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.