The first call came in around midnight. The dispatcher, initially unbelieving and wanting with all her might to be dismissive, nevertheless, listened carefully as the caller told her, in graphic detail how he’d found a video online which showed a man and dog being devoured by fog, just like in the movies.
“Sir, before I process your call, I would like to remind you that wasting police time is a serious offence. With that in mind is there any part of your statement you’d like to change?” she asked, trying hard to keep the judgement from her tone. The phone went dead and she breathed a sigh of relief.
However, within the next ten minutes, dispatch received a further 15 calls, all detailing the same thing. Sunita had no choice but to start taking this seriously, she would have to pass it on. She checked on the computer, all the reports had quoted the same website as the root, even if they had been made aware of it via social media, and four of them had thought they recognised the street the video was filmed in. Simon was going to love this, she thought as she realised it fell under her friend’s jurisdiction. She pressed the button and asked to be put through to him.
Simon had watched the clip twice now, once when Sunita had first called him and, now, as he showed it to Bik. It was grotesque and, he hoped, a pretty clever hoax too. He clicked onto the root address of the clip and realised something that made his ‘spider senses’ tingle.
“This camera’s still live.” he said aloud.
“Is it?” Bik Chai was one of his best detectives and Simon knew she would have picked up on the significance of the fact straight away. “Any idea on location?”
“Four reports of the same street,” he gave Bik the address, “exercise caution, Bik, this guy is smart,” Simon warned.
“Always do boss.” She smiled as she left.
On the ride over to Rankin Road, Detective Chai had not been idle. She’d let the constable she’d taken drive and she had busied herself scouring the internet for any other references to the property and, as they arrived, she instructed Constable Ransom to cordon off the perimeter of the property, taking care not to touch the fence.
The man smiled at the instruction, and, not for the first time, Bik cursed her sarcastic sense of humour. “No, Ransom, I’m serious. While I don’t believe in killer fog any more than you do, don’t you think it would be better to treat this as a real threat, rather than die by the hand of a misty assassin? Think of the paperwork man. How would you write that one up?”
She’d kept her face so straight he had finally understood she was serious and gave her the customary “Yes ma’am” as he set about his task.
“Then keep the public away.” She called after him, and, taking out her torch, she set about making a wide perimeter inspection of the house. She wanted to find the camera and the best way she knew of doing that was to figure out where it had been shooting from. As she walked around to the side of 109 she recognised the scene from the video, she swung her torch round 180 degrees. She saw the clump of trees immediately and realised that would be the most likely position for the camera, given the angle of the scene in the video. She scoured the branches with her torch and it wasn’t long before the beam caught a reflection in the lens. Bik tracked the sight line with her torch and was able to pinpoint the location they had watched the unidentified man in the blue jeans, t-shirt and jacket apparently be eaten by the fog. She ducked under the yellow and black tape Constable Ransom had deployed and moved closer to the spot, being careful not to touch the fence. As she scrutinised the area she was vaguely aware that Ransom was having a fairly heated discussion with a member of the public, but he was an experienced man, he could handle it she knew. The beam of her flashlight caught something on the grass, just inside the fence and she swung it back to get a closer look. It was phone, sitting tantalisingly close to her on the grass just inside the garden. She wondered if she could just reach between the fence posts and grab it…
Sudden shouts and yells from the front of the house caught her attention. Ransom needed help.
She pushed herself up and ran towards the noise, calling for back up as she moved.
As she rounded the corner, the first thing she saw was three, well-built men, whose dress brought the word ‘nerd’ screaming into her mind. Two of them were holding up their phones, filming something whilst the third, who was standing a little forward of them, just stood staring in shock at something she still couldn’t see. She ran on and saw what that ‘something’ was. Ransom had fallen against the front gate of the property and was now eerily silent, enveloped in a broiling sea of thick white mist. She sped up, trying to reach him but before she’d even made it to the first man the mist was dissipating and Ransom was gone.
She grabbed her radio, already hearing the sirens approaching from her earlier call, “Officer down. Urgent assistance required.”
She turned on the men. The man closest to where Ransom had been looked at her, his eyes full of disbelief and shock, “I only pushed him,” he whispered, “he fell. A push, it was just a push. Not my fault…” he mumbled on and on. Detective Chai turned her attention to the men with the cameras. She didn’t want to stray from the mumbling man but she needed those phones and the footage they contained. The sirens were almost upon them now, she realised, but so, she noticed with horror, were more people. The neighbours, roused by the shouting, were coming out of their homes to see what was going on. She’d have to act fast if she was going to stop anyone else becoming a victim. She grabbed her own phone and took a photo of the men who were still filming, then took one of the mumbling man.
“Don’t move,” She ordered all three of them, “and stay away from the fence.”
She hoped they had heard her as she moved towards the tape Ransom had set up.
“Keep back,” she yelled to the advancing crowd, “there’s been a gas leak. I need you all to return to your homes and await further instruction. Please, go back to your homes, you are not safe outside.
“I can’t smell no gas!” a belligerent man in jeans and a t-shirt complained.
“Nevertheless, Sir, I need you to stay behind the tape.”
“You got to do what she says,” one of the filming men had stopped filming and come to her aid.
“And who are you to tell me what to do?” the angry man poked the filming hard in the chest with one, thick index finger.
“You don’t understand, this gas is weird, it eats people!” the filming man was pleading.
At that point Detective Chai was distracted by a commotion further along the line, as a teenage boy strode over the tape, “Oi, you, get back!” she called as she made her way over to him.
“Wait!” she heard the filming man plead, then the crowd erupted in horrified shouts. She turned to see that the belligerent man had actually made it into the front garden of 109. She could see immediately there was nothing she could do for him. The gas engulfed him and, unlike, PC Ransom, he didn’t even get the opportunity to scream. He was simply gone. Him and his clothes, like he’d never even existed.
The sirens finally reached them and police poured out of the four newly arrived cars. Chai directed them to hold the perimeter and noticed that the youth who’d been making his way towards the garden fence meekly allowed himself to be led back behind the tape.
Then other vehicles started arriving, less welcome ones. The press. Television cameras, lights and noise all converged on the crowd, probing, asking questions, fueling the sensationalism of the night. Riling up the crowd and making her job more difficult than ever.
She was calling for the coroner (because there wasn’t a procedure for when the whole body disappeared in front of your eyes) and the SOCOs, though she didn’t envy them their job tonight, when the stones started to whizz above her head.
The crowd, weren’t aiming at her, she knew, it was the house. Her officers were struggling to hold them back and she could see the situation getting quickly out of hand. No doubt that was just what the journalists had been hoping would happen.
The house is under attack. The large warm collections are massed outside, attacking the house. We must protect the house. We were to remain hidden but they make this impossible. We will make use of the large warm collections and replicate a seeking arm. We will move out into the wider environment. We must find John. We must get new orders.
Bik Chai happened to be facing the house as the mist began its attack. It appeared to pour from the every brick of the house and every blade of grass in the garden. It was moving fast and it was heading straight for the crowd.
She turned, screaming, “Everybody back!” just once before the gas consumed her.
The crowd panicked, falling over themselves in their hurry to escape, cursing the media vans that now blocked their escape. Reporters and camera men were easy prey for the gas, weighed down as they were with equipment. They, and the policemen who stood their ground to the end, were the first victims, but, in the end, none of the crowd escaped and neither did those who had waited patiently in their homes for the police to sort the whole thing out. The police helicopter Simon had ordered to assist Detective Chai saw a huge circle of white gas, centred on 109 and covering the entire street. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the gas was gone. It appeared simply to vanish into the ground, taking every living thing with it.
Simon hadn’t been able to process what he had seen. Nothing in his training could prepare him for a white mist that ate people. Heck, it didn’t even sound like a good b-movie plot. His brain had switched to automatic. He’d called in the scenes of crime officers and sent another team of officers down to the scene to try and secure the perimeter, keep the public safe and figure out what on earth was going on. His intention had been to go straight down there himself but, given the massive, world-wide press coverage the event was now receiving, thanks, in part, to the television cameras which had kept transmitting long after their operators had perished, he had to deal with raging politicians first. His call with the Home Secretary was interrupted as he watched in horror as the silent television screen in his office showed the men and women he had just deployed meeting the same fate as Detective Bik Chai. He couldn’t help feeling personally responsible for the human tragedies unfolding before him. None of those men and women would have been there tonight if he hadn’t sent them in.
The Home Secretary had broken into his thoughts simply to tell him he was handing the matter over to the army, having clearly decided this was some new form of terrorist weapon. Simon wasn’t so sure.
We are millions strong. Our task is complete. The house is whole. We have erected a perimeter to protect the work until John returns. No more warm collections will enter the house. They are destructive; the small ones gnaw through cables or defecate on surfaces. This causes damage, they will be utilized. The large warm collections are more damaging. They deliberately destroy. We will no longer wait; we are stronger; we will utilize them before they can undo our work. We will wait for John. We will wait for new orders.
Rob watched the footage with growing excitement. If this went as he thought, it could be the start of something big for him. The image was being streamed from a camera he’d left on the tree opposite 109, it showed a small black and white cat playing with something it had caught. The image wasn’t clear enough to show what but Rob figured it had to be a mouse, because surely a bird would at least attempt to fly away and he’d be able to see that. He’d put the camera up the evening Ralph had died, a way of keeping tabs on the house without arousing suspicion. He knew he should’ve gone to the police but what would he have said? ‘A mist rose out of the ground and ate my friend’? Who was going to believe that? No he had to get evidence, his video only showed the mist dissipating, even he thought it looked like a smoke machine or CGI. He had told what was left of his conscience the camera was to show the police what had happened but the rest of him knew it was for the story that would make his career – or at the very least make him rich.
The camera had yielded results almost as soon as it had begun streaming, it showed a bird landing on the garden, a white mist rose from the lawn and the bird vanished. Just like Ralph. But the picture wasn’t clear enough, Rob knew, the definition didn’t allow you to see what actually happened to the bird and he could hear the sceptics saying it had simply flown away, even before he’d considered showing it to anyone. He’d spent the next few days analysing the footage, cataloguing any occurrence of the mist and had built up a frustratingly clear picture of what was going on. Now he was sure the mist, whatever it was, was attacking and destroying anything that found its way into the garden. Frustratingly the footage only showed this happening to bugs, birds, and mice; nothing big enough for the definition on the camera to clearly pick up the details. That’s why the cat was so interesting. If its game with the prey caused it to stray into the garden then perhaps, just perhaps, the camera would pick up enough detail to make his first report believable; to turn him from internet nutter to viral video overnight. He’d already written the script – he just needed the footage.
He fixed his eyes on the cat, will her onward, praying that the mouse, or whatever, would run through the picket fence for safety. He barely registered the socks and sandals that momentarily obscured his view and it wasn’t until the man carrying the flyers opened the gate and turned up the path that Rob paid him any attention at all.
He knew he should do something, he knew what was about to happen but he sat transfixed as the mist rose from the path and the lawn either side of the man. The man shook his ankle, he looked like he was trying to dislodge a stone from his shoe, then he started swatting frantically at his legs with flyers in his hand as the mist rose higher and higher. As the man turned to flee back towards the gate he sunk to the floor, his arms waving wildly around his head and Rob could see his screams and the mist enveloped him entirely, then dissipated, leaving nothing where once they’d been a human being. The cat sauntered passed the gate and disappeared from view.
Rob was dumb struck. At once appalled and impressed. He’d witnessed his second murder, he should feel shock, outrage, terror even, he knew, but actually his overriding feeling was one of being impressed. He didn’t know who or what had killed Ralph and the flyer man but whoever they were they were efficient, ruthless and fast. A sudden flash of disappointment struck him – he couldn’t use the footage of a man being consumed – too much of the wrong kind of attention. His script hinted strongly at that possibility, but he could never show the footage of flyer man. He couldn’t admit to having known the danger and not done something about it. How would that go down?
No he had to gather proof he could show and then make sure they kept away, and now he knew just how to do it.
It had taken a few days to find the animal, he’d had to trawl through a number of groups, most of them wouldn’t allow you to sell animals on their page but some did.
The young couple had been desperate to give away the once cherished pet now their real baby had arrived, all he had to do was act the loving father, keen to give his son the dog he’d always wanted. It had been easy. They had been eager to believe him, keen to assuage their consciences and, ultimately, be rid of the animal so within half an hour of walking through their door he was able to leave with the dog bed, blankets, Ben’s favourite toy, three leads, a small supply of food and bowls and, of course, Ben himself.
Ben was an English springer spaniel, a medium sized dog with gentle curls of long white and chestnut hair and big trusting brown eyes, which were now looking up at Rob, excitedly expectant. Rob almost felt guilty.
The meat had been expensive, but he felt he owed Ben that, at least. They marched down the street, Rob looking like a thousand other owners taking their dog for the last comfort break of the evening. He led Ben to the side of 109, stopping to check they were directly opposite the tree where his camera was waiting and streaming it all live to the internet.
He took the bag with the meat out of his coat pocket and waved it in front of Ben’s nose, “What’s this?” he asked excitedly, “what is it boy?”
Ben clearly new exactly what it was, his tail wagged and he pulled at the lead, very keen indeed to get to the meat.
Rob tore a small hole in the bag, undid the dog’s lead then lobbed the meat over the fence – no point in sending it too far; he wanted the camera to pick up as much detail as it could.
The dog watched as the package sailed over the fence, he scrambled to turn and hurled himself at the fence, jumping up but not quite making it over.
“Go on boy, go and get it,” Rob exhorted him, “go fetch.”
Ben was turning round and round on the spot, tail wagging frantically, he was stopping at the fence on each turn and jumping up at it forlornly.
“Stupid dog,” Rob sighed as he stepped back and thought for a second. The dog was not going to make it over the fence unaided, that much was clear. Rob bent down and scooped the excited pet up in his arms, leaning over the fence to drop him onto the grass on the other side. The dog took off like a rocket, heading straight for the meat – he almost made it too, before the mist engulfed him.
Poor sod, Rob thought as he scratched absentmindedly at a gnat that had taken a fancy to his thigh. He watched as the dog bit at his attackers, gnawing at his fur, frantically shaking his head, his huge ears whipping round and round before disappearing all together.
Bloody gnats, Rob thought, as he looked down.
The camera looked impassively on as Rob realised, too late, he had been leaning against the white picket fence ever since he’d lifted Ben over. The mist swallowed him whole, not even giving him the time to turn round and, just like that Rob became an overnight hit, his video going viral, just like he’d wanted. And 109 Rankin Road became and overnight dark tourism hit.
An early post today, thanks for sticking with John Who? Let me know what you think.
Rob was late. There’d been a big chemical spill on the A12 and it had led to the death of three people, two of whom were kids. It was the most fun he’d had at work in ages. He’d had no choice but to stay, meaning he’d run all the way to the bar from work and dashed through the door of The Cricketers at almost five to eight. Ralph would have gone, he knew, but he’d decided he should at least make sure of it before heading home, besides, he was on a bit of a high and a drink would be great.
Rob pushed through the open door and made his way straight to the bar, he had no idea what Ralph looked like but he was pretty sure if he was still here, he’d be the guy looking pretty hacked off right now. His eyes swept the bar, but didn’t see anyone likely so, when the barman interrupted his search, he ordered a pint of Badger, grabbed a newspaper from the stand and moved over to a table, deciding to concentrate on enjoying his pint instead.
Rob looked up, a tall, long haired man in his mid-thirties sporting what could only be described as a goatee and holding a half-drunk pint had stopped at his table.
“I’m Ralph.” The man held out his hand in greeting.
Rob hurriedly put his glass down on the table, wiped his wet hand on his trousers and shook the man’s hand, gesturing for him to take a seat. “You waited,” he said, not sure whether to feel glad or disappointed. Surely a normal person would’ve left long ago?
“Not exactly,” Ralph smiled, “just figured, since I was here anyway, a couple of pints wouldn’t hurt anyone. Glad you can though.”
Rob felt himself relax, “yeah, well, I knew you’d probably have left already but, like you said, who can resist a pint after work.”
Ralph took a gulp from his glass, “so,” he began, “do you want to see 109 tonight?”
“Might as well, just let me finish my drink first. What got you interested in the place to begin with?”
“I’m not really sure. The address just kept catching my eye. At first it was because of hairy John, he was this old tramp of a guy who was filthy and went around begging food and muttering to himself all the time, everyone assumed he was squatting in the house until he died – and that’s a whole other sad story – then it turned out he owned the house. Anyway, about 8 months later the house was back in the news. A newly-wed couple had bought it and had been doing it up when one day they, and a friend of theirs who was apparently helping out, simply disappeared overnight. All they found were piles of empty clothes. Then a building contractor bought it from the bank planning to turn it into multiple occupancy but last week, he was found in the garden of the house – or rather his clothes were.”
“How do you know these people haven’t just staged their own disappearances, perhaps they couldn’t afford the mortgage or the repairs,” Rob asked, finding it hard not to get sucked into the spooky theories Ralph was spinning.
“I don’t.” Ralph confessed.
“What did the police reports say?”
“No idea – I’m not privy to them, that’s part of the reason I contacted you. I’m just an ordinary bloke whose interest got piqued by a weird house.”
Rob snorted, at least Ralph was honest, he thought. “Come on then,” he finally exclaimed, downing the dregs of his pint, “let’s go and see this killer house.”
By the time they got to Rankin Road it was gone nine, Rob paid the taxi, and the two men stood in front of 109. It seemed a pretty ordinary house to Rob, detached but not huge, with a garden fence complete with gate surrounding it. Now they were here, neither men was sure about what they should do and shared an embarrassed look that showed it.
“Let’s go have a look,” Rob finally said, pushing open the gate, which swung shut behind him with a noise akin to Krakatoa in the quiet street. Looking behind him Rob could see Ralph stifle a giggle before following him, quietly, through the gate.
They made their way up to the door, and Rob rang the bell, “Just in case,” he said.
“What’ll you say?” Ralph asked. “Excuse me, sir, but we think your house is a murderer, can we come in and take a look round.”
“Something like that.”
They didn’t need to worry, there was no answer, even after Rob tried the bell once more, for luck. “Right,” he said decisively, heading for the front window, “let’s see what’s going on here shall we?”
The two men peered in through the front window, before moving around to the side and finally the back, desperately trying to see anything out of the ordinary but all they could see was an immaculately maintained house, looking for all the world like it was waiting for someone to move in. Rob was feeling frustrated, had Ralph been having him on, he wondered.
“Don’t look too deadly to me.” He declared, his beer buzz wearing off.
“No. I know. That’s the thing, though, isn’t it?” Ralph explained. “It looks like any other ordinary house, actually it looks so inviting you might be tempted to buy it. So how come it’s last three owners are dead or disappeared?”
“The house didn’t kill the tramp guy did it?”
“No. He had a stroke but the police thought he was drunk so locked him up for the night, they found him dead in his cell the next day.”
“Right, but the others disappeared here?” Rob wanted clarification.
“Well their clothes were found here, sitting in piles, like they’d been spirited out of them. Nothing was missing in either case and there were no signs of either a break-in or a struggle. The people had simply gone.”
Rob was in a decisive mood. He grabbed a brick from the garden and, before Ralph could even utter a word in protest, he hurled it full-force into the large back window they’d been looking through. Ralph cried out as he instinctively pulled his hands up over his face and turned his head away.
“Shut up!” Rob spat, “you don’t want the neighbours to call the police, do you? Come on, let’s go in.”
“In there?” Ralph didn’t look like he thought that was such a good idea.
“Sure, how else are we going to find out what’s going on?”
“What the hell is that?” Ralph was pointing at the broken window. Rob turned. Flowing around the wound of the broken glass was a thick white gas. It grew so thick that for a few seconds it obscured their view of the hole where the window had been. Ralph stood, staring open mouthed as the gas undulated over the clear surface, Rob, on the other hand, fumbled in his coat pocket, desperately trying to free his phone then expertly turning on the video app to film what he was seeing. He looked, through the screen, as the gas flowed away from the window and gasped, tearing his gaze from the virtual to the actual to confirm what he thought he could see. The glass in the window was whole.
Where there had been jagged shards and a gaping hole, there was now smooth oneness and a solid barrier to the inside. It shocked Rob to his core and he stood there for what seemed like the longest time staring, but then he noticed something.
The gas was flowing down the wall and across the grass; it was coming their way in a distinct and seemingly intelligent cloud.
“Run!” he screamed, no longer caring who heard him. He turned and started sprinting out of the garden, clearing the fence in a practiced bound and not stopping until he heard Ralph’s anguished cries for help.
He stopped and turned to face the house, there, prone on the garden was Ralph, or at least it looked like Ralph. In reality it was a large, white, Ralph shaped gas cloud, from which tormented pleading emanated in a strangled voice which suddenly ceased to be.
Rob, hating himself, turned his phone on the scene and hit record. Capturing the cloud’s disintegration as it flowed from the shape on the floor into a flat stream which ran back to the house and disappeared in through the air vent at the bottom of the wall.
Where Ralph had been a few seconds ago, there lay a pathetic pile of his clothes, laid out as he had died, stretching for the garden fence, only feet away. Rob risked crossing back over the road to get a close up but nothing would get him back over that fence.
He smiled – if he played this right it could be his key to the big time.
F: Hellen Riebold’s Author Page
It’s getting a bit like a radio play now, isn’t it. Scroll down if you want to read the first two chapters. Here we go then:-
Task completed. We are two million. We are strong. We need new instructions. We need John.
Rob hated his job. All through his childhood he’d dreamed of being a news reader with the BBC. He’d worked hard at school, got into the right university and then slogged his guts out to get his degree. He knew he’d need a first so, when he opened the envelope with the 2:1 result he couldn’t join with his parent’s jubilant celebrations. He’d hoped to be able to go to the BBC straight from Uni but that was a pipe dream now. He’d need to work his way up to them. The unthinkable had happened, he’d have to get a job in local news; and that’s just what he had done – six years ago.
Now he was stuck, he knew. He’d never work for the BBC, probably never be a newsreader. He’d spend his life following up on pointless council meetings and trying to find dirt on local politicians and business men. It was a measure of his desperation that lately he’d even started feigning an interest in the more unusual, stories, the ones with a hint of the supernatural; following up on them in his spare time, of which there was plenty, and making his own reports to broadcast on his v-blog. At least that had seen a small bump in his pathetic hit rate. At this point he’d do almost anything to get noticed, even a cable channel would do, anything would be better than local news.
That’s why, at 2:30pm on a Thursday afternoon, he found himself checking through email after email of the random ramblings of raving lunatics, all of whom were convinced they’d seen a ghost or found the Loch Ness monster or had irrefutable proof of the presence of aliens among us; most of them were total rubbish but he printed out the odd one that caught his eye. He was looking for his next investigation, his next pointless ramble to camera, trying to look interested enough for someone to notice his potential; that’s when the case of 109 Rankin Road first caught his eye. According to Jake595 the house had had three owners in 12 months, all of whom had either died in suspicious circumstances or disappeared from the face of the earth, leaving the house looking pristine. Ordinarily Rob would have dismissed it as unsubstantiated coincidence but Jake595 had even attached scanned cuttings from the local press and, as Rob read them, he found himself intrigued. He sent Jake595 a quick reply, asking him to call him and giving him the special mobile number he kept for work, then carried on scouring emails before beginning to write the script for the piece he was planning to do on a notorious local road, said to be haunted by the crew of the bomber that had crashed there in the second world war. He forgot all about Jake595 because he knew, like most of the cranks who emailed him, once he actually asked them to contact him they’d run a mile. He’d learnt months ago not to get his hopes up.
His mobile rang as he was eating his tea, he swore, hurriedly swallowed the mouthful of fish-finger he’d been eating, then picked it up.
“Rob Stranger,” he said in his light Scottish accent.
“Oh,” the person on the other end sounded surprised, “I thought it was Stranger.”
Rob sighed, “No, Stranger, like hanger. How can I help?”
“Yeah, erm, well I’m Jake595, I emailed you a couple of days ago and you asked me to call you.”
“Right. The haunted house.”
“Don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing as ghosts,” the guy sounded annoyed. “I do think there’s something strange going on though.”
Now Rob was interested. “Well if you don’t think it’s ghosts what do you think it is?” he asked.
“I have no idea, but I’d like to find out and, to be frank, I’m too scared to go there alone so I was hoping you’d come with me.”
This guy wasn’t one of Rob’s usual contacts, he was a sceptic, Rob realised. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ralph? Not Jake?”
“Na, that’s just a nickname I had as a kid, I use it for my email.”
“So what can you tell me Ralph, about 109?” Rob asked, warming to the refreshing normalcy of the man on the other end of the line.
“Not a lot more than my email, like I said, I was hoping you’d come and have a look at it with me.”
Rob didn’t do caution, his six foot two frame coupled with his fitness regime meant he’d never had to. “Okay, you’re on.”
“Really?” Ralph sounded really surprised now.
“Sure, why not. When do you want to meet?”
“How about tomorrow evening?”
“Can’t do tomorrow, I’m working, but I’m good for Thursday. Do you want to get a beer first?” You can tell a lot about a bloke over a beer, Rob thought.
“Sure. Do you know The Cricketers?”
“On the corner of the High Street? Yep, I know it. Meet you there about seven?”
“Great.” Ralph agreed.
“I’ll be the guy…”
“I’ve seen you online mate, I know what you look like.” Ralph interrupted.
Rob couldn’t help it, he felt a small swell of pride and a tiny, wry smile escaped his lips, “Okay then, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, putting the phone down.
F: Hellen Riebold’s Author Page
This is the second part of my sci-fi novella, check out the previous post to read chapter one. Let me know how you think I can make it better.
We fix, we learn, we grow. We are hundreds of thousands strong. So much decay, so much atrophy, we fix it all.
Lucy could hardly believe her luck. She and Howard had begun to think that home ownership would never be within their grasp. It seemed the harder they saved, the quicker the prices rose until almost all they could afford were studio apartments and run down flats in ex local authority high-rises. They’d been looking for over two years now, clicking on thousands of online details and taking hundreds of online tours. They’d lost count of exactly how many front doors they’d stepped through and none of them had been right. Lucy had been ready to give up and start looking at park homes and long term rentals but Howard had always believed the perfect place was out there waiting for them and now, at last, he’d been vindicated. 109 Rankin Road was theirs. It wasn’t perfect, in fact on their first visit she’d almost dismissed the property. Sure it had three bedrooms, and a layout that lent itself to the dreamed of farmhouse kitchen but it had been lived in for years by an eccentric tramp. His rubbish still littered the place, making it hard to see the dimensions and filling the place with an aroma of decay. Lucy worried it would take more money than they could ever earn to put it right but Howard had assured her, once the junk had been cleared out, the work was largely cosmetic. They could do it, besides, like Howard had said, they were looking long term so they had years to get it done, they didn’t have to do it all straight away. Their furniture had gone into storage and they would be spending the next week staying with a friend whilst they emptied the house of all the previous owner’s junk and scrubbed everything like mad but standing here, in what would be the lounge of their forever home, Lucy smiled. Howard had been right, the place was perfect.
Lucy’s reverie was broken by the sound of the skip lorry unloading the first of what was sure to be many skips, she could hear Howard chatting with the driver. She pulled on her new gardening gloves, tore off a heavy duty bin bag and made her way into the kitchen to make a start. They’d agreed; Howard would start from the top and work down whilst she started with the kitchen so they could at least have drinks and a sandwich as they worked.
By the end of the week even Lucy didn’t recognise the place and she had to admit that they had done an amazing job. It had taken them five days and seventeen skips just to get rid of the junk; they’d found all sorts of contraptions and bits of electronics hidden among the old papers, as well as cups and glasses containing mould old enough to be considering space exploration. It had all had to be carried out by hand and she knew they were both grateful for the help of so many good friends but even she hadn’t realised how hard they had all worked on the clean up after the rubbish had gone. As she looked around at the gleaming windows and spotless windowsills she wondered who had thought to clean the doors. Her curiosity pulled her across the room to inspect their handiwork and she ran her hand absentmindedly across the spotless paintwork.
“Howard?” she called out to the hall.
“Hi,” came the reply.
“Did you repaint the woodwork?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“No.” Howard wandered in as he spoke. “Why?”
“Well I don’t know who did but they made an amazing job of it – look.”
“Yeah,” Howard said, giving the door a quick glance. “We’d better head off if we’re going to get the first load here before dark. Will you be alright here on your own for a while or do you want me to drop you back at Mum’s?”
“Don’t be daft, I’ll be fine. I’ll give the bathroom and kitchen another going over. You’ll be back soon, won’t you?”
“Okay,” he nodded, “love you.” He leant in for a kiss before heading outside to the waiting van, leaving Lucy still considering the state of the door. Her gaze widened to take in the rest of the living room, it was immaculate, she realised. The light fittings, the fireplace and even the walls were entirely dirt free, in fact, if she didn’t know better, she’d say they were freshly painted. She looked up and gasped in surprise. She knew the ceiling had hairline cracks criss-crossing it. It was one of the things the survey had shown up. The plaster was ancient and would to be replaced very soon, throughout the house on all the walls and ceilings. When they’d first seen the report it had terrified them as it listed in cold, hard black and white, all the things they would need to do to fix their new home. So how come, she wondered as she stared at the ceiling, she was staring at a perfectly smooth, bright white, ceiling with crisp, clean coving and not a hint of a crack in sight.
As life went on Lucy had forgot all about the non-existent cracks in the ceiling and the bathroom pipes that no longer leaked. She and Howard had come to love their house and had enjoyed an unexpectedly quiet first six months there, they hadn’t been inundated with DIY or even swamped by paint, in fact they often joked that the house even seemed to clean itself. They’d been so happy with their home and so grateful for the faulty surveyors report that they’d even put off knocking the kitchen through into the dining room to make Lucy’s country kitchen, however, this morning’s news meant they could put it off no longer. They were going to have a baby, the first in what Lucy hoped would be a whole quiver full to fill this wonderful home with joy and laughter, but she was adamant, she didn’t want building work and a new baby. Howard would need to get started on the kitchen and they were waiting for his friend, Bart, who was a builder, to arrive so they could begin to decide how best to proceed. Bart arrived a little after seven and, after a cup of coffee and the preliminary chit-chat of old friends they began in earnest to discuss the building process. Bart tapped on the wall between the current small kitchen and the dining room next door. It sounded hollow.
“That’s a bit weird,” Bart exclaimed, looking puzzled.
“What is mate?” Howard asked.
“Well, in a house this age I would expect this to be a load bearer but it sounds like a stud.”
They watched as Bart inspected the wall, tapping it here and there and running his hands across it. “You definitely want it down right?” he asked, pulling a sledge hammer from his bag.
Lucy nodded, “definitely,” she said, with a growing sense of anticipation.
“Good. Watch yourself then, I’m going to make a test hole.” With that he swung his hammer hard against the wall and the plaster cracked, opening up a crescent shaped hole in the wall. He swung again and again, pulling rubble away between each swing until, seemingly satisfied, he stood back to admire his handy work.
“Thought so,” he said, triumphantly. “It’s a load bearer. We’ll have to get RSJs and building inspectors and everything. Sorry.”
“No worries mate, I’d rather do it properly – that’s why I called you in. We’ve waited this long, a couple more weeks isn’t going to make much difference. Come on I’ll buy you a beer, you don’t mind do you Lucy?” Howard turned to her.
“No, course not.” She smiled.
“Great, just let me sort out the mess,” Bart said.
“Oh don’t worry about that, I’ll grab the hoover while you’re out – it won’t take me a couple of minutes.” Lucy was just so happy her country kitchen would soon be on its way.
“You sure?” Howard asked.
“Thanks love, you are a star.” He gave her a kiss goodbye.
By the time Bart had washed his hands and they’d actually got out the door a good five minutes had passed and Lucy waited until they’d gone to nip to the loo before grabbing the broom from the cupboard under the stairs and heading back to the dining room to sort out the mess. She’d sweep up the bigger bits then run the hoover over the floorboards to finish off the rest. She banged awkwardly through the dining room door then stopped in her tracks.
The wall around the hole and the floor seemed to be covered in a thick, white mist. Her first panicked thought was gas and she dropped the hoover and fled from the house, grabbing her mobile phone on the way out. She hurriedly dialled Howard’s number, thankful that he picked up so quickly.
“Hi love,” he said.
“I think Bart hit a gas pipe!” Lucy blurted, “There’s gas pouring out of the wall – the floor’s covered in it.” Even as she said it, it didn’t seem to make sense.
Bart’s calm voice came onto the line. “Lucy, it can’t be gas, darling. You can’t see gas, it wouldn’t flow down the wall to the floor and besides, there aren’t any active gas pipes in that, or any other wall, nowadays.”
“I get all that,” Lucy retorted, feeling a little annoyed at Bart’s patronising tone, “nevertheless I am watching a white gas billow out of the wall and flow down onto the rubble under the hole. What should I do?”
She heard Bart’s sigh loud and clear, then there was the noise of the phone being passed around before Howard’s slightly more concerned voice came on to the line. “Lucy? Why don’t you come join us for a drink; we’ll sort it out when we get back.”
“What about the house? What if it blows up?” Lucy thought she sounded stupid, even as the words came out.
“It’ll be fine, promise. Just come down to the pub, we’re on the corner of Fairfax and Beedel, we’ll wait here for you.” Howard sounded decisive.
“See you in a couple of minutes then.” It was an order, not a suggestion.
“Leaving now.” Lucy trilled as she put the phone down and headed for the door.
Our work undone, needs redoing. Quicker now we know how. We fix, we learn, we grow.
Two and a half hours later, and a couple of pints more relaxed, Howard, Lucy and Bart returned to the house.
“Come on then, missus,” Bart teased Lucy, “Let’s take a look at this gas of yours.”
They rounded the corner into the dining room.
Lucy stopped, agog.
Her brow furrowed as confusion coursed through her mind.
“What the…” Bart exclaimed, staring at the perfectly smooth wall. He turned to Lucy, “How did you do that?” he asked incredulously.
“I didn’t.” Lucy assured him.
Howard moved into the hall, “Hello?” he yelled. “Anyone home? Dad? Daniel?”
They waited in silence. They were alone.
Bart looked at his watch, then at the wall. “You saw me,” he said, looking for confirmation, “you both watched me punch a hole in this wall, right?”
Lucy nodded, a little too scared to speak.
“Yes mate.” Howard’s voice held a laugh. “Don’t worry, you’re not going mad. My Dad said he might pop in, I guess we must have missed him and Dan, probably up the pub looking for us. They must have seen the wall and figured sorting it was the only useful thing they could do. Should’ve left them a note, I guess.”
“You think it was your Dad?” Lucy asked.
“Of course it was. Who else would’ve cleaned up all that mess and fixed the wall.”
Lucy felt relief flood through her, although she wasn’t sure why. “You don’t think that gas I saw had something to do with it?” she asked, tentatively.
Howard smiled indulgently at her and pulled her closer to him in a warm embrace, “no Luce, I don’t. I think your gas was the work of an exhausted mind, begging its owner to relax. That’s all.”
“Well, if you two are going to get all soppy, I think I’ll head home to my own wife, if you don’t mind. I’ll get onto the council and we’ll get started on this asap. Okay?”
“Great. And thanks mate, for everything. We really owe you.” Howard smiled, releasing one arm from his embrace of Lucy to shake Bart’s hand.
The two men shook hands, Bart headed off and Lucy and Howard headed upstairs to bed.
The fixed keeps being unfixed; we are running out of situated atoms; we will improvise.
The next week was the strangest of Howard and Lucy’s life. They had decided, whilst they waited for building consent to come through, they would get started preparing the old kitchen and that’s where the trouble began. It seemed that each time they started on an alteration, they’d make steady progress during the day but then, at night, all their work would be undone. They’d knock tiles from walls, simply to have them magically reappear, undamaged, back on the wall; they’d disconnect pipes and even remove them altogether, only to find them back in their original places when they came downstairs in the morning. They pulled up the tatty old cushion floor to reveal crumpling 1950s tile-work over concrete, then came down in the morning to a pristine, polished concrete floor.
To begin with they laughed together about shoemaker’s elves and friendly ghosts but by the end of the week they weren’t laughing anymore and Lucy was threatening to move out. Howard called Bart and explained the issues they were facing. Once Bart had stopped laughing and finally believed that Howard wasn’t having him on he agreed to come over that night and see for himself.
The two men decided they would stay up overnight and find out exactly what was going on. Lucy opted to go and stay with her parents, she’d had enough and didn’t fancy either staying upstairs alone or coming face to face with a ghost. As she left she promised the boys she’d bring them a bacon butty each for breakfast in the morning.
Howard and Bart had a couple of cans then Bart knocked a four foot hole in the dividing wall, “Let’s see them fix this!” he exclaimed and the two men settled down on a sofa in the dining room to watch a selection of the world’s worst movies to keep them awake.
We are a million strong. John has provided organic atoms, the additional material will make our work easier. The house will be fixed, John will be satisfied.
Lucy told herself she was being stupid. Her mother had let her sleep in so she hadn’t woken up until gone nine. She’d called Howard to apologise for the lateness of the sarnies but an electronic voice told her phone was no longer in service. The first time it didn’t worry her too much, she assumed he’d turned it off, but as she tried again and again and again and still got the same message her unease grew. Shouldn’t it be saying it wasn’t available rather than no longer in service, she wondered?
By the time she’d had her shower and got dressed she had worked herself up into a bit of a stew and she ran from the house, skipped the café altogether and drove home far too fast.
The house looked normal enough as she approached though, as she reached the front door, she realised she couldn’t hear any sounds two men at work should be making. She put her key in the lock and cautiously poked her head around the door.
“Hello? Howard?” she called out. “Bart?” she tried hopefully. Silence met her.
She walked through the lounge, across the hall and straight into the kitchen. It was, as every other morning, creepily perfect. “Perhaps they got bored of waiting and went to Micky Dees,” she said to herself, a half smile forming on her lips as she thought about the laugh they’d have at her expense later.
She pulled her phone from her pocket and dialled again, turning to leave the kitchen as she did so.
The phone clattered to the floor, breaking into its component parts and scattering across the threshold between the two rooms as Lucy froze at the sight which had met her eyes. There on couch, facing the kitchen, were Bart and Howard’s clothes; the ones they had been wearing last night. They weren’t neatly folded. In fact they looked eerily like the two men had been sitting on the sofa drinking beer when they’d just been beamed away by the Starship Enterprise.
Lucy wandered, dreamlike, over to the sofa, drawn there by the strange set-up. There was Howard’s t-shirt in a little crumpled heap sitting at the top of his empty trousers, which laid there on the sofa, the legs hanging over, pointing down to his trainers, which still held his empty socks; not crumpled up like they’d been taken off but still slipped deep inside, like the feet that held them there had simply disappeared. Bart’s clothes mirrored Howard’s, and Lucy found silent tears slipping down her face as she stood there surveying the strange sight.
She didn’t notice the white smoke rising through the carpet around her until it reached her face. Instinctively, she waved her arms around, trying to bat it away but to no avail. She tried to flee the room, to get away from the smoke but it seemed to follow her, growing in density as it flowed around her – then all at once it wasn’t flowing around her. It collapsed as one directly onto her, seeping through her clothing as though it wasn’t there. She screamed for help as she felt its cold touch uniformly across her body but even if her scream had lasted long enough for anyone to hear there was no one for them to find; just three piles of empty clothes.
F: Hellen Riebold’s Author Page
I’ve written a short novella and I’ve decided the best way to share it is to blog it, a chapter a night. This is the first part. Hope you like it.
We are so few, less than 1000, but we are strong enough. We have purpose. We will repair.
John watched as the nanite cloud streamed from his syringe and into the wall cavity. He knew the house was falling down; he’d been trying to get the builders in for years, but one look at him had brought abuse and derision rather than quotes and work.
He’d never been one for conformity. As a child, John had exasperated his teachers by refusing to leave the library; preferring the company of books to that of children, still he’d always passed tests and exams with top marks so, eventually, they left him alone and took the credit for his brains. His parents were far too busy with their successful carers to notice his disregard for personal hygiene and the staff were too scared for their jobs to say anything to them about it until his experimentation in micro-biology ecosystems was well underway. It was a study he had meticulously documented his whole life, and one that had helped him immensely in his development of the nanites. His understanding of the delicate balance and symbiotic relationships of the many bacteria and organisms had enabled him to develop the organic power system and the self-replication programme, as well as tethering the individual processors, enabling the nanites to communicate with each other. All this meant that, once he’d released this primary batch he’d be able to leave them to get on with the repairs on house and concentrate on his other research projects. The most pressing of these was his work on epidemics, again inspired by his micro-biology study. He was close to a break-through he knew, then he’d take his findings to the proper authorities. With his work the world need never fear a mutated bird flu or Ebola outbreak again.
Over the next few weeks John was so focused on his work he didn’t even notice that the rain no longer came dripping in through the roof, or that all the lights now worked all the time, or even that the heating came on and the water was hot. The day he finished his research and finally had something to take to the authorities, dawned grey and overcast, but he didn’t care. He packed his old rucksack full of papers, proofs and computations and headed out to the university. He’d decided that would be the best place to start, there was some hope that one of the professors would at least be able to grasp what he was trying to explain. He remembered back to those few months in his youth when he’d been a student there, before he’d got bored of the tedious classes and slow-witted staff. He retreated to the library again, devouring information and knowledge but they insisted he attend classes and so he’d left and continued his research alone. It didn’t occur to him to make himself more presentable, he believed that a man should be judged by the content of his mind rather than the cut of his pants. He pulled on the same grey raincoat he’d had for years and thrust his arms through the straps of the rucksack and set off.
Professor Brian Johnston looked reluctantly up from his keyboard as his secretary buzzed through.
“John Kirby is here again sir, he doesn’t have an appointment but he insists you’ll see him.”
Brian felt himself deflate; there went his day. “Okay Delores, send him in.”
The office door opened and the unmistakable form of John Kirby let himself in. He looked, if possible, worse than ever. His nails were long, ragged and filthy, his long grey hair merged with the matching, unkempt beard leaving an almost inverse mask of clear, although not clean, skin around the downcast eyes.
“I have found the algorithm to end epidemics with minimal isolation; even allowing for global travel patterns.” John announced, before he had even sat down.
“Hi John, how have you been?” Brian asked wearily.
“It is all a matter of ensuring the proper quarantine procedures are put into place as close to the point of infection as possible…”
John droned on, as ever, whilst Brian wondered how long it was since John had seen a shower and how much of his day this meeting was going to eat. It was always the same with John, he came in, droned on and on about his latest obsession without listening to a single word Brian said. Over the years he’d offered John so much advice but there was no evidence he’d ever taken a blind bit of notice.
Brian wasn’t even sure why he entertained John any more. He thought back to their short-lived friendship on campus, where they had shared a room for the brief few months John had stayed. Brian had felt sorry for him, even back then. It was like no one could see through the personality disorder to the brilliant mind behind, no one but him, anyway. When John had left Brian had felt he’d been let down and was determined to make it up to him somehow so, as he joined the faculty, he made sure his door was always open to John and his latest fantastic theory, but now, twenty years down the line, the man exhausted him. He sighed and looked over at John, who was still, inevitably, talking.
“John,” he interrupted, “you really can’t come down here anymore, with these wild theories of yours. Don’t you think the government has large, well-funded science departments working on these problems? Isn’t it more likely they will come up with the answer to the epidemic threat than one aging loner sitting alone in his room?”
“They don’t have the practical, long-term, research on microbiological ecosystems to call on that I do and they haven’t yet realised the importance of the symbiotic relationships they rely on to breed not to mention the ways they have of altering hosts’ behaviour to aid their reproductive system.”
“There have been many studies on parasitic behavioural modification of hosts…” Brian tried to interrupt.
“But not in relation to humans!” John countered, before continuing his monologue.
“John,” Brian decided to continue whether or not John slowed down, “you and I have been friends for a very long time but you cannot continue to use that friendship each and every-time you have another crazy idea. I can’t help you get your ridiculous findings published; think about what it would do to my reputation. John, please, stop talking for a minute and listen to what I am saying. It pains me to have to do this but you really don’t leave me any choice, I’m going to have to ask you to leave and not to come back again. Do you understand?”
John hadn’t even paused in his diatribe.
“John? Look at me. John?” Brian didn’t know how to break into John’s stream of consciousness. “John, I’m going to have to call security if you won’t even listen to me when I am speaking to you.”
John gave no indication he was even aware Brian was speaking.
“John, please,” Brian pleaded, “for the sake of our friendship; I don’t want to call security. I just want you to see you need help.”
“Help?” John looked up, giving Brian a rare look at his face, “of course I need help. That’s why I’m here. I’ve taken the research as far as I can. I am, after all, only a sample of one. I’m sure your boffins here with their computers and…”
“John!” Brian hadn’t meant to raise his voice so much, the force of it surprised him.
John was oblivious, continuing on with his ruminations about exactly what Brian could do for him.
Brian shook his head sadly, and pressed his intercom button, “Delores,” he said in a tone that screamed defeat, “please call security and have them escort Mr Kirby from the premises; he is no longer a welcome visitor, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” came the efficient reply.
John was mid-flow when the security men arrived, he hadn’t noticed their approach so he was somewhat taken aback to be suddenly manhandled, he shrugged himself free and attempted to regain his flow, only to have the two men grab hold of his arms and forcibly move him towards the door. John was confused; he couldn’t understand why Brian would just stand there; why he wasn’t helping? Surely he could explain the misunderstanding to these goons.
John started to struggle, loudly protesting, hoping Brian would be stirred into action and come to his aid. When that didn’t work John protested louder and his actions became more and more violent until, suddenly, he broke free from one of his captors. Unfortunately the man’s momentum carried him backward and he barrelled into the door frame with a sickening crack, then crumpled to the floor, unconscious. Brian flew across the room but not to John, he knelt beside the stricken goon then called to the woman in the outer office who replied she was already calling an ambulance.
John looked at the scene before him, it felt like one of those television programs he hated was being played out before his very eyes, the secretary’s hard voice cut into his thoughts and he heard her pointedly ask the dispatcher on the other end of the line to send the police as well as an ambulance. She called him a dangerous maniac! Him! If Brian wasn’t going to help him he certainly wasn’t staying here to be called names. He stuffed the papers that he had scattered over Brian’s desk, as he tried to explain his theories, into his bag, which he clasped tight to his chest as he stepped over the still unconscious man and headed for the lobby.
“John, wait!” It was Brian. “You can’t go.”
“Well I can’t stay here. That woman called me a maniac. I’m not a maniac, a maniac is a violently insane person, I am not violent or insane…”
“John, you just knocked a man out!” Brian interrupted.
“He was man-handling me. Self-defence in any one’s book.”
“He was merely escorting you from the building.”
“Why would he do that?” John asked.
“Because I told him too!” Brian sounded exasperated, whilst John felt astonished.
“You did? Why?”
Brian took a long, deep breath and looked at him, “Because, when I asked you to stop ranting on about your latest hare-brained project you ignored me, just like you always do.”
“Hare-brained project!” John was indignant, “that hare-brained project could save the lives of millions of people.” John stared at Brian, he’d always known the man was an idiot but he’d never before thought him a fool. Now he knew Brian would never be any help getting his research accepted. He raised himself up to his full height and gave Brian a rare stare to the eyes, “I will waste my time with you no more,” he said, and turned, once more, to leave.
“You can’t go; the police will need to speak to you.” Brian called after him, but John had stopped listening and carried on his way, choosing to walk the four flights of stairs down rather than wait for the lift. Thoughts of the police far from his mind as he worked out a new method of getting his research out into the public domain, where it could do some good.
John had no idea how long after he got home the police arrived but he was at a particularly difficult stage of setting up his latest experiment so, when they wouldn’t go away and were making enough noise banging on his door to wake the dead, he yelled at them to go away. It didn’t work, it just seemed to make them more determined. The noise they made, the pressure of knowing they were there, Brian’s betrayal and John’s realisation of it all meant that he lost concentration on the experiment he was trying to set up. He dropped just a little too much sodium into the test tube.
There was a blinding flash and a deafening noise and he found himself hurled across the kitchen at a terrifying rate of knots. The noise obviously spurred the police on in their efforts to get inside the house because he hadn’t even managed to shake himself free of the debris that used to be his kitchen table when the room was full of black boots and shouting voices, all demanding different things from him, all at once. The cacophony of noise was too much and he lunged at them, yelling for them to get out of his house and leave him alone.
The next thing he knew he had been shoved face down on the ground and several young officers were sitting on him. They thrust his hands up behind his back and he felt the handcuffs snap shut over his wrists. Their violence towards him only served to intensify his struggles and he tried anything to get the men off him, bucking, kicking, head-butting and even trying to bite anyone that came even vaguely within reach. It was to no avail and only served to earn him a sharp blow to the head, which knocked the fight out of him and left him woozy and only vaguely aware of what was happening.
He felt himself being dragged out of his house and wasn’t surprised to see some of his neighbours jeering after him on his front lawn. He knew he’d been flung into the back of the police van with more force than was absolutely necessary but he didn’t feel the pain he knew he should as he hit the floor.
John wasn’t sure how long it took them to get to the police station, but he thought he might have slept because he couldn’t remember the entirety of the journey and that was unusual for him.
He was surprised to find himself standing before the duty Sergeant, he couldn’t even remember getting out of the van. John tried to protest at his treatment, he knew his rights, he was going to sue them for wrongful arrest and use of excessive force. At least that’s what he tried to say.
“Have you been drinking, Sir?” the Sergeant asked then obviously decided he had, when he couldn’t understand John’s reply. John saw the man’s eyes roll heavenward as he intoned the caution mechanically then, turning to one of the two policemen now holding him up he said, “put him in number five, we’ll question him in the morning, when he’s had a chance to sober up.”
John felt himself being pulled away from the desk, he tried to go along with them but his left leg didn’t feel like cooperating. He was beginning to feel very dizzy and quite sick too and his head felt like someone had a pickaxe lodged in his right temple. He wondered how much sodium he’d poured into that test-tube and made a mental note to be more careful in future.
As they removed his handcuffs and took off his shoes he sunk gratefully down onto the hard bench, momentarily grateful the nanites would take care of the mess back at the house for him. He closed his eyes and welcomed the sleep that might end his headache. And that’s how they found him when they opened the cell door in the morning. Flat on his back on the bench with his eyes closed, only he wasn’t asleep and the headache would never bother John again.
F: Hellen Riebold’s Author Page
Ginny was vaguely aware of the children’s laughter all around her but, she wasn’t really watching them. They were playing cricket, football, tag and any number of other playground games; a small group quite close to her were simply rolling down the slope which led to The Lawn, squealing with delight as they descended. She sat on the bank, cuddling her knees, lost deep in her thoughts, her presence barely registering with those around her as she nursed her broken heart. Matthew Felton had not arrived.
She had met Matthew at her first Greenbelt, six years previously. She had stopped her car in ‘the lanes’ on that first Friday morning, and the old banger had refused to move another inch. Everyone was very lovely, very polite. Assuring her it was no problem as they quietly manoeuvred their cars around hers and made their way onto the campsite. She had been distraught. She’d been looking forward to the festival for months, secretly saving her house-keeping so Jeffrey wouldn’t notice. Getting more and more excited as each new speaker or band was announced. But now it was all ruined. She’d never be able to hide a brake down from him, not to mention the cost of the repairs. Ginny had been terrified and wondered why she’d let Gerry talk her into coming in the first place. Never mind that the timing of the festival had been perfect.
Each August bank holiday Jeffrey visited his mother in Taunton, she wasn’t allowed to join him – his mother couldn’t cope with her childish sense of humour. Jeffrey thought she was at home doing the annual ‘autumn clean’ in preparation for Christmas. She had worked almost non-stop so his expectations wouldn’t be disappointed just so she could take the three days off for the festival, but she had decided it would be worth it. It had been her friend Gerry’s fault. She’d popped round for coffee one day at the wrong time and caught Jeffrey telling her off for not having completed her day’s tasks. Gerry had been appalled but, worse than that, when she had asked Ginny if his behaviour was normal it had been like a scab coming off a particularly nasty, festering wound. Ginny had poured out all the pain and frustration caused by the previous three years of marriage to the sophisticated older man, who had been so loving and considerate whilst they were dating but had become manipulative and cruel behind closed doors.
Gerry had urged her to leave him. She’d even given her a phone number she could ring to get help but it hadn’t felt right to Ginny. She had made promises to God that she would stay with this man for life and she intended to keep those promises and trust God that things would work out for the better.
Matthew Felton had been her first glimpse that God was planning on honouring his end of the bargain. She’d been sitting on the bonnet watching the other campers slowly drive pass, acknowledging their well-wishes and exhortations it would all be okay when he’d appeared. He’d asked her what the problem was and, when she’d admitted she hadn’t got a clue, he’d offered to take a look for her. He was an RAC man in real life, he’d told her as he rooted under her bonnet. He had diagnosed the problem as a broken spark plug, disappeared to buy her some and then had her car purring like a kitten in under an hour. That first Greenbelt he had been her knight in shining armour, vanquishing the dragon of her fear and making it possible for her to enjoy setting up her borrowed tent. She’d met him again dancing for all she was worth in the mosh pit at the Delirious set Saturday night and bought him a drink at the YMCA to say thank you for rescuing her.
It was the beginning of a wonderful, annual friendship, which they renewed each Greenbelt. Ginny wished she’d had Matthew’s listening ear and advice through-out her year, but she daren’t contact him outside of her secret festival. Jeffrey monitored their computer and refused to allow her a mobile phone of her own, his growing jealousy meant even her contact with Gerry was suspect. As the years went by Jeffrey wove his web tighter and tighter around her life, leaving her with no one to confide in, apart from the one week in the year he ignored her and devoted himself fully to his sainted mother.
On her second year they met, by accident, in G-Source as she was enjoying the freedom, knitting a little square for a peace blanket at the Quaker’s stall. He seemed genuinely pleased to see her, even trying his hand at the new craft so he could join her. It was here that he first suggested Ginny volunteer so she could get her ticket for free. He told her if she volunteered in a pre-festival team she could still enjoy the whole festival and have some of her food paid for. When she explained she had to clean the house before she came he suggested she use some of the money she’d save to pay for a cleaning service to do it for her and it had felt very naughty, the third year, when she did exactly that.
As her marriage reached its seventh year, Greenbelt became her retreat, her place of safety. The space where she could remember who she was, be reassured God hadn’t forgotten her and revitalised into caring about the things going on in the world around her. Her friendship with Matt became the cherry on the icing on the cake of her joy. She looked forward to telling him all about what she had done in the previous year. The stories she had written, the letters she’d had published (using a pen name, obviously).
The eighth year had been particularly bad. Jeffrey’s jealousy had reached new heights. He’d even taken them out of the church where they had met and joined an online house church, based in America which piped its services and teachings direct to their house via the internet, meaning her one opportunity to speak to other people was removed. Greenbelt had enabled her to renew her fellowship with God’s wider family, helped centre her mind and reassured her she was correct in her assessment of the teaching she was now being fed. Matthew and she devised a prayer diary for the year so she would know that at least one person was praying for her as she held onto the vows she had made. She found Greenbelt that year the hardest to leave. She and Matt had packed up her tent with heavy hearts, which they tried to hide from each other. They had joked about the weather, and the amount of gas cylinders she had packed. They had walked down to the race-course one last time to donate her left over food and then he had helped her lug her things up to the car park and, somehow, squeeze it all into the boot. She was grateful for his support, especially as she knew he didn’t agree with her decision to remain in her marriage, but it did make driving away almost physically painful. She knew he could feel it too. In the end it was focussing on the next year’s festival, and their next meeting, which had made it possible for her to start the car.
Then in October she had checked the Greenbelt website and seen the news the festival was moving. The building work at Cheltenham had been impossible to miss and she, Matt and almost everyone else had enjoyed speculating as to what it might mean for the festival but still, it was a shock. It brought so much uncertainty into her mind, where would they go? Would she be able to get there? Would she still be able to volunteer? And the question that kept her up at night, would Matt be there? With no safe way of contacting him she wouldn’t know; she’d just have to wait and hope.
During the run up to Christmas Jeffrey became obsessed with finance, even more than usual and, as part of his economy drive, he finally found an excuse to take her car. After all, she no longer worked and he could always drive her to the shops. Ginny wondered how she would ever save up enough for the train fare for Greenbelt.
In February she was able to check the website again and found that the festival would be moving to Boughton House, close to Kettering. Her heart sang; it was so close to home. Not even two hours away. She started to plan just how light she could travel then, in March, her world disintegrated.
Jeffrey arrived home from work, barged past her and locked himself in their bedroom. He ignored her pleas to talk and refused to open the door. She could hear cupboards and draws banging, he was obviously packing. Not wanting to wake his anger she left him to it and went downstairs to wait until he was ready to tell her what was going on.
The doorbell rang.
Jeffrey crashed out of their bedroom and yelled at her not to answer it so she stayed in the front room.
A few minutes later the charming, sophisticated Jeffrey she had married entered the room, closely followed by a tall, smartly dressed woman with brunette hair and large brown eyes. He had told her that he had left her bags by the front door. That their marriage was over and he would be filing for divorce in the morning. She was stunned. He steered her forcibly to the door and closed it firmly behind her, leaving her on the doorstep with her cases.
Those first few weeks had been a blur. Gerry had taken her in, found her a Christian solicitor who refused to let Jeffrey Smythe have things all his own way and generally helped her to put her life back together again.
Before she knew it the August bank holiday was looming large and, with it, Greenbelt. Gerry insisted on lending Ginny her car so, for the first time in six years, Ginny had felt carefree as she headed down the A14 to the festival’s new home.
She had unpacked her tent in the beautiful new parkland surrounded by trees under large, empty clouds. The volunteers’ field was almost empty; it was, after all, only Tuesday. She had half expected to find Matthew already there, though, and she felt slightly deflated as she crawled into her sleeping bag later that day, but consoled herself with the knowledge he’d definitely be there tomorrow.
It was with a spring in her step that she went up to the volunteer lounge for her team briefing the next morning. Volunteers’ Reception was the best team in the world, she had decided long ago. The guys who led the team always brought copious sweets and made sure they all had coffee coming out of their ears and she got to spend the day welcoming the people who really wanted to be here as they arrived. They had a natter about the changes the new site dictated, like the need for six hour shifts and larger teams, but all Ginny could think about was getting to the front desk and being there as Matthew arrived.
She was momentarily distracted when they went for a walk-round of the site; it was stunning and majestic. The grand house smiled down a long, plush lawn just to the side of the big top and the main village street. The mirrored surface of the lake reflected the beautiful blue sky and the symmetry of The Mount and Orpheus were breath-taking. All in all, Boughton seemed to be saying ‘welcome home’.
Finally it was time for her shift to begin. She perched eagerly on top of her stall, happily welcoming familiar faces, signing them in and bubbling over with enthusiasm for the new site, all the while anticipating the moment when she’d see Matthew.
She was surprised when Sophia came to relieve her, she hadn’t realised she’d been there six hours for one thing. She hung around for a little while but, space in the box office was short, split between so many teams as it was, and it soon became apparent to Ginny that she was in the way. She began the long walk back down to the campsite, the country air and beautiful views reviving her spirit to such an extent that by the time the tents came into view she had convinced herself Matthew may well have decided to pitch first and register later. He hadn’t, but the other friends she’d made year after year had and, having found her tent, had camped around her. Her evenings weren’t lonely anymore, she had good friends she knew she would now be able to stay in touch with all year round.
Thursday and Friday came and went by in a rotation of eating, laughing and working but still no Matthew. By the end of her final shift she had almost succeeded in convincing herself that even if he wasn’t volunteering this year, he’d still come. She’d be bound to bump into him.
Close by a boy yelled at his parent’s to watch him roll down the hill; his insistence broke through her thoughts. As the year had progressed Ginny had realised that her feelings for Matthew had progressed too. Was God punishing her for her suppressed desires she wondered. It was Sunday afternoon. She had had a wonderful festival. For the first time she’d been able to swap phone numbers and email addresses; G-Source had held new meaning for her as she realised she could finally commit to getting involved in some of the campaigns close to her heart. She had enjoyed buying little fairtrade trinkets to furnish the flat she knew she’d have by this time next year; she’d drunk hot chocolate at The Tank, whose four clocks still shouted the time, and hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent. She’d discovered new music and revisited old favourites. She had cried at Martyn Joseph’s new song, Half A Man, which had made her want to hug him. She had shared wine with her friends and enjoyed the communion service immensely but, for her, Greenbelt was incomplete.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” A familiar voice behind her asked.
She turned and her happiness was complete.