Chapter 4 - Closing Up Shop
James’ instinct not to come into contact with his colleague, Robby, was the most inspired act of his day so far, especially as it looked like this was going to be the last functional day of anything that could be called normal.
Since then, he’d returned to the control room and stayed there, glued to his seat and focused on the TV, trying to get more information on what the hell was happening. After about half an hour the channels started dropping off the air, programs being replaced by colour test charts, with scrolling feeds telling him that normal service will be resumed shortly.
He could find no access to external sources of information; the radios had stopped transmitting, there weren’t even the klaxon-backed repetitive emergency announcements ZA films made you expect as part of The End, nothing at all. He had also tried to call his girlfriend but the line was constantly engaged. Meanwhile, George had been trying to get through to the main office located on the other side of London, but with a similar lack of success, even on the private radio service.
“Have you got anyone you can try and get in touch with?” James asked George, with little hope of success. As far as he was aware, George was a genuine, no-money-back guaranteed Billy-No-Mates.
“No,” he replied, before adding a little hurriedly, “not around here that is.”
James took the initiative and began calling local shops, just to see if he could get an open line. His efforts produced nothing; they all gave the same engaged signal. Reluctantly both agreed finally that the authorities must have blocked normal calls, after all that was the protocol for emergencies, wasn’t it?
Using his mobile, and in a last ditch desperate attempt to get through to Claire, James tried Skype.
Surprised the Internet connection was still there, he heard the familiar dial tone begin and keep ringing.
“Come on, babe,” he urged desperately. Finally, her face appeared, perfect and clear.
“Hi, baby,” she said, her smile lighting up the small screen. “This is nice, aren’t you still working? Won’t the Fat Controller give you grief?”
James interrupted her quickly before she could spill more beans. George glared at him. Oops, cat’s out of the bag, he realised.
“Hi Claire, we’re on speaker in the control room,” he blurted hurriedly. “George is with me and we’re trying to see if we can contact anyone. I’m so glad to hear your voice.”
She looked embarrassed, realising her gaff, but recovered quickly. “What’s the matter? Has something happened? Sorry, I’ve only just gotten up.”
“Listen to me. Seriously. First of all, just in case the line goes down before we’ve finished, stay inside, please. I’m coming home soon.”
“Wha…” she began.
“Just listen, babe, please.” He paused until he knew he had her attention. “Something strange is happening. Don’t know what the fuck it is but it isn’t good.”
“What do you mean? Is it on the news? I was just going to pop over the road to get some milk. I’ll only be a moment. I’ll be fine.”
James sighed. He loved Claire to bits but she really didn’t function well in the mornings, well, her mornings at least. He reckoned her night shift hours had a lot to answer for.
“Please don’t. You’ve enough milk for a cuppa, haven’t you?”
She paused, the penny seeming to drop at last.
“You’re making me scared. What is it?”
“I’ve just said…” he began, irritation rising a little. Must be his own fear rising making him short-tempered. Sighing a little, he began again.
“I don’t know. Please, listen to me,” he enunciated the words slowly. “Just promise me you’ll stay indoors.”
“Okay, I promise.” She seemed to have heard now, her facial expression serious.
“Sorry, babe, I’m sure it’ll be nothing in the end. We’ve been trying to get more info for the last hour but there are no radio or telly transmissions. Not even the phone lines are working. All I can tell you is that people are behaving strangely. It might be an infection, could be a chemical attack, hell, an Iraqi WMD for all I know. Whatever it is, I haven’t seen a normal person in over an hour.”
George’s radio crackled, interrupting the conversation. James signalled Claire to wait a moment.
A panicked voice shouted something indecipherable at the other end. It sounded a little like “get out” but neither he nor George could make out a single word. What James could detect, though, was the terror in the voice; his spine tingled and goose bumps appeared on his forearms. George tried to speak on the radio but someone was holding the PTT switch down at the other end, hogging the carrier signal, and so the line remained closed to him. The voice stopped abruptly and a crackling silence ensued.
“Hello? Hello?” George tried again. “Nothing,” he said with disgust, throwing the transceiver on the desk. He looked at James.
“Maybe that was HQ telling us to go close up and bugger off,” George said, his voice hopeful, belying the look of concern on his face. If his beloved HQ was off the air, then it was probably serious.
“I’m not going to argue with you, George,” James agreed. Any excuse to get out of this place, he thought. He turned back to his phone but the line had dropped and the screen blank. He tried a few times more to reconnect but the phone was now saying the data connection was lost. “Shit!”
George was checking the monitors for the whereabouts of his other staff; all six had ceased contact a while ago. Via CCTV monitor he managed to locate four of them standing around in the same condition as all of the members of public they could see out in the hallways, lobotomised and never to respond to anything again - probably. God alone knew where the other two were. He gave up, assuming they had either met similar fates or had buggered off themselves. He turned the monitors off.
“I’m off home,” James announced. His stomach was knotting in fear, not for himself, but for Claire and their foetus.
George’s shoulders slumped. Reality had sunk in. leaving meant going out there and it filled him with terror, his bowels loosening.
“You’re not really considering going out there, are you?” he asked of James, his voice quaking. Clearly terrified at the thought of the only other person he knew to be normal leaving him alone, he struggled to find a reason to make James change his mind and stay. Why would anyone actually go outside and risk becoming contaminated, simply to go home, he wondered? He would never be one to understand the imperative of the need to get to a loved one.
“You know we have everything we need to survive in this shopping centre until the authorities get their act into gear, don’t you? You don’t need to go outside, Claire is safe right now. Anyway, didn’t they warn us to stay indoors?”
“Didn’t you watch any of the telly this afternoon?” James asked. “They were confused as hell, half the House of Commons and Lords were already lobotomised by this thing - not that we could tell for most of them - COBRA was going to be called. I know they talked about people staying off the streets - and you know as well as I that’s just to make their lives easier and to cut down on looting. They even started to talk about putting dead outside in the streets for collection. My arse! They don’t even seem to know that to touch them is to end up the same way. You can stay here on your lonesome if that’s your bag, but I’m off. I have a pregnant girlfriend to get back to. You should do the same, get the hell out of here. Go somewhere you’re loved.”
The supervisor dropped his head until it rested on his many chins. He looked scared to death at the idea of going outside.
Deep down James was a decent person. His resolve was quickly weakening until he finally relented.
“Do you have someone you can go to?” he asked, immediately regretting his weakness.
“No, I live on my own,” George admitted. “It’s the best thing in the world,” he added a little too quickly, his voice breaking a little. “I like being a free agent.”
“Sure,” James replied, doing his best to keep scepticism out of his voice. “Okay, you can come with me if you like. It might actually be better if we travel together for a while, you know, help each other out.”
George’s eyes lit up in hope.
“That’d be great, James.” It was the first time James had ever heard his first name used by this man.
“Okay then, let’s get the building closed down. You never know, it might just be a good place to come back to,” James acceded.
“Let’s stick together,” George added. “It’s more efficient that way.”
“Of course it is,” James agreed, all the while thinking it was also good to have someone who moved more slowly than he did under these circumstances. He’d watched The Walking Dead.