“They told me I’d be an hour to an hour-and-a half. Is that all right?” The man seemed very unsure about the whole thing. He’d always been independent, but now, in his old age, he had had to rely on help from others. The Neighbourhood Scheme had arranged for a volunteer to drive him to the hospital for tests, and to bring him home afterwards. They had sent Emily, no spring chicken herself, but still a good twenty years younger than Mr. Hurst. She had driven confidently, and he’d felt quite safe, which had surprised him. He was of a generation of men who thought women drivers were overly timid, not very competent, and likely to cause accidents, and he’d been pleasantly surprised. They had chatted easily on the journey, but now he was diffident about asking her to wait.
“No problem,” she said. “I’ll go and get a cup of coffee and a magazine. When you’ve finished, ring my mobile, and I’ll come and pick you up from here. I don’t know how far I’ll have to go from the coffee shop to my car, though. It all depends on where I can find a space. I’ll give you a rough idea of how long it will take me to get the car and drive round this one-way system when we speak then. I don’t want you standing out here for any longer than necessary.” She handed him her card with her phone number.
“It’s very kind of you,” he said.
“Right, I need to go now, I’m blocking the road.”
Emily drove off slowly. There was a 10 mph speed limit. She was annoyed that once again car park 2 was full, with a queue stretching down the road. She’d pulled up past its entrance, so Mr. Hurst could cut through the well-worn gap in the hedge, and then through the hospital double-doors. It wasn’t the main entrance, but was the nearest to the department he needed. Now all Emily had to do was find somewhere to park !
The hospital was vast, and sprawled over a wide area. Over the years, new wings had been added to the old original building, and there were separate blocks too, catering for the more unusual specialities. A one-way road meandered round the periphery, for a good three miles, with just two ways off it to the outside world. Emily drove even more slowly, looking for places she might park. She had no hopes of any of the four car parks at this time of day. Ten o’clock in the morning was probably the worst time, and it was ten now, so she was looking for somewhere on the grass verge. One wasn’t supposed to stop there, but she had her badge to display on the windscreen : Volunteer Ambulance Car; so she could usually get away with it.
She was in luck. About three-quarters of the way round she spotted a car ahead pulling out of a small layby. She moved to the centre of the road, to prevent cars behind accelerating past to get the space first, as had happened on one occasion. Now she was prepared. There was just enough room for her to squeeze in. She put her badge on display, got out, locked up, and looked around. She was in a part of the hospital grounds she didn’t know at all, though of course she’d driven through it many times. She’s never had occasion to stop there before.
Across the road, Emily could see what appeared to be the oldest part of the hospital. It looked rather dilapidated. However, a ramp from the road led to a door which seemed to be ajar. The wall to either side of it was blank. Surely if she went in she’d be able to work her way back towards the newer area, where the coffee shop was. She set off.
She found herself in a long passageway, dimly lit by flickering strip lights, which buzzed ominously. The floor was bare concrete. After a hundred metres or so there were double-doors straight ahead, with chains across, holding them shut fast. To the right, an opening led into another, wider passageway. There was a slight slope upwards, and enormous trolleys parked to one side, all stacked high with laundry, which Emily found reassuring. She must be heading in the right direction.
More double doors were ahead. They opened with ease, and Emily stepped into another passageway, running at right-angles to the one she’d just left. She was faced with a choice : right or left. She turned left. Another long gloomy passage took her past more chained doors, but then ahead she saw one which was slightly open, with light coming through the gap. She stepped into a much brighter corridor. At last she was in a part of the hospital she recognised. It was quite a way from here to the coffee shop and the W H Smith, where she could buy a magazine, but the walk would pass the time until she had to collect Mr. Hurst.
She set off. The corridor seemed never-ending. It was very quiet. Normally it would be busy with people, staff hurrying along, outpatients trying to find the department they wanted. Not today, though, There was no-one about.
At the next junction, Emily turned left. Another long corridor stretched before her. She plodded along steadily. The League of Friends shop was just ahead. She was surprised to find it closed, the shutters down. ‘Strange,’ she thought. She turned right down a winding flight of stairs, and at last was in the newest part of the hospital. What a contrast to the area she’d where she’d first come in! But she began to notice things she hadn’t been aware of, walking with her head down. Normally, all surfaces were bright and sleek, and the floors polished. Now it all looked dull, and the floor needed a good sweep. Alice’s words shot into her mind – ‘Curiouser and curiouser.’ Well, she’d come this far, and the coffee shop wasn’t far now, She’d be glad to sit down and relax for a while. Goodness, it was quiet though.
Past the ersatz waterfall, not switched on, seemingly, and there was Smith’s – but like the League of Friends’ shop, its shutters were down. The coffee shop, too, was closed, deserted. Everywhere was deserted. Emily felt more and more unnerved. Where was everyone? She had to get outside. The sliding doors to car park 2 were directly ahead, but when she stepped towards them they stayed resolutely closed. She pressed the emergency button at the side, but nothing happened. She felt utterly spooked. It was as if she were the only person in the whole place.
‘Don’t be silly, she told herself. There must be some reasonable explanation. You’re just being over-imaginative.’
Nonetheless, the urge to get out was overwhelming. She would go back the way she’d come. She set off, hurrying this time. Where was everyone? It wasn’t imagination that the whole place was deserted. It took all her self-control to just keep going and not to panic. She started to see things she hadn’t before; cobwebs in corners, dirty footmarks on the floor. It got stranger all the time. And the lights seemed to have dimmed.
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Emily tried to walk even faster, but she was not a young person, and at the pace she was going her heart was thumping loudly already. She couldn’t stop though. She had to escape. She passed the League of Friends shop, and hurried along the seemingly endless corridors. Still no sign of life anywhere. At last she was on the corridor she’d entered from the old part of the hospital, and there on her right were the double doors she’d come through from the laundry passage. But they were now locked, chained across. Emily started to sob. She began to pray, something she hadn’t done for years. ‘Please help me, God. Please help me. I ‘m so scared.’
Emily was normally a strong assertive character, and not much fazed her, but now was different. ‘Get a grip’, she tried to tell herself, but it was no use.
She decided to carry on, past the hospital’s restaurant. It, too, was shuttered. Normally, it would have been packed at this time of day. ‘I’m the only person in the whole place,’ she said to herself. Then, with a start, she remembered Mr. Hurst, and a worse terror seized her. She was responsible for him, a frail old man of eighty-seven, no doubt somewhere lost in this mausoleum.
There, just ahead on the right, was the exit door to car park 4. ‘Please let it not be locked,’ Emily prayed. Then the lights went out. Emily screamed. She stumbled on, and pushed the doors. Her relief when they opened was palpable.
Car park 4 was almost empty. A solitary car stood on the far side. As she went towards it, she saw with relief that someone was sitting in the passenger seat. Thank goodness! She’d go to speak to whoever it was, perhaps find out what was going on. She hurried across, and bent to tap on the side window; but recoiled with horror. Empty eye sockets were heaving with maggots. They were on the shreds of skin which hung from the face, too. Emily screamed, and screamed again. Her stomach heaved. She backed away, her legs buckling. Somehow she stayed on her feet. She noticed what she hadn’t really taken in before: the car was dirty, with cobwebs between the doors and wing mirrors, and its tyres were flat. Emily was crying, and her nose was running, but she had to get away. She turned onto the road, and staggered along in the direction of her car.
Ten minutes of unsteady walking later she saw her car ahead in the layby. She hurried the last few metres, and with shaking hands unlocked the door and collapsed onto the seat. Gradually her breathing returned to normal. She started to think.
It was no good, though. Emily couldn’t find anything in her experience to explain this madness. How could it be? Everything had been normal when she’d pulled up here. The road had been busy, the car parks full. What could have happened? With a dreadful fear she saw again the decaying figure, with maggots where the eyes should have been, and realised as if for the first time that that was the only other person she’d seen since entering the building. Something terrible must have happened – but then why was she, Emily, alone of everyone, alive?
Ten minutes or so passed. She decided she would drive off – though she didn’t know where – when her phone rang, scaring her so much she was frozen for what seemed like a whole minute before she could answer it.
“Yes?” she said tentatively.
“It’s Mr. Hurst here. Can you come and collect me, please? They’ve said I can go. I’ll be near the entrance where you dropped me.”
“Of course. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Emily’s hands were shaking as she ended the call and started the car. With a start, she became aware that vehicles were now travelling up the road past her. She waited for a gap in the traffic, and pulled out. Going past car park 4, she glanced over. It was full, sun glancing off the bright roofs of cars, and people were walking about, where a short time before it had been deserted, but for the lone skeletal figure. There were no cobwebs, no flat tyres. She kept going, circling to the left round the main body of the hospital, until she came to car park 1. A bit further, and car park 2 was on the left, and just beyond it was Mr. Hurst, waiting by the gap in the hedge where she’d dropped him what seemed like many hours ago. Emily looked over at the hospital entrance. It was by the coffee shop which had been locked and shuttered. The outside doors had been immovable, everywhere deserted. The doors were now open, with a stream of people going in and out.
Mr. Hurst was smiling broadly as he got into the car. He appeared to be ten years younger that when Emily had left him here. “I’ve been given the all-clear!” he said. “You can’t imagine how worried I’ve been, I don’t mind admitting it now. Life feels very sweet again.”
“That’s excellent news,” Emily said. “Tell me, did you find the hospital busy?”
“Absolutely packed. I thought of you when I went by the coffee shop. There were such long queues. I hope you found somewhere else to get a drink. You might still have been waiting if you’d tried there!”
“No, I didn’t actually get coffee there,” Emily replied. “I just wandered about, really. And I can well imagine how scared you must have been. I’m glad everything worked out all right. Anyway, let’s get you home, now.”
She really hoped it had worked out, somehow. Later, though, over the next few months, as more and more people became ill, and started to die, and no cure could be found; and as the events of that day crept more and more into her waking thoughts, guilt also crept in. Was she responsible? Had she somehow strayed into a nightmare future? Had she carried out with her the seeds of a terrible pestilence from that future into this present time?
As everyone around her died, including all those she loved, Emily remained strong and healthy. Was she immune? She felt cursed. Mr. Hurst’s words came back to haunt her: ‘Life feels very sweet.’
The pestilence radiated out, until the whole population of the country was dead or dying. No cure could be found. Other countries, too, succumbed. Emily realised that she might soon be the only person left alive. She wondered if she were to die the madness might stop. And she wondered why she had been the one person to begin this. There was no answer.