River, Road & Railway
Day 127, River Thames
17:00, 17th July
“I’ll go and see if there are any supplies in the lock-keepers house,” I said, as I limped away from the boat.
“Why bother?” Kim asked. “We don’t need anything.”
“Well you never know,” I muttered. I don’t think she heard me.
She was right, though. We’ve enough food to keep us going until Christmas and enough petrol to get us anywhere in the British Isles. Not just on the mainland but, if we’re careful, enough to get us across to Ireland. We worked it out. It’s not like there’s much else to do.
We’ve finally got the supplies to get us anywhere we want to go, and finally we know where that is. But for now we’re stuck on the River Thames, travelling no faster than driftwood as we let the current drag us back towards London.
We left Lenham Hill yesterday and made a paltry ten miles before darkness fell. We had to stop. If we’d gone on, we risked passing the boat that Barrett used when she, Stewart and Daphne kidnapped Annette and Daisy. There was no sign of it yesterday and none so far today.
It was anger, that’s why I needed to get away from the boat.
It wouldn’t be so bad if we could just turn the engine on. We can’t. The River Thames is full of locks. At each we have to stop, operate the gate and wait for the water levels to equalise. It takes an age. We wasted about a hundred rounds from Sholto’s M-16 yesterday evening finding out what we should all have realised. If we motor up to a lock, with the boats pitiful engine going at full blast, we find the zombies waiting for us, and the ones we’ve past catch up before we can get away. That only leaves us two hundred rounds for his semi-automatic, eighteen for the sniper rifle and eleven for the pistol. It’ll have to be enough.
What makes it worse, especially for Kim, is that we only went to Lenham Hill in the hope of finding enough fuel to catch up with Barrett and the others. Since we can’t use it, all that those wasted days mean is that the children just got further away. I know Kim blames herself for not following Barrett straight down the river. I think she blames me too.
It’s odd that as long as we stay inside this tiny cabin, the smattering of undead along the banks and bridges pay us no heed. There’s probably something important in that, something to do with the boats size and motion that we could use to our advantage, but right now I just don’t care. It’s been ten days since Barrett took the girls and if they’ve left the river they could be anywhere in Britain by now. They might even have found a way past the demolished bridges around central London and be out at sea. I don’t know which of those two prospects scares me the most. I try not to think about.
And whilst all of that is frustrating, it’s not the cause of my anger. Nor is any of it the reason why I needed to get away from Kim and my brother, if only for a few minutes.
The lock-keepers cottage was twee. That’s the kindest word I can think of to describe a post-war prefab built to last a decade but which perennial local-council austerity meant was never replaced. Ringed with a miniature white picket fence, barely a foot high, the garden was mostly gravel except where it was gnomes. Plastic, ceramic or metal, no two were alike, and each stood guard over a withered plant. Someone had cared deeply for this house. It had been their home, and it must have been a lonely existence, living in a house lost amongst the towering steel and concrete of the nearby industrial estate. It should have been a poignant sight, that fading echo of someone’s dreams, but I was unmoved. I’ve seen the like too often.
I picked my way around the side of the house, careful not to disturb any of the ornaments. Call that superstition, I’ve adopted a lot of those in the last few months.
At the front of the house lay the river. At the back, beyond the picket fence, lay a path that led to a road that, eventually, led to the bridge half a mile downstream. On the other side of the path stood a fence, covered in a patchwork of red paint that didn’t quite mask the graffiti underneath. Behind that fence were the roofs of warehouses and factories on the industrial estate. They were of no interest to me.
I turned back to the cottage. It appeared deserted, but that didn’t mean anything. I looked at the lush canopy of the London Plane trees lining the footpath. There were no birds. I half closed my eyes and listened. I could hear nothing but leaves blowing in the gentle breeze, and the sound of water slowly churning through the sluice gate.
My hand ached. My leg ached. My back ached from sitting on the boat’s absurd little bench seat. My stomach ached, rebelling against the unfamiliarity of a high quantity of high calorie food. Even my head ached, from all that Sholto had told us.
I looked at the cottage again, but it was as uninspiring as any of the other dead little houses in the dead little towns in this dead little island. There was nothing to stay for, there, here or anywhere else in Britain. Nothing. And once we find the children, no reason to linger. We’ll leave. On the second of August.
I should be happy. I should be grateful. I’ve spent five months scrabbling about, trying to do more than just staying alive. Then we went to the one place that logically I should have gone to straight from London. We find Sholto and all of a sudden every idea and plan is cast to the wayside. I suppose I should be happy, but I’m not. Perhaps part of it is that out of all the things he’s told us, there’s only one piece of news that anyone could call ‘good’.
I took one last look around, but it did seem truly deserted. I started walking back to the boat but thought, since I was there, I might as well have a look inside the house. Why not? I’d said I was looking for supplies, after all.
My hand had barely touched the door when it swung inward. I took a step back and levelled the pike. There was no movement from inside and enough light coming through the windows that I could be certain. The cottage was empty. Judging by the dirt, the musky smell and the pile of discarded belongings from a hasty packing, it had been empty since the evacuation.
There was a sudden, loud, startled ‘caw’ from a tree by the road. I spun around. A zombie lurched though a gap in the fence, next to the tree. Its mouth opened and snapped closed. Its arms waved and clawed at nothing as it spasmodically staggered towards me. I stood my ground, waiting and, for once, wishing They weren’t so slow.
Its right leg kicked forward, splintering the white picket fence. Then its left leg knocked a gnome from its perch on an ornate toadstool. At that my simmering anger boiled over into rage.
It wasn’t right, this creature doing that. The superstition that had kept me from knocking those ornaments over now meant I couldn’t let this creature damage them.
The zombie lurched forward and I swung the blade up. The weight was too much, the balance wrong. Without the two fingers from my left hand I couldn’t handle the weapon properly. It slipped and twisted, the flat of the blade hitting the creature’s cheek, ripping off a chunk of flesh before bouncing down across its body. The tip of the spear point scored a line across its chest. The zombie was knocked backwards. It was off balance. The problem was, so was I.
I managed to half twist and push the blade. The creature fell backwards and sideways a few steps. I fell flat on my back, and I fell hard. Pain shot up every worn and damaged nerve. I saw stars and as they dimmed, I saw the creature getting closer.
My good hand was still gripping the pike. With no real thought I twirled it round in a long sweeping arc. The zombie stepped forward, and the wooden shaft, thumped against its leg. I started to roll, wanting to get out of the way and find the room to stand up. I was still gripping the pike and as I rolled the axe head hooked under the creature’s leg, pulling it up. Now it was the zombie’s turn to fall down onto its back.
I scrambled to my feet and managed to thrust the spear-point through the creature’s temple before it managed to rise.
I’d killed a zombie. I could still do it. I wasn’t useless. I repeated those words a few times, but I still didn’t feel any better. I’d only managed it by luck. Somehow it just didn’t count. I looked down the path and through the gap in the fence, in the direction the zombie had come from. There was another creature less than fifty yards away, and another a hundred yards behind it. Behind that one, on the edge of the car park near the warehouse were three dozen more. All were heading towards me, all strung out in a line, a good few seconds between each of Them. This was it, then. This would be the proper test. If I could dispatch all of Them, then I would have proved it. I started counting, sizing Them up, gauging the ground, assessing the footing... Everything seemed suddenly quiet. No, everything was quiet. The gurgling of water at the lock had ceased.
“Hey, C’mon Bill. The... What the hell are you doing?” Kim snapped. I hadn’t heard her approach.
“I was...” I couldn’t think of a simple way of explaining it.
“Well let’s go,” she said tugging at my arm, pulling me backwards. Reluctantly, I let her.
Sholto was standing on the boat, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.
“Zombies,” Kim said as we half-clambered, half-fell on board.
“Right,” he muttered, picking up his M-16, and aiming it the way we’d just come.
“No,” she snapped, pushing the barrel away, “you’re as bad as him. Let’s just get out of here.”
to be continued...