It had been a busy day, but that wasn’t unusual in itself. He was often busy; work was taking up an increasing amount of time. It was nice to be needed though. Depended upon – you know. And Harry was good at his job. He travelled the same country lane to work every day and took increasingly less notice of his surroundings as he went. Perhaps that was due to his being increasingly stressed. Or perhaps it was that the hours he put into work were becoming longer and longer and, especially in the winter months, it was often dark as he travelled to and from his place of business. Perhaps he had just got used to the beauty of the place and it had no real impact on him anymore. He’d been a bit of a birdwatcher in his youth – not a twitcher, not one of those who drove hundreds of miles to witness a brown blob half a mile out on the flats, way beyond where you could walk, and tick it off a list, or even add it to a list that had been comprehensive but wasn’t anymore because of this little rarity that had been blown in from Siberia – not that kind of birdwatcher, but a proper birder – someone who delighted in feathered fauna. And he used to notice the buzzards gliding across the fields and the hills, or been keen to glimpse a kestrel hovering over a verge, and he’d loved spotting a fast-flying sparrowhawk lancing across the road after prey or perhaps a red kite coming down off the Chiltern Hills in search of something to scavenge. Even in the evenings, the ghostly form of a barn owl quartering the meadows by the side of the road or the flit of the dark form of a tawny owl in the treetops as he sped through the more wooded sections of Flaunden Hill was a sight that would gladden the heart. Perhaps he had just got used to it all and perhaps he wasn’t able to appreciate things in the way he used to.
That was a lot of perhapses, but he did his best to stem the tide. For a while now he’d done his best to ignore anything that would cause him to think about anything other than work. And it wasn’t just that he was needed at work – he was appreciated, valued, respected even. And he enjoyed what he did. It might not have been to everyone’s taste, but he was pretty much left alone – not that that meant he kept himself to himself too much. At least, he never used to. Actually, if he was forced to think about it, there wasn’t much activity at the office these days. In fact, he was struggling to think of the last time he saw anyone. But it didn’t matter, as he had a key, so he could let himself into the office and get set up and start without being bothered. People had always told him how much they found his professional attitude and organised precision comforting. He knew, yes he knew, just how much they thought of him. It spurred him on, making him push himself still harder and outdo his colleagues – in the nicest possible way, of course.
So, yet again, he pushed what was nagging at him from his mind. It didn’t matter. He had his work and he was content. So he continued to clock in, do his work to the best of his ability, and then go home. True, the house was an empty, cold and lifeless place – at least until he got home and lit a fire. There was no central heating anymore, and he knew he needed to call someone – and he would, before winter, but it was still autumn and there was no real need just yet. Besides, he was so busy, so it would wait – just a little more, and he’d get his head above water and he’d slow down at work. He’d even promised himself he’d start dating again. The house had been remarkably quiet since, er, since, er, what was her name? Sylvie, that was it! A lovely French girl, all bouncy curls and flouncy frocks. Yes, he’d liked her – couldn’t really remember why they’d split if truth be told.
And he couldn’t quite work out why it took him so long to remember her name. He probably did need to spend less time working. Maybe he’d then slow down enough to start appreciating life again. Not that he didn’t anyway – well, except for the working too long hours, the falling asleep in front of the fire in the evenings because he was too tired to do anything else, or the fact that he didn’t have much of a social life. Ok, ok, no social life at all, really. If he was being honest with himself.
And the phone didn’t seem to ring much these days. Or at all. Yeah, that was odd; his mum always did at least seem to keep tabs on him, and now, she didn’t seem to at all. Even those bloody awful telesales people seemed to have taken the hint and left him alone. And he phoned precious few people nowadays. Precious few? When was the last time he actually phoned anyone? Well, he’d catch up with friends and family when he had the time. The time? Huh! As if that would happen soon! But he promised himself that he would see to this as soon as he could, and then put it from his mind.
But something was to happen that would challenge this. And in the most intense way.
He’d been busy all week, and this Friday was no different. Friday? Was he sure it was a Friday? How could he be sure? Well, he was knocking off early, wasn’t he? Early? Was it really early? He only had a half hour drive home and it was already half five. He was in work for eight so this was hardly taking it easy. But it was still light and as he drove home, he reflected that the wind was affecting him as he drove the miles that separated him from his house. As he rounded a corner he was met with a sight that caused him to slam on his brakes. A tree had fallen across his path and was blocking his progress.
Not to worry, he thought, I’ve got a 4×4 – I’ll just go up the verge.
And then he looked down at the steering wheel. Why did it say “Mercedes”? He knew full well he had a Land Rover – Josh at work always ribbed him about it. It wasn’t as if the drive was through treacherous conditions that necessitated a 4×4. But Harry liked it. So what was happening here? Come to think of it, Josh hadn’t mentioned anything for weeks now. Weeks? Or could it have been longer?
Damn it all! What the hell is going on here? Harry’s mind was racing. And for once, it wasn’t about work.
For once, he was being forced to slow down. He’d promised himself so many times over the months that he would slow down. And, even recently, he’d done it again. He stopped the vehicle completely and got out. For the first time in a very long time, he looked at the countryside around him. He knew the trees and the hedgerows well. He even knew the fields beyond – he’d glimpsed them many times through the foliage. But now he stared around him as if he were seeing the countryside for the first time.
And what he saw left him floored. There were so many gaps in the trees that he could see the fields clearly. And the brown and empty fields seemed so desolate. Why were there so many spaces? Where had the cattle gone that normally littered the lush green fields? He cast a glance once again at the fallen tree and realised it was little more than a branch that had come off a large and aged tree, so he could probably push it out of the way enough for him to scrape by. He was about to, wanting once more to push matters from his mind. But this time he couldn’t.
He stared about him with an intensity that would have told of amazement, stupefaction and apprehension, had there been anyone to see it.
It was quiet. Really quiet. He couldn’t hear any birds, but it was autumn not spring, so perhaps that was to be expected. But then he realised there was nothing alive at all that he could hear or see. He wondered about other road users and found to his surprise that he wasn’t expecting any to come by and happen on him. And he was right not to. Why was that? This didn’t make sense! It was almost as if his subconscious was tuned into something the rest of him wasn’t. He strained his hearing to catch the sound of another motor in the distance. Nothing. That was odd – even for the country lane he was on. He should be able to hear the hum of engines from the major road a mile or two away.
There was a knot of nervous tension in his stomach as he looked around intently. How had all this happened in only one day? Or was it only one day? He put out his hand, feeling the rough bark of the branch dig into his palm. His stomach lurched as things started to fall into place. But he wasn’t about to admit to certain truths – at least not yet.
Should he try and tune the radio in? Then he could find out if there was something he was unaware of… or something he should know… But he hated the radio… didn’t he? He never listened to it. Not anymore. Why was that? It was like the TV – awful contraption! Huh! He sounded like his granddad saying that! Surely he used to watch programmes, didn’t he? He cocked his head sideways as if he was trying to catch sight of something out of the corner of his eye. There was something that was bothering him. If he could only put his finger on it.
And then it came to him. He started to remember things. Important things, like why he was driving this Mercedes. And why he no longer listened to the radio. Or watched the telly. All of a sudden, he was aware of things he had put out of his mind. Damn, but he really did have ability in this regard!
But what it was that he was starting to recall gave him a sick, sinking feeling in his stomach. He staggered and put out a balancing hand, resting it on the Mercerdes’ roof for support. He cast his eyes about wildly, looking every inch the frightened animal about to flee. All of a sudden, he moved, reaching in through the open window and frantically turning on the radio. And was met with static. At least, that’s what his ears and brain told him he heard. But in fact it was an absence of noise that he heard – a silence that in itself was deafening, disturbing, de-stabilising.
“Oh, bollocks,’ he breathed, his voice sounding oddly hollow in the still air. And then he started to wonder, just how long it had been since he had spoken. How long had it been since he had spoken with another person? The radio’s volume knob was on 10, and he was busy pressing buttons. It was a digital radio and he always used to listen to Planet Rock – or sometimes Talksport in the morning, depending on whether he was in the mood for rocking out or discussions on football, rugby, cricket and the like. But they yielded nothing.
Try the other wavebands, he told himself. Still nothing! Where was Radio 1? Oh, he hated the music, but it would have soothed his nerves! What about Radios 2, 3 or 4, or even Jazz FM? He was panicking now. He wanted the familiar, comforting sound of people chatting, or music that he hadn’t personally chosen washing over him. But there was nothing.
Not a thing.
And he remembered now. Oh, he remembered, with absolute clarity what he had been stopping himself from thinking about. He still didn’t want to admit it, but the walls he had constructed in his mind were starting to crumble. He practically dived into his car – his car? – and gunned the engine. He mounted the verge, felt the wheels slip and the car slid a little, scraping the branch as he managed to skirt the obstacle in the road. With a brief look at the familiar stretch of country lane, and still barely comprehending the changes wrought upon it, he revved the Merc still further. The tyres squealed and the back fishtailed. He stepped on the pedal still harder, feeling the back end straighten as he sped away up Flaunden Hill.
He wasn’t far from various towns in this part of Buckinghamshire; he worked in Amersham, and indeed, had he thought about it, he could’ve turned around and headed back there, but he focused on going on. He sped into the lovely village of Flaunden itself. He’d made his home here, after moving out of the family home in nearby Chalfont St. Peter, and he loved the peace and tranquillity of the country, yet knowing how easy to was to get anywhere as the M25 wasn’t far away. Now he wasn’t loving the remote nature of the village where he lived. It wasn’t as if it was a hive of activity, so he hung a left and flashed by his cottage, leaving the chocolate box village behind, heading towards the larger town – well village really, but a large one – of Bovingdon. But Bovingdon was deserted. Just the same as Flaunden had been. But the difference here was that there were several cars abandoned on verges, half up pavements and sticking out of driveways. A couple were even on their sides, windows smashed.
Horrified, even though deep down he was expecting this, he pushed hard at the accelerator and drove on. Hemel was the same – only on a larger scale. He got on the M1 and headed south. It was deserted. There was not a single car. He pulled onto the M25. And found it just the same. This was mad, he told himself, coming off the M25 onto the M40. In the space of twenty minutes he’d been on three motorways and had seen nobody at all. He gave up and pulled off at Beaconsfield, a place he knew well; one of his childhood friends lived there still.
Well, now he wasn’t so sure about that, as he still hadn’t seen a soul. He should’ve seen some of his beloved red kites drifting around the Chilterns as he took the M40 westwards. And there weren’t any to be seen. So was he expecting to see any people? He knew damn well he wasn’t. So why the mindless panic now? If he’d expected to see people alive, then he would’ve stopped at TJ’s. TJ always finished early on a Friday and he kept on at Harry to come out with him on a Friday, didn’t he? Well, come to think of it, that had stopped a good long while back, but Harry had just thought TJ had given up on him. Harry had promised himself he’d give him a call soon, but hadn’t got around to it.
He drove through the empty town and headed through the leafy lanes towards Seer Green, a place he’d gone to Church as a teenager. He even found himself driving down to the Baptist Church there and coming to a skidding halt in the car park. He jumped out and ran to the closed doors. Again, nothing. He had wondered if he’d get some peace from the fact he used to come here and pray. He even went to the youth group. Would he get some solace here? But no, there was nothing. Certainly he felt no higher power giving him divine peace. But was that what he was expecting?
He had slowed down by now and he got back in the car with a sigh. He was remembering now the days of the Great Purge. That was what some had called it anyway. There were others that called it the Curse, and still others claimed it was retribution from God. But the fact was that people just stopped living. And that had given rise to violence, but only in small pockets. Because the simple fact was that people just went to bed one night and never rose again. And no-one could tell what caused it – or what night it would happen. Many thought themselves immune to whatever was causing it.
But they weren’t.
The fact was that the ones who lived were only able to provide graves for those that died. But in reality they were just pits for the bodies of the masses who died. Just in case it was an airborne infection, there were open pits dug in every community. And the bodies were literally tossed in and burned.
Such was life and such was the ignominy of death, thought Harry as he drove through Chalfont St. Giles and to the A road beyond. He stopped there and got out of the car. It was running low on fuel and he’d have to scout around for a new one. There was always a car he could get. Houses were easy to break into and keys could always be found. And eventually the alarms stopped ringing. And somehow he did this all without it ever registering in his mind. Or without him allowing it to register – that was more the fact of it.
So he’d immersed himself in his work, and he’d ignored the fact that people were dying in their droves. The more that society emptied, the more he drove himself into self-imposed isolation – even exile. He stopped seeing people, contacting friends, family or whoever. And now he realised why he never turned on the TV or the radio anymore. Because there was nothing to see… or hear. And just who could he phone, anyway?
But what happened to the wildlife? Why was that gone too? And where? Why was there no-one else? Surely somebody… somewhere? So many questions. So many unanswered questions! And now the walls in his mind had come down, he stopped completely. Before he realised what he was doing, he’d got out of the car. He fell to his knees in the middle of the road.
Why? He shouted in his mind.
‘Why?’ he roared into the peace and quiet of his empty world, the sound dying away quickly, muffled by the enormity of the empty, silent dullness all around.
‘Why?’ he wailed more softly, wondering if he had gone mad and was in fact the prisoner of an empty world in his own mind. One of his own construct. But he felt the tarmac under his hands and knew it to be real.
Tears of grief, untapped for so long, finally welled in his eyes and spilled unchecked down his cheeks. Sobs racked his frame as he finally gave in to the reality of a life alone. Why had he been spared? He couldn’t understand. And was it spared? Really? Or was this sense of loneliness a kind of hell? An alone-ness of massive proportions?
With no-one to talk to or with, meet with, laugh with, go places with, experience life with… or even grow old with.
Now or forever.
He cried and cried, like a child ripped from its parent and desperate to return to the love and sanctity it knew and depended upon. He wept piteously, moans issuing from his mouth like sputum cascading from a disease-riddled leper, and sobbed uncontrollably, shaking – still on his knees with his hands braced on the road itself, tears splashing onto the floor between them. He called on God – on any god, angel or demon he could think of, any that he had ever heard of.
But none of it made any difference.
Because all that greeted him was silence.
And that was all he would ever know.
Empty, total silence.