It had been a long and arduous trek to London from her distant home in a plague-ridden village in rural East Midlands, but Eugenie was determined to get as far as she could from all that she’d used to know and all the memories associated with it.
Although Eugenie had lived all her young life in one of the English Republic’s most deprived regions her memories weren’t all bad. Nevertheless, it wasn’t surprising that so many villages in the East Midlands had succumbed to and been devastated by the latest strain of bubonic plague that had swept across the nation. Her whole family and everyone she’d ever known in her village were now dead. And there was nothing she could have done about it.
On the day her home village was quarantined, Eugenie had been enjoying an evening out with friends in the nearby village of Harston. She knew that a plague was spreading across Central England, of course. Who couldn’t know? The latest wave of antibiotic-resistant plagues had already cut a wide swathe across the counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, so it was only a matter of time until the remote village of Woolsthorpe would also fall victim.
It wasn’t just the arrival of the plague that made this night so memorable. After all these months, Mickey had at last persuaded Eugenie to let him fuck her, although it actually happened to be a rather disappointing experience. The pleasure of the occasion was badly compromised by Marlene’s indignation when she discovered her brother fucking her best friend. However, the night was pleasantly warm. It would have been a shame not to take advantage of it. For Eugenie, it was the natural climax of an evening she and her friends had enjoyed in an open field under the stars with their inhibitions lowered by home-brewed cider and home-grown grass.
Although she’d heard the warnings on the radio the day before, Eugenie didn’t expect that the following morning would be the day that she’d learn that she would never again return to her home village.
The first sign she had was when she was walking home to Woolsthorpe in the early morning and discovered that a ring of barbed wire was now encircling the village. Tall boards had been erected on the roads leading into the village which announced that the village was now under quarantine and that nobody was permitted to enter, including those whose homes were in the village. Of course, this also meant that anyone unfortunate enough to be enclosed by the ring of barbed wire was forbidden from leaving, irrespective of whether they actually lived there.
Eugenie had no other realistic option. She would have to return to the village of Harston and hope that she could stay with her friends.
And this was just the beginning of a series of calamities that changed Eugenie’s previously settled life forever.
The village of Harston was also smitten by plague. Eugenie was told that almost every village in Lincolnshire was similarly blighted. She could contact her family and friends by phone but as each day passed by the news only became worse and worse. The plague killed each and every one it came in contact with. Not a single person in her household survived. Every man, woman and child in the village died. She was alone and homeless. There was no going back to Woolsthorpe as it would remain under quarantine for many more months to come. And even when it was possible to return, she wasn’t sure she’d want to live again in the tied cottage her family shared with two lodgers that was the only home she’d ever known.
The next few weeks were desperate for Eugenie. To begin with, she slept in the shelter of the woods near her village and then, when it began to rain, in whatever shelter she could find in the nearest town. Unfortunately, Grantham was very jittery about the outbreak of plague and Eugenie’s presence could hardly have been less welcome. There were no facilities to help her and nowhere for her to stay. When it rained, she got wet. When it was cold, she shivered. When it was warm, she sweltered. Her only means of making a living was to beg, but there were so many other similarly displaced beggars on the streets that she had to resort to scavenging through the dustbins.
The clothes she wore were simply those she’d been wearing on the evening she’d spent in the open air with her friends and they had become increasingly ragged. She remedied this as best she could by rummaging through the clothes boxes laid out by charities for vagrants like her. There was no underwear, but then Eugenie only ever wore such luxury items on special occasions. She found a threadbare rucksack in amongst the unwanted items supplied by a charity shop and stuffed it with a selection of faded dresses, shorts and printed tee-shirts. She also came across an old denim jacket that was cut off at the waist which could help keep her warm at night. Footwear was more of a problem. She could wear any oversized dress or tee-shirt, but the wrong size of shoes would blister her feet. Eventually she found a pair of old rubber-soled boots that were only one size too large for her but which she made more comfortable by stuffing them full with torn rags.
If her only source of money was to beg, Eugenie decided she would rather do so in London. It wasn’t a place she’d ever been to before. The biggest city she’d ever visited was Nottingham when her father took his family to market on the back of their pony cart. All Eugenie knew of London was that it was a place of opportunity where she might find her fortune. In any case, she had no wish to follow her father’s footsteps and work as a farm-labourer. She’d already suffered more days of her life than she cared to remember bent over in the fields picking root vegetables and berries. There were much more rewarding careers in London. She might be able to work in a shop. Perhaps she could serve in a coffee shop. Maybe she could even work in an office. Such things were surely not beyond the reaches of possibility.
The journey to London was long and tiring. The only means of travel she could afford were hitch-hiking and walking. At night she slept in bus shelters or under bushes.
It might have taken Eugenie less time to get to London if she’d been less careful. She turned down several suggestions made by lorry drivers and private car-drivers that she should provide sexual services in exchange for the expense of her journey. Eugenie didn’t want to sacrifice her health and future happiness to one of the deadly new endemic strains of venereal disease. Most of her journey south was on the back of pony-drawn traps and bicycle-drawn carriages. Only one stretch of her journey was by motor vehicle and that was along a stretch of private motorway between Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead. This was exhilarating for Eugenie whose only previous experience of motorised transport was when she’d ridden the bus between Melton Mowbray and Grantham. The motorway vehicles that sped at upwards of fifty kilometres an hour were for the exclusive use of commercial goods vehicles or the private cars of the rich and privileged.
London wasn’t at all what she’d hoped for when Eugenie finally arrived in the capital city. Her first impression was that London was unbelievably squalid. The mule-drawn carriage that had carried her all twenty kilometres from Borehamwood towards Central London dropped her off at Archway. If it had travelled further the driver would have to pay the London Congestion Charge. He explained to her that this was a tax on travel in the inner city intended to address the growing problem of horse manure that polluted the capital’s streets.
But at last Eugenie was in London. Or at least in the London Borough of Islington. And she soon saw evidence that the Bubonic Plague that had swept all before it in the East Midlands had made an impact even here in London. Almost as soon as she clambered out of the carriage she saw the familiar posters that warned against plague. There were hastily printed signs plastered on the crumbling walls that directed traffic and pedestrians away from Holloway where the plague was at its worst.
One thing London most definitely wasn’t paved with was gold. The road surface was a mosaic of tar and grit that barely patched the many pot-holes. The shops and houses were in an advanced state of disrepair. The kerbside was lined with traders, ragged children and menacing youths. The streets were mostly paved with horse manure. Eugenie was truly grateful that she’d acquired a good pair of boots.
“Do you know where I can find somewhere to sleep the night?” Eugenie asked one of the traders by the kerb: a middle-aged woman disabled by one of the new variants of Polio and who made a living by patching worn or threadbare clothes.
“You’re not from these parts, are you?” said the woman with a pronounced London accent which reminded Eugenie how distinctive her East Midlands must seem so far south. “If you want to find somewhere to stay the night then the best thing you can do is squat in the plague zone. There are gonna be a lot of empty rooms down there, love.”
“Won’t the plague zone be sealed off?”
“Yeah of course, love,” said the woman. “There’ll be barbed wire all round it, but the worst of the plague is over now. They’ve dragged out all the bodies. That means there’s no risk no more. There’ll be gaps in the barbed wire that squatters have pushed aside so people can get back in. The police won’t shoot you like they would have done when the plague was at its worst.”
“How do you know all this?”
“’Cos that’s where I live, love,” admitted the woman. “That’s what we all do hereabouts after there’s been an outbreak of plague. We wait for the last of the bodies to be incinerated and then while the authorities try and work out what to do next we move in. It’s the only way you can get a decent place to live in London.”
Eugenie took the woman’s advice and followed the signs that warned her away to the Holloway plague zone. Just as she’d been told, there were no armed police guarding the zone. Eugenie traced the barbed wire surrounding the zone for several blocks until, in the wilderness that had once been someone’s private garden, she located a breach in the wire that had been snipped apart by razor-cutters. She slipped through, careful to not rip her skin or clothes, while lifting above her head her precious rucksack and her last few possessions. She was then in the eerily desolate and empty streets of Holloway.
She walked along the strangely silent Parkhurst Road where she could see evidence of the horse-drawn carriages that had wheeled through to collect the dead bodies. Eugenie could see the charred remains of a large bonfire on the corner of Chambers Road where she was quite disturbed by the sight of charred bones. This was all that was left of the diseased corpses that had been incinerated in the flames.
The only people likely to be wandering around in a plague zone would be other squatters and the police. And since there was no evidence of police, that would leave only squatters. Anyone who’d lived in the zone during the plague and had survived would now be kept in isolation at quarantine camps far away from the city. Eugenie had heard that these camps were truly disgusting. They were overcrowded and prone to fresh outbreaks of disease, but they did help to contain the further spread of the deadly pandemics.
Eugenie wasn’t in Holloway as a sightseer. She was looking for somewhere to sleep and preferably before it became dark. A lone woman on the unlit streets of London, even in the plague zone, was surely as much at risk of robbery and rape as she was in Nottingham, Lincoln or any other East Midland town.
It was in Bardolph Road that Eugenie at last saw something that seemed promising. It was the doorway to an old terraced house that had been subdivided and sub-tenanted into several smaller apartments. There was a white cross painted on the front door which indicated that the residents had all been accounted for. This could mean that they were now in a quarantine camp, but more likely, given the virulence of the most recent strain of Bubonic Plague, that they were all now dead. The doors that didn’t have crosses painted over them suggested that the residents hadn’t yet been traced. That could mean that like Eugenie they just hadn’t been in the vicinity when the plague swept through their neighbourhood.
Eugenie jemmied open a window with a length of iron railing she found lying about on the road and jumped through into the house when the hinge finally snapped. She then carefully pushed the window back into place and wedged it shut with the leg of a chair that she’d smashed to pieces. It wasn’t prudent to allow access to other potential squatters.
She scanned the empty room she’d broken into. It was drab and poorly decorated, but at least it was empty. Eugenie then wandered into the hallway and up the stairs to the first and then the second floor. It was safer to take residence in a room well above ground level. Anyone could be wandering about the London streets. There was even the threat of rabid feral dogs although they were more likely to have been shot in a city like London than they would in the countryside.
At the top of the house, Eugenie levered open a door using the same length of iron railing and was pleased to find that it wasn’t padlocked from the inside. The last thing she wanted to discover were the residents’ rotting bodies. The only reason the door had been secured at all was because the lock had automatically slammed shut when the Contagion Police had secured the property.
So, this was to be her home for the foreseeable future, thought Eugenie. It was relatively homely, that was for sure. The police had fully fumigated the room and the bedsheets had been removed for incineration, but otherwise it was more or less as it was when its residents had lived and presumably died there. Eugenie hoped that their deaths had been short and painless, but from what she’d heard about the last few days of her parents’ lives this seemed quite unlikely. It had been almost certainly been both awfully painful and extremely distressing. Bubonic Plague in its modern airborne form was a horrible disease. Once it took hold, the victims’ normal fate was an agonising death. The survival rate was very low.
Eugenie studied the memorabilia left behind by the people who’d lived in the room. The photographs sellotaped to the wall showed a middle-aged couple who’d been old enough to know the United Kingdom before it had fallen apart. They were sitting side by side in a picture together with a woman at least ten years older than Eugenie who was probably their daughter.
They weren’t badly dressed so perhaps they’d had jobs in a shop, maybe even in an office. They probably didn’t know what it was like to work in the open air and plough fields.
Now their home effectively belonged to Eugenie and would continue to be so until the police or a teenage gang or the homeless of London came by to evict her as surely they eventually would.
Who were the couple whose smiling faces were repeated again and again in the photographs stuck to the walls and held in plastic frames all around the apartment?
Eugenie picked up an envelope that had been addressed to them but had since been used for as a pad on which to scribble notes.
Mark McEwen & Molly Minchin, it read.
So that was the couple to whom she should be grateful for the creature comforts that were now at her exclusive disposal.