CHAPTER 29

Tom continued out through the village and on towards Siobhan’s flat. He fought to keep his attention fixed on the road, struggling despite there being hardly any other traffic or pedestrians around.

What he’d seen at James and Stephanie’s house had terrified him. Until then he’d been trying to convince himself that this morning had just been a series of bizarre, unconnected events, but the further he travelled, the more he began to realise that was bullshit. He’d been lying to himself, trying to keep calm and not blow things out of proportion, convincing himself that the reason everything felt so quiet today was just because he’d got used to everywhere being busy these last few bizarre months. The truth was, whatever it was that was happening to the people of Thatcham, it was no bizarre coincidence or isolated issue. It was fucking huge. Fucking terrifying.

He passed only one other car and just a handful of people in all the time he was driving. One young lad was sitting on the step of a driverless bus going nowhere. A woman was walking along the side of the road like a drunk. If only drink had been the reason for her freakish behaviour, he thought. Once he’d passed he looked back in his rear view mirror and saw that underneath her long brown coat she was completely naked. Elsewhere he saw several other folks who looked like they’d just given up and stopped. Some were lying on the pavement. One man was face-down on the white line in the middle of the road. Everyone was grinding to a halt. The more of them he saw, the more frightened he became.

Tom’s heart thumped in his chest as he pulled up outside Siobhan’s flat. He looked in through the window, his breath clouding the glass, but couldn’t make out anything in the gloom. He rang the buzzer but there was no reply. He unlocked the door and went inside.

He found Siobhan sitting on the end of the bed, naked but for a bra which wasn’t even done up. She didn’t move, didn’t react to his presence at all. Her hair was a mess. The remains of yesterday’s makeup smudged around her eyes.

‘Siobhan?’

She didn’t flinch.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ he asked. Still nothing. ‘Are you sick?’ He reached across and touched her arm. She felt ice-cold. ‘Siobhan,’ he said again, his voice louder, ‘what’s wrong?’

Very slowly, almost undetectably at first, she moved her eyes slightly. He couldn’t tell if she was looking at him or trying to look away. He picked the duvet up off the floor and draped it over her shoulders. Not knowing what else to do, he filled up the kettle and put her last two slices of bread in the toaster. The sink was full of dirty plates, the bin overflowing.

Is this the best you can do, you useless fucker? He screamed at himself. Your girlfriend’s catatonic and you’re making toast?

He didn’t know what else to do. Was there anything else he could do? If he called for a doctor or an ambulance, would anyone come, or were they all in the same state as this? His mind filled with images of silent hospitals, all the people there completely unmoving, lying in the corridors, slumped at the bottom of staircases. He imagined Drayton in the same state as Thatcham was this morning, then cities like Birmingham and London, then the rest of the world…

The toast popped up, the sudden noise making him catch his breath. He took the plate through to Siobhan and put it down next to her, then tried tearing a strip of toast off and offering it to her like she was a pet. He even pushed it up against her mouth but she didn’t react at all, didn’t even lick away the crumbs on her lips. Should he force feed her? Try and make her eat? Did it even matter anymore?

His mobile rang. He fumbled for it in his pocket and answered quickly, hands shaking, heart thumping.

‘Tom? Tom, is that you?’

‘Clare?’

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m at Siobhan’s house.’

‘Can you come over?’

‘Not really… Siobhan’s sick. I don’t know what to do.’

‘Penny too.’

‘No better than last night?’

‘Worse. She’s barely moving. I’m scared.’

Tom looked down at Siobhan, still comatose. Should he bother telling Clare everything he’d seen this morning? He struggled with his next question, knowing it would sound bad, no matter how carefully he phrased it.

‘Clare, is there anyone else who could—’

‘There’s no one else,’ she answered immediately, cutting across him. ‘You’re the only person still answering.’

Tom paced the room. The plate of toast slid off Siobhan’s bed and hit the floor. Holding the phone to his ear with one hand, he struggled to clean up the food with the other. Siobhan still didn’t move.

‘Tom… you there?’

‘I’m here.’

‘I need help. Can you come? Please, Tom.’

‘I can’t leave Siobhan. She’s hardly moving, Clare. Barely even knows I’m here. I think Rob might be the same. He’s still at home…’

‘Sorry… I’ll keep trying, see if I can get anyone else to answer. Sorry, Tom.’

She was about to disconnect the call when he realised he didn’t want her to go. Didn’t want to lose her voice.

‘Wait, Clare. Just give me a little time. I’ll come over.’

‘But what about Siobhan and your brother?’

‘Don’t do anything,’ he said, not entirely sure what he was agreeing to anymore, just glad to have found someone else still able to communicate. ‘Stay there and I’ll be over.’

Tom’s head was spinning as he ended the call, trying to balance Clare and Penny’s relative importance against Siobhan and Rob’s. And then there was the mess he’d left back at James and Stephanie’s house… Where the hell did he start? Could he do anything for any of them?

He made a half-hearted attempt to move Siobhan, pulling her arms and trying to get her up onto her feet, but she didn’t respond. She remained a dead weight.

‘Help me!’ he yelled at her, but her face didn’t flicker. He yanked her arm again and pulled too hard, almost dragging her over. She fell onto her side and remained where she’d fallen. She looked at him – through him – with vacant eyes, and he gave up. Admitting defeat, he draped the duvet over her again. ‘I’ll be back. I’ll go and get the others and I’ll be right back.’

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