In The Boy on the Bridge, M. R. Carey returns to the world of The Girl With All the Gifts, the phenomenal word-of-mouth bestseller which is now a critically acclaimed film.
The bucks have all been passed and the arguments thrashed out until they don’t even bleed any more. Finally, after a hundred false starts, the Rosalind Franklin begins her northward journey – from Beacon on the south coast of England all the way to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. There aren’t many who think she’ll make it that far, but they wave her off with bands and garlands all the same. They cheer the bare possibility.
Rosie is an awesome thing to behold, a land leviathan, but she’s not by any means the biggest thing that ever rolled. In the years before the Breakdown, the most luxurious motor homes, the class A diesel-pushers, were a good sixteen or seventeen metres long. Rosie is smaller than that: she has to be because her armour plating is extremely thick and there’s a limit to the weight her treads will carry. In order to accommodate a crew of twelve, certain luxuries have had to be sacrificed. There’s a single shower and a single latrine, with a rota that’s rigorously maintained. The only private space is in the bunks, which are tiered three-high like a Tokyo coffin hotel.
The going is slow, a pilgrimage through a world that turned its back on humankind the best part of a decade ago. Dr Fournier, in an inspirational speech, likens the crew to the wise men in the Bible who followed a star. Nobody else in the crew finds the analogy plausible or appealing. There are twelve of them, for one thing – more like the apostles than the wise men, if they were in the Jesus business in the first place, and they are not in any sense following a star. They’re following the trail blazed a year before by another team in an armoured vehicle exactly like their own – a trail planned out by a panel of fractious experts, through every terrain that mainland Britain has to offer. Fields and meadows, woodland and hills, the peat bogs of Norfolk and the Yorkshire moors.
All these things look, at least to Dr Samrina Khan, very much as she remembers them looking in former times. Recent events – the collapse of global civilisation and the near-extinction of the human species – have left no mark on them that she can see. Khan is not surprised. The time of human dominion on Earth is barely a drop in the ocean of geological time, and it takes a lot to make a ripple in that ocean.
But the cities and the towns are changed beyond measure. They were built for people, and without people they have no identity or purpose. They have lost their memory. Vegetation is everywhere, softening the man-made megaliths into new and unrecognisable shapes. Office blocks have absent-mindedly become mesas, public squares morphed into copses or lakes. Emptied of the past that defined them, they have surrendered without protest, no longer even haunted by human meanings.
There are still plenty of ghosts around, though, if that’s what you’re looking for. The members of the science team avoid the hungries where possible, engage when strictly necessary (which mostly means when the schedule calls for tissue samples). The military escort, by virtue of their weapons, have a third option which they pursue with vigour.
Nobody enjoys these forays, but the schedule is specific. It takes them into every place where pertinent data could lurk.
Seven weeks out from Beacon, it takes them into Luton. Private Sixsmith parks and locks down in the middle of a roundabout on the A505, which combines a highly defensible position with excellent lines of sight. The sampling team walks into the town centre from there, a journey of about half a mile.
This is one of the places where the crew of the Charles Darwin, their dead predecessors, left a cache of specimen cultures to grow in organic material drawn from the immediate area. The team’s brief is to retrieve these legacy specimens, which calls for only a single scientist with an escort of two soldiers. Dr Khan is the scientist (she made damn sure she would be by swapping duties with Lucien Akimwe for three days running). The escort consists of Lieutenant McQueen and Private Phillips.
Khan has her own private reasons for wanting to visit Luton, and they have become steadily more pressing with each day’s forward progress. She is afraid, and she is uncertain. She needs an answer to a question, and she hopes that Luton might give it to her.
They move slowly for all the usual reasons – thick undergrowth, ad hoc barricades of tumbledown masonry, alarms and diversions whenever anything moves or makes a sound. The soldiers have no call to use their weapons, but they see several groups of hungries at a distance and they change their route each time to minimise the chance of a close encounter. They keep their gait to a halting dead march, because even with blocker gel slathered on every inch of exposed skin to deaden their scent, it’s possible that the hungries will lock onto rapid movement and see potential prey.
Khan considers how strange they must look, although there’s almost certainly no one around to see them. The two men each comfortably topping six feet in height, and the small, slight woman in between. She doesn’t even come up to their shoulders, and her thighs are thinner than their forearms. They could carry her, with all her gear, and not slacken stride. It’s past noon before they reach Park Square, where the Darwin’s logs have directed them. And then it takes a long while to locate the specimen cache. The Darwin’s scientists cleared a ten-foot area before setting it down, as per standing orders, but a whole year’s growth has happened since then. The cache’s bright orange casing is invisible in snarls of brambles so dense and thick they look like tank traps. When they finally locate it, they have to use machetes to get to it.
Khan kneels down in pulped bramble and oozing bramble-sap to verify the seals on the specimen containers. There are ten of them, all battleship grey rather than transparent because the fungus inside them has grown to fill the interior space to bursting. That probably means the specimens are useless, offering no information beyond the obvious – that the enemy is robust and versatile and not picky at all about pH, temperature, moisture or any damn thing else.
But hope springs as high as it can, and the mission statement is not negotiable. Khan transfers the containers to her belt pouches. McQueen and Phillips stand close on either side of her, sweeping the silent square with a wary 360-degree gaze.
Khan climbs to her feet, but she stands her ground when McQueen brusquely gestures for her and Phillips to move out.
“I need to do a quick sortie,” she says, hoping her voice does not betray her nerves.
The lieutenant regards her with a vast indifference, his broad, flat face showing no emotion. “That’s not on the log,” he tells her curtly. He has little time for Khan and doesn’t try to hide the fact. Khan believes that this is because she is (a) not a soldier and (b) not even a man, but she doesn’t rule out other possibilities. There may even be some racism in there, however quaint and old-fashioned that seems in these latter days.
So she has anticipated his answer and prepared her own. She takes a list out of the pocket of her fatigues and hands it to him. “Medicines,” she says as he unfolds and scans it, his lips pursed thin and tight. “We’re doing okay for the most part, but the area north of Bedford saw a lot of bombing. If we can stock up on some of this stuff before we get into the burn shadow, it might save us a lot of heartache later.”
Khan is prepared to lie if she has to, but McQueen doesn’t ask her whether this is an authorised detour. He takes it for granted – and it’s a very fair assumption – that she wouldn’t prolong this little day trip without direct orders from either Dr Fournier or the colonel.
So they stroll on a little way to the Mall, which is a mausoleum fit for an ancient pharaoh. Behind shattered shopfronts, flat-screen televisions and computers offer digital apotheosis. Mannequins in peacock finery bear witness, or else await their long-delayed resurrection.
Ignoring them all, Lieutenant McQueen leads the way inside and up to the mezzanine level. Once there, he stays out on the concourse, his rifle on full automatic with the safety off, while Khan and Phillips gather up the precious bounty of Boots the Chemist.
Khan takes the prescription drugs, leaving the private with the much easier task of scoring bandages, dressings and painkillers. Even so, she presses the list on him, assuring him that he will need it more than she does. That’s true enough, as far as it goes. She’s well aware of what’s in short supply and what they can reasonably expect to find.
But it’s only half the truth. She also wants Private Phillips to have his head down, puzzling over her shitty handwriting as he makes his way along the aisles. If he’s reading the list, he won’t be watching her. She’ll be free to pursue her secret mission – the one that has brought her here without authorisation and without the mission commanders’ knowledge.
The prescription meds are hived away behind a counter. Khan tucks herself away in there and fills her pack, quickly and efficiently. She mostly goes for antibiotics, which are so precious in Beacon that any prescription has to be countersigned by two doctors and an army officer. There’s a whole pack of insulin too, which goes straight in the bag. Paracetamol. Codeine. A few antihistamines.
With the official shopping list covered, it’s time to switch agendas. She was hoping she might find what she was looking for right here in the pharmacy area, but there’s no sign of it. She raises her head up over the counter to check the lie of the land. Private Phillips is fifty yards away, scowling over the list as he pads from rack to rack.
Khan crosses the aisle in shuffling baby steps, bent almost double and trying not to make a sound. Fetching up in front of a display themed around dental hygiene, she scans the shelves to either side of her urgently. Phillips could finish his task and come looking for her at any moment.
The part of her body she’s concerned about is a long way south of her teeth, but for some esoteric reason the relevant products are shelved right there on the next unit along. There is a choice of three brands. Ten long years ago, on the last day when anything was bought or sold in this place, they were on special offer. Khan can’t imagine how that can ever have made sense, given the very limited circumstances in which these items are useful. You either need them or you don’t, and if you do then price doesn’t really factor in. With a surge of relief, Khan grabs one and shoves it into her pack.
On second thoughts, she takes two more, giving her one of each brand. Ten years is a long time, and even behind airtight seals most things eventually degrade: three throws of the dice are better than one.
Popping her head up over the parapet again, she sees that Private Phillips has his back to her. Perfect timing. She steps out into the aisle and rests one hand nonchalantly on the pharmacy counter. Here I am, her stance says. Where I’ve been all along. Where I have every reason to be.
“Done,” she tells him.
Phillips doesn’t answer. He’s looking at something down on the ground.
Khan goes and joins him.
He’s found a nest, of sorts. There’s a sleeping bag, rumpled and dirty; an open rucksack in which Khan can see the tops of several plastic water bottles and the handle of what might be a hammer or large screwdriver; two neat stacks of clothes (jeans, socks, T-shirts and a few sweaters, nothing indisputably female except for a single pair of knickers and a black blouse with ruffles on the sleeves); a few dozen empty cans laid out in rows, most of which once held baked beans or soup, and a paperback copy of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Wishing Chair. There’s no dust here to speak of, but it’s clear that none of these things have been touched in a while. Dead leaves from a broken window somewhere have silted up against them, and tendrils of black mould are groping their way up the lower half of the sleeping bag.
Someone lived here, Khan thinks. The Mall must have looked like a pretty good place to hide, offering food and shelter and an enticing array of consumer goods. But it was a death trap of course, with a dozen entrances and few defensible spaces. This hopeful hermit probably died not too far away from where they’re standing. Private Phillips is looking down at the pathetic display with a thoughtful, distant expression on his face. He scratches his lightly stubbled chin with the tip of one finger.
Then he squats, sets down his rifle and picks up the book, riffling the pages with his thumb. He has to do this very gently because the decades-old glue has dried and cracked and the pages have come loose from the spine. Khan is amazed. She can only assume that The Magic Wishing Chair must have featured somehow in the private’s childhood; that he’s communing with some buried part of himself.
Something falls out onto the floor. A narrow rectangle of thin card, pale gold in colour. It bears the single word Rizla.
“Knew it,” Phillips exults. He tosses the book aside. Pages spill out of it when it lands, splayed like a hand of cards. He delves into the rucksack with serious purpose, throwing aside the half-empty water bottles and the tool (a claw hammer) to come up with his prize: a half-empty packet of Marlboro Gold cigarettes and a second pack that’s still sealed. Hard currency in Beacon, but there’s no way these cancer-sticks are going to travel that far.
Khan dips her gaze and looks at the scattered pages of the book. One of them has a picture, of two children sitting in a flying chair, holding on tight to the arms as they soar over the rounded turret of a castle tower. There is a caption below the picture. “Why, our magic chair might take us anywhere!” Peter cried.
“Got what you need, Dr Khan?” Phillips asks her. He’s cheerful, expansive, riding on an emotional high from the mere thought of those smokes.
“Yes, Gary,” Khan tells him, studiously deadpan. “Everything I need.”
The journey back to Rosie is blessedly uneventful but, like the trip out, it’s protracted and exhausting. By the time they’re through the airlock, Khan is pretty much done and just wants to lie down in her bunk until the day goes away. But John Sealey needs to greet her and – under the guise of a casual conversation – to ascertain that she’s okay. The boy Stephen Greaves is less demonstrative but she knows his body language: he needs even more reassurance than John, and on top of that he needs, as always, to restore their normal status quo through the rituals they’ve established over the years they have known each other – greetings and exchanges whose importance lies entirely in their being said rather than in any meaning they carry.
“Good day’s work, Stephen?”
“Not too bad, Dr Khan. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“Did you enjoy your walk?”
“Very much. It’s a lovely day out there. You should take a stroll yourself before the sun goes in.”
She disentangles herself delicately, first from John and then from Stephen, and now she’s free and clear. The colonel is up in the cockpit. The rest of the crew have their own shit to deal with and no wish to get mixed up in hers.
Khan goes into the shower, since Phillips has already grabbed the latrine. She locks herself in and undresses quickly. Her body is slick with sweat but there is no smell apart from the slightly bitter tang of e-blocker. If there had been, of course, she would have found out about it before now.
One by one she unwraps the three packages, stowing the wrappers in her pockets. The boxes, folded down tight and small, follow. In each package is a flimsy plastic wand. The designs are slightly different, but each wand has a window halfway along its length and a thickening at one end to show where you’re supposed to grip it.
Squatting on the floor of the shower, legs slightly parted, she does what needs to be done.
The chemistry is straightforward, and close to infallible. Anti-hCG globulin is extremely reactive to certain human hormones, including the hormone gonadotrophin. Properly prepared, it will change colour in the hormone’s presence.
And the hormone is present in a woman’s urine. Sometimes.
Having peed on the business end of the three wands, she waits in silence, watching the three little windows. A negative result will tell her very little. The protein layer on the prepared strip inside the wands may have degraded too far to catalyse. A positive, on the other hand, will mean what it always meant.
Khan gets the hat-trick.
Mixed emotions rise in her as she stares at these messages from her own uncharted interior, a high tide of wonder and dismay and disbelief and misery in which hope bobs like a lifeboat cut adrift.
Seven weeks into a fifteen-month mission, ten years after the world ended and a hundred miles from home, Dr Samrina Khan is pregnant.
But this is not Bethlehem, and there will be no manger.