Nick Amhurst had just turned twenty two. Since leaving the sunny Far East and the beach resorts he had so loved, his usually light blonde hair had darkened, while his suntanned skin had paled over the months as the cloudy weather in the UK made its effects known. Rather than go to University like his friends when he left school he opted instead to travel the world. That decision had been made three years ago and he had never regretted the choice, not even for a single day. He was a round-the-world bum and proud of it. Self-funding through casual labouring jobs, he had become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
Lately he had become a little homesick and the decision to return home to Sydney was duly inevitable. The feeling hadn’t been sudden; it had crept up on him over the last six months. Maybe it was because of Sophie, a girl he had met and somehow, against his will, fallen for in a big way. He’d fought hard not to; in fact having spent the last three years as a free spirit he wanted to stay that way. Bloody human nature, he thought grumpily, especially as she had been of exactly the same independent mind. Of course the inevitable result of his growing feelings for Sophie had been the death of their relationship – not a mutual decision, nor was it his. Now she had moved on to God knows where and he suddenly felt very alone and thought it about time to go home to take stock of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Maybe he had grown up.
And so he found himself sitting on the first Heathrow Express train out of Paddington at 0625 on that fateful, sunny Friday morning in July, heading towards the airport and his flight back to Oz; he was feeling happier than he’d felt in some time. He even noticed a couple of pretty women, one blonde woman who looked to be in her mid to late twenties, and the other a brunette about his own age or a little younger, sitting on the seats opposite.
“Where are you off to?” he asked, always interested in other people’s destinations.
The brunette looked up, surprised at being addressed. “Ah, Dusseldorf,” she replied, smiling shyly.
“That’s a shame, I’m going the opposite direction,” he continued, a little disappointed. She had a pleasant, open face.
“Where’s that?” she asked; he detected her slight German accent, reminding him how perfectly some Germans spoke English.
“Australia, via the USA.”
“That sounds like fun,” she responded. “I’m going home.”
“So am I. Want to come with me?” Endorphins flooded his blood; he felt a visceral connection with the girl and hoped unreasonably that she would say yes. His face flushed in embarrassment.
“That would be very nice, but my parents are expecting me home.” She eyed him coquettishly. “You could come with me and my sister.”
Nick’s stomach dropped a few inches in surprise at her response and he just knew she could see his face redden. God, I’m twenty two years old, and I shouldn’t be reacting like a silly teenager, he admonished himself. Still, he wondered: Australia and home, or follow this girl. In the end the draw of the big country won out.
“Maybe next time,” he replied, giving her his best smile.
“Maybe,” she agreed, smiling back. After a moment the girl turned to talk to her sister who seemed to be frowning, seemingly irritated that he had spoken to them. Or maybe because her sister had responded so positively to a stranger’s attention.
Siblings, he thought, sometimes they could be quite judgemental. Fortunately he only had the one. His own sister had initially frowned upon his desire to travel, considering it a waste of an opportunity to continue his studies. After a while she had thawed though and had wished him well; she might even have accompanied him if she hadn’t been married with a kiddie on the way.
Watching the pair he could tell they were discussing him, in spite of the fact that he could hear nothing over the noise of the train. It didn’t appear to be a happy discussion; was the girl being taken home by her sister under a cloud of indiscretion, he wondered. It was always a surprise to him at how far a family’s reach could go around the world to protect one of their own.
They burst out of the dark, musty tunnel and into the weak morning sunlight and Nick squinted as the sun caught him directly in the eyes. For the next few minutes at least they would be above the ground; he had never been fond of the Underground – a useful but to him unpleasant necessity to be used sparingly. Peering out like a mole surfacing from the confines of its earthy burrow he could now see the glory that was the industrial western suburbs of London. Looking into the distance he could see the thinning pall of smoke from the West End and remembered reading a headline on a newspaper billboard about some disaster or other at the MI5 building. The thought amused him – secret agents probably caught out doing something they shouldn’t, he suspected. The events would probably make for a good thriller someday.
They were passing Hounslow now and through the grimy window he could see what looked like groups of people running around the streets. From the fleeting glimpses he caught it appeared that some of these groups were clashing with others, their number intermingled with police officers desperately trying and failing to keep law and order. It might have been a riot, but there didn’t appear to be sides drawn; it was more like groups of rabble pitching in on each other; he knew the Brits liked a good rumble but this was something else, something that appeared to be far more violent.
The angry, no, vicious, he corrected himself, looks on the faces of some of the participants were very frightening. What could cause such hatred in the inhabitants of this relatively mild-mannered island at this hour of the morning, he wondered. Personally he preferred the comfort of his humble bed and could never get so angry or incensed in what he considered the wee small hours of the morning. He’d been called lazy on more than one occasion.
Even given the restricted and sometimes fleeting view of the action from the train window he could tell that there was more police activity down there than he had ever seen before. Police cars with their flashing lights and sirens wailing were rushing towards the scene of chaos. The sight of the riot squad standing in their formidable lines, clad in their protective clothing and carrying large Perspex shields, was not something he had ever expected to see outside of the cinema. Whatever it was that caused this commotion, it looked like the situation was rapidly descending into chaos. Just before the scene disappeared from his view he saw the blue line begin their inexorable, iron-hard march towards the scene of battle.
The Australian had spent the last six months in London and although he quickly came to know of places he shouldn’t walk alone after dark, the city had come to feel almost like a second home to him; it was certainly one of the most interesting cities in Europe in his opinion. In spite of this emotional attachment, having seen the violence on the streets on this beautiful morning, he felt it might just be the right time to be getting out of Dodge. He’d land in New York, make his way across the vast American continent to San Francisco and then catch a flight back home, probably three months from now; he may have been a little homesick but he still had a lot to do and see before he settled down once and for all. And above all else, he wanted to find out whether the song ‘Californian Girls’ was right in its assertions.
Still looking out of the window as the train clacked its way towards their destination, he strained to peer downwards as the train sailed over a bridge that spanned a wide road. All over the intersection and disappearing under the bridge were numerous clusters of people and police mixed together, struggling in what appeared to be rugby scrums; it was as if there was a ball in the middle of the pile up to which they were all trying to lay claim, although that was hardly likely to be an option. The whole thing was weird. A man, as far as he could tell anyway, was lying on the pavement near one of these huddled groups; he was thrashing around, blood pouring from his face, and a large flap of his cheek was laid open revealing his jaw bone and a large number of his teeth. He was one of dozens; others similarly injured or worse were struggling to stand up, or struggling to walk if they could get to their feet. They swayed, nursing wounds to arms, legs, necks and faces; were they actual bite marks he could see on their exposed flesh? Jesus, what the hell was going on in this city? It was like something was in the water supply making the residents manic. Or was it in the air? Nick’s thoughts turned to the reports of the tremendous fire in central London. Was this problem related to that, he wondered, unconsciously starting to take progressively shallower breaths as if the very air in the compartment might be contaminated. Suddenly realising what he was doing and its daft futility, he mentally kicked himself for being so easily spooked. To think he had travelled the world just to be worried by a bit of civil unrest, in London of all places.
No, he was safe on the train; it was sealed and air-conditioned. He shuddered and returned his gaze back inside the carriage. Yes, he concluded, it was definitely time to be getting out of this place.
The train suddenly and completely without warning jammed its brakes on, hurling Nick and other forward facing passengers and baggage into their travelling companions opposite. Quick to react, Nick placed his hands between the girls and stopped himself from piling on top of them. Just as suddenly the train powered forwards, gaining speed quickly. A nervous, somewhat breathless voice made an announcement over the Tannoy.
“My apologies, ladies and gentlemen. There appears to have been people running around on the track but, ah, we are past them now and will continue our way to Heathrow. If you have a problem, please see one of the ticket inspectors, who will assist you with any first aid needs. Our first stop is in six minutes.”
The girls opposite had gone pale and were looking anxiously around and out of the window too; they had clearly seen the same violence down on the street and were trying to see what had caused the train to brake so hard.
“Sorry about that,” Nick said as he sat back down, slightly shaken. He smiled reassuringly. “I think they would have said that ‘a passenger has fallen ill’ if someone had gone under the train, so whatever it was, was probably nothing to be worried about. They’ve got armed police at the airport so we’ll be safe there.” Distracted, the brunette looked at him and smiled a little nervously.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Jana,” she replied.
“Jana,” he repeated. “That’s a nice name, Jana. Mine’s Nick. Which terminal are you going from?”
“Ah, same as me. I can walk with you to your check-in if you’d like?”
“That would be nice.” Her face scrunched up as she suddenly sneezed violently and without warning. “Entshuldigen,” she spluttered, pulling out a tissue. Her eyes had reddened a little.
“You okay?” Nick asked. Her sister looked at Jana in surprise and spoke quietly to her. Jana shook her head. Handing over another tissue, her sister, clearly still irritated at her sibling, shrugged her shoulders and looked out of the window once more; without a doubt they had been arguing, leaving at least one unresolved issue on the table, clearly something not easily forgiven. Jana blew her nose and Nick noticed there was blood on the tissue and a little remaining on her upper lip. Wiping her face again she left a small smear behind. Nick tried not to stare; he was wondering if the girl was weeping tears. No, he convinced himself, she must have burst a capillary at the violence of the sneeze.
Racing over the final stretch through the tunnels under the airport, the train slowed to a halt at Terminal Five and he grabbed his back pack from the luggage rack. He always travelled light, which was something that could not have been said of the girls. He struggled to help them get their enormous suitcases off the train before it beeped shrilly to alert passengers of its impending departure. Grabbing a trolley he loaded it up, all the while keeping his precious pack on his back. Jana was looking quite under the weather now, sniffing almost continuously, her complexion pallid and clammy looking, and her eyes red-rimmed. In spite of his previous attraction to her and with the typical short-term outlook of the young, he would be glad to say goodbye; the last thing he wanted was to start his adventure in the USA with a nasty head cold.
Having seen the two girls safely check-in, Nick wandered through the vast, white cavern that was Terminal Five, over to his own British Airways check-in desk, at which there was already a significant queue. There was only about an hour before his flight was due to leave and his anticipation and excitement mounted. Noticing the almost empty First Class desks, he wondered what it would be like to travel that way – just walk through like you owned the place, relax in a comfortable chair in the lounge until your flight was called, taking advantage of the free food and drink on offer, then get on board without queuing and sit in the lap of luxury until you reached your destination. What a beaut. Oh, well, he thought, maybe one day if I care enough – or earn enough. Travelling economy was always more fun he reminded himself, apart from the small, crappy seats and mediocre food of course; at least you met loads of young people and had a laugh. First Class was for old farts.
Waiting in the queue gave him time to look around. He liked this terminal but felt uncomfortable seeing such a large number of armed police standing around with alert, serious looks on their faces. Especially after what he had witnessed occurring on the way out here. Of course, with all his travelling he was used to seeing armed police – they were armed back home as well – patrolling around, normally smiling and relaxed as they chatted with the occasional passenger, but now he sensed there was something very wrong. Perhaps it really did have something to do with the fire in London. If it was an attack on the heart of MI5 it might mean the nation’s security alert level had risen. Again. Bloody terrorists, he thought, always trying to screw things up for the rest of us.
Looking at his fellow passengers, he noticed a significant number appeared to be stricken with streaming colds, one or two with bloody noses evidenced by red drop stains on shirts, and blouses. Thinking about Jana and her sudden descent into misery after that single sneeze made him wonder if this was just a cold he was witnessing or something else. Still, the authorities at the airport didn’t seem to be overly concerned, there was no quarantine for cold sufferers so maybe he was just a little paranoid. Damn, he suddenly realised, a plane full of the diseased undead and I’m going to be stuck next to the most disgusting one; that was how his luck usually ran at such times, only this time he had no idea how close he was to the truth. Compared to some of the long haul flights he had taken in his nomadic existence, this one of seven hours or so was relatively short – it would just seem unending if his neighbour was a festering pile of snot, even if it was a she, and she was pretty. Looking down the queue he could see several girls of similar age to himself who appeared to be travelling alone or with other girls. In spite of his misgivings, his optimism rating for the flight rose.
Zombie books by David K Roberts:
Return Of A King: A Zombie Chronicle (Part 1)
The Common Cold: A Zombie Chronicle
The Common Cold: A Zombie Chronicle – Cabin Fever (Sequel)