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Joby woke up at seven o'clock the following morning, and left Kieran sleeping peacefully in the hayloft, whilst he went outside to fetch some water from the mountain stream a short distance from the cottage. It was a beautiful morning, and already hot. Joby wandered down through the pine trees, marvelling at the silence.
When he reached the stream he found a couple of their neighbours also performing the same errand. The forest was dotted with small one-roomed huts, but everyone kept themselves to themselves on the whole, working on the sound principle that if they had wanted to be sociable they'd have moved to the City. Joby murmured a greeting to them and they murmured back, but otherwise they all just wanted to sit quietly in the dappled sunshine for a few precious minutes.
Suddenly the ground began to rumble like a giant worm emerging from hibernation. Joby counted it as one of the most frightening moments of his life. He had very little experience of earthquakes, but he remembered the huge cracks that had appeared in the ground at Mundaba Heights, and which had swallowed Isaac's followers whole. The horror of such a dreadful death was all too vivid at that moment. The vibration gathered apace and large rocks began to cascade into the water from the surrounding slopes. One of the men fell into the water. Another complained that he could feel his skin burning, and Joby felt his own shirt become scalding-hot on his back. He remembered the tales he'd heard in history lessons at school of Japanese women having their kimono's scorched into their skin during the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was that what had happened here? But surely they didn't have nuclear warheads anymore?
"Is it a quake?" one of his neighbours asked, in a dazed voice.
"Is it the comet?" asked another.
"I'm out of here", said a third, which was the most sensible remark so far.
Joby stumbled back to the cottage, terrified of what he would find when he got there. As it was Kieran was merely limping round the room, having cracked his knee when he he was hurled out of the hay-loft. The shelves had fallen out of the dresser, leaving a heap of broken crockery and the remains of food on the floor.
"We'd better get up to the big house whilst we can, Joby", said Kieran "God knows what's going to happen next, and we'd be safer up there than down here".
"Can you walk all right?" asked Joby.
"I'll manage", said Kieran.
Up at the big house Hillyard was catapulted out of sleep by the shock of having the glass in his window blow in. The wind had also whipped up outside and it was starting to whistle around the building like a banshee. There were the sounds of many footsteps running about on the landing, and Ransey announcing that he was going to close all the shutters. There was no sign of Tamaz.
Hillyard grabbed his bath-robe and stumbled out onto the landing. The dogs were barking madly and running up and down the stairs. The huge stained-glass window over the main staircase (which Adam had once said reminded him of York Minster) had cracked, but was mercifully still in place.
"Put your robe on", Adam was ordering Lonts "It'll be cold in the cellar. And then herd the dogs into the dining-room and shut them in. It's the best we can do for them at the moment".
"You've already told me all that, Adam", said Lonts impatiently, and then he ran past Hillyard towards the stairs, pulling on his robe as he did so.
"Hilly, what the hell are you doing mooning about?" Adam snapped "Get down to the cellar".
"But what's happening?" said Hillyard, in a daze.
"I don't know. It could be anything".
"Have you seen Tamaz?"
"What?" Adam exclaimed, in disbelief "What are you talking about?"
"Tamaz. A friend I brought home last night".
"No I haven't", said Adam, irritably "You're the bloody limit, Hillyard".
"You both are", Ransey yelled "What the fuck do you think you're both doing standing around gossiping? Help me close the shutters".
Downstairs, Lonts finished herding the dogs into the dining-room and then shut the door. As he backed out he met Tamaz standing behind him.
"Who are you?" said Lonts, sternly "And what are you doing in our house?"
Tamaz looked as though he had been woken up from a bad dream. He gazed blankly at Lonts for a moment and then ran towards the back of the house. Lonts heard the kitchen door slam a short while later. He was distracted from this peculiar occurrence by Kieran and Joby struggling in through the front door, which they had trouble bolting behind them against the onslaught outside.
"It's like something out of the Old Testament", Kieran panted.
"It really is the end of the world", said Joby.
Ransey had made an excellent job of kitting out the cellar for this emergency. He had fitted shelves against the walls and these were laden with food supplies, bottles of water, an extensive first-aid kit, plus candles for lighting, and a gas stove for cooking. There were mattresses and old curtains for bedding. He had also packed in sundry other supplies, from dynamite (to blast themselves out if they got trapped under fallen masonry), and a wind-up clock so that they would have some idea of the passage of time.
"If I wanted to be uncharitable I'd say he was loving every minute of this", said Joby, as the big cellar doors were bolted against the chaos of the outside world.
"I'm glad somebody is", said Kieran.
As the noise of the wind increased outside, to quite terrifying levels, Lonts and Finia wrapped their arms round each other and wept.
"Adam, try and calm those children down", said Julian.
Lonts was thoroughly ashamed that he had soiled his nappy, and it took some time for Adam to soothe him enough to change him. He prayed that no one would complain about the smell, as doubtless Lonts would get hysterical. Fortunately no one did. Adam was quite touched that Ransey had brought in an extra supply of nappies and had stacked them neatly in a waterproof bag. The man may have been an officious pain in the neck over the past few days, but he had thought of everything. Without his care and attention to detail, things would be a lot more uncomfortable in the cellar.
He was now tinkering with a small radio, in the forlorn hope that they could find out some idea of exactly what had happened. But the dial yielded only the spookiest of atmospheric noises, distant wordless squeals as though aliens were trying to communicate from the depths of space.
"I'll try again in about an hour", said Ransey, switching off the set "I want to conserve the batteries as much as possible".
"I'm not sure this is a good idea staying down here", said Joby, glancing up at the exposed brickwork of the cellar ceiling "If the house falls down on us we'll get buried alive".
"Anymore talk like that Joby and I'll put you across my knee", said Adam, crossly.
"I'm only telling the truth", said Joby, feeling humiliatingly tearful.
"It isn't the truth", said Ransey "I could get us out of here if the whole bloody lot came tumbling down. Which it won't, it's a sturdy old pile".
"Very sure of yourself", said Julian, tartly.
"I've been planning it for ages", said Ransey, as though describing a favourite long-distance walk "I'm certain I've covered all eventualities".
"Joby's in pain, Adam", said Kieran, who had been gingerly inspecting his friend's back "His shirt's got burnt onto his skin in parts".
"You poor little devil", Adam crossed the floor of the cellar, and gently touched Joby's scorched skin "That's some sun-tan you've got there".
"I'm probably radioactive now", Joby sniffed.
"That'll save on the candles then won't it?" said Kieran, nudging him playfully "We can just sit here whilst you light up the room!"
"You could only be radioactive if it was a nuclear blast", said Adam "And I find that hard to believe. More likely that the comet exploded in the atmosphere".
"That's what I think too", said Ransey "In which case we've just got to sit it out and hope for the best. If it is true then we've just gotta think ourselves lucky we weren't nearer the epi-centre of it. Or we'd have all ceased to exist at seven o'clock this morning".
The worst aspect of the next few hours was the incessant noise. The wind screamed relentlessly, accompanied by the sounds of glass breaking, plaster crumbling and, far more upsetting, the dogs howling pathetically. Lonts had been threatened with just about every punishment imaginable if he tried to get out of the cellar to see to them, and Ransey sat on the cellar steps for good measure to bar his way.
Religiously, on the hour every hour, Ransey ran the dial across the radio, but there were still only yet more of the sinister Morse Code-like squealings. The chilly dampness of the cellar got to Adam very quickly, and he began to cough almost continuously. Hillyard boiled up some water over the little stove and filled a hot water bottle, wrapped it in an old jersey, and gave it to Adam to hold against his chest.
They ate boiled rice and vegetables for lunch and dinner, determined to make use of the perishable food whilst it lasted, and saving the tins for the indefinite length of bleak future that now stretched ahead. The food helped to mollify frayed nerves somewhat and to give a modicum of comfort. Early evening also brought its own soothing sensations. It meant they had survived the first day of the Blast. They had all spoken surprisingly little that day. Once speculations as to the cause of the Blast had been exhausted, there seemed little point in talking. Nobody could decide what to do next, not until they had seen what the world had become and the extent of the damage to their home. That everything had been drastically changed was just too upsetting a fact to digest properly.
"I saw a play like this once", said Adam, watching the dancing shadows created by the candles against the brickwork.
"Probably about a nuclear holocaust", said Julian, grimly.
"No, actually it was about this family who decided to camp in their cellar for a fortnight", said Adam "They did it because they didn't want the neighbours to know they couldn't afford to go on holiday. So they told them they were flying off somewhere exotic and then hid in the basement. They took a sun-lamp down with them so that they would all have sun-tans to try and impress everyone with when it was over".
"Pillocks", said Joby.
"How did they get round sending postcards then?" said Kieran.
"I don't know", Adam shrugged "It was based on a true story apparently".
"There were some weird people about in your time", said Hillyard.
"That's rich", said Joby "Coming from someone who's grown up in a world like this one".
"You don't know the half", Hillyard muttered.
"That's a point", said Adam "Who was this mysterious Tamaz you were looking for earlier?"
"I saw him", said Lonts "He was hanging round outside the dining-room earlier. He ran out of the back door when I spoke to him".
"One of Hillyard's lame ducks", said Julian "A rather nasty-looking piece of work I thought. He would have had Hillyard for everything he owned, including the shirt on his back".
"Some people never learn", said Joby.
"He wasn't all he seemed", said Hillyard "Seeing as I can't exactly storm off to bed, which what I want to do, I'll have to tell you about Tamaz. I didn't know this until I got him upstairs, but Tamaz is an hermaphrodite".
"Good God", Adam exclaimed "That must have come as a bit of a surprise!"
"Shocked more like", said Hillyard "How I didn't have a heart-attack is the bigger surprise to me. He'd have fitted in well at Cootie's circus".
"Well I thought there might be something shady about him", said Julian "I thought he was a Ghoomer. I don't know why, just a strange instinct, something about him ..."
"What did you do, Hillyard?" asked Kieran.
"I felt I couldn't throw him out", said Hillyard "Not last thing at night. And it's hardly his fault he's built the way he is".
"You didn't go all the way?" said Joby.
"That's my business", Hillyard snapped "But it's not an experience I'd wanna repeat in a hurry. He kept tugging at my nipples and biting 'em. I've never enjoyed them being messed with, and I asked him not to, but he wouldn't listen".
"Nipples?" said Ransey, sharply.
"I wasn't that upset when I woke up and found him gone", said Hillyard "The thing is I think now that he was one of that bunch who beat me up at the beginning of last year. I didn't get a good look at any of them at the time 'cos it was so dark, and there were so many of 'em ..."
"But he was on his own this time, when you met him?" said Adam.
"Yea", said Hillyard "The thing is, Julian's right, I think he's a Ghoomer".
"But there weren't any young ones", said Adam.
"We've only got the house-steward's word for that", said Hillyard "He might have been lying to protect them. But in any case I really believe he was a Ghoomer, and so were those despicable friends of his, the ones that smacked me about".
"That adds a complicated new slant to 'em I could've done without today", said Kieran.
"Same here", said Joby "I'm for having some kip".
The radio was tried one last time that day, but with no positive result, so Ransey blew out all the candles, save for one. This had been left lit ostensibly so that they could find their way to the chamberpots in the corner if necessary. But it was also to provide some remnants of solace. Although Adam couldn't help feeling that a solitary candle-flame flickering madly in the darkness was a more potent symbol of loneliness than any other. More than ever he was glad they had each other.
The following few days passed in much the same way. The radio yielded nothing, and an ugly scene ensued in which Julian decided to try the dial for himself, and Ransey flew into a fit of pique.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" Julian bellowed, angrily "Thinking you can tell us what to do all the time. Have you elected yourself leader?"
"Would that be such a bad thing?" said Ransey "I'm the only one round here who even gave a thought to preparing for this bloody comet. I think that puts my credibility as a leader several notches above anyone else's".
"Don't be absurd", Julian drawled "We can't possibly have an accountant in charge. We made that mistake in our time".
"Oh really", said Ransey "And what bloody use is an interior designer then eh? Particularly one who hasn't done a stroke of work since I don't know when".
"I think you're both being daft", said Kieran "We're stuck in a damp cellar, so I don't see the point in treating the situation as though it was a Church council meeting! Anyway, Ransey was only trying to save the batteries weren't you, Ransey?"
"I think it's essential", said Ransey "We don't know how long we're going to be like this".
"Even so, I don't see why only he is allowed to touch it", said Julian.
"Oh don't be such a baby", said Kieran.
"Don't talk to me like that", said Julian "I don't need some crazy Bible-thumping Irishman lecturing me!"
"And I don't need insulting by some ignorant Englishman who thinks he knows everything and knows fock all!" said Kieran.
"You can all shut up", said Adam "Jules, if you want something to do, heat some soup for Finia. He's not feeling well. I think he's caught a chill. It'll give you a chance to give your testosterone a rest for a while".
"Is your back still sore, Joby?" said Kieran, as he noticed his friend trying to rub his shoulders.
"I think it's blistering", Joby winced "Itches like buggery".
"There's some calomine lotion in the first-aid box", said Ransey.
"Makes me feel quite nostalgic this stuff", said Kieran, as he pulled up Joby's vest to rub the thick liquid into his blistered skin "I remember me Mam rubbing it onto me back when I had chicken-pox".
"I hope Finia's going to be alright", said Joby.
"Finia's like me, he's tougher than he looks", said Kieran.
"Yea, but it'd be fatal if anyone got ill", said Joby "For all we know there might not be a doctor left on the planet. And Adam coughs nearly all the time".
"We're not going to be in this damn hell-hole forever", said Kieran "As soon as that wind stops screeching we'll poke our heads above the parapet".
"I hate not knowing what's going on out there", said Joby.
"I can't believe we're the only ones left", said Kieran "There must be plenty like us who took precautions".
"It's a shame Julian never thought of decorating the atrium", said Hillyard, suddenly "Tamaz said our decor sucks".
"I should imagine it 'sucks' even more now", Julian snapped.
"That's if we've got an atrium left", said Joby, glumly.
The cellar was large and cavernous, covering most of the ground-floor area of the Castle. This meant they weren't too cramped, but the situation was still far from ideal. The smell of human waste was appalling, even when the pots were removed to the far end of the cellar.
"Healthy shit isn't supposed to smell", said Ransey.
"What a ridiculous thing to say", said Adam, coughing violently as he spoke "Shit is shit. You remind me of the people who believed drinking your own piss was good for you. How can it be? It's waste. The body chucks it out because it's rejecting it. You're not supposed to put it back in again!"
"I wasn't suggesting anything of the kind", Ransey exclaimed.
"I don't envy whoever gets the job of burying it all in the garden when we get out of here", said Joby.
"Perhaps we should start bagging it up and labelling whose is whose, so they can do it themselves", Kieran giggled.
"Patsy, don't be disgusting", said Adam.
"We could make a collage of it, Adam", said Julian "In the style of the Gilbert and George 'Naked Shit' pictures".
"Who was who it did the one of a cow in formaldehyde?" said Joby.
"Damien Hirst", said Adam "That's the first time you've ever revealed a knowledge of art, Joby".
"I think I remember seeing it in a magazine", said Joby "Classic moments in 20th century art, you know like the bricks. I thought it should be called naff moments in 20th century art meself".
"Why does everyone have such a fascination with crap?" said Ransey.
"It's the one thing that binds us all together old love", said Adam "We all have to do it. However eminent we are. Even Julian. I always wanted to do living model-type art, ever since I saw one artist depict hunger by rolling around naked on a banqueting-table".
"We could stack the tins up on the floor and you can roll around naked amongst them", said Julian "'Desperation In A Nuclear Fall-Out Shelter' it could be called".
"Somebody forget the tin-open, boom boom!" Joby laughed.
"Oh very Eric Morecambe", said Kieran.
"At this rate we could do an exhibition of all our ailments and injuries", said Adam "My chest, Joby's back, Patsy's knee, Finia's throat".
"Lonts's brain", said Joby.
"That's not fair, Joby", said Lonts "There's nothing wrong with my brain anymore. They took the bad bit out".
"Shame they didn't put anything in", said Julian.
"Don't all start picking on Lonts", said Adam "He's been very good these past couple of days".
"Yes, but we've got to have something to occupy us whilst we're down here", said Julian.
"Teasing and bullying of Lonts is not going to be it", said Adam, firmly.
"Oh well if that's the case", Joby struggled to his feet "I'd better go and contribute some more to the dung collection. Soon we'll have great mounds of it, like the dinosaur turds in 'Jurassic Park'".
"Go a treat on your roses, Joby", said Adam.
"Yea", said Joby "One thing we won't be short of in the new world is manure!"
"Are you going to try the radio again, Ransey?" said Hillyard "It must be over an hour since you last did it surely?"
"Oh I don't believe it", Ransey wailed, slamming the clock back on the shelf "The bloody thing's stopped. Now we haven't a clue what the time is".
"Does it matter?" said Adam "After all, it's not as if we need to know the time for any reason".
"I'd like to know how long we've been down here", said Ransey.
"Why?" said Adam "We've agreed we're going back up when the wind stops howling. We don't need the time for that".
"I feel lost not knowing the time though", said Ransey.
"You managed all right on the island", said Hillyard.
"Exactly", said Adam "And the ticking of that clock was beginning to annoy me anyway. I'm quite glad it's stopped".
"This isn't at all how I imagined it", said Kieran "In films, when you have a bunch of survivors sitting around in a shelter, it's always much grimmer than this".
"And this isn't grim?" said Julian, incredulously.
"I don't mean creature comforts, I mean psychologically", said Kieran.
"It's hardly a barrel of laughs, Patsy", said Adam.
"No, but nobody's had hysterics yet. You know, run up to the doors and started hammering on them, yelling to be let out, that sort of thing", said Kieran "Or tried assaulting a woman".
"I know you're Irish and so allowances have to be made", said Julian "But surely even you've noticed we haven't got a woman down here?"
"There's no need to get offensive", said Kieran "I was just saying that it's not as expected. We seem to have spent all our time discussing crap".
"So what's new?" Adam laughed "Anyway, we've had the macho battle for leadership. Doesn't that always happen too?"
"Try the radio again, Ransey", said Hillyard.
The radio was solemnly tried. Nothing happened.
Joby couldn't sleep. Just about everything concerning the cellar was getting under his skin. The cold, the damp, the dark regions just beyond their small candlelit group, the screeching of the wind.
"It won't be forever", Kieran whispered, as though reading his thoughts.
"It feels like it", said Joby "What if we get up there and find that everything's gone?"
"There must be something left", said Kieran "It can't all have vanished".
"I read a sci-fi story once, about a blind girl lost on the moon", said Joby "That's what we'll be like".
"I think I need to kiss you to cheer you up", said Kieran, mischievously.
"Not here", said Joby "Not with the others all around us".
"They're asleep", said Kieran, and he kissed him lingeringly "Have that one on account".
Lulled by Kieran's comforting presence, Joby fell into a deep sleep. For the first time in ages he dreamt he was back in his own time. He was walking round a music store, buying videos and computer software as though money was no object. Kieran was also in the store, and they were both getting excited about the choice of entertainment on offer, and their ability to pay for it. It was deeply upsetting to wake up again.
Adam was asleep on the other side of him. Earlier he had urged Finia to lie on his side, as it made sleeping so much easier when you had a bad chest. Adam had ignored his own advice though, and he was wheezing quite badly as he breathed in and out. Beyond him Lonts was sucking his thumb noisily.
There was something different about the whole set-up though, and at first Joby couldn't decide what it was. When he had worked it out he sat up, bellowing with excitement. The screeching of the wind had stopped.
The first thing that struck them was the intense cold. The torrid July days had been lost completely, and replaced by what amounted to a nuclear winter. Outside there was an unnatural darkness, and the countryside for as far as they could see was covered in huge drifts of snow. It was heartbreaking.
The Castle though was still standing, albeit minus a few windows, but the heavy wooden shutters had kept a lot of the weather out. Most importantly the roof and exterior doors were still intact. A lot of the fixtures and fittings were covered in plaster and debris, yet it was a huge comfort to find their familiar things still around them.
In the dining-room the dogs were half-demented with hunger and terror. Ransey was all for shooting them, as the last thing they needed was a pack of rabid dogs on the premises. Lonts protested that this wasn't at all necessary, as the dogs could be easily placated by some food. To prove it he emptied some tinned dog-food into three large bowls, and took them into the room, which was strewn with hardened dog-turds.
"Isn't he wonderful?" said Adam, as Lonts calmly sat in the midst of the pack whilst the dogs excitedly got at the bowls "He is marvellous with animals".
"Well he's on their level", said Julian.
Adam swiped him across the face, and Julian cried out in disbelief.
"What are you getting so worked up about?" he shrieked "We always rag Lonts".
"Then don't", Adam hissed "I've been extremely proud of him these past few days. He hasn't put a foot wrong. Which is much more than can be said of you".
"Oh lighten up for pity's sake", said Julian "I didn't mean it to come out as harsh as it did. Can't you just be grateful we're alive?"
Hillyard meanwhile had gone into one of the tower rooms, which afforded a panoramic view of the countryside to the north of them. Everywhere was blanketed in darkness, with the vast sea of snow glinting eerily in the gloom.
"I think the trees further north are burnt", he said to Kieran, who walked in behind him "We're lucky we weren't any closer to the Blast".
"Oh God Hillyard, it's all so terrible", said Kieran "So focking terrible".
"There's still hope", said Hillyard "We've just got to wait for the sun to appear again, that's all".
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