I didn’t leave the next morning, or the morning after that. I told myself I was gathering as large a group as possible to give us the best possible chance of survival, and that was partly true, but I was also waiting for Sophie to change her mind. Back in my mushy pea bedroom at the hostel, it hadn’t been occupied during my absence and seemed smaller and drearier than ever. What was more, autumn had put a damp chill in the air again. I’d never had a girlfriend before so I’d never split up before. The pain was deep and throbbing in my heart and my head and I didn’t know what to do about it. Part of me just wanted to go back and be with her for however long it took but the old wise man part of me knew we couldn’t be happy like that any more. We both knew she’d have to move on sooner or later but I knew my staying would not help. I hung onto the piece of paper with our date on it and wished.
So far, I knew James and Liam were interested in coming, and there were three or four others who’d said they had grown bored of this place but whose eyes betrayed something else – some disturbance they would not admit to. Ian said he’d come along ‘for a laugh’. He had little time for my attachment. ‘She’s just a wet dream’ he told me. ‘She’s the love interest. She’s not real. Nothing here is.’
I couldn’t help wondering if he was right. It didn’t seem real.
On the fourth day Gina turned up. Although of course I was overjoyed to see her I thought this might be a set back – further proof that my theory about the disappearances was just paranoia but she hugged herself miserably and wasn’t at all the way she had been before. ‘Can we just go?’ she said. I asked about Aaron but she just shook her head. I put word out that we were leaving as early as possible next morning. She slept in my bed. I lay on the floor.
In the morning, not as early as I’d have liked, I found twelve people on the lawn outside, waiting for me. James and Liam I recognised, and a couple of the girls. Ian wasn’t there. ‘He went out last night’ explained one of the girls, shrugging. I wasn’t surprised. Gina was standing behind me too so that made fourteen. I’d never been a leader before. The responsibility struck me quite forcibly and I didn’t know what to say. I felt like telling them all the problems I’d listed in my head – why we probably wouldn’t get anywhere, and then wouldn’t be able to find our way back. Gina evidently saw my expression and stepped forward.
‘We all know we have to get away from here, don’t we?’ Everybody nodded, more or less apprehensively. ‘Ok’ she said and turned to me. ‘Tell us what you have in mind Gabriel.’ I smiled and thanked her.
I had explained a lot of this to James and the others over the last few days, and to Gina the previous night. Basically I wanted to stick to the ‘head east’ plan. I had some rope from my room (‘Don’t ask’ I said. Only Gina smiled) and we roped ourselves together like mountaineers. ‘Won’t they have knives...to cut it with?’ said someone quietly. We all looked at her, and then at each other. Then they all looked at me. ‘It’s better than nothing’ I said and carried on knotting.
‘Ok’ I said when it was as good as it was going to get. ‘The plan basically is to head as close to due east as possible all day and just get as far as we can, then find somewhere indoors to stay for the night, stay together, keep an eye on each other. Don’t let anyone go missing. Ok? Have we got everyone?’ They all nodded. I was growing into my part. I looked back at Gina. I felt like breaking down inside.
‘I think she’ll be ok’ she said, guessing what was on my mind. I nodded but wasn’t convinced.
We walked in a huddle, passing through increasingly unfamiliar but endlessly similar streets, parks and alleys. It was a nice, bright day and we were in good spirits and one of the girls came up with some songs to sing – mostly old Abba and Duran Duran songs everyone knew. About mid afternoon Ian rushed at us out of a side street. We all thought we were being attacked and screamed appropriately, which amused him greatly.
‘Is this a private conga, or can anyone join in?’ he said. We roped him in and carried on.
The party atmosphere fizzled out somewhat as it got dark. Looking around us everything was much the same as where we’d come from and more than one of us said something about going around in circles. As luck would have it we found a party, which we crashed and that was us sorted for the first night. In the morning there were only thirteen of us. None of us could think who was missing but we comforted ourselves with the opinion that we’d all considered going back and that was probably what had happened. Someone at the party said he wanted to come along so we roped him in too and said our goodbyes.
The next day went largely as before, although the atmosphere was less jolly, more stoical. We marched in silence, stopping from time to time for a breather and to get our bearings. I was grateful the sun was out or we wouldn’t have known where we were going. That night another, more sedate gathering was found and we were invited in for dinner with some very posh people. The house though was in the same dilapidated, half decorated state as all the others we’d seen. Gina sat beside me on a cushion after we’d eaten and we drank a bottle of wine together.
‘How are you bearing up?’ she said.
‘I honestly don’t know’ I said.
‘You’re thinking about her.’
‘I really do think she’ll be ok.’
I showed her my piece of paper and she smiled. I’m not sure either of us believed it was likely to happen, but it proved she had existed. My handwriting had never been that neat.
‘She said it would be perfect that day. She’d be twenty-six, I’d be thirty-five. Looks like she’d given it some serious thought.’
‘She really cared about you. I suppose you guessed she wasn’t exactly chaste before you met her...’
‘It did cross my mind.’
‘She never stayed with anyone for very long bless her. But she stayed with you, and she would have...’ and I’m crying, silently into my hands. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said...’ she says, putting her arm around me, not in a formal way, but genuinely, generously. She rests her head on my shoulders as I bend over, weeping.
‘Maybe I should have stayed with her’ I blub into my lap, and all she can say is ‘It’ll be ok, you’ll both be ok’ because there really isn’t an answer, and we both know that.
‘You loved each other didn’t you’ she says, once I’ve pulled myself together.
‘I think so, yes. I loved her. I never told her.’
‘I think she knew.’
‘Can we stop talking in the past tense please?’
‘We love each other.’
‘She’s probably sleeping with someone else already’ I say, trying for levity.
‘Actually I don’t think so’ says Gina seriously. ‘I think it’s going to take a while.’
‘But at least then she wouldn’t be alone.’
‘That’s very true’ she says.
The morning of the third day is the worst. There are five people missing, including Liam, and I can’t believe he would have just wandered off. We stand around indecisively and it takes Ian, physically pulling us out the door yelling ‘Ta for having us’ over his shoulder to get us moving.
Wandering around that day the streets seem to be arranged deliberately to send us back on ourselves, curving back the way we came. We eventually resort to cutting through gardens – hacking through hedges and scaling walls to get to the next street over. It’s very slow going but Ian is like a one man SAS team and actually finds himself a machete from somewhere to cut us a path through the undergrowth. A couple of times we have to untie ourselves to scale a wall and that must have been when we lost two more of the group. Nobody heard them go but we are aware of strange distortions and reverberations in the air around us, as if one scene is being replaced by another. Spot the difference. As dusk approaches I notice brightly lit upstairs windows and I know for sure that’s where they are, because it’s not like the horror films, this place. Here it is the monsters that turn all the lights on so they can see what they’re doing and play loud music while they do it, because it is they who own this place, not us. Here it is we who have to skulk around in the dark.
What’s more there are no signs of other people anywhere – no parties or other gatherings. It occurs to me that at least we are away from where we started but I’m not sure we are in a better place. We look around for somewhere to spend the night but cannot bring ourselves to go inside anywhere. On top of that the night is overcast and tending to drizzle and we don’t want to keep walking. We stand in a tight huddle, all looking restlessly outward, jumping at every tiny sound, real or imagined. Then we find a tree in an open area of grass and huddle around it. It’s cold and wet. None of us can sleep. We watch the night away. Even so, by morning we are two down. Ian is nowhere to be seen. Someone suggests, only half joking that maybe he went to do a recce. It would be just like him – stupid bastard.
But it was a sunny day again, the trees beginning to turn for autumn and we stretched and untangled ourselves and started out.
It took us a while to realise that things had changed. As we walked along it became obvious that there were more open spaces here, the gardens were bigger and the houses further apart. The road had something of the look of those ‘unadopted’ roads you come across sometimes among otherwise ordinary suburbs – potholed and overgrown. Coming to a rise in the lane there was some new sense of open spaces in the distance – of a less curved, claustrophobic world, more of a landscape. In short, we were coming into the outskirts and our mood lifted decidedly. Once more there was song and silliness in the ranks. ‘Told you’ I said to anyone who would listen.
Of course it wasn’t over yet. We were still stuck in the edge of town that night. The houses out here were mainly bungalows, or low, wide two-storey buildings. Since two of us had disappeared when we were outside in the open the night before it was decided we might as well be warm and dry in danger as wet and cold in danger. We broke into a likely looking house while it was still light and got ourselves settled in. It was fairly simple art deco place with big curved steel framed windows at the front. We felt like the owners might come home at any moment and demand an explanation.
There was food in the freezer, which was still somehow working, and tins in the cupboard and a microwave so we got ourselves things to eat and drink. Then we made our way up to the main bedroom, which had plenty of soft furnishings to curl up in and a huge window taking up the whole of the front and with a panoramic view across the roof tops. There were only seven of us by now. James had gone. I didn’t notice when that had happened. We looked at each other with a grim resolve and prepared ourselves for a siege. We barricaded the door with cupboards and chairs and arranged all the bedding we could find on mattresses on the floor, making a kind of fortress between the twin beds next to the window. It was like being a kid again, playing soldiers and we settled in there with books and munchies as it began to get dark. We half-heartedly attempted to organise a watch rota but were aware that such attempts at organisation never seemed to work here – not least because there were no clocks.
We thought we might as well introduce ourselves. There were four girls and three guys, Gina and I included. Lisa and Diane seemed to have paired off with Warren and Nicholas. That left Meg, who luckily was the most cheerful and organised of all of us – the one who had lead the singing on the way here. She was quieter now since her friend, Alice had gone missing but she kept a very stiff upper lip throughout. We lit the lamps and settled down to our books, all together under the blankets and quilts. Nobody spoke much. Meg tried to start a game of charades but none of us was in the mood. Slowly, everything outside the room dropped into darkness and we were lost together on our tiny island of light. We hardly dared speak, just waited, painfully awake for whatever had to happen to us.