It’s over a week since billions of people died. In that time, millions of them have risen up and are now walking the streets, their bodies rotting. Everything has changed. Almost nothing is as it was. Almost nothing.
There are thirty-seven houses on Marshwood Road. Only one of them has a freshly cut back lawn. Only one has had its dustbins emptied and the rubbish placed neatly in black plastic sacks at the end of the drive, ready for collection. Only one has had its curtains drawn each night and opened again each morning since the infection killed more than ninety-nine per cent of the population.
Different people deal with stress, loss and other emotional pressures in a wide range of ways. Some implode, some explode. Some shrivel up and hide in the quietest, darkest corner they can find, others make as much noise as possible. Some accept what was happened, others deny everything.
Simon Walters is handling the end of the world particularly badly. The arrival of the infection and the subsequent after-shocks have felt like trivial irritations, further complicating his already over-complicated life. One of life’s perennial victims, in his eyes no one has problems as bad as his. Simon has failed to cope with what has happened, and as a last ditch defence mechanism, he has shut out all other suffering to concentrate fully on his own.
The sudden clattering of the battery-powered alarm clock shattered the early morning quiet. Simon groaned, rolled over and switched it off. It sounded louder than ever this morning. How he hated that damn grinding, whining noise. No, he didn’t just hate it, he absolutely bloody loathed it. Especially today. When that unholy clanging began he knew it was time to get up and start another bloody day. The noise was marginally more bearable on Thursdays and Fridays as the weekend neared, but today was Monday, the beginning of yet another week, and the noise was worse than ever.
‘Morning, love,’ he yawned as he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. June, his wife, didn’t move. Lazy cow, he thought to himself. Okay, so she only had to drop the kids off at school and work and they didn’t need to be there until around nine, but she could at least make an effort once in a while and get up with him. She’d been the same all weekend, hadn’t got out of bed once. Perhaps when he came home from work tonight he’d sit her down and force her to talk, try and get to the bottom of what was on her mind. God knows something needed to be said. She hadn’t got up in days and her personal hygiene standards were slipping. Her once-silky, chestnut brown hair was greasy and lifeless and she was starting to smell. He wondered whether she’d even been bothering to wash? He’d tried to say something to her about it yesterday afternoon but it was a delicate subject and he found it difficult to find the right words. He’d tried his hardest to be tactful but he’d obviously screwed it up and upset her because she’d not said a word. She’d just stared into space and ignored him. She hadn’t even had the decency to look at him. Late last night he’d brought her up a glass of wine and a slice of cake as a peace offering but she hadn’t even touched them.
Simon rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock again. Five past seven. He couldn’t put it off any longer. There was no avoiding it, he had to get up. He wanted just to curl up and pretend the day wasn’t happening, but he couldn’t. He had responsibilities. He kicked off the covers then yawned and stretched and stumbled into the bathroom.
This country is going to hell in a hand-basket, he decided as he stared at himself in the mirror. No water again. The taps had been dry for almost two days now. There really was no excuse. He paid his bills and he expected better than this. The bloody water company hadn’t even had the decency to answer the phone when he’d called the emergency number.
God, he thought, I look awful. He was bloody tired: tired of his job, tired of his family and their attitude, tired of being taken for granted, and tired of himself. He was forty-seven years of age and stuck in a rut with no obvious way of getting out. The only way he could see himself getting back in his family’s good books was to pander to them, and the only way he could afford to do that would be to get promoted at work or find himself a better job. Bloody hell, how he hated his job. He’d worked for the bank for thirty years and in that time he’d seen huge changes. It was no longer the same job he’d walked into after leaving school at age sixteen. Back then it had been a career to be proud of, and working for a bank had given him some kind of status and standing in the community. These days his association with the financial industry made him a social leper. People had once looked up to him but now it was as if he was personally being blamed for all the grief the banks had caused. In reality he was little more than a glorified salesman, left at the counter all day to sell loans, accounts and insurance policies to people who either already had enough loans, accounts and policies or who had only come into the branch to pay a bill. Maybe it was his own fault, he wondered as he began shaving with his old electric razor. He’d seen plenty of people join the bank after him, only to overtake him and be promoted up through the ranks at speed. In fact, he’d trained three of the last five managers he’d worked for, teaching them how to cashier when they’d first joined the company.
The bank needs people like me, Simon told himself as he tugged and pulled at a weekend’s worth of stubble with his razor. If it wasn’t for the folk at the bottom, the high-flyers and the people at the top wouldn’t be able to do their jobs and make their massive profits. Some of his colleagues laughed at him because he’d been in charge of the stationery cupboard at his branch for longer than most of them had been in the bank, but they’d be laughing on the other side of their faces if he didn’t put in a stationery order, wouldn’t they? How could they sell their loans and their accounts and their insurance policies without the right brochures and forms? And how could they fill them out without any pens? He did more for his branch and the company overall than any of them ever gave him credit for.
The batteries in his razor ran out mid-shave. The left side of his face was mostly clean shaven, the right still covered with stubble. Bloody typical.
They were going to have to go shopping. The kitchen cupboards were practically empty. He should have gone to the supermarket at the weekend. More to the point, June should have. Why was everything left to him all of a sudden? As he sat munching dry cereal, Simon scribbled out a grocery list. He’d leave it on the table for June. Hopefully she’d go out later and get everything they needed so he could eat properly tonight.
Simon shook his head dejectedly. He wished he understood what was going on. He’d never known anything like it. He was struggling to get on with his family, the house was in a state, and the water, gas and electricity supplies had all failed or become intermittent. To lose one would have been bad enough, but all three at the same time? How could these utility companies be allowed to operate so shoddily? Imagine the grief if I didn’t do my job properly, he thought. There’d be hell to pay.
As ready for work as he was ever going to be, Simon got up and packed his lunch away into his briefcase. It wasn’t really very much of a lunch, just a few dry crackers, some biscuits, a packet of crisps he’d found at the back of the cupboard, and a rubbery apple. He jammed his food in amongst the hundreds of old circulars, leaflets, handwritten notes and photocopied procedures that he carried to and from work every day. He never looked at any of it (most of it was probably out of date) but he felt safe when he carried a case full of papers to the office. It was a security blanket; something to hide behind.
‘Are any of you out of bed yet?’ he called up from the bottom of the stairs. Was he really the only one who could be bothered anymore? Agitated and nervous (he always felt that way before work) Simon left his briefcase at the foot of the stairs and stormed back up to try and motivate his lazy family. He could hear something happening in Matthew’s bedroom. At least he was making an effort.
‘Ready for school, Matt?’
What was left of Matthew was on the other side of the door, trying to claw his way out, reacting to his father’s voice. Simon shoved the door open and sent his son’s wasted body tripping backwards. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said, watching the corpse regain its footing and lurch forward again. The dead boy crashed into him. ‘Steady on,’ Simon laughed, ‘take it easy!’ Matthew grabbed at him with barely coordinated hands. ‘I haven’t got time to muck about now,’ Simon said. ‘I’ve got to get to work. I’ll see you tonight, okay?’
Still laughing, Simon picked up his son’s emaciated body, carried him across the room and dumped him on the bed. Matthew immediately rolled off again and staggered back towards the door.
‘Make sure you change your sweatshirt before you go to school, okay?’ Simon pointed a disapproving finger at the dribbles of blood and other emissions which had seeped down the front of his dead son’s beige jumper. He left the room and shut the door behind him, holding onto the handle for a moment as the remains of his child clattered against the other side.
She’s just like her mother, Simon thought as he peeled back the bedclothes to reveal his daughter Hannah’s decaying face. She’d just turned seventeen when she’d died last week. He shook her shoulder, trying to wake her. She’d been working in a hairdresser’s salon for just over a month and he didn’t want her being late. Jobs were hard enough to come by as it was; she needed to make a good impression. Her dead eyes stared through him unblinking.
‘Make sure you’re not late,’ he told her. No response. Simon leant down and kissed his daughter’s discoloured, room-temperature cheek. There was a spider crawling in her hair, spinning a web between her ear lobe and her skull. He flicked it across the room. ‘I’ll see you tonight, love. Have a good day.’
Having checked the children, Simon took a deep breath before going back into the bedroom he shared with June. ‘I’m off to work now, love,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll see you tonight. Maybe we could talk later? I’d like to know what it is I’m supposed to have done to upset you.’
For a second longer he stood and stared sadly at the body in the bed. June didn’t move. Eighteen years of marriage (a few of them had been pretty good years too) and yet she couldn’t even bring herself to look at him. How had everything gone so wrong, so quickly?
Simon pushed through the growing crowd of rotting bodies at his front gate and began the short walk to work. He didn’t know what these people wanted, but they’d been loitering here for days now. Didn’t they have homes to go to? More to the point, didn’t they have jobs? Was he solely responsible for keeping the country running? It was beginning to feel that way. There wasn’t a single car out on the roads again and he couldn’t see any of the usual faces he used to see heading off to work or taking the children to school or walking the dog. All he could see today were more of these dirty, ragged people. Some of them tried to grab at him and pull his clothes, and he couldn’t understand why. What did they want from him? What had he done to them? He ran to the end of the road, hoping they’d be gone by the time he got back tonight.
His first port of call (as it was every morning) was the newsagents on the corner of Marshwood Road and Hampton Street. The shop was quiet. Simon picked up his paper (last Tuesday’s again – bloody annoying – he’d bought the same paper seven times now) and dug deep in his pocket for change. There was no one about to serve him, and in temper he slammed the coins down on the counter (next to the coins he’d left there on Friday) and stormed out the shop, cursing.
More bodies up ahead. He asked them to move but they ignored him. Sick of being treated like a second class citizen, he pushed them out of the way and marched on towards the high street, a man on a mission.
Simon hated his job. He felt his guts churn and his bowels loosen as he neared the bank. A traditional and imposing, late-nineteenth century building, its architectural beauty had been compromised by the ever-expanding array of Perspex signs hung above and around its solid wooden doors, and the gaudy advertising hoardings plastered across the inside of its large, arched windows. An ATM had been crow-barred into what had once been a street-level window. Ignoring the unwanted attentions of yet another rancid, dribbling man who came at him repeatedly, he checked the screen of the machine. Bloody thing was down again, and no doubt he’d get the blame. Nothing short of 99.85% uptime was good enough for the bank. Another target missed, and he hadn’t even made it through the front door yet.
The staff door at the side of the building was already open, completely against policy. Which idiot had left it like that? Didn’t they know there was a strict security procedure to be followed each morning before anyone could go inside? He entered the building and slammed and bolted the door shut behind him. He’d let himself out last thing on Friday evening and he’d assumed that one of the others would have locked up after him. Christ, could the bank have been left open all weekend?
By quarter past nine only three other members of staff had arrived for work. The branch manager (Brian Statham, ten years Simon’s junior) had already been in his office when Simon had arrived. Statham obviously wasn’t happy. He was pacing about the room furiously, slamming into the door and occasionally banging against the glass, making a heck of a din. Two clerks – Janice Phelps and Tom Compton – were dead at their desks. Janice was slumped over her computer whilst Tom had fallen off his chair and lay spread-eagled on the carpet. Simon was appalled by the lack of work being done in the branch. He knocked on Statham’s door to voice his concerns but his manager wasn’t interested. He was only marginally more responsive than the others and Simon took it upon himself to address the situation because there was no way the branch could run with a skeleton staff like this. He dug out the telephone numbers of some of the missing staff from their personnel files and tried to call them to find out where they were, but none of the phones were working. The damn lines were still down.
Let’s just get on with it, Simon decided. It was half-past nine, time to open to the public, and it was all down to him as usual. He walked the length of the banking hall, unlocked the heavy wooden doors and pulled them open.
Nothing happened. A few random figures in the street stopped and turned to see what the noise was but, other than that, nothing. Simon remembered a time when the banking hall would have been filled with an endless queue of customers all day every Monday, and how that queue would have been hanging out of the door first thing. How things had changed.
He wandered back behind the security screen and took up his position behind his till.
Simon didn’t mind hard work. He could cope with an in-tray piled high with papers and a huge queue of customers; none of that bothered him just as long as everyone was pulling his or her weight. He’d happily work until midnight if everyone else worked that late too. But today that just wasn’t happening. He was already annoyed by the number of staff who hadn’t shown for work, but what really bothered him was he was the only one actually doing anything.
It was almost midday. The bank had been slowly filling with customers for the last half-hour. After waiting until almost eleven o’clock before the first customer of the day had appeared, a scruffy bunch of punters had now dragged themselves up the concrete wheelchair access ramp and through the swinging doors. Unsavoury looking types, they hadn’t actually seemed to want anything, and had just wandered up and down on the other side of the glass panel which separated the back-office from the public area. Simon had shouted for them to come to his till. They’d crowded around his position when they heard his voice and had slammed their hands and faces against the glass, but he still didn’t know what it was they actually wanted.
Behind the counter, absolutely nothing was happening. Simon glanced back over his shoulder occasionally and shook his head with despair. What a bunch of lazy bastards. There he was, trying his best to deal with the public, while they all just sat there and did nothing. Janice hadn’t moved from her computer and Tom was still on the floor. Statham – inexperienced, overpaid and bloody useless in Simon’s opinion – was still pacing up and down in his office. None of them had lifted a damn finger to help him all morning.
Usually he could take it. Usually he would just stand at his till and stew in silence or find a reason to disappear off to the stationery room and hide there for as long as he could, but today was different. Today it wasn’t that the others were doing very little, they were doing absolutely nothing. Simon wasn’t going to let them take advantage of him any longer. He’d had enough. Maybe it was the way his family had been treating him which pushed him over the edge? Or the deteriorating state of the country? Or was it the fact that even the customers in the banking hall (and there were many more of them now) were ignoring him too? He couldn’t go on like this: no heat or light, no computers or telephone, and not even any money in his bloody till. The balance had been tipped and it was time to do something about the situation, once and for all. For the first time in as long as he could remember he was ready to stand up for himself and speak his mind.
‘Staff meeting,’ he announced. The bodies in the banking hall responded to his voice and pushed themselves against the glass, desperately inquisitive. A short distance away, Brian Statham’s body also threw itself against the door of its office. Unperturbed, Simon slid his ‘till closed’ sign into position and locked his drawers. ‘I want a staff meeting right now,’ he demanded. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’
Ignoring the rotting clientele on the other side of the counter Simon flung open the door of the manager’s office. Statham’s body lurched towards him.
‘We need to talk, Brian,’ he said as he shoved the decaying bank manager back into the room and blocked the way out with a desk. ‘Things just can’t go on like this. I’ll get the others.’
Feeling strangely empowered, Simon went back out into the main office. He grabbed Janice Phelps’ shoulder and peeled her off her computer, then tipped her back on her swivel chair and wheeled her through to the manager’s room. Tom Compton was heavier and a little more awkward. He put his arms under the dead man’s shoulders, dragged him along the floor, and dumped him into one of the padded customer chairs on the other side of the office. He was bloody heavy. Simon had to use all his strength to get him in and sit him down.
With Statham trapped behind his desk and the other two now in position, Simon took the floor. ‘You all know me pretty well,’ he began, trembling with nerves and hoping the others couldn’t tell. ‘I’m a reasonable man and I’ll do whatever’s expected of me.’ He paused and looked at the lifeless faces surrounding him. The ignorant bastards weren’t even listening. He continued regardless. ‘We’ve all got a role to play here. Now in the past you might have thought you were better than me and that your jobs were more important than mine, but I want to put things straight. We’re all small cogs in a much bigger machine.’ He paused again, pleased with the cliché he’d just used. ‘Without me none of you would be able to do your jobs properly. Without me this branch wouldn’t function.’
Simon paused for a moment to let the others fully absorb the importance of what he was saying. Almost on cue Tom’s body slid off its chair, its head thudding against the wall on the way down. Simon, thrown off his stride momentarily, seethed with anger. He picked up the corpse and shoved it back onto its seat.
‘You see,’ he yelled, finding it hard to keep his temper in check, ‘that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. You all think it’s funny, don’t you? You think you can all have a good laugh at my expense. Well you can’t, not any more. I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of being the butt of all your stupid bloody jokes and having to do all the donkey work. It’s not fair, and it’s going to stop.’
Statham’s corpse became increasing animated as Simon raised his voice. The others failed to respond, however. Their lack of reaction incensed him.
‘How dare you?’ he screamed. ‘How dare you treat me like this? Show some respect, will you? I’ve been working flat out all morning while you’ve been sat on your backsides doing nothing. If I stopped working, this place would grind to a halt. Well, things are going to change round here. I’m not going to carry you anymore, do you hear me? From now on you’re on your own.’
Simon grabbed Janice Phelps by the scruff of her neck and screamed into her green-tinged face. ‘Are you even listening to me?’
Janice wasn’t, but the other bodies in the banking hall clearly were. The dead hordes began to beat their rotting fists against the walls, driven wild by the desperate man’s voice. Simon ignored them as best he could. ‘There’s not a lot that any of us can do today, not until the power comes back on,’ he continued, his voice now fractionally calmer. ‘I’m going to shut the branch and I suggest we all go home. We’ll come back tomorrow morning and try again, okay?’
He looked around the room but no one said anything. The hammering on the wall behind him continued unabated.
Simon remained standing in the middle of the manager’s office for a moment, surrounded by his dead colleagues, and he realised he actually felt a little better. The others hadn’t agreed with him but, unusually, they hadn’t banded together and turned against him either. More importantly, he’d just taken a managerial decision and no one had argued. Could it be that he was about to be shown some respect? Had the rest of them finally realised just how important he was to this branch and to the company? Bloody hell, he thought, maybe he should try the same approach when he got back home tonight? Maybe he could make his family listen too?
‘I’m going to lock up,’ he said, his voice suddenly cocksure and uncharacteristically strong.
Simon still had the key in his pocket from when he’d opened up hours earlier. Brimming with unexpected confidence he stepped over the outstretched feet of Tom’s body (which had slid off the chair again) and left the manager’s room. He walked through the back-office to the security door which separated the staff area from the customers. Security conscious and procedure-driven as always, he peered through the fish-eye lens viewing hole before going through.
Bloody hell, the banking hall was full of customers now. Now this was how it should be on a Monday. With no computers working and no cash in his till he couldn’t serve any of them of course, so he’d just have to go out and make an announcement. He’d tell the customers what was going to happen in exactly the same way he’d just told the staff. He was getting pretty damn good at taking charge.
A deep breath and he opened the door. A huge mass of rotting flesh immediately surged towards him. Oblivious to the danger, Simon pushed deeper into the crowd, wading through, fighting to keep moving forward as the dead pushed against him.
‘If I could have your attention for a second please, ladies and gentlemen,’ he shouted, struggling to stay upright. Another wave of decaying corpses from the general direction of the main entrance knocked him off-balance. He was being pushed further back into the building and he reached out to try and steady himself. The movement of the bodies shoved him back against the wooden counter. He climbed up onto the other side of his till position and stood tall above the crowd. Before trying to speak again he brushed himself down. He was covered in stains from the customers. He picked bits of them off his shirt and tie.
‘Now look,’ he shouted, ‘I’m sorry but we’ve got some problems here today. Our computer systems are down and staff shortages mean that we’ve not been able to get into the safe. I apologise for any inconvenience, but I’m going to have to ask you all to leave. If you’d like to come back tomorrow morning I’m sure we’ll be able to . . .’
Another forward surge from the crowd distracted him. The sound of his voice seemed to be generating plenty of interest and the bank was filling up now instead of emptying. More and more customers were trying to get inside. The situation was getting out of hand.
‘Please listen. I realise this is unusual and I understand you’ve all been inconvenienced, but I do need your cooperation. There really is nothing more I can do for you today. Come back tomorrow when I’ll be more than happy to help . . .’
But they still weren’t listening. Even more people were coming into the building. Simon couldn’t stand it when people didn’t listen to him.
‘Let’s have some respect here,’ he yelled, shouting at the top of his voice again to make sure even the people still struggling to get inside could hear him. ‘A little common-sense, please . . .’
Simon had gradually edged further and further along the counter. He now found himself at the far end of the banking hall, opposite the doors he’d originally come out here to close. Between him and the other end of the long, narrow space was a mass of at least a hundred furious customers. He looked down into the faces of the nearest few. Christ, they looked riled. If he wasn’t careful this situation might turn nasty. He banged on the wall behind him, hoping one of the others in the manager’s room would come and help. None of them did. The staff meeting which he’d called seemed now to be continuing in his absence.
‘Could I have a hand out here please,’ he shouted, watching anxiously as another wave of bodies attempted to cram themselves into the already tightly-packed building. ‘Tom, Brian . . . could one of you come and—’
His words were abruptly cut short when several of the corpses, with nowhere else to go, reached up for him. One of them managed to catch hold of his bank uniform trousers. He tried to pull away but lost his footing and slipped down from the counter, falling into the bodies like a bizarre middle-aged crowd surfer at a concert. Fearing for his safety, he covered his head with his hands and curled himself up into a ball. Then, crawling on his hands and knees across the heavily stained terracotta carpet, he began to move, weaving between the decomposing feet which surrounded him. For a fraction of a second he wondered if he should try to help get the others out, but he knew he couldn’t go back. It was too late. The momentary flickering flame of defiance which had burned briefly today had been extinguished just as quickly as it had been lit. Terrified, he closed his eyes and kept pushing forward, working his way around the bodies. He accidentally knocked a handful of them down and they fell into each other like dominos, only to be trampled by others. He kept on moving, forcing himself forward inch by painfully slow inch until he was level with the front door of the bank. Should he try and stand up to close and lock it? Hating himself for being so weak, Simon instead kept on crawling until he was out of the building, and had made it down the ramp and onto the street. The crowd slightly thinner there, he picked himself up and started to run, glancing back at the overrun bank before sprinting home.
Ten o’clock. A half-eaten can of cold baked beans and three-quarters of a bottle of whiskey later.
The house was silent, save for the occasional thump from Matthew, who really should have been in bed by now. Simon sat alone in darkness at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He couldn’t stop thinking about the events of the day now ending. It was bad enough that he’d left the bank wide open and abandoned his colleagues, but that wasn’t the worst of it. For a moment back there, he’d actually felt like somebody. It had felt good. It had felt damn good. But he’d been brought back down to earth with a bang. The reality was he was still a nobody. A forty-seven year old stationery clerk and cashier with no prospects, a family that had virtually disowned him, and an increasingly uncertain future. Maybe he should accept the hand that had been dealt him and just get on with it? Stick with what you know, that had always been one of his late father’s favourite sayings. Don’t take risks and don’t take chances. We’re not all made for great things. The world will always need the little men too. Stick with what you know.
Simon got up and walked out into the hallway, dragging his feet. He paused to look out at the dark crowd of bodies at the end of his drive before climbing the stairs to bed, a final generous tumbler of whiskey in his hand. He undressed, put his dirty shirt in the washing basket with all the others, then put on his pyjamas. He could still hear Matthew banging around in his bedroom. Bloody teenagers. He should be resting or studying. One day my son, he thought, all these problems will be yours. If only he knew what he had to put up with every day. His attitude would soon change if he was the one who had to face the daily indignities and humiliations of office politics. Christ, he hoped Matthew didn’t make the same mistakes he had. If he’d worked harder at school and not just taken the first job he’d been offered after leaving . . .
No point dwelling on all that now, he thought as he climbed into bed beside June. She had her back to him, still in the same position as he’d left her this morning. She hadn’t done the washing or the shopping. In fact, it looked like she’d spent another day in bed. Bloody hell, she didn’t know how easy she had it.
He wrapped his arm around his wife’s rapidly putrefying torso and pulled her close. He wished she’d talk to him. He didn’t want to go to sleep yet. He wanted someone to listen to his problems and tell him he was doing his best, that it was the rest of them who’d got it wrong. But June wasn’t interested, and the silence was deafening.
Simon felt humiliated and let down by everyone, even those closest to him. He’d tried so hard today but, ultimately, all he’d done was make matters worse. Christ, how was he going to face them all at work tomorrow?