Protect & Survive - The Visitors
The fire was low – he brought in more wood and watched in wonderment as he always did as it sparked back into life. The light in the cottage changed once more – new warmth, permeating all but the distant corners where his candles were lit. A reminder, as he had always thought that with light there was life and where there was life there was hope.
It had not always been that way of course as he well remembered.
He moved round his small lounge puffing up his tattered cushions. He had cleaned the room thoroughly or to the best of his abilities. His wife would not have been impressed, less so his mother. The very thought of her made him stop for a moment. He remembered her as she was and how she had become, in death as in life. He remembered her eyes, her smile, her warmth, she was a link back to that far-off place, the world that was. It gladdened him to know that whatever pain she had endured at the end, for the greater part of her life she had known a comfort and a joy that few now experienced or would perhaps ever know.
He was expecting visitors - he was used to the occasional friend or acquaintance dropping by. Susan, dear Rachel, Harold and of course Bob all called round and he would visit them. Companionship and company were so important these days – to be left alone, to be isolated, was a reminder of how it had been in the darkest of times. No one should be left alone – to live that way, to die that way. It had happened to too many, to people he had known, people he had loved and those he had barely met. Of course, we all die alone ultimately and must face whatever judgement in which one believed. He had never been one for the firebrands, the faith mongers or those who called what had happened a judgement from on high. No, he had always said, Man did this, not God.
The preparations were nearly complete – the broth was simmering on the stove and he had prepared the extra room for his guests who would likely stay overnight. The coast road was fine during the day but not to be taken at night. Some believed werewolves and catamounts haunted the byway at night. For him, it was the sheer practicality of travelling the road in the dark. Gurnards had a light and Joseph would provide for any traveller but it was best to journey in the day and it was a fine afternoon – the Sun shone through the hazy clouds in a gentle breeze.
He had been out and tended to his garden in the morning – the vegetables were doing well and he had obtained fish from old Crowther – a surly soul but the two had struck up an unlikely friendship. Crowther had always lived here, he was fourth or fifth generation and he would be the last. He was the last of his family, a history going back one hundred years and more but it would end with him. However, he had written it all down – his life, his family and history so the memory of him would not be lost. He had started it after he heard his last grandchild had died. It had been difficult for him and for a while he had retreated into isolation but not completely.
It was past noon and the guests would be arriving soon. From Mary, the letter had said. Part of the “Testament”, the record of that which had happened so future generations would know of this time and the sufferings those who had survived it had endured. He looked round the room – faded curtains, old chairs and table, none of it his. He had made a table but that was in his room with a few photographs and letters, all he had of his life. He had a faded picture of his brother, lost these many years and of his mother and father and of course his wife and child. He rarely looked at them but had brought them down for his guests. They needed to understand, needed to know and be aware. If the Testament meant anything it meant the connection of lives, the connection of memories so that we would not just be dust or ash but something permanent, something meaningful.
His reverie was interrupted by the knocking on the door. Not a familiar knock, not the firm authority of Bob or the softness of Rachel but a different, diffident sound. He moved to the door and opened it. A young man and woman stood before him – clad in blue green smocks, worn by so many these days. The man smiled and said cordially “Good Afternoon, Sir, I believe you are expecting us.”
“Yes, Yes, Come in, you are most welcome” he replied. The two visitors entered the cottage, looked round a moment and seemed confused.
Before they could clarify their confusion, he said “I’ve made up two guest beds upstairs – first on the left. You can put your bags up there, don’t worry. There’s some broth simmering so you can have a drink when you come back down”
“Er, thank you very much. My name is Paul and this is Adara”.
“Hello Paul, I’m Michael. I know your father. Is he keeping well?”
“Yes, he’s fine” Paul replied, “He sends greetings.”
“Do you know my family?” Adara said her first words since entering the cottage.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t” Michael replied. The silence was awkward but Michael quickly said “Please go upstairs, unpack and I’ll be waiting here with some broth for you when you’re ready.”
Paul and Adara disappeared up the small narrow staircase. Michael could hear them speaking albeit faintly. He knew Paul’s family, they weren’t local of course but Paul’s father was a good man, a builder by trade. He had brought his family here in the days before the war and they had found a place in one of the villages over Botallack way. Adara was a mystery – he suspected she was an orphan who had been taken in by one of the camps. Perhaps her parents had been killed or had taken their own lives or died in the famine. She seemed so fragile she would break yet she had found a place and Michael suspected Mary had much to do with that.
Paul and Adara came down a few minutes later by which time Michael had prepared bowls of steaming hot vegetable broth. They took them eagerly – the journey was long and although not too arduous in good weather, it was still a long way for them to have come. To have arrived, to be warm and safe was as important now as it had always been. A house, a home with a fire and good company was all that most needed and yet still it eluded many even now.
“I have a letter of introduction from Mary and the Council” said Paul formally and presented a scroll of sorts. Michael took it and read it respectfully even though he knew full well its contents. He recognised the writing, the elegant style that had been honed when paper and pencil were precious and the prose, the result of an education of sorts. Nothing formal but still a degree of learning.
“Thank you very much, Paul and Adara. I am honoured to be part of the Testament and to serve the Council” – a little flowery, Michael thought, but it seemed to go down well with Paul and Adara. They must be among her most favoured wardens to have been granted the task of speaking to me of all people. He had once served on the Council and indeed had played no small part in its creation in the wake of the famine and the collapse of the Regional Government. He had spoken directly to the representatives of CHANTICLEER before they too were swept away in the chaos. He wondered who governed Portsmouth now. Perhaps Mary knew but in the Council’s public pronouncements, the onus was always on self-sufficiency and isolation. They spoke and journeyed to the islands regularly and while the Isles had their own Council, the two functioned more or less as one. To the east, well, there were stories aplenty of warlords and brigands and cults. The odd survivor from up country still made it across the moors and the Council sent the occasional team toward Plymouth and Kingsbridge but rarely did they report any sign of life. There was the odd farm near the coast which still existed but much of what was once east Cornwall and west Devon was an empty ruin abandoned these many years past.
Michael looked up – “How do you want to proceed?”
“We have some questions” replied Paul. “The first is simple. Can you tell us in your own words your memories of Judgement Day and what came after?” Paul replied without emotion beyond a thin smile. He glanced at Adara “She will scribe for us. Once we are complete, she will read it back and if you are happy it is a fair record, it will be added to the Testament which will be scribed and presented to the Council next Memory Day”
“I understand” Michael replied, but where to start? As he spoke, his mind drifted back to those manic hours and days before, what had Paul called it, “Judgement Day”. It reminded him of a phrase used in a movie, my God; I’ve not seen a movie in nearly thirty years. For a second, he thought of Hollywood, Los Angeles and San Francisco, radioactive ruins presumably. Only the ghosts still made movies now, he mused.
He remembered his life in Plymouth before, in a small flat, after his studies. He had seen the increasing tension during January and early February and had begun to make his own plans. He had quietly stockpiled food and water and when it seemed war was inevitable, he had loaded up his car and driven down to his Grandfather’s house on the coast. He had opened it up and called his parents and brother. His parents had made the long journey from London, travelling on side roads as the main roads were being requisitioned by the military and by the Police anxious to avoid large-scale civilian migration. They had got into Cornwall six hours before the roadblocks were put in and the Police and Territorial Army had effectively sealed the County. His brother hadn’t made it – Michael remembered their final conversation – practicalities, he was going to try to get to Scotland where their Uncle lived.
Michael had become convinced there would be a war and his father had agreed but they needed the help of old man Woods over the road. Woods was a builder and carpenter – in exchange for his labour and material; they had offered him, his son-in-law and daughter a place of refuge. Below his Grandfather’s house was a huge boat cellar and that would be their shelter. Their final guests were Michael’s hotelier friend and his wife. Three nights before Judgement Day, with fighting raging in West Germany, they had gone in dead of night and emptied out the hotel’s larder taking the food round the back streets and alleys of the town.
The town was already filling with refugees and visitors. Any relative, however distant, of a local sought refuge here but so did complete outsiders. Some broke into empty properties and set up shelter there while by that time the supermarkets had been cleaned out and the pubs drunk dry. Michael, Woods’ son and the hotelier had carried load after load through the alleyways and though some of the locals had spotted them, they had been silenced by food and good wishes.
Michael remembered his father and old man Woods helping Woods’ son secure the storm shutters and barricade and secure the house. They had taken turns keeping guard during the long February nights but there had been no trouble despite the mounting sense of panic and fear.
And then the final day, a Tuesday. The war had escalated with the explosion of a nuclear device over Kassel in West Germany. As soon as that news filtered through, everyone had prepared for the inevitable. After a final meal and a prayer, they had all gone down into the cellar and waited.
The last minutes – the screams and shouts of those outside trying to find any kind of shelter. Had there been shooting? Frightened people, clawing at wood, brick and cement to get any kind of cover before the sky caught fire, before the “light brighter than a thousand suns” but there would be nothing here, so far away, or so we hoped.
“The War?” Adara interrupted suddenly “What did you know of it?” Michael could see Paul glare across at her before saying quickly “It’s all right, Sir. We’re taught about the conflict between the Communist Union and the Western Allies.”
“I’m sure” Michael replied softly, “but it wasn’t a conflict between states. It was a conflict of philosophies, of ways of living, between two belief systems if you will. Capitalism and Communism. In the end, the two could not co-exist and both were destroyed. As for the war, we followed it on radio and television. I know they still show old films from before the war on the screens. Well, they transmitted live pictures too, at least until the very end. As the attack warning sirens went off, the radio was all we had.”
The panic of those last minutes lived with him still. How many, he always wondered, never made it home or chose to go out to be “right underneath it”. He wondered what his brother had done in those final minutes. He had rarely prayed but he had that day.