The Classroom (excerpt from Autumn)

An excerpt from the opening of AUTUMN.

Michael Collins stood in front of a class of thirty-three fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, tongue-tied and terrified. Under his breath he cursed Steve Wilkins, his idiot of a boss, for forcing him to do this. He hated public speaking and he hated kids, teenagers especially. He remembered having to sit through things like this when he was at school. ‘Industry into Schools’ days they used to be called: days when, instead of listening to their teacher drone on for hours, kids were instead made to listen to unwilling volunteers like him telling them how wonderful the job was, no matter how much they really despised their work. Michael hated compromising himself like this, but he didn’t have any choice. Wilkins had made it perfectly clear that his performance today would be directly linked to the quarterly bonus he was due to receive at the end of this month. Wilkins had come out with some bullshit about how his middle managers were ‘figureheads of the company’. Michael knew that in reality, his middle managers were just there for him to hide behind.

‘You gonna say anything?’ a scrawny kid in a baseball cap sneered. Michael tried to stay calm and not react, but the way his sheaf of notes were shaking was probably making his nervousness obvious to the entire class. Sadistic teenagers were always quick to seize on any apparent weakness.

‘The work we do at Carradine Computers is extremely varied and interesting,’ he began, his voice wavering as he lied through his teeth. ‘We’re responsible for—’

‘Sir—!’ a lad said from the middle of the room, waving his hand frantically in the air and grinning.

‘What is it?’ Michael answered, almost against his better judgement.

‘I think you should just give up now, sir. No one’s listening!’

The rest of the class – those who weren’t reading magazines, drawing on their desks or listening to music through barely-concealed earphones – began to jeer. Some at least tried to hide their sniggers behind their hands; others rocked back on their chairs and laughed out loud. Michael looked to the teacher at the back of the class for support, but the moment he made eye contact with her, she looked away.

‘As I was saying,’ he continued, not knowing what else to do, ‘we look after a wide range of clients, from small, one-man firms to multinational corporations. We advise them on the right software to use, the systems to buy and—’

Another interruption, this one more physical as a fight broke out in one corner of the room. One boy had another in a headlock.

‘James Clyde, cut it out,’ the teacher yelled. ‘Anyone would think you didn’t want to listen to Mr Collins.’

Great. As if the apathetic behaviour of the students wasn’t bad enough, now even the teacher was being sarcastic. Suddenly the stifled laughter was released and the whole room was out of control. Michael threw his notes down onto the desk and was about to walk out when he noticed a girl in the far corner of the room, who was coughing. It cut right through the rest of the chaotic noise, and sounded horribly painful – a rasping, hacking scream of a cough, which sounded as if each painful convulsion was ripping out the very insides of her throat. He took a few steps towards her and then stopped. Her choking was the only sound he could hear; the rest of the room had become silent. He watched as her head jerked forward, showering her hands and her desk with sticky strings of sputum and splashes of blood. She looked up at him, her wide eyes terrified. He realised she was suffocating.

Michael glanced at the teacher again and this time she stared back at him, fear and confusion clear on her face. She began to massage her own neck.

A boy on the other side of the room began to cough and wheeze. He got halfway out of his seat, then fell back again. A girl just behind began to cry and then to cough. The teacher tried to stand, but instead fell out of her seat and hit the floor… Within thirty seconds of the first girl starting to cough, every single person in the room was tearing at their throats, fighting to breathe. Every single person except Michael.

Numb with shock and not knowing what to do or where to go to get help, Michael moved jerkily back towards the classroom door. He tripped over a student’s bag and grabbed hold of the nearest desk to steady himself. A girl’s hand slammed down onto his and he stared into her face, deathly white save for dark trickles of crimson blood which ran down her chin and dripped onto her desk. He pulled his hand away and opened the classroom door.

The noise inside the room had been horrific enough, but out here it was even worse. Screams of agony were ringing out through the entire school. From every classroom, and from the more remote places – assembly halls, gymnasiums, workshops, kitchens and offices – the morning air was filled with the terrifying noise of hundreds of children and adults suffocating, choking to death.

By the time Michael had walked the length of the corridor and was halfway down the stairs to the main entrance, the school was silent. A boy was sprawled on the ground at the foot of the stairs. He crouched down next to him and cautiously reached out his hand, pulling it away again as soon as he touched his skin. It felt clammy and unnatural, almost like wet leather. Forcing himself to overcome his fear, he rolled the boy over onto his back. Like the kids in the classroom, his face was ghostly-white, and his lips and chin smeared with blood and spittle. Michael leant down as close as he dared and put his ear next to his mouth, praying that he would hear even the slightest sounds of breathing. It was no use. He was dead.

Michael walked out into the cool September sunlight and crossed the empty playground. Just one glance at the devastated world beyond the school gates was enough for him to know that whatever had happened inside the building had happened outside too. Random fallen bodies littered the streets for as far as he could see.

He didn’t know what to do. He considered his options as he walked: one, go back to work and look for people there? Two, try the hospitals and police stations? He decided on option three: to go home, change his clothes and pack a bag, then head deeper into town. He couldn’t be the only one left alive.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition