Well, the journey was eventful, mostly with the necessity of keeping Sarah in vehicles and fuel, but eventually we reached Liverpool. We suspected that both the Mersey Tunnel and the Runcorn Bridge would be troublesome, so we went all the way around Warrington and parked our last car on the hard shoulder of the M62, by a wood a good hour’s trek from the end of the motorway. Since we had a second handset again, we left one buried at the foot of a recognisable tree in a plastic bag, and agreed to make this our meeting point should anything go wrong.
Today we retrieved it, in light of our decision to stay here. We’ve been assigned a spacious house with running water (cold only) and occasional electricity (for an hour or two after dark), which feels absurdly luxurious, as does knowing where the next meal is coming from. We’ve all found gainful – if not entirely prudent – employment. I’m working at the last hospital standing, where there are injuries and ailments of many kinds, but no sign of blood flu since the storming of the quarantines. Sue’s part of a team installing off-grid power sources to supplement what comes in from the off-shore wind farms. Sarah is converting diesel engines to run on chip fat and, in her free time, training to join the militia, and nothing I or Sue or anybody else says will sway her against it. I’m not sure what to make of them. They try to avoid appearing to have a uniform, but it’s hard not to notice the pocket-belts and headsets, not to mention the visible weapons they all carry. Two dropped round the day we arrived to give us their SkIMp contact and a password, and told us that we could call on them if we saw any sign of raiders, or if other residents gave us any trouble that we couldn’t manage ourselves. They took exception to being described as a police force, but were happy enough to answer questions and give us a bit of background on what’s been happening here.
Liverpool was one of the first cities to break out of quarantine. It’s been through something resembling a civil war that continues to flare up in isolated pockets on the outskirts of city. The militia tries to keep it there, and most people go about in relative safety within the barricades. It seems that, early on, several groups started coalescing into communities – some loosely democratic, some leaderless, some more authoritarian but unable to keep a leader for long – and when these communities discovered one another, there was a period of cautious standoff before a period of yet more cautious merging and co-operation. This uneasy alliance was galvanised by a particularly brutal gang made up largely of police, ad-hoc security and local fascist groups, dangerous enough to bring almost all the other disparate factions into coalition against them. The militia was formed to oppose the threat, and because no group wanted the others to have control of it, it was independent of them all. They’re self-organised, with no ranks or leaders, only working groups and conveners. They’re all volunteers. They fight off raiders, make supply runs outside the barricades, mediate disputes and even scavenge, repair and supply bicycles (more important than you might think, given the scarcity of petrol). I’m uneasy about them.
We’ve been to a weekly “general meeting” to try to get a handle on who or what all the different factions here represent. There’s a committee that oversees administration – it consists of maybe ten or twelve people, each nominated by a community or influential group. Many of the major players were once trade unionists, party activists or civil servants – people used to public speaking. I recognised a number of familiar characters through their oratory styles: the debate-lover who throws a controversial question into the mix every time a discussion nears consensus; the softly-spoken voice of indignation that wears the opposition down with repetition; the chorus of younger voices, dotted around the room, applauding one another’s interruptions to make their numbers seem greater than they are. Then I recognised Khalil amongst the militia, speaking animatedly against a committee proposal to issue a new currency. I was surprised to see him head into the private committee chamber after the meeting. Sarah informed me that he was a delegate rather than a committee member in his own right.
“It’s a rotating role,” she told me. “He has a mandate, and he’ll report back to the militia on what the council’s up to.”
“And if they’re up to no good?” I asked.
“Then the militia’ll stop them.”
“You sound very confident about that.”
She told me to stop making “dad face”, which is apparently an involuntary expression of cynicism that I use to undermine her choices. “Anyway,” she added, “since when do you want to see politicians in charge? The militia are just doing what you do, keeping an eye on the power.”
“And who keeps an eye on the militia?” I asked.
“Everyone,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Especially people like you.”
I get the impression that the committee consider the militia something of a liability, but too useful to disband, and they’re right on that point. Without them, we may well have been walking into another Chester. As it is, we’ve walked into an uneasy alliance that may stabilise or fall in the coming months.
Since our appearance at the meeting we’ve had visits and official messages of welcome from representatives of a number of factions. A few months ago this might have seemed reassuring, but Chester brought back some old instincts, and I recognise when my political affiliations are being probed, my threat assessed and my favour courted. There are a number of factions here that wouldn’t mind counting a family like us among their own, which is encouraging until you consider how little they’d like to count us as somebody else’s. For now, Sue and I are working hard, smiling a lot, keeping our mouths shut and our ears open. But I’m concerned that Sarah’s allegiances are all too obvious.