Marauders hit my patch again last night.
It’s not much of a place for growing stuff; a thirty-by-thirty rectangle of scrubby earth behind a clutch of pine trees half a mile from where I bed down. There’s a small brook where I get water just a few yards away, and a shelter, and the worst of the wind is kept back by the trees. But it’s mine and all that stands between me and having to live on roots and whatever I can find, or trekking into town ten miles away.
Allotments used to be about community cohesion and getting back to the land, where a family could grow potatoes and onions and things for the table. Now, since the credit crunch went further south than anyone had predicted, and country people had moved into the towns for protection – safety in numbers, so they thought; boy, they’d found out that was a harsh reality - they’re about survival, pure and simple… and defending what’s yours.
I looked at the ragged holes where the potatoes used to be. Three days of hard work wasted, digging and raking until the soil was broken up and soft enough to plant. Whoever had done this – and I figured it had to be someone who knew the area – hadn’t known shit about vegetables, other than maybe eating them. They’d ripped up plants wholesale to find they’d struck too early, and come up with barely enough to fill a soup bowl. Another month at least before I’d expected anything sizeable, but now it was all gone.
I picked up a smashed trellis where I’d been trying to encourage peas and beans to grow. They were gone, ripped out and thrown to one side. Trails of heavy boot prints had trekked across the neat rows, scuffing into oblivion what the owners hadn’t been bothered to bend and ease from the earth they way you’re supposed to if you care about that kind of thing.
But then, marauders don’t. Care, I mean. They don’t have the brains, merely crawling out from under the stones they call home and living up to their name without considering the consequences.
I checked the horizon, wondering if they were still out there. There’d be at least three – they rarely travel in smaller groups, preferring to rely on numbers to intimidate rather than intelligence or guile. And they’d be armed with whatever ordnance they’d managed to steal from abandoned farmhouses when the owners had gone; shotguns, twelve-bores, old four-tens and whatever.
I preferred to take my chances out here; at least I knew what country rats looked like. And I could read the countryside like an open book. Out here, I stood a better chance than anywhere else, even if it meant being alone.
Alone I could handle.
A couple of rooks clawed into the air from a strand of trees on the far side of a field three hundred yards away. I sank to the ground and watched. Crows are grudging, surly birds, too thick to frighten easily. Not unless something unusual comes along. Like humans.
Something must have spooked them.
Something coming this way.
A single figure, walking solidly, stumbling occasionally over the rough ground. It had been ploughed earth once, but not for the past two years. Not since the farmer had gone. Now it was just earth, overgrown with couch grass and weeds, a few spindly remnants of wheat and whatever else he’d planted over the years struggling to find clear air.
I waited until the figure was fifty yards away, then stood up and faced him.
The woman was pale and thin, about thirty, with long dark hair. She was dressed in a ski-jacket, combats and walking boots. The boots looked new, which meant they were looted or black-market.
She stopped twenty yards away, looking at me with wide eyes.
‘Who are you?’ she said. If she was scared, she didn’t show it.
‘My name’s Dave,’ I replied. Well, it would have been rude not to. ‘You are-?’
‘Angel.’ She looked around, beyond me, scanning the area, and I got the feeling she did this out of instinct, not training. ‘You got any shelter?’
‘No. Not here. Where are you from?’ If she said she was local, I was getting ready to fight, because she wouldn’t be. I knew everyone within a fifteen miles radius, all the other country-dwellers like me, the dispossessed and the ones who could do without company and the toxic surroundings of overcrowded towns and cities. Town dwellers I didn’t know, nor did I want to.
She looked too pale to be country.
She shivered and coughed. ‘I came south overland. Had an argument with the people I was with and took off.’ She smiled, which threatened to light up her face. ‘Stupid, I know, but it had been brewing for ages. I had no choice, so I left.’ She shrugged and looked around. ‘Didn’t expect to find anyone around here, but I’m glad I did. You got any eats?’
Then she keeled over.
She woke when I got her back to my caravan, eyes fluttering and disorientated. I’d got some tea on the brew and poured her a cup. She weighed almost nothing and was skin and bone beneath the jacket and combats.
She sat up and took a sip, and looked surprised.
‘Couldn’t get this in the place I was in,’ she said weakly, and drank it down. ‘Stocks ran out ages ago.’ She put the cup down and lay back, breathing light and fast.
I gave her a bowl of soup and some pitta bread, and she scoffed it down double quick, in spite of the heat. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in a long time and I wondered how close she’d come to lying down and not getting up before stumbling over my allotment.
‘It’s been a couple of days,’ she said, reading my mind. ‘Needed to get distance between them and me before stopping.’
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my business who she was running from. Just as long as she hadn’t brought them with her.
They came the following night, on the heels of a brief storm. The clouds had been heavy all day, thumping overhead like bad-tempered children spoiling for a fight. The rain had been welcome, though, I didn’t mind rain. It would irrigate the allotment and keep casual travellers huddled in whatever shelter they could find. When it ended, they’d be anxious to be on their way, depressed by with the way nature pushed the wind and rain through every crack and cranny, forcing water down their necks and inside their clothing.
In the drip-backed silence following the last puff of thunder, I heard a crack out in the field. I knew what it was: I’d scattered some canes out there while Angel was asleep. Still brittle even if wet, they were thin enough to give easily, thick enough to snap and give me warning of someone’s approach.
I curled out of bed and went to the window. Pulled back the curtain. Movement showed through the trees surrounding the caravan. A figure slipped sideways out of my field of view, another followed, going the other way. Visitors don’t behave like that.
‘Angel!’ The voice came from the left, anger and command contained in just one word. ‘Angel, we know you’re in there. Come out!’
I heard a clicking sound and my stomach flipped. It was the sound of a shotgun being racked. Deliberate, intimidating, dramatic, it carried an unmistakable message.
‘Angel.’ Another voice, this one high-pitched like a woman, lilting, almost tuneful. But just as scary.
Behind me, Angel stumbled out of the other bunk and crept up to my shoulder. I could feel her breath on my neck, sour and hot.
‘Visitors,’ I said. ‘Are they your friends?’
‘Yes.’ She sounded almost regretful, and I wondered if I had been set up. Find a solitary man growing food and surviving in the country, pretend to be vulnerable and afraid to gain his confidence and trust, then get your friends to come in and take him.
Another cracking sound, this time of undergrowth being kicked aside. It sounded about twenty feet away. Too close for comfort. If they had guns, these caravan walls would puncture like soft cheese.
I reached sideways and took hold of the shotgun I’d never used, but kept handy. It felt heavy and cold, and I desperately didn’t want to use it. Guns were for other people, messy and brutal. Once used, guns couldn’t be denied, an irreversible action with irreversible consequences.
A vivid flash of light and a roar of sound, and suddenly I was looking at a fist-sized hole in one corner of the caravan, and the interior was splattering with lead pellets bouncing off the walls. Angel screamed in pain and ducked to the floor, and I followed her. No good being a hero if you’re dead.
‘Yes. Stung my face, that’s all.’ She suddenly sounded very young.
A cackle of laughter from outside, and another shot. The blast took out a window, showering us with slivers of Perspex. It came from the right, followed by the high voice again.
‘Angel, sweetie!’ it teased. ‘You got ten seconds to come out. I want my birthday pressie!’
‘Who are they?’ I asked, and checked the gun was loaded. If they hadn’t come in already, they were being cautious.
‘His name’s Roper,’ said Angel, fear making her voice tremble. ‘The older one. He was always after me, but his wife kept him away. The other one’s Tyke.’ I felt her shiver with revulsion. ‘Roper’s son. He promised me to him on his seventeenth birthday.’
A pause. ‘Today. No, tomorrow. Tomorrow.’
‘Nobody objected?’ I scanned the darkness, waiting for the next shot. Now would have been a good idea to have a back door to slip through. Bad planning.
‘Nobody dared.’ Her voice was a whisper. ‘Roper thinks he’s untouchable. The last man who argued with him disappeared.’
‘He ran off?’
‘No, They found his left hand a week later. But that was all.’
Great. Psychopaths in my allotment. That’s all I needed.
Suddenly another shot came, ripping through the walls, and a large figure flitted across my field of vision, heading for the door. He was going at a tilt that would take him through the thin wood without stopping. He’d be in among us and I knew that would be the end of it for both of us.
‘First one in gets the goodies!’ he roared tauntingly, as he came near, and a howl of protest came from his son, like it was some sort of contest. I realised it probably was.
I waited for the last second, then swung the door open and pulled the trigger.
He was so close the twin barrels were nearly touching his chest. The double blast lit up his face, highlighting an ugly sneer and a mouth full of rotten teeth, a consequence of insufficient flossing. It also showed a look of surprise, even shock. Then he was tossed backwards like a discarded heap of clothing.
I slammed the door shut and motioned Angel towards the back of the caravan. A window opened above the sink. With a wriggle, we might both get out before Tyke started riddling the bodywork with gunshots. I doubted he’d follow his father’s example, but you can never tell.
A scream of anguish echoed through the trees, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It was long and high, like a screech-owl, only livid and furious in a way no animal could match. Then the shots began hitting the caravan.
I flipped open the window and pushed Angel through. She hit the ground below with a grunt but was up and running instantly, testament to how scared she was of what would follow if Tyke caught us.
I dropped to the ground, ripping off half my shirt buttons on the window catch in the process, and took off after her. I still had the shotgun, although I’d just fired off the only two shells I’d had. Maybe I could throw it at him if he came too close.
I led Angel to the allotment. It was where I felt safest; where I knew my way around. It wouldn’t save us if Tyke came looking, but it might give us a better chance than trying to outrun him over level ground. Under the barrel of a gun, and with Angel being as weak as she was, we’d be easy prey.
We kipped down in the small shelter I’d built to house my tools. It wasn’t meant to sleep in, being shoulder height and pitch back, with corrugated metal for a roof, but it was better than staying outside. I made Angel scurry under some old sacking at the back, then covered her over and sat down by the door with a garden fork in my hands.
Pathetic really, but running wasn’t an option.
Tyke came looking just before dawn.
The crows in the trees above us gave the first warning, crabbing away to each other like old men. I heard a curse followed by the blast of a shotgun, then more cursing. It told me two things: he wasn’t short of shells and didn’t care if we heard him coming.
I snuck out of the shelter, motioning Angel, who’d been jolted awake, to stay where she was. Before I left, I handed her a pruning knife.
She took it, eyes wide, and sank back among the sacking.
Tyke was standing near the bean canes, staring up at the trees, his shotgun over his shoulder. He was swaying in the early light and I guessed he’d been drinking up the courage to come looking for us. I looked down at the empty shotgun and realised he was too far gone to care whether I had this or a rocker launcher.
I tossed it aside. Maybe I could fool him with guile.
I crabbed over to the compost heap near the back hedge and stuck my hands into the rotting pile along one edge, until my fingers encountered a ridge of hard metal. I dug in and lifted the sheet of corrugated roofing. Underneath was a canvas golf bag, decades old and hardened with age, like stone, but dry inside. I flipped open the lid and dragged out the magnum.
Well, it wasn’t a normal magnum, but I doubt a fish would have seen the distinction.
It was made of mahogany and fired stainless steel spears with twin barbs, propelled by heavy-duty rubber bands. Hitting anything over 18 feet away was probably pushing it but I wouldn’t want to stand in the way and put it to the test.
I’d found it in an abandoned barn one day, along with a load of scuba gear.
Tyke had spotted me by now and was walking towards me, his steps uneven, his face mottled with anger and booze. His stance told me he wanted to be up close and personal, which suited me just fine.
Then he saw the magnum and laughed. It was an ugly, yelping sound which came all the way up from his skinny belly and erupted out of his mouth, more child than adult. But I knew I wasn’t facing a child.
‘The fuck’s that?’ he said, and laughed some more. ‘You think that toy’s any kind of weapon against this?’ He hefted the shotgun and fired off a blast into the trees, bringing down a shower of branches and one dead crow. He laughed at that, spit dribbling down his chin, and kicked the bird away like a spiteful kid who doesn’t want to play any more.
He stopped laughing and I saw his knuckles tighten around the stock as he applied first pressure on the trigger. I felt my belly shrink at the thought of what that gun would do to me.
Then Tyke looked surprised and put the gun down. Well, dropped it.
The thing about spearguns is, they’re almost silent. I mean, I’ve never heard one go off under water, so I suppose there might be a little gurgle or two, maybe a wet chowk as the rubber band lets fly, followed by a line of bubbles. But out here on dry land, that sound gets lost in the breeze.
So Tyke never even heard the spear take off; probably didn’t see it, either.
But he sure as hell felt it.
It hit him dead centre, and when he looked down to see what it was, there was about an inch of steel shaft sticking out of his diaphragm.
Maybe he was wearing an extra heavy shirt. Slowed it down a bit.
I resisted the temptation to utter the quip from the Bond film, about him getting the point. It seemed unseemly, somehow. Mind you, it was a struggle.
He tried to pull the shotgun’s trigger once more, then realised he no longer had the weapon in his hand and fell over.
I made sure Angel was okay, and showed her how to light a fire and put on some water for tea. It would be rough and ready, but it would keep away the cold and give me time to do what I had to. She didn’t argue, and even looked pleased to be doing something normal.
‘Will anyone else come?’ I asked her. If the answer was yes, we’d have to leave here for good. I didn’t want to do that, but neither did I want to die.
She shook her head, feeding sticks into the flames under the blackened water pot. ‘There’s nobody cares enough. They all hated both of them.’ She looked at me. ‘Can I stay? I’ve nowhere else to go.’
‘We’ll see,’ I replied. ‘Maybe.’
She seemed happy enough at that.
While she encouraged the water to boil, I dragged Tyke’s body across the allotment and buried him in the compost heap. It took a while and raised a sweat, but I made sure he was at the centre where it was nice and warm; where he’d get the most benefit. When I was sure he was bedded down, I covered him over again.
Give the heat in there, along with the bacteria and stuff, Tyke would soon cease to exist altogether. Especially when I spread him around a bit an forked him in. Somehow I doubted he’d appreciate the irony; he might not have cared about the land when he was on it, but he was sure as hell going to play a part now he was in it