WHIMPER

Chapter 3

Sally

Purely for Ewigestudentin. Thanks for the pep talk!


We got so used to Guy that when we met up with Sally that next week, we didn't think to prepare her and she nearly screamed her head off when Brandon casually said "And then there's our silent friend…" and pointed to Guy, who was perched on the remains of a hotel lobby nearby like a church gargoyle. But he won her over fairly quick: it's hard not to like Guy once you get over his looks, as he's thoughtful, polite and best of all doesn't spend ages just chattering like Rowena does.

He was also responsible for finding most of our food, though he didn't ever eat with us: the only reason I know he must have been eating is that he didn't collapse and die over the weeks that followed. Oh, and I saw him throwing away a banana-skin, once. Unless he had a really sick sense of humour and was hoping someone would trip on it, I guess he ate the banana himself.

But we had a lot more to think about than how a man who never takes off his mask gets his dinner. We were six, then, and starting to feel like a community. That's good for people. People weren't meant to live alone. Up until we found Jake, we'd been keeping moving, but Jake had made himself a pretty good shelter in the remains of a multi-storey car park, and so there wasn't any reason not to stick around there for a few days. Guy even found us some extra blankets, from somewhere – they were chilly and stained and smelt musty from water, but it was November, getting dark early and starting to frost, and we weren't going to turn our noses up at them. So we had beds, we had company, it was almost like we had a home again.

Funny how I never thought much about home until I didn't have one. Home's not a building. It's not a place, and it's not all the stuff you've managed to collect. It's more like a feeling. Like finding a balanced place in the middle of an ocean where you can just be rather than having to fight just to keep existing.

And of course when you've got time to do more than just survive, you've got time to think. To consider a future none of us had previously thought we'd ever see.

"What are we going to do?"

Sally said it: all of us had been thinking it. What do you do after the world ends, once you've got food and shelter and you're not too scared of it happening all over again? Rowena was still scared. She used to wake up screaming in the night that the water was rising, that it was rising again and we were all going to die. Every time, a different one of us would get up, go to her and quieten her. It didn't take much, just the touch of a living hand, a few words, and she'd usually go quiet again. But whoever did it, every one of them would relate, at some point the next day: "…and Guy was watching us, all the time. Just sat there against the wall, head tilted, watching."

He seemed to be awake every time, but he never went to Rowena himself, not then.

"We'll have to find somewhere permanent to stay." This from Brandon, the most practical one among us. From somewhere off to the left in the darkness beyond the cast glow of our fire (fire courtesy of Jake and the box of lighters he'd found) there came a short, precise splash and then silence. We all tensed. We jumped at shadows in those early days, not that I'm sure exactly what we were afraid of. It'd have to be a really determined mugger to want to attack the only other living human beings in London.

"Probably Guy," was Jake's opinion, and we all relaxed. Probably true. Guy had vanished out into the dark once the fire was lit, black into blackness. He nearly always did, like a soldier going out to patrol, but he'd be back during the night.

"Guy?" called Rowena, in her high, anxious way. Rowena had been dangerously close to being picked up by the black-baggers, she told me once: she was kind of a hippy. There was probably a lot more to it than that, but I wasn't going to ask. Why would it matter anymore? "Is that you?"

Brandon and Jake snorted in a very masculine way at each other. Rowena frowned at them. "Yeah, okay," she said, "but you gotta keep encouraging him, or he'll never want to talk, right?"

"He'll talk when he's ready," said Sally, in her usual, motherly way, and I agreed with her. "Go on, Brandon. What kind of permanent place did you have in mind?"

"Somewhere a little less exposed than this," Brandon replied, eyeing the pitiful remains of the concrete walls and watching the flames bend and gutter under the wind which was whipping in from the west. "It's going to be winter soon and we can't live out in the open like sheep. We need proper shelter."

"I wonder what the rest of the country looks like?" Jake had cradled his head in his hands. He was lucky: like Guy, he had gloves. The rest of us looked like tramps, dressed in whatever we could find, scrape the mud off and dry by firelight. "Maybe this just happened here. Maybe, like, in Scotland, everything's normal."

"It's not like we have a radio or any TV or anything, pretty much," I said, hearing another sharp splash a little way off and willing myself not to jolt up and stare into the darkness. "How would we know? It's been a long time. No-one's come. No helicopters, no cars, no soldiers or anything." It had been almost three weeks, we'd worked out a few days ago. Jake had been marking time off on the battered concrete of his home in charcoal, and since we'd been together Brandon and I had tried to keep count of sun-ups and sun-downs. Between us we'd come up with three weeks.

"The Chancellor will have survived," said Brandon, with grim certainty. "They have bunkers and special planes and things just waiting to get him out of the way of a disaster."

"But no-one knew it was a disaster," said Sally, softly, "until the very instant it happened."

We fell silent at that, each of us thinking the same thing. We were screwed. Things were going to get harder, and colder, and there was no-one coming to rescue us.

Things hadn't been great, back when London was alive and curfews were in effect and there wasn't anything on TV except more bad news. My parents were always afraid. Apparently, things hadn't always been like they were when I was growing up.

Sally was older than the rest of us, maybe sixty or even seventy years old. She'd been living in a government-run retirement home, but not for too long because she still seemed pretty switched-on. My grandma went into one of those places a frail but sharp old lady. Within a month she'd started seeing imaginary men in the garden and attacking the nurses because she thought they'd come to kill her. Maybe I was just being young and stupid, but it just felt to me like that place had killed her before her body died.

Anyway, Sally wasn't like that at all. She was sharp as a pin and just treated us all - even Guy - like slightly wayward kids. She couldn't help as much with the scavenging, so she did other stuff, stuff we didn't even realise we'd missed, like making sure we dried out our clothes properly, told us to go to bed. Guy most of all came up against Sally's maternal streak pretty hard, because he was as flighty and stubborn as a fourteen-year-old boy when it came to getting any sleep or doing what was expected of him.

But Sally also remembers more than we do about the Chancellor's early days. She remembers when curfews were only for criminals. Things were different.

"People are scared," she said to me one night when the rest of the group had gone out looking for food and I'd volunteered to stay behind with her to help keep the fire lit. "That's the plain truth of it, and there's a good reason people get scared. In the really old days, when we all lived in caves and clubbed mammoth for food, being scared kept you out of the jaws of the tiger. And we've never managed to shake the way we hang onto fear as a defence. No wonder that dreadful man managed to do everything his own way. He knew people were scared and he promised to take that fear away. Who wouldn't want that?"

Sally said to Brandon that first day we met her, while he was helping her out of the ruins of the café, that she didn't understand why she was still alive. All of her children, her grandchildren, all most likely dead. While she, with sixty years of life behind her, still lived.

And that's the other thing of course - the guilt. Now we've got time to think about it, we're all feeling as guilty as hell.

Except perhaps for Guy. Sometimes, I don't know why, but just sometimes I catch Guy looking out at the ruins of the city and I just get the feeling that the faint smile on his mask has grown broader, like behind it he's smiling too.

Sometimes I almost feel like Guy wanted this to happen.