After five minutes I’d only repeated the explanation twice, Jack and Amy, the couple in the next closest room to the door, watching through hangover fogged eyes as we bounced off each other, figuring out if it was some elaborate trick, then to Pete and Robin, well Robin hid under covers and I was sure I could hear him snore as I recounted the guy’s strange words from moments earlier, trying my best to get across the urgent look in the guy’s eyes. It was Jack who came up with the offer to come with me to the centre of the circle, to find out what the hell was going on and with a mind to chastise the owner for the trick, demanding a refund. The cottage fell silent as we headed out in tracksuit bottoms and dressing gowns across the fresh morning dew to find the manager’s house locked up, a notice paper written in heavy bold ink. Evacuate. Head north. A freephone number scrawled below.
I turned to stare at Jack as he turned toward me, both of us pivoting on our heels, searching out the surrounding circle, looking for any sign of someone jumping out from behind a tree, a phone pointed in their direction to capture the look on our faces as the words sank in. We must have stood for over a minute before fumbling in my pocket, I read the number, tapping the digits into my phone. No Service, was the message that came back. We ran the gravel path back.
Breaking the quiet of the cottage, we flung doors wide to the protests of the occupants, shouting for everyone to get their arses into gear.
“The nuclear power station. Radiation,” I shouted, repeating, Jack following my lead, not stopping to answer questions, instead heading to my room, pulling off Andrew’s covers as I frantically dressed, stuffing what I could grab of my things into a small suitcase. Within another ten minutes the cottage was awake, even the most sceptical, Zoe and Nat, who thought it some elaborate scheme to scare them witless, were making moves to get their things together. It was still half an hour before we were ready to leave, half the group still not convinced, insisting on stuffing all of their belongings away and packing into the three cars before they would let us start the engines.
I think it was the sceptic in me that made me lock the place up and check twice, pocketing the key, instead of pushing it back through the letter box like it said in the welcome pack. I was driving one of the three cars, Zoe and Nat in the back, Andrew at my side tuning the digital radio to each of the stations, flicking to the next as the no signal message came back on the segmented display.
“Where are we going?” Zoe said.
“The way we came,” I replied, looking to Andrew for confirmation, his nod giving confidence to my words. The journey to the cottage had been made four days earlier, the five hours from London, via two motorways and a dual carriageway through Cornwall, the same people in the car. Zoe, I’d known for twenty years since graduating, we were close, about as close as you can get without being in a relationship, taking up my tenancy in the friend zone a long time ago. Nat was Zoe’s best friend, a new fixture since she moved from their childhood town to London last year. She was attractive, if you like the blonde knockout sort, but she made it abundantly clear to us all her interests lay elsewhere. She’d melded with the established group seamlessly, even putting Andrew, in his place early on. Zoe’s voice broke into my drifting thoughts.
“Have you seen any other cars?” she said.
“Since when?” Nat replied. I didn’t need to look to know everyone’s eyes were peeling around the road. We’d driven through two villages on the route to the A30 dual carriage way, but she was right, I couldn’t remember seeing any other cars on the road. At first I put it down to my sleep deprived state, the effects of alcohol leaving my body, I think we all did, but now I was paying attention properly, there wasn’t a car to be seen, driving on the road at least.
“It’s New Year’s Day,” I heard Andrew say.
“But,” Zoe started and I watched in the mirror as she paused, fidgeting her head either side. “I haven’t seen any cars. Not even parked.”
“Dude,” came the urgent word shouted from Andrew’s seat. I turned back just in time to see the figure standing, but with no time to press on the brakes, his head already bulls-eyeing the windscreen red to an eruption of screams.