Friday, 22 July 2016

A gallery for Nick Chapter 3

The water was warm in the pool the next morning. Too warm. It would have been alright for casual swimmers, but not for someone who had not had enough sleep and who had got a record to break. Barney really did need to improve his front crawl time.

He swam up and down the pool a few times. He wasn't making a particular effort.  He just wanted to wake himself up a bit. This was just a warm up after all. Geoff Williams, his coach, wouldn't be watching him at this stage. The sun had come up now but was still low in the sky and dazzled him as it shone through the windows at the end of the pool. A shadow stepped into the light.

“More effort Barney. You should be more supple than that already.”

Barney recognised Geoff's voice.

“Now let’s have a proper warm-up session. Two lengths front crawl, one back, two breast-stroke and one final front crawl. Steady at first, and then fast as you can on the last length.”

Barney set off. He tried to measure and balance each stroke as he moved through the water. He concentrated on his movements, trying to get each one exactly right.

“Good,” said Geoff, as he turned at the end of his first length. “Just watch how you cut through the water when your left hand comes down. It’s not going through cleanly enough.”

Barney concentrated on his left hand now. He felt his movements becoming even smoother in the water.

“Good, good,” mumbled Geoff. “Try and turn in one movement.”

Barney flipped over on to his back. He enjoyed back crawl. You could keep your eyes open and it was easier to breathe, even though the movement with the arms was a little bit more difficult.  Soon he had completed that length and it was time for the breast-stroke. He controlled his breathing carefully. His head bobbed up and down. He was mastering the stroke and was actually beginning to enjoy it. Just the snag that he couldn’t go really fast. 

“Now – go for it!” cried Geoff, as Barney came up to his final length.  

There was something about Geoff's voice which always stirred Barney into action. The energy was now pumping around his body. He was suddenly wide awake.  The water was still warm, but it didn’t bother him anymore.  He still moved smoothly through the water because of his practice earlier but now more quickly. His heart began to pound and he became a little short of breath. Then something else seemed to take over and he was through the discomfort and going faster and faster. The water seemed to be working with him. He was no longer fighting it.  Finally, he touched the side of the pool, out of breath, but pleased with himself.

“That was better!” said Geoff. “Now, let’s just work on your technique a bit more. Have a short rest, another warm-up and then we’ll time you.”

Barney was really into the session now. Geoff was a fair coach. He worked you hard. But it got results and he did give you the credit for them. Barney swam a few more lengths and Geoff pointed out one or two faults with his style. They worked on them a little. Then it was time for a rest, followed by another warm up.

“Okay, let’s get going then,” said Geoff.

Barney took a deep breath. Then off he went, arms cutting smartly through the water. He kept his head down as much as possible, only coming up every third or fourth stroke for air. He pushed and pushed, forcing himself to go faster and faster. Each time he looked up, the side was getting nearer and nearer. Then he pushed himself even harder.

“Come on, come on,” urged Geoff.  “You can do it.”

Barney seemed to change gear, to enter another dimension. He could no longer hear the noise of the pool, just a gentle swish as his arms followed each other in and out of the  water. There was no splash. On and on, speeding up all the time. He was numb. He couldn't feel the water, couldn't feel his own movements. He had forgotten who and where he was. He was just concentrating on getting through the water. He came to for just a few seconds and asked himself whether this was how Nick felt. Or didn’t feel. The nothingness. But no, Nick couldn’t control his muscles like that.

Then he could hear the noise again. Arms and legs were splashing through the water. Other voices were shouting instructions.  He felt the water once more. Even if it was still not cold it was at least wet. His arm stretched forward and touched the side. As he felt the smoothness of the tiles, his left leg seized up completely. A pain shot through his side, almost into his arm. He wanted to cry out with the agony of it. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“All right, all right, hang on in there.” Geoff was leaning over the side and pulling him out. He helped Barney up, and then started massaging his leg. Gradually, gradually the cramp stopped. Barney felt the warmth creeping up his leg, the life returning to it.

“The good news is,” said Geoff, now panting himself after the strenuous effort on Barney’s leg, “that you broke your own record – just. The bad news is that it is only just, and you should not be getting cramps like this.”

Barney dreaded what was coming next. And yet he knew!

“Not enough sleep. Not enough exercise. And junk food. Am I right?”

Barney nodded. He had spent so much time with Nick recently that he had rarely been home for dinner and ended up grabbing something simple out of the freezer. Nick’s Mum had often offered to feed him, but Barney found that difficult. Nick had to eat so slowly these days and Barney didn’t want to watch him choke.      

Geoff suddenly clapped Barney on the back.

“But you did do it! And I know you’ll be sensible.”

Barney suddenly felt pleased with himself. So he was managing to do something right!  If he could beat his own record despite everything else that was going on ….

“So what are your plans for the rest of the day?” asked Geoff, passing him another towel.

“Popping round to see Nick, and then homework,” explained Barney.

“Just be careful,” said Geoff quietly. “Don’t overdo things.”

That again, thought Barney. It was just too bad. They would all have to put up with it. There was no way he could let Nick down.

“Okay,” he mumbled back to Geoff. “See you Tuesday.”

Friday, 15 July 2016


“That’s St Jude’s. And that spire over there – can you see it? There? The black pointed one? That’s St Bartholomew’s. It’s odd. It used to be Catholic.”
“I thought they were mainly in the towns. And usually more modern.”
“Yes. You’re right. That’s what makes St Bart’s so strange. More the sort of place you’d have a quaint Anglican Church that’s been there centuries.”
“Which is older?”
“St Jude’s of course. Notice the square stone tower.” 
Gary looked at where Lloyd was pointing. “I hope we never have to go there.” They looked desolate, the people who had set up at St Jude’s. The women wore dowdy headscarves and big frumpy skirts. The older men, the married men, they’d told him, grew beards and the younger ones wore old-fashioned braces over vest shirts. Clearly they had no electricity nor any machines. It couldn’t be much of a life.
“At least they’re safe. And at least we know they’re there if we really need them.”  
“Do you check out the route often?”
“At least once a week. You never know.”
“You think it’s that bad?”
Lloyd shrugged. “Well, let’s not worry too much right now. Let’s get back to the Hall.”      

There were several other four-by-fours already parked up at the Hall. Lloyd frowned. “Now what’s up? Looks like we’ve got some visitors.”
As Gary followed him into the office, his mouth went dry and his heart began to thud.  He knew it was mistake leaving the town. Yes, the threat was ever present there but at least he was used to it. You could be all right in the countryside for months but when something went down, it did so dramatically and there was nowhere to run to. Well, maybe one place but that was hardly a great choice.
A young woman at the nearest computer terminal looked up at Lloyd and shook her head.  “Cyber attack. Massive. They’ve taken out all of our communication systems and we think the programmes operating the infra-structure will go down next.”
“Have you called in help?”
“Yes, IBM, ASCA, Global Systems. It’s too big for them even. These guys are getting really clever.           
“May I?” Gary looked over at the girl’s terminal. Code was eating itself. Yes, this was bad and there was little he could do, even with his expertise. He was the guy that IBM, ASCA and Global usually called in when they couldn’t cope. Good, then, that he was already here. Bad, though, that it was useless.
The lights went out and all of the machines stopped.   

“Can’t we just drive out? Get back into the town? Wouldn’t it be safer there? ”
“No, we think they’re surrounding us. According to what we’ve seen online.”
The whirr of the generator stopped suddenly reminding him that the links to the outside were still tenuous. Yes, they had their own power now. Yes, they could connect to the outside world but many channels were still blocked and they were still fighting virus after virus.
“Do you want to come with me up to the tower? See what we can see?”
Gary nodded.
“Better wear this then.” He handed Gary one of the black leather ANDROS jackets.
Gary slipped it on. The weight of it almost made him topple over.
Lloyd nodded. “It’s bullet-proof of course.”
God, this was a nightmare. Even so, a bit of fresh air at the top of the tower seemed welcome.
They made their way up the old stone spiral staircase. A breeze came down from the top. Gary drank in the clean air. He’d not realised how shut in he’d felt. To think he’d only agreed to this jaunt in order to escape the confines of the town. Now, he’d been more locked in than he would have been at home.
A girl in full defence uniform nodded to them when they got to the top.
“Any sign?” asked Lloyd.
She passed the binoculars to him. “On the edge of the woods. There’s a patrol.”
Lloyd nodded. He swung round and looked out to the farms. “And there’s more of the bastards over there, look.”  He handed the binoculars to Gary.
He could see a group of men. Or were there women as well? They were all wearing caps with ear flaps but he saw no actual headscarves so he assumed they were all men. Surely any women belonging to the group would be orthodox and insist on covering their hair? Or, would non-orthodox women even consider joining HAMAL? Yes, men then. Brutish-looking men. The array of weapons was impressive. Pistols, rifles and strings of grenades. Even their bullet-proof vests looked as if they might actually be bombs. Why were the authorities allowing this? Why weren’t they stamping on it? 
He knew the answer if he was honest: not enough man-power. It was pretty much every one for themselves these days.
“We think we’ve seen them putting down landmines along the trunk road.” The girl pointed to the main road leading from the farm. “Cutting across the fields would be impossible. We’d be too exposed. Any offer of negotiation?”
Lloyd shook his head. “They’re not communicating with us.” 
The girl pursed her lips and raised her eye-brows. “We’re scuppered, I guess.”

“That’s all we’ve got left now?” Lloyd was looking into the opened ten kilo bag of potatoes. He pulled one out. It didn’t exactly look appetizing. It was wrinkled and growing tubers. There was another unopened bag next to it. “That will keep us going for a day and a half. Tops.”
“If the water holds out. The generator’s playing up again.” The kitchen operative had obviously been tinkering with it. His white overalls were smeared with oil.   
Right on cue the soft whirr of the machine stopped.
The operative tutted. “Here we go again. Don’t hold your breath.”
Gary realised he wasn’t going to get out of this. They wouldn’t be able get to one of the churches, surrounded as they were. What sort of death would it be exactly? Slow, by starvation, or sudden, by terrorist attack? 
God, if only he’d stayed in the town. He’d got wits enough to survive there. He was used to that.
“Come on,” said Lloyd. “I want to show you something.”        

“Just make sure there’s no one coming and then shut the door.”
They were in the hardly used morning room. It was old and its oak panelling was delicate. They wanted to preserve it in case one day everything went back to normal. It was a bit of beautiful history worth hanging on to if they ever had a future.
Lloyd touched the top of the wooden panel next to the great mantelpiece. A door sprung open, making Gary jump. “Blimey. Secret passage or what?”
Lloyd nodded. “Priest hole. Yes, there is a secret passage behind it. It leads to St Bart’s.”
“I didn’t think St Bart’s was old enough for that.”
“Ah, but it is actually. Only the spire is relatively new.”
“So, why haven’t we evacuated before?”
Lloyd sighed. “Once you’ve joined the church there’s no way back. If you stay outside there’s always the hope that we might get the better of them.”
“We won’t though, will we?” Of course he knew the answer to that. He knew as well that even if he’s stayed in the town they would have got him eventually. He just might have been a bit more comfortable for a bit longer.
Lloyd shook his head. “Coming then?”
“What about the others? Didn’t you tell them?”
“Too risky. If too many of us disappear in one go they’ll probably attack.”
“But you’re leaving them all to die.”
“We’ll leave the door to the passage open. Perhaps they’ll find it. Hopefully they’ll be sensible enough only to follow in small groups. Shall we?”
He followed Lloyd into the gloom.

Ten minutes in, Gary’s eyes had got used to the dark and he could see well enough that he didn’t have to keep holding on to the wall. The ground underfoot was surprisingly firm. “So has this been used recently?”
“Well, I did a dummy run as soon as I found out about it. That puzzled me too. It was almost as if it had been made ready for us.  Deliberately.”
“You don’t think it’s some sort of trap, do you? You don’t think they’ve set us up?”
“Would they dare? It leads to a church, after all.”
Gary decided it was best not to think about it too much. Better just to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. The passageway was getting narrower now and he had the sensation that they were going down. They would have to go back up at some point.  St Bart’s was higher than the Hall.
It was getting colder and the air was musty now. “How much further is it?”
“We’re just over half way.”
The passage seemed to swing up now. There was source of light ahead of them.
Lloyd put his hand up, signalling that they should stop. Then he put a finger to his lips.
Gary could hear voices. They were speaking a language he didn’t understand. Extremists, he supposed. Were they in the passage?  
At last Lloyd gave the signal that they could carry on. “There’s a way out into the woods there. I made sure it was hidden from the outside a few weeks back. Thank God. I don’t think they realise it’s there. Come on. Not far now.”
The air began to sweeten again. The passage swung up steeply and soon they faced a door. Lloyd pushed it open and they made their way up a set of steep stone steps. Another door led them into what must be the crypt of St Bart’s. 
The door wouldn’t open at first but gave suddenly after Lloyd had pushed it hard with his shoulder several times. Gary heard a startled scream. 
They came face to face with one of the strangely dressed girls. 
“We’re seeking asylum,” said Lloyd quickly.
“Of course,” said the girl. “You made me jump. I didn’t even know there was a door there.”
She smiled and all at once Gary could see beyond the shapeless clothes and the dowdy greying head scarf. She had the most beautiful dark brown eyes. “You are very welcome. Come, I’ll introduce you to the Elders.”
Gary closed the door behind him and noticed that it disappeared completely. It looked now just like another of the painted panels. Clever, these Catholics.
He thought the girl seemed a little nervous. She played with the huge crucifix hanging round her neck and a couple of times put it to her lips and kissed it gently. Was this some sort of religious ritual?
He guessed he’d better try and get used to it. The days of worshiping technology were over now. That had always been his religion. He supposed he’d better get used to this new one.                         

“It’s all right. She won’t hurt you.” Gary was working with Miriam, the girl they met when they first arrived. She had been assigned as his mentor. They were harvesting leeks and were right at the edge of the compound. Just a few feet away on the other side of the fence was one of the extremists.  Over the top of her full burka she wore a wired vest. Eyes just as dark and as beautiful as Miriam’s stared into theirs.
Miriam nodded to the girl. Something that might have been a smile lit up the girl’s eyes slightly. Then she turned and walked away.
Miriam touched his arm gently. “Don’t be scared. The vests are just for show. That near to us, at least. They respect the churches. We have Abraham in common.”
She put down her trowel. She tapped her crucifix. “I must come clean,” she said. “I’m actually Jewish, not Christian at all. But we still have Abraham. And the churches.”
Gary nodded. Thank God for the churches.