By Chris Campbell.
Robert was in his early sixties and had lived alone since his wife had died almost two years ago. He had a daughter who lived in Eastbourne, down on the south coast of England. He lived on the outskirts of Oxford only two streets away from where he was born. He had spent the majority of his working life, apart from a three year stint in the Royal Air Force, in a factory making cars. He had gradually worked his way up through the ranks and was now the workshop foreman in the body shop.
His shift finished at six in the evening and after a pint with a few close friends in the pub across the road from the factory, he walked the short distance home. He cooked himself a meal, from his well-stocked freezer and by using the microwave, it was ready in a little over a quarter of an hour. After his meal and watching television for a couple of hours he retired to bed with a book just before eleven. Around two in the morning he woke with a strange sense of something being not quite right. He sat up in bed and looked around his bedroom. Nothing seemed to be amiss except that the curtains were swaying gently as if a breeze was blowing against them. Robert was sure he had closed the window before getting in to bed but got up to check. Sure enough the window was closed, yet the curtains continued to billow slightly. He looked out of the window onto the quiet street below. Again it was as if a breeze was blowing, with the small trees rocking slightly. All was quiet with no one about.
Suddenly there was a sharp crack and Robert’s television aerial came spiralling down from the roof, its arms tapping against the window pane. Robert continued to look out of the window and was amazed to see several more television aerials break away from their mountings and collapse against either the roof or walls depending on where they were mounted. He gradually became aware of a low pitched deep rumbling noise which seemed to emanate from beneath his feet. The rumbling grew in intensity and suddenly a large crack appeared in the road and spread outwards rapidly.
The house opposite suddenly slipped sideways and the end collapsed on itself. Robert, extremely scared by this point, threw on a pair of trousers and a jumper and ran downstairs and out into the street, as many other people were doing the same. A man from further down the road was yelling that it was an earthquake. He continued to shout in an attempt to rouse people from their sleep. Minor earth tremors happened quite regularly all over England but most were unfelt by the majority of people and registered less than one on the Richter scale. A quake of this magnitude was extremely rare. While most of the tremors lasted a matter of seconds, this was now entering its third minute. More houses were falling now and the once quiet road now looked like a middle-eastern city under enemy artillery fire. Robert’s own house fell victim to the quake and slipped sideways into a rapidly growing hole. People were screaming and running around aimlessly calling out for their relatives and trying to avoid falling masonry.
Five minutes after it began the quake was over. The street had been virtually demolished with only the occasional wall still standing. All the power had gone in the first minute of the quake but the darkness was illuminated by a growing number of fires from fractured gas mains. Water was also pouring, or as in a couple of cases, actually spurting like a geyser from broken water mains. Several people were trying to use their mobile phones to call for help but there was no signal. One young man was cuddling a boom box radio to his chest but all the unit was picking up was static. There was no sign of anybody from outside the street coming to their aid. People were searching in the rubble for family and friends whilst others were moving away towards the city centre, no doubt with looting the city centre stores in mind. The whole area was devastated and where you would normally have seen spires rising into the sky there was now nothing.
Robert kept trying to contact his daughter in Eastbourne but all the mobile signals were still out of action. His car was still parked outside where his home once stood. Robert got in and started off along the road, the intention being to head out of town and see if he could pick up a signal on his mobile phone or failing that, drive to Eastbourne and make sure his daughter was okay.
The going was really slow getting out of the city as the roads were badly damaged in many places and there was debris and smashed vehicles to contend with also. After a couple of hours, daylight was beginning to break, the dim light making the scenes of devastation seem worse. He eventually reached a hill outside town and tried once again for a mobile signal. Still nothing. There were a few cars on the road by this time and out of the city limits the going was a bit easier, however the road was still severely damaged in many places. At least out in the country there were hardly any fallen buildings to contend with. The drivers of the other cars that he saw looked as bewildered and frightened as he felt himself. He continued to make slow progress along the A34 and by the time the sun came up fully he was ten miles from Oxford. The scene of devastation and ruin was now more apparent in daylight with hardly a building or structure still standing.
He was brought to a halt a mile or so further on when he came to a bridge over a river. The bridge had disappeared, broken to pieces and swept away by a very fast flowing and swollen river. He realised that this was as far as he was going to get in his car. He knew of another river crossing some three miles away but the back roads towards the other bridge appeared to be blocked by fallen trees as he had driven past them. He got out of the car and locked it out of sheer habit, even though there was no one around to steal it or otherwise tamper with it. He needed to find a way to cross the swollen torrent so that he could continue southwards. He was a fairly strong swimmer but knew that he would not stand a chance against the current of the river. There had to be another way.
He slid down the bank to the water’s edge and looked around for something he might be able to use to assist his crossing. There were several fallen trees on this bank jutting well out into the river and some more on the far bank, which looked from his viewpoint as if they practically touched just over the midpoint of the river. He thought that he might be able to clamber along a tree on this bank and then transfer to one from the far bank. His mind made up, he headed for the nearest tree that looked possible to cross and carefully worked his way on hands and knees and then astride a branch out over the raging water. When he finally got to the end of his tree, his weight was pushing the small branch down perilously close to the water. The tree on the other bank was tantalisingly close, no more than three feet or so. Could he reach it and would the other small branch support his weight?
Edging forward as far as he dared, he lunged for the other tree and managed to grab the lowest branch with one hand. He managed to pull the branch a little closer so that he could get both hands round it, then praying that the branch would hold, he pushed off from his tree. As the new branch took his weight, it sagged down so that his feet were in the water. Using practically all of his strength, he managed to pull himself up bit by bit until he was able to straddle the new branch. He made it to the far bank and sat down to rest for a while. Sitting in the warm sunshine made him feel drowsy and soon he slipped into a fitful doze.
When he awoke about two hours later, he was stiff and decidedly hungry. His first priority was to get moving again before he seized up completely and to try and find something to eat. He had never really been the outdoor type so as a consequence had no idea what he could eat if he found anything growing like berries or fungi. Once he had climbed back up the bank, slipping and sliding back a few times he reached the road once again. About a quarter of a mile along the road he could see what looked like the remains of a petrol filling station. He headed towards it in the hope that there may be some food available.
Once he got there he found that the forecourt was severely damaged with giant cracks and some of the ground pushed up almost to the height of what had been the building’s roof. The small office was standing but leaning at quite a severe angle towards a gaping crevasse. He carefully worked his way to the door and called out with a hello to see if anyone was still there. There was no reply, but on looking closer he saw a pair of jean clad legs sticking out from under a pile of rubble. Nothing he could do for this unfortunate soul. In the corner were the remains of a chilled cabinet in which he could see familiar looking food wrappers. Gingerly making his way across the shattered floor to the cabinet he found the door smashed and twisted giving him relatively easy access to the contents. He filled his pockets with food and silently apologising for stealing made his way back outside. This pattern went on for the rest of the day, stopping at various ruined buildings to gather more food or drink cans. He had found a discarded holdall outside the petrol station so now had something to carry more food and drink than before.
This continued for two days with Robert steadily making his way south. Between his river crossing and Newbury he had found an abandoned van with the keys still inside so had managed to drive for a short distance before debris once again blocked the road. The fact that he was technically stealing the vehicle didn’t really make much impression on him now. It was amazing he thought, how quickly a person could come to accept stealing. It was after all the only way to survive now. He hadn’t seen many living people since leaving Oxford but had come across a fair number of dead bodies. Like the stealing, this had also failed to cause him much concern.
By the end of the third day he was approaching Winchester and decided that he would try and get some sleep as it was now getting dark. He had got used to sleeping in whatever shelter he could find and was quite lucky this evening when he saw a partially standing barn about a hundred yards off the road. He made his way across a muddy field and found that the half of the barn that was still standing was nearly full of straw bales. That would make for quite a comfortable bed he decided. He had obtained some matches in one ruined and abandoned building and soon had a small fire going. From the fire’s heat, he was able to make some toast from the loaf he had stolen earlier in the day. He had cans of beans so it was quite nice to have something hot to eat. Lacking a saucepan or any kind of cooking utensils he had cooked the beans in the tin resting on a stone across the fire. The toast he managed with a pointed stick. Eating the hot beans was a bit more challenging but managed reasonably successfully with a further combination of sticks. He awoke at daybreak and once again started moving south.
He thought he was doing quite well but this illusion was shattered a short while later when he topped a long hill about four miles from Winchester. Where there should have been rolling green fields, with the city just off the main road to the right, there was only water. The water stretched from left to right as far as the eye could see. There were waves on the water and it appeared to be much larger than a lake. He walked along the top of the hill in an easterly direction for several hours with no sign of a crossing place or dry land. He was reluctantly forced to admit to himself that it wasn’t a lake but the sea. The earthquake had been severe enough to alter the shape of England forever.
For eleven days he followed the new coastline, always in an easterly direction. The coast now seemed to be curving towards the south, but he thought that by this time he must have been past where London should have been. The next day the coast took a definite turn to the southwest. He had come down almost to the shore line some days previous and had been walking on grass for the past two days. With the direction change, came a surface change as well. Instead of the soft grass the ground was now broken and rough with stones, sand and large boulders. He walked on following the coast with the sea to his right.
As he walked he saw a shape materialising on the horizon. As he got nearer the shape became more readily identifiable as a ship. It took him another two hours to reach the ship, an oil tanker now sitting high and dry on what he guessed had once been the seabed. The deck of the ship was a good sixty feet above his head. As he came nearer, a shot rang out and the sand spurted up at his feet making him run for cover under the shadow of the hull. A deranged voice yelled down telling him to clear off and stay away. Robert didn’t need a second telling and crept away under the cover of the ship’s hull for as long as he could. When he reached the far side at the stern of the ship he sat and rested and decided to wait till nightfall before leaving what cover he had and continuing on his way.
Several days previously he had given up hope of finding his daughter as he was certain by now that Eastbourne no longer existed like many other places, London included. With so many places gone it was easy to understand why there had been no signs of a rescue attempt for the people who were left. He had only continued on his way as he had nowhere else to go. He continued onwards for several more days before the ground started rising again. When he reached the top of the rise, the same scenes of ruin and devastation greeted him, but this time any signs that remained were in French so he surmised that he had reached what had been the French mainland.
Although he never knew it, if he had turned west instead of east on reaching the sea, and followed the coast in that direction, he would have eventually arrived at Bournemouth which was still standing in places. East of Bournemouth, the sea had taken everything in a diagonal line from Christchurch to Ipswich in Suffolk, so Eastbourne was certainly gone forever. The only good thing about this was that all the people in the area that was now sea would not have suffered much, as the sea would have engulfed the whole area in a matter of minutes and being in the middle of the night no one would have known what had hit them.
The quake was worldwide and the world map had changed dramatically overnight. That in a great part explained why no help had been forthcoming from any foreign country. The United States and Canada were virtually halved in size with the ocean now reaching the Midwest. Australia had survived with only relatively minor damage but New Zealand was gone. Robert eventually stopped moving in a part of what had once been northern France when he had come across a virtually undamaged but abandoned house on the outskirts of a small village. He met up with a small group of fellow survivors from France and England as well as Holland and Germany and together they set about rebuilding their lives, in a strange new world.