Well, for those who were concerned, I’m alive and almost well. As Sue heard, I was refused entry to the quarantine camp, though “refused entry” is a rather evasive way to describe beating somebody to the ground and stealing their handset and shoes before dumping them, unconscious, in a wood.
I awoke to the familiar aroma of nettle soup. I’d been covered with a coat, and an insistent voice said, “Drink this,” so I did. There was something in it besides nettles – it had a more rounded and slightly peppery flavour, and when I could focus enough to look at the tin mug being held to my lips I saw some kind of yellowish root in it. I looked up at a young man’s concerned and impatient face, then scrunched my eyes shut in pain when he yelled, “’’e’s woken up, Mam!”
A gentler voice responded, “Let him rest, Khalil,” and I obliged while a hushed argument took place over the urgency of getting my story. I tried to wake up, but fell unconscious again. It was the best part of an hour before I could sit and thank them for their kindness. By then, the father had returned with two cheerful small girls, and some kind of dead animal – a squirrel, I think. Khalil offered to fetch some water, and the girls bickered over who was going to light the fire until their mother told them to quiet down, and go and wash their hands in the stream. That left me with the parents, who introduced themselves as they built the fire and skinned the dinner.
They were friendly but reserved. Maira asked, with a hint of caution, whether I was travelling alone, and I noticed that Rafel stopped what he was doing to wait for my answer. When I told them that I’d been trying to join my wife and daughter in Chester, the tension dropped a level.
“Then you are Ashraf,” Maira said, and she told me how they’d met Sue and Sarah on their way into Chester, before having their own application rejected, though not so violently as mine. They weren’t surprised by it, or by my story. Chester was the third city they’d tried and failed to seek refuge with. I wondered why they wanted to get into a city, given that they seemed to be managing so well in a copse of woodland outside. They’d clearly got the hang of hunting and foraging, far better than I had. They shook their heads at this. It’s almost October. It will soon be colder, food will be scarcer. Two of their children are still small. They’re under no illusion that they can make it through the winter without joining a city with some proper shelter and a reliable food source. They were determined to find one that would admit them, even if it meant back-breaking work, suspicious strangers and the ever-present threat of violence. They said they would escape again in the Spring, if they could. They were going to try Liverpool next, and urged me to do the same, once I’d found my family. It’s always difficult to know which blogs to believe, but there seemed to be quite a few giving different and not overly glowing reports of the set-up there, and they reckoned that was a good thing. Variety of opinion means a certain amount of freedom to express it. The many endorsements for Chester all made similar and, as it turns out, false claims.
I learnt a lot from Maira and Rafel, and from Khalil and the girls, who are already pretty good trappers and gatherers of the right kinds of mushrooms, roots and leaves. I’ve also learnt from my mistakes in Chester. I should never have left the car so close by, for a start. I’d left everything of use in the caravan, detached the car and parked on the hard shoulder of the M6 only a couple of miles outside the town, and when I felt well enough to return to it, it was long gone. They must regularly patrol the area around the city, so I left the road and headed back to the caravan via the fields. By the time I reached it I was exhausted, and ached all over. Rafel had given me a pair of socks, but they were no better than bare feet for much of the journey. Sue now says I shouldn’t have tried to leave so soon, but the restorative power of a good meal and a welcoming family was tinged with anxiety for my own, and I wanted to get back to the caravan and see if there was any word from them. When I got there, the caravan was empty and lonely, and there was no message yet on the workset. I tried SkIMping – another stupid mistake, as they would obviously have left me a message by now if they still had their handsets. I posted what I had the energy left to say, and fell asleep.
I was woken by a sudden movement of the caravan. For a minute I thought I was being towed, but the rocking was too violent for that, and then I heard shouts and laughter, hands banging against the walls. I was just able to get on my feet before the whole world overturned, throwing me off them again and cracking my head against the bunk beds. The door was now above my head, and I could see through the window that a figure was clambering towards it. I tumbled through the skylight and made for the woods.
I didn’t get a good look at my attackers, but they must have been the guards from Chester. I shouldn’t have gone back for the car, or SkIMped Sue and Sarah’s handsets. Knowing that we had a caravan wouldn’t have told them where it was – they must have found my trail across the fields from where the car had been. I don’t know how much they took before setting the place on fire, I just staggered into the dark, hoping they wouldn’t follow. Minutes later I heard distant whoops of laughter and saw a blaze spring up far away, though the trees, and realised there would be nothing to go back to. I wandered for maybe a mile until I found the farmhouse I spoke of on Elaine’s blog – the rest, you know. I thought I was dreaming when I heard Sue and Sarah’s voices in the kitchen. I thought I must be dying. They’d been searching for shelter, and happened to wander in the same direction as I did. Well, it turned out it was a pretty clear forest path. I’d blundered through it and they’d followed it steadily, and they’d seen a house, just as I did.
So here we are, with no car or caravan and a house that does for shelter from the elements but little else. No fresh water, electricity, heating, not even a working fireplace or old-fashioned range. We’ve managed to get quite a few potatoes that were left behind from a harvested field, and Sarah’s managed to get a tractor working, though we instantly ran out telling her to turn it off, the noise could bring raiders from miles around. We talked about staying, setting up our once longed-for homestead, but it didn’t take long to abandon that idea. Apart from the practicalities, it’s far too near Chester, and if it’s been raided before it’ll likely be raided again once activity is spotted. We’ll set off for Liverpool tomorrow. Our transport’s not exactly stealthy, but it’s better than walking all the way.