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Lily’s face was buried deep in the crook of my arm, her knees hitched up onto my lap.
“Why are you scared?” I asked
She peeped up at me. “The three bears might chase me.”
“They won’t chase you.” I smoothed her soft brown hair, so much like Lucy’s. “There aren’t any bears, now let’s go outside and get some wood.”
Lily pushed herself off my lap and went running out through the open door ―we never locked it during the day, despite the dangers. I stopped in the porch to pick up my axe, and followed her out. I felt at my most useful when I reassured her with lies, told her that there were no monsters under the bed, no wolves in the forest, no bears.
When I caught up with her she was already by the log pile, shifting eagerly from foot to foot.
“It’s just a fairy-tale,” I said.
“Why is it a fairy-tale?”
“Because it’s a story told by fairies to scare little girls.”
“Why would they want to scare me?”
“To stop you being naughty. Is this a good log?”
She nodded her approval. I stood it on the block and split it with two blows, the sound bouncing off the rocky outcrop that ran along the other side of the valley ―crack-crack, crack-crack. Somewhere, beyond the fell, a guard in his watchtower would have looked up, maybe scanned the horizon with his binoculars or through a gun-sight. I tossed the pieces of firewood, clanging, into the bottom of the wheelbarrow.
When it was full I wheeled it into the cottage, Lily’s small hands pressing into the small of my back to help me along. We stacked the logs in the space next to the wood burning stove. It was enough to see us through the next few days. The log pile outside would only last another month or so, but then, if we were still there, I would have to take the axe and the saw into the woods and try to find the coppiced trees and fallen branches. I emptied the grate and built up the fire.
“What’ll it be for lunch?”
Lily looked up from her dolls. “Beans and maggots.”
“Beans and maggots it is.”
She did a little dance, letting the dolls drop. “Really?”
“It is your birthday.”
“It is my birthday.” She seemed to weigh the words in her mouth.
Three years old. I’d found the dolls in an abandoned car, hidden them away. I would have wanted to bake a cake, but the chickens hadn’t laid and we needed to ration the sugar, save the flour for bread. Beans and maggots was our name for tinned baked beans with sausages. We were down to our last box. We ate what we could scavenge or grow. We’d lived off beans, courgettes, and tomatoes in the summer. It was autumn, and I had pumpkin and chestnut soup constantly on the go. It was too soon for the winter crops, the parsnips and turnips. The chard was for wintering over and I was using it sparingly to boost our vitamin levels. Jams and chutneys made from the fruits picked from the hedgerows and the woods filled the cupboard. It would be a lean winter, but we’d survive.
I placed the beans and the soup to heat up on the stove.
“What do you want to do after lunch?” I asked.
“Can we go to the river?”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“Is that all?”
She didn’t answer straight away, but stood up on her stool to help me stir the beans.
“That’s all, Daddy.”
We hadn’t been to the river for nearly three weeks, even though on our last trip we’d come back with a brace of fish. I don’t know where the children had come from, but I found Lilian with them where I’d left her playing on the sandbanks, a boy and a girl, the girl maybe nine, the boy younger, both emaciated, their clothes slack around their middles and short on the limbs. They ran as soon as they saw me. I didn’t get a good look at their hands and faces. Lily didn’t remember what she told them. I watched her carefully for the next few days for signs of the infection, but none came.
As I dished the food I looked through the window. It was a gorgeous day, warm for October, and we might not get another one like this.
“All right, we’ll go to the river. But you’ll have to stay close to me.”
I strapped the willow fish trap to my back. It was bulky rather than heavy. We’d found it mounted on the wall of a barn conversion on one of our scavenges, the most useful thing in the room. I picked up the spear and the bowie knife, for fish or anything else. My gaze drifted over to the corner where the rifle was propped. It wouldn’t be needed. Not today. Lily ran ahead, following the path down the side of the cottage, across the vegetable beds, past the chicken pens and the greenhouse, and into the first trees. She was skipping, the hood of her blue coat bouncing behind her. If her mother could see her, I stopped myself. Lucy couldn’t see her, even if she was alive, there was no way now to cross the border.
The path wasn’t too overgrown. We’d trodden it often enough, and my guess was that foxes and deer passed through using the same route. It was a natural path, one of least resistance over the low rise and down into the river valley. There was a stream close by the cottage. I trusted that for fresh water more than the river. I could trace it up the fell, check for animal cadavers, dead sheep. We’d managed to catch a few chickens here and there, but the sheep just scattered. Even so, I’d see them sometimes on the dark side of the fell, their fleeces like milk teeth biting through the mists.
Suddenly her small arm was wrapped around my thigh. She pressed into me, muttering about bears. The trees were crowding us, whippy nettle stems and brambles thick along the path. I pulled her up onto my hip. The path was thick with fallen leaves, and the nearly bare branches swayed above us, their creaking almost inaudible, the shuffling of my boots in the leaf-mould enough to send pheasants exploding and careering from the undergrowth. The kids would have come this way. I knew they’d come looking. A few days after Lily encountered them I found the greenhouse door forced open, the last of the tomatoes and a few tools missing. They would have followed this eerie path. As we crested the ridge the trees thinned, and Lily caught sight of the silvery waters below, the first sounds of it caressed her, changed her mood, and she was dashing ahead of me, breaking cover. It was too late to call her back.
I caught up with her on the banks. Her shoulders were slumped, her back slightly hunched, an echo of Lucy in a bad mood. She heard me and turned.
“My friends have gone.”
I smoothed the crown of her head and untangled myself from the fish trap —relief, guilt, welling up. Everything around me, the conifers and rocks, the flashing waters, the silt and the soft hair beneath my hand, stretching away and at the same time contracting violently onto us. Sudden sickness rushing up in me. The sun glancing off wavelets. I took a deep breath.
Her face was angled up to mine, peering into me.
I exhaled and attempted a smile. “It’s okay. Let’s set the trap.”
She nodded, her eyebrows slanted, all business.
I took off my boots and socks, and waded out to where the water was deeper and slower. I placed the trap with the narrow funnelled opening facing upstream, and weighted it with stones. I didn’t know how to use it properly or whether it should be baited, and with what. We’d come the next day and check. If there were more fish than we could eat I’d work out a way of smoking them, that much couldn’t be too difficult. I’d seen something on TV once. It was strange how trivia ended up as the stuff of survival.
The rifle had been in an unlocked gun cabinet with a few boxes of bullets. I’d found a man and a women lying in bed, a target pistol in the man’s hand, the room crawling with flies. There were children’s bedrooms, but no sign of kids. Maybe they’d got the infection first, and were buried somewhere in the gardens. But what if it was the other way round, the kids told to leave, not to come back, to look for help.
Lily sat on a rock and watched me wade out of the water. As I dried off my feet and ankles she stood on the rock, craning to look upstream. My heart leapt for a moment, but when I turned to follow her gaze all I saw was a heron on a rock with a beak-full of fish, its wings partly spread, a commonplace for her already. For the first two years of her life we’d worried that Lily had known nothing of nature, only the city, our flat, the noisy hassle of shopping or the rush to and from nursery. It seemed impossible to imagine that it was all still there.
Lucy had had been called into work one morning and never returned. She was an immunologist. She was requisitioned, no choice. After that there was only one phone call, perhaps it was all she was allowed. I wasn’t even there to take it because I was queuing with all the others for petrol and bread. The answer phone was blinking. Take her and get out of the city, get far away. Go north and stay away from everyone. Cross the border if you can, that’s where they’ll draw the line. It’ll be a year, maybe two before this thing runs its course. Take care of her. Keep her alive. You can do this.
Lily stooped over the water, her fingertips breaking the surface. Downstream the water picked up speed, smoothing over rocks or breaking into white water. Most of the stretch was like this. Some of it could be forded, but it was risky. It was a natural barrier, a line of defence. The valley was off the main road, the cottage out of view behind woods and in the crook of the fell. The track we’d arrived by, on foot, five months earlier, was the weak point. I’d felled two trees across it —hoped it would be enough to put anyone off. But kids were kids. Kids didn’t know the dangers. Kids come looking. Kids come back.
I’d shared an allotment before the infection. The seeds were the most valuable thing that I’d brought with us. Nearly everything else we’d abandoned as we went north. The petrol ran out seventy miles short of the border and we covered the ground on foot, staying off the roads, along bridleways and footpaths, by map and compass, with Lily on my back much of the time. The border was closed by the time we got there. Leaflets had been airdropped. Anyone approaching the border would be shot. All we had now we’d either found in the cottage, or scavenged along the away. It was the strangest thing. Most houses seemed abandoned. People had fled, maybe across the border before it closed, or maybe to the city hospitals, chasing rumours of vaccines and anti-viral drugs. Even so, I’d watched that barn conversion on and off for a week before going in.
There was still enough time to try catching something. Lily played on the banks while I perched over the waters with the spear. A few fish pushed up the current and I made a stab at them, missing. I knew I had to allow for the distortion of the water, the way it bends the light and make things look out of place, but I hadn’t caught a fish like this so far. We’d had some luck with a makeshift rod and line, but the catches were few and far between. I hoped the fish trap would work.
Lily had come to watch me. I pointed out the fish as it moved further away, out of reach.
“Don’t be sad,’ she said. “We’ll catch it again.”
Her small hand was in mine. The sun was falling, and I felt suddenly uneasy. It hadn’t been far from here that I’d found them, the boy and the girl. The evening after I’d found the greenhouse broken into, I had gone out after Lily was in bed, making sure the cottage was secure behind me. I had scouted the ridge overlooking the river. It had taken a while, but eventually I located their little shelter, what looked like the remnants of a play tent, tied up to the trunk of a rowan tree, and half-hidden by a dry-stone wall. I observed them through the telescopic rifle sight. They were curled up together at the mouth of the crooked shelter, dirty blankets piled up around them. The light was fading, but even so the purple blooms of the infection were clear on their faces. I thought I could see the blankets shudder as they coughed. They would have had a week at most before the final fits and organ failures. Out here, without food it might come sooner. They would get desperate, come looking again. They were infected.
“Let’s go,” I said to Lily, squeezing her hand. “We’ll have a birthday feast when we get back. You can stay up late.”
I moved to leave, but she remained rooted to the spot, her eyes searching upstream, to the fields on the other side of the river, back into the woods, then up into my face.
“My friends, maybe the bears ate them.”
There was this horror in her voice. You can’t disguise real fear. I’d already seen enough of it. I pulled her to me and felt her trembling.
“There are no bears here.”
I held her gaze and she nodded to show she understood, but as we walked back up to the crest of the hill and the trees got denser, I felt fear tightening her grip. She didn’t speak. The long arms of the trees were around us and she kept glancing back along the path. The wind was up, the woods busy with the creaking of branches and the tapping of leaves, with shifting, restless noises. We plunged down the path, brambles snagging at my jacket. “Daddy!” I scooped her up and looked behind us, uphill. It was starting to rain, a steady patter, not a shower but the sort that would set in and shroud the fell with low clouds. The light was greyer amongst the trees but I thought I saw movement on the trail behind us, quick and fleeting between the trunks. What if they weren’t the kids from the barn conversion? What if they hadn’t been alone? What if there were others? The path was steeper, and I struggled not to slip on the leaves, grappling stems and saplings with my free hand. Lily was whimpering, her head buried in my chest. The spear caught a low branch and tumbled off my back, onto the path. I continued a few steps, then started back. I didn’t want to lose it. The rain was falling harder, smacking bark and branch, a cacophony of little slaps, like applause. I picked up the spear and sensed the movement before I heard it. It was them, crashing through the saplings. There was a rough cry. A sort of bellow. I pulled Lily behind a holly bush. “Bears,” she squealed before I clasped my palm hard over her mouth. Her eyes were wide, staring past my shoulder. The sounds were close, I twisted the point of the spear. Brown pelt. Quick and wet. Steaming in the rain. It stopped on the path, turned to look, and scented the air. A deer. I let out a breathless, painful laugh. “It’s a deer. Just a fucking deer.” Relief giddied over me as we watched its haunches and bobbing white tail vanish into the undergrowth. For a moment I wished I’d had the rifle, but then I remembered its kick, the deep shock of it, my fumbling to empty the chamber and reload, the rowan berries spilling red on the ground. The woods lurched as I regained my breathing. Lily hadn’t caught the infection, but that was luck. They would have got desperate and come back for her. I took my hand off her mouth and she beat her fists against my chest. “I told you Daddy. I told you Daddy. They ate my friends.” All eaten up in the peaty soil of the fields beyond the river. The rowan berries spilling a bitter blood on them.
By the time we got back to the cottage she was asleep on my shoulder. I settled her on the sofa facing the stove, lit the oil lamp, rekindled the fire, and then put out the light to save oil. I sat in the armchair, still in my jacket, and through the window watched the ragged clouds scuff over the fell. The border was out there, not far beyond the fell, an hour away maybe. Sometimes we’d hear the helicopters patrolling, but they came less now. We could walk out in that direction, approach the border and wait for the bullets. Keep her alive. I was doing that much at least. I gazed out at the darkening fell, straining my eyes for the pearly whites, the fleeces of the sheep. Up there still, against all the odds.