The Last Great Fire of London (excerpt from the beginning of Autumn: Exodus)
The third and final Great Fire of London burned unchallenged for a week before the rains came. Unlike the first great fire, the seventeenth-century blaze everyone knew from history lessons at school, and the second that came as the result of a spectacularly brutal and lengthy bombing of the city during World War II, this was unequivocally the final great fire because, this time, there was no one left to rebuild the capital, and nothing left to rebuild it with.
The downpour started in the early hours the day before yesterday and showed no signs of abating. The roiling clouds were heavy and black with oily smoke, as was everything else, making it hard to find the point where the sky ended and the scorched remains of this once unyielding city and its undead population began.
The Tower of London had stood here for centuries, and it showed no signs of falling today. Though now surrounded by tons of compacted and charred rot, its grey stone walls remained, for the most part, intact. In comparison, many of the more modern structures around it had twisted and buckled and collapsed in the intense heat of the recent inferno. Those that were still upright were immense in their towering dilapidation, strikingly pared back to colossal skeletons of metal and concrete. Barely a single pane of glass remained unbroken, anywhere. Ceilings had become floors, collapsed downwards and now lay heaped on top of each other like the pages of discarded books. Many buildings had been reduced to basic shapes, their interiors as bland as their exteriors, no fine details remaining. From fast-food joints to exclusive penthouse suites, from newspaper stands to proud museums, embassies, and monuments and mansions, the fire had spared nothing. All life extinguished, everything had become monochrome and dull, barely a glimpse of colour left anywhere.
The wind whistled as it whipped through the empty spaces that people used to inhabit. There were other sounds too; water trickling from ruptured pipes and buckled gutters, birds calling out as they swooped to peck meat from corpses, rodents scurrying through the debris, foraging for any sort of scrap that had escaped the burn.
And even the base infrastructure, the roads, lanes and alleyways were no longer recognisable. Asphalt had buckled and cracked in the heat, and most throughways were blocked with fallen rubble. It was clear that there would be no easy avenue of escape from this hellscape for either the living or the dead.
Tens of thousands of corpses had congregated around the Tower in the days before the fire and had been trapped, wedged in position as a never-ending flood of followers had made an instinctive pilgrimage towards the flames, overburdening the space. As a result of the pressure and the heat, the compressed hordes had gradually reduced to a single compacted, carbonised, waist-high mass of diseased flesh. From a distance it looked like a lava field. Wisps of smoke rose from vent holes in the crisped flesh, and occasional bursts of flame spurted as pockets of noxious gases bubbled up and were ignited by smoulders and sparks, brief flashes of light that disappeared almost as quickly as they’d appeared. The scab-like surface remained reassuringly featureless for the most part, but occasional tiny details would bring the horror back into focus: a withered hand clutching at the air, the cremated remnants of a child’s foot dangling from the end of a blackened tibia, half a face, its lipless mouth frozen mid-scream, its tongue a brittle twig of ash, shocked dead as flames burst across it.
David, Chapman, Joanne, and Sam waited on the river for the situation to change, and the coming of the rains had been the trigger. Vicky had volunteered to attempt to reach the people trapped in the Tower once it was safe enough for her to go ashore. She’d had to edge slowly through the ocean of grim remains, dragging her feet most of the time because picking up her boots and taking steps was out of the question. What was the name of that game she used to play when she was a kid? Jack Straws, she seemed to remember. You dumped a pile of plastic sticks and other objects on the table, then used little hooks to fish out individual items without disturbing others. This morning, her feet had been the hooks, repeatedly getting caught among broken limbs, spinal cords, rib cages and pelvises that were buried out of sight. She’d been terrified of getting stuck, but she’d lost so much weight recently that for the most part she’d been able to walk on top of the sunken bits and not sink deeper into the waterlogged torsos. Once she made it to the outer wall of the Tower, Ruth used a rope to haul her up and over the battlements and she climbed down onto the other side where a path through the charred remains had already been cleared.
When she entered White Tower where the others were hiding out, they gave her a hero’s welcome, but she didn’t have time for any of that nonsense. The message she’d come to deliver was simple: ‘Pack everything. We’ve got a boat. We’re getting out of London today.’
‘They’re coming,’ Joanne said when she saw someone signalling from the roof of the Tower, and she sank the blade of her shovel through the burnt crust that covered everything, deep into the semi-solid sludge of human remains beneath the surface. Next to her, Sam quickened his pace, the pair of them frantically trying to dig a path from the pier to the Byward Tower entrance.
After days of relative inactivity, the sudden frenzy was a rude awakening. Sam was already feeling the pace of the gruelling, physical work. He looked back to see how much they’d cleared so far. ‘Shit, you seen this?’
Joanne glanced back and saw that the remains of the dead were oozing back across the section of pathway they’d already dug out. At first, she thought it was just the weight of the sloppy morass spilling in from either side but, when she looked closer, she could see signs of activity deep within the mire, stirring up the sludge. Incredibly, things that had been buried for days were still trying to remove themselves. A shuffle, a twitch here, a spasm there – if she stared hard enough, she could see teeming movement everywhere. Worms and maggots squirmed around and between things which used to be human. The open jaw of a lop-sided face was constantly grinding. She hadn’t realised she was staring at the thing’s one remaining eye until it blinked. Near the heel of her boot, the clawed fingers of a wizened hand flexed, and she stamped hard on the crab-like thing so it couldn’t grip the cobbles and pull whatever remained of the rest of its body along.
At this rate there was a very real possibility the path might close behind them, leaving them stranded midway along the hundred metres or so they needed to clear, but there was no other way of doing this. They had to be ready for when the boat came, and she didn’t think that would be long. She could already hear its grumbling engine in the distance.
When the others had sealed themselves in, they’d left a van blocking the Byward Tower entrance. Sam could hear movement on the other side of the vehicle now, people scrambling to try and shift it. Sanjay climbed through its burnt-out interior then slid down through the hole where its windscreen had been, landing feet-first in the muck. He used the shovel he’d been carrying to steady himself from going over. ‘Good to see you, Sanj!’ Sam shouted, and Sanjay looked across in disbelief.
‘Sam? Bloody hell, I thought you were dead.’
‘Sorry to disappoint, mate.’
‘I’ll tell you later. For now, get digging. The boat’s on its way.’
Sanjay started scooping out muck from around the van’s front wheels. He’d harboured a naïve hope that they might have been able to simply release the handbrake and roll it forward, but the fire had put pay to that. The tyres had been burnt away to nothing and the wheels were locked, rusted into position. At the back of the van, Gary Welch led the efforts to shift it, invigorated by the prospect of finally escaping the impenetrable stone walls they’d been imprisoned within for a week that had felt like a decade. He sank his hands into the foetid junk that was wedged along the side of the vehicle, grabbed whatever bones he could get a grip of, then dragged what was left of the next corpse out of the way. Other people began following his lead. Beside him, Orla managed to haul up almost an entire skeleton intact, and when she heaved it over her shoulder into the air, much of its remaining flesh fell away from its bones, churned innards spilling out through the gaps between exposed ribs. Gary was splashed with gore, but he was long past the point of caring. They all were. The deterioration of the dead was such that they no longer looked like people, the way sausage no longer resembles a sow, and it was all but impossible to tell where one body ended and the next began. He and Orla both managed to grab hold of different parts of the same two corpses that had become intertwined, and between them they hurled the conjoined cadavers away from the back of the van.
Now Gary could see daylight.
‘We’re almost there. Get ready to push,’ he ordered. ‘One, two, three.’
A group of folks helped shunt the vehicle forward. Its wheels scraped along each time they shoved it, making constant but unsteady progress across cobbles that had been lubricated by the greasy ex-human sludge that coated everything.
Almost there. Almost free. Word was passed back along the line for the evacuation to begin.
Conditions inside the Tower had been harsh. According to Georgie’s meticulously kept paper records, a total of two hundred and thirty-three people remained in here, leaving more than a hundred of their original number unaccounted for. Some cowards had escaped in the clipper with Piotr and Dominic and were long gone, but the majority of the lost souls had likely perished in the fire. To those who’d been left behind, it didn’t matter: regardless of their fate, everyone else was as good as dead.
Until Vicky had appeared this morning, the prospect of getting away from the Tower had seemed remote, let alone escaping London. Hunkered down in the dark for much of the time, cramped and uncomfortable and with the world in flames around them, claustrophobia and grim uncertainty had been rife. But now they’d been given a glimmer of a chance of escape, and in the dark recesses of White Tower, frantic activity had replaced the gloomy inertia of the last week. Supplies were being boxed up, ready to be shipped out. People were getting ready to move. In one corner, Audrey Adebayo and a handful of others were deep in prayer. It pissed Vicky off more than it should have. ‘They could try helping,’ she said to Ruth. Ruth shrugged.
‘Different strokes for different folks.’
‘Yeah, but how is wishful thinking supposed to be useful? Honestly, if it hadn’t been for you and Selena and a couple of others stuck in here, I might not have bothered coming back.’
‘Don’t say that.’
‘You don’t know what I went through to get here. I’m sick of risking my neck for nothing. We’re top-heavy with lazy bastards. It’s always the same few doing the work.’
And before Ruth could respond, Vicky had gone. She waded into the middle of the chaos to try and get things moving.
Marianne was floundering. ‘I’ve got this Marianne,’ Vicky said. ‘You move out with the others.’
The fear in her face was clear. ‘I’m sorry. I thought I was helping, but I’m just getting in the way.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Just go.’
‘I just thought I should—’
‘Go!’ Vicky said again, and this time Marianne did, though she was forced to move to the side when Lisa Kaur came barging through from outside.
‘Leave the rest of the stuff,’ she shouted, her voice loud enough to silence everyone left inside the Tower. ‘Just get yourselves out of here fast. Carry what you can, forget everything else.’
Vicky grabbed her arm. ‘What’s wrong? Boat here?’
‘The dead are coming.’