Once upon a time – and not so long ago, either – when I was properly, certifiably mad, I almost traipsed, in my lunacy, right past this unlikely sanctuary.
How could I describe this refuge? If you can imagine a powerful subterranean deity angrily punching the earth from below and forcing one hundred acres of passable farmland three metres straight up, then you have an idea of it. How more people haven’t stumbled upon this place baffles me. Perhaps there’s no one left alive to find it.
I guess it formed when time and erosion washed away the surrounding soil to leave a stubby limestone column standing a step above the surrounding countryside. It undulates a little, and its sides are low but suitably sheer. This is where the Bowen family kept their little farm for over one hundred and fifty years.
The entire farm is secure, thanks to Joseph, and I’m safe up here to die in my own sweet time from starvation and malnutrition. This doesn’t worry me though because I’m looking forward to death. I’m sometimes impatient for it – despite my security, and despite being able to range freely without fear of attack. Not that I do much ranging- I hardly have the energy to stand.
If I ever felt self pity, which I don’t, I could easily picture myself as the heartbroken princess of Bowen farm, expiring forlorn and alone on a petal strewn bed while gazing with big tragic eyes out of a high window, a hand held limply to my wan brow, my long braided hair snaking rope-like on the embroidered pillows…hmm, well, not really. It’s not quite me.
Whimsy aside, I intend to die as dignified a death in this comfortable bed as my failing body will allow. I can even guess my lifespan; a week, two weeks maybe, and when death comes it’ll be a welcome relief. It’ll be the end of my depression, my madness and my crushing despair. The loss of my children……Oh, I’m sick of sighing, but the loss of my children and my husband will be my real killer – not any worldwide calamity. When I think of my three poor babies…
In the bleak empty mornings – when my kids should be jumping into my bed for warm hugs and kisses – I feel only a pure uncomplicated loss. On waking my head fills with a drab liquid putty which kills my early memories of them. I can only recall the livid blood smeared across my littlest ones chin and her dull dead eyes that once shone green.
My wish to die isn’t based on the hope of meeting them again. In my saner moments I’m of a more practical bent. There is no shiny afterlife with love and light and joy, so there’ll be no heavenly reunions for me. There’ll just be a long dark vertiginous nothing. I intend to stand rock steady at the end of my life and click, my synapses will misfire and quit, and I’ll simply fade out like the white spot on an old TV.
It’s the memory of my baby’s blank eyes that drives me out into the early silence and I stand at the drop by the farmhouse where Joseph cut the rising road away. I survey the brightening day and observe the occasional corpse below. They’re within touching distance, those beauties. If one of them had the wit to stand on the shoulders of another it could reach up and shake my hand. I think they’d like to do that. But they don’t interest me.
From the edge of this low tableland I look with overwhelming longing to the place where I left my kids; out beyond the miles of fields that I spent red-eyed weeks in crossing; out past those low eastern hills blurred by the blazing sunrise, and when my grieving eyes are frustrated by the physical horizon I let my minds eye take over and carry me even further.
They’re out there still, you know, wandering somewhere; my three little ones, empty eyed and lost, stumbling dazed across the face of the world, and I can’t squeeze them or comfort them. I can’t sweep them up or protect them and I can’t make it better. I can’t remember their breath on my face or their hair tickling my nose. I can’t even dream of them.
I try to remember them in life, at least that’s where I force my treacly thoughts, but I inevitably think of them otherwise. How can I not? That’s the heartbreak of it. That’s the awful abyss at my core, and I can hardly bear it.
You see, this emergency wasn’t supposed to last for long, but it did, and it showed no signs of abating, so when our limited food supply began to run critically low my husband Jimmy and I packed what little we had left, briefed the kids carefully on safety procedures, and cautiously left our little suburban redoubt. We struck out westward on foot, armed only with a baseball bat, in search of a less inhabited and therefore safer area.
Here’s what we had in mind, Jimmy and I: if a place – say a small rural community – had only a small population before the event, then logically it should still only have a small population, living or dead. Right? Simple!
To us the West was the least populated place on the map but it was also the furthest.
And our Plan? Find a place like I’ve described and systematically rid it of the dead, then settle in and consolidate. How? Damned if we knew. And how would we stop more dead from wandering in? We didn’t know that either. And this was the loose, shapeless scheme we based our desperate journey on.
And travel on foot? Why yes. You see, as an agricultural country one could theoretically travel in a straight line, solely through fields, right across the width of this island. Theoretically… Fields are barred and gated and thus reduce the chances of casual access by corpses. There would be roads and rivers to cross of course, but we decided to face those problems as they arose.
This was the thrust of our plan; to reduce the risk of contact. But we were only halfway to the West when my family; my husband and three children, were taken from me forever.
Here’s how I found myself on this raised tableland farm. I would have stumbled right on by it, whispering and laughing at my children’s capering ghosts, but for a shout from a nearby rocky shelf.
“Hey! Hey! Be careful. Hey, you there! Look out to your right. To your right!”
I was startled out of my raving delirium by this voice; the first I had heard in weeks and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Don’t stop!” it urged; exasperated. “Keep moving!”
A man stood on a, well… cliff is the wrong word – it was far too low to be called that – a sheer sided ridge is better, which ran parallel to my path. It was about fifty metres away. I had been rambling idiotically along its base without even noticing this low, natural wall. The man seemed quiet frantic and I stared over at him in fascination.
He was wearing a jumper that only his granny could have knitted. It was like a prop from a Christmas sitcom and I wondered, as I watched him jump in agitation from foot to foot, if he had any idea of how stupid he looked. Unfazed by my appraisal he pointed frantically at a spot quite close to where I stood.
“Get moving, for pities sake!” he cried. “Follow me over here!”
I was puzzled by his urgency until I looked around and saw that a nearby corpse, which I had been completely unaware of, had me locked in its jellied stare.
It didn’t have the use of its legs and it was pulling itself along hand over hand through the sparse grass. Its clothes had been shredded by this movement and its visible ribcage was a mess of flayed flesh and ragged cloth.
I laughed at it.
“Move it,” shouted the man angrily.
He hurried away along the ridge and I followed at a weak stumbling trot. We reached a point, a hundred metres or so further on, where the rise dipped a little in height.
“There are some easy handholds here,” he said as he lay flat and reached down for me. And he was correct; the limestone wall had some natural grips on its weathered surface. I hadn’t been eating very well and my little run had exhausted me, but I began to climb. He quickly saw I was in trouble so he reached down, took hold of my armpit and hauled me up. I rolled over the lip of the rise and lay panting on the grass at his feet.
“Are you ok?” he asked. He spoke with a northern accent – perhaps Donegal. “I thought you were going to let that crawler get you.”
I nodded that I was fine as I struggled to recover my breath. He has names for them. He looked me carefully up and down and I felt a flare of anger at his blatant inspection. A surprising reaction really as I was utterly indifferent to my appearance. My vanity had died with my kids. The weeks spent starving and sleeping in fields, trees and bushes had torn strips from my self image, as well as from my wet and filthy clothes.
I realised that my coat was missing. I could have lost it weeks ago but its unnoticed disappearance abruptly chilled me. An irrational fear swept coldly over me like a bolt from the blue. Was this inexplicable terror a marker of my mental deterioration?
“You haven’t been hurt at all, have you?” the man asked. Meaning, I supposed; have you been bitten? I shook my head again. He looked dubious though, as if I was lying. I tried to stand up but I was too weak so he helped me.
I peered over the little cliff and right into the glutinous eyes of the pursuing crawler. It was trying to follow me up the rock face. It repeatedly grasped the stony protrusions but lost its grip and slid away.
Then it spoke to me. Annie, it moaned. We should have a little chat about your family sometime. Come down and we’ll talk, you and I. My terror increased and I looked at my rescuer. Did he hear that? He didn’t seem to, as he was talking away.
“I’m Danny.” He was saying. “You haven’t eaten in a while, have you? We don’t have a lot but we can spread what’s left a little further. Let’s get you over to the house for a cup of tea to start with.”
But I was too distracted to listen. That monsters voice had been right inside my head! It knew my name! Its expression held a hint of slyness as it attempted the wall again. I’m not alone like you; it continued – each syllable enunciated perfectly- my brothers and sisters are here. Look. They’re joining us now. A few scattered dead flailed about below, making their graceless way in our direction. And see how persistent I can be? I recoiled with dread. I had voices in my head. I knew the ramifications of this. I was totally, perfectly, properly insane.
They can’t talk, I knew. They don’t! I looked wide eyed at Danny but he was still rabbiting on about something or other.
“Those ones were below the house near the cut,” he was saying, “but I’m after attracting them round here with all my shouting. How did you manage to make it through this lot, anyhow?”
I hadn’t seen them. I hadn’t heard them or smelt them. Had I been this close to the dead these last few demented weeks? Had I simply gibbered undetected through their ranks? Maybe the mad were invisible to them? But no, this part of the country is different to the agricultural areas I had crossed. This was a wilder place with fewer fences so they could wander with impunity.
“You don’t say much, do you?” He remarked as we plodded east along the ridge. I was too frightened and distracted to answer. Was this a panic attack? I’d never had one before. Yes! I thought, desperate to give myself hope; anything to kill this fear. Maybe that’s all it is.
Danny was somewhere in his fifties. Not physically fit, exactly, but he was one of those people who looked younger than they actually were. My mother would have classed him as a lovely man; respectable, with a nice parting in his well groomed hair. He was clean shaven too, so I assumed he hadn’t been personally affected to any great extent by the end of the world. But I was possibly assuming too much, though. He might just have water, a razor, and some time on his hands- or an entirely different way of dealing with things than me.
He described the farm. He said the perimeter was three metres high at its uppermost point and at its lowest, where he had helped me to safety, just two and a bit. A driveway; once sculpted into the eastern wall had ramped up to the farmhouse but the owner, Joseph Bowen, had cut the last few metres away with his mechanical digger, thus giving continuity to the perimeter and rendering the farmland inaccessible.
It wasn’t lost on me that this was exactly the type of place that Jimmy and I would have searched for. We couldn’t have specified it better on paper.
Bowens dilapidated farm house, along with some outbuildings, were clustered on the south east corner of this tableland and dated from the eighteenth century. A spring supplied fresh water. Crops had been planted but had rotted un-harvested due to recent events. The garden had some vegetables and fruit. There was a greenhouse with tomatoes, and an orchard that had some scraggly apples.
Danny spoke incessantly as we approached the little clutch of buildings and despite my internalised terror I realised that he was simply filling in the silence.
“Annie,” I croaked.
“Pleased to meet you, Annie,” he replied with nervous relief. “Were you travelling alone?”
I shook my head and he nodded sadly.
“We’re nearly there. Then we’ll get the kettle on.” He glanced uneasily at some stumbling dead who were dogging our footsteps below.
“Do they talk?” I asked suddenly. I could hear a wild edge in my voice.
“Who?” He asked, looking over the drop. “Them? Of course not.”
I clutched his arm. “Are you sure?” He looked at me and I let both my hand and the matter drop.
Here’s how my babies died: I left them concealed in a ditch while I scouted ahead for food; it was my turn to forage you see, leaving Jimmy to safeguard the kids. When I returned several hours later I found a group of undead monsters feeding on them. There was a nightmare skirmish in progress with growling and confusion and swinging ropes of torn muscle. A mist of blood drizzled the air from the frenzy.
It was such a flurry of red hazed activity that I couldn’t tell where the living ended and the dead began. I was struck dumb at the sight of my youngest girl chewing on her brothers’ head while others gnawed and scattered the bones of my other daughter.
My littlest girl glanced up swiftly at the sound of my disbelieving whimpers and regarded me blankly with nictitated eyes. Her slack features were utterly expressionless as she moaned an empty greeting. A rope of crimson drool curved from her lower lip to her brothers ruined head. Tiny bubbles ran along it.
It was at this precise moment that my mind and I parted company and we haven’t yet been reconciled. Matters may have even deteriorated. I have no memory whatsoever of leaving that place.
Danny led me through the farmyard at the back of the house and directly into the kitchen. He sat me at the table and busied himself with cups and kettles. It was once a room befitting a servant based household, but its current dilapidated state betrayed the decline of its owner’s means.
An old Aga cooker kept the room warm and it was on this that Danny set the kettle to boil. Turf mould lay in a brown patina on the flagstones round its open door and warmth blossomed from its smouldering depths.
The high ceiling was mildewed and the dirty whitewash peeled in places. The walls were papered in an elegant, but faded, oriental pattern. Above the skirting I could see where the mice had stolen pieces of it to line their nests. Damp patches bloomed beneath the rotting sash windows. The whole place was shabby. Hello magazine wouldn’t be shooting here anytime soon.
“We have no milk and only a little sugar,” explained Danny. “I hope that’s alright.” I nodded and accepted a steaming mug of tea. My knees were jittering up and down beneath the table and my gaze flicked nervously about.
“We’re down to recycling the tea bags too; I’m afraid, just like the old Japanese POW’s.”
As he slid into the chair opposite me I looked out of the window and suddenly stood, knocking my mug sideways and sending the boiling tea sweeping across the tabletop. Danny yelped in surprise at my unexpected movement. One of my children; my boy, stared in at me from the yard. He seemed more substantial than usual but he turned and left when I cried out his name.
“Annie!” said Danny, “It’s Chris, its only Chris. He’s Joseph’s nephew. He was here when this whole thing kicked off and he had to stay.”
I was frozen on my feet. My heart hammered. It wasn’t my child. He wasn’t mine. How could he be? I was stricken. The kitchen dissolved. I felt myself being guided by gentle hands back into my chair. How could he have been? I was so accustomed to seeing ghosts that I wasn’t prepared for the sight of one so real.
I clung to Danny’s arm. It was the first human contact I had had in too long and I was never going to let him go. I was in mental freefall and this comforting arm was all I had to keep me aloft. I pulled myself further into its embrace and hoped I’d never lose the strength to hold it.
The boy eventually crept in to the kitchen and regarded me cautiously. It was plain that he was wondering who this grotesque madwoman could be. He didn’t resemble my child at all. Not a bit. Once again I was the victim of a callous joke that lunacy must play on the bereaved. Danny’s embrace helped calm me down.
“There you are Chris,” Danny said nonchalantly to the boy, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. He lifted his arm from my shoulder. “Say hello to Annie, our new guest! Annie, meet Chris, the golden apple of his uncles eye. Aren’t you, young Christy?” he added lightly.
Young Christy looked at me as if I had two heads. I attempted a tearful smile which must have looked as ghastly as it felt because he ventured no closer.
“I won’t bite.” I tried and he cringed at my choice of words. Danny smiled awkwardly.
It transpired that Chris, who missed his parents terribly, was at an age where he no longer believed in fictional terrors like the Banshee or the Pooka, but he was now confused as to how there were far worse creatures than those malignant faeries lurking at the base of his Uncle Josephs farm, moaning their sinister invitations to him to come visit.
Immediately following the deaths of my children I spent days stumbling through a morass of grief and madness. How I wasn’t taken down and killed during this malaise will have to remain a mystery. I wouldn’t consider it luck.
In my worst extremity I think I returned to the scene of their deaths. I remember calling and calling. Sitting safely here proves that my shrieking cries went unanswered. It’s all quite vague; I‘m not really sure if that incident even happened or not.
An over pressurised ball of solid matter began to form inside my head and prevented me from thinking clearly. I kept waiting for it to explode out my ears in twirling cochlea shapes. Sometimes when chinks appeared in this gloopy darkness I would see my husband Jimmy standing close by. Then the mud would pour back in and I’d just drift blankly on.
One day I awoke in a damp scummy ditch and discovered to my sorrow that something resembling reason had regained a foothold in my head. I stood up and started walking numbly west.
Just as Danny finished the introductions with Chris a large man wearing muddy Wellington boots and a black woollen cap walked loudly into the kitchen. He was in his middle forties and strongly built, but getting a little soft around the middle. He looked like a man who enjoyed a few pints, yet wasn’t beyond wrestling a grown bullock to the ground if it needed worming. He stopped dead and stared at me in surprise.
“Hello,” he said. “Who are you?”
I still couldn’t speak after the fright I got on seeing Chris. I wished Danny hadn’t let me go.
“This is Annie,” said Danny, when it became obvious I wasn’t going to say anything. “She’s a little upset. I found her strolling by the south face a few minutes ago. Annie, this is Joseph, Chris’s uncle. We’re here by his good grace.”
“Well, Annie,” said Joseph, “I’m pleased to meet you and you’re welcome to stay. I can see you’ve been though the wars, but you’ve arrived at a bad time, I’m afraid. We have a corpse wandering near the Callow and I don’t know how it got up here!”
The boy paled. Evidently this wasn’t an everyday problem. A corpse had successfully stormed their battlements. Danny looked uneasy.
“You know what,” said Joseph to the boy, dropping his voice to a reassuring level, “I think it’s that old wagon Mary Sutton from across the way. Remember her, Christy? She turned ninety during the summer.”
“Mrs. Sutton, yeah,” recalled Chris in a whisper. “She wasn’t that nice. How do we get rid of her?”
“Don’t you worry, Christy-boy, we’ll just fly-tip her over the side and forget about her.” He went down on one knee and wrapped his huge arms warmly round the frightened child.
“What’s she doing?” asked Danny.
“Just kind of walking about, really,” said Joseph. “Nothing much else. She didn’t see me, I don’t think, but we’d better arm ourselves, just in case.”
“Arm ourselves?” Danny asked. “With what?”
“Well, I’ve a pickaxe, a sledgehammer. Eh… a slash hook.”
“Have you any baseball bats or anything like that? Golf clubs? Something to swing?”
“No. There’s a few oul’ Hurleys in the shed but I’d have to dig them out.”
“Well, we’d better do something fast. Have you any old sacks? We could just bag her if she’s so small. Toss her over the edge like you say.”
They seemed a little out of their depth. They were a couple of ordinary Joe Soaps who’d never been in a fight and were now faced with a deadly situation. As they debated tactics I gazed outside and saw my Jimmy standing over by the sheds. He crooked a finger at me; the same way he did to the kids when they were out of order, so I stood up and walked towards the kitchen door.
“Where are you going?” asked Danny.
“Outside,” I answered, nodding towards my dead husband by way of explanation.
Chris took a step towards me. “Don’t go out.” He said anxiously. “It’s not safe now.”
They couldn’t see Jimmy. I knew that, but I wanted to go outside anyway. I thought I’d feel calmer there. Besides, my head was putty filled and I didn’t want these people to realise how loopy I really was.
As I trekked listlessly across the countryside I encountered a few lone corpses who had managed to penetrate the field system. They were easy to avoid. Once, when I was so low with depression that I was beyond stupid, I allowed one to escort me. My unhinged mind teased it. I’d wait until it was a metre away and I’d jump giggling out of its reach, stop, do exaggerated kung fu gestures at it and then prance away again.
The poor corpse eventually encountered problems navigating the rough clay ridges of a deeply ploughed field so I quit my little game and hurried on. Jimmy waited at the far ditch, shaking his head at my idiocy.
I walked up to him. “Hello, psychosis!” I yelled in his face.
I left the farmhouse and followed Jimmy’s non-existent spectre west along a short track between small fields. No one tried to stop me. I could picture them looking questioningly at each other in the kitchen as I left.
When we reached the end of the lane I gazed appreciatively as the farm opened out. It was very green and well ordered. About half a kilometre ahead, maybe less, stood a spinney of old trees; chestnut and elm mostly – rare enough around here where the soil was quite shallow – and at the base of this little thicket was a lake- more of a pond – in which the trees were reflected in mirror like perfection. There was even a willow whose dangling branches reached across a bed of rushes and hung languidly into the water. This place was quite beautiful.
The landscape beyond the pond and the trees however, beyond the low tableland itself, was an unfocused smear of browns and greys which contrasted sharply with the surrounding greenery.
“I’m off to check on the kids before they wreck the place,” Jimmy said.
I let him go and surveyed the neatly trimmed hedgerows that marked the boundaries of Joseph’s fields. If there was a rogue corpse running loose I wasn’t too keen on bumping into it. The hedgerows were cut low enough to see anyone standing anywhere on the farm. Anyone of normal height, that is. But Mrs Sutton was very small, according to Chris. I looked for moving heads but saw none.
A boy’s soft voice from behind almost stopped my heart. My boy?… no, it was Chris.
“I snuck out to bring you back. Mrs. Sutton’s really not nice.” His features were furrowed with concern. I tried to think but my head was too dense with expanding foam.
“Let’s go as far as the pool.” I suggested. “It looks really nice.”
“What? No!” He looked furtively around. “There’s a dead one up here.”
I tried to make sense of this.
“Do you mean Jimmy?”
I shook my head at the poor child. “Don’t mind me; I’m as mad as a hatter.”
“Please come back. Uncle Joes starting to barricade the house and we’ll both get locked out.”
Young Christy morphed into my child. “Oh, come on down to the pond,” I insisted. “I’ll let you throw stones at the ducks.”
He wore the expression he normally used when he knew I was making fun of him. I laughed. “Last one there is a bag of rats!” I cried as I grabbed his hand and started to run, but he snapped his arm out of my grip.
“All right,” I said; puzzled, “suit yourself.”
He looked at me strangely and jogged back to the house, glancing left and right as he went. I was bewildered. Normally a kiddie magnet like the pond would attract him in a flash.
My two girls were already at the water when I got there. No, I’m wrong, all three kids were there. The chance of seeing ducks must have changed his mind. The trees stood on slightly higher ground on the far side of the pond and I saw Jimmy waiting for me in their shade. I joined him and sat with my back against the large willow and got comfortable within the root system. I settled back and enjoyed the view of the farm buildings in the middle distance.
Through a gap between the farmhouse and the sheds I saw Danny struggling with a little old lady. She was small. Who might she be now? I wondered, and what on earth was Danny playing at? I could tell it was him because of his jumper. Little Chris appeared and walked over to help him. Oops, I’m wrong. He was helping the old lady.
“He’s a real boy scout, that one.” Jimmy said.
Chris wrapped himself round Danny’s leg and seemed to nuzzle it.
“Oh, that’s a bit bizarre.”
Joseph ran from the farmhouse and began beating all three with a broom. No, wrong again, he was just hitting the boy and the woman. He seemed furious; roaring and shouting, but then the melee drifted out of sight behind the sheds. What a complete bastard, I thought.
The kids threw pebbles into the water. A fallen twig became a boat and they pelted it with little stones to make it sink. I was a tad disconcerted at my littlest ones habit of floating down from the branches and putting her blotched white face into mine, but Jimmy held my hand and laughingly swatted her away. His touch was cold.
On my journey, when not mentally benighted, I was sanely baffled. How was it possible to feel so awful at ones loss and yet still live; to feel ones sanity grow only to have it crash again in tatters. It was a terrible joke. I could only shake my foggy, bursting head at the horror of it all. It beggared belief. I was sick to my stomach thinking about my kids.
Their pallid faces wouldn’t leave me. I couldn’t exorcise them. In the desolate days they walked by my side or glided spectrally in front of my dragging feet. In the empty nights their grinning shades hovered upside down and whispered close to my tear streaked face.
I’d scavenge for drugs. As there weren’t any trains, trucks or buses to throw myself under I decided that an overdose of codeine, which is mostly what I found, would deactivate my liver or kidneys quiet efficiently; giving me a perfectly acceptable death. I hadn’t definitely decided to end it but I wanted the comfort of choice.
I had snoozed against the willow. I awoke to feel Jimmy pressing a warning finger to my lips. I could taste an earthy quality to it. Something was wrong.
“Shh, be very still,” he whispered in my head.
Danny was standing motionless in the pond. The water was up to his knees and he had been torn to bits. I knew it was him because of his clothes- little bloodstained reindeer. His nose was gone and his teeth and gums sparkled brightly where his lips should have been. Flesh was missing from his legs, buttocks and arms. Especially his arms; he probably wouldn’t use them again.
His clothes were reduced to bloody strips and I doubted if they’d see out the winter. Come January he’d be wandering in his underpants.
“Better than that jumper,” whispered Jimmy.
Over his shoulder, at the farmhouse, I could see Chris and the old lady bumping against the walls. Both were reaching upwards. I didn’t move and neither did Danny. He was staring my way but he couldn’t see clearly through the curtain of willow branches. I sat without moving for a full hour.
Jimmy and the kids were gone. He must have whisked them away from the danger. Oh, what am I saying? They’d never been here. Even as I watched them play I knew, but I had let the fantasy run. It was a bitter comfort.
Across the quiet distance; all the way from the farmyard, I heard a moan. Danny turned groggily at the sound and struggled wetly out of the pond, his city shoes schlurping as he went. I waited for a few moments before standing. My back ached from the bark of the tree and my legs were stiff. I was bursting for a pee. Wait though, isn’t someone in the branches? I looked up. No, only the constructs of my malfunctioning brain. I spent a few moments allowing my faculties to reconfigure.
I remembered the struggle in the farmyard. Danny was dead. Young Chris was dead. The old lady had been dead already and Joseph was out of sight, or dead, too.
I scrambled clumsily round the willow and crested the rise behind. There was nothing here for me so I decided it was time to go. I reckoned the Atlantic was only twenty kilometres away and I was no better off now than I had been when Danny first spotted me a few hours ago. At least I got a hug. That had been nice.
The western edge of the farm was only a hundred metres away so I loped over to see if I could find a place to climb down, but I had to stop and rest halfway. The drop was a little higher than I expected but I soon solved the mystery of how Mrs Sutton had gained access.
A minor landslip had turned part of the vertical drop into a steep rocky bank. Any determined corpse would be able to climb up, just like Mrs. Sutton. My crawler was scratching pointlessly at the shale a few metres below, too. One moan from her and others would find the landslip, so I hung back.
I made a no-brainer decision. I had a set of personal horrors to deal with. My body was disintegrating. Better to have these things torment me safely up here than in the dangerous wilds. But this breech needed to be dealt with first. Could I operate Joseph’s digger? I needed to get back to the farm and find his keys, or him, or both.
Now here was something; I had made a rational decision and I was doing something constructive. I had a pee- but there was hardly anything there – snuck back to the pond, and checked the farm from the cover of the trees. There was no movement anywhere. After ten careful minutes of watching and listening I made my way to the northern edge and followed the ridge eastward, crouching low, until I was just north of the farm buildings. I stayed out of sight and soon found myself behind a shed which backed on to the farmyard.
I was clean out of energy and I waited to catch my breath before risking a peek round the corner. Danny, Chris and the old woman had their backs to me as they moaned softly and pummelled the kitchen door. Danny’s useless arms flailed limply as he thumped at the wood with his body.
The lace curtains of a first floor window flicked sideways and there was Joseph, safely in the house. He unhooked the latch and pushed open the paint stuck window with the palm of his hand. The three looked up and I took this chance to stand out in plain sight. Joseph nodded at me in discreet acknowledgement and began wrestling a large television set into the window frame. It wasn’t a flat screen either.
“Christy,” he said to his nephew. “Get out of the way, me darlin’.” Then after a moment he let the TV topple.
It did a slow half roll on its brief journey from windowsill to Danny’s head; compressing his skull with crunching finality and driving him into the ground. Joseph, appalled, fell backwards into the house but he returned a minute later with another TV.
“Christy,” he said. “Please, if you’re still in there, get out of the way of this!”
This time both corpses went down under the weight of the TV but they both remained active.
The old lady flopped about in place like a landed fish. Chris’s spine was smashed low down and one arm slithered bonelessly about. His jaw was shattered and his tongue lolled out. He moaned accusingly up at his stricken uncle. Joseph cried out as he stared at the unspeakable sight of his beloved, but broken, nephew.
He aged visibly. He slumped against the window frame and his shoulders shook. He cried out in anguish, his face became red and puffy. “Oh, Chris! Oh, Chris. Oh, me lad. You should have stood away.”
“I can’t do any more, Annie.” He shouted over to me. “I can’t hurt Christy any more. You’ll have to do it. Will you?”
I was horrified. From my hiding place I shook my head in an emphatic NO.
“Please!” he pleaded. He put his hands to his face. “Put him out of his misery! I can’t do it!” I motioned that I was going to go round to the front of the house. We could talk there.
When I got round he opened the door, led me inside, then barred and locked it again. He brought me into a large room to the right of the hall.
“The parlour,” he muttered, as if giving a tour.
Like the kitchen the Parlour was mildewed but it retained the ghost of its old refinement. A few dark portraits of wistful Victorian ladies and stern looking gentlemen hung undusted on the walls. Dark heavy furniture left little walking room. In another life I would have liked this room. It had big windows and a pleasant southern view. It was bright with sunshine.
Joseph was car crash shaken. He filled two glasses with sherry. It was a strange choice of tipple but perhaps it was to his taste. He had to hold his own glass with both hands and as he drank I explained to him about the landslip on the west side of the farm.
“You need to cut away the slope,” I said. “But you’ll need to do it now, before any more get up here.”
He nodded and filled his glass again. He wasn’t in the least interested in how Mrs. Sutton got up here. He turned his face to the large sunny windows and broke down. The delicately stemmed glass tipped in his large hand and the sherry dribbled in rich ruby drops to the floor.
I was too numbed by my own perpetual grief to even consider comforting him. It didn’t dawn on me. We stood like this for a moment; him weeping noisily and me waiting patiently for him to finish.
I took his glass and filled it again. The liqueur was too rich for my palate. He downed it in a single gulp and sat heavily into a large armchair.
“Does anyone else live here?”
“No. My mother died three years back. My sisters are married and gone. Christy…” His face twisted in pain. “What’s your story, then?” he asked deliberately to break his own train of thought.
I didn’t answer and he still wasn’t interested. The silence drew out as I waited for him to leave and get the digger started. He looked around the familiar room with desperation; as if trying to imagine that the world was normal, that his nephew wasn’t crushed on the farmyard concrete, that he hadn’t wilfully broken human bodies.
“You’re a cold one, aren’t you?” He said.
I felt a stirring of contempt which must have shown.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Was it bad for you?”
I nodded silently. I was sane right now. If I spoke the tears would come.
“I’ll deal with the three in the yard,” I offered after a moment, “if you deal with the rockslide.”
He threw his drink back and rose, then nodded and left. I sat on the sofa, sniffed at my glass and then I tossed the awful stuff into the fireplace. A minute later I heard the deep growling roar of large machinery firing up. I had no sense of urgency in what I said I’d do, but I knew I needed to act before reality slipped on me again. I work better in the real world and there was real work to be done.
Joseph had barricaded the kitchen door with the table and a large dresser so I couldn’t get into the yard that way. I looked through the window and into a shed. I saw him sitting high in the cab revving the engine. Chris’s broken corpse was struggling one handed in his direction.
I found a pair of marigolds in a cupboard beneath the sink and fumbled the foul smelling gloves on to my hands. I ran-walked through the front door and round to the yard.
The boy who was no longer afraid of banshees lay twisting near the shed. Joseph sat in his machine with his eyes screwed shut. He wasn’t driving anywhere while Chris was in the way. I walked over and took hold of the boys limp foot, pulled him roughly across the yard and round to the front of the house. I heard the digger rev and set off on its mission.
I released the boy outside the front door and stood out of reach. His loose jaw wobbled horribly as he moaned. There were answering moans from below the cut.
I was becoming clogged up again. The mud filled my skull and dulled my thoughts. The dead boy blurred and I couldn’t see him clearly. I realised that I was crying. No, not crying, I was wailing. Keening. I was blinded with tears. I swiped my forearms roughly across my face to clear my sight.
“Not now,” I mumbled.
I swatted Chris’s groping hand aside and grabbed his ankle. I dragged him across the gravel driveway to the cut where the roadway had been.
The few undead below were aware that something was afoot. They had heard the moaning, the screaming, the crying; not to mention the machinery, and they clustered in agitation below. I pulled the boy to the drop and unceremoniously rolled him over the edge. He impacted softly within the undead crush and they fell on him quietly.
Jimmy was down there. He strolled over to the feeding pack to get a closer look.
“Jesus, Jimmy…” I whispered.
“They can’t see me, Annie. You better go round to the yard and get the oul’ one and the other fella.”
In the distance the digger went about its business as I concluded mine. I hauled the skittering old woman round the house and dumped her after the boy. Danny’s uncomplaining, but larger body followed. He was heavy work. I was entirely at the end of my energy levels. I scanned the area for any sign of Jimmy but he had gone. My mind felt a little clearer.
Then, while journeying onwards one grey dismal morning, crippled with fatigue and depression, I vaguely noted that the fields around me were delineated by dry stone walls instead of hedgerows, and had been for some time.
I was in the West at last. So what now?
What now, indeed. I sat down on my arse in the squelching mud. The misty rain swirled round me and I cursed the stinking bastard universe. Was there any further point to anything?
As a way of putting off my final decision I decided I’d go down to the sea and try my luck on the Aran Islands. That’s as far west as I could get. And if the islands were overrun? Well, that’s just the end of the world then, isn’t it?
Huh. Like I gave a fiddlers.
Back in the house I discovered that the Aga also heated the water, and for the first time since the event took place I stood under a warm shower. It had been months. I was encrusted with grime and filth of the most unspeakable kind. I had fungal infections on my scalp, crotch and behind my ears. My hair was a matted, lice infested mess. How did Danny manage a comforting arm round my shoulder? Or young Chris brave undead territory to chase me down a lane? Kilos of dead skin sluiced down the plughole as I scrubbed.
When I left the bathroom I jumped with fright as my little one skittering across the ceiling and out of sight. I could hear the others downstairs; Jimmy was laughing softly in the parlour. I shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears. When I took them away the house was quite.
I found neatly folded clothes belonging to Joseph’s sisters in the depths of the airing cupboard and I burned my own filthy rags in the Aga. I wasn’t in the slightest bit hungry but I braved a can of expired vegetable soup and audible gurgles percolated from my stomach as I ate.
All was quiet. The digger had fallen silent some time back but Joseph hadn’t returned. I scraped the worst of the muck from my walking boots, took a heavy coat from a hook in the hall and shuffled quietly and carefully up the lane. Maybe he’d simply run out of fuel.
Erring on the cautious side, and expending most of the energy that the soup had given me, I took a roundabout route along the south ridge until I could see the bucket of the digger rearing like a dinosaurs head above the spinney. It didn’t take long for me to get to where it was parked. It was a few metres back from the edge, just short of the drop.
Its activity had attracted a handful of dead but they just looked stupidly up at the unreachable yellow machine. Joseph had made a good, decisive cut into the tearable limestone face of the rockslide and scattered the debris. The Plateau was now secured; mission accomplished.
I found him in the trees by the pond hanging very, very still from one of the Chestnuts. He had nothing to stand on so I guess he climbed into the branches, tied himself off, and slid out into the clear air. His half open eyes stared dully at his family home and the tip of his inky tongue protruded from blue lips. His Wellington boots were fifteen centimetres shy of the ground – so good spatial judgement there, Joseph. Well done.
I knew that we all make our choices and I left him suspended there. I lacked the physical and mental reserves to cut him down. And my choice? I wanted a warm night by the Aga with a hot drink in my hand. I wanted to listen to the cold wind howling outside for a change, and I intended to sleep safely in a real bed.
I woke in the early morning with my customary sense of loss in a strange silent house. I dressed warmly and went outside to the cut. Jimmy was standing near the edge but I choose to ignore him.
I began my habit of looking eastwards and trying to recall what my little ones looked like in life. The shock of their loss had knocked all of my memories askew, or eclipsed them entirely. If I was to live for another hundred years I would still stand out here in an effort to recall the way they used to be.
Jimmy walked slowly over and joined me. I could feel him searching for my attention but I gestured him away. I shut my eyes and put my hands to my ears. That should do the trick. But it didn’t.
“Annie?” he said.
“Not this morning, psychosis.” I answered tiredly.
“Annie, it’s me,” he said hesitantly.
The words sounded differently than usual. They weren’t in my head this time; they came from outside. I looked at his dishevelled form. A beard framed his dirt streaked face and he looked older and more haggard than I had ever seen him. He was filthy and I could smell him from where I stood.
I ran so fast into his embrace that we both hit the ground at the edge of the drop. The dead moaned in excitement but there was no way we were going over the side. Oh, no! Not now! Not now! Not a ghost, not my madness, not an alien voice in my head; it was the real Jimmy! I squeezed and squeezed him. I scarcely dared breathe while his arms held me close to his newly skinny body.
“I found you,” he breathed, “I don’t believe it! I found you. I really did.”
We both must have made the same journey. What were the chances? We lay wordlessly on the grass holding on to each other for dear life. Two lost souls reunited.
I eventually broke my hold and stood, pulling him to his feet. He cupped my face in his hands. As I stared disbelievingly through my tears I saw something in his expression that betrayed a terrible and haunting truth, and I suddenly knew instinctively what it was. I just knew.
The blaze of my joy sputtered and went out. It died in a devastating instant of clarity. This was Jimmy all right, alive and in the flesh; but he was suddenly a stranger, a reviled stranger. This was a man who valued his own safety above that of his children. My children.
My fractured world imploded and a mindless rage erupted. I slapped him so hard for his cowardice that his head jarred sideways. He himself was unable to hide the horror of his own guilt. I could take a gun to his head right now and he’d welcome it. He’d thank me for it. He was suffering unspeakably because of his weakness. But so was I.
“Oh Annie…” he began as I pushed him violently away. I didn’t want him touching me. He grunted in surprise and stumbled backwards over the edge.
“Jimmy!” I screamed.
Enraged or not, I hadn’t intended this! The waiting dead broke his fall and our eyes met momentarily before he was smothered by their attentions. He seemed almost grateful. I had accidentally released him from a life of overwhelming remorse.
His screams were muffled by dry papery skin and moving, liquefied meat as they fell on him. He struggled to rise but it was too late. I saw young Christy clamp his mouth firmly onto Jimmy’s flailing calf, his limp body getting dragged sideways in the frenzy as he held on doggedly with his teeth.
I stumbled away in a daze and by the time I reached the house my skull was bulging with mud and molasses and I was screaming, screaming, screaming. This was the real end for me, and Jimmy never came back into my head again. I had killed him there too.
A few days later I visited Joseph but the walk up to the pond was almost too much for me. That poor grey thing welcomed me with waving arms. I tentatively touched his outstretched fingers but I didn’t like it. He was company though, even if he didn’t smell that good. Besides, who was I to complain? I hadn’t bothered washing after Jimmy died. I didn’t eat again either. I just couldn’t raise the interest and I didn’t seem to have the energy, anyway.
Joseph spoke to me. “Have you considered the possibility that you might end up like me?”
“No, dimwit. Undead.”
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “I haven’t.”
“Well, you should. This is probably the only viable farm in the country. It could be worked. You should take precautions to protect any others who might come.”
Over the following days my health accelerated downhill. Fungal infections blossomed and my legs developed running sores. Eczema covered large swathes of my body until entire regions of skin resembled papier mache. Everything became an effort. I eventually stopped drinking. Soon after that I couldn’t walk.
While I still had the strength I prepared lengths of cord and tied them tightly to my bedpost. I made sure, for my own comfort, that there was plenty of play in them. In deference to Josephs point I found a large black marker and wrote the following in big scrawly letters across the outside of the front door:
“Hi, I’m dead inside. Annie.”
There was no pun intended. Soon after, sensing it was time, I made my way to the edge of the plateau – on all fours – and hoped I’d have the strength to crawl back to my bed. I shuffled into a sitting position above the heads of the moaning corpses and set my minds eye flying free. It soon found all my babies; one, two, three.
I gathered them up and told them how much I loved them. I explained in simple terms that I needed to sleep and wouldn’t be speaking to them again. Thankfully they were far too young to understand the terrible finality of this. Then I hugged them all and, for what it was worth, I wished them all the luck in the world. I turned away then. I was far too dehydrated for tears.
The journey back doesn’t warrant description, but I made it – just. I used the last of my strength to tighten the cord around my wrists before falling limply on to the bed like a discarded sack of potatoes. I pretended I was being hugged by my warm, living children as my body shut itself down and eventually pushed me out into the long, long, eternal………Click.