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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.

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.

#

Three-fif­teen.

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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES