Tuesday, 22 December 2020

A Cracker for One

 by Linda Flynn

 Tia Maria

Even before the phone call Etisha felt spiky, as though electrical currents were jarring through her. The sellotape crackled as she pulled out a strip whilst holding a flap of paper under her thumb. Christmas, why doesn’t someone cancel it?

            Groaning she fumbled for the buzzing phone in her jeans pocket, as the tape stuck together in loops. Charlie the spaniel darted towards it hopefully as she flung it across the floor.

“Not again John! You said you’d be home tonight. It’s Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake!”

“Not now Etisha, look this is important.”

“Yes, yes, your job serves the national interests, security, blah blah.”

“Etisha listen to me, please. This is important. Can you go into the garage a moment?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve bought me a new car for Christmas.”

“Seriously E, you need to listen. We don’t have much time.”

Etisha flicked on the fluorescent strip light and shivered as she stepped onto the cold concrete floor. “About Christmas…What I said. I didn’t mean it, well, not all of it anyway.”

“I know. Look Etisha, we can’t talk about any of this now. Have you found the stuff I’ve put in the garage? It’s all under the black tarpaulin, next to your empty boxes for the decorations.”

“Uh huh,” she replied, resting the phone against her shoulder and peeling back the black sheet. “That’s a strange present: a bag full of medical supplies. Now why would I be needing antibiotics? This is very odd John. When will you be home to explain?”

“That’s the reason why I’m calling, and you must leave home too. Go now. But first load up the car whilst we’re talking. Take the black hybrid 4 x 4 which I’ve filled with petrol.”

“Why?”

“It will get you to Devon, cross country if necessary, without you needing to stop at a garage.”

“No, why leave home, and why Devon?”

“Look Etisha, we’re anticipating a cyber-attack, on a scale we haven’t seen before. We thought we had the technical capability to stop it, we’re still trying, but…”

“What, like bombs exploding or banks hacked into? A big bang? The world ending like it began?”

“No,” he sighed, “electricity.”

She sat on a box. “You mean some sort of power cut?”

Sensing her lack of motion he urged, “Keep packing the car as we speak. These are the bare essentials to get you through the next few days.”

“Will they have power in Devon?”

“Unlikely. Supplies have already gone down through all of Scotland. Intelligence thinks London will be next, then the home counties. This outage is probably going to be an electrical failure on a national scale, with unimaginable consequences.”

“My sister is in Newcastle.”

“I’ve sent her a text, it’s all I had time for. I told her to head towards the national parks.”

Etisha groaned as she hauled a five gallon container towards the car, “Water? Are you sure?”

“Take everything there,” an edge had crept into his voice. “The tap water supply might become contaminated.” More gently, “Prepare yourself for people panicking. Looting will begin in shops after just a day, but will soon extend to cars and homes. The stores will shut down, but their supplies won’t last for more than three days anyway. Avoid the towns.”

“A gun?” she squealed.

“Take it. It’s better to be where the food is grown or can be hunted. Make sure you get beyond Hinkley Point, the nuclear power point in Somerset.”

“What?”

“Head for Dartmoor. Once the nuclear back-up generators run out of fuel their rods will over heat, causing explosions and fire. In any case they will be the first points to be attacked once our military defences are compromised.”

She dragged tins and packets of dried food across to the car and heaved them into the back, watching as it dipped downwards.

“The hospitals?”

“Most hospitals will be OK with their emergency generators for a while, as long as they can keep a subsistence staff in place.”

She flung the dog bowls and bags of kibble into the boot.

“Hurry Etisha! You should be leaving now!”

“Clothes?” she commented, picking up khaki waterproofs with fleece linings. “Not quite what I would have chosen. An extra can of petrol. You’ve certainly thought of everything.”

His voice sounded echoey and far away. “Whatever you do, don’t take the motorways. Roads will quickly become gridlocked once there’s a mass evacuation of the towns. Trapped people become panicked people, particularly when they find themselves without food, drink or blankets.”

She wrapped the candles in glass holders along with the matches and lighter into the woollen blankets and piled these on top. In between the seats she wedged the battery powered radio, alongside some spare flashlights, a pan, implements and a stove. As an afterthought she scooped up the cover thrown over the decorations’ boxes and draped this over everything.

“Also on your route, avoid main roads with traffic lights. They’ll stop working soon. Country lanes are best, whenever possible. Put the map and flashlight on the seat next to you, as well as Charlie. Mobile phones and Sat Navs will be useless.”

She clicked Charlie’s harness on. “So when can you join me?”

His voice seemed to fade, a door shut and she heard footsteps. “Where are you?”

“No, Etisha, I’m sorry, I can’t. Don’t wait. Go now. I…” The line went dead.

Infuriated Etisha re-dialled. “This can’t be happening. Tell me it’s not happening!” she yelled into the answer phone.

Charlie whined and looked towards the car with a hopeful thud of his tail

She took a last look at the Christmas tree laced with tinsel, then like a sleepwalker, she closed the door on her past life. The string of lights around the house waved in the breeze.

They sped past lit up houses, inflatable snowmen and urgently flashing lights. On the slip road she remembered that she had forgotten her handbag which held her cards and money. How could she have been so stupid? She accelerated into the lane before realising two things: The ATMs would stop working, so what use would money be? She’d ignored John’s advice and without thinking she had joined the motorway.

Above her she saw circling arcs of planes that could not land into Heathrow. Air traffic control would stop. Airports could not operate. She tried not to be distracted by the chaos and confusion in the above her.

At first the miles flashed past, as the M4 merged into the M5, the traffic thickening, but moving. The radio played, “Tis the season to be jolly!” She switched the dial, trying to avoid the interference. She needed the news.

Ahead she saw the red lights stacking up, car upon car. Her speed faltered, slowly edging forward, finally stationary. She fumbled with the radio again, “…gridlocked traffic across the arterial motorways.” Crackles burst in. “Reports of a power cut due to a suspected power surge, causing panic buying in supermarkets. “It broke off and the cars nudged forward slightly. ‘Coming home for Christmas’ played. John, he even thought to buy tissues.

She jolted as a news flash interrupted the music. “Accounts have just come in that the Thames barrier hasn’t closed properly, causing widespread flooding in parts of London and surrounding areas. We don’t know yet the scale of the damage, or if there are any casualties.”

John, take care, wherever you are.

As the wait lengthened, stretching into an hour without movement, Etisha felt her palms become clammy. How could she have made such a foolish mistake?

She managed to pick up another news station and against the hissing interference she could just discern, “There are reports that customers have become trapped in some stores as the electronic doors have stopped opening. The Government urges everyone to remain calm, but has advised that it is better to remain indoors and to avoid travelling. They have warned against using any lifts, but to take the stairs if possible.”

People started to step out of their cars to stretch their legs. First one man sauntered up and down beside the vehicles, then he was joined by others. She was glad that she had covered up her provisions and that her car had blackened windows. Etisha slammed the button to lock the doors and sunk into her seat.

Horns hooted, first in impatient humour, then with increasing agitation. She would have liked to give Charlie a bit of a walk, but she couldn’t risk abandoning her car.

Etisha drummed her feet on the floor, looking around, fiddling with the edges of the covers. Plumes of yellow smoke were visible in the distance, coming from a near-by town.

Still she kept checking her phone for a missed call from her sister, a message from John. Anything. In the back she found a dog treat for Charlie and rummaged through some of the boxes. One toothbrush. He had never intended to join her.

She lay her head back against the seat rest, dozing slightly and losing track of time. Suddenly a bang on the window brought her upright. Charlie growled as a man stood by the door. She looked away. She would not open it. She played with the radio knobs once again. Silence.

Only then did she realise that the railway running alongside was motionless. Of course, no trains.

Etisha held her breath as one by one the motorway signs were extinguished. Distant towns which were jewelled with golden glowing lights became black chasms.

So it’s happening, it’s really happening.

Leaning across the seat, Etisha shone the torch on her outstretched map, planning her route with a shaky finger. She started the ignition. She couldn’t wait. Taking a deep breath, she accelerated on to the hard shoulder. Immediately other vehicles followed in her wake. At the roundabout she went straight across, aware of the queues of traffic stacking up to join the motorway.

She cut a sharp left at some darkened traffic lights, bolting through and narrowly missing a squealing van. Taking a deep breath, she counted three more A roads before she could head cross country.

Her thudding heart was only accompanied by the soft purr of her engine. She passed houses that were as black as tombs, with just the occasional flickering candle.

Closer to Dartmoor the traffic crawled once more. Even the adjoining roads looked gridlocked. Etisha braced herself and cut across a farmer’s field. The car mounted the ridge with a bump, she leapt out to swing open the gate and revved it forward with the engine screeching. Several times it skidded in the squelching mud, but she pushed it forward, her instinct warning her to find seclusion.

It was then that she realised that she was lost, helplessly lost. She fingered in the side compartment and put a mint in her mouth. With only her headlights and a crescent moon to guide her, charcoal silhouettes of trees seemed to leap out at her as she bumped along. Feeling lightheaded she stopped. “Time for a walk Charlie,” she whispered into the merging blackness.

Even Charlie was quiet as they clambered out. “All we can do is put one foot in front of the other and fumble along,” she said, gently fondling his ears and releasing his harness. She thought about those virtual games where the character had to progress in darkness through various levels of difficulty, only this was the raw, real world.

The sharp scythe of the moon cut a crescent into the pitch blackness. Even the beam of light from her torch seemed to only accentuate the surrounding walls of darkness.

The air did not move, as though it was holding its breath. It was strange to be out in such stillness. Such absolute silence.

They trudged across a ridged field before Etisha began to question the wisdom of leaving the car. As she flashed the arc of light onto misshapen tree stumps, she murmured to Charlie trotting beside her, “We have to try to gain some sense of this area.” He looked up with his bright, trusting brown eyes.

The slam of a door alerted them to wisps of smoke coming from a distant chimney. A hedge loomed ahead, obscuring a stone cottage. For a moment she paused, blinking back memories of a cosy armchair, mulled wine and television.

She switched off the torch. Charlie growled. “Hello!” she called. Nothing. “Is anyone there?” No response.

An instinct made Etisha look towards the shed door, where she saw the glint of a long barrel gleaming in the moonlight.

Charlie barked. She lowered herself. Two shots burst through the night, rupturing the silence.

Charlie, where was he? Had he bolted? What if he had been shot? How would he find her in this thick, impenetrable darkness?

All she could do was run, unaware of the direction, but away from the cottage, stumbling over mounds of earth, slipping, sliding. Her breath came out in plumes. “Charlie,” she whispered, “Charlie, where are you?”

She had to risk the flashlight so that he could see her. Louder now, an edge of desperation seeping into her voice, “Charlie! Charlie, here boy! Treats!”

Nothing. She listened for the clink of his collar, her eyes focused to try to see his flapping ears or his black nose sniffing the ground.

Etisha spun around, throwing the light in a circle around her. Had he been spooked? Or was he chasing foxes?

Which direction had she come from? Which way must she go?

“Charlie!” she cried. “Charlie, come now! I don’t even know how to find the car!”

A straggly bush emerged in front of her, but she was uncertain whether it was the same one or different, they all looked the same in the darkness. She edged around it, heading towards some shadowy trees.

Suddenly a green light lit up on her phone. Etisha stared at it. A message. She fumbled to look at it. “Take care, wherever you are. Don’t go back. John x.” Sent seven hours ago.  She looked up through the lattice work of branches at the cold, distant stars and blinked.

The phone blackened and died.

As she stumbled forward she saw the glinting edges of her car. There, sitting by the bonnet and waiting patiently for her return was Charlie.

Etisha caved forward, wrapping her arms around him and nuzzling his soft fur. Engulfed in a rush of light headed relief which bordered on exhilaration, she held her dog. They were alone. Frightened. Free.

She flung the phone in a puddle. It was no use to her now. Tomorrow she would find somewhere more suitable to hide her car, somewhere more secluded.

Tomorrow she realised would be Christmas Day. But Christmas had been cancelled.

Etisha pulled out the blanket covering the boot of her car. Something fluttered to the ground. “Tonight Charlie, we will be safe enough sleeping here,” she said as she pulled on the fleece lined top and trousers. She slammed the boot shut with a bundle of blankets in her arms.

Etisha peered at the ground to see what had fallen. A single golden cracker lay slumped in the mud.

 

 

 

 

No comments:

Post a comment