“Nathan’s sick.” Liz waited in the doorway, watching Johnny for a reaction.
He fiddled with his fingers. “I know.”
Big, dumb fingers, she thought. Do something, Johnny. Get up, go to him.
“Probably just a cold,” he finally said.
She resisted the urge to shove him into action. “You know as well as I do what it is.”
“They said it hasn’t got this far north yet.” Johnny’s voice was weak.
“They lie. All the time. You told me that.” She stepped into the room. “What should we do?”
Johnny flipped his laptop open. “It’s all over Twitter.”
“The plague. I tell you, getting hard to find any information of use.”
“You didn’t answer me,” she said, wringing her hands, her mind on her son. “What do we do?”
“I haven’t a bloody clue. Should we go all seventeenth century and hang a rag out the letterbox? Mark an X in red on the door?” He shook his head and ran his hands through his ginger hair. “I’m certainly not calling this in. No way. What if he’s sick with something else, like meningitis? We’ll need help. We’ll need a hospital for him. I don’t want to be stuck in here forever.”
“He’s swollen, Johnny. The poor kid, his neck . . . all puffed out, like the mumps. . . .”
“It’s got similar symptoms, right?” He seemed hopeful.
“You think his vaccines didn’t work? Don’t be so silly.” Liz paced restlessly, then in a quieter voice said, “I should tell you—before he went to sleep he told me his groin hurt.”
“Did you have a look?” Johnny closed his laptop.
“No. I’m too afraid to check.”
“If the only symptom is the swollen glands around his neck, he might be coming down with a bad cold—or the flu,” Johnny said optimistically. “Why don’t I go and have a peek?”
“Yes . . . please.” She touched his arm as he passed and gave him a weak smile.
Johnny opened the door to the living room just as a long cry erupted from somewhere outside and ended as a scream. Then nothing. Silence. Liz and Johnny glanced at each other.
“What the hell?” Johnny threw open the front door.
Another scream rang out.
“Where’s it coming from?” Liz asked. They stood on the step outside, Nathan momentarily forgotten.
“Down the end, who lives in the last house?”
Liz shrugged. “Don’t remember.” She shivered as the cool sea breeze ruffled through her hair. Night had fallen hard, clouds hiding the stars. There’d be rain before long.
“I’ll go see what’s wrong.” Johnny started down the path.
“I wouldn’t do that!” Donald called out from across the road. He stood in front of his doorway, half-hidden in the shadows under the porch. “You’ve no idea if they’re sick or not.”
Liz felt her stomach turn. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think I bloody mean? Sickness is everywhere. You mind the plague doesn’t get you both, and your little one.” He sucked on his pipe and blew out a cloud of gray smoke. “I’d stay inside for now. Until things settle down.”
“But the infection is only in the south,” Johnny said.
Shut up, Liz thought. You didn’t listen to a word I said about Nathan, not a single bloody word. She grabbed on to his shirtsleeve and held fast. “Donald might be talking sense.” An image of her son flashed in front of her eyes, his neck and the painful swellings. Just how contagious was the plague? Could Donald catch the disease from across the road? Liz sniffed and caught a whiff of his pipe smoke. Was the virus infectious enough to make that leap? Another scream rang out and ended with a long, sobbing cry. Liz stared down to the end of the road and held tighter on to Johnny. The first drops of rain broke the moment.
“Come on. Let’s get inside.” She pulled harder until he finally gave in and backed up a step.
“Bye, Donald,” she called out.
“You take care, love.” He stood under his porch, puffing on his pipe, watching as she tugged Johnny back in.
As she shut the door the scream came again.
“Don’t make me go to Nathan right now.” Johnny leaned against the door, his eyes closed. “Me looking won’t make a difference.”
Liz didn’t want to hear any more screams. “You know what, don’t worry about it. Wait until later. Best if we don’t wake him up.” She tried not to hear what was going on outside.
In the distance, she heard the blare of sirens. Thank God. Take them away, I don’t want to get ill. Almost immediately, she regretted the thought. They might be next; Nathan too. “Took me ages to settle him,” she mumbled.
Johnny nodded and reached out for a hug.
“Will Nathan be next?”
He shook his head. “I still think it might be the flu.”
Liz walked into his arms and rested her head against his chest. Johnny’s heart thumped in her ear.
“Where was he—you know, about five days ago?”
His voice was loud, echoing inside him. Liz lifted her head.
“That’s how long the incubation is, isn’t it? There’ll be other kids at the nursery who are sick—or not. Call up Fi, find out if George is ill, or call Susan about Ollie.”
Liz sat down on the sofa. “You think I should?”
“Yes. Of course you should—if they’re okay, chances are Nathan is as well. Then there’ll be no need to call the authorities.” He fetched the phone and handed it to her.
Liz dialed Fi first. She answered on the second ring.
“Hello?” Fi sounded out of breath.
“It’s me, Liz.”
“Oh, it’s you.” She sounded disappointed.
“Expecting someone else?”
“Yes, the doctor. . . . George is ill.”
“Shit.” Liz felt the blood drain from her head. What if Nathan and George both had the flu? What were the chances at this time of year? Liz tried to calculate the odds and decided Nathan might still be safe.
“He’s got these horrible swellings coming up around his neck.”
Liz closed her eyes.
“And under his arms the glands are all puffy.” Fi let out a sigh. “I’m sick as well,” she whispered. “Dave hasn’t figured that out yet.”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
“Can’t do anything now. I’ve called that helpline. Apparently they’ll send a doctor around to diagnose him. Me too, I suppose.”
“Oh, Fi. Is there anything we could do to help?”
“I think someone’s at the door now. Wish us luck.”
“Fingers crossed and all that.” Fi hung up and Liz put the phone down.
For a moment she sat motionless, her hand resting gently on her knee. She was on the verge of tears and no longer wanted to call Susan. She didn’t want Johnny to ask her about the phone call and what Fi told her. The disease was supposed to be contained down south. She glanced up; clearly Johnny had caught enough of the conversation. He banged the back of his head against the door, once, twice, three times.
“At least Nathan was first,” she said in barely a whisper.
Johnny stared wide-eyed at her.
“We can take care of him to the end. Aren’t you glad he’s sick first, not you or me? I wouldn’t want to die with him watching.”
“Shut up.” Johnny marched up to the armchair and kicked at the base. “He’s got a cold. You wait and see. Besides, there are people surviving—why wouldn’t Nathan?”
“They’ve not reported anyone as having survived the plague.”
“Yes, they did. They talked about the survivors on the news. . . .”
“Seventy-odd patients are still fighting for their lives. They’re not better, Johnny. Get real. They simply haven’t died yet.”
* * *
“NHS helpline, Peter speaking. I need the patient’s name and date of birth.”
“Um, yes, his name is Nathan John Potts.”
“Date of birth, please.” The man sounded impatient; maybe he was just tired.
“Oh, sorry, January fifteenth, 2008. He’s four.”
“Can you confirm the postcode and first line of the patient’s address?”
“Yes, CH47 8TG. Ten Alderly Road.”
“Are you a relative?”
“I’m Liz Potts. His mother.”
“Thank you.” There was a pause while he entered the information. “Okay, I have his details up. Can you tell me the symptoms?”
“Um. He, er, he has swellings around the base of his neck.”
She could hear him typing away on the keyboard. “And how large are the swellings?”
“There’s one on the left side that’s not too big and two on the other side that are larger. The skin is black-and-blue and so puffy that he can’t breathe without wheezing. . . .”
Peter didn’t say anything for a moment, then Liz heard a gentle inhalation.
“Does the child have any swellings anywhere else?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Between his legs.”
“Any other symptoms?”
“Fever. He’s really hot and I can’t bring it down.”
“Run a tepid bath and leave him to play awhile. That should help get the temperature down. Do you have Calpol or Nurofen?”
“Yes, he’s had the maximum dose.”
“You can double the dose if he’s still not responding.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
There was a pause. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
“Should I take him to the hospital if he gets worse?”
“No. I’m sorry.” He sounded as if he was sad for her. “Your son has the symptoms of the bubonic plague. I’m logging him in now. A doctor will come out to visit you sometime tomorrow.”
Liz held tight to the handset and tried to stop her hands from shaking. Plague—he said her son had the plague. She breathed the words “Thank you” but didn’t mean it.
“I’m sorry . . . I must ask you not to leave your house.” He cleared his throat. “Not for any reason.”
“Are you certain about this? I’ve seen the news on the BBC. The infection is only in the south. We’re in the northwest.”
“There have been some other . . . reports of the disease spreading. All I can tell you is to stay put, don’t leave your house, and try to keep your son comfortable.”
“What about other symptoms, things to watch out for?”
“Vomiting, diarrhea, extreme pain . . .” He stopped and let out a sigh. “Are you sure you want this?”
“For God’s sake, tell me!”
He took a deep breath. “The patient might begin bleeding from the ears. The buboes—”
“What the hell are buboes?”
“The lumps under his arms and legs and around his neck.”
A chill passed through her.
“There might be a further rash, seizures, and delirium.”
“What are his real chances of getting through this?”
“I’m sorry. I simply don’t know.”
* * *
Liz went back upstairs. Need to be strong for my little baby, need to be there for him, she thought. Johnny didn’t know she’d been on the phone. He’d be furious if he found out whom she’d been talking to.
She hadn’t wanted the confirmation. Not really. Ignorance is bliss, right? Besides, she already knew Nathan had the plague. She ran through the symptoms in her mind—swellings, rash, fever, vomiting, bleeding ears, and delirium. Don’t think about death. Don’t include death. With Nathan confirmed as ill, would the NHS do anything? Or would they leave them isolated at home, waiting to die? She felt ill at the thought. Best not think about the future at all.
How much food did they have? She ran through what she could remember being in the cupboards. How long could they last without leaving the house? A week? Two? They’d definitely be going hungry by the third week. Three weeks of quarantine. Don’t be silly. To be on the safe side, she should get on the computer and do a Tesco’s order. Hopefully they’d deliver. Hell, if they left the bags at the end of the path, that would be okay.
She stood just inside Nathan’s room and listened to him panting in his sleep. Daring to get closer, she put a hand to his head, pulling away quickly at the heat. She planned on giving him a double dose of Calpol, as the NHS man had instructed. But not yet, she wasn’t going to disturb her boy; no point making him more miserable. He’d probably wake crying. Would he scream, like whoever it was down the street? She brushed his hair, fair and sweaty, away from his forehead and lowered the covers in the hopes he might cool off a little.
The rain beat against the house and a blustery wind rattled the window frames. Liz crossed the room to make sure the windows were shut properly. A draft wouldn’t help him get better. She placed her fingertips on the cool glass. Would she be next, in two to five days? Or Johnny? Would Nathan be dead by then, or still clinging on to life? Too many questions and none she wanted answers for. She tried to clear her head as she unfolded the futon and made it into a makeshift bed. A yawn escaped her as she crawled between the sheets. Nathan’s breathing seemed to have calmed a little. She looked at him one last time and settled down for the night.
* * *
“Liz. Liz, wake up.”
It took her a moment to remember where she was.
“Liz, you need to see this.”
Johnny was shaking her. “Can’t it wait until the morning?” she whispered. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Almost three. Come into the hallway. This is important.”
Liz sighed and sat up. “This better be good.”
He half dragged her to their bedroom, where the windows had been thrown wide open. “Look down the road.”
For a moment she didn’t understand what was going on. Maybe it was the sound of the drills that was confusing her—or the sight of an out-of-place army vehicle outside the house.
She leaned out the window to try to get a better view, but Johnny caught hold of her.
“Don’t let them see you,” he whispered in her ear.
Three doors down the army were boarding up a house in the pouring rain. Steel panels had been installed on the ground-floor windows, and by the looks of it, they were heading around the back with more.
“But why, and why now? And why the army? What about Jackie and Guy? Why would they get their house boarded up?”
Johnny simply shook his head.
“But at three in the morning and in this weather?” She backed away from the window. Johnny was right, she didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t want to be noticed at all. “Close it. Close the window.” A shiver ran through her.
Johnny did as she asked, and as he drew the curtains he wiped the rain splatters off the windows with the fabric. “Come on, back to bed,” he said.
“You think you’ll sleep?”
They lay together for a long while, holding hands and not saying a thing.