by Robin Crumby
"Therefore wait for me," declares the Lord, "for the day when I rise up
as a witness. Indeed, my decision is to gather nations,
to assemble kingdoms, to pour out on them my indignation,
all my burning anger; for all the earth will be devoured by the fire of my zeal.
This was an ancient place, remote and desolate. Peaceful, yet witness to centuries of war mongering, standing ready to do its duty. A never-ending vigil set to the rhythmic rise and fall of the ocean.
It was only a matter of time before all this would be swept away. The castle’s resolute defences were probed by each breaking wave. This man-made structure was imperceptibly weakened by every successive roller, sweeping in from the channel, sent crashing against the groynes and stones.
A pale sun rose silently and unnoticed over Hurst Castle. Shadows stretching over the rippled tidal waters that all but surrounded it, bar a narrow finger of shingle linking the fortifications to the mainland. Hurst’s seventy-four occupants were slumbering in their quarters. The more recent arrivals camping out in the East Wing, tents pitched where grass and space allowed. In the dorm room in the main building, a shaft of sunlight pierced the makeshift curtains. Two grey blankets strung across the large stone window aperture prolonged the darkness. The shaft of light fell across the pillow of one of the iron-framed beds, bathing the unshaven face of a man in pale white light as he began to wake.
Zed stretched and yawned, looking around at his companions. Packed tightly together, a sleeping mass of washed-up humanity snored gently. There was a low snuffle of someone stirring in the corner, heavy breathing and the universal stench of unwashed bodies and morning breath. From outside came the low sound of waves breaking gently over the rocks and shingle spit, seagulls soaring above the castle that spoke of a new morning, bringing with it new hope. For many, the sounds reminded them of former lives, holidays by the seaside, now distant memories.
A base need to breathe fresh air and enjoy the peace of the castle in the early dawn compelled Zed to take his morning constitutional walk. He was fond of rising before anyone else was up and having the place to himself.
Stepping outside, he squinted into the sunlight and took a moment to bathe in the pale warmth, inhaling deeply the sea air. His hair was unkempt and unwashed, long sideburns grew down his cheeks and a tuft of hair stuck upright. He wore a grubby t-shirt with ‘Weyland Corporation’ on the front. Chest high salt stains from wading in seawater to unload stores from a visiting fishing boat. He had the air of someone who looked after himself, a loner, a survivor with the scars to prove it. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the company of others, he did. But when push came to shove, he had no time for the weak. Survive or die. Get in his way and face the consequences.
Leaving the castle keep and its cold grey stone walls, he meandered sleepily, still yawning, through the Tudor archway. Beyond the gate was a narrow strip of grass that stretched for one hundred meters or so to the western walls of the fort, extended in Victorian times. A large marquee dominated the interior. Half a dozen smaller tents were pitched haphazardly around it. Passing the canteen he took the stairs two at a time. Up on to the raised walkway and ramparts, he looked southwest across the narrow channel towards the Isle of Wight and the Needles rocks. There was still a faint haze that shrouded the rocks in a light mist, slowly evaporating as the shadows shortened on the water.
He unzipped his fly to pee over the battlements. Urine rained down on to some weeds that grew against the base of the crumbling brick wall, some thirty feet below. He scanned the horizon across the saltmarshes towards Keyhaven. A pair of swans glided gracefully against the incoming tide within the sheltered estuary that lay behind a narrow shingle spit. As he turned to look back up the finger of land and the raised roadway on top of the shingle, the movement of a dark shape in the distance interrupted his gaze.
The figure was limping awkwardly. A long heavy coat several sizes too big was draped around his shoulders. On the castle walls Zed reached for the pair of binoculars that lived in a large blue plastic Ikea storage box under the bench seat. He took a couple of seconds to find and focus on the figure in the distance. There was no question. What had first appeared as a limp was more severe in focus, the left leg dragging heavily on the shingle, scrapping at each step. His progress was laboured, but he showed no sign of discomfort or pain as he approached.
Zed lowered the binoculars and squinted back at the shape with his bare eyes. The hint of a smile appeared on his lips. He reached back into the blue container and brought up a hunting rifle. Loading a single bullet into the breach, he took careful aim at the figure in the distance. Adjusting his position a couple of times, he relaxed into a wide stance, the rifle resting on the edge of the brick wall. The cross hairs of the telescopic sight danced around the head of the approaching figure. It was still perhaps two hundred meters away now, making steady progress. He regulated his breathing before exhaling deeply.
The rifle shot rang out across Christchurch Bay, echoing around the battlements, shattering the silence of the early morning.
A flock of birds rose startled from the salt marshes. In the fenced off field next to the lighthouse, a herd of dairy cows started and bumped into each other wild eyed. The two horses bolted, one jumping over the low wire fence and charging away from the noise. Its hooves clattered on the pebbles as it galloped along the beach.
From the dorm room, figures emerged startled from their slumber, rubbing their eyes. In the makeshift cluster of tents, heads appeared from unzipped entrances like meerkats. Everyone stared at each other in surprise, alarmed by the single shot. There had been no bell to warn the inhabitants of an imminent threat. Two men raced towards the stairs to the Western end, grabbing boots and clothes as they went.
Back on the raised walkway that ran along the battlements, Zed cursed as the figure continued its slow methodical lurch towards the castle, unharmed and undeterred. Its pace seemed to quicken imperceptibly. The first shot had gone high and right, splintering a rock over the man’s shoulder. Zed hurriedly reloaded the rifle. He adjusted his aim slightly to the left to account for the light breeze coming across the bay from the island. Wrapping the rifle strap around his left arm tightly, he steadied the barrel against the raised concrete and fired again. This time the figure’s head rocked back violently. The body collapsed onto the shingle, twitching.
Those who had ignored the first shot and had passed it off as a dream sat bolt upright. Muffled cries of alarm could be heard throughout the castle. Raised voices joined together as people emerged from every door and tent to congregate in the courtyard pointing towards the suspected source. A single figure was silhouetted on the ramparts. Zed’s back was turned. He didn’t react to the commotion behind him.
Still buttoning his shirt and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Jack hurried towards the base of the wooden staircase. Zed hadn’t moved a muscle. He was still staring down the telescopic sight at the figure lying inert on the shingle.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ shouted Jack from below, squinting up at Zed. “Are we under attack?” He was still breathing heavily from his race across the courtyard. A Royal Navy issue blue sweater with elbow patches had ridden up exposing a neat potbelly. His thinning hair was wild, his brow furrowed with anger.
Zed didn’t respond, but muttered something under his breath that Jack didn’t catch. The older man took the stairs two at a time, his limbs stiff and sore from yesterday’s exertions.
The others stepped aside to let their leader pass. He stood panting, fighting to catch his breath. Zed held the rifle hitched on his hip, like a triumphant hunter.
Jack snatched the binoculars and slowly scanned the shingle spit before locating the body. Shaking his head, he grabbed the rifle from Zed’s grasp and put it back in the storage box.
“Why did you have to shoot him? He was unarmed, Zed. We’re not animals you know,” asked Jack.
Zed stared back at him, defiantly. “He was infected.”
Jack was aware of a gathering crowd watching their exchange, expecting him to act. He looked into the distance and back at Zed. “Every living soul for miles around will have heard that shot.”
“Shame there’s no one left alive to hear it then,” said Zed with a wry smile, unrepentant.
Jack laughed, but there was no hint of humour in his demeanour. He was seething, but trying to keep a cool head. “We don’t know that. Next time, why don’t you hand out invitations, put up signs…”
Jack turned to address the others. “How many times? How many times have we talked about this? We agreed no guns for a reason, people. We don’t want to attract attention. Warning shot only if they don’t get the message. If it’s only one of them, don’t waste the bullet.”
“Just keeping my eye in, haven’t fired a shot for days,” smirked Zed, refusing to back down or admit he was in the wrong.
“And there’s a damn good reason for that. We don’t have ammo to waste. You know that. There are precious few bullets left for that rifle, then what? Congratulations Zed, you just volunteered yourself to lead today’s scavenging party.”
“Whatever Jack. Anything to get out of here for a few hours.” Zed eyeballed the older man before wandering off to find something to eat. The first smoke from the canteen drifted towards them.
A red-haired woman appeared below, her head part covered with a bandana, her face pale, drawn and anxious, still buttoning up a man’s shirt several sizes too big for her. She raced up the stairs to join Jack and the group on the raised walkway. Passing Zed halfway up the stairs she paused to stare at him as he brushed past her. She waited for an explanation, but he ignored her puzzled look of reproach.
“What was is it?” asked Terra, catching her breath, watching Jack peering through his binoculars.
“Hard to tell from here,” said Jack squinting, “but looks like an infected. Been a while since one made it all the way out here along the shingle. We saw a few in town yesterday, so maybe one of them followed our trail.”
“Why did he have to shoot him for God’s sake? Couldn’t he just have just warned him off? Told him to go away?” said Terra innocently.
“You really think harsh language would have made him turn around? They don’t take no for an answer. Either way, they’re dead now. But not before that shot will have drawn every living soul for miles around,” lamented Jack.
“Or unliving, you mean…” said Tommy, a gangly adolescent standing near-by.
“Ah Tommy, our resident comedian. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to take young Samuel here, roll the cart out and dispose of that body before we sit down for breakfast.”
“Sure, no problem Skip,” said Tommy with a hint of mockery, punching Sam on the shoulder. “Nice one, dickhead,” mumbled Sam under his breath as Tommy brushed past.
As the others drifted off to find breakfast, Terra remained behind with Jack looking back over the camp towards the lighthouse and beyond towards Southampton. In the distance, Fawley oil refinery belched smoke hundreds of feet into the air leaving a grey smear across the morning skyline. A burst pipeline or perhaps a storage container left to burn, no one left to put it out. It would burn until the oil ran out.
“What we would give for a few hundred gallons of that oil for the generator?” asked Terra quietly.
“We’ve drained every garage and farm for miles around, but we’ll find more. Don’t you worry,” reassured Jack.
His elbows touched Terra’s as they both leant over the railing, a comfortable silence passing between them. They watched the camp come to life below them. Hurst’s inhabitants busied themselves with washing, preparing food, stitching and sewing, feeding the animals and generally cleaning up the night before. It was a hive of organized activity. Everyone played their part.
Terra turned her head towards Jack and smiled. “You need to get a handle on that Zed. He sets a bad example.”
“I know Terra. I’ll talk to him, ok? He’s never going to change though, you know that. His heart’s in the right place, but he does things his own way. Don’t forget, he’s one of the best scavengers we’ve got. I don’t want to drive him away. We need him.”
“He fights for himself, Jack. He’d turn on you in a moment if you got between him and his prize.”
“You’re wrong Terra. His loyalties are very much with us. He’s just got a case of cabin fever, cooped up here for too long. That’s all. Will do him good to get out and about.” Jack wrinkled his nose, sniffing at the wind. There was something foul in the air, downwind of the latrines. “He thinks we should be doing more to form alliances with the other survivor groups inland from here, that we have our heads in the sand here.” He shook his head. “I’ve said it’s too dangerous. We don’t want to go stirring up a hornet’s nest and draw attention to ourselves. He doesn’t agree.”
“We need to keep an eye on him. That’s all I’m saying,” she said stroking his arm affectionately. “Same goes for Riley. I don’t trust either of them.”
Jack cleared his throat, intrigued by Terra’s views on two of his best. “Don’t you worry about Zed. He’s just a big kid. His bark’s worse than his bite. Reminds me of my lad, Jason. Bless him.” There was a distant look in Jack’s eye as he was reminded of his son. He hadn’t thought of him in months now. It was just too painful. “Just needs a firm hand and a kick in the arse from time to time.” Jack beamed a broad smile, playfully nudged Terra in the ribs and wandered off to eat, leaving her alone digesting his response.