The Garden Shed

An Englishman’s home is his castle, or so they used to say…

Lester Prescott thrives on order and uniformity. His home is pristine and perfect and is situated in a relatively well-to-do residential area. He is well respected socially and is the most accurate and productive accountant ever to have been employed by the firm of Ashcroft, Jenkins and Harman. Lester Prescott thinks in black and white. Show a child a cardboard box and they’ll turn it into a spaceship, a plane, a car, a robot suit or whatever else their uninhibited imaginations can create. As far as Lester Prescott is concerned, however, a cardboard box is, was and could only ever be a cardboard box.

Last Tuesday morning, more than seven billion people were killed by the most virulent virus ever to blight the face of the planet. Much to his surprise, Lester Prescott survived. As you’d expect, this most pedantic and ordered man is struggling to deal with the aftermath.

The Garden Shed by Antony White

Lester Prescott thrives on order and uniformity. His pristine home is situated in a relatively well-to-do residential area. He is well respected socially and is the most accurate and productive accountant ever to have been employed by Ashcroft, Jenkins and Harman. Lester Prescott thinks in black and white. Show a child a cardboard box and they’ll turn it into a spaceship, a plane, a car, a robot suit or whatever else their uninhibited imaginations can create. As far as Lester Prescott is concerned, however, a cardboard box is, was and only ever could be a cardboard box.

Lester often finds it difficult to connect with people. Although tries hard, over the years he has proved himself to be a boring and dull husband, an unimaginative lover and, perhaps worst of all, a disappointment as a father. People’s emotions and reactions cannot be governed by procedures, and that frustrates him. Their lives are never as clear cut and predictable as the columns of figures he can understand and interpret with ease. He struggles with spontaneity.

Lester and his long-suffering wife, Janice, have been married for twenty-seven years. For twenty-five of those years they’ve lived in the same semi-detached house a third of the way down Baker Road West. Twenty-three years ago next month their daughter Madeline was born. An only child, Maddy left home at the age of eighteen to study. She loves her parents dearly but only sees them when she absolutely has to. She recently qualified as a nurse and now works in a large hospital on the other side of town.

Last Tuesday morning, Janice, Maddy and more than six billion other people were struck down by the most virulent virus ever to blight the face of the planet. Most unexpectedly, Lester Prescott survived.

Day eight ends and day nine begins. What will this day bring? This last week has been harder than I could ever have imagined. None of it makes any sense. I’ve started coming here at night to Maddy’s room to try and understand. I sit on the end of her bed and remember how things used to be. The room is just as she left it when she went to university. Mother and I didn’t see any point changing anything until she’d got herself married and settled down in her own home. It’ll never happen now, of course. Our home is a little oasis of normality in a world gone completely mad.

The chain of events which began last Tuesday are still as inexplicable today as when they first happened. It began like any other Tuesday at the offices of AJH. I arrived at work at ten to eight, got my desk ready and then started on my figures. Bill Ashcroft, the senior partner, was the first person I saw die. He was talking to his secretary Allison when it took him, and I then watched it work its way through the entire office, killing everyone, and I just sat there in the middle of it all, helpless and too afraid to move, waiting for my turn. I still don’t understand why I escaped, but before I knew it I was the only one left alive.

I left the office as quickly as I could, stopping only to put my papers away, lock my desk, pack my briefcase and fetch my newspaper and coat from the cloakroom.

The journey home was harrowing and painfully slow. Outside it was as if someone had simply flicked a switch: everyone seemed to have died at almost exactly the same moment. I saw hundreds of bodies, thousands even. It seemed to take forever to work my way back home through the chaos.

I had been thinking about Janice and Maddy constantly since leaving the office, and I’d hoped to return home to find Janice sitting there waiting for me. After all, I seemed to have survived, so why shouldn’t she have too? But it wasn’t to be. I found her in the kitchen, lying on her back on the floor in an inch and a half of water. The tap had been left running and the room was awash. Dear Janice was soaked through. I set to work sorting things out straight away. I dried her off as best I could, then wrapped her in a blanket and covered her with black plastic refuse sacks which I taped up. It wasn’t an easy or pleasant task but I managed to get it done. It seemed a little undignified at the time, but I was acting in accordance with the instructions from the government anti-terror information booklet we received last summer. Janice often used to mock me because, by nature, I am occasionally pedantic and perhaps a little obsessive. She used to say that my attention to detail was infuriating, but thank goodness I am that way is all I can say. As a result of the filing system I use in my study I was able to find the booklet immediately and deal with my wife’s body quickly, humanely and hygienically, just as instructed.

As I worked to move Janice’s body and clean up the mess in the kitchen I kept a constant eye out for Maddy. I felt sure she’d be home before long and I wanted to make sure that Mother had been properly dealt with before she arrived. My mood darkened with every minute. As if losing my closest companion wasn’t enough, with each second that passed it appeared increasingly likely that my only child was gone too. Eventually, at half-past one that afternoon, I decided I couldn’t sit and wait any longer and so I set out to find her. I took my pedal bike from the garage, but once again my progress was frustratingly slow. I arrived at the hospital after an hour and ten minutes hard cycling, and immediately started to look for her. According to her timetable she should have been on duty but I couldn’t find her there. I had an awful time searching through the bodies on the ward for Maddy. So many poor, innocent people had lost their lives so suddenly and without explanation…

When I couldn’t find her in any of the areas I knew she covered, I worked my way back from the hospital to the house she shared with her friends Jenny and Suzanne. It was there that I found our little girl in her front yard, lying face down in the grass. Such a cruel, undignified end to such a beautiful young life. It broke my heart to see her like that. I packed her things, then used her car to bring her back home so I could deal with her body as I had Mother’s.

I read through the government booklet again that afternoon. It said that the bodies of the deceased should be buried away from the house. I dragged them both the length of the garden to the small area of lawn between the garden shed and Maddy’s old swing. We gave her that swing on her sixth birthday but Mother and I decided we’d keep it even after she’d grown up and stopped using it. It was always there to remind us of her. She used to have so much fun playing on it with her friends. Even now whenever I look at it I see young Maddy swinging in the summer sunshine. We’d hoped we’d have grandchildren to use it one day.

I unlocked the shed and went inside.

The garden shed has always been my escape. As well as being a very practical and convenient storage space, it was also a quiet little haven where I could sit and work or read my paper or listen to sport on the radio without interruption. Maddy and her mother liked their television and their soap operas but I couldn’t abide the constant noise. Quite often – almost daily in the summer months, certainly most weekends – I would shut myself away in the shed and relax in my own company with a cup of tea or a wee glass of something stronger.

Before I picked up my tools I sat down in my chair in the corner of the shed and tried to take stock of all that had happened. Sitting there it was hard to comprehend the enormity and finality of events and I could scarcely believe that my wife and daughter’s bodies lay just inches away. With tears in my eyes I looked around the little wooden hut and remembered all I had lost. On the wall opposite I stored the summer things that Maddy and her mother used to use; plastic patio furniture, sun-loungers and deck chairs, garden games and the like. In a small wooden box tucked away in one corner I found a collection of brightly coloured buckets and spades which I had again kept for those grandchildren we’d now never have. They reminded me of summer holidays long gone where Maddy, Mother and I would play on the beach in the blistering sun. Distant memories now…

With a heavy heart I stood, picked up my spade and the garden edging tool, and set to work. I took a rough measurement of the length and width of Maddy’s body (she was slightly taller and thicker set than her mother) and marked out the shape of the two graves in the turf close together. I carefully lifted the turf and then spent the next two hours digging before placing them both in their plots. Although we used to go to church most Sundays I wasn’t quite sure what I should say before I buried their bodies. It was difficult to think of the right words. I loved them both very much but I’ve always found it hard to properly express my feelings. Being gushing, emotional and romantic is something I’ve always struggled with, much to Janice’s chagrin. In any event I thanked God for their lives as I thought I should, and I asked that they would now find peace. I was confident they would, but I was less sure about what the future held in store for me.

I’m not the kind of man to sit there feeling sorry for himself. I wouldn’t have been doing anyone any favours if I’d done nothing. I spent a lot of time during the first two days of the crisis trying to understand what had happened, but I soon realised it was impossible. I read through the government booklet again but it was of little use. It kept talking about how the authorities would help and how I should wait for further instructions. I was ready to wait, but I was pretty certain that no instructions would ever be forthcoming. As far as I could tell (and I didn’t do anything to verify the validity of my supposition) I was the only man left alive.

I started to plan. It’s in my nature. I had plenty of food in the house, but I knew I needed more: I needed to be ready to fend for myself for a long, long time. With that in mind I took the car around to the shops and started to collect supplies: food, cleaning materials, clothing, bedding, medicines… even books, paper and pens. I had already realised how important it would be to keep myself occupied, both physically and mentally. I had written a comprehensive list of things I needed, several pages long, and I managed to get just about everything on it. It didn’t feel right taking goods without paying, but I had no means of making payment and no one to make payment to. I made a duplicate list – a ledger if you like – of what I’d taken and noted the cost of each individual item. When some semblance of normality finally returned, I decided, I would go back and settle my debts. The proprietors of the various shops I visited, if any had survived, would undoubtedly understand.

The third morning was as disorientating as the previous two. Just when I was beginning to get used to my situation, it changed again. On the third morning many of the bodies suddenly got back up onto their feet again. When I saw the first of them I hoped that was the end of it, that this was the first indication of an impending return to normality. It quickly became clear that was not going to be the case. The bodies which moved were uniformly unresponsive and slow. I stood out in the middle of the road in front of the house and stopped Judith Springer from number 19 as she staggered past the end of the drive. I had known both Judith and her husband Roy for many years. She looked the same as always (save for a few unpleasant signs of deterioration) but she failed to react as a normal human being should. For goodness sake, she wasn’t even breathing!

I shut my door on the rest of the world again and went through to the back of the house. What about Maddy and her mother? Had their condition changed also? I found myself faced with the bizarre and repulsive, yet still very real possibility that the wife and daughter I had buried two days earlier might now be trying to escape from their graves, digging their way back out through the dirt I’d shovelled over them. I made my way through to the back garden and crouched down next to the two slightly raised humps in the turf. There had been no change as far as I could see. I didn’t know what to do for the best. I lay there and put my ear to the ground and listened but I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t feel any movement. I reassured myself that not all of the bodies outside had moved. Had I just buried Maddy and her mother too deep for them to get out? In the terror of the moment I seriously contemplated exhuming their bodies, but what would that have achieved? What difference would it have made if they could move? Judith Springer was most certainly dead, despite the fact that she was somehow mobile again. I decided it was kinder both to Maddy and her mother to leave them both where they were and preserve what remained of their dignity.

I sat out in the garden shed again that afternoon and read a book and occasionally dozed. My sleep was punctuated with desperate dreams; twisted nightmares about my dead daughter and wife. It was almost dark when I woke and went back inside. The low light increased my unease. I regretted having slept and I tossed and turned all night in bed.

As the situation outside continued to change, I made a conscious effort to try and keep myself positive and motivated. I had left the car parked on the drive and had stored the provisions I’d collected at the far end of the garage. In fact, I had amassed such an impressive mountain of supplies that it filled almost the entire length of the cold, rectangular room. On the morning of the fourth day I sat at my desk in the study and made a list of my daily dietary requirements. I used reference books, our family medical dictionary and an encyclopaedia to calculate the minimum I would need to eat each day to survive. I then spent the entire day in the garage, dividing the tins, boxes and bags of food into equal-sized daily allowances, making sure there were sufficient levels of the various vitamins, proteins and whatever other chemicals I needed for each day. I also allowed myself a daily luxury – a can of beer or a packet of sweets for example. It quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to get quite everything I needed from my provisions. I decided I would have to look at fetching vitamin and mineral supplements when I next went out, if they proved necessary. During the day it also occurred to me that none of the food I had was fresh. Perhaps, I thought to myself, I could start trying to grow my own vegetables if my situation remained unchanged for any length of time. Janice and I had always maintained a small vegetable plot, but I would probably need to expand the operation over the coming year. Sitting there on the garage floor surrounded by packages of food rations, I found the idea of having to fend for myself on such a basic level strangely exciting.

I worked long and hard that day, and by eight o’clock when the light had begun to fade, I was finished. On the garage floor lay forty-three separate food parcels, one for each of the next forty-three days. I tried not to think of them as rations but that, in effect, was what they were. Talk of rationing made it sound like wartime, but it most certainly wasn’t. For me to have been at war I needed an enemy, and at that moment in time I was very definitely alone and unchallenged, despite the ghoulish creatures drifting along the streets outside in ever increasing numbers. I locked the side garage door, and let myself back into the house.

Things changed again on the morning of day five.

When I threw back the curtains I found myself looking down upon a street scene very different to the previous evening. Outside my house a vast crowd of people had gathered. Initially elated, I dressed and readied myself to go out and see what they wanted. These people – although similar in appearance to the empty souls I’d seen previously – behaved differently. They were definitely gravitating around my home with a purpose, not just drifting by. I stood outside, separated from the crowd by the metal gate across the end of the drive, and for what felt like an eternity nothing happened. I didn’t know what to say. The faces of the people were vacant, and they seemed to look through me as if I wasn’t there. The nearest few figures were being continually jostled and pushed against the gate by those immediately behind, and yet they didn’t protest or stand their ground. I tried to speak to them but they didn’t acknowledge my words. Every time I opened my mouth there was a ripple of sudden movement (bordering on muted excitement) throughout the crowd, but not one of them seemed capable of responding properly. I lost my temper. Perhaps it was just my frustration getting the better of me? Whatever the reason, I ended up shouting and screaming at them like a madman, desperate for someone to answer or even just acknowledge me. It was an embarrassing show of uncontrolled emotion which I immediately regretted.

I returned to the house and stood at the bedroom window and continued to watch. Although the behaviour of the bodies outside had changed somewhat, it occurred to me that my overall situation had not. Ultimately, what the sick people on the other side of the gate did or didn’t do had no bearing on my survival. There had been no substantial change in either my situation or my priorities: I had to continue to fend for myself. As the government booklet said, I needed to sit and wait for help to arrive.

I could see more and more of the bodies approaching from various directions, perhaps drawn to the house as a result of my undignified rant in the street earlier. Whatever the reason, with little else happening in the neighbourhood it seemed that my home was rapidly becoming the centre of attention. It dawned on me that with everything else dead and silent around me, there was nothing else to distract them, and more and more of them would undoubtedly keep coming. I decided that I had few options: I could lock the doors, close the curtains and sit and wait until they disappeared again, or I could pack up now and run. After having worked so long and so hard for everything I owned I knew there was no way I could bring myself to leave home, especially not now that my beloved family were buried in the back garden. I was going to stay.

Although accountancy was my chosen vocation, I have always had a talent for working with my hands and am immensely proud of some of the improvements I have made around the house over the years. I made furniture for Maddy’s room, I decorated throughout (several times), I re-glazed a few windows and I laid the patio and built a low brick wall around it. On top of that I devised and constructed practical storage solutions in the attic, the garage, the study, the utility room and the shed. There was much that could be done to make my property more secure.

I approached the strengthening of the house with real relish and planned it meticulously. If nothing else, the project would keep me occupied for a few days at least and being occupied would help the dragging hours pass more quickly.

I needed to go out to the hardware store and get materials; timber, fixings, tools and various other bits and pieces. I couldn’t get the car off the drive. The crowd around the front of the house was more than fifty bodies deep in places now. Even if I had been able to get the car onto the road, in doing so I would inevitably have allowed the crowd to get closer to my property. I didn’t relish the prospect of trying to herd the uncooperative throng back onto the street.

When we first moved into Baker Road West there had been a large expanse of grassland beyond the fence at the bottom of our garden. Five and a half years ago the council sold the land to a housing developer who built more than double the sensible number of houses they should have. I certainly would never have considered buying a plot there. They were packed together and the gardens were virtually non-existent. I had an acquaintance who lived there and I dropped him back home after golf on a couple of occasions. The estate was like a rabbit warren, a twisting maze of cul-de-sacs, groves and avenues which all looked the same. To squeeze more homes in, many of the later phases were built with garages at the bottom of their gardens with access from a communal road leading across the back of several properties. By chance, one of the road led across the back of my property also. Although I hadn’t yet solved the problem of getting to the hardware store, this road provided me with a convenient means of getting everything back to the house when I returned.

I decided to walk. As potentially dangerous as it might have sounded, it also seemed the most sensible option. I climbed over the back fence, crept down the road, then quietly made my way down to the hardware centre at the bottom of the hill. The store catered for trade as well as the general public. There were trucks and vans which could be hired to help transport bulky loads (I’d hired one previously when I built the patio) and I decided I would use one again to move the equipment and materials.

In a little under two hours I was done. My trip was with little incident, save for a few uncomfortable moments in the hardware store car park when another crowd of dishevelled people gathered around the front of the building after I had gone inside. I took my time and moved around quietly, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. I used the trade entrance at the rear of the building to load up a small flat-bed truck, and was done before any of them saw me. Once home I parked the truck on the other side of the back fence and heaved everything over. I left the truck parked where it was just in case I needed to use it again.

The people in the streets had become increasingly inquisitive. I couldn’t do anything without huge swathes of lethargically shuffling individuals following my every move. They appeared washed out and empty, and although they were individually easy to brush away, their incessant, unwanted attention made me uncomfortable. If they continued to come, I thought to myself, the house might be surrounded by incalculable numbers and I might end up using the hardware store truck as a means of escape. I couldn’t imagine leaving, and I decided it was more important than ever to make my property as strong and secure as possible.

I began at the front of the house. My place is already separated from the road by a knee-high brick wall topped with iron railings, a strong iron gate. It seemed sensible to increase the height of the barrier, to completely block the house and myself from view as far as was possible. I sank a row of six-foot concrete posts into the flower bed directly behind the wall, then placed fence panels between them. I then used nylon rope and chains to secure a split panel onto the gate, which I locked with chains and a hefty padlock I had taken from the store. The front of the house was the hardest place to work. The relentless interest of the people on the street was unsettling. On more than one occasion I had to push them back to get them out of the way. I asked them to move but the bloody things seemed incapable of any positive response and in the end I had to manhandle them off the drive.

I did a beautiful job on the ground floor doors. In a moment of inspiration I decided to build a second timber frame around each entrance and fitted new doors on top of the existing ones. Solid wooden fire doors, separately hinged and able to open independently. Perfect. I did something similar with the windows, making wooden shutters which completely blocked out the light. I couldn’t help but make a terrific amount of noise as I fitted them. I had no option but to drill into the masonry around the windows and doors. I could see over the newly raised fence from the top of the ladder whilst at the front of the house, and I was able to see the dramatic effect the noise was having on the people in the street. Some of them began to bang angrily on my new gate. At times the noise they made threatened to drown out the sound of my drill. I was almost relieved when the battery pack ran out.

It took the best part of two days to make the house as secure as I wanted it. By the time I’d finished I was exhausted. I worked whenever it was light, knowing I would have plenty of time to stop and rest once the job was complete. At six-thirty on Tuesday evening – more than a week since this nightmare started – I sat out on the lawn next to Maddy and her mother and looked back at the house with pride. They would have been impressed with what I’d achieved. If nothing else they would have been proud of the fact I had survived when so many others had fallen. Perhaps Janice wouldn’t have been too keen on the aesthetic side of the alterations, but she’d have surely appreciated their practicality. I sat between the graves of my wife and my daughter with a can of beer and the remainder of my daily rations and finally allowed myself to relax. The food and drink tasted better than ever. I had a normal appetite for the first time in days. Rationed food wasn’t so bad after all, I decided. I had a fairly wide selection of tastes and flavours in each day’s supply. I fully appreciated that my choices might become more limited as time progressed but, for now, it was more than sufficient.

I slept well last night.

This morning I found that the situation outside has deteriorated again. Things have suddenly become much less certain, and I feel increasingly unsure. Although the house remains secure, today the enormity of what has happened to the world has again become painfully apparent.

I lay lazily in bed for a while, resting after the efforts of the last two days. When I finally got up I went to the front of the house and opened several of the new wooden window shutters. I immediately saw that the crowd outside had more than doubled in size. It now stretched from one end of the street to the other – completely filling the entire length of Baker Road West – and initially I couldn’t understand why. Surely once I had finished work on the house and was out of sight the people outside should have drifted away, shouldn’t they? The bathroom window was open slightly and I listened. Although not one of them spoke, there was a constant and very definite noise coming from the unwanted masses. The sounds of shuffling feet, of bodies tripping and falling, of things being knocked over in the street and smashed, of tired hands being slammed against my fence… individually they were insignificant but when added together they became uncomfortably loud. I realised this was no longer a crowd which would simply drift away again. I could see even more people arriving and joining the fringes of the huge gathering.

I ran to the back of the house, thinking that if I did have to leave quickly I could use the hardware store truck which I’d left parked on the road behind the fence at the end of the garden, but it was no good. Standing on my stepladder, I looked over the fence and saw the truck was surrounded. Those bloody things had somehow found the entrance to the road and had filled it for as far as I could see in both directions. There were bloody hundreds of them out there, wedged in so tight they could hardly move.

The front of the house was cut off, as was the back. Increasingly concerned, I fetched my binoculars from the study and tried to make a full assessment of the situation. The news wasn’t good. My house – number forty-seven – is two-thirds of the way down Baker Road West which is a fairly straight road. To the left of my property, approximately two hundred and fifty yards (ten houses) away, is a large pub, The Highway. To my horror this morning, I saw from the bedroom window that the pub car park was full of even more people. The crowd was immense, dwarfing the numbers at the front and back of my house. And, worst of all, all that separated them from my garden and my house was eleven wooden fences. The fences around my property are all in relatively good repair, but the same couldn’t be said of those belonging to some of my neighbours. I would frequently see their fences wobbling in strong winds and I doubted whether they’d be able to withstand much force. I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that the mass of bodies in the car park would probably be able to exert more than enough collective pressure to bring them down.

At the other end of the road, almost out of sight from where I was watching, was another crowd of similar proportions to the one outside the house. What had I done? What an idiot I had been. I realised I was responsible for bringing all these people here. In my haste and enthusiasm to protect the house and make it secure, the noise I had made had inadvertently revealed my location to untold thousands of the damn things.

Did I sit and wait this out or take my chances and run? My two original choices seemed suddenly to have been slashed to one as I realised there was no obvious way of getting out.

I read through the government booklet again and again, hoping I’d find a page I’d somehow missed previously that might give me some idea of how to deal with this situation, but no matter how hard I stared at the pages, there was nothing. There was information on dealing with bomb threats, hostage situations, flu epidemics and terrorist attacks, basic first aid advice and a list of emergency telephone numbers (useless as the phone had been dead most of the week) but nothing to help me with the sudden and very real threat I was now facing. Apart from me the entire population had died, and now most of them had returned from the grave and were gravitating around my house. What the hell was I supposed to do?

During the course of the day now ending I have watched these crowds draw ever closer. Just before one this afternoon, the fence around the pub car park finally gave way under the collective weight of hundreds of bodies pushing against it. With the barrier down the people then pushed, shoved and surged to get into the first garden, only to then stop when they slammed into the next fence. It began to wobble and shake precariously but it remained intact for a time, finally falling about an hour and a half later when it could no longer withstand the pressure being exerted from behind. The strength of the crowd was incredible. As each fence collapsed it was as if a dam had burst its banks, and the people poured through like an unstoppable wave.

Bill Peters, who lived at number fifty-five, had a good, sturdy fence with concrete posts and a strong base which held up their progress for a while, but even Bill’s fence wasn’t good enough. They finally broke through at a quarter past four, leaving them just three gardens away from my home.

Day eight ends and day nine begins.

It’s a little before one in the morning, and I’m sitting alone in Maddy’s room watching them. I can see them from the end of the bed: hundreds, probably thousands of shifting, bobbing heads moving in the cold moonlight. The recent nights have been overcast and dark but tonight the sky is clear and the moon is full and I can see everything. I wish it would disappear back behind the clouds. I’d rather be blind to this.

Over the days I have done all I can to secure my small plot of land. This is my home, and everything I’ve ever worked for is here. This place is my world, and I’ll continue to defend it for as long as I’m able. But just now, sitting here alone, the emptiness of the place has struck me. Behind the double-strength doors and the window shutters and high fences, there’s nothing anymore. It’s just a shell. The house feels like a tomb.

I miss Janice and Maddy. I miss their conversation and their noise. I miss their soap operas and gossip.

I feel relatively calm. I’m nervous and I don’t want to face what’s I know is coming, but I will keep a level head. I have maintained my dignity and pride since this catastrophe began and I will continue to do so. There will be no kicking and screaming and no shame.

Oh, Christ… The splinter and crack of wood shatters the silence and another fence goes down. I can see that the crowd is closer than ever now, surging awkwardly across Pauline and Geoff Smart’s lawn and slamming against the fence on the other side of their garden. They are now just two properties away. It won’t be long.


The penultimate fence is down and a few thin wooden slats are all that separates the crowd from my home. I’m standing at the window now, looking directly at them. There doesn’t seem to be any point keeping out of sight any more; it won’t make any difference. Their progress is unstoppable. They’re coming here whatever.

This doesn’t feel right, hiding up here alone. I shouldn’t be cowering like this, just watching them, waiting for them to invade. I should be down there. I should be alongside Maddy and her mother when it happens. For goodness sake, it’s not the house I should be defending, it’s my family. All that effort making our home secure, when all along I should have been protecting my family.

Lester Prescott left his daughter’s room and shuffled across the landing to the bedroom he and Janice had shared for the last twenty-five years. Tired, and with a heavy heart, he opened the wardrobe and took out his favourite jumper. Threadbare and tattered, it was the jumper he always used to wear when he was out working in the garden at weekends. He pulled it on over his head and then sat down on the edge of the bed to tighten his shoe laces and pull up his socks.

He took one last long look around his home and then went outside, taking with him a few cans of beer from his supplies. He walked the length of the garden with pride, even now stopping to pick a weed from between the slabs on the patio and to tidy the edge of a flower-bed where the uncut grass had begun to encroach on Janice’s prized plants. He stopped when he reached the garden shed and looked down at the two uneven mounds in the lawn where he’d buried his wife and only child.

Seems a shame it all has to finish like this, he thought as he disappeared into the shed and fetched a spade and garden fork with which he could defend himself when the fence came down. He then squeezed his backside onto the seat of Maddy’s swing and looked back at the house. All that work, he thought. All those years of relentless number-crunching, day after day, week after week. Maybe he should have taken more time off? Perhaps he should have spent more time at home. And when he’d been at home, should he have spent more time sitting doing nothing with his family instead of working on his projects or hiding himself away in the garden shed? Lester opened his first beer and drank half of it in a series of quick, gassy gulps. He’d never been much of a drinker and it made him feel slightly sick. He belched and wiped his mouth and looked at the fence which was now rocking and shaking with the force of untold numbers of bodies on the other side. Hope the drink takes the edge off this fear, he thought, shaking his half-full can and stifling another belch.

Bloody hell, Lester said sadly to himself, this is like waiting to see the dentist. Let’s just get it over with.

Lester was on his final can when it happened. For the briefest of moments he’d actually become distracted with pointless, random thoughts about nothing in particular and he’d almost forgotten what was coming. The sudden sharp crack of splintering wood brought him crashing back to reality in an instant. He jumped to his feet and grabbed the garden fork, holding it out in front of him like a four-pronged bayonet.

The fence had given way at the other end of the garden, nearer to the house. It was difficult to see much from his present position, but he was vaguely aware of dark, swarming movement close to the garage door, frighteningly indistinct. The top of the fence, already weakened closer to the house, now began to dip and bow halfway up the garden. Lester watched as it dropped further and further down, finally falling so low that he could see the heads and shoulders of the advancing bodies on the other side. Their ultimate intent, although to a large degree still random and uncoordinated, was obvious and inevitable.

As the first few bodies began their stilted, awkward walk towards him, Lester took up position in front of the graves of his family. His heart began to thump angrily in his chest. What would they do to him? Were they capable of an attack or would they just trample him down? He couldn’t look away, his fear making it impossible to do anything but stare directly at the advancing shadowy shapes. He wanted to stop them. He didn’t care what they did to him, but he wanted to stop them from trampling the graves of his wife and daughter. I might not have been very good at telling you how I felt about you when you were alive, he thought, picturing Maddy and Janice in his head, but I can show you now…

As the closest bodies lifted their emaciated arms out for him, Lester lunged forward with the garden fork. He smashed into the chest cavity of the nearest cadaver, skewering it and sending it crashing to the ground. He wrenched the fork back out and swung it around at other sinewy figures, catching one of them on the side of the head, practically decapitating it. Fuelled by adrenalin and fear he attacked again, diving deeper into the crowd, desperate to defend his family’s honour. The final section of fence that was still standing now came down with a tremendous groan and crack and a heavy thump and hundreds more bodies poured into Lester’s garden. He wanted to keep fighting but he didn’t have room to move. They were surrounding him on all sides now, reaching out for him, grabbing at him tirelessly. Disorientated by the chaos, out of the corner of his eye he spied the dark silhouette of the garden shed and he ran towards it, pushing and kicking more bodies out of the way. He reached out for the door handle, knowing that the end of his life was close, running to delay the inevitable. He flung the door open and crashed inside. The door flapped shut in the wind behind him, the sudden noise leaving the mass of bodies in no doubt as to where he was hiding. Now sobbing uncontrollably, Lester collapsed into his deckchair in the corner and waited.

So many memories.

The garden shed – the coldest, weakest and most exposed part of his property – suddenly felt as reassuringly strong and warm as anywhere else. In the half-light he looked around and saw nothing but memories: the tools with which he and Janice had lovingly tended their small plot of land, the battered wooden tea-chest on which he used to leave his paper or his book and his drink when he dozed in the shed on long, relaxing Saturday afternoons, the plastic table and chairs which had been dragged out onto the patio each summer when they’d entertained family and friends… And finally the box of garden games and the buckets and spades and all those memories of being with Janice and Maddy. All about to be lost forever now. Most of it already gone. Lester knew he didn’t have long.

More through luck than judgement a single skeletal hand managed to wedge itself between the flapping door and the frame and pulled it open. The creature dragged itself into the shed, followed by an apparently endless queue of others. Do I know you? Lester got up and stared at the rotting shadow which lurched towards him. Were you once a friend? Someone I used to work with? Have I passed you on the street? Did I work on your accounts? The creature’s face, repellent in the cold moonlight and shadow, was vacant and unrecognisable. What gives you the right?

Lester tried to push the bodies away but their numbers were too great. One of the corpses trying to get inside tripped and fell, pushing those in front of it forward with unexpected force. Like dominoes they crashed into Lester and knocked him back. He slammed against the back wall of the shed unexpectedly, feeling a sudden stinging pain between his shoulders as the ten steel prongs of his garden rake punctured his skin. Anaesthetized by fear, it was more a disorientating discomfort than pain as such. Lester lifted his arms and shielded his face from the rotting bodies which continued to advance, pushing into him and forcing the spikes deeper into his back.

Warm, he thought to himself as blood from the puncture wounds seeped down his back, I feel warm. The warmth of his blood was strangely comforting. Unable to help himself, Lester’s legs buckled and he crashed to the ground, taking several bodies with him. The rake dislodged itself in the fall, and Lester was able to roll over onto his back in amongst the spindly legs. He closed his eyes and screwed up his face as an incalculable number of rotting feet trampled him.

Lying near to the bodies of Maddy and her mother outside, Lester looked up at the roof of the garden shed for as long as he could keep his eyes open. How much easier it would have been, he thought, to have just laid down with you two from the beginning.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition