‘What d’you think?’ I glanced at Rob nervously.
He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. ‘I don’t know, CJ. It wasn’t there last time I was here.’
We were anchored in the sparkling turquoise waters of a sheltered bay, fringed with golden-white sand, on the east side of a small island. Off to either side, the island rose in height, rearing up to form towering cliffs that no infected could ever hope to scale. On the shore, lit by the light of the low autumn sun, I could see the crumbling ruins of small stone buildings scattered amongst tussocks of grass. Here and there, sheep grazed peacefully, while seabirds wheeled overhead. Up to the left, a wooden hut stood silhouetted against the background, its well-maintained appearance contrasting sharply with the ramshackle remains of all the other buildings I could see.
The sail from North Rona to Mingulay had, thankfully, been short and uneventful, and now we were here, we were keen to get ashore to see what we could find. Mike, Jimmy and Jeff were already eyeing up the sheep and talking about cooking up as many lamb chops as they could consume without making themselves sick, but Rob and I were more cautious. The hut looked relatively new and in good condition, suggesting there might’ve been people living on the island when everything changed. If there had been, would they still be there? And would the virus be there with them?
Rob’s mood had improved dramatically since we’d finally reached the other side of the Atlantic, and he was almost back to his former, more confident self. It also helped that we’d been able to fish as we made our way south from North Rona, catching more than our fair share of mackerel, cod and fish that Rob called ‘coalies’ which I’d never eaten before, but that tasted great. The result of this was that we were all now well enough fed to start putting back on some of the weight we’d lost on the voyage over. The unexpected presence of the hut, however, threatened to set Rob back, and I could see he was starting to fret once again that he‘d dragged us all this way for nothing. I knew it wasn’t just us he worried about; it was also those we’d left behind. He knew there was a lot riding on our voyage for everyone who was part of the Hope Town community, and our success or failure would pretty much determine the success or failure of the community as a whole. We hadn’t been able to communicate with those back in the Abacos since the radio antenna had come down, and I knew they’d be worrying about what had happened to us and whether we’d been lost.
As we’d sailed down from North Rona, Rob had talked eagerly about taking the shortwave radio ashore and setting it up on the island. This would give it a greater range, and make it more likely we’d be able to contact Jack and the others again, but that was before we’d arrived and found the hut. Now, before we could even start thinking about doing anything like that, we’d have to make sure the island was, indeed, uninhabited and free of the infection.
On our arrival, we’d sailed around the island twice, past the impregnable cliffs that formed the northern and southern ends, and the entire west side, past a rocky beach at the south-eastern corner, which was the only other place where you could hope to land, and past a natural arch that reminded me of the one at Hole-in-the-Wall, where we’d had our first inkling that something bad had happened to the world all those months ago. Mingulay was just under three miles long, and about a mile and a half across at its widest point, meaning it was small, but it seemed to offer us all that we might need: a sheltered place to anchor boats; few places where drifters could come ashore unnoticed in the night; and I could make out what looked like several small streams making their way down to the shore close to the middle of the bay, suggesting a reliable source of fresh water.
A second smaller island lay not far from its southern limit, but this seemed to offer few of the advantages of Mingulay, beyond the fact that it, too, was surrounded by imposing cliffs. For this reason, we focussed our attention on the larger one, and during our circumnavigations, we’d kept a keep close eye on the shore; but apart from the hut and the occasional sheep, it looked as deserted as Rob remembered. The hut, therefore, remained the big unknown: who, or what, might be lying in wait inside?
‘D’you think someone’s been living here?’ Mike was standing next to Rob and me as we gazed towards the island, while Jimmy and Jeff lounged on seats in the cockpit. I picked up the binoculars and examined the hut more closely. It was the size of a small cottage, but it didn’t have the appearance of a home. Instead, it looked more basic and functional. ‘I don’t think it’s a house. It looks more like a glorified shed or something like that.’
I passed the binoculars to Rob, and he examined it too. ‘Yeah, it’s not exactly homely, is it? But that doesn’t mean there aren’t infected inside. Someone’s clearly been doing something here, and they could’ve brought the disease with them. They could be in there right now, just waiting for someone to be stupid enough to open the door and let them out.’
Jeff sat up, worried by what Rob had just said. ‘How’re we going to find out?’
Jimmy sat up, too. ‘Find out what?’
‘We’ve come all this way, haven’t we? We can’t just turn back because there might be infected in there, can we?’ Jeff got to his feet and padded over to where the rest of us were standing. ‘I mean, it could just as easily be empty,’ he looked round. ‘Couldn’t it?’
I ruffled Jeff’s hair. ‘That’s very true.’ I was impressed with how Jeff was coming along. When we’d taken him in, he’d been little more than a child, but now he was starting to develop into an adult, willing to take on responsibilities and take part in discussions about what we were going to do next. I still heard him crying in the night from time to time, but, given what he’d been through, that was only to be expected, and I knew I did the same. Jimmy was growing up too, and while it would have been nice for both of them to have been able to enjoy their childhoods a little longer, in the world we now lived, they had no choice, but to grow up fast. Mike was maturing, too, and becoming a quiet, but sensible young man. As the older brother, he felt responsible for Jimmy, and keeping him alive and safe was his number-one priority. With Jon gone, I knew that Rob and I would have to start relying on him more and more, especially now that it would be just the five of us until the others made the trip across the ocean to join us. And, depending on what was in the hut, that might not happen.
Rob leant forward on the guard rail that ran along the side of the catamaran. ‘I guess one of us is going to have to go ashore and check it out.’ He turned to face the three youngsters. ‘Any volunteers?’
Surprise and shock shot across their faces; much as they tried to act tough, they were still terrified by the merest possibility of encountering any infected, and I couldn’t blame them. The infected had to be seen to be believed: their speed; the anger burning deep in their eyes; the unrelenting violence of their actions as they attacked anyone they could grab hold of, tearing into them, ripping them apart. They showed no mercy, driven, as they were by a virus which had taken over their brains and erased all that had once been human. Now, they were little more than machines; machines the virus used to ensure it was spread as far, and as fast, as possible.
Seeing the looks on the boys’ faces, Rob laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I was only joking. I’ll be the one going ashore.’
I felt my eyes narrow as I replied, ‘No, you won’t; it’s too risky and you’re too important. I’ll go.’
Jeff stepped forward. ‘I’ll go with you.’
He was trying to sound strong, but the tremor in his voice gave away his true feelings; yet, still he’d volunteered. I glanced at him: he was still growing into his lanky teenage body, and this left his movements clumsier than usual. While I appreciated his offer, I knew I’d be better off on my own. I also knew I’d be able to move faster and react quicker if I didn’t have to worry about Jeff’s safety as well as my own. While I wasn’t that much older than him, I’d become like a mother to him and because of this, I felt he was my responsibility in a way I didn’t necessarily feel for Jimmy and Mike. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what happened to them — I did, deeply — but it was different from how I felt about Jeff. Our shared pain at how, and why, we’d lost those closest to us had created a bond between us that went well beyond how I connected with the others, even Rob, who I’d known the longest. ‘Thanks for the offer, Jeff, but I’ll go on my own.’
Rob let go of the guard rail and straightened up. ‘No, you won’t. I couldn’t ask you do to anything that’s potentially so dangerous. It’ll be me that’s going.’
I scowled at him. ‘Rob, I know you’re the captain, and that means you get the last say, but you’ve got to act like one. You can’t go risking your own life just because you don’t want me risking mine. And besides, you’re not asking me to go; I’m volunteering.’
Rob folded his arms and said nothing.
‘Rob, think about when Bill died. Look at how devastating that was for us. We nearly didn’t make it through that.’ I didn’t like bringing up the subject of Bill’s death, but I felt I needed to make my point. ‘If we lost you, it would be the same situation all over again, and I’m not so sure we’d make it through a second time.’
Rob stared down at the deck, avoiding my eyes. I knew he still blamed himself for Bill’s death, but I also knew this was the best way to get through to him. After a minute, he looked up. ‘You’re right.’ He sighed and sank down onto one of the seats, shaking his head slowly from side to side. ‘When did you become so bloody brave, CJ? I remember when I first met you: you were such a quiet young girl, you’d barely say boo to a goose. Now look at you, and what you’re offering to do.’
‘I’m only doing what I have to.’ I smiled at him, knowing that this was his way of saying sorry for arguing with me. ‘And besides, I’ve had some pretty good teachers.’
Whenever I think about how I was before, it always makes me laugh, but sometimes it makes me cry, too, especially when it reminds me of all those I’ll never see again. I was completely different back then, but then again, so was the world. When I first met Rob, I was still just a child. I’d thought I was so grown-up, but with hindsight I could see that I’d been far from it. My upbringing had been sheltered and privileged, so before going on to university, I’d decided to take a gap year and see how the other half lived. In a bar in Cape Town, I’d got chatting to a man old enough to be my father: Bill. It was because of him I’d ended up on the catamaran that was now my home, as part of a crew delivering the newly built catamaran from South Africa to its owners in Miami. And it was almost certainly the only reason I was still alive.
The trip itself had been a nightmare. Jon was a pompous prick back then, and Rob kept himself to himself as much as he possibly could. Only Bill had treated me well, teaching me about life at sea and giving me my first lessons in how to sail a boat. However, while I’d been learning a lot, the longer the experience went on, the more I had been looking forward to arriving in Miami and getting back to my real life in London. Yet, when we reached land again, several weeks after a sudden squall had wiped out all our electrical equipment, civilisation was gone, and with it, everything we’d known before: on the land, humanity had been replaced by the infected, and we had no choice but to remain at sea.
It was only when we rescued Mike and Jimmy that we found out about the disease and what it did to people. While the rest of us fell apart, each in our own way, Bill kept us going, and together we worked out a plan. We’d headed east to the Bahamas to see if we could find any others who, like us, had survived the onslaught of the disease. That was how we’d ended up in Hope Town, although we lost Bill along the way. His loss had been devastating, but after some initial wavering, Rob had replace him as captain. I watched how the others changed and knew that I had to leave behind the stroppy teenager who’d boarded the catamaran in Cape Town, and do a bit of growing up myself. Jack had helped with that: he was the one in charge of Hope Town, although all decisions were made by the community as a whole, and I had learned a lot from him about how to handle other people, and how to survive.
As we both matured, the animosity between Jon and me evaporated and we started to realise that, underneath the facades we used to protect ourselves from the world, we were actually pretty similar. It would be easy to say that we’d just got caught up in the situation, but it was more than that. I’d never believed in the existence of soulmates until Jon — the real, grown-up Jon — and then he was taken away from me. It was Rob who’d killed him, but by then he was no longer the Jon I’d grow to love: the disease had seen to that.
Now here I was, sitting off another remote island on the other side of the Atlantic, offering to go ashore and check a hut for infected. I’d never have been this brave before, and if Jon had still been here, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. But now, with Jon gone, I knew I couldn’t let him down; I knew I had to step up, just as he had. And with no one else around who could do it — not without putting the survival of our little group, and indeed the remnants of the community which remained in Hope Town, in greater danger — what else could I do?
The rubber dinghy bumped against the sandy shore, and for the first time in more than two months, I stepped onto land. I felt the ground move beneath my feet, but I knew it was just an illusion caused by spending so much time floating around on the ever-moving surface of the sea. The hand-held radio tucked into my back pocket crackled and I pulled it out.
I pressed the transmit button. ‘What did you say, Rob?’
I let the button go and waited. It was a second before it crackled again. ‘I said, how’s it looking from your end?’
I swept my eyes across the beach and back again before replying. ‘Everything seems quiet, but I’m nowhere near the hut yet.’ I glanced up at it. ‘How do things look from where you are?’
I heard Rob key the microphone. ‘Nothing’s moving, CJ, at least not that we can see.’
‘Roger that.’ I tucked the radio back into my pocket and looked out towards the catamaran, the cabin’s superstructure stretched between its twin hulls and its mast stuck high into the air. The once-white paintwork was now dull, grey and peeling, and I could see long strands of seaweed growing along the waterline. It had been brand-new and sparkling clean when I’d first boarded it in Cape Town, but now, just over six months later, it was a battered and weather-worn shadow of its former self. Given all it had been through, this was no surprise, and I wondered how much more it could take. No boat would last forever, and this was one of the reasons we had to find somewhere where we could live on the land once more; somewhere which was both free of the disease, and where the infected couldn’t reach us.
The others were crowded on to the roof of the cabin, binoculars trained on the island, ready to warn me the moment they saw anything which might suggest trouble coming my way. We’d done this type of thing before and we all knew the drill, but there was one difference: last time, Rob had been armed with a hunting rifle, ready to shoot any infected that got too close. It wasn’t that we didn’t still have the rifle, we did, but we were out of bullets, so it was pretty much useless until we found some more, and I had no idea when that might happen.
I took a deep breath and started walking slowly up the sandy beach towards where the hut stood on the hill high above it. My eyes moved constantly, searching for anything which might indicate infected were coming, but everything remained still. I worried that the sound of the blood rushing through my ears might stop me hearing something important, but try as I might, I couldn’t get my heart rate down; the fear and adrenaline surging through my body meant I could do nothing to stop it pounding away like a freight train.
At the top of the beach, I stopped and glanced back. There was about fifty feet of loose sand between myself and the dinghy, and I wondered how fast I could race across it if I had to. My legs were still wobbly and I was walking unsteadily. I guessed I wouldn’t be able to run at full speed without tumbling to the ground, and in an emergency, that could be the difference between life and death. I pulled out my radio. ‘You got anything I need to worry about?’
For a moment, there was silence. I continued to watch those back on the boat and I could see Rob scanning the island with the binoculars. Mike was beside him, pointing at something and my heart leapt into my mouth. I considered running, just in case, but I stood my ground, hoping I was misreading the signals. Finally, the radio came alive again, but it was Jeff’s voice, not Rob’s, and I could hear laughter in the background. ‘Mike thought he saw something, but it turned out it was just a sheep!’
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention back to the hut. It was a couple of hundred yards from where I stood, and the ground between me and it was covered in uneven tussocks of grass. Between these, narrow trails wove, which, judging by the small piles of dung along them, had been made by sheep and not humans. In fact, other than the hut, there was no trace that anyone had spent more than a few hours on the island in years. Here and there, in amongst the grass, I could see the remains of long-abandoned buildings: some were little more than heaps of stones; others were more recognisable, with fireplaces and chimney stacks still discernable. I wondered how long it would take until all of what had once been civilisation, for places where I’d once lived, to look like this: abandoned, decaying and overrun by nature. I felt an urge to explore them, but I knew I had to keep my attention focussed on the hut, and on finding out what was inside, before I could do anything else.
I crept forward, placing each foot carefully on the ground, trying to make as little noise as possible. I could hear the cries of seagulls off in the distance as they wheeled and circled above the island, and occasionally the soft bleating of an unseen sheep. Grass brushed against my legs, feeling alien and strange after so long on the boat. I remembered the joy of running, carefree, through long grass as a little girl, chasing others on warm summer days, but that world was long gone. Now, I wondered what might be lurking, unseen, in amongst the long stems, waiting to pounce on me. I did my best to push these thoughts from my mind as I carried on, the hut growing larger and nearer with each and every step.
Before I knew it, I was there, the closed door staring back at me; now was the moment of truth. I reached out my hand and then withdrew it, not sure of what to do next. While the day was sunny, the air blowing in off the sea was chilly, but despite this, I could feel beads of sweat running down the sides of my face. I pulled out the radio. ‘Anything?’
Rob’s voice came back. ‘Nothing.’
I kept the radio in my hand as I tiptoed around the hut, looking for any signs that might indicate what was inside, but I found nothing. There were windows, but they were shuttered, and much as I tried, I couldn’t get them to move. I returned to the door and knocked on it tentatively, half expecting to hear the unmistakable sound of an infected echoing back, but there was only silence.
I lifted the radio and spoke into it. ‘I think it’s clear.’
‘Are you sure, CJ?’ Rob sounded concerned.
‘No,’ I readied myself for what I knew I had to do next, ‘but I’m going in anyway.’
‘Just be careful,’ Rob shot back.
I didn’t respond. I banged on the door again, this time more forcibly, but still there was no reply. Hesitantly, I gripped the handle and twisted it. It moved, but the door didn’t open. I pushed it, first gently and then harder. For a moment, it resisted, then suddenly it gave way and I tumbled forward into the darkness. Even before I hit the rough wooden floor, the smell inside struck me as hard as if I’d been punched in the face. Then I noticed something moving. The only light was coming through the open door, but as I scrambled to my feet I saw a human form moving slowly back and forth. Not knowing what it was, I bolted from the room and out into the daylight, expecting to hear the sound of footsteps chasing after me … but there was nothing. I stopped and stared back at the hut as Rob’s worried voice blared from the radio. ‘What’s wrong, CJ?’
‘I don’t know.’ I paused as I considered the situation. ‘There’s someone, or something, in there, but I don’t think it’s an infected.’
The radio buzzed with static for a second before Rob replied. ‘What is it then?’
I searched the darkened doorway as the door moved slowly in the breeze. I thought about the smell and then I realised what I’d seen. I pulled the sleeve of my jacket over my hand and pressed it firmly across my mouth before stepping back inside. In the darkness, the body moved, swinging gently from side to side, suspended from a coarse rope which had been wrapped around a wooden beam. A thick beard told me the body was male, but it was too dark to see much else. I stared at him, wondering how long he’d been there. His flesh was starting to decay and his belly was bloated, but it must have been too late in the year for flies because there were no maggots eating into his flesh. As I turned to leave, I noticed a notebook sitting open on a table, black writing scrawled across its white pages. I closed it and carried it with me as I emerged into the daylight once more.
‘All clear?’ There was a hint of anticipation in Rob’s words as they emerged out of the radio.
‘All clear,’ I replied, hearing the excitement in my words as I spoke.
As I picked my way back to the dinghy, I thumbed through the pages of the notebook, stopping every now and then to read a sentence or two. It started out as a formal log, a record of the day’s events, but gradually, as time passed, it became a diary and then a confessional, before descending into little more than scrawled ramblings. The final page was dated and I tried to work out how long ago the entry on it had been made. I’d lost track of time, but from what I could work out, it had been written only a few weeks before we’d finally reached the island. Perhaps if we hadn’t been slowed by the storms, we’d have arrived in time to save him. I flicked back a few pages and scanned the writing. Maybe, by then, it had already been too late. I found the final entry again and read the single line scratched onto the otherwise blank page in a clear hand: I can’t go on.
Rob ran his eyes over the slowly swinging figure. ‘I suppose we should get him down.’
We crowded round the doorway, staring at the body hanging inside. Once I’d got back to the dinghy, I’d motored out to the catamaran and returned a few minutes later with the others. Jeff and Jimmy had run ahead excitedly, enjoying the feel of the land beneath their feet. Mike and Rob followed, both concentrating on the task ahead. As we’d climbed up the hill, I’d told them what I’d found and together we’d decided what we should do. Since the infected came into our lives, we rarely got to bury anyone we lost and it felt only right that we should do this for the lone man who had chosen to end his life rather than live in the world the way it now was.
The details of his final days were set out in black and white in the notebook. The hut, it turned out, was a small research station for scientists studying the local seabirds. The man was a postgraduate student, not much older than myself, sent ahead to open up the building for the annual field season, which would have started once the birds returned to breed. Yet, before anyone else could arrive, the disease had appeared on the mainland and swept across the country. He had an FM radio and knew exactly what was happening, but there was nothing he could do about it. Soon, he figured there was no one left who knew he was there, and having been dropped off by a local fishing vessel which had then departed, there was no way for him to get off the remote island.
He survived well at first, eating the supplies he’d brought with him and supplementing them with the wildlife he was meant to be studying, but after a while the birds left for the winter and the last of his supplies ran out. He tried catching the sheep that roamed the island, but they were too nimble for him to corner on his own. His descriptions of the way they’d sprint away as he lunged at them, only to stop a few feet beyond his reach before turning and staring at him, would have been amusing if it weren’t for the desperateness of his situation. Soon, he was reduced to scouring the shoreline for anything edible he could find, living off a diet of shellfish and seaweed.
As time passed, the pressure of being alone started to wear him down. The radio stopped working soon after the outbreak on the mainland began, or rather it stopped picking up any broadcasts because there were no more broadcasts to receive. In the first weeks and months, he’d occasionally see a plane passing in the distance. While he thought there was no way of attracting its attention, its presence let him know he wasn’t the only one who’d survived. Then one day he realised he hadn’t seen it in a while. Days became weeks and weeks became months. Each morning he woke, hoping he’d see the plane again, and each night he’d return to the shelter of the hut, his spirits shattered once again.
He became obsessed by the plane, doing nothing but watching the skies, waiting for it to reappear. He built a signal fire on the tallest point of the island, cursing himself for not thinking of doing so before, but it remained unlit. As winter approached and the days shortened, he’d finally abandoned hope of ever seeing another human being again. He became fixated on the idea that he was the last man on Earth, and he couldn’t cope with the weight of the loneliness that this piled on top of him.
I wondered if I’d have handled things any differently if I’d been in his position. While I’d lost a lot, at least I still had others around me. They’d become my family and they helped keep sane despite the madness of the world I’d suddenly found myself plunged into. If I’d been trapped alone on such a remote island, I’d probably have cracked too, and I may well have ended things in a similar way. If only he’d managed to hold on just a few weeks longer, he’d still have been alive when we arrived, but he had no idea of our plans; that we were meandering our way towards him even as he chose to end it all.
Rob stepped into the hut and I followed. While Rob held the dead man’s legs, I dragged a chair across the room and stood on it, reaching up to cut the rope with a knife I’d brought ashore with me for just this purpose. Rob grunted as he took the full weight of the lifeless body and then carried it outside before laying it on the grass. In the daylight, I could see his hair was brown, almost black, but beyond that I couldn’t make out any other features beneath the bloated and rotting flesh.
Rob wiped his hands on the grass. ‘Where will we bury him?’
As I scanned our surroundings, my eyes settled on a place where a stone wall, topped with a cross, still reached into the sky. ‘That looks like it used to be a church. D’you think there’s a graveyard, too? Maybe we could bury him there. That way, he’d never be alone again.’
The others looked at me curiously. None of them had read the entries in the notebook which I had read, and none of them knew how utterly isolated and lonely he’d felt at the end. Only I knew how important it was for him not to be alone in death as he had been in his last few months of life.
‘You see this soil?’ Rob rubbed some of it between his hands. It was light and sandy, but with darker flecks mixed through it. ‘This is why this island is perfect for us. It’s so rich and fertile. It’s not natural though. It’s been made by people over hundreds of years, thousands even. They’d haul seaweed up from the beach and dig it into the sandy soil, filling it with nutrients from the sea. You can grow almost anything in it.’ A chill gust of wind whipped across us, blowing the handful of dirt away. Rob watched it as it went. ‘Well, anything which can withstand the weather.’
It had taken only a few minutes to find the old graveyard, the headstones visible above the undergrowth. Some were still readable, none of the dates more recent than over a century before, marking the point at which the island had been abandoned. Others had been worn smooth by the elements, eliminating all knowledge of who was buried there. We found a spot that overlooked the sandy bay where the catamaran was now anchored and dug a grave using spades which we’d found stored in a lean-to behind the hut. We took turns, Jeff and Jimmy tiring faster than the rest of us, and within an hour we had the grave finished.
Rob and I wrapped the body in an old tarpaulin we’d found with the spades, before carrying him over to the churchyard. In silence, we laid him to rest and marked his final resting place with a short plank of wood Jeff had found on the shore. We didn’t know his name, so we had nothing to put on it, but nonetheless, we felt it was important to mark where he lay.
Back at the hut, we set about examining it in detail. Using the spades, Mike and Jeff levered open the shutters which had been nailed in place, while Rob and I opened the windows from the inside. Jimmy hovered by the door, not wanting to enter because of the smell of decay which still hung heavily on the air. With light now filling the wooden building, we could see it clearly: it was part bunkhouse, part research lab, the walls lined with maps and photographs. In one corner, there was a small wood-burning range that, when fired up, would provide heat and warmth, as well somewhere to cook. A roughly made wooden table ran along the wall under the windows, clearly designed to act as a workspace, while against the opposite wall four sets of bunk beds stood, each within touching distance of its neighbour. Two large solar panels lay near the door, next to a small wind turbine, similar to ones I’d seen before on the back of yachts. Alongside them, was a bank of large batteries of the type used to power golf carts. Rob examined these. ‘Looks like a pretty good set-up; it shouldn’t take us too long to get it up and running again. It’s almost like he closed the whole place up, before he …’ Rob’s voice trailed off.
I decided to change the subject. ‘I wonder what he did for water?’
Rob walked over to the small kitchen area beside the range and turned one of the taps on a small sink, but nothing came out. He turned on the other one, expecting the same result, but instead a slow, but steady, stream of water, the colour of freshly brewed tea, emerged.
I eyed the water suspiciously. ‘That looks pretty disgusting.’
Rob cupped a hand under the tap and once it had filled, he lifted it to his mouth and sipped it loudly before letting the rest fall into the sink. ‘Not too bad, and perfectly drinkable,’ he smacked his lips, ‘if a bit of an acquired taste.’
I looked at him disbelievingly. ‘But why’s it so dirty?’
Rob dried his hand on his trousers. ‘It must come from a stream somewhere further up the hill. The peat in the soil stains the water as it runs through it. It always happens when you get water running over peat. It doesn’t look too appetising, but it’s safe enough to drink.’
He turned the tap off again, but as he did so, I realised that, despite all that was here, something was clearly missing. ‘There’s no bathroom.’ I looked again. ‘Or even a toilet!’
‘I guess there must be an outhouse somewhere.’ Rob peered out of one of the windows. ‘Maybe round the back.’
Before we could discuss this further, Jeff and Mike entered the hut, followed by Jimmy
‘What is this place?’ Jeff was examining one of the maps that were pinned to the walls.
‘It’s a research station. They used it to study the breeding habits of seabirds.’ I walked over to him and peered at the map. It showed an outline of the island, with a cluster of coloured pins stuck in at one end, each labelled with its own unique number. ‘I’m guessing these must be nest sites. I wonder what species they are.’
‘How’d you know that?’ Jimmy was now looking at the map, too.
I pulled the notebook out from where I’d tucked it away for safe keeping. ‘I read about it in here.’
Rob took the notebook and flicked through it. ‘Anything useful in it?’
‘I don’t know.’ I took it back. For some reason I didn’t want anyone else reading it. ‘I’ve only skimmed it so far.’
Mike eyed the notebook, obviously curious about what it might contain. ‘Does it say how he ended up here on his own?’
‘Yes. He came here ahead of the main research team, to open up the field station and get it set up for the season, but there was an outbreak on the mainland, starting in Glasgow, and no one ever came back for him.’ I tucked the notebook away again before anyone else had a chance to take it from me, and looked round. ‘You know, we could turn this into a pretty civilised little place.’
Jeff wrinkled his nose. ‘What about the smell?’
With the windows open, the scent of decay was already starting to dissipate, but it remained strong, assaulting our senses with every breath. Below where the body had been hanging, there was a damp spot where fluids dripping from it had accumulated. As I walked over to it, the smell intensified. I pointed to the fluids. ‘Once we clean that up, I think it will go away.’
Jimmy stared at the damp patch. ‘What is that?’
‘Liquid human.’ Mike laughed as he saw his little brother recoil in horror.
Rob chuckled, too. ‘Not the best way to put it, but I guess it’s accurate.’
For some reason, their flippancy annoyed me. After all, we were talking about another human life here, but I didn’t say anything, figuring we each had our own ways to deal with things like this. Instead, I dug into a cupboard under the sink, finding some bleach, a scrubbing brush and some rubber gloves. Taking these out, I set to work, scrubbing the wooden floorboards as hard as I could. While I did this, Rob organised the boys, and together they took the solar panels outside. Soon, they had them set up and connected to the batteries, and by the time I’d finished, Rob was standing by the doorway, his hand on the light switch. ‘Here goes nothing.’
He flicked it and the fluorescent light which ran along the centre of the room pinged and flashed a couple of times before finally coming to life. The youngsters clapped and whooped in celebration, causing me to smile. It was a small thing, but it marked our first step towards taking back the land — or at least a tiny little part of it that we could hopefully, one day, call home.
‘You two go that way, this time. I’ll go this way, and we’ll see if we can trap it against that wall there.’ Mike glanced at Jimmy and Jeff. ‘Okay?’
The two younger boys nodded.
‘Let’s go then!’ With that Mike set off, the other two a few feet behind.
The three of them had been trying to catch a sheep for the last hour, but they were having little success. Just as had been described in the notebook, no matter what they tried, the sheep outfoxed them. It would let them get within a few feet, but no closer. The sheep didn’t run far, though, and once it felt safe again, it would stop and turn, bleating belligerently at its pursuers. The effect was comical, but I could imagine that for a hungry man, alone on the island, it would have been soul-sapping.
While the boys chased sheep, I continued to tidy up the hut, moving things around, making space here and there for our stuff. Every now and then, I’d come across something of the dead man’s and each time I made sure I put it somewhere safe. I didn’t know quite why, but it felt like the right thing to do.
When I was finished, I walked to the door and examined my surroundings. Thirty feet from the back of the hut was another, much smaller wooden structure I hadn’t noticed before. Above the door, stencilled in white paint, was the word ‘Toilet’. Below this hung a handmade made sign, which said ‘Unoccupied’. I wandered over and opened the door, finding a simple wooden bench with a round opening that led to a deep, dark hole cut into the ground beneath. There was no plumbing, just the hole and an aroma to match its crude functionality. I closed the door again, unsure how I felt about using the outhouse. It wasn’t what I was used to, and it would be unpleasant to have to venture outside to use it in bad weather, especially at night, but it would do the job it was designed for: keeping the inhabitants of the hut separated from their waste in such a way as to avoid the risk of contamination and disease.
Down below in the bay, I could see the boat riding gently at anchor. Rob was standing by the stern where he had two fishing rods dangling over the side. As I watched he grabbed one of them and started reeling something in. Moments later, I saw him pull a fish about the same length as his arm from the water and drop it onto the deck. I grinned, knowing we’d eat well tonight. I turned my attention to the island itself. The land nearest to the hut was green and fertile, and judging by the number of ruined cottages I could see, it had once supported a substantial population. Certainly, in the past, it had supported more than there were of us, even once the other people from Hope Town arrived. Further off, the island was more rugged, but in a world where infected roamed, this ruggedness was an asset that would prevent them from being able to make it ashore along most of its coastline. Coming here had been a risk, but Rob’s gamble had paid off: this really did look like the perfect place to establish a community where we could live our lives, as far from the threat of the infected as was possible.
‘Mingulay calling Hope Town, come in Hope Town.’ Rob released the transmit button for a second before pressing it again. ‘Mingulay calling Hope Town. Come in, Hope Town.’
Again there was silence. I glanced at my watch; it wasn’t our usual check-in time, but there might be someone listening on Jack’s boat nonetheless. We were all back on the catamaran, having spent the afternoon exploring the island and double-checking that there really was no evidence of infected ever having reached it. Rob explained the local currents, and how they’d carry any drifters which came from the nearest inhabited islands away, rather than towards, us, making this very unlikely. Now we were anchored in still calm waters, it had only taken Rob a matter of minutes to climb up the mast and re-secure the radio’s antennae near the top. Once he’d finished, we went inside to see if this was all we needed to do to re-establish contact with those who’d remained behind in Hope Town.
The radio hissed for a moment and then Jack’s soft southern American accent emerged from it. ‘Mingulay, this is Hope Town. You can’t believe how good it is to hear your voice again, Rob. I was beginning to think we’d lost you. Are you all okay? Is everyone safe?’
‘We’re all fine, Jack. It wasn’t the easiest of crossings,’ Rob shook his head, remembering just how bad the voyage had been, ‘but the important thing is that we got here in the end.’
‘That’s great to hear, Rob. You had us all worried for a while there when we lost touch.’ Jack sounded relieved, and it was clear that our apparent disappearance had …
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