The Human Condition (part i) – Going Up

Survival is a strange thing. If the world lies dead at your feet and you seem to be immune to whatever it is that’s devastated everything else, then surely that would be cause for celebration. But there are so many unknowns – so many things to consider which are out of your control.

In your perfect isolation you might learn things about yourself you never knew. You might take chances and experiment in ways you wouldn’t have dared when you were just one of so many millions. But now you’re alone.

Armageddon could be a wonderful thing for helping you take stock and review the life you used to lead. Maybe you should always have been on your own? Perhaps other people were just an unnecessary complication you’re better off without? Barry Bushell is beginning to think that might be the case.

Your own survival is down to you alone. You have no control over who else makes it. They might prove to be a godsend, helping you through the darkest of days.

They might not.

Barry Bushell sat at the dressing table in his wide, palatial executive hotel suite and fixed his make-up. He wondered whether this was just a fad, just a phase he was going through, or if he’d spend the rest of his life dressing as a woman. He wasn’t gay and he wasn’t transsexual. This wasn’t something he’d always wanted to do. He wasn’t a drag queen or lady-boy in training. Barry Bushell was just a typical, red-blooded, heterosexual man who happened to have recently discovered that he felt comfortable wearing women’s clothes. And when the rest of the world lay dead and decaying in the streets a couple of hundred feet below him, why the hell shouldn’t he wear whatever he damn well wanted?

The last seven days had been the strangest of Barry’s life so far. Every aspect of his world had been irrevocably changed. If he was honest, his problems had started long before last Tuesday. A few months ago he’d been happy and settled and had a long-term plan. He’d moved in to his girlfriend Tina’s flat with her and, for a while, life had been good. Better than good, in fact. But their relationship had abruptly ended on what had, until then, been the worst day of his life. Out of the blue Barry lost his job when the company he worked for went into administration and its CEO went to jail. Penniless and distraught, Barry had returned home unexpectedly early to find his brother Dennis in bed with Tina. She’d proceeded to tell him that Dennis was better in bed than he was and that their relationship was over. By three o’clock that afternoon he’d lost his lover, his brother, his job and his home. That nightmare day had, of course, seemed like the best Christmas ever in comparison with last Tuesday when Barry had helplessly watched the entire population of the city (and, he later presumed, the world) drop dead. After the cruel and unexpected blows that life had dealt him recently, there was a part of him that found some solace in the sudden isolation and quiet. His anger with the rest of the world somehow made the pain easier to deal with. He blamed the inexplicable chaos for his sudden ‘gender-realignment’ (as he had labelled his drastic change in appearance). And now here he was, alone. As far as he could tell, the last man on Earth. Almost certainly the last man on Earth wearing a dress, anyway.

Five days ago, many of the bodies in the streets had risen. At first Barry had gone back down to ground level to try and find out what was happening, only to quickly return to his comfortable hide-out as soon as he realised that things had worsened, not improved. The people down there were dead. Although they were moving, there wasn’t the slightest spark of life left within them. Their sudden reanimation was as impossible to explain as their equally sudden demise days earlier had been. Barry climbed all the way back up to the top floor of the twenty-eight storey, five star, city-centre hotel and barricaded himself in the Presidential Suite. It was the best place he could find to hide. Within the hotel’s three hundred or so bedrooms, its many kitchens, function rooms, dining rooms, bars, restaurants and sports facilities, he’d been able to find pretty much everything he needed to survive, and a vast wardrobe of women’s clothing, make-up and accessories to boot. He’d even found a pair of size eleven stiletto shoes.

Barry stood up, smoothed the creases out of his dark blue dress, and looked himself up and down in the full-length mirror to his right. God I look good, he thought, pretty damn convincing save for the slight trace of a five o’clock shadow. His first experiments with make-up last week had been over-the-top, leaving him looking like a drag queen, but now he was definitely getting the hang of it. He wore a long straight blonde wig which he’d taken from a shop-window dummy, but he hoped in time his own hair would grow to a sufficient length for him to be able to style it. He’d started painting his fingernails and he was finally getting the hang of walking in heels. That had been the hardest part of all but it had been worth the effort. The knee-high leather boots he’d found in a bedroom on the seventh floor went perfectly with this outfit.

Am I just confused, Barry wondered in a frequent moment of self-doubt, or have I gone completely fucking insane? Whatever the answer, he was relatively happy, all things considered. He could do whatever he wanted now. He was in charge. If he wanted to wear a dress then he’d wear a dress. If he wanted to walk around naked, then he could do that too.

It was starting to get late. This was the part of day he really didn’t like, when he found it hardest being alone and when he started to think about everything that had happened and all he’d lost. His sudden change of outfit had been deliberately timed to give him a much needed confidence boost to help him get through the dark and lonely hours until morning. As much as he was comfortable in his own company, there were times when he wished this eternal isolation would end. He lit lamps in all the windows of the suite, praying that someone out there would see them, but at the same time also hoping no one would. He had to let the world know where he was, but in doing so he left himself feeling exposed. But he had to do it, he continually told himself. He would be safer with other people.

Barry walked around the perimeter of the vast suite (which covered almost the entire top floor of the building) lighting candles, lamps and torches in every available window. He kept himself busy. So busy, in fact, that he was unaware of a sudden flurry of movement and confusion outside. For the first time in a week, other survivors had entered this part of the city.

‘You’re a fucking idiot, Nick,’ Elizabeth Ferry screamed. ‘I said keep out of the city, not drive right through the bloody city-centre. Fancy a little late night shopping did you?’

‘Shut up,’ Nick Wilcox yelled back. ‘If it hadn’t been for the fucking noise you two make with your constant bloody arguing, I wouldn’t have taken the wrong turn in the first place.’

‘Don’t bring me into this,’ Doreen Phillips said, listening in as usual. ‘It’s got nothing to do with me.’

‘Oh, it’s never got anything to do with you, has it?’ Ted Hamilton said from the seat directly behind her. ‘Of course it’s your fault, Doreen. You’re a bloody trouble maker.’

Doreen turned around and glared at Ted who was, as usual, filling his face with food. ‘And you’re a greedy fat bastard who should—’

‘For crying out loud,’ Elizabeth said, interrupting her. ‘Just give it a rest.’

Doreen stopped talking, folded her arms and slumped into her seat like a scolded child.

‘Just keep going, Nick,’ John Proctor’s said from three seats back. His voice remained comparatively calm. ‘We’re here now and shouting at each other isn’t going to help. Just keep driving.’

Nick took one hand off the steering wheel for a second, just long enough to wipe his face and rub his eyes. He’d been driving for hours and he was struggling but he wasn’t about to let the others know. They annoyed him beyond belief. He’d only found five other survivors since all of this began. Why did it have to be this five? This small, volatile, and dysfunctional group had been together for just three days, discovering each other by chance as they’d each individually wandered through the ruins of the world. Elizabeth and John Proctor had met first, Elizabeth having walked into the church where he used to preach, just as he was tearing off his dog-collar and walking out. A cleric of some thirty years standing, his already wavering faith had been shattered by the unstoppable infection which had raged across the surface of the planet and killed millions. If this God of ours is so all-powerful, loving and forgiving, he’d asked Elizabeth, then how could the fucker have let this happen? John’s sudden loss of faith had been as powerful and life-changing as his initial discovery of the church in his early days at college. Elizabeth had, in all seriousness, suggested that the plague might be some kind of divine retribution – a great flood for our times. Did she think he was a 21st century Noah? He told her in no uncertain terms that she was out of her fucking mind if she believed any of that crap.

Ted Hamilton, a plumber, part-time football coach and full-time compulsive comfort eater, had been on the roof of an office block working on a corroded pipe when the infection struck. He’d had an incredible view of the destruction from up there, but that was where he’d stayed, too afraid to come down. He’d sat on the roof for hours until he saw Doreen Phillips walking down the high street, shopping bags in hand, stepping gingerly over and around the mass of tangled bodies which covered the ground. Together they’d wandered aimlessly in search of help which never came. Their constant shouting and noise had, however, eventually attracted the attention of Paul Jones, a sullen and quiet man who preferred to keep himself to himself but who had recognised the importance of sticking together, no matter who these people were or how stupid they appeared.

Paul had suggested establishing a base from which they could explore the dead land around them and, perhaps, find more survivors. As obvious and sensible as his plan had been, it also proved to be unnecessary because as they struggled to establish themselves in a guest house on the edge of a small town, more survivors had found them. Three days ago the eerie silence of the first post-infection Friday morning had been shattered by the unexpected arrival of a fifty-three-seater coach driven by Nick Wilcox. Nick – who had previously driven coaches for a living, usually taking bus loads of pensioners around various parts of the south coast – had ploughed through the town with a nervous disregard for anything and everything, destroying any corpses that got in his way. Paul and Ted ran out into the road and flagged him down and it was only Elizabeth’s quick reactions (fortunately Nick had picked her and John up a day earlier) which stopped him from gleefully running them both down.

The motley collection of survivors made the coach their temporary travelling home. It was relatively strong and comfortable with room inside for them, their belongings, and enough supplies to last for a couple of weeks. And the coach had a huge advantage over everywhere else they’d previously tried to shelter because it moved. When things got ugly or there were too many bodies around for comfort, they just started the engine and drove somewhere else.

‘Just keep going, Nick,’ John said again, his calm and deceptively relaxed tone helping diffuse the tension. ‘Get us onto a major road, then follow it back out of the city.’

‘Problem is I can’t see the bloody road, never mind follow it.’ Even with the headlights on full-beam, Nick could see very little. The streets were teeming with movement, the dead continually swarming around the vehicle.

‘Does anyone know where we are?’ Elizabeth asked hopefully. ‘Anyone been here before?’

No one answered.

‘We could just stop,’ Ted eventually suggested, his mouth still full of food. ‘We’ve done it before. Sit still and shut up and they’ll leave us alone after a while.’

‘Come on, Ted,’ Elizabeth said, ‘there’s got to be a better way. They’ll take hours to go, you know that as well as I do, and there are hundreds of them around here. We’ve never seen them in these kinds of numbers.’

‘I’m not sleeping on the floor again,’ Doreen protested, her voice high-pitched and grating. ‘It’s bad for my back. It’s all right for you lot, you don’t have to—’

‘Doreen,’ Ted interrupted, ‘with all due respect, love, would you shut your fucking mouth. You couldn’t keep quiet if you tried so there’s no point talking about it.’

Nick managed half a smile as he steered the bus around a sharp bend in the road and powered into another pack of corpses. He knew as well as the rest of them that many hours of total silence would be necessary if they wanted to try and fool the dead into leaving them alone. With Doreen on board five minutes of silence was impossible, never mind anything longer.

‘Bloody hell,’ Ted said suddenly, swallowing his last mouthful of food and wiping his greasy mouth on his sleeve. ‘Look at that.’

‘What?’ Paul asked, quickly moving along the length of the bus towards the others, surprising them with his sudden involvement. Ted pressed his face up against the window and pointed up.

‘Up there.’

‘What is it?’ Elizabeth anxiously demanded.

‘Lights,’ he answered, not quite believing himself. ‘Up there, look.’

Visible fleetingly amongst the shadows of numerous tall, dark buildings, the light – although relatively dull – burned bright in the total blackness of everything else.

High above the disease-ridden streets, Barry’s quiet and solitary life was filling with contradictions. He wanted to be surrounded by light, but the brightness left him feeling vulnerable and exposed. Likewise, the darkness sometimes made him feel safe, but it was also unsettling; he was scared of the shadows that filled the hotel at night. He wanted some noise to end the eerie silence but, at the same time, he wanted the quiet to remain so he could hear everything that was happening elsewhere. He wanted to sit out of sight in the comfort of his suite, but he also felt compelled to constantly check the windows. He knew he was alone in the building and that it was secure (he’d checked every room and had got rid of every dead body over the last week), but his nervous paranoia left him feeling convinced there were bodies climbing the staircases and walking the halls, moving ever closer. He felt sure that rotting hands would reach out of the shadows for him whenever he opened a door. Whatever he was doing he felt uncomfortable and unsafe, and it was far worse at night. Each successive evening he found the darkness harder to cope with, and that led to the cruellest paradox of all: Barry’s fear kept him awake night after night. Only when the morning (and the light) finally came was he able to relax enough to sleep. Invariably he would drift and doze through the morning and early afternoon and miss almost all of each precious day.

He wandered listlessly along the long west wall of the suite, the heels of his boots click-clacking on the marble floor. Where was this all going to end, he wondered? Was he destined to stay here at the top of the hotel indefinitely? It wasn’t a bad option, in fact he struggled to think of anywhere else that would be safer or more comfortable. The height of the building meant it was unlikely the corpses down below would ever see or hear him. The only problem would come when his supplies ran out. Okay, so he appeared to have the entire city at his disposal, but even if he managed to find everything he needed, there remained the problem of dragging it up literally hundreds of steps to his new home. Maybe he could set up some kind of winch or pulley system? Perhaps he could use the window-cleaner’s cradle he’d seen hanging halfway down the side of the building?

His mind full of questions and half-considered answers, Barry reached the corner of the room and stopped walking. He turned around and was about to retrace his steps when he happened to glance down into the dark streets hundreds of feet below. In disbelief he watched the bizarre sight of what looked like a coach ploughing through the rotting crowds, sending whole and dismembered bodies flying in all directions, hurtling at speed towards the hotel. He waited for a fraction of a second – just long enough to convince himself that what he was seeing was real – before throwing off his boots and sprinting out to the staircase barefoot.

‘Next left,’ Paul ordered. He’d moved up to the front of the bus and was now standing next to Nick, doing his best to guide their driver through the mayhem and towards the light. ‘No, wait, not this one. Take the next one.’

Nick yanked the steering wheel back around, making the whole coach lean over to one side. Their breakneck journey was had become so turbulent that even Doreen Phillips was uncharacteristically quiet and subdued.

‘Can you see where it’s coming from?’ Nick asked, glancing up for a second and glimpsing the light again.

‘Not sure,’ Paul admitted. ‘It’s bloody high up, though.’

Nick braced himself as he forced the bus over a low mound of rubble and mangled metal at the side of the road. The passengers behind him – not expecting the sudden jolt – bounced up in their seats as the huge vehicle clattered up and then back down onto the road.

‘Take it easy,’ Ted protested.

‘Next left,’ Paul said for the second time, his voice more definite than before.

‘You sure?’

‘Positive. I can see it. We’re almost directly under the light now.’

Nick slammed on the brakes and swung the bus around the corner into another street which was as difficult to navigate as the last. Huge crowds of lumbering bodies dragged themselves towards the approaching vehicle from all directions. Nick kept his foot down, knowing the quicker they moved, the more chance they had of cutting through the rancid crowds. Scores of corpses were wiped out by the flat-faced frontage of the coach, thumping into it with a relentless bang, bang, bang like hail on a flat tin roof.

‘How far now?’ Nick asked.

Paul crouched down low and looked up to his right. ‘Almost there.’

John got up and scurried down to the front of the coach, holding onto the seat-backs and struggling to keep his balance. ‘It’s a hotel,’ he said. ‘Look, there’s a name on the side of the building.’

‘So where do I go?’ Nick asked, unable to see anything in the relentless gloom.

‘There must be a car park or something?’ John suggested. ‘Maybe around the back or underground?’

‘Get as close to the main entrance as you can,’ Paul said. ‘We need to minimise the distance we have to cover on foot.’

‘And how am I supposed to do that? I can’t see a fucking thing.’

‘Here!’ Paul shouted. ‘Sharp right! Now!’

With no time to properly consider his actions, Nick turned the wheel as instructed. The dark silhouette of the hotel loomed large in front of him. ‘Where?’ he screamed, desperate for help and guidance.

‘Just keep moving,’ Paul yelled back. ‘Keep going forward until—’

He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The low light and constant criss-crossing movement of hundreds of bodies made the distance between the front of the coach and the front of the hotel impossible to accurately gauge. His foot still down hard on the accelerator, Nick sent the coach over a kerb, then crashed through the glass doors at the front of the building. Their velocity was such that the coach kept moving forward until the twisted metal and rubble dragged under its wheels eventually acted as a brake. Three-quarters inside the building, with its back end jutting out into the street, the bus came to a sudden, undignified halt in the hotel’s imposing, marble-floored reception. The front wheels were wedged over the lip of an ornate and long-since dried up decorative fountain.

No one moved.

‘My back…’ Doreen moaned from somewhere on the floor under a pile of carrier bags full of clothes and other belongings.

‘Is everyone all right?’ John asked. No one answered. ‘Is anyone all right?’ he asked again, slightly revising his original question.

Paul shook his head clear and got back to his feet. He glanced over at Nick who was trying to stem the flow of blood from a gash just above his right eye. ‘Nice driving,’ he sneered.

‘Fuck off.’ Nick spat back at him.

‘Shit,’ Elizabeth said from somewhere in the darkness behind them both. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ There was sudden fear in her voice which they all picked up on. Without pausing for explanation the survivors grabbed as many of their bags of belongings as they could carry, and ran for the door at the front of the coach which Paul had already opened. He glanced down the side of the long vehicle and immediately saw what Elizabeth had seen. A large part of the hotel entrance had collapsed. Although still partially blocked by the bus, there was now a gaping hole where the main doors had been, and hundreds of bodies were already swarming into the building.

‘Over here,’ a voice yelled at them from the darkness. Barry Bushell stood at the bottom of the main hotel staircase at the other end of the vast, dust-filled lobby, waving a torch and gesturing for them to follow him. The light inside the building was minimal and they struggled to make him out at first. Nick was the first to locate him. He ran across the rubble-strewn room, closely followed by Doreen, Elizabeth and Paul.

‘Come on, Ted,’ John pleaded. ‘Leave your stuff, we have to move.’

Ted was busy collecting his belongings. Loaded up with bags and boxes he tripped, falling into the dried-up fountain.

‘Keep going,’ he wheezed, already out of breath. ‘I’ll catch up.’

John could see he was struggling. ‘Just leave that stuff. We’ll manage without it.’

I need it,’ Ted said, groaning with effort.

‘But they’re coming! Drop the bags and get your backside over here!’

Ted was oblivious to the number of approaching bodies which were now dangerously close. They seemed to move as one, like a thick liquid slowly seeping out over the ground floor of the hotel, a slow-motion flood. Most of the coach had already been surrounded. John looked around to see that the rest of his group had all but disappeared. Just Elizabeth remained, standing at the bottom of the staircase, waiting for him.

‘Move, Ted! Don’t be a fucking idiot!’ John screamed. Ted, now on his feet again, tried to speed up but, if anything, he was slowing down. He was desperately unfit and overloaded with food. He glanced back and, seeing how close the nearest bodies were, he tried unsuccessfully to increase his speed. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t make his short, pudgy legs move any faster. It was hopeless. ‘Move!’ John yelled at him again, nervously backing away towards Elizabeth.

Most people would have dug deep and done everything possible to cover the remaining difference between themselves and safety, but Ted did the opposite. He’d had enough. He was already exhausted and the staircase ahead of him seemed to stretch up into the darkness forever. He knew he’d never make it. An eternal pessimist, he’d already decided his number was up. He made one last pathetic attempt to move a little quicker but it was nowhere near enough and the distance still seemed impossible. Ted stopped and John watched helplessly as the mass of bodies engulfed him.

Elizabeth was already on her way up the stairs. John turned and ran after her. He couldn’t see where he was going, but as long as he kept going up, he thought he’d be okay. He could soon hear voices up ahead.

‘So what the fucking hell have you come as?’ Nick asked the stocky, six foot tall transvestite who’d saved them. They’d briefly stopped to regroup on a landing a few flights up. Barry used his torch to check who was with him. It was the first time any of them had seen him clearly, and he could see the puzzled expressions on their faces. Suddenly self-conscious, he didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t needed to explain his bizarre dress-code to anyone else yet, and in the chaos of the last few minutes, he’d forgotten what he was wearing. For a moment he felt foolish before remembering how good these clothes made him feel. What he was wearing was of absolutely no consequence to anyone else. He’d saved their lives. Fuck ’em.

‘I’m Barry,’ he answered. ‘Barry Bushell.’

‘So why are you wearing a dress?’

‘Because I want to.’

‘Well I think you look lovely, dear,’ Doreen said as she passed him on the landing. In need of a cigarette, she patted him on the shoulder and pointed upwards. ‘This way, is it?’

‘Just keep going,’ he replied. ‘Top floor.’

Doreen nodded and kept climbing, her nerves fear helping her overcome her tiredness. Nick waited on the landing for John to catch up. ‘Where’s Ted?’ he asked. John shook his head.

‘Didn’t make it,’ he said, panting with effort. ‘Silly bugger got caught.’

‘Shit,’ Nick mumbled, genuinely saddened for a moment. Then he shook his head and carried on up the stairs.

The climb up to the top floor seemed to take forever. Even though their appreciation of material possessions and the value of property had been massively reduced by the events of the last seven days, the opulence and scale of the vast penthouse apartment Barry had claimed as his own still impressed all of them.

‘Nice place she’s got here,’ Nick said as he looked around the low-lit rooms. Some of the group were sitting around a rectangular dining table, others were sprawled on a nearby sofa.

‘Shh…’ Elizabeth scowled. ‘Leave him alone. He’s obviously got problems.’

‘We’ve all got problems, but we don’t all feel the need to cross-dress, do we?’

‘Lovely place, though,’ Doreen agreed. ‘Just think of all the famous people who must have stayed here. Royalty? Film stars?’

‘Why?’ Paul said. Doreen looked puzzled. How could he not be excited by the prospect of sleeping in a hotel room that might have been used by millionaires and mega-stars?

‘Just imagine who might have sat around this table…’ she continued.

‘Why waste your time thinking about empty people like that? The people who could afford to stay here had too much money and not enough sense. You shouldn’t look up to them. The only difference between you and them was the size of their wallets compared to yours. Anyway, they’re all dead now. You’re not.’

‘It was more than that,’ Elizabeth continued, siding with Doreen. ‘It’s about glamour and watching them do the things that you always dreamed about doing and…’

‘So did you two used to read all the celebrity gossip and buy all the glossy magazines?’

‘Absolutely,’ Elizabeth said quickly.

‘And I bet you used to watch soap operas and reality TV shows?’

‘Never missed my soaps,’ Doreen told him with something resembling a bizarre sense of pride in her voice.

‘Pathetic,’ Paul said. ‘Bloody pathetic. It’s got nothing to do with glamour or anything like that. You both used to swallow all that crap because your own lives were pointless and empty.’

‘Thanks a lot,’ Elizabeth said angrily. ‘Let us know when it’s our turn to tear you to pieces.’

‘Where are all your celebrities now?’

‘Dead, probably,’ Nick interjected. ‘Face down in the fucking gutter.’

‘You know what I think?’ Paul continued, even though he knew neither of them cared. ‘I think that if by some strange twist of fate one of your precious celebrities had survived and was sat here now instead of one of us, you’d still be treating them like some kind of fucking god.’

‘As long as it was you they were here instead of, I wouldn’t care,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Sometimes you’re so far up your own backside that—’

‘I’ve got more food than this,’ Barry said, dropping a tray onto the table, deliberately interrupting the conversation. ‘I’m just trying to make it last. I’m trying to avoid going outside.’

‘I’d be trying to avoid going outside if I looked like that,’ Nick said, smirking.

‘Leave it, Nick,’ John sighed. ‘Christ, what’s the matter with you lot? We’ve just lost our transport and poor old Ted, and all you can do is argue and mock each other.’

‘Honestly,’ Nick continued, not listening to a word John had said, ‘we wait all this time to find someone else alive, and they turn out to be a fucking faggot!’

Barry grabbed Nick by the throat, dragged him off his chair and slammed him down onto the floor. He tightened his grip, painted nails digging into his skin.

‘Let’s just get this over and done with, shall we?’ He paused for an answer which Nick was in no position to give. ‘Listen, mate, I might be wearing a dress, but I’m not a fucking faggot, and it wouldn’t matter if I was. I’m not surprised you’ve got a problem with what I’m wearing. Fact is, I like it. I don’t know why, but dressing like this is helping me come to terms with the fact that all my friends and family and probably everyone else I’ve ever known is dead. I’m not a pervert, I’m just a normal bloke who’s decided to try wearing dresses for a while, okay?’

Barry let Nick go. Subdued, he slowly got up. ‘Okay, okay… Keep your hair on.’

Barry let the obvious reference to his shoulder-length wig go. ‘It doesn’t matter what any of us is wearing, does it? It’s not going to make any difference. Same as the colour of our eyes won’t make any difference either, or whether we’re right or left handed. Fact is we’re all in this mess together and we’ll need to work with each other to get ourselves sorted.’

‘Well said,’ John agreed.

‘So tell me,’ Barry continued, his voice louder and more confident, ‘who exactly have we got here and what the hell are we going to do about the fucking big hole you’ve made in the front of my hotel?’

Introductions and pointless discussions about what had happened to the rest of the world took the group through the final hours of day seven and well into day eight. Spirits were temporarily high: Barry had the company he’d craved and the others had found a safer, far more comfortable hideout than the back of Nick’s coach.

John pulled up a chair and sat in front of the widest window in the suite for hours, watching the night melt away and be overtaken by the first light of day. As the sun began to climb, more and more of the shattered world was revealed. Down at street level it had been difficult to fully appreciate the enormity of what had happened. From twenty-eight floors up, however, the extent of the devastation was clear.

‘You okay, John?’ Elizabeth asked, disturbing him.

‘I’m fine,’ he replied, almost managing a smile. ‘I was just looking out there. Look at it, Liz. The whole bloody world’s in ruins.’

Elizabeth leant against the window. He was right. For as far as she could see the world was dead, drained of all colour and life. Apart from the bodies in the streets, nothing moved. From this height they could see for miles into the distance, and the scale of what had happened around them was humbling. It was soul-destroying.

‘Much happening out there?’ Nick asked as he joined them. He’d been sat on his own but preferred the company of others.

‘Not a lot,’ John answered.

‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ Elizabeth said, her face still pressed hard against the glass. She’d diverted her attention away from the horizon to the more immediate area directly below. ‘Have you seen what we’ve done?’

Concerned, Nick peered down. The largest crowd of bodies that any of them had yet seen had gathered around the entrance to the building and were pushing their way inside through the huge hole the survivors had made with the bus last night. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said.

Concerned, John stood up and looked down. The sight of the massive gathering made his legs weaken. His mouth suddenly dry, he swallowed hard and looked around for Barry.

‘What’s the problem?’ Barry asked, walking over to the others. John pointed and Barry looked down. ‘Christ almighty.’

‘They can’t get up here, can they?’ Nick asked.

‘Of course not,’ Elizabeth said quickly. Barry was less confident.

‘I can’t see why not,’ he said. ‘If enough of them keep pushing forward from behind, my guess is the furthest forward will start climbing eventually.’

‘But they won’t get up here. We struggled to get up, so they won’t be able to…’

‘This place has one main staircase right in the middle of the building,’ he explained, still staring deep into the vast crowd below. ‘There are a couple of fire escapes, but they’re blocked off as far as I know. To be honest, I didn’t look into security too deeply when I got here. There didn’t seem to be any need when the place still had a front door.’

‘So what are you saying?’ Elizabeth pressed.

‘I’m saying that if there’s enough of them and they keep coming, who knows what they’ll be able to do. Give them enough time and there’s every chance they’ll manage to get up here.’

‘But we can get out if we need to?’

‘Well, I think we’ll be able to get down no problem,’ Barry said, ‘but what we do once we’re down there is anyone’s guess. Thanks to you lot the building’s surrounded and I can’t see an obvious way out.’

‘Let’s all keep calm and try and get things into perspective,’ John said quietly, doing his best to prevent panic from spreading. ‘The chances of them getting to us are slim and we’re so high up here that they’ll probably disappear long before they even get close.’

‘You reckon?’ Nick said. ‘There doesn’t seem to be much else going on in town this morning, does there? Looks like we’re the main attraction.’

Barry, Elizabeth, Nick and John stood side by side at the window and stared down. The streets below were filled with grey, staggering bodies and in the absence of any other distraction, the whole damn rotting mass seemed to be converging on the hotel. There were already thousands of them down there, and thousands more were dangerously close.




Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition