Neil’s world is shattered when he and his family are involved in a horrible car accident that leaves him an orphan. He is sent to live in a small village with his grandparents, whom he loves but doesn’t really know.
Soon, a devastating illness, the Calcutta Plague, begins making the headlines. After killing thousands of people in India in just a few months, the disease begins to spread much farther, quickly sweeping across the world and eventually settling in the same village where Neil resides. The sickness is a strange one, affecting only the adults and none of the children, and soon Neil finds himself an orphan once more.
Alone, Neil travels to London in search of other survivors of the plague. There he finds a strange world of fear and suspicion, where friends can be enemies and people will do anything to survive. In this time of strife, amid the excitement and loneliness of his solitude, can Neil find a way to focus on what matters most?
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THEY WERE DRIVING ALONG THE motorway on a bright sunny morning, everyone happy. While Neil’s father drove, his mother was telling him something about a dance at the golf club. Amanda and Andy were arguing, but amiably, about a pop programme they had watched on TV. Grandpa and Grandma were admiring the countryside, he pointing out a view that attracted him and she agreeing. Neil himself was silent, engrossed in a strange but satisfying feeling of well-being. He tried to work out what had given rise to it, but could not. It being end of term, the try he had scored in the junior House final, the prospect of summer and the cricket season ahead? Or perhaps just this journey.
He could not decide, but it did not matter. He was relaxing in the enjoyment of that, too—it not mattering—when he heard his mother’s small gasping cry and looked up to see it: the monstrous hulk of the heavy lorry and trailer jack-knifing across the road in front of them, looming up and up. . . . Then screams, and blackness, and he woke up sweating, his fingers digging into the bed clothes that were wrapped tightly round him.
• • •
Neil thought about the dream later that day, as he walked across the churchyard on his way to catch the bus to school. It had been full of inaccuracies and impossibilities, the way dreams were. Not a sunny morning, but a dull rain-bleared afternoon. Not a motorway, but the A21, a few miles south of the Tonbridge bypass. And, of course, Grandpa and Grandma had not been there. The Rover was a roomy car, but not that roomy; and besides, the object of the journey had been to spend the weekend with them at Winchelsea.
But the rest—his mother’s soft cry, the sight of the monster twisting incredibly across their path . . . was that the way it had been? He had no way of knowing, no recollection of the time between setting out from the house in Dulwich and waking in a hospital bed with a nurse, young, dark and pretty, bending over and smiling and telling him he was all right, and not to worry. He had wondered what she was talking about, and asked what he was doing there; and she had told him again not to worry about anything but to lie back and rest, and he would have visitors very soon.
Neil walked through the crumbling stone archway into the empty shell of what had been the nave of the church before it was destroyed in the French wars. That was nearly seven hundred years ago. Winchelsea then had been a thriving town, recently rebuilt here on its hill after the sea swallowed up old Winchelsea—like its sister-town, Rye, a brash newcomer to the company of the Cinque Ports and hopeful of outstripping its seniors in trade and prosperity. But the sea which destroyed the first port had capriciously moved away from the second, remaining as no more than a mocking gleam on the horizon.
So the hopes had come to nothing, and the traders had gone with the sea. Only a few squares were left of the grid pattern which had made the town a contemporary showplace of planning; and those were occupied by sleepy houses, fronted by lawns and flowers, three or four small shops, a couple of pubs. There had been no point in rebuilding the nave of the church, and the New Gate, which had marked the southern limits of Winchelsea, and through which one summer morning late in the thirteenth century the French had been treacherously admitted, stood now over a muddy lane, nearly a mile out in the country, surrounded by grazing sheep.
There were not many young people in Winchelsea. It was a place for retirement—that was why his grandparents had come to live in it. And in the past, although he had liked visiting them, Neil had felt a kind of impatience. Nothing happened here or was likely to happen, beyond the slow change of the seasons. He looked at the white facades of the houses making up the sides of the great square of the churchyard. Even the post-war ones had an appearance of having been there forever.
He thought of the dream, and then of Grandpa coming to his bedside in the hospital. He had asked Neil how he was, and nodded when he said he had a headache.
“A touch of concussion, but they tell me you’re sound in wind and limb.”
His grandfather, a Civil Servant until his retirement, was a tall thin man, with a long face lengthened further by a white pointed beard. Although he liked them both, Neil preferred him to his grandmother because he never fussed and talked directly, paying little regard to differences in age. His manner had always been calm and easy. He was trying to look calm and easy now, but not managing. Neil asked him:
“What have they told you?”
“Nothing. I’ve not been awake long.”
“There was a smash. You don’t remember it?”
His tone was even but Neil was conscious of the strain behind it. He thought of them all setting out together after lunch—Amanda insisting on going back to say another goodbye to Prinny, the cat, and worrying in case Mrs. Redmayne might not remember to come in and feed him. . . . He said sharply:
“Where’s Mummy? Is she in hospital, too?” He realized, for the first time properly, that the other beds in the ward were occupied by strangers. “And Amanda, and Andy?”
“They’re all right. Don’t worry, Neil.”
There had been a hesitation, though; very slight, but enough to make the reassurance meaningless. And what he said was meaningless, anyway; because if they had been all right his mother would have been here, beside his bed. He said, hearing his voice echo as though far off:
“All of them?” He stared up at his grandfather. “Dad, as well?”
“They’re all right,” his grandfather repeated.
He did not need the sight of the tear rolling down the wrinkled cheek to give the lie. Nor did he resent it, knowing the lie was meant to help him, to ease him back into a world that had shattered and changed. But he could not go on looking at another human being. He turned and buried his head in the pillow, immobile, believing and not believing, while his grandfather’s voice went on and on and he heard it without listening, an empty noise.
• • •
There were others from the Comprehensive waiting at the bus stop. He knew them slightly, and nodded to one or two, but did not engage in conversation. There had been the curiosity one could expect over a newcomer but he had done little to satisfy it; and when the suspicion which was also inevitable had hardened into something more like hostility, he had not minded.
It was a big change from London, and Dulwich College. There had been a talk with his grandfather about that. It seemed the Head had offered to find him one of the few boarding places, and his grandfather had put the proposition to him: he could choose between taking it, and keeping a continuity in school at least, or going as a day boy to the Comprehensive School in Rye.
“Your home’s with us now, Neil,” Grandpa had said, “and we’re very glad to have you—glad for our own sakes. But we’re old, and a bit dull, and so is Winchelsea. You might find it better to carry on at Dulwich where there are people you know—chaps your own age.”
“No, I’ll stay here.”
“If you’re thinking of the fees, that’s not important. You know. . . .”
He said it brusquely. He had heard his grandparents talking one evening, quietly when they thought he was asleep. There would be a lot of money coming his way. His father, an insurance executive, had himself been more than amply insured. The sole survivor of the family was going to be rich.
The new school was very different from the old, but a large part of the difference, he realized, lay in himself. At Dulwich he had made plenty of friends—more than Andy who, though a year older, was more reserved. And Andy had not been much interested in sports, while he played most games reasonably well.
He had taken part in a couple of cricket games at Rye, and not done badly. But he had kept to himself and the other players, after one or two small overtures, had let him get on with it. It had been the same in school generally. Although it was never mentioned, he guessed the story of what had happened, the reason for his coming here, had got around. He had had one or two pitying glances from girls, and once found a conversation abruptly switched off as he entered a class-room. But no questions were asked, and he volunteered no information.
So he had made no friends, but did not mind it; nor did he miss the ones he had left behind. It was not that he brooded over the disaster. It surprised him to what extent he was able to put it out of his mind; and in spite of occasional lurching moments of fear and sickness, he did not feel particularly unhappy.
He had an idea it would not have been so easy in London. The impatience he had once felt for the slowness and dullness of the little town had been replaced by a kind of contentment. It was good that nothing happened, and that the most usual sight was of an old man or woman creeping along on some unhurried errand. He liked the quiet empty evenings, with the darkness lit only by chinks of light from cosy sitting rooms, and the single street lamp on the corner.
The others who were at the bus stop had collected into a group and were talking and laughing. He did not know what the subject of conversation was, and did not care. He thought of his dream again, and felt sweat cold down his back, but both dream and reality seemed far away. As the bus came growling down the road from Hastings, through an avenue of leafy green, he found himself whistling. He realized it was the tune Amanda had been so crazy about the last few weeks, but went on.
• • •
In general the work seemed easier in Neil’s new school, but perhaps because of that less interesting. An exception was Biology, taught by a small stocky man with a Scottish accent and a tendency to range widely round his subject. Today they were dealing with cell structures, and Mr. Dunhill moved on to a discussion of the ageing process. There was some evidence, he pointed out, for believing that ageing was caused by the increasing inability of cells to remember the functions laid down for them in the genetic blueprint, a sort of cellular amnesia.
Someone asked if that meant that if something could be done to improve the memory of cells the ageing process could be halted—even reversed? Did it mean people might be able to live forever, barring accidents?
“Well, no, I wouldn’t hazard that.”
Mr. Dunhill rubbed his palms together in front of his chest, a characteristic gesture. He went on:
“But there’s an interesting example in the opposite direction, in that epidemic they had in India, a few months back.”
The Calcutta Plague, it had been called, because that was where the first cases had occurred. It had swept through northern India, killing hundreds of thousands, and then died out. Neil remembered his father and mother discussing it one evening when he came downstairs after finishing his prep. Their preoccupation, he recalled, had given him the chance of slipping out to a friend’s house, without their realizing how late it was.
“You’ll remember there were two phases of the disease,” Mr. Dunhill said. “Initially there was a fever, followed by recovery and a symptomless period varying between ten days and three weeks. That was followed by a general deterioration of bodily functions, leading to collapse and death.
“The striking thing was that the second phase strongly resembled an accelerated ageing process. It mimicked a rare disorder called progeria, specifically the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome, in which children grow old before they grow up. There was a well-known case of a child in Brazil, who at six months had adult teeth already yellowing, at two years white hair, thinning on top, and who died at ten of hardening of the arteries.
“Fortunately in this case it was not the young who were affected but the old, chiefly the very old. Mostly the victims were over sixty. There were one or two cases as young as the middle forties, and the results there were much more striking: wrinkling of skin, whitening of hair roots, calcium loss, atherosclerosis. It was as though they were racing towards the grave, instead of indulging in that slow crawl which satisfies us normal geriatrics.”
Mr. Dunhill was in his fifties. It was probably as much as forty years since he had sat in a class-room, listening to someone as old as he was now. Was the joke about being a geriatric as light-hearted, Neil wondered, as it seemed? People died: he had come to know that in the last few weeks in a way he had never known before. And they must fear it, he supposed, more and more as the inevitability drew closer.
“It’s a tenable explanation,” Mr. Dunhill went on, “that the Calcutta virus attacked the individual cells in such a way as to inhibit or destroy that memory function we have been talking about. The victims quite literally died of nothing except old age.”
“They were old already, though.”
That was someone called Barker, a gangling boy with an almost perpetual silly grin. Mr. Dunhill looked at him with distaste.
“Yes, they were, weren’t they? And they were only Indians, after all. Nothing to cause us concern. Now let’s get back to the mechanism of mitosis.”
• • •
There was a girl in the class called Ellen, pretty in a fair, frail way. Neil had noticed her chiefly in the company of Bob Hendrix, who was more conspicuous. He was heavily built and had a loud aggressive voice. His hair was bright red, and he usually wore a canary-yellow waistcoat. His father was a prominent Rye tradesman, and he clearly thought deference was due to him on that account.
Hendrix went home for lunch but Ellen, like Neil, stayed at school. On this day she sat near him, and made what appeared to be friendly if timid overtures. He answered her civilly, but without enthusiasm. She persisted, though, and afterwards found him and spoke to him more directly.
“Is it true?” He looked at her. “About your family all being killed?”
It was something he had reckoned on happening but had hoped, with the lapse of time, might not. It was not that he dreaded the reference—more a feeling of embarrassment in advance. Now it had happened, though, he found it did not bother him. She seemed sympathetic rather than curious—a nice girl, probably.
At any rate, although he did not volunteer much information, he did not snub her. She went on, in a small soft voice, saying what a terrible thing it was, and he found he did not mind that, either.
It was something, she said, which had always been a nightmare with her. She had imagined it hundreds of times, and it had pursued her in dreams. She mostly thought of it as happening at school—of someone coming in to the class and telling her to report to the Headmaster, of going into his study and seeing his face, much graver than usual. And then being told—it was always both of them killed together, usually in a car smash.
Once launched she needed no encouragement to go on. She told him about her life at home, and he was a little surprised. She was an only child. Her father, a plasterer, was very strict—he did not allow her out later than ten in the evening, half past nine in winter. Her mother, it seemed, was ill a great deal. She had to get her own breakfast in the morning, and do housework before she came to school.
It did not strike Neil as the sort of home life one would be particularly terrified to lose; nor her parents as justifying such anxious devotion. Her life in fact seemed fairly wretched compared with the one he had known in Dulwich. Yet he had never had the sort of fears she described. Did that mean he had failed to appreciate what he’d got? He felt a vague guilt, and had a panicky moment of wondering if that was why it had happened—if the God in whom he mostly didn’t believe had read his ungrateful mind, and casually sent down destruction.
But he had no time to brood on it because at that point Hendrix joined them. He ignored Neil, and said to Ellen:
“I thought I told you I’d see you outside the library at half past?”
His tone was truculent. Ellen did not reply, but looked at Neil. He had an impulse to tell Hendrix to push off, but it was easily controlled.
Hendrix said: “And haven’t I told you about hanging about with other fellers?”
He was not just truculent, but bullying and contemptuous. Ellen looked at Neil again, in direct appeal this time.
Neil had no fear of the other. He was bigger, possibly stronger, but Neil was fairly sure he was no boxer while he had done quite a bit. If this had happened a couple of months ago he knew what he would have done—told Hendrix to shut up, or he’d sort him out.
He supposed really that was what he ought to do now, but he could not be bothered. Neither the girl nor Hendrix meant enough to be worth his getting involved. The girl, after all, had chosen Hendrix in the past, or let herself be chosen by him. It was not his concern, but if he fought Hendrix and beat him it might become so. Her eyes stayed on his face, but he said nothing.
Hendrix said, openly contemptuous of Neil as well:
“Come on. Leave this London wet. It’s Geography first and I didn’t have time to do any prep last night. We’ll go and get yours.”
Neil watched them go off together. He was a bit surprised he could feel so detached about it.
• • •
He walked back through the churchyard in the late afternoon. The air was windless, warm for early summer, and the crab apple trees were loaded with blossom. Although many of the graves were old, the inscriptions on the stones rendered illegible by time and weather, some were new, and he passed two graves freshly mounded with flowers. The churchyard represented one of the few ongoing enterprises the town still possessed, the only one really.
Neil thought of Ellen and her nightmares, and wondered about them. Perhaps they did not stem, as he had assumed, from love of her parents, but the reverse. Perhaps that was why the daydream was so persistent.
He wondered too what the future would bring, for her and Hendrix. Most likely nothing: they were very young and there was no reason to suppose anything permanent, like marriage, would come of it. Though it might, of course. Hendrix enjoyed bullying, and Neil had an idea that a part of Ellen, at least, liked being bullied. Maybe they would marry, and she could change her nightmares to imagining her husband being killed.
Again his thoughts surprised him. He looked up at the sky, nearly cloudless, where—he was fairly sure again—no invisible vindictive God lurked, reading minds and fashioning thunderbolts to toss down. The church was grey and squat, brooding over its generations of worshippers. All around were the quiet houses with, at this moment, not a person in sight. A car revved up the High Street and roared on towards Hastings, leaving velvety silence behind.
Rye was a quiet town after London, but a Babylon compared with Winchelsea. He thought again how glad he was to be here, but thought that even here there were too many people. It would be nice to live on a desert island, with only a parrot for company. Though the parrot wasn’t really necessary, either: the sound of the surf or the wind in the palms would be company enough.
His grandmother came out of the kitchen as he let himself in at the front door. She fussed him as usual, and he accepted it as usual, but refused her offer to make him a snack. She was a great believer in nourishment, and seemed to regard the day in school at Rye as roughly equivalent to an ascent of Everest. In the end he escaped on the double plea of not being hungry and having heavy Physics prep to do. She believed in prep as well, though she thought he worked too hard.
That wasn’t true, in fact; he was still coasting for the most part, after Dulwich. He worked away steadily, though, glad to have something to occupy his mind so completely but undemandingly. Apart from Physics, there was English and History . . . witches putting the frighteners on Macbeth, Judge Jeffreys decorating the west country with gibbeted rebels. Violent death was something you might as well get used to; it had been around a long time. And only a fool looked for explanations of justifications.
When he had finished he sat for a time, looking out. His room was at the top of the house and quite big. It ran from the front of the house to the back; his bed was under one window, and the desk at which he sat under the opposite one. This looked over the street, if anything so green and flowery could be called a street. Someone drove a car up, and parked it. Mrs. Mellor from over the road passed slowly along his field of vision, and disappeared. A tabby cat succeeded her, and all was quiescence again.
Below and faintly he heard the theme music of BBC television news. He might as well go down and watch as not.
In the sitting room his grandfather and grandmother were in their accustomed armchairs, with the third between them left empty for him. Neil stopped in the doorway, to see if there was anything interesting on. It was only something about the Calcutta Plague starting up again, this time in Karachi.