It was fun to begin with; a game, an adventure. But now he’s had enough. He doesn’t like being on his own any more. He’s hungry, he’s lonely and he’s scared. He wants everything back to how it used to be.

Dean McFarlane is seven years old.

The day before yesterday, as they were walking to school together, Dean’s mother dropped dead in front of him.

‘Dean,’ Mom said, sighing, ‘you’ve only been back at school for a couple of days, so how comes you’ve got yourself in trouble with the teacher already?’

‘She don’t like me,’ he said as he followed her at speed, late for school. He’d been dragging his feet all morning. Even though she was heavily pregnant, Dean’s mom marched along at twice his pace. ‘She picks on me,’ he whined. ‘She lets Gary and them lot get away with anything. I never done nothing and she blames me when…’

‘What do you mean, you never done nothing? What kind of a way to talk is that? If you never done nothing, then you must have done something…?’

Dean looked at her and screwed up his face. What was she on about now? She didn’t believe him, did she? Anyway, he decided, he didn’t care what she said because he knew Miss Jinks was picking on him and he knew that he was going to get Gary Saunders back at lunchtime or afternoon break because he’d got him into trouble yesterday afternoon and he’d had to see the headteacher and…

‘When I tell your father what you’ve been up to,’ Mrs McFarlane warned, ‘he’ll kick your backside. You know what he’s like, he just won’t stand for this kind of behaviour. I suggest that you…’

Mrs McFarlane stopped talking suddenly, then stopped walking. She stood in the middle of the pavement, pulling that kind of puzzled, almost angry face that she pulled when she was out shopping with him and she couldn’t remember what she needed, or when she didn’t know which way to go, or when Dean’s baby brother growing inside her started to kick. Dean carried on a little further but then stopped and turned back when he realised she still wasn’t moving. She was standing in the same spot, rubbing at the side of her neck. She looked in pain.

‘Mom? What’s the matter?’

Mrs McFarlane looked down at her son but didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. She tried not to let him see, but the sudden pain in her throat was rapidly worsening, taking hold. Her eyes bulged with sudden, searing agony and she dropped her shopping bag. Dean immediately began collecting up her spilled belongings, still looking anxiously into her face.

‘Dean, I can’t…’ she said, her voice fading to a whisper. ‘My throat’s…’

She dropped to her knees directly in front of her son and he jumped back with surprise. Her eyes now level with his, she began to retch and gag violently. The inside of her throat became swollen, and blood began trickling from lesions at the back of her mouth. She hung her head forward and dribbled a long, sticky string of bloody saliva onto the pavement, spitting up on the corner of one of Dean’s shoes.

‘Mom…’ he whined, jumping back with panic. He looked around for help but he couldn’t see anyone else nearby. If he could just find another grown-up who could help… He looked for Mrs Campbell who lived three doors down at number seventeen – she always seemed to be looking out of her living room window. Maybe she’d come out to help him and—

Clutching her stomach in agony, Mrs McFarlane let out a strangled cry of pain then rolled onto her back, her body convulsing. Now sobbing, Dean crouched down next to her and held her shoulders, trying to hold her steady and stop her throwing herself about. He wished he knew what to do, but he’d never learnt about this kind of thing at school or at cubs. He was scared she was going to hurt herself or the baby. Her eyes were wide open and she stared at him with an expression on her face which frightened him more than anything he’d ever seen before.

And then she stopped.

Dean’s mom lay motionless on the ground, her eyes staring into space and her mouth hanging wide open, a trail of dark blood running down her cheek.

Dean shoved her and shook her and screamed at her but she wouldn’t wake up.

I knew straightaway that she’d died because I kept shouting at her to wake up but she wouldn’t move. I tried to clean up some of the blood on her face with tissues out of her handbag but that just made things worse and got her in even more of a mess. She’d got blood in her hair and in one of her ears and I couldn’t get that out either.

Granddad Johnson told me once about the time he saved a man’s life when he’d been an accident. He said you have to make sure the person who’s hurt is breathing before you do anything else, and he showed me how to do it. He said you could feel for a thing like a little heartbeat on their wrist or their neck, or you could just listen to them breathing. I couldn’t remember exactly where to hold Mom’s wrist so I just listened to her instead. I put my ear right next to her mouth and listened and listened and listened but I couldn’t hear anything. Everything else was quiet but I couldn’t hear a sound.

I kept looking for someone to help me but there was no one, and I remembered Granddad telling me you had to get the person you’re looking after to a hospital quickly by phoning for an ambulance. We learnt that at school last year as well and I knew what to do. I got Mom’s mobile out of her pocket and dialled 999 like I’d been shown but no one answered. That really scared me because my teacher and Granddad both said someone would always answer 999, no matter what. They’ve got loads of people to answer the phones there so everyone can always get through.

I was scared that Mom was going to get cold. I tried to move her closer to the house but she was too heavy. I dragged her a little way, but not that far because she was heavy and I didn’t want to mess her clothes up or hurt the baby. I got the keys from her coat pocket and ran back to the house. It took me ages to get inside because I couldn’t get the right key at first. When I got in I took one of the blankets from the drawer under Mom and Dad’s bed and one of her pillows. I went back out and covered Mom up and put the pillow under her head. I was scared that something was going to happen to the baby. I put my hands under the blanket and felt Mom’s tummy for ages but I couldn’t feel anything. The baby wasn’t moving but it might just have been asleep.

I thought I should stay outside with her.

Dean needed the toilet. He held on for as long as he could, but after an hour and a half sitting outside in the cold next to his mother, he couldn’t wait any longer. He ran back to the house, unlocked the door, dashed to the toilet and then ran back outside. He’d hoped that when he got back he’d find that she’d opened her eyes or rolled over or at least made some small movement that might indicate that she wasn’t dead and that he wasn’t on his own anymore. Nothing. No change.

Before sitting down next to his mother’s body again, Dean walked the entire length of the street, looking for help. From the end of the road he counted more than twenty other people lying on the ground like his mom. As far as he could see there was no one else moving around like he was. For a while he thought about going a little farther, but when he found the body of his friend Shaun Wallis lying face down in the middle of the next road with his dad, he got scared and ran back to Mom again. He tried knocking on a few of his neighbours’ doors but none of them answered, not even Mrs Campbell at number seventeen.

The sun disappeared behind a dark grey cloud and it started to rain. Dean made another quick trip back to the house and fetched an umbrella to keep him and Mom dry. He covered her head but he couldn’t stop her legs from getting soaked. He was soon wet and shivering with cold but he couldn’t leave her, could he? What if something happened to her? It didn’t matter that he hadn’t seen anyone else all morning, he just didn’t want to leave her on her own in case someone came along and took her or did something horrible to her. And anyway, he decided, he wanted to be there when she woke up. She’d be really proud when she found out he’d looked after her like this. She had to wake up, didn’t she? Who would look after him if she didn’t?

A short while later, Mom’s mobile phone began to bleep. He picked it up and looked at the display, hoping Dad was calling. On the screen it showed a picture of a battery that was almost empty. Mom had shown him how to use the phone in case anything happened with the baby and they needed to get in touch with the hospital or Dad in a hurry. He tried the emergency number again but there was still no answer and this time he decided that the police and the ambulance people must have been busy looking after all the other sick people he’d seen lying on the ground beyond the end of the road.

Dean pressed the button which made a list of names come up. Mom had made him remember how to do this. Then he pressed the button with an arrow on it pointing down, and the list of names began to move. Some of the names he knew, others he didn’t. Some he couldn’t even read. He saw the names of his Aunt Edie and Caroline, Mom’s best friend. Further on down the list he found the one he’d been looking for – Royston McFarlane – his dad. He’d call him and tell him what had happened and get him to come home. What an idiot, he thought, I should have thought of that sooner.

He couldn’t get the phone to work.

He was sure he was doing it right, just how Mom had shown him. He highlighted his dad’s name on the list, then clicked call to make it ring. He kept trying but it wouldn’t work. It looked like it was going to, but then it just bleeped in his ear three times, then disconnected. It kept on happening. After a while the battery picture came back on for a second before the phone switched itself off for good.

The day dragged on, and Dean became increasingly cold and hungry. He sat on the pavement next to his dead mother and ate the packed lunch from his school bag while he waited for his dad to come home from work.

By half-past six, when it was starting to get dark and still no one had come, Dean started to panic. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to go back to the house, but he didn’t want to leave Mom outside on her own. He tried to drag her again but only managed to move her a little way. When he touched her skin now she felt even colder than he was. When the light had almost completely disappeared, he reluctantly accepted he had to go in. He tucked Mom under the blanket again, checked the pillow was under her head, then ran back to the house.

Dean struggled with the front door again. Finding the right key had been hard enough in daylight, now it was almost impossible. Nothing much was working when he finally managed to get inside. The lights came on and so did the television but nothing was on any of the channels. The radio in the kitchen was silent too. He tried to dial 999 from the house phone but still no one answered. He locked the door (Dad had his own key and would be able to let himself in when he got back) and went upstairs. He sat on the end of his bed and looked out of the window and waited. From where he was sitting he could just about see the top of Mom’s head on the pavement.

It was kind of exciting for a while, being on my own in the house like that. It made me feel grown up. Even though it was dark out and cold I could do whatever I wanted. I read for a bit and did some drawings. I wanted to play games but I couldn’t get the computer to work.

I kept getting upset when I looked out of the window and saw Mom, especially when it got really dark. I didn’t like leaving her out there. I tried not to cry and I kept hoping that I’d see Dad coming home soon. I sometimes used to sit in my room and wait for him to come home from work. I used to know which car was his as soon as it turned into our road from the noise, but the weird thing was I didn’t see any cars at all, not one.

I got myself some crisps and chocolate from the kitchen and ate them in my room. Mom never let me do that normally, but it wasn’t a normal night and I didn’t think she’d mind.

I’m not that good at telling the time yet. I know when it’s something o’clock or half-past something, but I get mixed-up with quarter-past and quarter-to’s. I remember going to the toilet and then looking at the alarm clock in Mom and Dad’s room. I think it said it was almost ten o’clock but I wasn’t sure. Whatever time it was, I knew that it was way past bedtime and then I started to get really scared because Dad should definitely have been home from work. I didn’t know why he hadn’t come back. Maybe he’d been going out somewhere and Mom hadn’t told me? Maybe there was a problem he needed to sort out. That happened quite a lot.

Some nights in the school holidays I used to try and stay up as long as I could but I always seemed to fall asleep. Now I wanted to get to sleep but I couldn’t. I wanted it to be morning. I didn’t like being on my own in the dark. I thought about going back out and sitting with Mom for a bit but I was too scared. I didn’t want to go downstairs on my own. The moon came out a few times and when it did I could see her. She was still lying on the pavement where I’d left her. I wished she’d get up and come in.

When Dean woke up next morning, it was late. It was almost midday by the time he climbed out of bed. He’d stayed awake all night and had then slept through almost the entire morning. He lay still for a while and went over the events of the previous day in his head. He remembered his mom and how he’d left her lying on the pavement outside. He jumped up and his heart sank when he saw that she was still there in the exact same position. Then he remembered his dad. Surely he must have been home by now? He checked his parents’ bedroom but the bed hadn’t been slept in. The car wasn’t outside either. Why hadn’t Dad come back yet?

The sunlight had been streaming in through Dean’s window, warming the area on the top of his bed where he’d curled up and fallen asleep. The temperature dropped noticeably as he moved around the rest of the house. He took off his school uniform (which he’d slept in) and threw it downstairs for Mom to wash. Then he grabbed the warmest clothes he could find and got dressed. He’d never known the house to be this cold. And it was quiet too. There usually always seemed to be noise all around him and this silence was frightening.

Breakfast, his mom told him almost every morning, was the most important meal of the day. Dean fetched himself some cereal, a slice of bread and a few biscuits. He couldn’t find anything else. He didn’t know how to use the oven or the kettle or toaster. Mom had shown him how to make a pizza in the microwave before now and he decided he’d do that for tea. Maybe Dad would be back then and he could make him some too.

Dean put on his school coat. Clutching his food and a half-full bottle of lemonade, he went back out to where his mom still lay. All day he sat on the pavement next to her. He didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t feel safe anywhere else. During the course of the day he tried again to drag her closer to home. He managed to move her a couple more metres, almost to the edge of their drive, but that was all. As the darkness drew in again he went back indoors. The lights weren’t working when he got inside, and neither was anything else electric.

I couldn’t help it. I didn’t mean to do it, I got scared and it just happened. Mom’s going to be mad at me.

I’d been sitting outside with her for ages but I came back in when it started to get dark. When I got inside the house it was all quiet and empty again and I got really scared. I could hear loads of noises and I knew what they all were but they still scared me. There was dripping water coming from the freezer in the kitchen and I could hear the blind at the window in Mom and Dad’s room blowing in the wind, making a tapping noise. And every so often the wind made the letter box in the front door flap. Mom’s been nagging at Dad for ages to get it fixed but he hasn’t had time. It sounded like someone coming to the house, and the first few times it happened I ran to the door because I thought it was going to be Mom or Dad. I got really upset when there was no one there.

I didn’t want to go upstairs. I wanted to hide away out of sight so I crawled under the dining room table. I only came out a couple of times, first to get some more food from the kitchen and then to try and find my torch. I got myself another packet of crisps and the last bar of chocolate from the cupboard. I wanted some bread and butter but I must have left the bread open because it had gone all hard and it tasted horrible. All of the lemonade and cans of Coke had gone. I had to drink the orange juice I don’t like but I made it too strong and it made me feel a bit sick. I was really thirsty though so I kept drinking it.

It didn’t feel like home any more. Everything felt different without Mom and Dad, really strange, and it was getting colder and colder. I still didn’t want to go upstairs so I put my coat back on and the dirty school jumper that I’d thrown downstairs for Mom to wash. Thinking about Mom and Dad made me upset again. I was starting to think I was never going to see Dad again. I was glad I’d missed two days of school, but I’d rather have gone and had everything back how it used to be.

I’ve made a real mess in here now. Mom and Dad are going to be mad at me. The dark frightens me so I tried to light the big yellow candle that Mom keeps on the sideboard. I took it under the table and used a match from the box out of the kitchen. Anyway, I lit the candle and I must have had it too close to the tablecloth because it started burning. It burned really, really quick. I got out from under the table and used the rest of the orange juice to put out the fire. I tried to pull the tablecloth off but I didn’t know there were plates and things still on it and they fell on the carpet and some of them smashed. That made me upset again because the noise made me jump and because I knew that Mom would be cross that I’d broken her plates. She always got cross if I broke a plate or a dish or a cup. I didn’t want to move because I was scared I might cut myself on some of the broken pieces.

I think I fell asleep. When I woke up I was all wet. I thought it was just orange juice at first but then I realised it was all over my trousers and all over the floor and I knew I’d wet myself. I haven’t wet myself since I was four. It was all over the carpet and I tried to clean it up with the burnt tablecloth but all that did was make things worse. My trousers were soaked so I took them off. I put my coat over me and tried to keep warm but I couldn’t stop shivering.

Exhausted, and suffering from shock and mild exposure, Dean slept intermittently for a further few hours. The morning finally arrived, bringing with it some welcome light and warmth. He went upstairs and got himself some clean clothes. He smelled from the accident he’d had in the night. He tried to wash but the water was too cold. He used some of Dad’s deodorant spray to cover up the smell.

Dean was finding it harder and harder to be upstairs on his own. Dad had recently decorated the spare room as a nursery, ready for the birth of Dean’s baby brother. He’d painted teddy bears and cartoon characters on the walls and there were lots of stuffed toys in there too. When Dean walked past the open nursery door he felt like the toys’ eyes were moving, watching him as he crept around the house, doing things he shouldn’t.

While Dean was up in his bedroom getting changed, he noticed that his mom had gone. For a second he was excited and relieved and he ran back downstairs to find her, expecting that she’d be back indoors, cleaning up the mess he’d made or just sitting on the sofa waiting for him. When he found that she wasn’t there he slumped against the wall at the bottom of the stairs and began to sob. Why had she left him? Why hadn’t she come back to the house? This sudden rejection hurt more than anything else. He knew he had to go and find her.

Dean grabbed his smelly coat from where he’d left it at the bottom of the banister and put on his trainers. He stepped out into the open, shut the door behind him, locked it (he was pretty sure he’d done it properly) and then put Mom’s keys in his trouser pocket.

She hadn’t taken her bag. Strange that she’d left it there in the middle of the street. And her phone too.

He picked up the phone and held it tightly. He picked up the bag as well but put it down again at the end of the road because it was quite big and heavy and because he didn’t think there was anything that important in it. Mom always carried her purse and her money in her coat pocket because it was safer. Dean tucked the bag out of sight at the end of someone’s drive, intending to take it back to the house later.

Where was she? Where had she gone?

Strange that there were other people moving around now. Strange that none of them seemed to see him, even when he got up close. Strange how all of their faces looked so cold and empty and how none of them answered when he asked them for help.

I think I know the way to Dad’s work because Mom’s taken me there on the bus loads of times when we’ve been to meet him in the school holidays. I’m going to try and walk there even though I know it’s a long way. It’s going to take ages.

I’m going to go and find Dad and then the two of us will go and find Mom.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition