A virulent pandemic brings the UK to a standstill as government services struggle to cope. With bodies piling up in the morgues and even on the streets, four people set out on paths that are destined to collide, pushed to their limits as they desperately try to survive in a world plunged into sudden chaos.
Flick Dunbar makes the fateful decision to flee to the country with her two teenage children. Ben Holloway makes a promise to a dying man to get his daughter to safety. Office worker Grace Lively finds herself dangerously alone in a strange new world. Daley Albright is forced to seek sanctuary with the last person in the world he wants to see.
And as the flu creates a deadly mutation, the survivors are faced with the ultimate question: how far do you go before you stop being human?
The call came at around 7.00 and Flick almost didn’t answer it. She had a box of Aldi cornflakes in one hand while signing Rob’s permission slip with the other. The kids’ argument about some point of First World War history drowned out the sonorous drone of the morning news on the radio. The noise level was atrocious, and she loved it.
Thank god my kids are smarter than me. They’ll get out of this hellhole. Go to University, even though it costs a bloody fortune. I’ll figure it out somehow. Maybe get some more shifts at work.
Flick looked up. ‘Huh?’
Ally waved her spoon in the general direction of the phone, managing to splatter milk and soggy flakes all over the kitchen table. ‘Phone.’
Flick reached across the counter and picked up. ‘Hello?’
‘Flick! Thank god!’ Georgia Mellon, her boss, sounded stressed and more than a little panicked. ‘I’ve had a bloody slew of cleaners call in sick this morning. I mean, I feel bloody rough myself but I’m still here, aren’t I? Look, I need someone over at the Council ASAP. Please tell me you can do it, Flick, you’re my last hope!’
Georgia’s best-friend-in-crisis routine didn’t fool Flick for a second. Last choice again, I see. Georgia had her favourites for extra shifts, and Flick wasn’t one of them. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. She looked over at the kids, still arguing. Uni was expensive.
‘I can be there in about half an hour.’
‘Oh marvellous, darling! You’re an absolute life saver! I won’t forget this!’ Georgia hung up without another word.
‘Why do you let her take advantage like that, Mum?’ Rob scowled as he got up and rinsed his bowl in the sink, then reached over for Ally’s bowl and rinsed that too. ‘She’s a total piss-taker.’
‘Language, Robert.’ Flick admonished automatically. ‘I have to take the work where I can get it. Here.’ She handed Rob his permission slip for the field trip the following week and £45 folded up in a bank coin bag. ‘Make sure you hand that in first thing.’
Rob leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. ‘Thanks, Ma. Any chance of some extra on the day? We’re going to McDonalds for lunch.’
Flick busied herself looking for nothing in one of the kitchen drawers. ‘Of course, love. Remind me on the day in case I forget.’
‘You’re such a dickwad, Rob.’ Ally jerked her bike out of the shed with more force than necessary and threw her book bag into the front basket.
‘What?’ What are you talking about?’ Rob looked up from his iPhone, his cornflower blue eyes the picture of innocence.
‘Bloody clueless, that’s what you are. First,’ Ally climbed onto the bike and ticked off one of her fingers, no mean feat of agility, Rob had to admit, ‘you have a go at mum for being a wimp with Mellon-Head. Then you ask her for more money for the field trip. Spot the fricking irony, stupid?’
‘Shit.’ Rob dipped his head. ‘I didn’t think.’
Ally sighed. ‘For a smart person, bro, you rarely do think when it comes to Mum.’
‘All right, don’t rub it in. I already feel like crap. What should I do?’
He might be older by a year, but when it came to important decision-making, Rob always deferred to Ally. She was way more sensible than him, and he was smart enough to know it.
‘I’ll lend you some of my Saturday money. But you need to start looking for a Saturday job yourself, Rob. We both have to pitch in. It’s been hard since she lost that receptionist job.’
Rob got on his own bike and sighed. ‘I know, Al. I haven’t been pulling my weight have I? Poor mum.’
Ally took the lead as they pedalled down the road. ‘Nope.’ Her voice was almost snatched away by the greedy wind and Rob pedalled hard to come abreast of her. ‘But luckily she’s got two smart kids, right? One of these days, we’ll be able to properly look after her and she won’t have to do shitty cleaning jobs anymore.’
‘I could ask Greg if his dad needs any help at the MOT centre. He knows I’m good with engines.’
Ally smiled across at him. ‘Tesco, bro.’
Every little helps.
Flick made it to the Council offices in just under the half hour she promised Georgia. She wound down the window of her ancient Ford Fiesta and presented her pass at the barrier.
For a change, the security guard actually scrutinised her pass. ‘Felicity Dunbar?’ He peered into the car, as if expecting another person to be at the wheel, and Flick suppressed a sigh. She didn’t look like a Felicity. What on earth her parents were thinking when they inflicted the name on her remained a mystery to this day. Flick thought maybe her dad had a crush on Felicity Kendall from The Good Life, that old 70s TV show, but he could just as easily have called her that to be spiteful. You never knew with dad.
The security guard sneezed violently and shoved the pass towards her. ‘All right, away you go then.’
‘Thanks.’ Flick took the card by its edge, laid it on the passenger seat and waited until she parked up before she wiped it and clipped it to her uniform. ‘Yuck. Don’t people use flipping tissues anymore?’
Unusually, she had no trouble finding a parking space right in front of the security door. She did the lean-and-twist common to all lazy pass-holders everywhere to avoid unclipping her pass. The door beeped and she slipped inside into complete silence. The rhythmic squeak of her rubber soles on the polished linoleum floor echoed through the empty corridors as she made her way to the cleaning room.
So quiet at this time of the morning. How weird.
On the plus side, she supposed, she wouldn’t have to work around too many people, and could maybe finish early. Then she could stop off in the town centre and visit some of the employment agencies again, see if they had anything better than minimum wage on offer. The low-grade worry about money tried to ratchet itself up into a full-blown anxiety and Flick suppressed it with a firm talking-to.
No point, Flick old girl. Focus on the now.
She soon lost herself in manual labour, allowing the wiping and polishing and dusting to switch her mind off.
As her duster swiped along the brass rail leading to one of the basement conference rooms, her mind snapped back on.
No-one ever uses these conference rooms.
Except for this morning, apparently. Someone had failed to properly shut the solid wood doors and Flick’s hand stilled as the shouts reached her through the small gap.
‘There’s no way we can instigate this plan, Gerald! It’s just absurd. Things are not that bad!’
‘Not that bad? I don’t know what bloody planet you’re living on Henry! Have you even read the projections?’ Nobody spoke, and the same voice continued. ‘No. I didn’t think so,’ and Flick felt the man’s scorn as an almost physical thing. ‘We’ve two thousand cases already. If it carries on like this, the hospital will be at capacity before the end of the week. And then there’s the mortality rate.’
The silence had a breathless, fearful quality to it and Flick’s hand crept to her neck, as if to keep her rocketing pulse trapped inside her throat.
‘Sixty percent CFR,’ the voice intoned. ‘Infection rate is hovering at eighty percent, ladies and gentlemen.’
‘Wh-what does that mean, in reality?’ This new voice sounded timid and ancient.
A no-nonsense female voice interjected. Flick immediately thought: matron. ‘It means, Brian, that about eighty percent of people living in our town are going to get this virus. And sixty percent of those people will most likely die.’
Flick spun around, left the cleaning cart in the corridor and dug out the mobile phone from her pocket as she ran towards the exit.
Got to call the kids. No. They’ll know something’s wrong by the tone of my voice.
Quickly, she texted Rob and Ally as she ran:
I want u both 2 come home at lunch time. No q’s. Don’t tell anyone ur leaving. NO ONE.
‘And that,’ Gerald said, ‘is why we need to do as Central Government says and implement this Emergency Plan.’
‘But it says here that we’re not to inform the public yet. I don’t agree with this Gerald, not at all. People have a right to know.’ Henry Daventry. Councilman for almost thirty years. God alone knew why the people kept voting the old bastard in because he was about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
Idiots. Gerald wasn’t sure if he meant his fellow council members or the public. Probably both. Am I the only one who sees this?
He didn’t hesitate to lay it out in black and white. ‘What do you think would happen if we went on the radio this morning and told everyone in Bridgehaven that 80% of them were going to get ill in the next few days and they had a forty percent chance of surviving? It would be panic on a scale and violence we have never before seen in this country. Food would be stripped from shelves in a matter of hours. Hoarding. Looting. Rioting. Complete chaos. No. We have to keep this under wraps as long as we can.’
‘Is there a cure?’
‘The WHO is working on it. It’s not just us, people. This virus is everywhere. It’s global.’
‘Then why haven’t the media picked up on it? There’s been hardly anything in the news.’
Gerald recited what he’d been told on the ‘phone at 4am. ‘The WHO and governments have agreed to keep the more detailed information out of the public domain.’
‘You mean they’ve lied about the numbers.’ Henry looked as though he might have a heart attack, but the bastard recovered and kept on talking. ‘That’s unconscionable. People need to know.’
‘What people need,’ said Gerald, ‘is to go about their day-to-day business for as long as possible, as normally as possible.’
‘They won’t be able to prepare!’
‘That’s right, Henry. We’re the ones who need to prepare, for what comes after.’ Gerald sighed, and he knew he sounded like a parent talking to children who didn’t understand why they couldn’t have that second helping of ice cream, but he couldn’t stop himself. ‘Look, in a few weeks’ time, the world is going to get very ugly. If we told people now, the world would get very ugly today, and we’d be completely overwhelmed before we could do anybody any good at all. We have to be in a position where we can pick up the pieces after this virus has blown itself out. We have to be prepared to make hard decisions.’
Gerald closed his eyes briefly, fought the rising tide of despair. I’m talking to a group of people who can’t decide if we should have biscuits at committee meetings. ‘If the virus takes the course the WHO is projecting, then the number of people not turning up for work is going to start affecting our infrastructure as early as next week. Blackouts. Rubbish not being collected. Burst water pipes not being fixed. No petrol at the pumps. No food deliveries. The Russians are shutting off the gas flow to the UK tomorrow, to protect their own reserves. So we’ll have about four days’ worth after that. There’s going to be an announcement tomorrow afternoon that there’s been an industrial accident at the pipe, and the UK will be restricting gas supply to households as a precaution until the pipe has been fixed, which will give us a week’s leeway.’
‘So we lie to everyone, that’s your solution to this?’
Damn Henry and his ‘voice of the people’ act.
‘We lie, or more will die. It really is that simple.’ Gerald looked around the table at the patently unqualified people the voters of Bridgehaven had elected to govern their town.
In the car park, Flick stood by the side of her ancient Ford Fiesta, one hand on the door handle and the other still holding her mobile phone. She shuffled from foot to foot and stared down at the phone, second-guessing herself already.
I over-reacted. But what if I didn’t? I’ll look a right fool when the kids get home. So what’s new?
With an impatient huff, she accessed Moolah on the phone and by the time she’d driven across town to Aldi, £500 had been deposited in her account. £500 she couldn’t afford. If everything turned out okay and she’d just overheard some disaster preparedness exercise or something, well then she’d have to figure out a way to pay it back in thirty days. Maybe do some more shifts at the pub. But she could still taste the fear of those numbers spoken out loud in that conference room and she had a feeling that a payday loan was going to be the least of her worries.
She walked into Aldi and stood in the doorway for a few seconds, amazed that the shelves were still full and only a few customers ambled around the store.
Of course. Because nobody knows yet.
She’d never felt more grateful in her life for being a cleaner. She wanted to hurry. She wanted to grab a trolley and race around the supermarket, throw things into it and dash for the checkout. Instead, she forced herself to walk around calmly. She didn’t overfill the trolley either. After she’d finished at Aldi, she intended to go across town and visit the chemists and a petrol station, before going home.
As she hefted six-packs of two-litre water into the trolley, a woman with a snot-ridden toddler bawling in the front of her trolley sauntered past.
I should tell her.
She won’t believe me.
She has a baby for crying out loud. Tell her.
The woman turned around and glared at Flick. ‘Yeah? What you want?’ She held the last two bottles of Aldi cola taken from the shelf, and pulled them in close to her chest. ‘You ain’t having any! Shut up, Eric!’ She cuffed the crying toddler none-too-lightly on the back of the head.
Flick bit her lip and turned away. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’ I am such a coward.
When she got home, the Fiesta packed tight with provisions, Flick parked the car in the garage for the first time in months and locked the roll-up door. Then she took the groceries down into the basement.
Rob and Ally burst through the back door, laughing at a joke one of them had told, just as she came up into the kitchen from the last trip. Her chest tightened so painfully she couldn’t breathe. Thank god they’re all right.
‘What’s with the cryptic text, Mum? Did we win the lottery?’ Rob laughed and slung his back pack over one of the kitchen chairs.
‘Sit down, both of you.’
Rob and Ally looked at each other and Flick saw the silent conversation that went on between her children. She almost smiled.
What did you do?
Me? Nothing. What did you do, doofus?
All the while she’d been carting supplies to the basement, Flick had been thinking about what she would say to the kids. Ally was almost 16, Rob had just turned 17. They were both smart as whips. But they were still children. Her children. That constriction in her chest tightened into an iron-hard resolve.
What should I tell them? She decided to start slow.
‘I’m a bit worried about this flu going round-’
Ally nodded. ‘Half the school wasn’t in today.’
‘Yeah, Mr Bullington said people were just using it as an excuse for a duvet day,’ said Rob. ‘But…I dunno, Mum. A lot of the kids and teachers that had turned up didn’t look very well, to be honest.’
‘Well, I want you two to stay home for the rest of the week. Just to be on the safe side. I don’t want you catching anything.’
Rob raised one eyebrow, a quirk he’d inherited from his father and of which Ally was deadly jealous because she couldn’t do it. ‘Mr B won’t like that, Mum.’
‘I’ll deal with Mr Bullington.’
Ally and Rob exchanged a surprised look at the tone of her voice.
‘Okay Mum, you’re the boss. What were you doing in the basement anyway? You never go down there.’ Ally shuddered. She didn’t like going down there either.
‘Burying a body,’ Flick deadpanned, and it took a couple of seconds for the shock on her children’s faces to explode into laughter.
‘I hope it was bloody Mellon-Head,’ said Rob, and he and Ally high-fived in a fit of giggles that made them sound like they were toddlers again.