By Charles Etheridge-Nunn
“What if it was zombies?”
“It’s not zombies.”
“Or aliens, like in War of the Worlds.”
“That’s just a movie.”
“Or, maybe,” Olly hesitated, to build the drama of his statement, “Maybe we’re all actually dead and this is like, the afterlife or purgatory or something.”
Manny stopped and put his second-hand Eclipse bass on the cracked pavement.
“Dude, you need to stop doing this. It’s not cool.”
“But something big must have happened. Our whole city’s destroyed. Everywhere, probably everywhere, is destroyed.”
“It’s not a conspiracy. We’ve had a giant disaster and now almost everyone’s dead.”
“Or we’re like, dead.”
“Stop it. It’s not dignified to… to them. To the dead. The real dead.”
“But who did this? Something must have happened. If my MP was alive, I’d write an angry letter,” Olly shook his arm with the heavily-stickered guitar case in it. “Could we keep going? I’m losing the feeling in my arm.”
Manny picked his bass back up and Olly followed him along the empty road.
“Why can’t we just play at home?” Olly asked.
“Mine’s destroyed. What about yours?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess the studio is, too.”
“Totally. I checked it out before I found you.”
“That’s kind of insulting. Do you prefer the studio to me?”
“No,” Manny wanted to stop himself, but didn’t. “We had band practice. I was running late and I’m guessing you were too.”
“Yeah. I don’t have a watch or anything.”
“That’s when I found them, or, what was left of them.”
There was silence in respect for Sarah and Justin, the singer and drummer in the band, who hadn’t been spoken of since the first news came. Manny’s free hand went to his pocket, where Sarah’s bracelet was. He’d cleaned the blood from it and decided to keep it in her memory. He couldn’t find anything other than Justin’s shoe with his foot still in it. Manny wasn’t going to take the foot out, just for the beaten lime green Converse, held together with gaffa tape and now coated in streaks of dark blood.
They walked along the centre of Preston Road, away from the few large buildings which were still standing. Many creaked ominously in the light wind, threatening to drop debris on them if they got too close. Plumes of smoke were less common this far away from the centre, but an office building was burning while an ugly, abandoned, boarded up building with paintings on the windows was intact. The end had come and it wasn’t selective with its’ choices.
“We’re practicing in the park,” Manny finally continued. “Because we’ve not got a home or a studio or other friends any more, so why not just use somewhere public. No one’s going to hear us or bother us.”
“So what’ll we do about needing a singer and drummer?”
Manny replied “Just play without any for now. Hopefully we’ll find someone who can fill in for them some day, but it’s not likely.”
“You never know.”
That made them wish either of them could sing. They provided harmonies occasionally, but it wasn’t pretty. Luckily the music drowned most of that out.
The pair turned off the road, crossing at a zebra crossing with a Belisha beacon still flashing as if there was still traffic to watch out for. They walked onto the grass of the park. Half of it was missing, scorched and blasted into craters by the past few days events, but the rest looked just the same as normal. A large, grassy slope with small outcroppings of litter, trees lining the top end of the park and pristine greens for playing bowls. Old people would normally have been here in this warm weather, but given the recent apocalypse, the bowls club seemed like the least necessary thing to still be intact. The playground was sealed up for refurbishment, but that would never happen now.
Walking towards the small terracotta-coloured clock tower which had stopped working many years earlier, Olly and Manny opened their guitar cases and started tuning their instruments.
In Olly’s mind, the rest of the park was full of adoring fans, just waiting for them to start playing, he held his guitar aloft and took a bow. Manny was still preparing. Olly bowed again. They owed it to the fans, after all.
Finally, both performers were ready and started strumming the few tunes they had committed to memory. They only knew one original song, the rest were other people’s. Sarah wrote their music and most of it wasn’t easy for them to remember. The jaunty indie chords bounced around the empty park, past the tennis courts, past the now-eternally-closed toilets and muffled through the trees. In their minds, this music would go on forever, all the way across the town, where there was no sound. No cars, no shoppers, no fire engines or trains. Just their music, punctuated by the occasional seagull, venturing in from the sea.
Manny’s thoughts washed away with the music and he was with Olly in the imagined concert. Party in the Park or one of the others held here. He guessed there probably wouldn’t be one this year, but a disaster this big shouldn’t stop their art. For Olly, it was his only skill, and Manny preferred it to his admin work at the council.
The music drowned out the nearby noises of squirrels looking for food, of a fox dragging an old formerly-frozen chicken from what had once been a kitchen over the road. The fox dropped the chicken and ran when it heard a different noise Olly and Manny hadn’t. A slow hop, followed by a dragging noise. Tuneless, but it had not been intended as music.
Only when the birds flew away and the dragging noise was upon them, did Manny and Olly notice the bloodied form limping towards them.
“Zombies!!!” Olly shouted, wielding his £150 guitar by the neck as a weapon.
“Shut up!” Manny said to Olly before turning to the man who had just found his way to them, “Are you alright?”
The question was redundant. Of course he wasn’t alright, but it seemed like the default thing to ask. One of his legs was evidently broken, his fingers on one hand were all crumpled in different directions and there was dried blood down one side of his head, from an injury which must have taken place around three days ago, when the disaster struck. His eyes weren’t focussing and his jaw moved, trying to say something but no noise came.
“Olly, find a car. Find anything that can get us to a hospital.”
“The hospital might not be there any more.”
“I don’t care!”
Olly sighed and ran, still with his guitar held high. Manny took a bottle of now-warm, half-drunk water from his backpack and walked up to the wounded man. Natural spring water, with a hint of raspberry.
“Here, drink some of this.”
He put one arm around the man, twisted open the bottle cap with one hand and helped pour some water between his parched lips.
“Th—Thanks,” the man whispered, his throat still raw, dry and barely working.
“My friend’ll get us some wheels and we can go to the hospital. It’ll be okay.”
“Thought I was the only one.”
“Till you heard us playing?”
The man nodded. Manny smiled and helped the man lean against the clock tower, leaving streaks of red dripping down the bricks. He kept reassuring the man everything would be alright, but wondered where Olly had gone. Eventually, there was the unfamiliar noise of a vehicle. It had only been three days, but since then there were only two instances where either Olly or Manny saw traffic, and they were heading away from town. The noise of a motor, of exhaust, of tires on any kind of surface, they sounded positively alien, especially this close.
A van with a painting of a unicorn smoking a spliff on the side rumbled down the uneven ground and over the grass near the clock tower. Olly waved from the window as he went, nearly hitting a tree before the remembered to brake.
He ran out of the van and opened up the back doors.
“I found this travelling man van down the road, the keys were still in it,” he called through the trees.
Manny started dragging the wounded man across the grass and towards Olly’s voice.
“Pikey didn’t sound right. They just looked like hippy vans rather than pikies. And gypsy didn’t seem right either. Is it not PC to say gypsy?”
“It doesn’t matter, no one’s going to get offended if they’re all dead. Just help me get this man up there.”
“Sure,” Olly ran and lifted the man by his legs, making him cry out in pain. “There’s, like a mattress in there and everything. And a kettle, but I had to unplug the gas generator thingie.”
It took two tries, but Manny and Olly managed to raise the man and place him gently inside the van, where he crawled to the mattress with little aid. Manny clambered up with him and Olly went back into the driver’s seat.
There was a small gap between the front of the van and the ‘home’ section of it, which had wood panelling, pictures, cups, a kettle, fire-building equipment, two fold-up deck chairs and a little cupboard.
Olly started the van up again and they rumbled down towards Preston Road, back where they came from.
“Be careful of craters and broken things,” Manny advised. “We don’t want to burst a tire.”
“I know what to do,” he sensed Manny wasn’t convinced and said, “Put your hand up if you can drive.”
Olly kept one hand on the wheel and raised the other. The wounded man tried to raise his, but Manny’s hands stayed down. He fumed, quietly.
“See? I’m in charge when it comes to driving. Now where’s the hospital?”
Manny sat with the man on the mattress, trying to keep him from sliding around while he gave directions to Olly, who protested that of course he knew the way to the hospital. They’d driven there after the drumstick incident two years back. Simultaneously their best and worst performance, according to their Facebook group.
The trip was longer than expected, most of the roads were damaged and unusable, forcing an erratic route to be travelled slowly around the streets, triumphantly ignoring the one-way system. Eventually, they made their way towards the road which led directly to the hospital. The building, an old workhouse, was visible and ominous from most of the city. It looked more like a background prop in a horror movie that a real place. Moreso now that a pillar of black smoke was rising from the stacks.
Olly signalled Manny to come into the front of the van, which he did with great difficulty, squeezing his lanky frame through the gap and landing head-first in the passenger seat.
“What is it?”
Olly pointed at the black column rising into the sky and shushed Manny from saying anything, nodding back to their injured colleague.
He spoke anyway, “Can’t still be burning. It’s been three days. Keep going. Everything’ll be fine.”
Olly nodded and Manny just about made it back to where their bloody cargo had passed out.
Eventually, they pulled into the hospital. The area in front was conspicuously empty of ambulances, but plenty of abandoned cars from people with the same idea. It was intact, a fact which would be so mundane a few days ago. Now it seemed miraculous, like some white-painted, stark-looking Mecca.
Two men and a woman ran out to greet them. One looked like a doctor, in a bloodstained white coat. The others just looked like normal people. Uninjured, but still with harrowed, dedicated looks to them.
“We’ve got a guy in the back. He’s pretty badly hurt.”
“He’s got, like, blood everywhere,” Olly added.
The pair opened the van’s back doors and helped the two assistants drag the man into the hospital’s reception.
“Can you help him?” Manny asked the doctor, who was following the others.
“Possibly. We’re short on supplies, we’ve got no electricity and the back of the building was badly hit.”
“But you’ve helped other people?”
“We’ve tried. Only a few this bad. Could you both stay out here? You really don’t want to go any further indoors.”
The man was taken by the assistants and led through a set of doors into what was once a waiting room. For a moment, Manny could see blood spattered across the floor, patients slumped on seats being seen to by overworked doctors. The door swung closed and the pair were alone. One of the assistants walked out a moment later.
“Don’t worry, the doctor will look after him.”
“But, there’s loads of people back there. Loads of badly wounded people.”
“And we’ll do our best for as many as we can. There are four doctors and about ten volunteers working in there.”
“I don’t have any first aid knowledge,” it felt terrible not being able to join in and help, but Manny needed to justify himself.
“Well could you leave please? We’ve got work to do.”
Olly had left part way through the woman’s sentence, Manny followed, letting them get back to work. They sat on the back of the van, Olly picked at his bass while Manny realised that he had left his guitar in the park. They would have to go back and get it. The monstrosity (his name for it) wouldn’t be of any value to looters.
“D’you think he’s okay?” Olly asked.
“The building didn’t look on fire.”
“What d’you think the black smoke is?”
“I’d rather not know. Should we wait for him?”
Olly nodded and leaned back on the mattress, having turned it over so he didn’t get blood on him.
An hour passed. Then two. The road, despite normally being busy, was completely empty. From here it was possible to survey all of the devastation which had taken place over the city. So many buildings were gone, just rubble now. Only a small amount were left and there was no sign of life. As the sunlight started to dip, the light pollution which the pair had become so familiar with was gone. None of the orange glow from street lights, permeating every corner. Just darkness.
The assistant who had made them leave walked up to the van’s door and looked in, “Hi.”
“Hey,” Manny said.
“Just thought you’d want to know, we’ve seen your guy. Greg, I think it was.”
“He’ll spend a lot of time recovering, but at the moment he’s okay. Apparently he thought he was the only one left alive and was trapped under a wall for days. He couldn’t move far and had given up hope until he heard you two.”
“We saved him.”
“That’s pretty much what I was saying.”
“Our music saved him.”
“I guess it did.”
The assistant excused herself and walked back to into the building. Unsure where to go and what to do, the pair just sat in the van, the moon rising above them. The city started to show signs of life, little lights where fires were being lit by survivors.
Manny started playing his guitar again