Chapter 18 - In The Nick Of Time?
“They’re coming,” Claire muttered, her voice flat and emotionless.
James blood froze at her lifeless pronouncement; her tone of voice sounded like someone else, someone he didn’t know. James, on the other hand, was becoming incapacitated with terror for Claire and the baby. He looked at her but her eyes were closed, her face relaxed and serene, as if nothing was wrong at all. Did she think he could save her? If she did, and that was the cause of her calm demeanour, then he wondered if there was any way at all that he could live up to her expectations. Or maybe she was blocking out her terror and simply accepting fate. He recalled the Serenity Prayer and wondered if she was following that sage philosophy. He wished sincerely right then that he had the same capacity for acceptance.
The only thing he truly wished for was that she had taken an alcoholic drink in spite of the possible risk to their baby. After all, the mother would have to survive if the baby was to see the light of day as a normal human.
The rushing water sound they had heard before while standing on the bridge over the M25 was becoming louder and more intense. James fancied he could hear individual slugs scaling the walls to the upper floors. Was it his imagination or was there less light coming in through the windows? By now he was too frightened to look up and see. Apparently Shirley wasn’t; determined to see what fate awaited her pub she looked up and saw wave after wave of creeping dark spots wash over the windows – and screamed.
As if in sympathy to her reaction, church bells sounded, irregular and inexpertly rung but nevertheless persistent. The hellish cacophony from down the road had an immediate effect as the room was becoming visibly brighter.
James stole an upward glance and caught sight of the last of the slugs descending back to their human transport, leaving the windows smeared and running with thick, clear mucus, the fading sunshine causing slick rainbow effects across the panes.
“Who the hell is doing that?” Shirley asked rhetorically, having recovered from her initial shock at the sight of so many slugs. No-one thought to respond, yet all were grateful for what appeared to be a reprieve.
After a moment, James rallied as did Billy and they both rushed to the windows facing the church behind the pub.
“Yep, it’s definitely the bells at St George’s Church!” Billy exclaimed excitedly. He pointed to a square, Norman tower just visible over the trees to the rear. “Sounds like it’s just one person pulling ropes randomly.”
James looked sideways at the man. Billy saw the look and offered an explanation.
“Sometimes I like to do some bell ringing. There are eight, you know. A well-endowed tower, I can tell you.”
James smirked at the use of the term, well-endowed for such a thing. Clearly Billy was fond of the church and probably a regular campanologist, although to look at him you’d never have guessed. Mind you, what does an average campanologist even look like, James wondered?
Looking down into the car park they watched the infected lurch their way towards the ancient building, leaving the area eerily clear of any activity.
“Whoever it is, is going to be in serious trouble in a minute!” Billy observed. “We should do something.”
Declining to answer the call to arms, James watched fascinated as the mob took up positions around the church, the bells’ attraction clearly inexorable to the gastropod community psyche, perhaps an unintended call to prayer for the new world order. After a moment the bells ceased their call, the last clangs fading into nothingness. The silence felt heavy and pendulous as it settled over the crowd. They stood stock still, as if waiting for further encouragement.
A moment later James jumped back in surprise as a pebble hit the window right in front of him.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed.
Billy smiled as he looked down.
“It’s Luke. He’s a mate of mine,” Billy explained, waving down at the newcomer. “Come on, let’s go get him.”
“Are you sure?” James asked, worried about the threat of newcomers.
“Yeah, as you said, the infected don’t have any hand-eye co-ordination. Can you see one throwing a pebble?”
Without waiting for an answer, he ran downstairs, James close on his heels. Billy threw all the bolts and pulled the door open. The newcomer rushed inside and stood there panting, his sprint from the church short but quick. Between Billy and James they sealed the door once more.
Billy gave the stranger a big hug.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, I can tell you. How did you know we were here?”
“I didn’t know for sure,” Luke replied. “But considering it looked like that lot were waiting to be served it was an easy guess to see they’d found someone. Persistent little buggers. Thought you’d be home by now, not still here!”
“It’s a long story,” Billy began. “I got trapped a few hours ago.”
Billy turned to James and Claire who had followed them downstairs and introduced his friend.
“This is Luke, Luke Malone. We ring the bells at St George’s,” he explained with a smile.
“Don’t tell him all our darkest secrets, matey,” Luke said admonishing his friend. Turning to James he offered his hand which James shook.
“Hi,” Luke said, still a little out of breath.
“Thanks for your help,” James said. “I’m James and this is my wife, Claire; there are a few more of us upstairs. We really appreciate what you just did for us, although I have the horrible feeling you’ve just trapped yourself in here too.”
As if to prove James’ words the heavens opened up and the rain came down in quantities that would have unsettled Noah.
“Shit,” Luke muttered.
“Let’s get back upstairs and hope this time they don’t come back,” James recommended.
“Is that your grand plan?” Luke asked.
“Nope, we’re also going to get pissed!” James retorted. Without waiting to explain, he dashed over to the bar and picked up as many bottles of spirits he could carry. Billy had seen his plan and was doing the same. Seeing his friend nonplussed, Billy told him to help out and that explanations would follow once ensconced upstairs.
With the clanking of bottles and heavy footsteps they ascended quickly to the hall again and Shirley closed and locked the mighty oak doors behind them.
Spreading their stash across a couple of the empty tables, Billy hurriedly made introductions and explained their strategy.
“Who’d ’a thought it, eh? Alcohol saves lives,” Luke observed. “That sounds like a Daily Mail headline, for this week at least. Still, I’m not complaining.”
James took some brandy over to Claire.
“I know you don’t want to but I reckon it’s only a matter of time before those things get in. Quite honestly, if you don’t drink it then I’m really not sure how to defend you. It’s not like I can fight some bastard or even a group of them to keep them off you. There’s millions of them.”
Tears welled up in Claire’s eyes, making James heart clench with sadness. He held her tightly for a while and then broke away to offer her the brandy bottle.
“Come on,” he urged.
She took it from him and undid the screwcap. Gulping some down, she winced at its sharp warmth catching the back of her throat. It wasn’t a particularly great brandy but it would do.
“Have some more,” he urged her. “You need to be well pissed I reckon, to stop them infecting you.”
She swallowed another couple of gulps and swayed a little as it hit her empty stomach.
“That’ll probably do,” he said.
James attention was caught when he saw Billy signalling him to go to the window. Staying low and peering outside he could see the bloody infected were coming back. Clearly they had some sort of group memory; it didn’t seem reasonable that they could have been detected by smell, the rain would probably have seen to that. On top of that, they’d made no noise and had kept away from the windows. Moving down and out of sight, they gathered on the floor into a single group and all took more drink.
This was going to be awful, James thought to himself; there was nothing to stop the little blighters now. The thought of being covered with slugs was loosening his bowels and it took a lot of effort not to lose control. He drank more and looked around at the others. From the looks on their faces it was clear he wasn’t alone with his level of fear. Breathing deeply he struggled for control. Claire saw this and stroked his cheek.
“We can’t just let them crawl all over us!” he blurted. “We have to do something.”
Looking around he suddenly realised they had a few weapons at hand. He undid his shoes and removed the laces. Tying them around his ankles he would at least stop the disgusting critters from ascending his legs. He shuddered at the thought. He did the same for Claire, while the others copied his actions. He helped her cinch her jacket tight around her waist and neck before doing his own. Checking the seal between body and clothing on him and Claire he felt a bit happier. He kissed her bump for luck. Now it was just a matter of protecting their faces and preventing the slimy predators from entering unprotected orifices. Each of the group were doing their best to make as much of their bodies unreachable.
“If they get in,” James said. “Keep your mouth closed and cover your nose and ears as best you can. They will try to gain access to you that way.”
“Keep everything closed,” Andrea asserted, tight-lipped. “They will go for any orifice.”
James looked at her and suddenly realised her previous ordeal must have been horribly invasive. Up to now he hadn’t considered her previous plight or how the current predicament might be twisting her mind. He couldn’t imagine being that violated by them, the mere thought of it made him squirm inside. Thank god for alcohol.
Shirley raced over to a service cupboard and pulled out several containers of rock salt and began pouring it thickly around the group. Handing them out to each of the others she ordered them to do the same. If what she had learnt from her gardening over the years was in any way appropriate in this instance, then this should be sufficient a boundary to keep the slugs away. At least it should take loads of the creepies with them.
If it hadn’t been for the alcohol, the thought of what was coming would have driven ever one of them to insanity and beyond. As it was, they continued to drink, probably way more than was strictly necessary, savouring the defensive alcohol. Every one of them felt grateful for this one possible lifesaver, although it couldn’t go on forever. Even Claire had weakened as her terror overrode any restraint she once had. Was this simply delaying the inevitable, or would they be able to come up with a solution, James wondered? Perhaps it would be like the Martians in War of The Worlds, when natural selection would eventually remove the threat. Perhaps what was already happening was an enhanced form of natural selection. Maybe the outcome would be more akin to Planet of The Apes, where mankind became the recessive creature, fed upon and used as transport by a higher and legless entity.
James thoughts were distracted when he realised there was almost no light entering the hall from the windows. Was it dark already, or…