We arrived at the door at the same time. That was some coincidence given the turmoil around us, and the circumstances we had travelled through. Immediately on our guard, we both needed to get through that door.
She said, ‘I’m sorry, you must be mistaken,’ as I said, ‘I’m sorry, you must have made a mistake.’ You could here the fear in our shaking voices. Right then we both knew there was an error.
‘I have it booked,’ she said.
‘So do I.’
We were the only people in this corridor of the hotel apartment block, but there was the sound of raised voices, a scuffle on the next floor near the stairwell. The voices were muffled but we could hear the rising anger. We needed to get into that room, and it was already clear what we had to do, but nevertheless we continued with our prosaic exchange, even then each wondering if we could get into the room on our own. We tapped at our mobiles, checked our calendars, and our position became clear. She had the safe room booked until midnight that day. I had it booked the next day. There was no way that travel times and arrival times could be guaranteed: that would remain a luxury of the past. There was no way either of us would let the other go into the room on their own.
‘I have it now,’ she said, without conviction.
‘You wouldn’t vacate at midnight.’ The idea was madness. ‘We will need to share.’
We tapped alternate numbers of the passcode, as a final confirmation we were on the same team. I opened the door, took one step across the threshold, just to be sure I wouldn’t be locked out, then waved her through. It was a tense moment. Our fear, lack of trust and the need to co-operate was palpable. The voices on the next level were raised further, and we heard shouting and loud blows. We closed the door behind us and dropped the deadbolts.
Each of us conducted a search and perimeter check of the room.
My heart hammered. I had a hideously dry mouth. Just terrified. I was somehow surprised at how badly my hands shook. The door was safe and the windows were closed. I drew down and locked the internal shutter, though we were three stories above the growing bedlam down in the streets. In the bathroom I placed the plug in the bath and ran the cold water tap. In the living area the woman had found a large inflatable bladder for storing water. She placed it at the corner of the room, ran a hose to it from the kitchen tap and started filling it. There was a fire door which exited to an exterior escape. Locked, and also with deadbolts, against all regulations. The kitchen area was secure, well-stocked with tins, dry goods, bottled water, gas bottles and camp cooking gear. There was a small table, hard chairs, a small couch and a coffee table, and one double bed.
We were safe for a while, as long as we kept ourselves locked in. One kitchen/dining/living/sleeping area. One bathroom.
A shelf in the kitchen area held liquor bottles. I grabbed scotch, poured a double into a small, heavy glass tumbler, pushed it against the lever on the fridge and let two ice cubes drop into the glass. The smell of the liquor was good. The woman watched me, noticed my shaking hand, looked at the glass.
‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to get drunk.’
‘It’s been a bad day. Would you like one?’
She shook her head. I pulled out one of the heavy wooden chairs, slumped into it, rested my elbows on the table, took a gulp of the drink. It tasted cool and good. I laughed, just a dull grunt really. The woman looked surprised.
‘Hotel room. Whisky and ice on tap. At this hour. It’s like being on holiday.’
Her composure left her. Her eyes filled with tears that spilled over her face. She embraced herself tightly, one hand covering her mouth. She moaned, desperate, unable to contain herself.
We neither of us knew for certain that the other was not infected.
‘Why not have a drink? Medicinal.’ She didn’t answer. Just stood, in a knot, moaning. I stood, got another glass, poured another shot, added ice, placed the glass on the other side of the table. ‘Please, sit. Join me.’
She didn’t move. I sipped at the drink, warmed and savoured the cool liquor in my mouth.
Outside, in the street we could hear the voice of someone bellowing, enraged. Then crashing, metal buckling, glass smashing, as if someone was pounding a car with a sledgehammer.
There was more shouting in the hall. Then pounding on the door of our apartment. Blam, blam. Thumping, kicking. My heart hammered. My fingers clutched round the glass, knuckles whitening. Someone knew we were in that room. Someone angry. The banging continued for a minute or more. The woman somehow crumpled still further in on herself, half-crouching, arms wrapped about her, shuddering. The door held. Then abruptly the banging stopped. The woman bit her fingers hard, trying to be silent. We heard banging at another door, further down the corridor, then further again. Gone. I cradled the glass in both hands and spilled the rest of the drink into my mouth.
I stood, legs rubbery and stepped toward her. She fell to the floor as she moved back . ‘No, no, keep away!’
I retuned to the table, taking the whisky with me and poured another drink. She remained on the floor, spent.
Outside we could hear more shouting, more destruction and atrocity.
The trip to the apartment was difficult. A perimeter had been scored right through the city with concrete barricades, tanks, APCs and hundreds of heavily armed troops. Doors to buildings had been blocked and barricaded. Helicopters ran the line. The northern half of the city was deemed clear – not infected. The southern half – quarantined Anyone in the southern end of the city not yet infected had no chance of escape. That’s what we all were thinking as we mobbed towards the train: they could redraw the line at any time.
As we neared the train our baggage was taken from us. We could keep a small backpack or handbag, everything else was thrown into the back of a truck to be cleared from the area. We thronged down the station concourse, crammed into the train, three to every two seats, and every inch of standing room squashed tight with sweating, terrified humanity.
The train seemed to take forever to get started, and then it moved so slowly, clanking over points. Those of us near windows watched the city skyline drift back into our memories.
Three hours, without air-conditioning, stifled. It was too long a wait for some and the stench became unbearable. We could not open the doors between carriages. Locked, probably deliberately in some effort at containment. Towards the end of the journey we could see through the glass doors that the people in the next carriage were agitated. Not angry but scared. They in turn could see something in the carriage beyond. We know then that the infection was on the train and had become evident in the few hours of travel. We wondered what it meant. If the authorities knew that we were bringing the disease north they would take action. Airstrike the train? Stop it and execute us all? But nothing happened. We just kept moving. What did that mean? They didn’t know? Or they couldn’t act?
I suspected it meant that society had broken down irretrievably. This was anticipated as the most likely outcome after all. It doesn’t take long. Despite all best efforts at quarantine, if the carrier is fit enough to walk, and is unaware or uncaring of their infection, not much can be done. There are so many of us. Billions. Throwing up apartment blocks and railway lines to cover the globe. Disease vectors for a short-incubation virus. We had no chance.
The government, or quasi-government bodies, had anticipated this, or similar scenarios. I was one selected to survive and carry on. How bizarre that had been, that initial connection with a stranger and her impossible tale, but how willingly I had accepted the offer. An identity code, safe houses, cached equipment, details stored on a mobile phone with a signal amplifier strapped to it, and a target destination. With the news from South America filling our news channels each hour, how willingly I had agreed to give myself a chance as most of the rest of humanity would fall ill and perish.
When the train stopped, just half of it aligned with the station platform of this small town, we waited a strained minute or two for the doors to open. The atmosphere was like glass. I am sure everyone wanted to scream as much as me. We just wanted to get out, afraid of staying, afraid of the panic there would be if we had to slowly break our way out. Afraid of getting out.
The doors opened and we pushed and shoved and dragged ourselves out of that carriage according to strength and size. The passengers from our carriage ran down the platform away from the carriage that we knew to be infected. It didn’t matter. Ahead of us we saw spitting, fuming, raging beings, stamping, cursing to the sky, hammering one another with bloodied fists, tearing with hooked fingers, biting, kicking.
We twisted, turned in flight, stamped over one another, pushed, clawed. It was a bright morning. Under blue skies and pure white cumulus clouds we fought for survival. We put ourselves first.
I put myself first until I reached the doorway of the apartment, put my foot across the threshold and let the woman in.
‘Please,’ I asked. ‘Put a blanket round you. Keep warm. You are probably in shock.’
I considered the bottle. Left it.
She backed towards the foot of the bed, rested against it, pulled a throw blanket round her. We sat quietly. Listening to screams outside and the slowly rising tone of streams of water filling the bath and the large bladder.
‘You have a weapon, yes?’
‘So we take our firearms, sit on opposite sides of the room. On the floor. That makes us slower to stand. We both go the bathroom first. We wait.’
She said nothing.
‘We can’t need to wait more than two or three hours now. It doesn’t take long.’
Her dark eyes were swimming with fear. ‘What do we do if…’
‘Shoot to kill. No question. We have both seen them. It is clear. They are not human.’ I watched her horrified expression, unsure if she was thinking of killing, or being killed, or remembering some horror from the past days. I said, ‘I would rather be killed.’
She nodded slowly, said, ‘The infection…’
‘I heard it was transferred by contact.’ I stopped then, unclear of how to solve the problem. ‘If we had to do it…if we had to shoot…we would have a dead body in the apartment. But, if we didn’t touch it? Maybe if we, I don’t know, poured the alcohol over…’
She looked doubtful.
‘No. I don’t know. I don’t know what else to suggest.’
She nodded slowly.
She was Indian. Beautiful. Noble face, dark eyes, long limbed, voluptuous. She let down her long, dark hair to fall over her shoulders. She moved, even in this desperate strait, with purpose, economically, with mystery. She changed her clothes when she went to the bathroom and showered. The business suit jacket and pants replaced with looser, colourful Indian pants and top. Bare feet. I felt as if she wanted to face the next few uncertain hours as herself, a self that liked comfort, colour, tradition.
Seeing her clean I felt like a tramp. I could smell my clothes and myself. I thought of my pale unshaven face, my lank hair. I took my backpack to the bathroom and showered. The water was hot, with strong pressure and I thought, this could be the last time I have such a shower. I used little plastic bottles of shampoo and shower gel, and guessed she would have had her own bottles. It was luxurious, hot, steamy. I felt like filth was sluicing from me. The soap smelt of coconuts. I wondered if I would ever see another coconut. I cried out, sobbed, gasped for air. I stopped, let the water run over me.
When I got back she had put two full tumblers of whisky, each with a couple of pieces of ice, at opposite ends of the room, on the floor. She had not used the glasses I had touched. Beside each glass a plastic water bottle, condensation limning its edges.
‘You scrubbed up…’ she trailed off.
‘Thanks,’ I said, indicating the drinks. She still wore disposable gloves. I thought of having used the shower after her. ‘You’re…you. You scrubbed up good yourself. You’re beautiful.’
‘Thank you’ she said, almost smiling. ‘That was kind of you. And brave. You look nice.’
‘I put on a…my clean shirt.’
‘Yes.’ We sat down. She picked up her tumbler and raised it, ‘Cheers’.
‘Cheers.’ I said and mimed clinking my glass against hers.
We felt bereft in that apartment. Over the next couple of hours we felt robbed of our birthright, of our history, of our identity. Unable even to touch, shake hands or kiss each other’s cheeks in greeting. We talked quietly, our voices soft for fear of alerting others outside, and somehow also in respect for our dying society. The history of our species was drawing to a close. A saga closing with just the last threads of story to suggest some remnant might linger on.
She spoke of her family in India. We were unsure if the infection had spread that far, but felt almost certain it had, that it must be everywhere by now. She told the story of her family, stretching back over decades, into the time of Empire. At times she almost smiled as she recalled a moment of joy or closeness or love, and then tears would spill over her dark lashes.
We kept our handguns close to us, sipping water to moisten our dry mouths.
She spoke of the long history before that, of Maharajas, magic, colour, life. A civilisation at a high point. It sounded like a glorious time of art, temples, dance and an intimate knowledge of ourselves as humans: sensuous beings with a spiritual yearning.
I compared her story with my own. My family was thinner on the ground, less strongly linked. Our story was less colourful, and I wondered why that was. I thought that I was less content, took more for granted, rejected the gift of companionship of others. I felt history sweeping away what little I had, and I longed for more. I felt alone.
Time ticked by slowly. Each word had tremendous significance. Each sound was clear, resonant, as if it might be the last we heard. We shifted our bodies to new positions on the hard floor, and joked about how stiff and achy we were becoming. Joked, and then fell silent again, re-checking the handguns, considering that one of us might need to use their weapon, and what that meant.
We were in transit. Just waiting. Uncertain of where we were going, or how we would get there. Our pasts over, our futures unclear. We felt loss. We felt our characters strained, sieved to reveal what was essential about us. We felt the sweep of history had subsided and left us on a distant, impossible shore.
We picked up our glasses.
‘To a happy future.’