Authors: Charlie Higson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
There were raised voices and Chris looked to the front. Jack and Ed were arguing with each other again. Chris shook his head. Tried not to smile. He wondered if Jack was ever going to tell Frédérique that he’d nailed a plank of wood to her father’s head.
They were very different, Jack and Ed. Ed, the poster boy for the school. He’d never had to worry about anything much before all this. Now he looked tired and scared all the time. Jack, whose strawberry birthmark had always made him look a bit angry and who now really did seem to be in a permanent bad mood. Shorter than Ed, with darker hair, he had the feel about him of someone who wanted to start a fight.
Look at the two of them. Trying to take charge, to be in control. They were only fourteen years old. They were children. They were
only children. And out there … outside the chapel …
Chris didn’t want to think about that.
Now Anthony Sullivan joined in.
‘How far is it?’ he asked. ‘To London? How long would it take to get there?’
‘About twenty-five miles, I think,’ Jack answered. ‘Same distance as a marathon.’
‘It’s twenty-one miles to Trafalgar Square,’ said Wiki. ‘So at an average human walking speed of three miles an hour, that would be roughly a seven-hour walk, if you did it in one go.’
‘What time is it now?’ Anthony Sullivan asked.
‘Quarter to eleven,’ said Matt. ‘We could be there by six o’clock.’
‘Provided there are no delays,’ Ed butted in. ‘You make it sound like it’s a stroll in the park, lah-di-dah-di-dah, let’s all skip to London and take in the sights from the top of an open-topped bus. We don’t know what’s out there. If you go to London, you might be having to fight every step of the way.’
‘You don’t know it’s going to be any easier going to the countryside,’ said Jack.
‘I’ve never liked London,’ said Bam. ‘I grew up in the country.’
‘You’re a yokel, Bam,’ said his friend Piers, and Bam grinned.
‘Ooh arr!’ he said, and the little kids laughed.
‘I’m with Bam,’ Piers added. ‘I vote we go to the countryside.’
Chris stayed with his head bent over his book.
He wasn’t going to get involved in any stupid voting. He’d go along with whatever the others decided. As long as he had some books with him, he’d be all right. He had a sack-load he’d looted from the school library. There’d be other libraries, bookshops, houses with bookshelves, a world of books …
He’d always loved reading. Even before the disease, he’d retreated to the safety of stories. Books were a gateway into an alternative universe. They were magic. A book could hold anything inside it.
A book could hide Chris inside it.
He turned a page. He was reading a science-fiction adventure called
, set in London hundreds of years in the future. He found that reassuring. That there would still be something here in the future, that the world wasn’t about to end.
He was there, inside the book, walking the streets of London, living in the future city.
And he was happy there.
The wintry sky was a great slab of unbroken grey. The flat light made Rowhurst look like a picture laid out below him, not a real town at all. From up here on the church tower Jack had a clear view of the high street, and the main school buildings over the road. He was leaning on the battlements, wrapped in his coat to keep out the cold. A thin biting wind was carrying drizzle that settled on his hair and face and kept trying to run down the back of his neck.
The rain was staining the grey stonework of the school with dark, blotchy patches. The place had been founded four hundred years ago, but only a couple of buildings from that time remained. Most of the rest had been built in the nineteenth century in a grand, heavy and, quite frankly, ugly style. A row of black railings ran along the front, broken by the wrought-iron gates with the school’s name in gothic letters across the top. Boys had been going in and out of those gates for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Too many boys to count. Jack wondered if any boys would ever come back here. Would this place ever be a school again? Or would the buildings slowly crumble and decay, split open by wind and rain and frost and the searching roots of trees and weeds? He’d never really enjoyed school that much. He’d struggled in lessons, his parents had hired a string of tutors to get him past the entrance exam and he’d always felt that he was never going to catch up with the other boys in his classes.
Rowhurst had been his dad’s old school. Dad had been very happy there and still kept in touch with his old school friends …
No. Not any more
. Jack had to keep reminding himself that that world didn’t exist any more. The world of school reunions and dads going off on ‘boys’ weekends’, fishing and bike riding and whisky tasting.
Welcome to hell.
A cold, grey hell.
In a funny way, Jack was going to miss school, though. It had been such a big part of his life and if you didn’t count the lessons he’d probably got a lot out of it. He’d made some good friends. He’d enjoyed the sports. He’d been a good all-rounder – football, running, tennis, cricket, swimming. Plus he’d liked acting in the school plays. He could cover over his birthmark with make-up, pull on a wig and a costume, and pretend to be someone else. He’d enjoyed playing villains most. He’d been Iago in a production of
. Kwanele had played the main part – he was the only black boy in the school. Kwanele was a bit camp and hammy as an actor, and almost turned the play into a comedy, but audiences loved him and he had definite star quality. Everyone agreed that Jack’s scenes with him were the best thing in the play, and were the best theatre the school had ever seen.
Ed had taken a small part, for a laugh, but he couldn’t act to save his life. He just couldn’t be anything other than himself. Good old Ed Carter. He was self-conscious and couldn’t stop grinning in embarrassment.
Memories. That’s all Jack had left now. That’s all the school would become, a memory, kept alive by however many boys survived. Would Jack one day tell stories of his schooldays to his own son as they huddled in the dark in some ruined building eating rats and drinking polluted water?
Ah, yes, son, the best years of my life
Which they probably would be, of course. He couldn’t see his life exactly improving from here on in.
Memories. You had to hang on to your memories somehow. That’s why he wanted to get home – to try to grab a corner of the past and hang on to it.
He spat over the battlements, watching the spitball fall with the rain.
He certainly wouldn’t ever forget the school. Not after all that had happened here in the last few weeks. How many teachers had he killed, he wondered.
He hadn’t been counting.
Home, though, was a small precious memory that seemed to be slowly fading. A magical lost place. A place where the old Jack lived. The one who rode a bike and argued with his mum and dad and watched TV and spent hours on the Internet.
Very different to the new Jack, the one who cracked open the skulls of teachers and buried dead kids.
He was going to go back there, no matter what it took.
He’d come up to the top of the tower to take a last look around. See what might be waiting for him out there. The view was pretty good. He could see most of the school and a fair part of the town. The high street was the main route in and out and he had a clear view along it in both directions.
The town looked quiet and peaceful from up here. If the sun had been shining, it might have been the picture on the box of a jigsaw puzzle. A typical small town in Kent with the sort of houses that children drew, redbrick, pointy roofs, chimneys. If you didn’t know, you would have no idea of the horrors that were going on all around you. If you looked closely, though, you could spot a couple of burnt-out buildings, abandoned cars all over the roads. A dead body lying in the gutter. So far he hadn’t seen another living soul since he’d climbed up here, though. The diseased grown-ups tended to stay inside when it was light. But they were there. Hundreds of them, thousands …
It couldn’t be any worse in London.
Jack looked north, in the rough direction he imagined his family home in Clapham to be. What lay between here and there? He wanted to get moving and find somewhere to sleep before it got dark.
‘Is it all clear?’
Ed had come up the stairs and out of the little turret in the corner of the roof.
‘Looks OK,’ said Jack. ‘You sure you don’t want to change your mind? Come with me? Whatever happened to the idea that we were going to stick together no matter what?’
‘There’s nothing for me in London, Jack.’
Jack felt like saying that there was
, your best friend,
, but kept his mouth shut. Their friendship had become difficult lately; maybe it was time they went different ways.
‘I just think there’s a better chance of survival in the countryside,’ Ed said. ‘It seems crazy to me to go into town.’
Jack shrugged. ‘Maybe in London they’re having twenty-four-hour parties with no adults telling them when to go to bed.’
Ed smiled. ‘Maybe.’
‘You’ll be all right,’ said Jack. ‘You’ve got Bam and all the rest. Bam knows how to take care of himself. You stick with him you’ll be fine.’ Jack didn’t say it, but he knew that that was what had decided it for Ed. He was going to keep close to Bam and the rugby players. Jack couldn’t blame him. Survival was everything now. Stronger than old friendships even.
He smiled and gave Ed a quick, awkward hug.
‘How does that song go? “I will survive”?’
Ed looked in pain, like he was struggling to say something. Whatever it was he didn’t say it. They were both keeping their secrets to themselves.
That was how to survive.
What was the point of survival, though, if you became an animal? Scrounging for food, fighting, killing to stay alive? Jack’s house, and all it contained, had become something special in his mind. Because what it contained was what made him human. He couldn’t explain that to Ed. He wasn’t sure he even understood it himself. He would never have had spacey thoughts like this before. Somehow, being close to death made you go deeper into your mind. Either that or you did what Bam did, shut your mind down, didn’t think about anything, treated it all as a big joke.
Jack moved to the stairs.
‘Please come with us,’ Ed pleaded. ‘Please, Jack.’
‘My mind’s made up.’
‘You always were a stubborn bugger.’
‘Always will be. Now I’ve got to go.’
Jack had put that song in his head and now he wasn’t around to suffer the awful singing. Ed had started it and now they were all belting it out, as they tramped along through the drizzle in a straggly crocodile, for all the world like an unruly bunch of primary-school kids on a trip.
Problem was, nobody really knew the words.
‘I will survive … da da da daa …’
Ed wondered if they would have been better off keeping quiet and not attracting attention to themselves, but singing seemed to keep the shadows away, it gave them courage. As long as they were singing, they were invincible.
‘I will survive … da da da daa …’
They were marching south, out of the town, leaving the school and the church behind. None of them had been out of the grounds in at least the last five weeks. For a while the town had been chaos, the streets overrun with crazies. Now the boys were goggle-eyed at how deserted everywhere was. The shops that had always been busy stood open-doored and empty, ransacked of all their stock. The houses were dark, lifeless and neglected, with rubbish piled in the gardens. Offices were silent. Cars stationary. The only sign of life was when a dog ran out and barked at them. The shock had made them all jump but after a moment’s panic they’d burst out laughing and had mocked each other for what a bunch of wimps they’d been. The dog was still tagging along behind, keeping a wary distance. It was skinny and scabby, with patches of fur missing.