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Authors: John Christopher

Empty World

BOOK: Empty World
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1

T
HEY WERE DRIVING ALONG THE
motorway
on a bright sunny morning, everyone happy. While Neil's father drove, his mother was telling him something about a dance at the golf club. Amanda and Andy were arguing, but amiably, about a pop programme they had watched on TV. Grandpa and Grandma were admiring the countryside, he pointing out a view that attracted him and she agreeing. Neil himself was silent, engrossed in a strange but satisfying feeling of well-being. He tried to work out what had given rise to it, but could not. It being end of term, the try he had scored in the junior House final, the prospect of summer and the cricket season ahead? Or perhaps just this journey.

He could not decide, but it did not matter. He was relaxing in the enjoyment of that, too—it not mattering—when he heard his mother's small gasping cry and looked up to see it: the monstrous hulk of the heavy lorry and trailer jack-knifing across the road in front of them, looming up and up. . . . Then screams, and blackness, and he woke up sweating, his fingers digging into the bed clothes that were wrapped tightly round him.

• • •

Neil thought about the dream later that day, as he walked across the churchyard on his way to catch the bus to school. It had been full of inaccuracies and impossibilities, the way dreams were. Not a sunny morning, but a dull rain-bleared afternoon. Not a motorway, but the A21, a few miles south of the Tonbridge bypass. And, of course, Grandpa and Grandma had not been there. The Rover was a roomy car, but not that roomy; and besides, the object of the journey had been to spend the weekend with them at Winchelsea.

But the rest—his mother's soft cry, the sight of the monster twisting incredibly across their path . . . was that the way it had been? He had no way of knowing, no recollection of the time between setting out from the house in Dulwich and waking in a
hospital bed with a nurse, young, dark and pretty, bending over and smiling and telling him he was all right, and not to worry. He had wondered what she was talking about, and asked what he was doing there; and she had told him again not to worry about anything but to lie back and rest, and he would have visitors very soon.

Neil walked through the crumbling stone archway into the empty shell of what had been the nave of the church before it was destroyed in the French wars. That was nearly seven hundred years ago. Winchelsea then had been a thriving town, recently rebuilt here on its hill after the sea swallowed up old Winchelsea—like its sister-town, Rye, a brash newcomer to the company of the Cinque Ports and hopeful of outstripping its seniors in trade and prosperity. But the sea which destroyed the first port had capriciously moved away from the second, remaining as no more than a mocking gleam on the horizon.

So the hopes had come to nothing, and the traders had gone with the sea. Only a few squares were left of the grid pattern which had made the town a contemporary showplace of planning; and
those were occupied by sleepy houses, fronted by lawns and flowers, three or four small shops, a ­couple of pubs. There had been no point in rebuilding the nave of the church, and the New Gate, which had marked the southern limits of Winchelsea, and through which one summer morning late in the thirteenth century the French had been treacherously admitted, stood now over a muddy lane, nearly a mile out in the country, surrounded by grazing sheep.

There were not many young people in Winchelsea. It was a place for retirement—that was why his grandparents had come to live in it. And in the past, although he had liked visiting them, Neil had felt a kind of impatience. Nothing happened here or was likely to happen, beyond the slow change of the seasons. He looked at the white facades of the houses making up the sides of the great square of the churchyard. Even the post-war ones had an appearance of having been there forever.

He thought of the dream, and then of Grandpa coming to his bedside in the hospital. He had asked Neil how he was, and nodded when he said he had a headache.

“A touch of concussion, but they tell me you're sound in wind and limb.”

His grandfather, a Civil Servant until his retirement, was a tall thin man, with a long face lengthened further by a white pointed beard. Although he liked them both, Neil preferred him to his grandmother because he never fussed and talked directly, paying little regard to differences in age. His manner had always been calm and easy. He was trying to look calm and easy now, but not managing. Neil asked him:

“What happened?”

“What have they told you?”

“Nothing. I've not been awake long.”

“There was a smash. You don't remember it?”

His tone was even but Neil was conscious of the strain behind it. He thought of them all setting out together after lunch—Amanda insisting on going back to say another goodbye to Prinny, the cat, and worrying in case Mrs. Redmayne might not remember to come in and feed him. . . . He said sharply:

“Where's Mummy? Is she in hospital, too?” He realized, for the first time properly, that the other beds in the ward were occupied by strangers. “And Amanda, and Andy?”

“They're all right. Don't worry, Neil.”

There had been a hesitation, though; very slight, but enough to make the reassurance meaningless. And what he said was meaningless, anyway; because if they had been all right his mother would have been here, beside his bed. He said, hearing his voice echo as though far off:

“All of them?” He stared up at his grandfather. “Dad, as well?”

“They're all right,” his grandfather repeated.

He did not need the sight of the tear rolling down the wrinkled cheek to give the lie. Nor did he resent it, knowing the lie was meant to help him, to ease him back into a world that had shattered and changed. But he could not go on looking at another human being. He turned and buried his head in the pillow, immobile, believing and not believing, while his grandfather's voice went on and on and he heard it without listening, an empty noise.

• • •

There were others from the Comprehensive waiting at the bus stop. He knew them slightly, and nodded to one or two, but did not engage in conversation. There had been the curiosity one could expect over
a newcomer but he had done little to satisfy it; and when the suspicion which was also inevitable had hardened into something more like hostility, he had not minded.

It was a big change from London, and Dulwich College. There had been a talk with his grandfather about that. It seemed the Head had offered to find him one of the few boarding places, and his grand­father had put the proposition to him: he could choose between taking it, and keeping a continuity in school at least, or going as a day boy to the Comprehensive School in Rye.

“Your home's with us now, Neil,” Grandpa had said, “and we're very glad to have you—glad for our own sakes. But we're old, and a bit dull, and so is Winchelsea. You might find it better to carry on at Dulwich where there are people you know—chaps your own age.”

“No, I'll stay here.”

“If you're thinking of the fees, that's not important. You know. . . .”

“No.”

He said it brusquely. He had heard his grand­parents talking one evening, quietly when they thought
he was asleep. There would be a lot of money coming his way. His father, an insurance executive, had himself been more than amply insured. The sole survivor of the family was going to be rich.

The new school was very different from the old, but a large part of the difference, he realized, lay in himself. At Dulwich he had made plenty of friends—more than Andy who, though a year older, was more reserved. And Andy had not been much interested in sports, while he played most games reasonably well.

He had taken part in a couple of cricket games at Rye, and not done badly. But he had kept to himself and the other players, after one or two small overtures, had let him get on with it. It had been the same in school generally. Although it was never mentioned, he guessed the story of what had happened, the reason for his coming here, had got around. He had had one or two pitying glances from girls, and once found a conversation abruptly switched off as he entered a class-room. But no questions were asked, and he volunteered no information.

So he had made no friends, but did not mind it; nor did he miss the ones he had left behind. It was not that he brooded over the disaster. It surprised him to
what extent he was able to put it out of his mind; and in spite of occasional lurching moments of fear and sickness, he did not feel particularly unhappy.

He had an idea it would not have been so easy in London. The impatience he had once felt for the slowness and dullness of the little town had been replaced by a kind of contentment. It was good that nothing happened, and that the most usual sight was of an old man or woman creeping along on some unhurried errand. He liked the quiet empty evenings, with the darkness lit only by chinks of light from cosy sitting rooms, and the single street lamp on the corner.

The others who were at the bus stop had collected into a group and were talking and laughing. He did not know what the subject of conversation was, and did not care. He thought of his dream again, and felt sweat cold down his back, but both dream and reality seemed far away. As the bus came growling down the road from Hastings, through an avenue of leafy green, he found himself whistling. He realized it was the tune Amanda had been so crazy about the last few weeks, but went on.

• • •

In general the work seemed easier in Neil's new school, but perhaps because of that less interesting. An exception was Biology, taught by a small stocky man with a Scottish accent and a tendency to range widely round his subject. Today they were dealing with cell structures, and Mr. Dunhill moved on to a discussion of the ageing process. There was some evidence, he pointed out, for believing that ageing was caused by the increasing inability of cells to remember the functions laid down for them in the genetic blueprint, a sort of cellular amnesia.

Someone asked if that meant that if something could be done to improve the memory of cells the ageing process could be halted—even reversed? Did it mean people might be able to live forever, barring accidents?

“Well, no, I wouldn't hazard that.”

Mr. Dunhill rubbed his palms together in front of his chest, a characteristic gesture. He went on:

“But there's an interesting example in the opposite direction, in that epidemic they had in India, a few months back.”

The Calcutta Plague, it had been called, because that was where the first cases had occurred. It had
swept through northern India, killing hundreds of thousands, and then died out. Neil remembered his father and mother discussing it one evening when he came downstairs after finishing his prep. Their preoccupation, he recalled, had given him the chance of slipping out to a friend's house, without their realizing how late it was.

“You'll remember there were two phases of the disease,” Mr. Dunhill said. “Initially there was a fever, followed by recovery and a symptomless period varying between ten days and three weeks. That was followed by a general deterioration of bodily functions, leading to collapse and death.

“The striking thing was that the second phase strongly resembled an accelerated ageing process. It mimicked a rare disorder called progeria, specifically the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome, in which children grow old before they grow up. There was a well-known case of a child in Brazil, who at six months had adult teeth already yellowing, at two years white hair, thinning on top, and who died at ten of hardening of the arteries.

“Fortunately in this case it was not the young who were affected but the old, chiefly the very old.
Mostly the victims were over sixty. There were one or two cases as young as the middle forties, and the results there were much more striking: wrinkling of skin, whitening of hair roots, calcium loss, atherosclerosis. It was as though they were racing towards the grave, instead of indulging in that slow crawl which satisfies us normal geriatrics.”

Mr. Dunhill was in his fifties. It was probably as much as forty years since he had sat in a class-room, listening to someone as old as he was now. Was the joke about being a geriatric as light-hearted, Neil wondered, as it seemed? People died: he had come to know that in the last few weeks in a way he had never known before. And they must fear it, he supposed, more and more as the inevitability drew closer.

“It's a tenable explanation,” Mr. Dunhill went on, “that the Calcutta virus attacked the individual cells in such a way as to inhibit or destroy that memory function we have been talking about. The victims quite literally died of nothing except old age.”

“They were old already, though.”

That was someone called Barker, a gangling boy with an almost perpetual silly grin. Mr. Dunhill looked at him with distaste.

“Yes, they were, weren't they? And they were only Indians, after all. Nothing to cause us concern. Now let's get back to the mechanism of mitosis.”

• • •

There was a girl in the class called Ellen, pretty in a fair, frail way. Neil had noticed her chiefly in the company of Bob Hendrix, who was more conspicuous. He was heavily built and had a loud aggressive voice. His hair was bright red, and he usually wore a canary-yellow waistcoat. His father was a prominent Rye tradesman, and he clearly thought deference was due to him on that account.

Hendrix went home for lunch but Ellen, like Neil, stayed at school. On this day she sat near him, and made what appeared to be friendly if timid overtures. He answered her civilly, but without enthusiasm. She persisted, though, and afterwards found him and spoke to him more directly.

“Is it true?” He looked at her. “About your family all being killed?”

It was something he had reckoned on happening but had hoped, with the lapse of time, might not. It was not that he dreaded the reference—more a ­feeling of embarrassment in advance. Now it had
happened, though, he found it did not bother him. She seemed sympathetic rather than curious—a nice girl, probably.

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