The long way home

The rubbish bins next to the highway had become more and more… less. Everything was just less these days. You wouldn’t have guessed it if you saw the way people were living, only six months ago. It was like there was food everywhere. Fast food and take-outs, pubs and restaurants, pre-packaged food and the best, the absolute best, was the bottles and bottles of water, cans of cool drink, beer, anything fluid really. And people used to actually leave sips behind, without even a second glance. But that soon changed.

When the shortages started, the rich didn’t think much of it at first. So what if the price of water increased tenfold in the matter of weeks? “We can afford anything,” they said. Used to say. But then the power started cutting out. And then the power didn’t come back on again. And I remember the last news bulletin I saw through the window of someone’s apartment in the upper East end of London.

“Water scarcity and worldwide shortages in natural resources such as coal and oil have led to the power plants of the United Kingdom grinding to a halt. The nuclear power plants of the American, Chinese and Russian governments have stopped production weeks ago amid water shortages causing overheating in their power reactors...”

The last words the anchor man had said, looking slightly disheveled and unwashed, was something about the Prime Minister’s call for calm, but that’s when the television’s light died and all the lights lining the street as well. London was thrown head first into darkness, and not just because of a total lack of power.

I scratch and scrabble through the rubbish bin I had found earlier, hoping to find some remnants of something to drink. I rummage with both my long arms stretched fully into the dustbin, my face pushing into the rubbish on top. But all I could feel through the dry skin on my hands is even drier paper and plastic bags. Someone must have already been through this one.

It would have been nice to walk into a convenience store, grab an ice cold can of…anything really, and just chug it down my throat. But the luxury of convenience was a thing of the past. Supermarkets and stores were the first to get raided, because they held the most resources to eat and drink. When they had been cleaned out, the most people left the city after the initial evacuations. People quickly realised that a city was no place to live off the land, since it didn’t have any.

Before the world went dark, the people spoke of Africa and South America as these oases, where you could sleep under trees hanging with fruit, and drink from the nectar of tropical plants. Where underground rivers ran deep and cool and burst free in the sparkling sun, giving salvation to the needy survivors on Earth. The lack of development and infrastructure had meant that there were vast stretches of dams still unused, untapped, unemptied, lying in wait for people to drink, deep beneath the Earth's parched surface.

But news soon came back of the millions that lay dead between Africa and Europe. The last fuel hoarders had set out with spare tanks on the back of their pickups, but their corpses joined those of the other settlers, albeit slightly further away from the city, doors flung open as if that were their final act to defy ever approaching death.

No, London had been my home for the full 17 years of my existence, and so it would remain. I didn’t know how to hunt animals and even if I did, humans weren’t the only animals dying of thirst. Luckily, almost everyone reckoned the country side was where you needed to be. For years before it went dark people said the city was too over crowded, too thickly populated. Water was pumped into the city from dams and reservoirs hundreds, even thousands of miles away. When they dried up and the pumps had no more electricity to run them the city’s inhabitants would be the first to die. And they did.

Lucky for me, this meant almost everyone fled the city within days of the darkness descending over London. Lucky, because firstly, I’d never really liked people, and the second more obvious reason, the less people there were around, the more food there was left for me.

But this trash can wasn’t really living up to my expectations. It had a packet of half eaten salt crackers, which was dangerous, as the craving for water couldn’t always be met immediately after you’ve eaten them. So I pick up my backpack, containing the last couple of useless memories of a life and time long gone and make my way back to my new home.

I trundle through the cold, dry streets, devoid of all life. There’s a chilly wind whipping at the hoody drawn over my ears and forehead, trying to open me up to the elements, but I hold it tight with my right hand. As I walk I hum one of the songs I still remember listening to on my now useless Ipod… Something from Nothing from the Foo Fighters.

It’s quite a walk to my new home in Westminster in Grosvenor Crescent, as food has become scarcer every time I went out foraging. I know there are still people around also trying to find any sustenance still available. Once in a while I hear them laughing or singing or talking to themselves, but I choose to avoid other people as far as possible, especially ones that weren't afraid to be heard. You never know what type of person you can meet in the city today. I make sure to move around every two weeks, as Reapers have a tendency of pillaging from survivors who’ve been able to hoard some food and resources for themselves.

The wind howls through the branches of dead trees lining St. James’ Park. It’s going to be another cold night, but luckily the wealthy owners of 31B Grosvenor Crescent who lent me their home for the moment had installed wonderfully insulated windows and used thickly draped curtains to keep the cold at bay. Their beds were also covered with comfortably fluffy duvets that you could just melt into, pillows that would swallow your head whole in warm cotton. It was the best I’d slept in a couple of months.

Being a child that grew up in the city I had always felt at home in the night sounds of car horns, people shouting, sirens and thuds from the people living above us. Silence was one thing I never thought would be so obvious. It was like all the city sounds had previously made sense, but when everything went quiet, it hit you squarely in the face. I was only a couple hundred yards from my warm home waiting for me, and the silence around me covered me like a blanket. Only…

I pricked my ears, almost like a fox would roaming the woods. I could feel the hairs on my arms standing to attention as well, my whole body tensing. Fight or flight. Someone was following me, and whoever it was, was doing an almost perfect job of it. But just like a fish can move through water without making a sound, the ripples are made, and I was feeling the ripples of movement behind me, caressing my skin with the faintest of brushes, a mixture of air currents and sound.

I was prepared. I kept my pace the same, the strides of my long legs still keeping the same metronomic pace. My red front door was across the street, about twenty houses straight ahead. But as I round the next corner I break into a hundred yard dash for the opposite park, where I run past swings swinging in the wind and motionless jungle gyms, jump a row of bushes and duck through a small gap I had made in the fence five nights earlier. I turn left, run a further two hundred yards and sneak left into an alleyway containing empty rubbish bins. I slam my back into the left hand side wall behind three trash cans toppled over.

My heart doesn’t thud as loudly as it had only months before. It has had much more practice at containing the adrenalin coursing through my body. It knew how to savour it, knew how to expend it, and most importantly knew exactly when I needed it. I slowed my breath and listened carefully with my entire body alert against the cold face brick wall of the delicate bakery that had been burnt down 2 days after the blackout. I didn’t hear a thing, and this time there wasn’t any movement to alert me of someone’s presence either.

However, not taking any chances for someone waiting to ambush me from the mouth of the alley, I waited 2 minutes before I climbed up the rusted fire escape that stretched down the far wall of the dead-end. I put each sneakered foot securely on the first rung, and lifted myself up the cold metal ladder, all the while listening for any sound of pursuit behind me. Nothing.

I reach the rooftop, check that my stash of rocks left in the corner of the rooftop was still as I’d left them, and continued on over the flat roof. I skirt the hole where the flames had burnt through and continued to my makeshift wooden bridge made from a plank with a couple of nails in each end to ensure it didn’t slide off either side of the two roofs that were supporting it. When I’ve crossed to the tiled roof of the building next door, I wonder for a second whether I need to remove the plank and err on the side of caution, but I decide that my senses would have pricked up if someone had followed me this far, so I leave my bridge intact.

The tiled roof is slippery and I carefully make my way across the slightly angled slates. Forty yards further is the fire escape for the tiled building, and I drop down the last five feet to smack the soles of my shoes into the tar of the small service road below. I adjust the hoody on my head, retie my left shoelace that must have gone undone during the sprint, and adjust the backpack on my back.

Where silence had at first been disconcerting to me, keeping me awake and on edge, it was now keeping me alive. I had learnt to use silence as my personal body guard, and the silence was once again telling me I was alone, and that I was safe.

I exit the service road, cross the main road briskly and continue straight with a small road to the back of my new shelter. The house had a garage that led directly to their kitchen, with a small metal service door next to the larger wooden garage doors. I take the key of the small door out of my jean’s back pocket and slide it into the lock. The mechanism is well oiled and doesn't make a sound as I click it open. I check left and right a couple of times before stepping over the fishing line with empty cans attached to it, and close the door behind me softly. The cans are quite crude, but ultimately effective, so I use them whenever I camp somewhere to guard my entrances and exits.

The room was pitch dark, the dusty black Bentley sitting in the left hand side parking space not visible at all. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark, which takes about 4 minutes, before I walk over to the door leading to the kitchen. I open the door and listen for any news from the house. Nothing.

The kitchen is on my right, across from me is the stairway leading to the bedrooms and on the left the passage leads straight to the front door. The door holds large pieces of paneled, double glazed windows, which filter in the last grey light of the day. I step onto the carpet and walked towards the front door to check the large pieces of hardly visible broken glass I had put there to warn me of any other unwanted visitors. They were still whole. The archway to the left and right which leads the wooden floors into the dining and living rooms are also covered in glass if someone tried to be clever and come through a window. I didn’t use these rooms as they are too cold.

But everything seemed to be as I had left it. I felt my body slacken with the release of the tension I hadn’t realised had still been there, and suddenly realised how hungry I still was. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in two days. Not the longest I’ve gone without food, but doing some sprints and climbing really managed to empty an already empty stomach.

I walked back as I’d come, up the thickly carpeted stairs, lifting my legs high over the fishing line at the top of the stairs and entered my grand master bedroom. It was a large, lofty room with thick Persian carpets laid over the wooden floors. The king size bed stood to the left of the room, a bay window directly across from me where they had placed a desk to make a small makeshift office, and to the right the walk-trough closet that led to the bathroom.

I walk over to the desk, take off my backpack and shoes and place them on the table. I unzip my hoody and hang it over the desk chair. I stretch my back in an arch with my hands linked together behind my shoulders, close my eyes and let the last bits of straggling tension leave my body.

“What took you so long?” a soft voice whispers behind me, loud enough to sound like a shout after the deathly silence.

My eyes spring open.

Dammit.


Next Chapter: Gale Force