War in all its forms is a dirty business, by its design it draws upon mans ability to sink to hitherto unplumbed depths of depravity in order to inflict the most pain and injury upon those of the same species that hold a converse opinion. Some call it “prosecuting the war” lesser mortals call it “winning at any cost”.
Inevitably when a “Peace” is reached there is an “Aftermath”. That time when hostility has ceased and the survivors pick up their broken lives to “Carry on”. In the Nuclear scenario it meant “Living with the fallout” but this war had been different, this war had been a succession of chemical assaults delivered by drones with an almost surgical pinpoint accuracy. The targets were not the cities and towns themselves but the people who lived in them. The advantage being that the infrastructure of the country remained intact whilst it’s population had been decimated. There had been no invading force, no massive property damage and above all no mushroom clouds on the horizon, in fact there was almost no indication that the country was at war. It had been a very cheap way of subjugating an enemy whichever side of the “Win/Loose” argument anyone was on, all the survivors of the mass slaughter had to do was wait until it was safe to take possession of what was left behind.
As Jill looked out across the fields from the remote farmhouse kitchen window her regret was in letting her man take those four calves to Pendelbury market three months ago. It was just under thirty miles away and he should have been home by nightfall but that was the last time she had seen him. Since then there had been no phone call or word of any kind except the list of towns on the casualty broadcast on “The State” radio station. It was nearly three months to the day that the attack on Pendelbury had been announced and if Cyril was still alive he would have either phoned or sent word but there was nothing. They had agreed at the outset that if something like this was to happen then the best they could do for each other was to survive and that meant that Jill was to stay put at the farm. Her heart wanted to jump into the Land Rover and go find him wherever he was, but her head told her it was almost certain death to do so and besides, it was not just her life at stake there was another as yet unborn member of the family to consider. By her calculation it would be almost five months old by now. So, although she wanted Cyril at the farm with her she was resigned to follow what they had agreed. There was however another reason for her reticence. She had read up on the characteristics of some of the chemical weapons deployed by both her own country and by the enemy. Almost without exception exposure resulted in premature abortion, infant mortality and in the more severe cases deaths of pregnant women. It was a virtually silent killer and its spores stuck to objects like napalm, infection could take place up to three weeks following an attack. Males usually died first because they were the more mobile but inevitably some were surviving. The females led a more sheltered existence, on the whole, which was a possible reason for why they survived longer. It was an indiscriminate weapon designed to kill within days following contact.
It was a long time ago when she read it, but the knowledge had stuck in her mind. The internet had not worked for several weeks now so there was no way she could check that her understanding was up to date. Either the enemy had shut it down or the State had blocked it fearing that population centres could be identified by clusters of computers using it, whichever it was she missed being “Connected” but was grateful that it made her at least partially invisible.
There was enough work to be done on the farm to keep her occupied but it was becoming harder with the onset of the expected birth. The animals did not seem to know that their “Carers” had almost destroyed each other and so long as there was a hand to feed them they were content. How long it would be like this was another matter, the food had to run out sometime and when that happened the “Progress” of life would unravel quickly. Looting and pillaging were already rife in the bigger cities and it was only a question of time before it became more widespread. There was a time when she felt safe out here but now, on her own she felt vulnerable. Her two dogs were always with her but lately she had taken to carrying Cyril’s shotgun, whether she could actually use it was another matter but an intruder might think twice. Being on her own for so long had made her insular and having no one to talk to she found herself talking to Cyril even though he was not there. She had become “Fortress Jill” but not by choice, by necessity. There was very little contact with the world outside though there were at least five other farms within walking distance in the valley. Once upon a time she had a mobile phone but that too had stopped working. The thought of what would happen if the waters broke and she went into labour had not yet occurred to her but it was going to happen one day. Since the chemical attacks started Doctors, Nurses and Medics had all been drawn to the cities and towns leaving the more remote areas to fend for themselves. She could not think of a doctor within striking distance that was still practising should she have cause to need one. It was just one more level of insularity to contend with. How she was going to manage when the baby started she did not know but thought that women have been having babies for millions of years, they did it and so will I.
In preparation Jill had started to take stock of everything needed whilst she was still able. First there were the animals on the farm, was there enough feed to see them through? It was early yet but there was enough to see them through until there was grass and then they could be turned out to graze. Next, fuel for the house, Cyril had been cutting logs forever so there should be enough but to be sure she went out to the log store to check. His chainsaw was still on the bench where he left it to be cleaned but the store was full, and it normally lasted a year when there was this much if it did not get too cold or wet. She could not assume that there would always be water at the tap, so a reserve supply might be a good idea and she remembered the plastic water tanks Cyril had bought to take water up to the sheep on the top pasture. There were four of them in the old barn but when she checked they were all empty. Mentally she began a list of what had to be done, knowing full well that she would have to do it whilst she still could. There was no question of going to town for supplies because on the one hand it was too dangerous and on the other she could be followed back to the farm by anyone on the lookout for food or even someone looking for a woman who could bear children. There were such people, Cyril had mentioned it before he left. With the reach of law and order diminishing daily she did not want to invite trouble so she decided that the longer that no one knew she was there the safer she would be. A third reason was the shops themselves, the deliveries to the shops had stopped a long time ago which made the effort of a trip to town futile.
They had been filling their freezers and putting together a storeroom knowing that the situation was going downhill fast. Cyril had said “Do it in small bits so that you don’t draw anyone’s attention to what you are doing”. At the time she did not think it mattered that much but now, well now she saw the sense of it.
In the store room the strip light flashed through the darkness but enough to see what needed to be seen. The majority was canned goods that Cyril picked up wherever he went so not to let on. There more sugar, salt and flour than she had ever seen in one place and groceries in cans bottles and packets that made it look like a supermarket but for only one customer. Satisfied that preparation was at that time “On Track” she turned to switch off the light and noticed something in the corner near the door. Five cases of dry cell batteries and twenty boxes of shotgun cartridges. It became obvious to her that Cyril had been preparing for a siege and he was expecting trouble. Slowly she began to realize just how bad the situation might become.
On her way back to the house Jill checked on the red diesel level in the farm tank. It was fuel for the farm’s tractor, but Cyril had told her that she could use it in the Land Rover if things got desperate. The tank was almost full, she remembered having a fuel delivery just before the attack on Pendelbury and because they were trying to keep a low profile neither the tractor or her Land Rover had been used very much. She decided that tomorrow she would fill all the plastic water tanks and keep them under cover in the barn. There was no telling what might fall from the sky so protecting them was a priority.
Jill started up the tractor the next morning and collected the first tank from the barn. It was a risk using the tractor as its sound gave away her location and told anyone within earshot that there was fuel to be had but she wanted the water and a cubic metre of water was heavy but the farm was a long way from the nearest road so it was perhaps an acceptable risk. By the afternoon of that day she was halfway through filling the last water tank when she thought she heard an engine. She switched off the tractor so that she could hear more clearly. The engine noise was coming closer, there was someone on the track leading up to the farm. She reached for the shotgun which stood ready by the tractor and checked the cartridges snapping the barrels into place. By now the dogs were barking but standing guard one each side of where she stood. She had not expected to have to defend herself this soon but if trouble accompanied that engine she was as ready as she could be. The engine stopped for a moment then continued, she was almost sure that it was a motorbike of some sort, not a big machine probably an off road bike. She waited for it to appear slipping the safety catch on the gun to “Off”. She was aware of the engine’s position when it stopped for a second time, it was just beyond the hedgerow that shielded the field known as Goose bank from the farm. A voice called out to her, “Jill I mean you no harm, Mom sent me over from Three Oaks Farm”. It was a male voice, maybe mid twenties or early thirties and from its inflection as afraid of her as she was of it.
She knew Three Oaks Farm; it was on the far side of the valley. The Chillcotts lived there, had done for years. She had never had much to do with them but remembered Cyril telling her that he had to go there once to see Miriam Chillcott when she was a Parish Councillor. Jill did not want to give her position away but so far this voice posed no threat and she realised that she might have to trust someone at some point. “What is your mother’s name” she shouted. Without hesitation the voice answered “Miriam”.
Jill was still unsure but shouted “OK, come up to the house and keep your hands where I can see them” The voice replied “Alright I’ll Push my bike into the yard Ok?” Jill thought if he is pushing a motorbike he won’t be making any sudden moves and shouted “OK, come on in”. Still wary she watched as he struggled the bike to the middle of the yard and put it on its stand.
He stood by his bike careful that he did not do anything to alarm, he had been in this situation before and was not about to repeat past mistakes. Jill crossed the yard to the house still carrying the shotgun, her mistrust inwardly melting but clearly visible. The man began to speak reiterating that he meant no harm. He went on to say that his mother had sent him over to check that everything was alright knowing that there was a baby due at the farm. He said that his mother was concerned as she had not seen anything of Cyril in the fields or tending the stock. Jill said “you had best come into the kitchen and I’ll bring you up to date” Jill made some tea thinking this won’t last forever.
As she sat down she said, “I have never met your Mom but thank her for taking the trouble of sending you over here” Then said “Is it as bad as it seems out there, I have not seen or heard anyone for weeks now” She decided against telling the man about Cyril and his trip to Pendelbury until she knew more.
The man introduced himself as David and said that he had been away from Three Oaks for a while, he had trained as a vet but never took the exams to obtain his final qualifications then added Tsarrine 4 put paid to that. Jill knew that Tsarrine 4 was the name of the chemical agent carried by the drones. “It did not take long” David went on’ the attacks were relentless and very quickly everywhere ran out of food. It was dangerous with gangs of armed looters searching for food and fuel, law and order broke down quickly and everyone thought that calling in the Army would restore the rule of law but all it really did was put more guns into the hands of the looters. As the soldiers and police died off it just got worse because the looters picked up their guns and imposed their own order. The rate at which people died overtook the means to deal with the corpses and diseases followed. The rats turned carnivorous and began feeding off the dead corpses, they seemed to organise and breed faster and began foraging in large co-ordinated groups. The hospitals went into overload and could not handle the massive influx of casualties. The internet collapsed, and phones stopped working. I thought it was only a matter of time before I would not be able to leave the City, so I packed everything I could carry easily and walked out travelling only by night and resting during the day. It took me near fifteen days to get back here.
Jill listen intently, the picture was bleak, and she realized that Cyril must have had a pretty good idea of how bad it was going to be. As she sipped at the mug of tea David said that his mom had begun to “Organise”. Jill said nothing, content to hear news of what was going on beyond the farm. He said there was a lot to be done if we are to avoid what I have seen happening elsewhere. Mom knew you were expecting a baby and that makes you very important to the valley which was one of the reasons I came here. David stood up and left the kitchen, he returned carrying a small cage she had seen in the back of his motorbike. The cage contained two pigeons. “These are for you” David said as he held the cage aloft. They have different coloured rings on their legs Red and Black, if you need help let the black one go and he’ll fly back to Three Oaks. “And the other?” enquired Jill. “That’s for when the baby comes” said David, let it fly and Mom will know and will either come herself or send help. Jill was reluctant to be “Organised” but saw the sense in what they were trying to do. David’s next question however left her wondering whether she wanted to be part of this, whatever it turned out to be. He said Mom remembered that you had a horse and wondered if you still had it? He went on, with things as they are fuel will not last forever and a horse might be the only way of covering distance quickly. Jill’s horse “Starfire” was a five-year-old stallion and apart from Cyril it was the nearest thing to her heart, she was not about to trade him for any sort of help. She had not ridden him since the day she became certain that she was in fact, pregnant because she was trying to avoid any unforeseen mishap that would threaten the birth. Before David had built a fence he could not assail he said, “Only Mom asked me to ask you if you would allow him to cover some mares if we brought them to you?” It was too soon for a yes or no answer but with subsiding concern Jill said, “I’ll give it some thought”.
David Stood up saying that it was getting late and he wanted to be back at Three Oaks before sundown. On the way to his bike Jill thanked him for coming saying it had been good to talk to someone. It was only then that he asked, “Are you on your own here then? I thought your husband would be here”. Not knowing if she was doing the right thing she blurted out “I have not seen him since he took the calves to Pendelbury Market”
David was aware of the significance of what she had just said and resisted the temptation to kickstart the machine, he knew about Pendelbury from other farms he had visited. There were other men missing, status unknown. There was nothing he could say really but he lingered, awaiting anything that Jill might want to impart whilst at the same time not wishing to intrude. It wasn’t that her man maybe dead, it was the unimaginable uncertainty of not knowing. She did not say any more, but David sensed there was much that she wanted to say yet could not because it would be an acceptance of that which she did not want to be true.
It was going cooler and as David kickstarted the trail bike he said, “I’ll stop by from time to time if that’s OK if only to keep in touch, if you need us send a pigeon and I’ll know within half an hour” It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that the times would allow.
Jill watched as the trail of smoke from the bike drifted up through the trees and the noise from the engine grew more and more feint. Standing in the yard she realized that she was alone again. The silence was deafening and in that void she began feeding and bedding down her charges. The light was failing by the time she had finished and as David had brought Starfire to her recall she was thinking of him. She was no longer riding but as she returned to the house her thoughts turned to her mother who after she was born took to using a trap. She would never have sold it or let it go but could not remember what happened to it. It must be here somewhere she thought as she climbed into bed.
As she lay searching for the oblivion of sleep she ran the days events through her mind reflecting that however it had transpired she was no longer alone. Sleep was the stealth weapon of her mind and came unannounced and undetected.
When Jill woke the following morning something had changed, it was nothing definite but the farm “Felt” different. She had slept deeply and had the feeling that there was nothing she could not do. After feeding the stock she was determined to find that trap, there was not many places it could be, but she had not seen it for a long time, so she thought it must be hidden away somewhere. She knew that it was not in the barn because she was working in there when David came. She suddenly remembered that the last water tank was still outside and only half full and it needed to be filled and put under cover. It was just “finishing off” really. With the last tank full she started the tractor and carefully stacked the last water tank in the barn. Whilst she had the tractor running she decided to collect one of the big round bales of sileage for stock feed and take it to where it would be needed soon out in the yard. As she moved the bale something caught her eye under the straw and debris behind the bale. It was the shaft of the trap that she had been trying to remember. She filed away its location under things to be done in her mind.
The routine of feeding, cleaning and general care of the stock took its toll on Jill’s time, when Cyril was around things were done faster but single handed left little time for anything else which was why it took here almost two weeks to investigate the trap she had found behind the bale in the barn. She had been advancing the tasks each day to steal time from the next until she had built up enough lead to go back to the barn. Thursday was barn day she thought as she collapsed into bed on Wednesday night, as soon as the animals are fed I will at least clear the straw from around the trap. Perhaps, if she had stuck to what she had planned to do it might not have happened, but it did.
That Thursday she woke early feeling though whatever the day had in store she would be equal to it. The animals were fed and watered early and after breakfast she set off for the barn. She pinned both the barn doors back so there would be light and air because it was dusty in there. The trap must have been in there for years she thought as she swept away straw and dust to reveal its green paintwork. Some of the tack had been thrown inside the trap and old feed sacks had almost covered it completely. In fact, the feed sacks told her how long it had been there because some of them were from a feed merchant that had “gone to the wall” near ten years back. The “prize” began to re-enter the light after being hidden away for so long. Curiosity however became the master of the moment and she should have fetched the tractor to pull it out into the yard but
Instead she picked up the shafts of the trap and tried to pull it out. The trap would not move, mostly because its two large wheels had sunk into the earthen floor of the barn. She tried several times, but it would not budge. She stopped pulling when she felt an odd “Twinge” which reminded her that she was pregnant, something that had slipped her mind that morning.
A mug of tea seemed appropriate and after that she decided to use the tractor and pull the trap out onto the yard. By sundown she had the renegade trap out on the yard and could not resist dusting off some of the dirt and chicken droppings. It seemed to move easily now that she had wrenched it from its resting place after who knows how many years of inactivity. It was too late to start cleaning it, that would have to wait but at least she had found it which counted toward the days successes.
The feeding and bedding down took place in something less than a half light and exhausted sleep came to the chair she was sitting in rather than waiting until she had climbed the stairs. She woke with a start at about five thirty in the morning, the chair she was sitting in was soaking wet and as if that was not traumatic enough she was aware of a sharp pain in her lower abdomen. It was getting lighter outside and her first thought was feeding but when she tried to move the protest signals pained their way from abdomen to brain. She sat there, try to make sense of what was happening. At first, she surmised that it was the baby but then discounted it because it was too soon and mentally counted the months back to when she first thought she was pregnant. The pain returned, this time stronger than ever. She really did not know what was going on but one thing she was sure of was that she was going to need help. Somehow, she had to reach the door from where she sat. On the other side of that door there were two pigeons in a cage, if she could release one then help would come. That was what David had promised.
She tried to stand but the pain forced her back to the chair. She wriggled forward and slid down on to the floor, the pains were still there but she was able to pull herself across the floor toward the door. She pulled at the door handle and when it opened she almost told herself off for not locking up before bed. Outside everything was still as she made a desperate grab for the cage, the cage dropped to the ground and burst open. Its prisoners made a dash for freedom and were airborne in seconds lighting briefly on the barn roof before taking to the air again. They circled the farmhouse two or three times and then winged away southward. Jill lay by the doorway hoping that they would find their way to Three Oaks. The pain had started again this time with a vengeance. Jill was trying to remember what she had read about Tsarrine 4 causing abortions whilst at the same time recounting her previous activities and attempting to match any strenuous effort with her current state. She had never been pregnant before, so she really had no idea what to expect. That was the last she remembered before passing out.
At Three Oaks they were out in the yard feeding their animals with one eye always toward the pigeon loft. It had been over two weeks since David’s visit and he was thinking that he might go over there later. Miriam said, “You finish off and I’ll go and make breakfast” As she turned toward the farmhouse the commotion in the pigeon loft drew her attention. “David” she shouted, “David, incoming” David dropped what he was doing and climbed up to the loft. Miriam shouted up “Well?”. David said, “both Jill’s birds are here, she is in trouble” Miriam said, “It’ll be the baby” then added “I thought it would come early”. “You go on your bike and I’ll come as soon as I can” she instructed.
When David arrived at Jill’s place he rode straight into the yard hoping that he would not be riding into a wall of shotgun pellets. He pulled the bike onto its stand and looked around for any sign of Jill. The yard was still except for the two dogs barking, he could not see them but the noise betrayed their position. He saw the farmhouse door was open, so he made for the house. He found her only semi-conscious guarded by both of her dogs and lying in the doorway. The dogs made it clear that he was surplus to requirements and their teeth reinforced the unwelcome signs. David guessed that they had not been fed and grabbed a handful of their feed from the sack in the porch throwing it out onto the yard. The dogs, knowing what was in the sack pursued the airborne food and while they were distracted David dragged Jill inside and closed the door.
Realising quickly that Jill was in the throes of giving birth he set about removing any obstructive clothing. Her semi-conscious state however he could not explain. The head had engaged, and it should have been only a question of time, but something seemed to be impeding the baby’s progress. David tried to think of anything that could do that based on his experience with farm animals. He knew that there were no available doctors so whatever the problem was he would have to solve it. The only thing he could think of was the cord had it been trapped somewhere? Not really understanding the anatomy he tried to manipulate the approaching foetus and whatever he did seemed to make the difference because the head made its progress and seemed to be moving.
In the yard he heard a Land Rover pull up, that will be Mom he thought. He was relieved because there was now someone there who had done this before. Oh, he had delivered sheep and calves and once had to help a sow with a difficult delivery but nothing to compare with this, it was a very steep learning curve and it was not over yet.
Miriam shouted “David”. David shouted back “In the house”. Then added “mind the dogs” As Miriam entered the house she was not quite ready for the sight of her son trying to deliver a baby. She was holding his “Vets companion”, a sort of Gladstone bag but for anything he might need for animals. “I’ve brought your bag” said Miriam, “thought you might need it”. “At the moment I need all the help I can get” said David, this is all new to me.
Jill was becoming more lucid, if a little disorientated by the presence of the people in attendance. “You had a fall” David reassured, and the baby is coming. “Its nearly here” said Miriam taking her hand. Jill’s vice like grip betraying the pulses of her pain.
“That’s it” encouraged David, That’s it! There it’s a girl. He waited a few minutes before cutting the cord as he had never done this before and wanted to assure himself that all was as it should be. He had not yet seen the baby draw breath and that concerned him. He was not sure if she was supposed to start breathing straight away or should it begin when the cord was cut. He reached for his bag and took out a stethoscope. Listening to the baby’s chest he could hear a distinct “Bubbling noise”. Whatever was causing it was preventing the baby’s breathing and had to be removed. David was as certain as he could be that the baby’s lungs had filled with amniotic fluid, during the delay in the birth channel. It had to be removed if the baby was to survive, but how? Normally the baby could expel the fluid by crying and coughing but this had not happened.
The only way he could think of was “Suction”. He rummaged through his companion, he was looking for a very fine piece of rubber tubing he used once for an intravenous drip. There would be no time for sterilization as if he had read this right time was not on his side if he was to prevent brain injury or worse, the first death on his watch.
It was still in there, He unravelled the coil of tube and gently fed it into the baby’s airway more or less guessing how deep he should go. With the tube in his lips and listening to the chest cavity with the stethoscope he blew very gently, he could hear nothing. Then he tried sucking gently and noted a change in the tube he could not describe but it felt as though he had picked up something. A few moments later the salt taste of amniotic fluid filled his mouth. He repeated what he had done again and a little more fluid came up. Gently he removed the tube and the baby started to cough and cry almost simultaneously.
Now he felt confident to cut the cord and hand the baby to its mother whilst he awaited the final stage of the process.
Miriam congratulated Jill on the birth of her daughter saying that it proved that despite everything that had happened “Life goes on” then added “In this valley anyway”. Miriam set about cleaning up after the birth making it clear that David should be elsewhere doing what men do after such an event. In a very few minutes David was given a cup of Jill’s precious coffee and sent from the house.
Miriam had told him to feed and water what stock he could find here and then there’s ours to be done. David sat on a low wall outside the house and swilled his arid mouth with the hot coffee to expel the taste of the fluid. It was the first time he had done anything like that. He was a vet or at least he was half a vet not a doctor but in this world he decided that he had to be whatever was required on the day.
As he fed the stock he wondered about the baby, was it premature? It was certainly small. Was Tsarrine 4 responsible? If so, then its affects were spreading out from where he knew it had been deployed. Had Jill miscalculated her dates. When he passed the trap out on the yard he did wonder whether that might have been the trigger that started the labour, but the tractor lay at rest still connected by a chain to the trap casting doubt on its duplicity. These were strange times he thought, anything was possible but somewhere in the mix Tsarrine 4 had contributed to it.
David had fed and watered anything that made a noise and put fresh straw down where it was needed. By the time he was finished it was early afternoon and his thoughts strayed to the animals at Three Oaks and he knew that they had not been fed. He returned to the house where he found Miriam still infatuated by the new arrival and Jill was fast asleep.
David told Miriam that he had fed and watered the stock on Jill’s farm but the stock at Three Oaks had not been fed that day because they left before we could finish it this morning. “I’ll wash up and go back” said David “They probably think their throats have been cut” he said washing his face with his hands. Miriam was in thought momentarily and then said, “I shall have to stay here, for a few days at least. We can’t leave Jill on her own until she can manage” Then went on “You’ll be Ok on your own won’t you, there’s plenty of food and you can come over tomorrow to bring me some clothes and things. I think I can manage the chores around here, it won’t be for long. Will you be OK at Three Oaks till I can safely leave here?
On the way back to Three Oaks David made a couple of detours to farms in the valley where he knew there were other survivors. He was the bearer of “News” and by the very nature of the news, hope. At Mile End Farm when he related the story of Jill’s baby they broke out the cider and toasted its health. David took his leave and pressed on to Callowfield Farm and told the same tale. The “News was spreading and soon everyone would know.
David did not arrive back at Three Oaks until late afternoon and set to feeding bedding and watering their own stock. By the time he had finished it was dusk. There was one last thing he needed to do before bed. He went into Miriam’s bedroom and began piling everything he could think of onto the bed ready for the morning. As he pulled open the top drawer of her chest of drawers something caught his eye in the distance. He wiped the bedroom window with his hand to get a better view, in the half light of dusk he could see flames and a pall of thick black smoke. It was some miles off, but it was definitely a large fire. It could have been a barn on fire, straw had been known to combust spontaneously or it might have been a house, he had no way of knowing. His worst thought was that it could have been lit deliberately by looters or worse. Then it struck him, there had been no rain for some weeks and that too was a threat. If rain did come what might it bring? Spores from Tsarrine 4 or some other as yet unknown danger.
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