?"
"Thirteen. It's not as bad as it sounds. We didn't have enough fuel to run any heavy machinery so we weren't in any danger." Except Jake would have had little access to any kind of farming machinery, let alone fuel, during his life. He wouldn't have been able to appreciate how convenient machines could be, and yet how dangerous they were.
He whistled. "That's young." I knew he was thinking of Sue.
"It's not something my parents would have had to have done," I agreed. "But it was necessary, and we learned a lot of useful skills."
Sue returned. I hadn't noticed.
"Look what I found!" She was holding something in her hands.
"What is it?" Amy turned to her.
Sue showed us.
"It's a bee and it's ill."
It wasn't a bee.
"Let's put it on the ground, Sue." Jake told her calmly. Sue did as he told her and looked at him expectantly.
"Can you make it better?"
"That's not a bee, Sue. That's a hornet. They're not very nice."
"But it's yellow and black and it went buzz."
"So do wasps. Hornets are big wasps and they're not very nice."
While Jake talked to Sue I pulled Jonathan to the side. "Do you get many of those around here?"
"A few. They're common in the south."
"Those aren't native. I didn't realise it had become so bad."
"I'll explain later." Sue was looking at us.
It was after we had set off that I did my best to explain about the hornets to Sue. They originated from much warmer climates and it used to be too cold for them to survive in this country. As temperatures started to rise, they slowly migrated northwards, feeding on the local wildlife and decimating bee populations.
"Bees are good, aren't they?" Sue interjected.
"Very," I told her. "They pollinate the flowers so that we can eat fruit and vegetables." I was surprised that we hadn't seen any hornets in the community. Maybe we hadn't been looking carefully enough.
I hadn't truly appreciated how much warmer the world had become.
We ended up travelling for most of the day again. We passed through a deserted town. This one hadn't been preserved in the same way that the first town I had passed through had been. Raiders had been this way a long time ago. Or maybe looters.
Windows had been smashed, houses had been burnt down, doors had been pulled off their hinges. It was terrible to see. Nature had probably been taking over for decades at this point but the violence in this town's past was still evident. We were quiet.
"We've been this way before," Jonathan broke the silence. "It never fails to have this effect on me."
We walked onwards. It was quiet here. Too quiet, almost. These had once been homes that had housed families but now just held remnants of long-forgotten times.
There was a scuffling sound behind us. I stopped and turned sharply. The others did the same. It took me a few seconds to locate the source of the movement.
A dog stood in the doorway of one of the houses, its eyes glinting in the light. A long time ago I would have thought it was cute, but we were here on its territory and were a potential source of food for it. And where there was one dog, there were probably many more nearby.
Sure enough, several of its companions emerged from the doorway behind it as it stalked towards us. I held my breath.
They didn't have glossy coats like the ones we had had in the community, but nor did they look starving or rabid. I hoped that they were merely curious and would pass up the opportunity for a snack.
Jake leaned towards Sue.
"I want you to be very quiet, Sue. It's very important that we don't scare these dogs."
She reached towards him and hugged his leg, burying her face against his side. Jake put a hand on her shoulder.
Amy nudged me. "Don't stare at them," she hissed. "It's a sign of aggression."
I hadn't realised I was staring. I quickly dropped my gaze.
Jake picked Sue up in his arms, keeping himself between her and the dogs and making sure his body blocked them from her sight.
We didn't move.
The dogs approached us. They sniffed us curiously. Then they dropped back, seeming to lose interest.
The horse chose that moment to whinny. It had caught sight of the animals and looked decidedly nervous. The dogs' attention instantly shifted towards it, and they growled, baring their teeth. The horse stamped its hooves nervously on the ground.
"Get Sue in the wagon," Jonathan told Jake sharply. "Tam too."
Jake had already started moving. I shook my head. We would be more intimidating as a group.
"What's the plan?" I asked. "We can't outrun them."
One of the dogs barked.
"We're not going to do that. We're going to stand our ground and hope that the dogs get bored and then back away when we have a chance."
I spotted another dog standing underneath an old car. It started slinking towards us.
"And if they don't?"
We watched as more dogs started to appear from doorways and behind hedges. They were a rather scrawny pack but generally looked healthy.
"We'll fight if we have to." Jake returned carrying several long metal poles. He handed one to Jonathan and passed a second one to Amy. He held one out to me. I took it.
"We can't lose the horse," Jonathan decided. We moved between the pack and the wagon, ready to defend the horse and Sue. "Amy, take the reins. We're going to walk off very slowly when we can. We can't scare them."
Amy climbed up to the front of the wagon, placing the pole at her feet.
"Will Sue be alright? Won't she be scared?" I asked.
Jake was watching the pack. It was still growing.
"She's tough. She'll be quiet."
Amy had calmed the horse with some soothing words and patted it on the neck. She encouraged it forwards slowly. We followed facing the pack with our backs to the wagon.
The dogs didn't seem to like it. One seemed to be the leader, the alpha; he stepped forward, teeth bared.
Jake didn't hesitate. He swung the pole towards the dog, narrowly missing it. The alpha stepped back, still growling.
"A little faster, Amy," he called. We continued backing away from the pack.
We hadn't gone far before a large proportion of the pack lost interest. They disappeared back into the houses as quickly and as silently as they had come.
The rest of the pack continued to follow us.
But the further we travelled, the less they seemed inclined to attack. We moved through the town at walking pace until we reached the town boundary. The pack didn't seem to want to follow us beyond.
It was with a sigh that I climbed back into the wagon, Jake and Jonathan behind me. I caught sight of Sue sitting under a blanket. She looked unperturbed by the excitement. Jake ruffled her hair, which made her laugh. All was well again.
Our detour had taken far longer than we had planned, but it meant that the raiders were likely to be much further ahead so we couldn't complain.
In a moment of quiet, I asked Jonathan about something I had been meaning to ask about for a while: maps. I was disappointed when Jonathan shook his head.
"You'll get the older ones from the old world. You'll find lots in good condition and they can reprint them if you know where to go. New ones though? I haven't seen any. I guess people had better things to worry about than remapping the place."
My sunphone's maps were decades out of date and, although I hadn't been optimistic, I had hoped to get hold of something more recent for when I would be travelling alone again.
"I might be wrong, though," Jonathan continued. "We can ask at the next place."
The next place turned out to be a cheerful-looking village with flowers adorning every door and window. Amy was thrilled.
"It's their springtime festival! This is wonderful timing."
We made our way through the streets an inn to spend the evening, passing by some truly spectacular flower displays.
"What are they celebrating?"
"Just spring. It's all about new life and a new start now that winter is over."
"Lots of the towns do this," Jake added.
We walked through the streets, admiring the flowers planted outside the houses. The place had a rundown air but felt lived in. The houses were shabby but the people were cheerful and had clearly gone to great lengths to keep their village alive.
We arrived at the inn and Jonathan lost no time in stabling the horse. The innkeeper provided a surprisingly filling meal, although I didn't feel like asking what was in it. Jonathan also asked the innkeeper about maps for me, but with no better luck.
"Most of us don't travel much," he apologised, "And those that do already know the way." He had nodded towards Jonathan at this. Jake had given one of his lopsided grins.
Electric light was a luxury that I couldn't afford to waste. I spent several hours bringing my journal up to date, making sure I noted the discovery of the hornet and Jonathan's statement about them being common in the south. I also spent some time writing about the dogs.
Upon reflection, I shouldn't have been surprised by the behaviour of the dogs. I had always been fond of them as a child and saw them as cute and fluffy pets, and then there had been trustworthy working dogs at the community. I hadn't ever seen them as a threat before, and I should have. I would be aware next time, and hopefully better prepared.
Mary wasn't happy, we could tell, but she kept driving. The roads had been deserted for much of the journey and it had been a long time since we had passed another vehicle, not counting any of the old petrol cars that still sat in driveways or lay abandoned along the side of the road. They wouldn't work anyway, with the fuel scarcities over the last few years, and petrol didn't last for long in less-than-perfect storage conditions.
We had passed by cities and forests, moorlands and motorways. The road conditions had quickly deteriorated away from anywhere that was populated and the one we were on was dotted with potholes and covered in cracks. Mary shook her head every time the undercarriage scraped against the road. Everything quickly deteriorated without regular maintenance; this would have been a busy bypass a decade ago.
Nothing much was said. Sometimes Mary would point out features in the surrounding environment, but there was no substantial conversation. I had lost track of where we were, and I had thought I had a reasonable sense of direction. We were still heading up north, however. The sun had long passed the highest point in the sky and was shining on the left side of the car.
"This car needs solar panels," Mary muttered.
"What's wrong?" Seth perked up.
"We're getting low on charge."
"What's the range?"
She glanced at the dashboard. "Twenty miles or so." She let the car slow down.
"We can walk that."
"I don't want to leave the car alone overnight. It's a decent one and the only one we have."
"Are there any recharging points nearby?"
She shook her head. "The nearest one I'm willing to use is back home." She said something in a language that I didn't recognise. A curse, I guessed. "I'll just have to drive slower."
I didn't see a problem with that.
"Tam, there are definitely problems with travelling at night. I avoid it if I can."
"Raiders, scavengers, simple thieves, I could go on, and that's not to mention the risks with the road condition combined with nighttime visibility." The car had slowed considerably by this time. "There, we have another five miles. That should be enough."
I peered over her shoulder.
"How accurate is that?"
"It's good enough."
"We could stay the night in the car?" It wouldn't be the first time Seth or I had slept in less-than-favourable conditions.
"No, Tam. We'll get there tonight." Her tone was patient. I didn't say anything further.
She changed the subject. "When we get there, I want you to stay in the car. Both of you. Don't get out until I say you can." Her tone had become much sharper. "And don't touch anything either. This is going to be hard enough as it is."
Seth nodded. "Alright." He glanced at me and I nodded too.
The sky turned red as evening faded into night and soon I couldn't tell where we were going anymore. Mary kept the car headlights on their lowest setting to save charge, although I suspected that it was to make the car less visible too. The road seemed far less even wherever we were now, and I was feeling a little nauseous with all the bumping up and down. It had been a long time since I had been in a car; my body had clearly forgotten what it was like.
It was getting dark but it was still just about possible to see outside. We were heading uphill, along a narrow lane with what seemed to be fields either side. The road started to flatten out as we reached the top of the hill before we started heading downhill again. Another valley. It was another twenty minutes or so before we stopped in front of a five-bar gate.
"Remember, stay in the car. And be quiet," Mary warned us. She climbed out and unlatched the gate. It swung silently open.
She climbed back into the car, drove it forwards a few metres, then climbed out to shut the gate again. We said nothing as the car took us along a narrow track past more fields. And then we stopped.
We could just about make out an old farmhouse in front of us before Mary turned off the car lights and plunged the area into darkness. I heard her take a deep breath before opening the door and she climbed out, slamming the door behind her. There was some noise from the front of the car, and I guessed that she was plugging the charger in. Then her footsteps retreated leaving us in silence.
It was dark outside and we couldn't see anything. We waited, unsure of what was going to happen next and I glanced towards where Seth was sitting. It helped to know that he was there.
"This wasn't quite what we imagined, was it?" he murmured.
We sat in silence for a while, and then I asked something that had been on my mind. "Why didn't you leave me?"
"Back in the city. You could have left me. You had better chances of getting out. Why didn't you?"
There was movement from the front of the car.
"How could you even consider that? I'm not leaving you anywhere." He sounded surprised.
"But I just get in the way." And it was my fault in the first place. We'd lost our bags and I hadn't been able to even try picking the lock. I shouldn't have touched anything in that room.
"We're a team, Tam. We wouldn't have survived this long without each other. We're family. And I couldn't have done half the things you do when I was your age. I'm not leaving you."
I thought about that. It had always felt like I needed him a lot more than he needed me.
"Well, thanks. For not leaving me. For everything."
"Tam." He sounded exasperated.
Our conversation broke off as we heard noises from outside. There was shouting. We strained to make out the words.
I could hear Mary's voice. And it sounded like there were a couple of others with her; one male and one female. The car door was thrown open.
"Out!" the male voice snarled. A hand grabbed hold of my shirt and was pulling me out the door. I followed without protest. The hand let go of my shirt and I stood still.
It was dark and I was struggling to see. I heard Seth get out of the car much faster than I had done and I felt him stand next to me a few seconds later. He put his hand on my shoulder; a comforting gesture.
"See, they're harmless," Mary's voice came from somewhere behind me. "They're young and strong. They'll be useful here."
"I'm not finished with you either," the male voice continued. "We have rules for a reason."
"And they would have ended up as farm slaves if I hadn't been there. You know what it's like down there."
There was a sharp intake of breath from another direction.
"They might not have been."
"They most certainly would have been. Tam had been drugged long before I arrived. Think, Arthur. Would anyone go to that much effort to find out where we are? We've been visited by traders enough times. And these two are only kids."
"Hmph," the man, Arthur, growled.
"Are they alright?" asked the female voice.
"We're fine," Seth said quickly. "Thanks to Mary."
"We really ought to keep them in isolation," Arthur said. He was ignored.
The woman approached us. I could barely make her out in the darkness.
"Seth and Tam, right? I won't pretend that life's going to be easy here but it's probably better than the alternative. We're farmers and we need to work hard to survive. Do you think you can do that?"
"We've been working on our farm for years," Seth told her. "We're used to hard work."
"Good. Then there's only the question of where you're going to stay. We don't have any spare beds."
"There's that hut at the bottom," Mary told her. "It will do until we can build something better."
The woman considered. "Why not? It's not being used for anything else. Will you show them the way?"
"Of course. Let me get my bag." We heard the sound of the car boot opening. "Come on, you two."
We followed her through the darkness. I felt the ground turn from gravel to grass underfoot and we passed a big tree silhouetted against the sky. We followed a track into a field. Then we stopped next to a shed.
"Is this the hut?" I asked incredulously.
"It's not much but it's shelter." Mary told us apologetically. "We'll be able to build you something of your own later on."
"It's fine," Seth told her quickly. She gave a nervous laugh and handed me the bag.
"There are some blankets in there. We'll be getting up at first light for breakfast at the house, so make sure you're there in plenty of time if you want to eat."
"Thanks," Seth told her. I nodded too, although she wouldn't have seen.
"Get some rest. You've had a long day."
It didn't take long before we were wrapped in blankets and lying on the floor of the shed. It was probably filthy, but at that point neither of us cared.
"It's been a strange day," I remarked to Seth. A loud snore answered me.
And so we started to settle into our new lives. As Laura had promised, life wasn't easy. We all woke up at dawn, worked for most of the day with breaks to eat and drink, and then went to bed when it got dark. We had a break on Sundays too, not that we ever did anything special.
After that first meeting, we found that we got on pretty well with Arthur. He worked us hard but treated us well. It was springtime so we spent most of the day outside planting crops for the year. A lot of it was done by hand, but there was an old tractor which ran off biofuels which did most of the ploughing for us. It was much easier than doing it all by hand.
We met the other residents of the community a few at a time. Geoff was in charge of hunting deer, Finn was good with animals and Angela was a herbalist and the closest the community had to a doctor. Joe was Arthur's and Laura's son and he was a couple of years older than Seth. Laura introduced us at breakfast on the first morning and I watched Joe's eyes light up as we introduced ourselves. He seemed especially enthusiastic about Seth.
People didn't seem to know what to make of us and kept their distance. It was Mary who showed us where to wash. There was a river nearby and we were told to drink from water upstream and wash downstream so that no-one became ill. There were several toilets around the community where our waste would be turned into fertiliser.
Joe was the one who showed us around in our first week. He was friendly and seemed pleased to have some other younger members of the community to interact with; most of the other people we had met were well over forty. He showed us how to tend to the cows and chickens and seemed surprised that we were familiar with looking after sheep. The community was in the process of building a hydropowered system for bringing water to the farmhouse and Joe showed us how far the work had come.
"I'm also building a wind turbine," he told us, pointing to the top of one of the nearby hills. I squinted. There looked like some sort of construction work going on at the top. "It's hard to get the parts though, so it could be a while before it's done."
"What will that power?" Seth asked.
"Whatever we need it to. Solar isn't enough to keep the house light all the time in the winter, and the batteries aren't as good as they used to be. Wind will help with that. And we'll make good use of it."
We spent most of the time in the fields. I had no idea how big this place was but it was many times larger than where we had come from.
Mo was the woodwork expert in the community. He taught us how to whittle one evening at the end of our first week and I was impressed by how fast Seth got the hang of it. He handed me a roughly hewn cow with a wink while I was still doing my best to not cut myself.
Other evenings were spent listening to stories. Patrick was a wonderful storyteller and kept us entertained for hours with tales of knights and dragons. Sometimes he would ask others to join in and there would be a great cheer as scenes were acted out, often making use of the antlers from one of Geoff's catches.
I was easily the youngest in the community. Maybe I wasn't quite as strong as Seth, but I could certainly pull my weight, so I was confused by the fact that I was largely left alone while Seth was constantly being asked to help out with whatever needed doing that day. As long as I finished whatever tasks I had been set it didn't matter what I did with the rest of my time.
When I was free, I spent a lot of my time watching Seth and Joe interact. It had been a while since either of us had been around anyone our own ages and, while I was feeling increasingly isolated, I couldn't blame him for spending most of his time with a new friend. It felt like I'd been forgotten about as I watched them walking around together, laughing at something that I wasn't part of. Like it had been when Seth was off playing football with his friends.
Seth hadn't forgotten about me, of course. We still slept in the same place, and he always made sure that I was alright, that I hadn't been hurt by any of the work I was doing. He told jokes and told me about what he had done that day, and he always wanted to hear about what I had been up to. I took comfort in the fact that, whatever happened, he would be around. We were each other's only family, after all.
For the first time in a long time we were eating well again and people were generally pleasant towards us. The place was far more extensive than the home we had left, and more people meant that tasks could be shared around. Not to mention the fact that people had better tools here than we had had, and knew what they were doing. I could see us staying with the community for many years to come.
Whenever it wasn't raining, the community would eat in the courtyard area outside the kitchen, and it was at these times that tasks were assigned. Arthur would make an announcement and would explain what needed to be done over the next few days or weeks, and would request a particular person to work on each job. There might be some haggling depending on people's availabilities or skill sets, but everyone would leave knowing what they would be doing that day.
I was generally given the easy tasks like weeding that no-one else wanted to do. The work wasn't particularly taxing but it was dull and left me on my own for most of the day. I envied Seth's easy friendship with Joe; I only had Seth to talk to and I rarely saw him except in the evenings. I didn't try to associate with the grown-ups; I didn't think they would want the company of someone my age.
I mostly kept to myself. There wasn't a reason to talk to anyone unless they spoke to me first. And it was probably better this way - I didn't want to jeopardise Seth's and my chances at staying here long term.
It came to me one afternoon as I was working in one of the more distant fields: I was lonely. I didn't have anyone but Seth to properly talk to and Seth was happy here; he had his family and he had friends. Then there was me with just him, and he didn't need me in the same way that I needed him. He was doing perfectly well on his own, and I was the one who was struggling here.
I always managed a grin for Seth at the end of the day. He didn't need to see how I felt. He was happy. I was lonely and I jumped at the chance to take on extra duties. I carefully chose the ones that meant that other people wouldn't find out how miserable I was becoming. There was no point in inflicting my company on others, after all.
But it wasn't all bad, and I lived for the days where something out of the ordinary would happen. I watched several calves be born that spring, and there was a certain wonder in watching the mother cow walk around in obvious discomfort for what had on one occasion been several hours, before producing a surprisingly large calf from her rear end. The front hooves would emerge first, and then the head, and then the calf would be squeezed slowly out before falling to the floor and landing with a thud on the turf. It amazed me at how weak and helpless the calves were in that instant, lying trembling on the ground. And then how tenderly the mother cow would lick the calf until it could stand on its very shaky legs.
It wasn't anything that I hadn't seen the sheep back home do before, but the cows were so much bigger than the sheep and often needed help. Finn had a piece of cord that he would loop around the hooves as they started to emerge and would pull gently to help the cow when the calf inevitably got stuck. He had great patience and I admired his easygoing demeanour in what couldn't have been the easiest of tasks.
I was watching one of the births with Sarah. I had always thought of her as one of the most unemotional people I had known, but watching her gaze at the newborn calf made me reconsider. She looked proud, both of Finn and the cow, and there was a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"Come here, Tam," she called as I approached. "Stand on the fence, you'll get a better view."
We watched the calf take its first shaky steps and make its way to the udder where it started sucking greedily. The mother stood still while the calf drank its fill.
"Does this ever grow old?" I asked her.
"For me? Never."
We watched in silence as the mother started licking the calf and eventually Finn made his way towards us.
"What do you think? That's a big one." Sarah said.
Finn kept his gaze on the cows. "He'll be a fine bull, I reckon." He gave his deep, booming laugh. "What did you think, Tam? You can't have seen many births like these."
"We had sheep back home," I told him, "But it's amazing how quickly they can walk."
"That it is." He nodded.
Sarah reached over the fence and ruffled his hair. He turned and smiled gently at her. New life seemed to bring out the best in everyone.
At the innkeeper's insistence, we stayed around to enjoy the festival. The village had been decked out with flags and banners and flowers had been planted outside all the houses. There was a cheerful atmosphere and people were laughing and dancing to the sound of a guitar. The smell of cooked meat reached us and I felt suddenly hungry. In many ways it reminded me of the winter celebrations back in the community but with more flowers. For the first time I felt homesick and I wondered again how everyone was doing.
Jonathan disappeared to talk to the innkeeper while we ate. They returned together.
"I've been told that the raiders are further down south. We should be fine to keep going today."
The innkeeper looked rather disappointed at that.
"Won't you stay for the festival? It's only once a year."
Jonathan shook his head. "We're traders."
The innkeeper sighed. "You may not have as much luck today as you might expect with the festival on."
"Then we'll go on to the next town."
"Very well. I wish you a safe journey."
Sue looked rather disappointed at not being able to visit the festival but she didn't say anything.
As the innkeeper walked off, I asked Jonathan about how the landlord had known that the raiders were down south.
"The net, of course. It's invaluable for passing information like this around. There's a town about a day's travel away which was attacked last night. We should be perfectly safe today."
I once would have felt guilty for feeling relieved at this news. It wouldn't have felt right to celebrate my safety knowing that it had cost someone else theirs. But it was a different story these days; the past had taught us that we had to do whatever we could to survive.
Jake looked smug. "I said that the raiders wouldn't get us."
I was struck by a thought. "Can we get on the net? Are there maps that could be downloaded?"
Jake shook his head. "It's the same problem. The maps will be out of date."
"But there might be satellite imagery taken more recently."
The whole table looked at me.
"It's true," Jonathan said thoughtfully. "I don't know what's left of the satellites these days but it might be worth a try."
"It will depend on which terminals are up," Jake added. Jonathan nodded.
"What do you mean?"
"It's not the same internet that you would have grown up with, Tam. You don't have access to the world's information anymore. Just whatever information is available on whichever systems are connected."
My heart sank.
"But we could ask the innkeeper. There's a terminal here."
"It wouldn't hurt to try," Amy added.
The innkeeper showed us the terminal in the back room. It looked like a mid-range PC from the first half of the century. Tall and black, it whirred noisily in the corner. It had a monitor sitting on top of it, an old OLED screen with a few broken pixels, and was connected to a filthy-looking mouse and keyboard.
The innkeeper noticed me looking.
"It's works," he said with a shrug. "Got it cheaply a few years back."
"Refurbished?" Jonathan asked.
"Refurbished. What else?"
I watched as the system started to connect. It was horribly slow. Sue started to fidget so Amy picked her up.
At last the screen changed from a rotating globe to display a list of the terminals available. Ten.
"Is ten a good number?" I asked.
"Fewer than it has been," the innkeeper said. He scanned the list.
"It's probably the raiders," Jonathan told me. "They sometimes cut the power."
The innkeeper turned towards me. "You're not from around here?"
"No, I'm from further up north. Much further up north."
"And you don't have raiders?"
"Oh, we do. They've caused considerable damage to the community over the years." The innkeeper looked puzzled but turned back to the screen, clearly not wishing to pry. I guessed the source of his confusion. "We're rather isolated. We don't have much in the way of electricity. That was one thing that we didn't lose after the raiders attacked us."
The innkeeper looked at the information available on the network. There wasn't much available that was of use to me. Books, a few photos, a lot of scientific literature, a few maps that looked far older than mine.
"No films," Jonathan said. "They take up far too much space."
The internet had gone down mid-century, they told me. People had saved whatever they could onto their devices before it disappeared completely, but there wasn't much space on the average machine so a lot of information became lost or unreachable.
The net was a localised attempt to restart the internet. Information was no longer available by connecting to a machine on the other side of the world but by sharing information across a small network of different computers. It was a much slower system and the information, where it existed, depended on the computers available and the person at the other end. Information which humanity had had at their fingertips for decades vanished in a matter of weeks and people had to learn how to live without it.
To complicate matters further, production had slowed enormously by this point due to a lack of workers so when machines broke they could no longer be replaced. Repair using parts from old machines became necessary, but information was lost for good if data was not recoverable.
Almost overnight, humanity realised how dependent it had become on information that was no longer attainable.
"There's a message board too," Jonathan explained. "We can stay in contact with nearby towns and keep them up to date if anything happens."
"Births, deaths, weather," the innkeeper broke in. "It's useful to know these things."
"News of raiders too," Jonathan added darkly.
While we were connected to the net, I was struck by an idea and asked if there were any photos of the planet from space. After some searching, the innkeeper had managed to find one on a server a few towns away. We waited while it loaded.
"That's where we live, Sue." I turned to see her peering curiously at the screen from Amy's arms, eyes wide. "That's what our world looks like from above."
"Where are we?"
I pointed as best as I could. "Somewhere around here."
We parted ways with the landlord. I thanked him profusely for looking. He shrugged.
"That's what the net is for. Sharing information."
"Thank you for keeping it going."
Despite the festival, we managed to sell several appliances. Jonathan was in a very good mood and we left the town late afternoon. Sue had been thoughtful all day.
"Is that really what the world looks like?" she asked me at one point. "How did they take the picture?"
I explained to her about satellites, how they were used for communications, broadcasting, observations and for positioning. After I had finished, Amy added that my knowledge was decades out of date. I listened curiously.
None of Amy's information was surprising. There were still satellites up in space but far fewer of them as it became more difficult and expensive to maintain them and many weren't replaced when they became obsolete. She didn't know how many were left up in orbit and wasn't sure how many of those left were still usable.
"We also have radio for long-distance communications," she told me, "But radio tends to use a lot of power." And the electricity supply wasn't always reliable.
We decided to stop in a forest for the night. I was concerned about the possibility of encroaching on the territory of the wild dogs that we had passed the day before but Jonathan didn't think it would be dangerous.
"It's night and they have plenty of shelter in that town," he said. "Don't worry."
The forest looked surprisingly bare as we approached. It took me a while to work out what was wrong.
"Why have so many trees been cut down?" There were big clearings where I would have expected dense foliage on either side of the wagon.
Jake looked out and grunted.
"Fuel, most likely."
"They get replanted, don't they?" I asked. There was no response. "Don't they?"
This wasn't good.
"Trees are really important."
"It's a big forest, Tam. There's plenty of wood in there."
I took a moment to consider my argument.
"I know that people need the wood for fuel, but trees are far more important than being just fuel. They absorb a lot of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and it's the carbon dioxide that has caused our planet to heat up." That was why we had so many invasive species here. They were able to travel to and live in places that they wouldn't have been able to a few decades ago. It had resulted in the populations of native species becoming decimated. And our crops had suffered ever since.
"It gets cold in winter," Sue told me.
I shook my head. "It was a lot colder when I was your age. The summers were warm and the winters were cold. But everything has become far more extreme. Our summers are hot now – lots of people die of heatstroke every summer. And the winters are either bitterly cold or far too warm to feel like winter."
"See, it still gets cold."
"Here, maybe. But not everywhere. The average temperature is increasing. If you think summers are hot now, think about how much worse it will be when you're my age."
"What would you do, Tam?" Jonathan had been listening. "People need fuel."
"Live sustainably. Everything that gets used needs to be replaced."
"It's not the same world you grew up in. There's no unlimited supply of fossil fuels here. We don't have the same infrastructure or education that you did. We do what we can to survive." He didn't sound angry. Just exasperated.
I was frightened now. Frightened of offending the people I was travelling with. Frightened of what the future held for humanity.
"That wasn't the world I grew up in." I told him quietly. "My grandparents, yes. Maybe my parents too. But the damage was done long before I was born. I lived with the consequences of their actions, through the Great Riots and the famines and plagues. I don't want the next generation to go through the same experience. I want there to still be a world when Sue is as old as me."
We didn't speak much more after that. I set up my tent on my own that night, hating my companions' ignorance, hating the world, hating myself.
It started to get bad. I never quite had a panic attack but it often felt like I was on the verge of having one. It hurt to breathe. It hurt all the time. And it especially hurt when I saw Seth walking around with Joe. I felt alone, abandoned. I often felt like crying, a big, tight mass in my chest that refused to move.
I did what I could to keep myself as distracted and did what I could so that I was never alone. People were important. They talked about irrelevant things, they talked about their own worries. They offered distractions. Then sometimes they talked about something I didn't want them to talk about. And that hurt. I would smile weakly, and nod, and hope they didn't notice anything strange about me.
And they didn't. They saw what they wanted to see, what they expected to see. Nothing more and nothing less.
I found that sleep helped. Sleep helped a lot. It was a chance to escape from reality and spend a precious few hours in another world, but it was so difficult getting there. I would think. I would drift. My mind would play tricks on me. More often than not, it strayed to exactly where it shouldn't. It hurt. And it kept hurting. Then the tears would come.
The pain was always there. When it did go, it always returned worse than before; there was no escape from it. It just hurt. I focused on small things to get through the day. A few hours to go until lunch. A few more hours until dinner. And then sleep. I could sleep until the morning, the only true escape I had.
And I looked forward to the day when it would finally stop hurting. Forever. Because I had to have faith that it would happen and until then, I just had to take it one day at a time.
That was how Mary found me. I was alone in one of the barns, leaning against the wall. My eyes were closed and I was taking deep breaths, trying to ignore the panicky feeling within me. It would pass. It always did.
"Tam?" My eyes snapped open and I tried to locate her in the semi-darkness. I heard her footsteps approaching me and spun around to face her. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." I was now that she was here and I wasn't on my own with just my mind for company. She pursed her mouth and looked over me critically.
"You're not fine, Tam. You haven't been for a while. You're good at hiding it. In fact you're very good at hiding it, but you're not fine. What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I'm just having a rest." The lie came so easily by this time.
She smiled then, a kind smile lighting up her weathered features. "In that case, why don't you join me. I could do with a rest too." She sat down on a nearby wooden crate and gestured that I did the same. I couldn't refuse.
"I've been here for the best part of a decade, Tam. Like you, I came from the city. It was a bit of a culture shock coming out here to the middle of nowhere but I was determined to make it work. There wasn't much left for me where I had come from as my family had either grown up and moved away or died, and I wanted to make a new start.
"I came knowing very little about living like this; growing food, looking after animals, living further than five minutes away from the nearest shop. I won't say it's been easy, but this is where I am now, and this is my home." The kind smile had reappeared.
"But you're free to write your own story, Tam. This world is very different from the one I grew up in and society, as I knew it, has gone." She shook her head at that. "It's a strange, dangerous world out there, but you still get to choose your own path."
I couldn't say anything. I was frozen. I stared at the wall, unable to move or speak. The corners of her mouth twitched.
"You're allowed to shape the way things work around here, you know. Just because you're the youngest, it doesn't mean that you can't voice your own opinions. If there's something you don't like, we can see if we can find a way of fixing it. You're not a servant here. We're all cogs in a machine and we're all important in keeping this community running."
"I'm so lonely." The words had slipped out before I could stop them and my hands flew to my mouth. "I miss my family so much and Seth's got friends and I haven't and I'm on my own." The tears were rolling freely by this point and I wiped them away furiously. Mary didn't say anything and I chanced a glance sideways at her.
"I can see how that might be a problem," she said at last. "Seth's got Joe and you but you've only got Seth, and you don't get to see much of him with us keeping you so busy."
"Busy is good. I like being busy." I tried to make light of the situation. I was already feeling horribly embarrassed.
"What would help? Would you like to work on something with Seth?" She gave me another searching look.
I couldn't answer. I had liked it when it was just Seth and me, but we had already proven that we couldn't live alone and had made the decision together to try our luck with others.
"Or maybe we need to get you working with other people," she added thoughtfully. "You can get to know some of the others around here better." I was frozen. She was watching me with her kind eyes. "Would that be alright, Tam?"
I wasn't sure, but at the very least it would keep me around other people and would keep me distracted. I nodded slowly.
"Leave it with me, and I'll see what I can do."
I managed to find my voice at last. "You're not going to tell the others, are you?" Especially not Seth.
"Not if you don't want me to. I'll think of something, don't worry." She smiled at me and I managed half a smile back. "You're not too old for hugs now, are you? I think you need one."
I didn't try to stop her as she put an arm around me, and I leaned towards her. She was warm and felt solid. I hugged her back tightly.
"Tell me next time you feel bad, won't you? It might be fixable." I could only nod.
"I think I've got something you might like," Mary told me as we walked back towards the house. It was a little early for dinner but neither of us were going to get much done in the remaining daylight hours so we could help prepare the food instead.
"What's that?" I looked at her. She wore an unusually mischievous grin and her eyes were twinkling with amusement.
"You'll see. Take your shoes off and follow me." We had just entered the hallway. I did as she said.
I followed her along the hallway and we came to a flight of stairs. I hadn't ever been upstairs before and I wasn't sure if I was allowed to, but Mary started climbing and I followed her.
It looked plain upstairs. I was already used to the browns of the wooden shed and the stark whiteness of the walls felt out of place. At the top of the stairs was a landing, gently illuminated by the afternoon sunlight, and two of the oak doors spaced along it were probably bedrooms for Arthur, Laura and Joe, and perhaps another one was for a bathroom. I wondered what was behind the others.
Mary gestured to the first door, and pushed it open. I followed her inside.
Books! There were books! Bookshelves and bookshelves of books! It was like Grandpa's library but without the fireplace and very possibly held even more books than he had had. My mouth fell open and I turned to the nearest shelf, absorbing the titles on the spines. History. Geography. A whole shelf devoted to science and engineering. I ran my hand over some of the spines. I recognised some of the covers.
My hand came to rest on a heavy tome. "I know this one!" I exclaimed. "It's the one I used to build a wind turbine back home."
Mary looked amused. "You built a wind turbine back home?"
"Yeah. It took a while to get it running and it wasn't the best thing around but it gave us electricity." I kept going with the books. Some nature ones, some of the classics. I spotted a children's book on Greek myths and I wondered if the story of Pandora's box was in there. Mary didn't try to stop me as I pulled it out and flicked through it.
"Do you like Greek myths?" She was looking over my shoulder.
"We had a big book back home. I liked the stories. And Pandora's box seemed to be a good metaphor for everything going on these days."
Mary looked thoughtful. "I'd go for the one about King Midas, not Pandora's box."
"He was the one who wished for everything everything he touched to be turned into gold. It got to the point where he couldn't eat as his food also turned into gold when he touched it."
"And what was once a gift became a curse, and ended up killing him?" Greed was a powerful motivator. There had been a lot of money to be made out of fossil fuels, and no-one cared about the health and livelihoods of people living fifty, a hundred years in the future when there was money to be made now.
"Most versions end with a god taking pity on him and helping him to remove the curse."
"Humanity doesn't have that option."
"No, it doesn't."
She showed me her favourites. The Wind in the Willows was a classic that I remembered my mother reading to me when I was younger, and there was a battered copy of The Martian on one of the lower shelves.
"We never did escape Earth," she remarked, "But it's fun to imagine what might have been."
We headed downstairs after that. I was struck by the fact that didn't feel like panicking anymore. I felt happier. Maybe everything would be alright after all.