The alarm went off at six, an hour or so earlier than usual. I looked, bleary-eyed, round my little hotel room before working out exactly where I was.
The conference! Ugh. Another three days of dreary “keynote” speeches, dull technical presentations and question and answer panels with all the personality of a wet cabbage. And I was tired. Shouldn’t have spent so long watching movies last night, but I started flipping through the channels and I’ve always been a sucker for “Thelma and Louise”.
I moved and the phone lit up: it would still be in “do not disturb” mode until eight, but the notifications for text messages were still showing. I scrolled through them.
3:12am: Poppy is sick. Going to call out of hours doctor. Will let you know. xxx Zar
4:08am: Doctor just arriving. Will let you know. Text back if awake. Luv u. Z. xx
4:45am: Doctor has just left, recommending ambulance for her. Not feeling too good, might have same thing. Text when you are up. x
And nothing more.
Here I was, a two hour drive and a ferry ride away from home, in a different country, and now my wife and daughter are both sick. I unlocked the phone and called her.
It rang for two minutes, beeped twice, and hung up.
I tried again.
“Hello?” Zara answered.
“You sound sleepy,” I said.
“I was asleep,” she replied. “Besides which, I feel awful.”
She waited for a moment. I felt she was thinking carefully what to say. That was a bad sign.
“She’s no worse,” Zara said, finally. “But she isn’t very well.”
“Should I come home?”
“You’ll be home in a few days anyway,” she said. “Besides, there’s nothing you can really do.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’re OK. She’s sleeping on the sofa with a blanket over her, and I’m here on the chair, so it’s fine. Just waiting for the ambulance, still. There’s some sort of delay, they said, they’re very busy right now.”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t like this. And I didn’t really care what she said, I was coming home right away.
“All right,” I said. “You get some sleep. I’m going to see if I can get home any earlier.”
“OK love,” she said. “I will.”
We hung up.
I went into the bathroom and showered. Then I thought about what to wear. Full corporate dress, maybe – suit, tie, shirt, shiny shoes? (Never trust a man in a suit, I always say. He’s always out for his best interests, not yours.) In the end I went for travelling clothes – trainers, t shirt and jeans.
I called the boss.
“Good morning,” she answered.
“Grace, it’s Tim,” I said. “My daughter is sick, so I think -”
“Don’t,” she cut me off. “Just cancel your presentation and get gone. You’re needed back at the office more than there. I’ve already had three staff text me this morning to say they’re going sick. If you can get back by tomorrow, great. If you can get back for this afternoon, even better.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
I sent an email to the conference helpline. I didn’t expect a reply before nine.
I packed my things quickly, and headed down for breakfast. It was empty. There were no tablecloths set, no knives and forks, no buffet – nothing.
“Hello?” I asked. The empty air made no reply.
I walked over to reception and rang the bell.
A thin man – not the man who’d booked me in yesterday – came out of the back office. He was sweating badly.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
He shook his head. “Most of the kitchen staff are sick, I’m afraid. There may be something open a little way up the highway.”
“May I apologise on behalf of the hotel,” he said, and leaned over to steady himself on the desk.
“I have an issue,” I said. “My daughter’s sick, so I need to check out early to get home. Is that OK?”
He nodded. “That will be fine.”
I handed over my key card and he placed it in the reader.
“I see here that will be -”
He suddenly bent double, and vomited, a substance that looked more blood than food, all over the desk and the computer. There was an electrical fizzing noise, a crack and a puff of smoke, and that seemed to be too much for the receptionist, who collapsed on the floor behind the counter.
I moved over to the side and looked over. He was curled in a foetal position, shivering.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine, sir.”
“What about my checking out?”
“We could just send you an invoice, sir, if that’s all right?”
“That’s fine,” I said, the bizarre nature of the conversation barely registering with me right now. “Can I get you anything? Or anyone?”
“I have an emergency pager on my belt,” he said. “I’ve pressed the button… someone will come.”
“You can leave, sir, it’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I mean…”
He closed his eyes. “Just leave me in peace,” he snapped.
“All right,” I said, and pulled back from the desk. I picked up my bag and headed out to the car park. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to catch whatever it was he had. I had enough problems with Poppy.
The car park was still almost full, as it seemed nobody had left yet. But then again with the hotel hosting a multi-day conference, that wasn’t surprising. I started the car and moved over to the barrier. The car park let me out easily enough, although it wouldn’t let me back in without a key card.
Outside of your home country, driving is always a nightmare. Manoeuvres that are mandatory in one country can get you arrested the moment you cross the border. I made sure to drive calmly and headed for the main road.
The roads were pretty close to deserted, which came as a surprise. I’d have thought that about eight in the morning on a work day, there would be more traffic. What there was seemed to be sporadic and not paying much attention.
I was heading for the ports when a red Alfa Romeo came down the road towards me, veered across in front of me and swerved out of the way to hit the barrier on the side of the road behind me. I pulled up on the hard shoulder, put my reflective vest on and put a safety triangle a few metres ahead of my car to warn people and then crossed the road to help.
There were almost no cars now. The couple of minutes this took me, I’d have expected more cars, but the roads looked clear both ways. Just after crossing, a black sedan whizzed past on my side of the road, and disappeared into the distance.
“Hey” I knocked on the window. “Are you OK?”
The driver wound the window down a bit. She was shaking, sweat bursting out everywhere.
“Yeah,” she said. “I just need to get home and go to bed. Hangover, I think. Too much of a mums’ night out catching up with me.”
“You need any help?”
She shook her head. “Hopefully the car’s not too damaged?”
I took a look around the front. The right headlight was broken but as far as I could tell, that was the extent of the damage.
“It looks OK,” I said. “But be careful if you see any police, your right headlight is out.”
“Thanks,” she replied.
She wound up the window and started the car. Gingerly, she pulled backwards from the barrier, got back in lane and drove carefully away. I crossed the road, picked up my triangle and stowed it in the boot with my jacket.
I was hungry. I still hadn’t seen that promised eatery, although I’d probably missed it trying to get away from the hotel.
It was starting to dawn on me that something bad might be happening. Maybe the receptionist wasn’t alone. Maybe this Alfa driving mums’-night-out lady had the same illness. Maybe Poppy did too.
That thought made me close to panic. What the hell was wrong with me that I was dawdling along like this when my daughter was sick?
I got back in the car, turned on the radio and kept driving.
The radio searched through and found a station playing jazz. That would do fine. Maybe there’d be a news programme at ten, but for now I didn’t need it.
It was another five or ten minutes before I saw a sign for somewhere serving food. One of those service stations that are big concrete monuments to capitalism – three or four fast food franchises, a newsagent selling overpriced flowers and tobacco, and toilets that don’t get cleaned as often as you’d like.
There weren’t many cars in the car park. I parked up and checked my phone. No more texts from home. I texted Zara “Hey how are you two doing? Love you” and waited a minute or two, but no reply. I pocketed the phone and moved on.
The automatic doors opened and I went to the bathroom. From one of the stalls I could hear groaning. I ignored it, finished up, washed my hands and got out of there.
Most of the places were closed. One of the fast food places was open: a sandwich shop.
“Hey, how’s your morning?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“I’m ok thanks,” I said. “My wife and kid are sick, I’m trying to get home to them and I haven’t had any breakfast yet.”
“All I’ve got is in the chiller cabinets,” she said. “There’s more out back, but it’s just more of the same.”
I wandered over and picked out a baguette and some juice.
“Many customers?” I asked as she rang it up. She shook her head.
“Really only two. You’re the only one that’s been in that’s healthy, half the rest have been looking for nausea medicine.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Guess we just haven’t got it yet?”
“Or we’re immune,” she replied. “Everybody is immune to something – what about Typhoid Mary, for instance?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, fishing in my pocket for my wallet. “I remember her from history class.”
I paid up, then sat at one of the stools at the counter and we talked for a while, as she had nobody else to serve.
She was a nice girl. Just finishing her university education and using the job at the store to pay her way. It wasn’t really her day to work there, but everyone else had phoned in sick and the boss had asked her if the could run the place single-handed. It seemed she was having a slow day of it.
“Do you think this is it?” she asked. “The end of civilisation as we know it?”
“People will get better,” I shook my head, thinking about Poppy and Zara. “It’s just a stomach bug, that’s all.”
She smiled. “I hope so.”
I dropped my litter in the basket and turned to leave.
Something stopped me and I turned back.
“Actually, I better take some food with me,” I said. “You’re the only one open.”
I bought a few sandwiches and drinks. It cost all the cash I had. I tried to pay by card but that failed for some reason.
Thinking ahead, I went to the cash machine at the entrance, but it said “out of service.”
“When should I start to panic?” I thought.
I walked out of the front door and started towards my car. I heard footsteps dragging behind me. I got to the car and put the key in the door.
“Hey!” someone shouted. “Can you give me a ride?”
I unlocked the car, trying to ignore him.
I turned, slowly. The man shambling towards me looked unwell. He was limping, holding his stomach with one hand. He looked pale, despite his black skin.
“I’m going north,” I said. “To the ports.”
“That’ll do,” he replied. “Really, I just need to be out of here. There’s one shop open and that’s it. I need to get to a doctor or something. I don’t feel too good.”
“The receptionist at my hotel didn’t feel good. He threw up blood all over the counter.”
He shook his head. “I’m not so bad as that. I threw up a little and I feel better than I did. Maybe I’m getting over it.”
I deliberated for a moment. He was a big man, but he didn’t look like a threat. I’m not a strong person but I have a highly developed antenna for trouble. This man wasn’t ringing alarm bells.
“Get in,” I motioned to the passenger seat.
“Thank you.” He shambled over to the car, in obvious pain. “You don’t know how grateful I am for this, man, really.”
He got carefully into the passenger seat.
“I’m not going to do the belt up,” he said. “I’m sorry if we get pulled over, but it will hurt too much.”
I nodded, did up my belt, and started the car. I drove out onto the main road. The radio came back on, playing jazz.
“Ah Miles,” he said. “A Night In Tunisia.”
“Jazz fan?” I asked.
He nodded. “I used to have everything Miles Davis did. Then my house burned down a few years ago. Destroyed my record collection.”
“A shame,” I said, making conversation.
“More than that, it was my pension,” he continued. “I played it all once, made digital copies, then put them in sterile envelopes. Looked after them. First pressings, picture discs, rare editions. The way prices are now, it was looking like I’d beat the stock market twice over.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“House fire,” he said in a hollow voice. “I bought a house with bad electrics. I had an engineer booked to sort it out and the place burns down the very night before he arrives.”
“That’s bad luck.”
“Worse luck was the insurance,” he went on, “they never paid me a penny. Said that I should have got the previous owners to sort the problem before moving in, and that it was suspicious timing. Sheesh.”
He shuffled, uncomfortable in the seat.
“Do you mind if I try and sleep?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” I said. “So long as you don’t mind me trying to find a news programme.”
“You go right ahead,” he replied. “You won’t wake me up on an ordinary day. Maybe it’s the relief at having found a ride, but I feel like I haven’t slept for years.”
He nestled his head against the side of the car and closed his eyes. I drove on for another five or ten minutes before the news came on.
“Hello here is the news,” said the radio. The voice sounded uncomfortable and self-conscious. “This is Charlie Brane reading it. I’m sorry I’m not so very good but there’s only two people here today so please bear with us.”
Same story as everywhere, I figured.
“The sickness appears to be spreading. Cases have been reported from California in the west as far east now as Burkina Faso. There are unconfirmed reports of outbreaks in China, according to Reuters.”
“Malaysia have stopped all flights in and out of the country. The prime minister of India has declared a national emergency. The United Kingdom has reported the death of the prime minister and seven cabinet ministers, with more announcements expected to follow later today.”
I turned up the volume.
“We apologise for the break in normal programming, but we are now going back to our taped programmes, and we will interrupt with any more news when we have it.”
I shook my head, gently.
The gauge was reporting another couple of hundred kilometres worth of fuel, while the GPS said less than a hundred to the port. I continued cruising at a steady pace. If I was careful, we could be there in an hour.
The radio started up something mellow and tingly. It sounded good, calming. I needed that right now.
The GPS told me to turn right, and I joined another, wider road.
My passenger slept on when I stopped at the roadblock. I wound down the window and a sweating policeman stumbled over to the car.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s a tanker,” he replied. “Turned over a few hours ago. I’m supposed to tell people to turn back but there isn’t anyone. You’re the first for an hour or so.”
“Could I make it through?”
He shook his head. “Fuel all over the road, there’s a good chance you’d start a fire trying to drive through it.”
“Do you have a signal on your mobile?” the cop asked.
I picked up my phone from the drinks holder between the seats.
“No signal,” I said. No new messages, either, I thought.
“Nothing on the police radios either,” he replied. “Have you got any painkillers?”
He shrugged. “It’s OK. Just do a u-turn here, join the other carriageway. I know it’s illegal but I’m not going to ticket you for it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He stood up from the car, straining in pain as he did so. I backed up and turned, and as I drove off, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the policeman collapse in the road. I didn’t stop to help.
It was another few minutes before the GPS recalibrated itself and found another route. It added ten minutes to the driving time, but that was all. Not too bad. The roads continued clear.
We got to the port about eleven. I took a ticket from the machine and parked in the short stay. Now I needed to know if I could find a ticket for the ferry.
“Hey, wake up,” I said, poking my passenger in the ribs. He was staring straight ahead. I poked him in the ribs, and he slumped forward, face on the dashboard.
I got out, opened the passenger door, and he slumped out of the car onto the ground.
“Well,” I said to him, “we made it to the port. Or, at least, I did.”
I closed the door, leaving him on the ground. I locked the car and headed for the port.
The terminal building was deserted. A body lay on the ground behind the ticket desks. The screens were flashing “delayed” for all arrival and departure notices.
Nothing was running, clearly.
I went into the newsagent’s kiosk by the entrance, and took a pad of paper and a pen. The sales clerk behind the till was slumped on the ground. Probably dead. I didn’t bother to check. I went to sit in the cafe and started writing this.
I worked out how to use their coffee machine, and that helped. And they had some sandwiches for sale that hadn’t gone stale. There’s still the food in the car, of course, but I had some idea about making that last.
The power went off maybe half an hour ago, and now it’s starting to get dark. Nobody is going to turn the lights back on. No ships are going to dock, nor are there ships going to leave. If Poppy and Zara are still alive, which I doubt, there’s no way I can get back to them, or even contact them, any more. I never asked my car park friend his name, whoever he is. Even that last thing, I blew it.
In a few moments I’m going to put down this pen, close this notebook and walk out of the cafe. I’m going to smash down the exit gate of the car park, drive out and then I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll steal another car that has more fuel left in it than mine, and try and see if I can find somewhere where people have survived. But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just go full Thelma and Louise and drive off the big ferry bridge there, as fast as I can.
Because if there’s a better alternative, I’m struggling to see it.
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