Authors: Keith Roberts
Tags: #Alternate history
Copyright © 1974 by Keith Roberts
First Wildside Press Edition: December 2000
Cover design copyright© 2000 by Wildside Press. All rights reserved.
Other books by Keith Roberts
The Grain Kings
The Inner Wheel
Kaeti & Company
Kaiti On Tour
The Lordly Ones
Foweles in the frith,
the fishes in the flod--
And I mon wax wod.
Much sorw I walke with
for best of bon and blod.
Anon., thirteenth century
The patrol car is moving again, edging up past the stalled south-bound traffic. Its loudhailer is working; the words come crackling and flat, distorted by the heat of Salisbury Plain in August.
Stan Potts watches the blue flasher revolve, and sweats and rubs himself and swears. He wants to pee, and has wanted to pee for an hour or more, and dull pain has grown to sharper pain, then to all-consuming need. He slicks the gearstick forward and back and stares through the Champ’s blotched windscreen and tries to think of nothing, nothing at all.
The observer has left the Wolseley, is working his way from vehicle to vehicle along the jam. Uproar breaks out somewhere in the distance, car horns and shouting. The loudhailer is saying,
‘You will not be admitted to restricted areas. If your journey is not essential, return to your home. You will not be admitted to restricted areas.’
Stan wipes his face with the back of his hand and gropes behind him. Somewhere, clanking about, is an old bait tin. He finds it, works it down behind his heels.
The observer leans on the window-sill. His arms are covered with short golden hairs. He says, ‘Where to, sir?’
Stan says, Wareham.’
The policeman shakes his head. He looks very young. He says, ‘It’s restricted, they won’t let you in. Better turn round.’
Stan Potts’s voice says,
have to try. My father’s very old’. They are just words, and not important.
But the patrolman has gone on anyway. He isn’t really interested.
The Wolseley draws level and stops. The driver is talking on the r/t. He says, ‘Four miles north of Amesbury. Yes, O.K’
The car moves forward, radio whistling. Stan grips the can between his knees, pulls at his flies. The relief makes his head spin a little.
The man at the window says, ‘I’ve got to get petrol.’
Stan jerks, trying to cover himself. He says, ‘Nobody’s got any.’ He lies back, in pain.
‘Ninety miles I’ve come,’ says the man. ‘I’ve got to get petrol. What’s in those?’
Water’ says Stan. ‘They’re water.’
‘You dirty bastard,’ says the man. ‘You were pissing in that can.’
The Escort ahead has moved up twenty yards. Stan twists the starter. The engine fires. It sounds ragged. He says, ‘I’m sorry. I haven’t any petrol.’
‘You dirty bastard,’ says the man. ‘I’ve got my wife and family back there.’
The Ford moves again. The traffic behind the Champ is hooting, trying to force its way. The man grabs for the door-catch. He says, ‘Get out. Get on your feet.’
Stan lets the clutch in. Something thumps against the Champ’s side. He looks back. The man who needed petrol is wrestling with the two shirt-sleeved policemen. A uniform cap bounces in the road. The figures sprawl across the boot of the patrol car. Beyond, a convertible is trying to butt its way through. The driver is slapping at the door-panel with his open hand, and shouting. One wheel rises and falls over an obstruction. Somebody screams. Stan drives fifty yards, brakes. It seems the fight continues, but its details are obscured by overtaking traffic. The can tips, spilling its contents darkly. He reaches for it again, and groans.
Always on a long trip it was like this. First he’d worry for a while and listen for big-end knock and differential whine and noise from the dynamo bearings, then boredom would set in and he’d start working out times and mileages in his head; and finally driving would become automatic and then it was like getting tunes in his brain only the tunes were sights and scenes sometimes from years back, things he didn’t want to remember but had never managed to forget. No rhyme or reason to them; like the faces you’re supposed to see in a glowing fire. Only he’d never managed to see the faces, not even when he was small.
The Champ rumbled steadily, clocking twenty, twenty-five. He was south of Salisbury now, clear of its bottleneck of old streets, the hooting and fumes and din. The city had been bad; there were broken windows, in one place he’d seen riot troops with guns and shields. Somewhere a building was burning; the smoke cloud rolled down thick and black and evil-smelling, obscuring the cathedral spire and the lines of hooting, panicking cars. It was car horns and shouting, and forcing your way yard after yard. A Vauxhall rammed him, on the new roundabout on the outskirts; the big towing hook on the Champ smashed through the stoneguard, left the car sputtering, wheezing water and steam. There had been armed troops; but he had still been lucky to get clear.
He gripped the wheel, trying not to think any more. Ahead, a bare five miles away, was the coast road that skirted Bournemouth. In old times he would have been at his destination inside the hour, but the traffic was slowing again to a halt. To either side stretched the glades of the New Forest. He swallowed. He’d caught himself wondering if the ponies would survive.
He told himself for the dozenth time how if he had a dash compass he would risk driving cross-country. He’d tried to get hold of one, a week before; but he’d been too late. Maybe they’d been banned. He stared round and licked his mouth. He had the vehicle for it, he had his maps; but he wasn’t going to make it, even now. He didn’t have the guts.
The fear was welling again, jamming his throat. He made himself be calm. He found a handkerchief, wiped his forehead, then the wheel rim. He sat listening to the throb of the Champ’s big engine. After a time he switched off again, to conserve fuel.
How and when the idea had come he couldn’t say. At first, like all such things, he had thrust it away; but it returned insidiously, time after time. It got into his brain at work, again like a tune that wouldn’t be dismissed, came between him and sleep as he lay night after night, hearing the clock tick and his mother’s restless coughing from across the landing. He told himself it was useless, useless, till he was sick of the sound and very taste of the word; but it didn’t help.
His first buying had been tentative, tins and packets picked up here and there, smuggled back to be transferred later to the garage where he kept the Champ. He spread them on the floor, working by the light of the one dim lamp, saying to himself, ‘You’re never going to do it. You haven’t the guts; and if you tried, you’d fail.’ Finally he sat himself in the cab with a pencil and scratch-pad. Some overall system was needed; that much at least was obvious.
He realized nearly at once how random and senseless his purchasing had been. Most of the foodstuffs, bought in a species of hysteria, were too bulky for his purpose, too liable to spoiling. He set himself mentally to explore the shelves of his local supermarket, ticking off unit after unit. He’d read somewhere rice kept more people alive than any other staple; so far it hadn’t figured in his lists at all. Flour was another obvious basic; to transport and store it he would need damp-proof containers, either of plastic or metal. Butter he supposed was a necessity; it could double as cooking oil. That at least was readily available in tins. Salt would be vital; it too would need an air-tight container. Most canned meats were unsuitable; too little bulk, too much slosh. Corned beef, though, was ideal; greatly daring, he risked buying in bulk. Soups tempted him; he settled finally for the dehydrated variety that comes in foil-lined packets. Later he added baked beans to his list of possibles, and remembered the peculiar merits of dehydrated potato. He never stopped asking himself, ‘What are you doing it for? What do you think you’re going to do?’ But the back of the Champ began to fill.
He packed each box and carton with consummate care, grudging every inch of unused space. He added his fishing rod with two spare top joints, a box of hooks and heavy lines. Camp accessories followed: a two-ring burner, plastic cups and plates, forks and kitchen knives, a hand lantern, containers of gas. The bottles were bulky, he had to cut back on the space allocated for bedrolls and blankets. He told himself, ‘You’re never’ going to turn the starter. You’re never going to drive down there and you’re never going to do what you think you’ll do because it’s mad.’ And still he didn’t stop.
A trip to a second-hand dealer yielded a dozen five-gallon fuel cans; they accounted almost wholly for the remainder of the space. Then he remembered he’d made no provision for the most vital necessity of all, a supply of drinking water. He had to start again, nearly from the beginning, revising his priorities, discarding this, cutting down on that. With the Champ empty he drove her down to the workshop, oiled and greased and checked her over. The sealed power unit he didn’t touch, but it was good for a hundred thousand miles. He made up an emergency kit: fuses, lamps and bulbs, rotor arm and distributor cap, spare coil and condensers, plugs, fanbelt, hoses, jubilee clips. An iron frame, spot-welded hastily under the chassis, received a second battery sealed in polythene; lastly he took the locked case from his bedroom drawer, slid it behind the driving seat. Topcoat, boots, toolkit and second spare wheel would have to travel with him in the front. He stowed them experimentally, walked round the big motor. There was room for nothing else; the Champ was full.
The traffic was moving again. Ahead on the main road were blue and amber flashers; somewhere an ambulance was yelling its strident double note. A saloon car lay on its side, there was a jack-knifed artic. Beyond, the road was a hooting jam of vehicles.
He’d discounted for the moment any means of heating. In emergency the burners would have to serve. He hadn’t smoked a cigarette in years; he’d packed five hundred, all the same, in sealed tins of fifty. Another fifty lay in the dash cubby for immediate use. He prized the lid off, lit up. The first drag made him cough; he inhaled again carefully, lay back in the seat. He couldn’t stop the shaking in his hands.
The pictures had started, as they always did. He rubbed his face, tiredly; but Form 3Q was still laughing, and Sledger Bates standing with the register under his arm, eyes bright blue beneath tufted ginger brows. ‘What for?’ he said. ‘What for? When I give lines, you don’t ask what for. For what you were doing before I came in...’
The seat edge hit the backs of his knees. He was holding the desk-top, stammering, vision swimming. ‘Sir, I...’
‘Another fifty, Potts!’
‘A hundred and fifty, Potts! Going up!’
‘And another fifty. Got the score, Chapman?’
The voice was thundering, defeating him. ‘Sir...’
‘Potts! Sit down!’
His legs gave way, traitorously. He held his head down, all of him shaking, the exercise book sparking and spangling six inches from his eyes.
‘Two hundred and fifty,’ said the Sledge. ‘Fifty for luck, the rest for cheek. Don’t rub that out.’ The chalk scraped the corner of the board; the register slammed on the desk. ‘You must be mad, Potts,’ said the Sledge. ‘You must be mad. Turn to a hundred and twenty-three.’
His hands were aching where they held the wheel rim. He flexed his fingers. The light was fading now, the tail-lamps of the stalled vehicles ahead winking like jewels. He closed his eyes and tried to work out how long he’d been in the car. Horns set up bedlam behind him. He jerked awake. The line had moved; he shoved the Champ into gear, drove forward. The hooting stopped.
He lit another cigarette. The taste was coming back. He remembered how when you drove past the castle and up out of the valley you drove back into sunlight. You got it on the last bend, full in the eyes; then the road snaked away between dry-stone walls and there was the pub and the yellow and red caravan outside and the hanging sign rich-lit against the deepening sky. Sometimes too the May mist lay across the curve of hills, long angled stripes of it moving fast down toward the villages Driving through it was like driving through clouds, and the sun on top made it look like fairyland.
The Champ barked, breasting the slope in second; he swung into the pub yard with a clash and jingle and sat and listened to the engine tick as it cooled. And the paddock was there and the grazing donkeys, nothing changed; the great dimming sweep of hills and the castle brooding miles off in the dusk and house lights and headlights showing in sparks and twinklings and Poole on the horizon and the air moving huge and clean and old. He listened to the silence, then his own feet on the gravel as he walked toward the door; and Ray was inside and the rest, John with his clipped posh voice and the artist with the beard who drank from a pewter pot with a lid to it, and the frightening fierce-eyed girl who played the guitar and sang the song about working, all the bloody work and no pay, he wouldn’t have minded her. And the fossil fish in its glass case on the wall, the pots hanging over the bar and the yard-glass in its chain slings and the lit signs for Devenish draught and keg and the cigars and cigarettes and the placards advertising English Country Wines.