Thursday, 23 January 2014

Righteous Fever



The day Austin stood before Julie, and took his wedding vow, was the happiest day of his life. He promised, "To take her, forsaking all others, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death they do part." It was a vow he was never going to break, not even in the face of, The Fever.

It all began in the sweltering slums of San Paulo, Brazil. The first victim was a hunter, recently back from a trip through the heart of the rain forest. Within days of returning, he broke out in a high fever. A few days after that, he went to see a doctor and described a raging thirst, which never seemed to abate, a burning fever, and pains in every bone in his body. The doctor could do little more than take blood and send the man home.

The hunter arrived back to the doctor’s office far quicker than his test results. The man was carried into the surgery on a makeshift stretcher, convulsing. His temperature was sky high and his face was an explosion of oozing blisters. The puss was incredibly sticky and the sores continued to weep without clotting. The doctor transferred him to hospital on the spot. Unfortunately, the team treating him didn't realise what they were dealing with, and failed to place him in quarantine.

The hunter's condition worsened, blisters spread into the mouth - covering the gums and the tongue. The doctors were excited, and frightened, because they were dealing with the unknown. They tried to control the hunter’s temperature and swab away the puss that was ever-coming. Try as they might, they couldn’t keep up with the worsening condition. It was incredibly aggressive. When the blisters appeared in the man's trachea, his lungs began to fill with puss, until his breaths became gurgles. Before dawn, the hunter drowned in his own body.

A week went by before the hunter's wife presented herself with the beginning of a fever. The rest of the family were rounded up, and they too showed signs of the strange new illness. Over the next few days, every person who had come into contact with the hunter was either dying, or dead. The virus, now unofficially known as "BFV" or "Brazilian Fever Virus," seemed to jump from person to person on contact.

All quarantine measures recommended by the World Health Organisation were now being followed, but the virus found a way around them. The disease mutated, and became much more infectious. The epidemic was turning into a disaster. As the doctors discovered more about the virus, they found it was infectious for seven days before any symptoms appeared, and in the end, eighty percent of all infected patients, died. Everyone agreed, BFV posed a real threat to the future of the human race.

***

The United Nations enacted, Pandora Protocol. Every nation across the globe declared martial law. Containment rings were thrown around San Paulo. Nobody was allowed enter, or leave. Across the globe, international travel was banned. Planes had to return to their place of origin without touching down. Many ran out of fuel, and crashed. Ships returned to their last port of call, or made themselves islands without a home.

The focus of the world turned on a tiny hospital, in the poorest part of the world, and all held their breath.

Inside the infected zone - riots, looting, and civil unrest went unchecked. Air drops of food, water, and medication, were the only assistance from the outside world. When the hundreds of thousands of healthy people within the containment ring realised, they'd been given a death sentence, the trouble really started. Huge crowds gathered at the barriers but the pleading masses were shot by the solders manning the barricades. Bodies piled up, and remained where they were, till a plague of flies feasted on the rotting flesh. Nobody came to help.

The ripples of infection became waves, as the death toll rapidly spiked. Despite the precautions in the hospital, the fever began to spread among staff, and patients. Bodies were being incinerated, until the numbers grew too large. Pits were dug, and the mass burnings began. Bodies were transported by dumper truck, not hearse. Three weeks passed, before the first case appeared on the far side of the containment wall. One case, was all it took to bring the leaders of the world together in unity. One case, might spell the end of humanity.

By week eight of infection, the death toll stood at 9,756 with a further 25,000 believed to be sick or dying. World leaders commanded the entire of humanity to remain indoors. Containment had failed, all they could do now was try and kill the infected before it spread further. The world paused, commerce faltered, as the days ticked by. Week nine brought what everyone feared most. The fever jumped an ocean, as two cases were confirmed in mainland Europe. The following day, a case appeared in Florida. The beginning of the end was in sight.

Governments publicly cried for calm, but the sick began to vanish in the night. Rumours of eradication spiralled out of control, as whole families, whole communities, disappeared. In the face of all man's efforts, BFV advanced undaunted.

Week thirty-two of infection found every country on the face of the planet battling, The Fever. The fabric of modern society lay in tatters as 6 billion people took matters into their own hands.

It was on week thirty-three, that a group of twelve men, women, and children, walked from the wasteland of San Paulo. They were immune, and word began to spread. They had survived in a church during the worst of the violence, they insisted that God had saved them. Evangelists across the world declared a miracle, claiming, "A righteous man will walk through this plague without fear, as long as his soul was pure, and repentant." An American preacher offered absolution's over the phone, a mere $12.99 per minute. Even in its darkest hour you can depend on humanity to sink even lower.

Around this time, in Dublin, Austin and Julie were holed up in their apartment, watching the disaster unfold live on the internet. Their spare room looked like a supermarket, stacked with all the tinned food, and water, they had managed to lay their hands on. Austin, originally from Kerry, wanted to move back there when the outbreak had started but Julie said it would blow over. Now he wished he'd acted earlier. He'd not really believed the Fever would ever get to his little island, but it had. He had waited for the government to save them, a pipe dream if there ever was one. Austin knew if he and Julie were going to survive, it was down to him.

The only broadcast now running on TV, demanded that everyone stay indoors. Lock yourself in and wait for help to arrive. Sod that for a game of solders, he thought, as he packed all he could into his Jeep. In the dead of night, with a shotgun laid across his lap, they put a burning Dublin city in their rear-view mirror.


***


The city was a howling nightmare of sirens, screams, gunshots, and explosions. A gang of rioters dived out of the way, as Austin drove directly at them. Beside him, Julie screamed as one bounced off the side of the jeep.


"I want to go home, Austin," she sobbed, as he raced up through the gears.


"We can't go home now, it’s too late," he said and reached across to stroke her hair. The shotgun bounced on his lap, the safety-catch off, as the car ploughed through the debris strewn streets.


"I don't care, I just want to go home. I want to go home NOW!" she said, starting to shout. She pulled away from him and began to open her door.


"Julie, this is for the best," Austin said, taking hold of her arm to stop her doing anything stupid, while he fought to keep the Jeep on the road.


"I want my family," she sobbed, her hand still resting on the door handle.


"We can't go north, you know that. The Fever is in the north already, we got to get as far away as we can. You trust me, don't you?"


She sniffed, "I trust you," and she took her hand off the door handle.


Austin watched from the corner of his eye as a group of people danced wildly around a blazing supermarket. The world was going mad. He pushed the accelerator a little harder, wanting, needing, to be out of this city. By the time dawn came, they were rolling across back roads bordered by high green hedgerows. On the radio, presenters continued to hold out the accepted line of, 'stay home, talk to no one'.


Julie tried to phone her parents, but couldn't get through. In the end, she tried Skyping them, and by some miracle, a fuzzy image of her mother appeared on screen. At the sight of her, Julie burst into tears.

"Mom, Mom, can you hear me?" she balled.

“I can, sweetheart. Are you all right?"

"We're fine, Mom. We're coming to get you, tomorrow or the day after." Julie said.

"Don't, Julie. The TV said we should stay home." On screen, Julies Mom worried at the corner of her cardigan before she said, "I think your father is sick. I haven't been able to wake him all day."

"Oh God!" said Julie, burying her head in her hands. Austin turned the laptop toward him and asked, "Mrs Ryan, how are you coping?"

"I'll be fine, Austin. I phoned the emergency number a while ago, they said help is on the way. You must promise to keep Julie away from here. Keep her safe."

"I will, Mrs Ryan, I'll take..." just then, the doorbell in Julie’s parents’ house rung.

"It must be the doctor," said Mrs Ryan, jumping to her feet leaving the Skype connection running.

Austin could hear voices in the corridor. Mrs Ryan was telling someone where her husband was, and about his symptoms. The other voice was muffled. The voices faded, as if they had gone up stairs. A couple of minutes later, there were three short blasts of automatic gunfire, then silence. Austin heard footsteps coming down the stairs. In of the corner of the screen he could just see a figure in black chemical suit, sloshing liquid around the house, from a drum he was carrying. Slung across his back was an evil looking gun, stubby but deadly. The back of another person appeared close to the computer. He was also throwing liquid on the furniture and the curtains. He pulled an oven lighter from a pouch in his suit. It was strange seeing a harmless kitchen implement being used for such a grizzly purpose. The man ignited the curtains, before turning to leave, he noticed the computer screen and calmly walked over. His mask filled the picture. With dead eyes, the man closed the laptop cover, and the picture went black. The car was filled with screaming as Julie rocked forward and back in her seat.

Austin crushed three sleeping tablets into a bottle of water and made Julie drink it. She was hysterical and he couldn't think of anything else to do for her. What good were words when you just heard your parents being murdered? It didn't take long for her cries of grief to subside, she slipped into a heavily drugged sleep. What else could he do but push south, toward safety?


***

"It's time to wake up baby," he said as he shook her. The Jeep was running but he had pulled it over to the side of the road. Austin was already dressed in a green coat. It once had a fur trim, but he had cut it off to make it more military looking. He helped dress Julie in a matching outfit, before pulling a double layer of plastic gloves over her hands.

"What's going on?" she asked, groggily.

"There are people on the road ahead. I don't know who they are but it’s better if they think we are solders. They’ll be less likely to try and mess with us." Julie was limp from the effect of the sleeping tablet and put up no resistance as Austin slipped a gas mask over her face. He settled back behind the wheel and checked the safety was still off the gun, before he moved.

On the road ahead, a car was on its side, its front wheels deep in the ditch. There were two people on the ground beside it. Austin pulled the Jeep to a stop fifty yards short of them and got out. He put the shotgun to his shoulder and aimed it in their direction.

"Clear the road!" he yelled; his words sounded extra loud as they bounced back at him from the inside of his gas mask.

"Thank God you're here. We need help," said the man, and he struggled to lift the woman into his arms.
"Stay back," said Austin, changing his stance to absorb the recoil if he had to fire. The man paused, seeming to consider the situation he was in, but moved forward in spite of it.

"She needs to get to hospital," said the man, stepping forward. The woman in his arms was drenched in sweat and sores were visible around her eyes.

"We can’t help you! JUST STAY BACK," cried Austin, slipping his finger inside the trigger guard.

"I don't care, you’re going to help us," said the man and he rushed forward. Austin didn't know he'd pulled the trigger until the man was thrown backward. The woman landed on top of him and Austin could see blood staining the man’s shoulder. He looked down at the smoking gun in his shaking hands and couldn't believe he’d just shot someone.

"I'm sorry," he called to the man, and got back behind the wheel of his Jeep. There was just enough room for them to scrape by the crashed car. He stole a glance at the bleeding man as they passed and felt sick to his stomach. They were as good as dead, and he knew it. He was a murder now. Nothing would ever be the same again.

***

"Did you kill him?" Julie asked, her voice still half-drunk with sleep.

“No, but if I let him stop us, we were going to die. She had the Fever.”

"You're like them, the ones that killed Mother," she said, her voice slurred and distant.

"I'm not like them, and I didn't kill him, I just nicked him," he lied, not believing the words himself.

“Promise me that you won’t hurt anyone else,” she said.

“Ok, I promise. I won’t hurt anyone else,” he said, it was an easy promise to make. He didn’t want to hurt anyone either. Austin slowed the jeep, keeping a steady pace. They avoided checkpoints by sticking to the smallest country lanes. The miles continued to pass under the wheels, always south, toward safety.
Night came in on them fast, and the petrol needle was resting on empty. If they didn't find fuel soon, they'd never reach Kerry.

“We need to get some petrol,” he said to her, as the warning light appeared on the dashboard.

“There hasn't been a petrol station for miles,” she said. Even if they did find one, there was no way he would just walk up and ask for a fill. It would be too dangerous. Everyone would be looking for fuel or protecting it savagely. But filling stations were not the only places to look. He could see a farmhouse over the hedge up ahead. Farmers always had fuel tanks for machines. He slowed down to take the turn into the gate.

“What are you doing?” she asked, and sat straighter in her seat. 

“What I have to,” he said and the Jeep slowly bumped up the rough lane. The farm stood at the base of a gentle hill. He beeped the horn a couple of times as he neared the building. Julie looked shocked, after all the effort they had made to stay hidden, he was making sure everyone for miles heard them.

"What are you doing?" she asked, bewildered and dismayed.

“It’s like this, in that house could be a farmer. Farmers have guns. If he thinks we are trying to sneak up on him, he's more likely to shoot,” he said, as he parked the Jeep in the middle of the farmyard.


“Wait here. Keep the door locked,” he said and slid the shotgun under the sleeping bag on the back seat. He was taking a huge risk, but he knew it was one he had to take.

“Hello? Hello?” he called, as he walked towards the house with his hands held high. There was movement behind kitchen window. Austin decided he was going to have to take a chance. He took off his gas mask. He waved and smiled toward the window.

“Hello in there. We’re from the red-cross. We're delivering supplies to people in the area. Do you need anything? Tinned food, bottled water, medicine?” Austin continued to smile as he moved no closer to the house. A woman’s face appeared at the window. She was pale and frightened.

“Show me your identification,” she shouted. Austin flipped open his wallet which had his work ID in a clear pocket. He held it up, but stayed back so the woman wouldn't be able to read it properly.

“Look, if you’re ok for everything, we better get moving. It will be dark soon,” said Austin with a smile and he turned to go.

“Wait,” called the woman, she vanished from the window. The back door opened and she stepped outside. She was middle-aged and wore an apron with flour on it. In her hand she carried a nasty looking slash hook. It seemed foreign in her dough covered hands.

Austin raised his hands, his palms facing the woman. “Wait where you are please, Madam. There are some questions I'm supposed to ask, before we can give you assistance."

The woman thought for a second, then said, "Go on."

"Are you, or any of your family, sick?”

“No.”

“Has anyone been to the farm in the last two days?”

“No.”

“How many are in your family?”

“Four. Myself, my husband, and two boys.”

“Has everyone remained inside the building since the emergency began?”

“Yes...no,” said the woman. “My husband, and eldest son, went to get some help four days ago and have not come back, yet.” Austin noticed the woman lower the slash hook a little. She so wanted to believe that he was here to help. He had to reassure her.

“I'm sure they’re fine, Missus. Lots of people have been coming in from the country. Most are in shelters right now, we couldn’t let them go wandering around. They might get infected. What’s his name?” Austin asked taking out his mobile phone.

“Sean Kelly,” the woman said, as Austin dialled a number.

“And your son?”

“Paul Kelly,” He raised the phone to his ear and heard the beeping of an unconnected line. “This is unit 61, checking in. We’re in south Tipperary, outside Latan. We have two missing civilians, Sean Kelly, adult male and Paul Kelly, age…” Austin looked at the woman.

“He’s fourteen,” she said, the hope dripping from her words.

“Fourteen,” Austin said, then grew quiet. He nodded, said Hum a few times, and then pretended to wait. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and told the lady, “They're checking the computer.” Austin gave it a little over a minute before saying, “I’m still here.” He allowed more time to go by before saying, “That's great, we should be back at base in an hour. Ok, thanks.”

Austin closed the phone, cutting off the beeping. “Your husband and son are fine. They’re in the red-cross camp, in Tipperary town.”

The woman was delighted. She lowered the slash hook and said, “Thanks the Lord.”

“We'll leave you an emergency hamper. It has some medication, and tinned provisions. It will get you through the next few days. It’s in the back,” he said, walking toward the back door of the Jeep. He motioned for Julie to open up and heard the locks click. The farmer’s wife laid the slash hook against the wall and followed Austin. He opened the back door, pulled out the shotgun. Turning quickly, he caught her mid step. It only took a second for her to work out that she had been tricked.

“Do what I say and everything will be fine. I don’t want to hurt you, but believe me, I will. Move back to the house,” he said.

The woman backed up, keeping her hands in the air, her face as white as a sheet. Austin heard the door of the Jeep open behind him and Julie came running.

“What are you doing? You promised not to hurt anyone else,” she accused him loudly. Austin could see the woman take in what Julie said. Those few words were worth all the threats he could make. The woman faltered slightly as she neared the slash hook.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warned.

Inside the kitchen, a young boy stood near the kitchen window. He'd watched the whole episode unfold. He looked as frightened as his mother and ran to her, wrapping his arms around her waist.

Austin pointed to a chair with the gun, and said, “Sit.”

The old farm house was as solid as a fort, the walls must have been three feet thick. The kitchen was an arsenal of sharp knives and makeshift bludgeons. There was a small door under the stairs. Austin opened it and found it windowless, with nothing more dangerous than a tin of baked beans. This would have to do. He moved back and pointed inside with the barrel of the gun.

“Both of you in here, Please.” Just because you were holding someone at gunpoint was no reason to be rude. The woman hurried into the pantry, pushing the crying boy ahead of her.

“Hand over your phone,” Austin said, holding out his hand.

“I don’t have one,” said the woman a little too quickly. Austin had a feeling she was lying.

“Hand it over!” he yelled, and shouldered the gun. The woman yanked the phone out of her apron and threw it at him, trying to shield the boy. He was about to shut them in when he paused for a second, then asked, “Has he got a phone?” 

For an instant, the tables were turned, the woman looked furious as she barked, “No! Of course not.”

“Fair enough, sorry,” he apologised and closed the door. He wedged one of the kitchen chairs under the handle. Julie had watched the whole thing silently but now that they were alone, she gave him a filthy look.

“What?” he asked. “Did you think she was just going to let us help ourselves? Wake up for God sake, Julie. The world is different now. If we’re going to survive, we have to change with it.”

“You promised not to hurt anyone, only a few hours ago.”

“And I haven’t,” he said, storming past her to search the sheds for petrol.

***

The farm proved to be an Aladdin’s cave of useful stuff. He found gallons of liquid that smelled like petrol and the Jeep ran just fine on it. He also found some tools that would come in useful, plastic sheeting and a few large milking buckets. He loaded it all in the jeep. Then he found a whole shed full of vegetables.

“Jackpot,” he said. "That’s dinner sorted for a while.” He packed as may potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots, into the Jeep as he could. The night was pitch black by the time he was done. He hadn’t seen Julie since he stormed out of the kitchen. He hoped she hadn’t released the woman under the stairs.

He opened the kitchen door, cautiously. He half expected to have his own gun shoved into his face, but he didn’t. July was sitting at the table, glaring at him. The chair was still wedged against the door of the pantry, and the gun lay where he left it on the table.

“We better stay the night; our lights might attract attention. We'll get going at dawn," he said, stripping his plastic gloves off. He knew she was mad at him, and that he should apologise, but he was mad at her too. Couldn’t she realise that he was doing all this for her, to keep her safe? Why should he have to apologise for doing his best? As he washed his hands, she came up behind him and touched his shoulder. It was all she needed to do.

“Can we let them out?” she asked, keeping her voice low so the people in the cupboard wouldn’t hear. Austin nodded. He was going to do that, anyway. He put on some fresh gloves and put all the kitchen knives into a plastic bag and hid them in a shed outside. To make Julie happy, he’d taken the shells out of the gun, but insisted on keeping it with him.

When everything was ready, he pulled the chair away from the pantry door. Julie had a fire was burning in the hearth and it threw a warming glow into the dark little press.

“You can come out now,” he said, standing back. Julie was warming up spaghetti hoops in a pan over the fire.

“What do you want with us,” asked the woman, not coming out of the pantry.

“Nothing, and that is the truth,” he said. “We needed some petrol and didn't think you'd just give it to us. We took some potatoes as well, I hope you don’t mind.”

The woman didn't move. Julie came forward and said, “We’re not bad people. You must be hungry, how about some spaghetti hoops,” she said to the boy.

Over plates of food, Julie and Austin told the woman what they had seen on the streets, and what had happened to Julie’s parents. The woman didn't believe everything they said. She was convinced the government wouldn't do such things. The questions of what had happened to her husband, and son, soon bubbled up again. This time Austin could give her no answer. Silence descended on the group as the fire crackled gaily in the corner.

“My mother had a cure for fever. Do you want to know what it was?” the farmer’s wife asked.

“Sure,” said Julie, with a smile.

“Get an old pair of socks. Soak them in equal parts apple-cider-vinegar and ice cold spring water. Wring them out until they are damp, then put them on the person’s feet. You need to change them before they dry out. Keep doing this until they feel better.”

“That could come in handy. I'll remember that,” said Julie, with just the hint of a smile.

“It has to be well-water, not tap-water,” said the woman, letting the familiar sharing of knowledge ease this strange situation, but then she started to look embarrassed. “You never know, there might be something in it.” Austin was not so sure that damp socks would help, but he kept his mouth shut.


In the morning Austin returned the woman’s phone, and apologised again for scaring her, and her son.

“Where are you heading?” the woman asked.

“Kerry. Austin is from Ballinskelligs,” said Julie.

“Into the west,” said the woman, it was a line from a movie.

“As far west as we can get,” agreed Austin. He made Julie change their gloves before getting into the Jeep. The final leg of their journey had begun.

***

A few hours later, they caught their first glimpse of the wild Atlantic Ocean. They followed the coast south. Julie was taken by surprise when Austin turned off the road a few miles short of Ballinskelligs. He drove along a sand humped road which ended in a little car park. Off to the left was a shed, perched high above the beach.

“Why are we stopping here, I thought we were going to your father’s house?”

He stopped the engine. It was time to come clean about the final part of his plan.

“I've been thinking hard about this, Julie. Ireland could have survived if we kept the virus out. But we didn’t. Now the fever is here, it will rip through the place and nobody can stop it. Nowhere is safe anymore.”

“So, what was the point in coming all the way down here?” she asked.

He pointed out the windscreen at the jagged islands sitting off the coast, “There. It’s our only hope.”

“You've got to be joking,” she said.

“No. I'm serious,” he said. “Skellig Michael has only one landing point, It’s easily defended, there are old monks huts already built there, and it is surrounded by fish. Three months…six tops, then we can come back.”

“How the hell are we going to get all the way out there?”

“There’s a boat in that shed.  Everything is ready to go. Between the two of us we can manage it.”

“You must be mad,” she said, and after a minute she added, “I must be mad too.”


They pried open the boathouse and inside they found an inshore lifeboat, fuelled up and ready to go. The boat could take six men, so there was plenty of room for all their equipment. When Austin backed the boat into the water, Julie was sitting at the helm. The trailer vanished under the waves and the boat floated clear. Austin gave Julie the thumbs up and she pressed the starter button. The outboard motor roared to life. Austin pulled himself aboard and moved down to take over the steering. The boat bobbed, twisting in the wind. A breaking wave caught them side-on, nearly capsizing them. He engaged the engine and eased out the throttle. The boat leapt forward, easily cutting through the waves.

Julie glowed with nervous excitement as the boat bumped over the waves, sending curtains of spray into the air. The island grew in size, rising out of the depths like a huge, grey, shark tooth. In twenty minutes, they were under the towering cliffs. Austin found the pebble beach in the lee of the island and drove the boat on it at a good head of speed. They came to a juddering halt, but nothing seemed to shatter.

For the rest of the day, they climbed the steep steps, hauling supplies to the little stone huts, monks had used for shelter hundreds of years ago. Austin did most of the work, Julie tried, but it was hard going. She got more fatigued with each trip and in the end, he insisted she stay and set up camp. He made the last trips alone.

When the boat was empty, he removed the heavy engine and hid it in a crevice high above the wave-line. The boat, now empty, was easy to haul out of the water. He tied it off with rope, to make sure it wasn't washed away by the waves. He mounted the steps and began his last climb to the top of the island. He wondered to himself if he would ever make the trip back to the mainland, and if he did, what would he find when he got there?

That evening, Austin got a tent up in the lee of a rocky outcrop. They didn't have the energy to start a meal, so they ate a few bars of chocolate and fell into an exhausted sleep. Even though the weather was fair, the wind whipped the tent constantly, waking Austin several times during the night.

The next day, Austin made the big piece of plastic into a rain collector that would catch them enough fresh water to survive. The first few days passed quickly on the island, although far from comfortable, it provided them with their first feeling of security in a long time. Julie cooked meals on a small camp stove, but the gas soon ran out. As there was nothing to burn, most things were eaten raw. Austin managed to catch some fish, but not as many as he would have liked. Twice, boats came close to the island, but none tried to land.

The night the storm hit started like any other. The wind started to really pick up in the afternoon. By the time the light was fading, their tent was ripped beyond use, and fluttered away in the gale. They spent that night huddled in one of the monk’s huts. The next morning, Austin woke early and went to check the damage. When he got back to the hut, Julie was still sleeping.

"It's not that bad," he said, but she didn't stir.

“Julie,” he said, giving her a little shake. She turned toward him and her hair was wet with sweat and her face flushed bright red. She was hot to touch.

“Water,” she croaked. Austin's hands shook as he opened the water container and held it to her lips. She emptied the bottle without stopping to take a breath. It can’t be the fever he assured himself, he’d taken every possible precaution. No matter what he told himself, there was no denying what his eyes were seeing. He rested Julies head on his lap and stroked her hair. She soon fell into an abnormally deep sleep and heat radiated off her as if she were on fire. The only time he moved that whole day was to get more water for her, not that there was enough water on the island to quench her thirst.

First light the following day shone on the first of her blisters. Now, he knew, all hope was gone. She woke and looked in his eyes, tears began to mingle with sweat covering her skin.

"It hurts," she said, and began to cry. Austin held her close to him and cried along with her. He rocked her like a baby until she slept. How could he watch her go through all of this if there was no hope of surviving? How could he do it to her? He pushed himself upright and took the shotgun in his hand and squinted through the tears. He held the sight an inch from the love of his life but nothing could make him pull the trigger. When she needed him most, he failed her.

Another storm hit the island as Julie began to struggle to breath. The wind howled as she got worse, and finally, trashed in convulsion. Her body arched, then collapsed in on itself. The thing that made her Julie vanished. She was gone.

He shook her, screamed at her to wake one last time. Insane with despair he lifted her still warm body into his arms and ran into the maelstrom. He howled at the heavens but the wind whipped her name from his lips. Lightening cracked, stabbing the foaming waves, hundreds of feet below.

He stood on the edge of the cliff. He knew no tombstone could do Julie justice, no pitiful grave would embrace her delicate skin. Only the endless expanse of the Atlantic could ever contain the love he felt for her. Austin kissed her lips one last time, and said, “Time to go, my love.”

He stepped into the void. They plunged down, down, down. No matter what, they would be together - forever.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Mog & Mrs Pat


In the 1950's, life in rural Ireland was much different than today. The work was hard and neighbours looked out for each other. Horse-power on the roads could normally be measured in ones and ran on grass. The single greatest power in the land was not government, but the church.

The church and the priests were figures of near absolute power, only eclipsed by the saints which watched over the faithful from their marble plinths.

During this time, two elderly sisters called Mog and Mrs Pat, lived down the road from my Grandmother. Mog was short for Margaret -we think. Mrs Pat's husband was long dead but the sisters managed to keep a farm running between them. The land was coarse and massive lumps of limestone made any sort of tilling a fearsome task. In this time of hardship, migrant labourers followed the growing seasons and worked in exchange for a night's lodgings, a hot meal, and a few coins for their pockets. Francie was one such man and he called on the sisters one spring day. He just forgot to leave. Over the years that followed, the three became inseparable.

Nancy, my mom, was only a child herself at this time and was often sent to the sister’s farm on errands. Nancy hated going there, the place was always caked in dust and cobwebs. The kitchen floor was hard packed dirt, mixed with ash and whatever fell off Francie’s wellies. Nancy would often be sent with a bag of groceries from the village, or to get a pail of warm creamy milk. One afternoon, my Granny sent Nancy over to Mog, so she could help bring the shopping back up from the village. Nancy pushed open the door and went into the dingy kitchen. She found Mog scribbling on a sheet of writing paper.

"Come in, girl, and leave the cold outside," called Mog, not looking up from her task. Nancy took a stool by the fire and waited patiently.

"Can you spell, sincerely," Mog asked, and Nancy did her best, but got the word wrong.

"What in God’s name is that headmaster teaching you," snapped the old lady, as she tried to rub out the pencil marks she had made. Nancy wanted to remind her that she was only eight, and not in the headmasters class, but she held her tongue. Mog folded the paper and put it in a little white envelope, along with a coin from her purse. She wrote, St Anthony, across the front.

Mog threw on a thick black coat that swept down to her ankles and wrapped a scarf around her head. Nancy took the basket from behind the door and they struck out for the village. It was nearly all downhill to the village but you paid for it on the way back. When they got there, Mog turned for the church, which was unusual, as it was the middle of a working day.

Nancy watched as Mog went inside, she knelt before a statue of St Anthony. She heard the old lady begin to pray and when she was finished, Nancy saw Mog slip the envelope under statue.

Later, when the shopping was done, and the hill home climbed, the secret envelope still was on Nancy's mind. She longed to find out what Mog had scribbled on the piece of paper.

On Sunday, the Begley clan filled one pew, all wearing their best clothes. Nancy couldn't help glancing at the statue of St Anthony and she wondered if the envelope was still there. Once Mass was over, the church emptied quickly but Nancy made an excuse to slip back inside. She fished under the statue with her slim, little-girl fingers, and retrieved the envelope. She looked around to make sure she was alone before opening the envelope. A brand-new penny and a slip of paper, fell into her hand. She excitedly read Mog's shaky writing.

Dear St Anthony,

Could you see you’re way clear, to having a few days fine weather for Francie, towards the end of next week. He wants to plant the barley in the top field, it would be a great help. Mrs Pat also said that one of the hens is laying out in a ditch and she needs help finding the nest. We'll say a rosary each night this week. 

Yours sincerely

Mog, Mrs Pat and Francie

Nancy pocketed the letter, along with the penny, delighted with herself at having found out Mog's secret. She giggled at the silliness of the old woman. Later, Nancy got a huge slab of toffee in the shop with Mog's penny.

Every Sunday after that, Nancy would check under the statue for messages. Most of the time there was nothing, but every now and again, she found a letter with the all-important penny.

A few months later, Nancy was about to buy her slab of toffy with a penny from Mog, when Mr Power, the shopkeeper, told her the toffy had gone up to two pence.

Nancy looked at her penny in despair, "But why has it gone up, Mr Power. I only got one penny."

"That's inflation, Nancy. What can we do?" said Mr Power.

A few weeks after that, Mog got the fright of her life. She’d gone to pray to St Anthony and when she got there, she found a note with her name on it sticking out from under the base of the statue.

Dear Mog, Mrs Pat and Francie,

I hope you were happy with finding the eggs in the ditch, and all the fine weather I’ve been able to get. I want to say thanks for the pennies, but next time, can you leave two. The price of good weather is going up. It’s the inflation, what can I do.

Yours sincerly 

St Anthony.

As Mog told Granny Begley the story, she kept blessing herself and looking up to heaven. Nancy sat quietly in the corner, saying nothing, but when Granny pointed at the note and said, "Well, would you look at that! Didn't St Anthony spell, sincerely, wrong. And him an educated man!" Nancy slipped out as quietly as she could and vowed never to play tricks on Mog, or St Anthony, again.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Wrecking Ball


Times were hard and work was scarce, when I was offered the chance to apprentice in a radiator factory. I was told the first three months were a trial. I practically jumped at the chance. The first morning I tuned up for work was bitterly cold, the wind drove the rain with a vengeance.

As I approached the factory, I knew something was wrong. It was already after eight and the gates were still closed. No cars occupied the yard, the factory was eerily silent. Near the main gate, a shiny new Mercedes sat with its engine running. Behind the steamed-up windows, a fat man sat cocooned in an expensive suit. As I approached, the man powered his window down. A finger dangled a bunch of keys in the rain soaked morning air. I tried a dozen keys before I found the one that opened the giant padlock. The powerful car to swept into the yard and stopped before the roller-doors of the factory. Another padlock, another maddening search for a key. By the time the car drove into the shelter of the main building, I was soaked to the skin. Inside, the factory was as silent as a graveyard. It didn't take a genius to know that this place needed no new apprentices. The fat owner heaved himself out of his car, leaving it running without a care for the wasted petrol.

“Dirty morning,” the boss said, nodding to a puddle that was gathering around my feet.

“Soft enough,” I said. “Am I in the right place?”

“You are, if you want to work,” he said, looking at me like I was dog shit he was about to step in.

“I want to work alright but what kind of fitter do you need here?”

“It’s like this, boy. I need this place gutted. I get a grant for employing an apprentice, you get paid. I get this place ready for the wrecking ball and everyone is happy. Do a good job, and I might, might, consider keeping you on in one of my other factories.”

“It's not what I had in mind,” I said, not liking the situation one little bit. This fat twat was using me.

“I don’t give a fuck what you thought,” the man growled with the authority of cash in his voice. “If you don’t want the job, there are a hundred more willing to do it.”

 “I didn’t say that…Boss,” I mumbled into my boots. What other option had I? I needed the work. The fat man glared at me for a while before walking further into the building. It looked like I was hired. 

“Right, not much to this. A trained monkey could manage it,” he said, waving at the air around him. “Everything has got to go.” On all sides lay abandoned machinery and rubbish. “When you’re finished, the only things left should be holding up the roof.”

In the middle of the factory floor stood a selection of skips and a small mobile generator. The boss pointed out the skips for metal, rubble, timber, recycling and landfill. The Generator would run the power-tools I needed to destroy this place. The electricity had been killed to the building, which was just as well, because I didn't fancy being fried while I stripped the copper wiring from the walls. I got the distinct impression that the only reason the power was off, lay in the greedy nature of the boss...not concern for my safety. 

“Right, I'll see what you've done by Friday,” the portly prick said as he walked back to his car, leaving me with the bunch of keys.  I was about to unlock the tool shed when the horn blared from boss's car, idling at the gate. It looked like I was going to get even wetter before I got to start this shitty job.

***

The first week passed without incident. I found out more about the boss. He was a hell of a shady guy. Rumour was, he'd picked up the factory pennies. He was selling all the metal for scrap, which would recoup any money he'd spent. My wages were being footed by the taxpayer, and once this was all over, the slovenly toad would end up with a prime piece of industrial real-estate, free and clear. Trucks for the metal always came on time, but the other skips were often overflowing, before the boss would shell out for an empty.  The worst thing about working in this industrial mortuary, was the endless loneliness. 

Finishing time on Friday came, and went, without sign of the boss...or my wages. Five turned into six, it was nearly six thirty when the boss's car drew into the yard. He looked over the progress before begrudgingly slipping his hand into his pocket.

“Three hundred,” he said

“Three fifty, boss.”

“Right,” he said. Turning his back on me and fished out a wad of notes six inches thick. He peeled off seven and reluctantly handed them over. The feeling of cash in my pocket was a strange sensation. The backbreaking work was soon forgotten. I went out that night and blew a hundred quid without thinking. What else would a young man do? I woke the next day with a blinding headache and regret digging its way into my wallet.


Weeks passed and I was nearly finished with the main building. I turned my attention to some offices at the back of the complex. One building in particular caught my eye. It had a rust-covered pipe sticking out of an air vent...and that just wasn’t right. The door had a new padlock, one of much better quality than any other around the factory. I tried every key on my bunch, but none would open it. In the end, I forced a window at the back of the building and slipped inside. The first thing I noticed was how tidy this place was. Each room had been cleared of rubbish and left neat as a pin.


Inside one door sat a battered reclining chair, with blankets folded neatly on the seat. Close by sat a metal barrel, mounted on concrete blocks. The barrel had been modified to make it a stove. It had a metal cooking plate on top and a flu-pipe that vanished out the wall vent. It was a very neat job, the person who made it had skills. The back of the room was covered, floor to roof, with shelves made from planks and breeze blocks. Every available space was filled with books, all well-thumbed and loved. I found a larder with tins of food and a blackened saucepan. In the bathroom there were buckets of water by the sink and toilet. The water supply had been turned off long ago. Any fool could see, this was someone’s home, but the question was, whose?


Over the coming days, I kept an eye on the office building, but I never saw anyone coming or going. When Friday came around, I thought about telling the boss what I’d found. That was until he tried, yet again, to stiff me out of money by arguing over the hours I’d worked. If somebody was getting a free house of this penny-pincher. Good luck to them.

The following week I arrived to work and saw smoke wafting from the pipe sticking out of the office wall. It was the first sign of someone actually being in the building. At lunchtime, I walked around the office and saw that the padlock missing. I pushed open the door and quietly entered. The air was warm and I could hear the fire crackle in the barrel-stove. A man was asleep in the recliner, a thread-bare blanket pulled over his legs. It was hard to judge how old he was, he could have been fifty or a hundred. I walked a bit closer and noticed his face was very pale and covered in sweat. The man was not just asleep he was passed out. I tried to wake him but he only let out a low moan and buried himself deeper into his blanket. I could feel the heat pulsing off him, he was very sick. I thought about calling an ambulance but in the end, I decided to wait. 


I loaded up the barrel with timber and put a saucepan of water on to boil. I fetched my lunch from the main factory and made a mug of milky tea. I touched the cup to the man's parched lips and helped him take a sip. His eyes fluttered open as he swallowed the warm liquid. He looked confused to begin with but thirst overcame his befuddlement. He sipped at the tea and when it was finished, he hungrily ate my sandwich. I gathered timber for the home made stove and made sure it was fully loaded, before returning to work. Twice that afternoon I stopped by the office building to refill the stove. The man seemed to be improving. He still slept but sweat no longer beaded his brow.


That night, I lay awake thinking about an old sick man sleeping in a derelict factory. The next morning, as soon as I got to the factory, I went to check on him. The padlock was still missing from the door so I knocked gently and pushed it open. The old man was leaning over the sink washing his face. He jumped when he saw me and regarded me with frightened eyes.

“You’re feeling better I see,” I said with a smile. The man said nothing, he was frozen to the spot.

“I was here yesterday,” I said, nodding towards the large pile of sticks stacked near his fire.

“I thought I imagined that,” said the man in a cultured voice. “Thank you,” he added. He dried his face and pulled his jumper over his head. After a long worried silence, he asked, “Are you going to make me leave?”

“Not me mate,” I replied. “You were here first.”

He smiled and said, “Tea?” It was an invitation I was glad to accept.


It turned out that, Pat, had been the caretaker for the factory up to the time it closed. He was nearly sixty and no one would give him another job, they all said he was too old. Soon, his money ran out and his rent went into arrears. He’d been thrown out on the street, and had even spent a few nights in a homeless shelter, but Pat said it was safer sleeping rough. With nowhere else to go, he returned to the place knew best, the factory. 

Four years he’d been here, then the place had been sold. In that time he'd kept the fences mended, and the kids out. During the day, he went to the library, he loved books. He survived by going to a soup kitchen and doing odd jobs at a local church. When I told Pat what the boss had planned for the factory he was devastated. I tried to reassure him that it was months away yet, but it was a lie.


In the days that followed, Pat was always gone from the factory long before I arrived, but he started appearing shortly before lunch. He lit his stove and boiled water for tea. I think he liked my company, I sure as hell liked his. We would eat lunch together, he gratefully accepting the extra sandwiches I had brought. Pat insisted on buying coffee, sugar, and milk, for the two of us. 

“I like to pull my weight,” he said. Pat told me about his passion for reading, and all his favourite books. He even helped me out during the day by holding ladders and sweeping up after me. I once offered him some money but he looked offended and refused it. “This is my home,” he said, and walked away with his head bowed.


It took longer and longer to fill the skips, until at last, there was nothing left to tear down. It was a terrible day when I had to tell pat the wreckers were coming. He looked shattered. 

“Are you alright Pat?” I asked, as he sat quietly to one side of the fire-barrel.

“Aye lad, the smoke got in my eye. I knew it had to come,” he said, his voice heavy with despair.


That Friday, Pat selected his favourite books and packed them in a battered suitcase. He waved at me from the gate and trudged away into the misty evening. I felt like a traitor. That night at dinner, I couldn't eat a bite.

“What’s the matter son?” asked my dad.

I told him about Pat and what had been happening. 

“Well...do something about it,” Dad said with a smile, before taking his mug of tea into the sitting room. It was grand to say such a thing, but what the hell could I do? Come Monday morning, the wrecking-ball was going to swing against the factory and Pats home would be gone. If I told the boss about Pat, I was sure he would want to charge him back rent. Having said all that, Dads are generally right...I had to do something. 

***

Monday did come, and I opened up the gate as normal. A huge crane was waiting with its two-tonne wrecking ball, secured and still. The boss's car glided into the yard, the first time I’d seen him before a Friday. 

“I'll take the keys,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Won't I need them to lock up?”

“No need lad, this job is done,” he said, pocketing the bunch.

“What about my apprenticeship?”

“Come over to my office next week, or the week after.  I'll see what's going,” he said. He never took his eyes off the wrecking ball as it began to swing slowly away from the factory wall. I knew there would be no job, next week or any week for that matter. I walked out the gate as the ball struck the factory for the first time. I felt the impact tremble the ground under my feet.


I checked two public libraries before I found Pat engrossed in a book. The battered suitcase was resting under his chair.

“Hi, Pat.” 

“What are you doing here lad, you should be at work.”

“The pig of a boss let me go.”

“Don’t worry, you’re young. There’ll be other jobs.”

“True enough. That's why I'm here. I’ve small nixer on. Just cleaning out a shed, but it is a two-man thing, do you feel up to it?” I asked.

“Of course! Lead on McDuff,” he said with a happy smile, yanking the battered suitcase from under the chair.

It was only a ten-minute walk from the library to where we were going. "This is the place," I said, and went up a drive way of a house and down along the side of the building. At the bottom of the garden was a good size shed, built against the end wall.

“Why don’t you make a start, Pat. I'll tell the woman of the house we're here,” I said, turning around a walking toward the back door. I went in and stood beside my mother, who was watching Pat open the door to our garden shed. 

The battered suitcase slipped from his fingers as he stared into the little building. My mother patted my arm and said, “Give him a chance to get used to it, then bring him up a cup of tea.”


When I pushed open the shed door, I held two steaming mugs of tea. Pat's barrel-stove glowed happily in the corner, its maker standing motionless before it. Close by sat his battered recliner, and a new single bed...freshly dressed. The back-wall was shelved, and held as many of Pat’s books as I had managed to salvage from the factory. My dad had helped, and we worked night and day to make the shed ready, before moving everything from the factory. We only just finished as the wreckers trundled into view. 


“Do you like it?” I asked. Pat said nothing, but caressed the spines of his books, resting on their new shelves. Pat was a man with pride, he might think I was doing this out of pity. I caught myself holding my breath. 

“Thing is, Pat. We’re going to add an extension to the house. I thought you might be able to stay here in exchange for working on the job with me. If you don’t want too, I won’t be offended.”

Pat turned and rubbed a tear from his cheek. “Oh, I'm up to it lad. Don’t you worry.” His smile split his stubble covered face in half. I passed him a mug of tea and backed out the door.

“You might need to look at the stove, it seems the smoke is getting in your eyes again,” I teased. I left Pat make himself at home, in his home, at last.