“What did you think he would have said, ‘you just carry on there lads I just wanted to say hi.’ He would have turned us back or worse,” Austin snapped. “You didn’t see what they did to your parents, they guys are not on our side anymore, Julie, we are the enemy now.”
Austin knew he had gone too far, he couldn’t see Julies face as he threw the jeep into the light morning traffic but he could sense the emotion in her silence.
“Sorry Jules, I shouldn’t have said that,” he said with genuine regret. Julie sniffed and sighed deeply trying to keep the tears from coming.
“You can’t just run people over, Ok he was a soldier, but he was a man too. Someone’s husband, someone’s son, for all you know he is dead and you killed him,” she said.
“I didn’t want to. If I let him stop us we were going to die. We have one chance to survive this thing. We need to get away from everyone, as far away as we can get.”
“Promise me that you won’t hurt anyone else otherwise we are no better than the mobs running through the streets,” she said.
“Ok I promise, I won’t hurt anyone else,” Austin said, it was an easy promise to make. He did not want to hurt anyone either. Austin slowed the jeep, keeping a steady pace which would not draw attention to them. They avoided checkpoints where they could, zigzagging through the city outskirts looking for un-manned roads or abandoned stations. Austin kept to the back roads avoiding the motorway. It was taking much longer traveling this way but what other choice was there. The miles continued to pass under the wheels, often they were passing in the wrong direction.
They moved south, into the Dublin Wicklow Mountains, passing close to Enniskerry and Blessington. They moved into the mountains driving on farmer’s tracks and even across open land to avoid main road intersections. Julie was still in shock over the loss of her parents but the journey gave her something to concentrate on. By late morning they had got as far as Carlow but progress was slow, they turned west, towards Tullow. Austin often had to make big detours around larger towns. By the time they had passed Tipperary town night was coming fast but that was not the main problem. The petrol needle was resting on empty. If they did not find fuel they would never reach Kerry.
“We need to get some petrol,” Austin told Julie when the warning light appeared on the dashboard.
“You’ll have some job finding a petrol station up here,” she sniffed.
“I know, but that’s not to say we won’t find petrol,” Austin said, turning the jeep into gate. The lane lead to a farm house sitting on top of a gentle hill. He began blowing the horn as he neared the house. Julie was shocked, after all the efforts they had made to stay hidden all day, Austin was now actively making sure everyone heard them coming. Austin saw the look on her face.
“It’s like this, in that house could be a farmer. Farmers have guns. If he thinks we are trying to sneak up he is more likely to shoot first then ask questions later.” Austin parked the Jeep away from the house but in a place where they could see the red-cross symbol on the door.
“Wait here, keep the door locked while I am gone,” Austin said sliding the shotgun under the sleeping bag which covered their supplies.
“Hello, Hello,” called Austin as he walked towards the house. There was movement behind kitchen window. Austin decided he was going to have to take a chance. He took off his mask. He waved and smiled in the window.
“Hello in there, we’re from the red-cross. We are delivering supplies to people in the area. Do you need anything, tinned food, bottled water, medicine,” Austin continued to smile but moved no closer to the house. He tried to imagine what the people in the house would want to hear. A woman’s face appeared at the window. She was pale and frightened.
“Show me your identification,” she shouted. Austin flipped open his wallet which had his Bank ID in the clear pocket. He held it up but staying far enough back that she would not be able to read it properly. At the same time he waved at the jeep parked across the yard with the dark green colour and red-cross sign.
“Look, if you’re ok for everything we better get moving. It will be dark soon,” said Austin with a smile, he turned to go.
“Wait,” called the woman who vanished from the window. The back door opened she was in her late 30’s, wearing a apron which had flour on it. In her hand she carried a nasty looking slash hook which rested uncomfortable in her petite hands.
Austin raised his hand in a stop gesture with palm facing the woman. Austin wanted to keep her back from the jeep, he also wanted to make sure she was not sick.
“Wait where you are please madam, I have to ask you a few questions. Are you or any of your family sick?”
“Has anyone been to the farm in the last two weeks?”
“How many are in your family?”
“Four, Myself, my husband and two boys.”
“Are they all inside?”
“Yes. No,” said the woman “my husband and eldest son went to get some help four days ago and have not come back yet.” Austin noticed the woman lower the slash hook a little, she was accepting what she was seeing was what she had been wishing for. Help had arrived.
“I am sure he is fine missus. Lots of people have been coming into towns from the country. We have set up shelters but we can’t let people leave until they have cleared the medical procedures. Your son and husband are more than likely waiting for test results to come back. What was his name?” Austin asked taking out his mobile phone.
“Sean Kelly” the woman said as Austin dialled a number.
“And your son?”
“Paul Kelly.” The connection beeped in his ear. “Hello, this is unit 61 checking in, we are in south Tipperary, outside Latan, on the Kelly Farm. We have two missing civilians, Sean Kelly, adult male and Paul Kelly, age…” Austin looked at the woman.
“He’s fourteen,” she said the hope dripping from her words.
“Fourteen.” Austin went quiet and nodded said Hum a few times and then pretended to wait. He covered he mouthpiece with his and told the lady “They are checking the computer.” Austin gave it a little over a minute before saying “I am still here,” followed by another pause. “That is great, we should be back at base in an hour, Ok, thanks again.”
Austin closed the phone, cutting off his message box in mid recorded sentence. “Your husband and son are fine, they are in the red-cross camp in Tipperary town, test results are due back tomorrow. I am sure they are going to be fine.”
The woman was delighted and she lowered the slash hook altogether.
“We will leave you an emergency hamper, it has some medication and tinned provisions that will get you through the next few days. It is just in the back of the jeep.” Austin walked towards the jeep motioning for Julie to open up. The farm wife laid the slash hook on the ground and followed Austin. Austin opened the back door, pulling out the shotgun, levelling it at the woman. As the black double barrels tracked her middle the frightened look returned to her face.
“Do what I say and everything will be fine, I don’t want to hurt you but believe me, I will if I have to. Move back to the house,” he said.
The woman turned and walked away holding her hands to her face, the first few tears beginning to well in her eyes. Austin heard the door of the jeep open and Julie come running.
“Austin what are you doing you promised not to hurt anyone else,” she accused but remained a few steps behind. Austin could see the woman take in what Julie just said, those few words were worth all the threats he could make. The woman faltered slightly as she neared the slash hook. “Don’t even think about it,” warned Austin.
Inside the kitchen stood a young boy near the window, he had seen the whole episode unfold in the yard. He looked as white and shaken as his mother. He ran to her wrapping his arms around her waist. Austin pointed to a chair with the gun and said “Sit.” The old farm house was as solid as a fort, the walls must be three feet thick. The windows were tiny but big enough to crawl through. The kitchen was an arsenal of sharp knives and makeshift bludgeons. To one side was a small door, Austin opened it and found a larder, it was well stocked and window less. Austin could see nothing more dangerous than a tin of baked beans. This would have to do. He moved back from the door and pointed inside with the barrels of the gun.
“Both of you in here, Please.” Just because you were holding someone at gunpoint was no reason for rudeness, the politeness was menacing to Austin’s ears. The woman hurried into the pantry pushing the crying boy ahead of her.
“Hand over your phone,” Austin said.
“I don’t have one,” said the woman a little too quickly. Austin had a feeling she was lying. “Don’t give me that. Everyone has a phone these days, even he could have one,” said Austin waving the gun in the direction of the little boy.
“Hand it over or I will just have to search you.” The woman thought for a moment before taking a phone out of the pocket in the apron. Austin took it and was backing away from the door when he stopped, paused for a second, then he took a step back towards the woman and asked “Has he got a phone?” His look of innocent confusion was comical. For an instant, the tables were turned, the woman’s frowned “No of course not,” she said in a scolding tone.
“Fair enough, sorry,” apologised Austin. He closed over the door and wedged one of the kitchen chairs under the Bakelite handle. The chair jammed on the uneven kitchen floor. Julie had watched the whole thing silently from the door. She gave him a filthy look.
“What?” he said. “Did you think she was just going to let me help myself. Wake up for God sake Julie, the world is different now if we are going to survive we have to change with it.”
“You promised not to hurt anyone only a few hours ago.”
“And I haven’t,” he said storming past her to search the out houses.
The farm proved to be an Aladdin’s cave of useful stuff. They had found gallons of liquid that smelled like petrol and the Jeep ran just fine on it. Austin also found some tools that would come in useful and plastic sheeting, a few large milking buckets. He loaded it all in the jeep. In a tilled field near the house was a ridge of clay, one end covered with heavy brown sacks.
“Jackpot,” said Austin pointing out the ridge to Julie “Do you know what that is?”
“No,” she said, being a city girl Austin was not surprised.
“That is dinner for at least a few months,” he said walking over to the sacks lifting them to reveal a heap of potatoes. All piled up and covered over with clay. They filled four of the sacks by now the jeep was groaning under the weight it carried. The night was pitch black by the time they were done.
“We better stay for the night, our lights will attract too much attention, we will get going at dawn again,” Said Austin. They stripped their plastic gloves and washed as best they could using an outside tap before covering up again with new gloves. Before releasing the woman and boy Austin put all the kitchen knives into a plastic bag and hid them in a shed outside. To make Julie happy Austin had taken the shells out of the gun. He pulled the chair away from the pantry door. The fire was throwing a warm glow but like the rest of the country the farmhouse had no electricity.
“You can come out now,” said Austin standing near the back door. Julie was warming up spaghetti hoops in a pan over the fire.
“What do you want with us,” said the woman not moving from the pantry.
“Nothing, and that is the truth,” said Austin. “We needed some petrol and did not think you would just give it to us. We took some potatoes as well, I hope you don’t mind.”
The woman did not move. Julie came forward and said “We are not bad people, we are just like you, doing what we have too. You must be hungry, how about some spaghetti hoops,” she said with a smile.
Over plates of food Julie and Austin told the woman what they had seen on the streets and what had happened to Julie’s parents in cork. She did not believe everything they said, like Julie she believed that the government would not do the things they were describing. The questions of what had happened to her husband and son soon bubbled to the top again. This time Austin could give her no answer. Silence descended on the group as the fire crackled gaily in the corner.
“My mother had a sure fire cure for fever, do you want to know what it was,” the farmwife said at last.
“Sure we do,” said Julie
“Get an old pair of socks, soak them in equal parts apple cider vinegar and ice cold spring water. Wring them out until they are damp then put them on the person’s feet. You need to change them before they dry out. Keep doing this until they feel better.”
“That could come in handy I will remember that,” said Julie with just the hint of a smile.
“It must be well water not tap water,” said the woman “You never know, there might be something in it.”
Austin was not so sure that damp socks were going to help a virus that can kill you in a matter of days so he kept his mouth shut. In the morning Austin returned the woman’s phone and apologised again for scaring her and her son.
“Where are you heading,” the woman asked.
“For Kerry, Austin is from Ballinskelligs,” said Julie
“Into the west,” said the woman.
“As far west as we can get,” agreed Austin. He made Julie change their gloves before getting into the Jeep. The final leg of their journey had begun.
It only took a few hours before they caught their first glimpse of the wild Atlantic Ocean. They followed the coast south, to the left was Ireland or what was left of her, to the right, nothing but ocean. Julie was taken by surprise when Austin turned off the road a few miles short of Ballinskelligs. He drove along a sand humped road which ended in a little car park. Off to the left, a shed perched high above the beach.
“Why are we stopping here, I thought we were going to your father 's house?”
Austin stopped the engine. It was time to come clean with the final part of his plan.
“I have been thinking hard about this Julie. Ireland could have survived if they had succeeded in keeping everyone out. But they didn’t. Now the fever is here it will rip through the place and no matter where we are it will find us. Nowhere is safe anymore.”
“So where are we to go,” she asked.
Austin pointed out the windscreen at the jagged islands sitting off the coast, “There.”
“You have got to be joking,” she said.
“No I am serous,” Austin said “Skellig Michael has only one landing point, It is easily defended, there are old monks huts already built and it is surrounded by fish. Three months, six tops and we will be able to come back.”
“How the hell are we going to get all the way out there?”
“There is a boat in that shed. Everything is ready to go, between the two of us we can manage it.”
“You must be mad,” Julie said. After a minute she added “I must be mad.”
They pried open the door of the boathouse. Inside was a bright orange Rib already loaded on its trailer and attached to the launching tractor. The boat could take six men so there was plenty of room for all their equipment. They loaded in extra coils of rope and canvas they found in the shed. They dressed in flotation suits way too big for them but better than nothing. When Austin backed the boat into the water Julie was sitting at the helm. The trailer vanished under the waves and the boat floated clear. Austin gave Julie the thumbs up for her to press the starter button. The outboard motor roared into life before settling to a throbbing idle. Austin unclipped the boat from the trailer, pulling himself aboard. The boat bobbed, twisting in the wind. A breaking wave caught them side on nearly, capsizing them. Austin engaged the gear and eased out the throttle. The boat leapt forward easily cutting through the waves.
Julie smiled with excitement as the boat cut through the waves with little bumps sending wings of spray high into the wind. The islands grew in size, rising out of the depths like two huge, grey, shark teeth. In twenty minutes they were under the towering cliffs. Austin found the pebble beach in the lee of the island and drove the boat on it at a good head of speed. He would not be able to drag it fully loaded and needed to make sure it was securely landed. The boat came to a juddering halt as it hit the rounded stones but nothing seemed to shatter.
The rest of the day they climbed the steep steps, hauling supplies to the little stone huts the monks lived in hundreds of years ago. Austin did most of the work, Julie tried but it was hard going. She got more tired with each trip. In the end he let her stay at the camp to organise things. He continued to make the climb alone. When the boat was empty, Austin removed the heavy engine. He stored it in a crevice well above the high water mark, covering it with a piece of plastic. The boat, now empty, was easy to haul high up the beach. He tied it off with some of the rope to make sure he was not washed out by a rogue wave.
Austin erected the tent where it was protected from the worst of the wind by a rocky outcrop. As soon as it was up they fell into a deep exhausted sleep. Even though the weather was good the wind whipped the tent constantly. The next day, Austin made the big piece of plastic into a rain collector, draining through a little hole in the middle unto one of the milk buckets.
The first few weeks passed quickly on the island, although the weather was good, it was far from comfortable. Julie cooked meals on a small camp stove but the gas soon ran out. There was nothing to burn so most things were eaten cold and raw. Austin managed to catch some fish but not as many as he would have liked. Twice boats came close to the island. Austin ran down the steep flight of steps to keep them from landing but they never even tried.
At the start of the third week a storm hit, it blew the tent down forcing Austin and Julie to take shelter in one of the monk’s stone huts. All that night they huddled together wrapped in their sleeping bags. The morning started sunny and breezy. Austin left Julie sleep as he went to assess the damage, which turned out to be not that much.
“Everything came through the storm in one piece,” Austin said coming back into the little stone hut. Julie remained bundled up in her sleeping bag.
“Julie,” said Austin. She turned her to face him. Her hair was wet with sweat and her face flushed bright red. She was hot to touch. Her eyes fluttered open. “Water.” Austin opened a bottle of water and helped her drink from it. She emptied the bottle without stopping to take a breath. It can’t be the fever Austin assured himself, he had taken every precaution. The only person with the fever they came into contact with was the man in the car park. Julie had never touched him and Austin had made sure that he was totally clean before getting in the car. The blood flying, Julie was in the jeep, it could not be. Was the door open or closed?
Austin grabbed Julie’s jacket and took it out in the light. He took his time inspecting it. In the end he found four tiny splatters of dried red on the collar, it was blood, infected blood.
Austin looked through the low opening into the stone hut. What was the point in trying anymore? If Julie was not going to be by his side to see tomorrow what was the point of tomorrow? Austin ducked into the hut and took the love of his life in his arms. Julie struggled for three agonising days. Somewhere along the way the strands of sanity snapped in Austin’s mind. At one stage he was looking down the sights of the gun, inches from Julies head, but he could not make himself pull the trigger.
Another storm hit the island as Julie began to struggle with her breathing. The wind howled as she got worse, finally trashing with convulsions. Her body arched one last time before collapsing on itself. The thing that made her Julie vanished from her body. Austin shook her, screamed at her trying to wake her one last time. Insane with despair he picked her still warm body in his arms and ran into the maelstrom. He howled at the heavens, the wind lashed at him. Her name was whipped from his lips by the hand of God and scattered to the four corners of the earth. Lightening cracked from the sky in vicious streaks, stabbing the foaming waves hundreds of feet below.
He walked to the very edge of the cliff. There was no soil on this barren rock to bury his one, true love. No tombstone could do her justice, no pitiful grave would embrace her delicate skin. This cliff will rise majestically above her final resting place. Only the endless expanse of the Atlantic could ever contain the love he felt for her. Austin kissed her lips one last time as huge waves crashed against the base of the cliff sending sheets of spray whipping through her hair. She looked at peaceful at last.
“Time to go, my love,” he said before stepping off the cliff. No matter what, they would be together forever.