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Part 1

2 – When You Think You’ve Lost Your Wallet, But Then You Find It

Keeping busy helped. Skip, Douglas and Herc were off almost every day moving refugees and supplies – so many of the roads were still blocked with abandoned and crashed vehicles in the early days that flying was the only really reliable way to get things about, and the RAF just didn’t have enough to cope without help from civilian volunteers. Arthur’s mum was kept busy helping co-ordinate things, which was good because she was great at that.

Arthur’s work was… well. It was useful, and that was what really mattered. Sometimes he helped clear roads. Sometimes he helped at the hospitals or the Army Medic tents – overflowing with people with terrible injuries from the virus, or who had stayed in their own shelters for too long and had drunk bad water as a result. A lot of the time, he was clearing away the bodies. There were a lot of bodies. Some were in cars, some were lying out in the street. There were a lot in their houses. You could see where they’d tried to hide, or barricade themselves in, and where the sick people had broken in. Sometimes, Arthur would find whole families, in cars parked in locked garages with the petrol all run out, or on beds with empty bottles of sleeping pills on the floor. He would console himself that at least they went peacefully.

At first, when he was shifting the bodies, he told himself that it was all right, that he was going to help give these poor people a decent burial instead of just letting them lie there. That was before he saw the pyre. He told himself it was OK again – that it was just like what the Vikings did.

He didn’t feel like a Viking when they lit it. He felt it was more like what other people out of history had done. Helping was good, but sometimes Arthur wished he could help out with something a bit less horrid.

Douglas was right, though, about things getting better in little bits. The water started working again after the first fortnight, so people could wash in the changing room showers. It was cold, but at least that meant the queues moved pretty quickly. Electricity started coming back the week after that, although it would cut out a lot. One of the soldiers came in with a box of books for people one day, and for the hour after evening rations they’d put on the stereo they’d used for aerobics classes back when their camp was a proper leisure centre. People would dance. Arthur would dance, and the kids staying there would dance, and sometimes he’d be able to get his mum or Skipper to dance, too. Once they all danced together. That was lovely.

And, the more Arthur and his fellow helpers cleared and fixed and disinfected, the more the living were able to reclaim ground from the dead. Arthur’s clear-up was mainly based in central Bristol, and he was able to see how, after a few weeks, a handful of areas became suitable to live in again. Relief Villages, they called them – sounded all nice and countryish, for blocks of flats and council houses in the inner city. Soon after, they started moving people in. The families with kids started leaving the leisure centre camp. Arthur missed them being around, and not just because it meant an end to Mrs Castle’s nightly readings of Harry Potter. He was glad, though. The Relief Villages weren’t much, but they had electricity and running water, and proper beds, and people could cook their own rations when they wanted to eat, and have their own space.

After six weeks in the leisure centre, Arthur was told that he, his mum, Herc, Douglas and Skip had been allocated a flat. There had been no point even trying to put their names down for separate accommodation – single adults and couples were being asked to share with others anyway, and were generally having to wait longer than people who had already arranged themselves into groups. Arthur was delighted. He wouldn’t be without his mum anyway, and Herc was great, and Douglas and Skipper were brilliant. It would be like being on Gerti, only in a flat and with his dog.

They weren’t given much notice, but then it wasn’t as if they had a lot to pack. Arthur gathered the few clothes, washcloth and toothbrush he’d been given together, and waited excitedly to be reunited properly with Snoopadoop and driven to their new home. After ten minutes, it was only Skipper left rooting around the bedding mats and blankets, looking for something.

‘Are you ready, Martin?’ Douglas asked.

‘Hang on. Hang on.’

‘The coach will be leaving soon, Martin,’ warned Arthur’s mum, ‘and if we’re not on it, they’ll give the flat we’ve been waiting a month and a half for to somebody else. And I shall not be happy. I shall be the very picture of not happy. I shall be such a perfect representation of not happy that you could use my photograph in the Encyclopedia Britannica to illustrate the definition of “not happy”.’

‘All right! Hang on! I’m just… I’m looking for… I had it, only last night, I…’

‘Whatever it is,’ said Herc, ‘it can’t be that important. It’s just stuff. Stuff doesn’t matter, any more. Not here.’

Skip stood upright, running his hands through his hair in frustration. ‘It’s my wallet. I’ve lost my wallet.’

‘Your wallet?’ Arthur’s mum scoffed. ‘Martin, just because something was important before all of this happened, it doesn’t mean it matters now.’

‘It does matter!’

‘I’ll help you look for it, Skip.’ Arthur got up on his knees, and started looking under the bedding.

‘It really doesn’t, Martin,’ said Douglas. ‘It’s just credit cards you can’t use any more, money that’ll be meaningless for some time to come and keys to a house you can’t live in.’

‘It’s not just that, though. My ID cards…’

‘Lots of people have lost their ID cards, Martin, and you’re in the emergency government’s systems, now – they’ll just issue you a new one.’

‘But I’ve got contact details in there too, and I know the phones still aren’t up yet, but when they are… and… and personal stuff, and I… I just want to find it before we go, because… because…’

‘Is this it, Skip?’ Arthur held up a battered black wallet that had fallen between two of the bedding mats and managed to get tangled up in a bit of blanket.

‘Yes!’ Skippers eyes widened in recognition and relief. ‘Yes that’s it!’

Arthur handed it to him, and Skip opened it up straight away.

‘Small change all still there, I trust,’ said Arthur’s mum, ‘or are we to spend another six weeks sleeping on a Badminton court because you think 10p might have rolled under a floorboard?’

Arthur saw Skip check the little transparent window on the inside of the wallet. There were two of those little passport sized school photos in it – one of a boy smiling stiltedly on his own, and the other of two young brothers.

‘Those pictures of your nephews, Skip?’

Skipper nodded. ‘It’s just… I don’t know if they…’

‘It’s all right, Martin,’ Arthur’s mum told him, her voice suddenly gentle and soft, like when Arthur’s goldfish had died that time.

‘This might be all there is left,’ added Skip, in a small voice.

‘We understand.’

A soldier shouted out their names from the door, and they all got to their feet, clutching their few possessions.

‘Our carriage awaits,’ said Douglas.

Arthur took a step towards the door, but stopped when Skipper’s hand fell on his shoulder.

‘Thank you, Arthur.’

‘Think nothing of it, Skip.’

‘Can’t.’ Skip squeezed his shoulder, then blinked down at the floor. ‘Sorry.’ He sniffed, and rubbed the back of his thumb against his eyes.

‘Is that happy crying or sad crying, Skip?’ Arthur asked, quietly.

‘It’s not… I’m not.’

‘No. Of course you’re not. But if you were. Would it be happy crying or sad?’

Skip shrugged, still fixing his gaze down at the floor. ‘Little bit of both, I suppose.’

‘Well, good. At least there’s a little bit of happy in there. It’s a start, right?’

Part 3

November 2013

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