The middle-aged man handed Jack a pint.
“Thanks,” said Jack, taking a swig.
The man looked at the door out of which mock cockney had just left.
“We need to be careful,” he said. “Better make this the last one.”
“I’m surprised you have to ask me that,” said the man, turning back to his drink before gazing at the enormous stone fireplace. “You know, the First English Civil War started here.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. He didn’t know.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” the man continued. “If the streets looked much the same then as they do now. I mean the poverty, the shit, the disease.”
Jack shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it like that.
“It’s always been a bit of a shithole,” he said.
“Ah, but even you have to admit that things are worse now than they have been for millennia. Tribal warfare. Mass killings. Mass starvation. And yet some things seem to withstand any circumstances.” The man picked up his pint. “Cheers.”
Jack chinked glasses with the man and took a large gulp. Experience had taught him that anything could happen at any moment to deprive him of the rest of his beer and the sooner he got it down him, the better.
“So,” said the man, wiping his grey beard with the back of his hand. “Before I went to the bar, you were arming yourself with knives and listening for the sound of vehicles coming up the track.”
“I don’t understand why you want me to go over all this. You’ve already heard it from security.”
“Let’s just say I have a personal interest,” the man sipped his beer. “If you don’t want to tell me, then don’t.”
“Sorry,” said Jack, feeling ungrateful.
“It’s OK,” the man smiled. “I know how you feel.”
“It was the diary,” said Jack. “There I was, my pockets full of knives, ready to defend myself against, I don’t know what. I was looking at the diary, and then I saw, between two of the pages, like a bookmark, there was a business card. It was for Dr Olivia Jones. I assumed this was the person to whom the author had requested the diary be delivered. It wasn’t the name that caught my eye, it was the organisation she worked for. Homeland Security.”
Jack looked for signs that the old man was impressed, but he wasn’t. He didn’t look in the slightest bit surprised.
“The card said that this woman was the chief scientist in the food security branch of Homeland Security.” Jack continued. “A woman like this would have connections. I wasn’t safe where I was, but if I could get to her and deliver this diary, then maybe this could earn me some favour. Get me into a Government compound or something like that.”
The man raised his eyebrows in approval of Jack’s plan.
“I risked staying the night and leaving early the next morning. The next day was cloudy and mild. I carried what I could from my hoard. Mainly the knives, but I took the seeds and two pans, which I tied to my bag, some small tools, and the remains of the vegetables. I headed east, straight across the fields. I hadn’t got very far when I heard the noise of a truck further down the valley. I hid behind a hedge, through which I had a view to the village where I had dumped the truck I had stolen. I could see the visitors stop at the bend in the road and heard shouting as they went to investigate the truck. As soon as they began pointing up the valley, I knew I had to get to a more sheltered position.
“Although hidden from them now, I was visible from the top of the track and so had to half run, half stoop across the fields to the far side of the valley, being careful to stay behind the hedge at all times. I was only halfway across the valley floor when I heard their truck restart. My best bet was to make it as far as the river and find a hiding place on the riverbank until they had gone.
“If I ascended the hill on the eastern side of the valley, they would spot me easily. I ran as quickly as I could, stooping lower as the height of the hedge shrank the nearer I got to the river. All the time, the sound of the truck grew louder and louder, and I feared they would soon draw level and see me. As soon as I was close enough to the river, I leapt over the edge of the bank, hoping I wouldn’t land straight in the water.
“As luck would have it, the bank made a shallow descent to the water’s edge, and I could crouch out of sight of the track. I felt the morning dew soaking into my trousers, and the soft mud squeeze between my fingers as I listened to the truck pull to a standstill and the unintelligible shouts as they discovered the abandoned washing machine and fridge and made their way through the woods to search for the rest of their booty.
“I thought about trying to wade across the river there and then, but feared that one of them would have been left by the truck as a lookout and might spot me. So I stayed there, as still as I could, listening to the shouts, wafted on the wind, sometimes louder, sometimes quieter. The occasional clanking of metal betrayed the transfer of my hoard, their hoard, to their truck. I felt very uncomfortable, but was too scared to move. It wasn’t until I heard their truck start up again and drive down the track that I found the courage to poke my head over the edge of the river bank. They had gone, but I wasn’t about to go back and see what they had taken.
“It had already soaked me to the skin, so I lifted my bag above my head and waded across the river, which is still not much more than a stream this far up the valley. Then began climbing the other side of the valley, shivering in my wet clothes. I walked as quickly as I could, trying to keep warm. About halfway up the hill, I reached a dry stone wall from where I had a good view of the valley and could see the truck descending all the way to the junction. I hurried up the remaining part of the hill until reaching the summit. I could see the whole of the valley from which I had just fled and, only a few paces further on, the beginnings of the next valley. I decided not to descend but to follow the ridge around the back of the valley where I knew it would join the moor.”
“Where were you heading?” The man asked.
“At that point, I just knew that if I headed for Leeds, there would be a garrison of the Homeland Security and maybe there I could use the diary to bluff my way into a little safety. I knew Leeds was east of where I was, so I just needed to head towards the rising sun and away from the setting sun. It was cloudy, but I could see a brighter patch of cloud around what must have been the sun, so I skirted the top of the valley and headed east.”
“When I was younger, I made many a hike across that moor,” said the man. “I remember one weekend, it was raining so much, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was going upwards, under my waterproofs.”
Jack smiled at the man’s reminiscence.
“When was that?” he asked.
“When I was young. Long before the collapse.”
“But here we are,” said Jack. “Sitting in a bar, drinking beer. It’s not complete anarchy.”
“That’s right.” said the old man. “This community was clever enough to protect itself. You know, during the first civil war, this city was a walled city. It was besieged with the King’s men camped outside. After the second civil war, it became a walled city again, and it looks after its own so that its own protect it from what’s outside those walls. No doubt it’s clever enough to profit from what’s outside those walls, but it’s clever enough to make sure it has everything it needs within the walls. Its geographical location helps, but it was its foresight, which was its saviour.”
Jack nodded in agreement while the man drank his beer.
“Of course that does not mean it’s not dangerous here within the walls, but it’s less dangerous than outside, as you know.”
Jack nodded some more.
“Did you encounter much in the way of trouble on the way here?”
“The first stage of the journey across the moors was fine. I followed the rising sun in the mornings and away from the setting sun in the afternoon. The sunsets were truly spectacular. It never ceases to amaze me how nature seems to produce such beauty on days that humanity is tearing itself apart. I slept in the shelter of bushes and didn’t see anyone until after a couple of days, when I knew I would have to turn south and head down a valley towards Leeds. I skirted around the villages I passed, not wanting to risk contact with humans until I was so close to Leeds that I couldn’t avoid it.
“My supplies were getting low and the long distances I was covering each day made me hungry. On top of this, I’d been drinking stream water wherever I could, and I must have picked a bad one cause I’d got the shits. I had no choice but to keep drinking the water. Otherwise, I would dehydrate, but I was stopping every five minutes to go for a poo behind a tree or a bush.”
“I know. I must have stunk like a tramp.”
“We all stink like tramps.”
Jack conceded the point by taking another sip of beer.
“And did you evade detection until Leeds?” asked the man.
“More or less,” said Jack. “People spotted me near a couple of villages, but I was always too far away, and nobody bothered to come after me.”
“Don’t you think someone in a village would have been willing to help you?”
“I wasn’t willing to take the risk.”
The old man knew that feeling of mistrust and didn’t question his young companion.
“The combination of the shits and my constant hunger and weakness made that journey down Nidderdale seem to last forever,” Jack continued. “But eventually I made it to a built-up area where people were avoiding me. I had expected someone to pursue me, but the first person I encountered turned on their heels and ran. Maybe I looked like the walking dead but, as I grew more confident in my safety the more people seemed to shrink away behind closed doors and dirty, torn net curtains. I had the address of the garrison, but I didn’t know where it was. Silence met my door knocking attempts. Even the houses where I had spotted inhabitants at the window were refusing to open their doors. One resident, an old man, stayed at the window. He listened to me and then pointed in the direction I was going.
“Broken solar panels littered almost every rooftop, and black clouds hovered above, threatening rain. Someone had stolen all the road signs long ago. I reached a wide, gently flowing river crossed by a large stone bridge. The bridge seemed in good condition, and I made sure the coast was clear before running across as fast as I could and sheltering behind a small wall until I felt confident to continue past an abandoned building site. With each new junction I came to, I followed my instinct and took the road my hunch suggested. The roads became busier, and the people didn’t shy away from me anymore. They didn’t even seem to notice me.
“The sun was going down, and I felt spots of rain. I reached a square where the homeless masses were already bedding down for the night. I didn’t ask anyone for directions there and carried on. On the next corner was a church. It was full of people singing. I passed a fire station, the doors were missing, and it seemed empty. On the corner of the next junction, there was another church. Again it was full.”
“People need something to believe in,” the man chipped in.
“Their god doesn’t fill their bellies.”
“On the contrary, the communities help each other.”
“Okay,” Jack was prepared to agree to disagree. “When I started walking back into the country, I realised I had only walked through a small town or a large village and not Leeds at all. The road was badly potholed, but it must have been a main road in the past, so I was confident I was on the right route. I didn’t want to enter the city at night, and the rain was getting heavier, so I tried to find shelter. I was also struggling to contain the contents of my bowels. The further I got from the town, the fewer people there were until I was on my own again. I spied a shed. At least it used to be a shed. It had half collapsed into a crumbling dry stone wall but still provided shelter. I crawled in out of the rain but straight away realised I would have to crawl out again and find somewhere to evacuate my bowels.”
“You’re quite a poet with these big words of yours,” the old man laughed.
“There were some trees in the field,” Jack continued. “So I picked one of them, squatting behind it with my trousers round my ankles. Almost straight away, a torrent of pungent liquid cascaded from my arse into the roots. I wondered whether the tree was grateful for this deposit of fertiliser.”
The man almost choked on his pint.
“Have you ever considered being a ” he chuckled. “You have a way with words.”
Jack ignored the interjection.
“My arse was sore and, pulling up a clump of grass, I wiped it with care. Pulling up my trousers, I could see the stains on my boxer shorts. I hadn’t had a decent wash in some days, and my clothes hadn’t been washed for a much longer period. I must have looked like a tramp, which is why nobody in the town had paid attention to me. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, and if my plan to use the diary to get into the garrison failed, then I had no backup plan.
“The next morning the sun was trying to squeeze through the grey clouds which covered the sky. I grabbed my things and pressed on with a new found enthusiasm. I was sure to make it to the garrison before the day was out and they would decide my fate. What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that soldiers guarded the city with large semi-automatic weapons. I could see the roadblock from some distance and rested while I contemplated my course of action. Marching up to the soldiers, waving the diary at them and demanding to be taken to the garrison seemed optimistic, and yet I struggled to find a better alternative. I decided I would bite the bullet and go for it. What did I have to lose? I walked up to the two soldiers blocking the road. ‘Stop. Who goes there?’ One of them shouted. ‘I’m on my way to the garrison to see Dr Olivia Jones,’ I said with as much confidence as I could muster.
“The two soldiers eyed me up and down, wondering what this tramp could want with one of the most famous scientists in the country. ‘What do you want with Dr Jones?’ one soldier asked. ‘I have something for her,’ I said. ‘What is it?’ asked the guard. ‘I’m afraid it’s for her eyes only,’ I said. ‘How do we know it’s not a bomb?’ said the guard. ‘You can search me,’ I said, offering him my bag. He looked through the stuff in my bag, flicked through the diary a little, and then returned my stuff to me. ‘I see nothing there for Dr Jones,’ he said. ‘It’s there.’ I said, pulling it back out of my bag and flicking through to the page where Dr Jones’s father requested the bearer be given safe passage. ‘Her father requested I take it to her in person.’ I showed him the page, and he read it carefully, then said: ‘Wait here.’ He went to take the diary with him, but I wouldn’t let go.
“The soldier walked into a tent, and a few moments later he returned and asked me to follow him, he led me to an armoured personnel carrier, told me to get in and then told the driver to take me ‘to base’, I hoped that was the garrison. They locked me in the back, which was devoid of windows, so I didn’t know where I was being driven, but it couldn’t have been more than about five miles. When we stopped, I could hear the muffled sound of the driver talking to someone and the metallic clank of a gate being pulled open before the vehicle started moving again, this time for what must have been only a few hundred metres. It was the driver who opened the back door and beckoned me out into the sunlight.
“I stepped out into what looked like a car park within a walled compound. ‘This way,’ the driver said, gesticulating for me to follow him. I obeyed and was led into a nearby building with a waiting room in the reception. I was told to take a seat while the driver muttered something to the soldier behind the reception desk. The receptionist eyed me up and down, nodded to the driver who left, and then picked up a phone.
“He muttered a few words before replacing the receiver, not interested in either me or what I was carrying. ‘Do you think I might use the toilet?’ I asked, and the receptionist nodded to a door, which I walked to as quickly as I could without running. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat on a proper toilet. My boxer shorts were in such a poor state I binned them. I washed as best as I could and dried myself on the cotton towel, then re-dressed before returning to the waiting room under the suspicious glances of the receptionist.
“After about half an hour, there were no clocks in the reception. An officer, I could tell by her uniform, came in through a door I was facing and approached me. ‘Mr…” she said, extending a hand for me to shake. “Hughes, Jack Hughes,” I said. ‘Ah, a fellow countryman?’ She asked, her strong accent betraying her Welsh upbringing. ‘Fraid not,’ I said. ‘My great-grandfather was Welsh,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ said the officer, disappointed. ‘Did you know there used to be a singer called Jack Hughes?’ I shook my head. The officer looked even more disappointed. Not a good start. ‘Follow me.’ I followed her through a door which led to a corridor and then through another door, which led into a small room with a table and two chairs.
“She nodded for me to enter, then followed me in, closing the door behind her. ‘Please take a seat,’ she said, and I followed the instruction, sitting on the far side of the table while she seated herself opposite me. ‘I understand that you have something you wish to deliver to Dr Jones. May I see it?’ I took out the diary and showed it to her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, flicking through the pages. ‘I’ll make sure she gets it.’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, taking the diary back. ‘Her father was insistent I deliver it in person.’ ‘Her father?’ the officer raised her eyebrows. ‘When was this?’ ‘About a month ago.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Out West.’ The officer thought about this for a moment, weighing up the information. ‘Her father will be very upset if I don’t deliver it in person,’ I said.
“It was a gamble, but it seemed to work. ‘Yes, well,’ the officer said. ‘That will not be possible. Dr Jones is no longer at this facility.’ ‘Where is she?’ ‘That’s classified.’ ‘But if you know where she is, tell me. It’s very important I get this document to her.’ The officer sighed. ‘We have a transport going East tomorrow. I can put you on it, but it’s at your own risk. We’ve had three transports attacked in the last month.’ I nodded. ‘OK then,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you where you can sleep and eat, but we will have to confine you to those areas. All other areas of the base require additional clearance.’ ‘That’s fine,’ I said, delighted at the prospect of a bed and some food. Maybe I could have a shower too. The officer looked me up and down. ‘Would you like me to arrange for some clean clothes?’ ‘Yes please,’ I said. ‘Very well then,’ the officer rose from her chair and opened the door.
“I followed her back into the corridor where a soldier was waiting. ‘Walker, here, will show you to your room, give you some clean clothes and will collect you and take you to the mess when it is time to eat.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. I followed Walker down the corridor, around the corner to another much longer one where, at the end, he let me through another door to yet a hall lined with doors on either side.
“He stopped at the first, unlocked it, and opened the door. ‘Here you are, sir,’ He said, gesturing for me to step inside. I did as he suggested and found the room to be no larger than a boxroom with a bed, a sink, and a shower box in the corner. On the bed was a towel and a set of clothes. ‘They should fit,’ said Walker. ‘I will lock the door, you know, for security. I’ll come and get you at mealtime.’ I thanked him and listened to him lock the door before stripping off and getting into the shower.
“I couldn’t seem to get the water hot, but I was just thankful to have running water and a bar of very basic-looking soap. Having dried myself, I tried on the clothes, a khaki T-shirt, white starched hemp boxer shorts, khaki wool socks and a pair of camouflage trousers. Clean clothes felt good against my skin. I felt almost human again.
“Confined to the room, with no window to stare out of. The only window was a small one about two metres off the ground. I began reading the diary. It seemed like a mundane account of a gardener. I couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in reading it or why it was so important that this Smith guy have it delivered to his daughter. From my point of view, reading it helped pass the time until Walker came back and unlocked the door to take me to eat. I followed him to the end of the corridor to a mess hall where many soldiers were collecting food given to them on tin trays, or already eating.
“A multitude of eyes followed me as Walker led me to the serving counter. I collected a tin tray and some cutlery and proceeded along the counter until I was facing a soldier in kitchen whites. He looked first to Walker, who nodded, before spooning a large dollop of what I can only describe as slop, onto my tray. ‘Stew,’ said Walker, ‘It tastes better than it looks.’ A little further along stood another soldier in kitchen whites. He dolloped a healthy serving of what looked like a form of mashed potato. Last on the serving counter were rows of tin cups filled with water. I added one of these to my tray and followed Walker to a table that none of the other soldiers had yet occupied. ‘Eat here,’ said Walker. ‘I’ll be back to you later. Don’t talk to anyone.’ With that, he left me alone with my piles of slop. I didn’t agree with Walker’s assertion that the stew tasted better than it looked, but this was my first proper meal for as long as I could remember, so I wasn’t about to let the taste put me off.
“It didn’t take me long to eat the lot, and as I did, I noticed other soldiers seemed to snigger at me. They pretended not to be looking when I glanced their way, but I was the butt of some joke or other. I tried to keep my head down and not attract attention. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Walker or his superiors and miss the chance to get on that transport tomorrow. What I wanted didn’t seem to come into it. A soldier sat down in front of me and said: ‘I know who you are.’ I couldn’t be 100% sure but I think it was the same person as that man who came up to us earlier.”
The old man looked at the door the mock cockney had left through but didn’t seem too worried.
“Carry on,” he said.
“Well, I tried to ignore him. I didn’t want to get into trouble, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. ‘Aren’t you going to ask how I know who you are? Come on, didn’t your mother tell you it’s rude to send people to Coventry?’ I mean, Coventry. What the hell has Coventry got to do with anything?”
“It means ignoring someone. It dates back to the first civil war. Few people use it nowadays.”
Jack acknowledged the trivia while taking the opportunity for another sip of beer.
“I tried to ignore him for as long as I could,” Jack continued. “But he wouldn’t give up. He kept asking me to guess how he knew me. Eventually, I said: ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude. But I’ve been told not to talk to anyone. I don’t want to get into trouble.’ The man laughed. ‘You’re already in trouble, matey. You’re up to your neck in trouble, you’re just too dumb to realise it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Why are you here?’ the man asked. ‘I don’t think I should tell you that. Is this a test? You’ve been sent to test me, haven’t you? Well, I’ll not tell you anything. You should leave if you don’t want me to be rude to you because I’m not talking to you.’ The man laughed again. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter why you think you’re here because that isn’t the real reason you are here.’ I looked at his smirking face for a while and then gave in. ‘OK, so why am I here?’ He laughed again. He was annoying me. ‘You’ll find out soon enough. You’ll find out.’ I dismissed him as mad and tried not to make eye contact.
“Walker saved me. He marched up to the table and scowled at the man. ‘Off with you, Taylor,’ he said, sending Taylor scurrying away to the nearest vacant place. ‘Don’t listen to a word he says,’ Walker warned me. ‘He’s mad.’ I nodded my understanding. ‘Come on,’ Walker continued. ‘I’ll tell you where to leave that.’ I got up, took my tray and followed him to a hatch in the wall where he told me to deposit it. ‘I will take you back to your room,’ he said, and I followed him out of the mess hall back down the corridor to my tiny room where I was glad to lie on a proper bed, no matter how lumpy the horsehair mattress.
“Before long I had fallen asleep and did not wake until Walker unlocked the door and handed me a tray with a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread and a tin cup of water. ‘I’ve saved you a trip to the mess hall,’ Walker said. ‘Get some rest, I’ll be waking you early in the morning.’ The soup was more of a watery stew made with the meat of an origin I could not pinpoint. The bread was hard.
“Despite sleeping for most of the afternoon, the weeks of sleeping rough had taken their toll, and I had no problem with falling asleep again and did not wake until Walker opened the door. ‘Time to go,’ said Walker. ‘Get dressed.’ There were two soldiers, even bigger than Walker, standing behind him in the corridor. As I got dressed, I realised that my old clothes and my bag with the diary inside were missing. ‘Where’s my stuff?’ I asked. ‘Sent for cleaning,’ said Walker. ‘But the diary?’ ‘Safe,’ he said. I didn’t know whether that meant it was safe or it was in the safe. ‘Time to go,’ he repeated and, judging by the look on the two lumps who stood behind him, it would not have been a good idea to argue.
“They led me outside to a waiting armoured personnel carrier, and Walker handed me a khaki jacket, for which I was grateful as it was cold. The back of the vehicle was already almost full of soldiers with the same attire as mine. They seemed to be trying to avoid my glances as I climbed in with them. One of the big guys with Walker slammed the back door shut, and moments later, the engine started. ‘Do you know where we are heading?’ I asked the soldier next to me, but he ignored me. I looked around at my fellow passengers, but all of them were avoiding my stare. They maintained the silence for what seemed like an hour until the vehicle ground to a halt and a man I hadn’t seen before opened the back door. He was holding a rifle. He gestured for us to get out, and we all obeyed.
“As soon as I stepped out of the back of the APC, I could see that we were on a farm of some sort. I could see fields of crops, a barn and I could see that large security fences surrounded the property. The man with the rifle signalled for us to line up and I saw that there were some other men carrying rifles stationed a small distance from us. They ordered us to load the APC with sacks from the barn, and I wondered how we were all going to fit back in again with all these sacks of grain.
“My fears were answered as soon as the grain was loaded and the APC started up and drove towards the entrance gate, leaving us all standing facing the man with the rifle. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Shut up!’ he bellowed. And gestured for us to walk towards a shed where more men with guns were waiting. As they passed the shed, a guard handed each man a mattock and led them towards a field that looked fallow.
“As I reached the shed, I tried to make eye contact with one man. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Shut up!’ came the shouted response. ‘It’s just that…’ I persisted, but before I could finish, the man nearest me had hit me square in the mouth with the butt of his rifle, knocking me to the ground. ‘We’ve got a talker,’ he shouted to the man who seemed in charge, before bending down towards me. I could smell his foul breath as he spoke. ‘Say one more word,’ he said. ‘And see what happens to the rest of your teeth.’ I got up, took my mattock, and followed the rest of the men into the field.
“The rest of the morning, they made us dig trenches. My hands were accustomed to manual work, but blisters were forming. At midday, we could sit at the edge of the field and were each handed a lump of stale bread, a chunk of mouldy cheese and a tin cup of water. When I thought the guards weren’t watching, I turned to the person next to me. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘Shhh,’ he warned me, looking straight ahead. ‘But I thought you were soldiers?’ I asked. He laughed and then pretended he was just coughing. One guard looked over with suspicion. ‘You’d better learn to keep your mouth shut,’ my neighbour warned me, concentrating on eating his meal. I looked at the other men. They were all looking straight ahead at the ground in front of them, stuffing their meagre rations into their mouths. What the hell had I got myself into? I thought this book had been my passport to easy street and instead I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
“It’s not the book’s fault,” the old man commented.
“I know,” said Jack. “But if I hadn’t found the bloody thing, I’d have never have gone to Leeds.”
“And you’d be doing what instead?” asked the old man.
“Who knows,” said Jack. “Who knows what might have been. I wouldn’t have been sitting here now, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that they worked for us like dogs. We’d just had time to eat our mouldy food before they forced us back into the field to work until the sun went down. Then they marched us to a large shed where they gave us a similar stew of unidentifiable meat that I had eaten at the barracks and more of the stale bread. They gave us each a towel, a block of soap and showed us to the showers, which were cold. The showers were next to the dormitory, where we all slept on bunk beds. They gave me a bottom bunk, thank God.”
“I don’t think he’s listening.”
“It didn’t feel like it that night. Although, the strange thing is that, no matter how bad the food tasted, it was still better than what I’d been feeding myself the previous weeks. Something was reassuring about being looked after. Even though the work was hard, the food tasteless, the shower cold and the bed uncomfortable, it was still a bed and still food that we could rely on. We knew where the next meal was coming from.”
“So why didn’t you stay?” the old man joked.
“Because I hadn’t chosen to be there,” said Jack. “We were slaves, and there didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it, and nobody was talking about it. I didn’t know what to do. I showered and put my boxer shorts back on. My clothes were covered in mud. So I just hung them over the end of the bed, hoping the mud would have dried by the morning. It was a chilly night, but the bed had a wool blanket on it. I got into bed because that’s what everyone else was doing. I’d just got comfortable when a guard switched off the lights and bolted the door. My mouth still thronged from the blow that morning, and I just lay in the darkness contemplating my situation. It couldn’t be much more than 7 pm, but I’d been up since 6 am, and the work had been physical. I didn’t expect to have very much difficulty in falling asleep, and sure enough, before long, I snored and rolled over to my side.
“The next thing I knew, I was being woken by bright lights and the sound of a gong. I sat up and saw that my fellow prisoners were pulling on their clothes, so I followed suit. With only one set of socks, I slipped into them and pulled on my mud-encrusted trousers, causing chunks of caked mud to fall to the floor. ‘You’ll clean that up later,’ barked a guard. I didn’t argue. I just followed the others out to the area where we had eaten the previous night, a row of trellis tables under a dirty green canvas awning.
“Breakfast was the lumpiest and least tasty porridge I’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. However, I knew that this would be the last thing before bread and cheese at midday and, guessing by the not yet risen sun, it was not long after six. I tried to keep up with the others who, I assumed, had been doing this for longer than I and knew when it was time to move and where to go. I also noticed that there were prisoners who had cooked the breakfast and were now clearing the bowls away, I followed the rest of them, back to the shed where another prisoner handed out the mattocks, I wondered why the prisoners hadn’t used the mattocks in revolt, they made formidable weapons. Then I looked around at the number and distribution of guards and the high fences and realised any form of rebellion would be pointless. The odds were stacked against us. Almost too much so.
“Then I looked again, and I realised the guards stationed around the fence were not looking at us at all. They were looking outwards, beyond the fence. The guards were not here to stop us from escaping, not all of them, anyway.
“Neither was the fence. The guards and the fence were here to stop what was out there from coming in. The starving masses. It then occurred to me I might have leapt from the fire into the frying pan, but that I might not be as bad off as I imagined. But yes, I still did not want to stay. Under these circumstances. Without choice. I took my mattock and headed out into the field where we had stopped work the night before. It wasn’t at all warm, but the sun was shining, and the heavy work of digging the trenches soon warmed us up. I know that parts for tractors and machinery are almost impossible to get now and the biodiesel to run them almost as scarce, but a decent horse and a man who knew how to operate a plough could have done this work in a fraction of the time, but I guess that even horses must be difficult to come by these days. I suppose this was how the Government forces sustained themselves, via a system of fortified farmsteads using slave labour.
“At least I was being fed, though I wasn’t sure how long my socks would survive. I’d noticed two men washing theirs in the shower, but couldn’t imagine they’d have time to dry overnight. Maybe they had a secret supply of spares. My toilet situation was getting better regarding frequency. I think the cheese helped. The toilets on the farm were the giant pit variety over which someone had erected a platform so that the faeces fell into the pit and someone must then cover them over when it was full. This pit looked like it might be close to capacity. Throughout the morning, I mused on the pros and cons of escape.
“At that moment, the chances of success didn’t seem very great and the prospects of what I might do if I survived an escape were as uncertain. I watched the sun rising in the sky trying to work out when it was midday and time for our mouldy bread and cheese. The morning seemed to last forever, but then a guard blew a whistle, and we all rested by the side of what now felt like an enormous field, and it was. It hadn’t occurred to me before the scale of this farm. The guards must outweigh the prisoners to keep vigilance on a property of this magnitude.
“I wondered what the guards ate as I picked off two green furry lumps from both my bread and my cheese. I looked around at my colleagues. As usual, all of them were avoiding eye contact. Before we had finished our lunch, there was some kind of commotion on the far side of the farm. Guards were running and shouting at each other. Then shots were fired. Some guards were pointing their rifles through the fences and firing at something that must have been approaching. We couldn’t see because the fence was on a brow of a hill and the guards were firing down at whatever was approaching, but before long we heard engines. Two guards pointed their rifles at us while the others ran to assist their colleagues, but none of our company looked like they had the slightest inclination of making a run for it.
“The sounds of the engines grew louder, and the firing of the guards became more rapid. We were all transfixed on what was about to unravel in front of us. A truck with metal plates welded onto the front of the cab reared over the brow of the hill, crashing into the security fence, bringing the fence down and grinding to a halt in the soft mud of the nearest field. The fire from the guards was ferocious, but there was a similar quantity of fire being returned from the truck or somewhere not far behind. The excitement of the truck penetrating the fence had made me jump, but I could see now that my colleagues were becoming nervous and restless. I couldn’t discern the source of their discomfort.
“Though a gunfight unsettles most people, this was a group for whom I had imagined it would take a great deal more to scare them than shots fired on the far side of a hillside. Their discomfort didn’t seem to be triggered by the gunfire, it was more the presence of the truck that unsettled them. Could it be that whatever was in that truck was worse than the enslavement they had been experiencing here? I examined their faces, and they seemed terrified by whatever was in that truck. The only thing stopping them from fleeing were the two guards, who looked as scared as the prisoners did. We all watched the gunfight develop on the far side of the hill.
“The more we watched, the more it looked like the intruders were getting the upper hand. My colleagues were becoming more nervous, and one of them made a run for it, but he hadn’t moved more than a few metres before a rifle shot to the back brought him down. No-one went to his help. I looked at the guard who had fired the shot. He looked younger than me and more scared than the prisoner he had just murdered. We all sat where we were. I made sure I finished all my cheese and bread. I was not sure where my next meal would come from. We watched as, one by one, the guards on the other side of the field fell.
“Then we saw them, the people who had come, either from the truck, or whatever was behind the truck. They came over the brow of the hill wearing some kind of armour, and they shot the guards, one by one. They entered the compound. I looked at the faces of our own guards. They looked petrified, and once the interlopers had entered the compound, they ran, rifles in hand. And once the guards ran, the prisoners ran but not away from the guards towards their freedom as you might expect but towards the guards, to the far side of the farm.
“Whatever had come through the fence was worse than slavery so, although I hesitated for a moment, I too ran after the others to the far side of the farm and, as I had just realised, some armoured personnel carriers. The guards ran straight to the vehicles and into the front, starting the engines almost straight away. Some of my fellow prisoners had reached the vehicles too and were yanking open the back doors, trying to climb in. This didn’t concern the guards much who reversed the APCs’ back, running over two prisoners.
“The other prisoners paid little attention to their fallen colleagues either, running after as the APCs sped up over the fallen prisoners a second time. By the time I arrived, the APCs were already well on their way to the entrance gates, which they just smashed through, ripping them off their hinges. We followed a little way behind and ran through the open gap, turning left, away from the gun battle, which continued to the right.
“I don’t know if the prisoners had any idea where they were heading or if they even cared. I followed them whether or not they wanted me to. They cut across fields, stumbling in the mud, as did I, and none of us dared look back to see what was happening to our captors or whether we were being pursued. We were running downhill towards the bottom of what could be described as a valley. In the dip was a small woodland, and I followed the others into what felt like the relative safety of the trees. I didn’t know what I would do next.
“The whole diary thing hadn’t worked out very well, and I didn’t have a Plan B. The others had stopped for a rest on some fallen trees in the centre of the woodland, and I joined them. They eyed me with suspicion as I sat on one of the tree trunks. We sat in silence for a while, catching our breaths. After a while, I broke the silence. ‘What now?’ I asked. All eyes turned to me. “You can do whatever you want, mate,” one of them said. He was a skinny man with eyes, which seemed to bulge out of his head.
“The men seemed to know each other. I was the interloper as the newest addition to the pack. ‘How do we know you’re not one of them?’ the man with bulgy eyes said? Did they imagine I was some kind of spy? ‘Did you not see that guard hit me in the face?’ I asked. ‘That could have been all part of the deception,’ said Bulgy Eyes. My goodness, what had happened to these people to make them so paranoid? ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘You go your way, and I’ll go mine.’ ‘That’s what a spy would say,’ said Bulgy Eyes. I could not win.
“They whispered among themselves, and I sat where I was, a mere spectator of their affairs. They moved as one, heading through the woodland, looking back to see whether I would follow. I sat where I was, watching them leave. I’d taken my chances alone before I could take my chances again. I watched them disappear into the trees, and almost all of them had gone when the last of the party stopped. He was the fattest of the group and had a kind face. He looked at me and beckoned before turning and following his colleagues into the wood. I rose and followed him. What else was I to do? I caught up with the group at the edge of the wood where they had stopped to survey the land.
“The sound of shooting from the farm had stopped, and I wondered whether they might now turn their attention to us. From the edge of the woodland, we could see that the edges of this shallow valley were lined with other farms, surrounded by large security fences and guarded by men with guns. We could see that some guards were taking an interest in what was happening at their neighbour’s farm, but there were no obvious signs that they were concerned for themselves. I think the fact that the guards were distracted by what was happening on top of the hill gave the former prisoners confidence that they could travel along the floor of the valley undetected.
“They were following a small stream alongside which grew some trees so that the fugitives could move with a reasonable assurance that no-one would not spot them. One by one, the men started dashing from tree to tree and, when all had left the wood, I followed them, dashing from tree to tree myself, imitating those I was following. Now and then, I observed whether the guards on the farms on the hillsides were taking an interest in us, but their attention seemed to be focussed on the activities on the hill from where we had just escaped. They did not seem to be interested in the movements of a bunch of fugitives, even though, given their vantage points, they must have known where we were.
“I took care to follow the others at a small distance and, as much as possible, to keep out of sight of the guard towers which bordered the farms, not that they were interested. We were heading downstream and the further we went, the marshier the land became. The trees thinned, and we seemed to pass the extent of the fortified farms. We were approaching what appeared to be a large estuary. I guessed it must have been the Humber.
“My fellow fugitives appeared to be familiar with their surroundings and turned right to follow a track through the marsh long before they reached the water’s edge. The path soon led to drier land, and they continued to follow it along the bank of the estuary. Although I was warm with the exercise, I realised I had left my jacket behind and worried about where we might spend the night. For now, the sun was on my back, but I knew that as soon as it fell below the horizon, the temperature would drop. Looking ahead, I saw that most of my fellow fugitives were in the same boat having abandoned their belongings in a rush to escape the farm. Soon I would need to do another poo. My bowels were much better than they had been because of all the cheese and I could just about get away with going twice a day, but all this movement was speeding up the process.
“The group stopped for a rest, and I could see that there was a settlement not far in the distance. I may have been getting paranoid, but I was sure that the group had been discussing me as I approached. They stopped talking and turned to look at me as I sat down. ‘It’s too late now anyway,’ said the fat one with the kind face. ‘He can just keep going. Find his own way,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘Are you talking about me?’ I asked, stating the obvious, somewhat. ‘This is where we part company,’ said Bulgy eyes. ‘What did I ever do to you?’ I asked him. ‘Nothing.’ ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You’ve done nothing for me, so why should I do anything for you?’ I had no answer to this, but I felt I had to say something so I said: ‘We should all be helping each other.’ This did not have the effect I had hoped for. ‘Why should we?’ he snarled. ‘Why the fuck should we help each other? One more mouth to feed is one share less for me. We don’t need you. You’re extra baggage.’ No-one else seemed willing to take part in the debate. They seemed indifferent whether or not I went.
“Fatty was the only one who looked uncomfortable. ‘Let’s put it to the vote,’ I gambled. ‘No, let’s not,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘This isn’t a fucking democracy.’ I persisted. ‘Who thinks I should go with you? Raise your hand now.’ Only Fatty raised his hand and then only half-heartedly. ‘Who thinks you shouldn’t come?’ said Bulgy Eyes and raised his own hand high into the air. None of the others even reacted, but just stared in front of them. ‘That’s settled then,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘Bye-bye.’ ‘But it was one vote each,’ I protested. ‘Like I said,’ said Bulgy Eyes. ‘It’s not a democracy. ‘He got up to leave, and the others followed suit. They all headed off, except Fatty, who lingered a while. ‘We’re going to Freetown,’ he said when the others had left. ‘There’s a boat in the next village. Hang around the village, and I’ll see if I can change their minds.’ ‘Thanks,’ I said and watched him leave.
“I let them get a head start on me before setting off myself. With the muddy bank of the estuary on my left, I followed the others at a much greater distance this time, and before long, arrived at a reasonably sized village with an old Norman church. Or was it Anglo Saxon? I could never remember these things. As with most villages I’d passed through or near in the last few weeks, this one looked deserted, but it hadn’t been raided because, as far as I could tell, they had burnt none of the houses down.
“The church door was closed. No worshippers here. I headed down in the estuary’s direction, thinking that’s where any boats would be found. Freetown sounded like a good idea. I’d heard about it, but wasn’t sure it existed. I thought I’d like to see this mythical city guarded by its own residents. Find out whether it grew half of its food within the city walls and almost all of its fruit. It seemed too good to be true, and I’d heard a lot of stories since the collapse that had turned out to be false.”
“Now you know,” said the man.
“Yes, now I know,” said Jack. “Sometimes it’s OK to dream, I suppose.”
“So how did you get on this boat?” asked the man.
“That’s the thing,” said Jack. “When I reached the water, there was no boat. I trusted the fat guy, but just assumed he must have been mistaken. Or maybe given false information by Bulgy Eyes in the knowledge he would pass it onto me. I sighed and watched the muddy water slip backwards and forwards at the edge of the estuary. The village appeared to be on the banks of a river that led into the estuary, and there was a harbour gate, but no boats. I wondered whether someone moored the boats further upstream and walked that way. The river was very straight, as if they had canalised it back in the day when they used to do those things. On the other side was a disused factory. I guessed past generations had built the canal to deliver and retrieve goods from this factory. Long grass overgrew the banks and, despite the incredible straightness of the river, it was difficult to see whether there were any boats further upstream.
“There seemed to be a path trodden through the grass, and it looked like it had been freshly trod. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go to the toilet. I waded through the long grass to what I considered the most secluded spot, pulled down my trousers, and squatted. It was a blessed relief to evacuate my bowels, but the smell was terrible. I knew I was not alone only an instant before Bulgy Eyes and Fatty came wading through the grass towards me. ‘Are you following us?’ asked Bulgy Eyes, with less aggression than the last time we had met. They didn’t seem that bothered by the fact I was squatting, mid poo, trying to hide my privates from view. ‘No,’ I said, with no actual intention of convincing them. ‘Well, you may as well come with us, now you’re here,’ he said. I don’t know what Fatty had said to him, but whatever it was, it had worked.
“They stood there looking at me, waiting for my response. ‘Do you mind if I finish first?’ I said after a while. Bulgy Eyes snapped out of what had become some kind of trance. ‘Oh, yes. Sorry. We’ll just stand over here.’ The group moved away to an appropriate distance to preserve my modesty, and as they walked away, I heard Bulgy Eyes say: ‘I wondered what the smell was.’ They had thought I was just hiding and hadn’t realised I was taking a dump.”
The man laughed.
“So what had caused Bulgy Eyes to change his mind?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “And I wasn’t about to question him, I was just glad to have an option again and getting a lift to Freetown seemed like a good one, I tried to clean my arse with some long grass with limited results, gave up, pulled up my kegs and went to follow the others. They led me about another half mile up the river to a mooring and a small yacht. Bulgy Eyes shook hands with a grey-bearded man who I assumed to be the captain. They seemed to know each other and began negotiating some deal. Greybeard must have been convinced by Bulgy Eyes’ argument because he waved us all onto the boat.
“We sat on the deck, trying to avoid getting in the way of anything which looked like it might be important. Once everyone was on board, Greybeard began preparing to leave. He did not want to hang around with a gang of fugitives. That was understandable. The captain had two mates helping him. They used long poles to move the yacht away from the bank and then down the river towards the open harbour gate, which I could see in the distance downstream.
“It took a while before they pushed the boat out into the open estuary, but once we were there, they pulled the poles on board and set to work hoisting the sails. With the help of the wind, the yacht picked up speed, and the captain steered a course downstream, towards the centre of the estuary. The yacht glided along with ease, and I looked at the distant bank, becoming more distant by the minute. One of my fellow fugitives pointed ahead, and I turned to look at what he was pointing towards. It was the ruins of the Humber Bridge. Once the largest bridge in the world, it still stood, but only just. Most road sections were missing, and what was left hung at acute angles from what supporting cables remained. They ruined it. A symbol for the decay that had set in right across the country. Right across the world, though, it was becoming more and more difficult to know with any certainty what was happening in other parts of the globe. I looked up as we passed underneath, hoping loose sections of road would not choose this moment to separate from the surviving metal strands, which once suspended a mile of roadway from one bank to the other.
“We seemed to be in the centre of the channel now, with the banks on either side appeared to be about the same distance away. There was very little other traffic on the estuary and the traffic that there was seemed to keep its distance from us. I wasn’t sure whether they feared us or whether we feared them. Although both banks were quite some distance away, I could see some wooden jetties, some of which had small boats moored to them. The sun was getting lower behind us now, and the light shimmered off the water, which rippled in the yacht’s wake. I tried not to look at Bulgy Eyes in case he reconsidered and tried to throw me into the water, but I could see Fatty from the other side of the boat staring at me with a wry smile on his face, I wondered why he had been so keen to get me on board and how he had managed it. I looked the other way, but could sense his eyes burning into the back of my neck. He was making me feel uncomfortable. I tried to ignore him and looked ahead at the expanse of water ahead, which stretched out all the way to what must have been the North Sea. Then I noticed the wall. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. Not far back from the jetties. On the first bit of solid ground, I guess, there was an enormous wall. It made the fence surrounding the farm look insignificant. They made it of a variety of materials, wood, brick, concrete, corrugated iron, all cobbled together but all erected to a uniform height. It was difficult to see from a distance, but I guess it must have been about three metres high. But I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. You know this already, don’t you?”
“Not at all,” said the man. “I never tire of hearing first impressions of our great wall. It’s not just for security. It also defends our city from flooding. With the combination of sea level rises and the storm surges we seem to get all the time these days, the city would be underwater like Atlantis if it wasn’t for our enormous wall.”
“Well, it is impressive,” smiled Jack. “It seemed to stretch right along the foreshore all the way to the bridge.”
“It does,” said the man. “It surrounds the entire city and some surrounding countryside.”
“Yes, well, I could see it was unbroken along the riverside until we reached the flood barrier.”
“What used to be the flood barrier,” the man corrected. “It’s now one of our main entrance gates. There is one at the marina too.”
“Oh yes,” Jack remembered, but the correction didn’t seem that significant as the two gates were only a few hundred metres apart. “It is possible to enter by land, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” said the old man. “There’re more gates than you realise. There’s Boothferry gate, Willerby gate, Cottingham gate, Beverley gate and Holderness gate. Plus another gate on the river further up than you went.”
“But who guards all those gates?” Jack asked.
“It’s voluntary in most cases. Local groups who take it in turns to keep watch. The city has several garrisons of guards who maintain order, however. Nothing gets in or out without being checked.”
Jack laughed to himself. He knew this to be the case from first-hand experience.
“Yes, well, you know that to be the case, don’t you?”
“We have to be very careful to preserve what we have here.” said the old man. “I hope they weren’t too rough.”
“Not at all,” said Jack. “They were very thorough.”
“You came through Myton gate, didn’t you?”
“I think so.”
“Not Minerva gate into the marina?”
“No, I don’t think so. We passed through this big rectangle and up the river.”
“Yes, that’s Myton Gate. And how did you get the diary back?”
“Well, that’s the weird thing. We were all searched. They searched the boat. The captain seemed to spend an age talking to the guards, but when the search was over, they waved us through. I watched in amazement as this huge section of the wall that had continued through the water was hoisted high into the air to allow the captain’s mates to punt us through and up the river. Vessels lined the banks. Beyond that, warehouses teemed with activity even though the sun was going down, and dusk settled. We passed the boats, the warehouses, the bridges until we found a mooring.
“They led us off the boat and into a warehouse. Fatty took me aside from the others and handed me my bag that had been taken from me in Leeds. The diary was still inside. I asked him how he got it, but he just laughed. He said what I was looking for was here in Freetown, showed me through a door and then shut it behind me. I found myself on my own on the street, and it was getting dark. I know that inside the free city is safer than somewhere like Leeds, but I knew the risks and didn’t want to hang around in the street after dark.
“I followed the river as best as I could downstream where I knew the centre to be. If these Smiths were as important as I thought, then finding some official-looking building was the way to go. Workers were shutting up the warehouses which flanked the streets. There seemed to be a pub on almost every corner, and these were filling up. I tried to walk as if I knew where I was going so as not to alert the locals to how vulnerable I was.
“When I reached one bridge, a guard stopped me. I tried to walk on at first, but he shouted for me to halt, so I did as I was told and waited for him to approach. He inquired after my business, and I explained I had something for Dr Jones, He realised straight away that I was not from the city, Free Towners speak like no others, and so I had to recount the story of having just arrived by boat and of having been searched at Myton Gate. He seemed to know the yacht that had brought me here and asked me if I knew where to find Dr Jones. I admitted I didn’t, and he told me I should go to the Guildhall and pointed me in the right direction. He advised me to speak to no-one on the way and wished me luck, shaking me by the hand. This last gesture surprised me as did his parting words, which were ‘be careful, there are spies everywhere’. I did not understand why he wished me well or why anyone would want to spy on me, but, not wanting to appear ignorant, I thanked him and headed in the direction he had pointed. It was in the direction I was already heading. He told me to continue to the next bridge and then turn right.
“I crossed the road to put as much distance as possible between myself and any guards at the next bridge. I avoided eye contact and quickened my pace to maintain the impression I knew where I was going. I needn’t have been so cautious because the road curved to the right so that, by the time I reached the next bridge, the guard post next to the bridge was quite a distance.
“I turned right and saw some large stone buildings which looked official enough for one of them to be the Guildhall. It soon became clear which the Guildhall was. A large stone clock tower rose high above the building. The building itself was decorated with impressive stone columns. It was obvious where I had to go. The square it faces was quieter than the surrounding streets had been, but as I approached, there were guards at the front entrance. I took a deep breath and approached the three iron doors, each guarded by two sentries. I was still some distance away when the first sentry shouted at me, asking about my business.
“I waited until I was closer before replying, but he shouted for me to halt before I had reached a distance which would have dispensed with the need to shout.
‘What’s your business?’ the guard asked again, pointing his rifle at me.
‘I have something for Dr Jones,’ I said, tapping my bag.
‘What?’ he demanded.
‘A book,’ I said. ‘It’s from her father.’
“The sentries looked at each other. It was at that point that you came around the corner. The guards seemed to know and respect you. You had a private conversation with one of them and then suggested we come to this pub to discuss the matter. That’s it. I’ve told you my story. I’ve included every detail as you asked me. Too many details. You now know everything about me, and you still haven’t told me anything about you. How are you going to help me deliver this diary to Dr Jones, as her father requested?”
The old man finished the rest of his pint and set the empty glass down on the table with a clunk.
“I am her father,” he said.
If you would like to read more, you can order Insurgency here.