The valley looked beautiful under the dense covering of snow. Here and there trees rose up and pointed out towards distant fells, their fingers frozen silver against the night sky. There was no sound anywhere; even the foxes and squirrels must have been holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen next in their new world. The stars twinkled overhead, sharp and clear in the iciness. I should have appreciated this scene; I had always loved winter. The only problem was that this was not winter–the actual date was July the fourth.
Do you remember the first time you started to hear about El Niño? Or tsunamis and hurricanes? It seems to me it was towards the millennium period and everyone started talking as if the end of the world were near. I thought it was millennium fever at the time but now I realise the clues were there–but no one took them seriously. Please don’t stop reading my story here; this is not another pious ecological ‘I told you so’ tale. In any case, no one really knows how or why it happened. The ozone layer, nuclear testing and countless other suggestions have been put forward but not even the scientists understood.
I remember sitting with my husband in our cottage, watching endless natural disaster documentaries and, I suppose, getting some kind of voyeuristic thrill from them. They were usually set in the tornado belt of Nebraska or the coastal regions of Bangladesh. There was always that comfortable feeling that nothing like that could happen in England, to our village–to us.
I’ve written this story to try and give history a personal viewpoint. If we do survive and someone is reading this in 2030, I want people to know how it really felt and what sacrifices individuals made to try and make a new life possible for others. As an ordinary married woman in her thirties living in an isolated part of the country, I never saw myself as author or historian. Please forgive any mistakes I may have made and try to understand what it has been like for us.
People all over the country had commented on the severity of the winter of 2012 and longed for the summer to come. But it hadn’t happened. The weather refused to acknowledge the seasons and 2013 had just got colder. I think that night in July was the first time I accepted this was not just a quirk of nature but something far more serious.
As usual I couldn’t sleep and I stared instead at the breathtakingly beautiful scene. I shivered. The stove in the bedroom was barely adequate and I could see my breath in the still, cold air. Everyone was trying to pretend it was going to be all right and next year would be back to normal. But I knew it would never happen.
I turned to watch David, sleeping peacefully and smiled. He had always accepted whatever life threw at him and somehow he managed to retain his optimism and a wry sense of humour.
‘It’ll be right,’ he would say in his attractive Cumbrian accent.
I wasn’t sure he believed it this time. In the twelve years we’d been married, he’d always been the calm one whereas I worried about everything. At least those niggling worries seemed unimportant now and the only things that really mattered were survival–and each other.
It was frightening how quickly civilisation could collapse. A combination of cold, shortage of food and panic had resulted in a dangerous breakdown of order, particularly in the cities. I suppose, in that way, we were luckier than most. The farm had provided us with adequate food and fuel, although we had little left now for the livestock. I remember wondering how we would survive the coming months and feeling tired, frightened and hopeless. It was one of my lowest moments but I think each of us had to go through that before we finally accepted the truth of our situation. Except perhaps David.
The following morning he smiled as he came back into the warm kitchen.
He stopped as he saw my face and continued quietly. ‘Couldn’t you sleep again, love?’
I shook my head. ‘Come and get warm, David. You look frozen.’
I opened the wood burning stove and he spread his hands in front of it. The old Lakeland farm had always been in David’s family but his father would have been horrified to see it now. At first, it wasn’t so bad. There was dried food and silage, but even that was running low and the remaining animals were rationed.
‘How’s the milk this morning?’ I asked, getting ready for work.
‘It’s still coming but the yield’s down again. Cows need grass to produce milk. There’s just no substitute.’
I watched his face and realised he was as worried about the future as I was. He cared about the animals and he hated to see them becoming poorer by the day and hardly any food left in the barn. I always suspected the optimism was a charade for me but I think he didn’t know how else to cope.
He looked up. ‘You look worn out, Eleanor. Why don’t you ring Bob? Tell him you won’t be in.’
I shook my head, although the idea was tempting. I was the practice nurse at the surgery and I knew Dr. Carter would understand. But there was nothing physically wrong and he was already overworked treating flu, bronchitis and many other problems related to the intense, everlasting cold.
At that moment we were interrupted by someone knocking at the front door. We jumped and looked at each other. Visitors were rare now and any stranger could mean trouble, so David motioned to me to move back as he opened the door. We were both surprised to see a soldier standing in the porch, wearing camouflage uniform but carrying a clipboard. It was an incongruous sight.
‘Mr Lawley?’ he asked, looking at David for confirmation.
‘Yes,’ replied David but I could sense his unease.
‘We need to evacuate you,’ said the young soldier, simply, looking over David’s shoulder into the kitchen.
‘Is your wife here, too?’
David was dumbfounded and I emerged from the shadows, nervous but angry.
‘What are you talking about? You needn’t think there’s anything left on this farm worth taking!’
‘Oh no, it’s nothing like that, Madam. We’re evacuating everyone in Cumbria. The boffins have come up with a new device and they need to test it out here. You’ll be given alternative accommodation, don’t worry.’
‘And just where might that be?’ I whispered, truly frightened by this man and his clipboard.
‘We have camps set up for you just outside Glasgow. You’ll be all right there.’
I couldn’t believe how callous the human race had become. This man didn’t seem to understand how much we needed our home. It was our security, our sanctuary–no matter how terrible things might get elsewhere.
‘Surely you want to see this mess sorted out?’ the soldier continued, looking round at the frozen landscape. ‘This is the least populated part of the country. It makes sense.’
‘I don’t feel sensible,’ shouted David, beside himself with anger and fear. ‘What about the animals?’
I knew how upset he was. A second soldier appeared in the yard and he was considerably older and an officer by his insignia.
‘Mr. Lawley, I realise this has come as a shock to you and your wife. Perhaps we could go in and I can explain the situation more fully,’ he said, frowning at the young corporal.
He introduced himself as Major Philips and somehow the three of us found ourselves sitting round the table. He was a calm, quietly spoken man.
‘How long would we have to be away?’ asked David, under control again. ‘Because someone will need to feed the stock.’
The other man shook his head and looked uncomfortable.
‘I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the situation, Mr. Lawley. You wouldn’t be able to return here–at least not for five years or so and perhaps not ever.’
I remember gasping and suddenly the room started to spin. David caught me round the waist and the Major rushed to get a glass of water. I tried breathing slowly and evenly and sipped the cold liquid. Everything gradually steadied.
‘You want us to leave our home forever? Just like that?’ I asked, incredulous.
‘I’m afraid you have very little option. The scientists can’t be one hundred per cent certain this will work–it’s completely new technology. Cumbria has been chosen because there are very few people but plenty of wildlife. If this works, it should warm the area in a matter of months and the animals will be fine. But we need to know the long-term effects on them before we dare try it anywhere else. We’re going to seal off Cumbria for five years and then return to monitor the results. If it’s successful, we’ll use it throughout the affected area.’
‘But what will happen to us in the meantime? Not just us–I mean everyone. How will we survive for another five years?’
David could still hardly believe this was happening.
‘We have enough supplies to feed the population for that length of time and we’ll be declaring martial law from nine o’clock tomorrow morning,’ said the Major, quietly but deliberately.
‘So that will be our life?’ I asked. ‘Living in a refuge camp outside Glasgow under martial law?’
The Major looked thoughtful and was silent for a moment.
‘There is one other option open to you,’ he replied. ‘But I doubt that you’ll thank me for suggesting it.’
David and I looked at each other.
‘Would it mean we could go on living here, as we are now? I hardly dared to hope.
The soldier sighed. ‘I wish you had longer to think this over. You people are frightened and vulnerable and I’m not sure you realise what the scientists are asking you to do.’
‘For goodness sake, man, just tell us!’ shouted David in frustration.
He rarely lost control but I knew he was close now.
“All right, all right,’ agreed Major Philips, holding his hands up in a placatory gesture.
‘The scientists are asking for a group of around a thousand volunteers to stay in the test area and act as human guinea pigs. They say the likelihood is you’ll survive–but there are no guarantees here…’ He trailed off and looked at us sadly, knowing our decision was made.
‘But, yes, you could carry on living here and we’ll provide you and the others with provisions and medical supplies before we seal the area off. But you have to understand we can’t ensure your safety. Whatever happens here after the test, you’re completely on your own. If you change your mind and try to get out, you’ll be shot. So think very carefully.’
‘I don’t have to think about it,’ I said. ‘And I’m sure David feels the same.’
David nodded vigorously. ‘Our life’s here. Not in a camp somewhere with toilet blocks and an exercise yard!’
‘Oh, come now, Mr. Lawley, you wouldn’t be prisoners.’
‘For how long? Even with martial law, how long do you think civilisation can survive?’
Major Philips looked down but made no reply. I think he understood the truth behind David’s words.
‘Tell us what we need to know and give us what we need to survive,’ I said, certain of our decision. Whatever the eventual consequences, at least we’d be in our own home and we’d be living together. Or dying together–and that was important too.
Major Philips stood up and pushed his chair back.
‘I’ll have to ring Headquarters and add your names to the list. You’ll be pleased to know there are already quite a few from this village who have made the same decision.’
‘Pleased, but not surprised,’ I replied, still trembling slightly.
‘What would you do in our position, Major?’ asked David, quietly.
He smiled slightly and put on his cap. ‘Exactly the same as you. But then my wife always said I was soft.’ He looked sad for a moment. ‘She was killed in a car accident two years ago and things don’t seem to matter as much as they used to.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said and I meant it. This man was just the messenger and he genuinely wanted us to understand the risks.
‘I will be seeing you again though,’ he murmured, as he walked towards the door. ‘I volunteered to oversee the experiment for the military. I didn’t think I had a lot to lose.’
He held up his hand in a brief wave and closed the door behind him.
I don’t think I need to describe our feelings at that moment. Any of you with a degree of imagination will appreciate what we were going through. The following days were chaotic and the army called a public meeting in the Parish Hall to try and calm the situation. Everyone in the area attended and the hall was packed with resentful, frightened people.
‘My wife and I are staying.’ Bob Carter spoke up. ‘You’re going to need a doctor–but what about medical supplies? And will there be extra personnel?’
Major Philips, who was sitting on the small stage, nodded and took the question himself.
‘Thank you, Dr. Carter. I’m sure everyone appreciates your decision and Eleanor Lawley has opted to stay too. Apart from yourselves, there is to be an army surgeon and one additional nurse. We intend to use this building as a hospital and we’ll provide adequate equipment and supplies to cover any normal contingencies.’
‘That’s the point, though, isn’t it, Major,’ said another voice behind us. We recognised the familiar but unpopular figure of James Sutcliffe. He was the biggest landowner round here and let much of his land and property. He probably felt he had more to lose than most.
‘There isn’t a lot about this situation that could be described as remotely normal, is there? And what do you intend to offer in the way of compensation?’
I wondered how Major Philips would deal with this difficult man. Like most in the valley, we found James arrogant and unpleasant but fortunately we didn’t have to put up with him as a landlord.
The government representative cut in. ‘I’m afraid the question of compensation isn’t appropriate in the present state of emergency. Like everyone else in Cumbria, you’ll be offered free accommodation somewhere in Scotland for the duration of the experiment.’
David suggested I offer to give Sutcliffe oxygen. I also have to admit to a petty feeling of satisfaction that at least everyone was equal in this situation. It was a feeling shared by many until the apoplectic man announced in that case he would stay to safeguard his properties. Our elation was short-lived.
‘Fifty of you have elected to stay, rather than relocate,’ continued Major Philips, moving on hurriedly. ‘The others will have to be ready to leave by July 21st and the device will be activated on August 10th. I’ll hand over now to Dr. Rebecca Sullivan, who can explain the scientific basis for this experiment.’
I remember my first impressions of Becky. She was in her late thirties and attractive but her hands shook as she held her papers. I found out later she was brilliant academically but shy and terrified of public speaking.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to thank you all for coming here tonight.’
‘Sounds like she’s welcoming us to a whist drive,’ murmured David in my ear and I stifled a desire to laugh. He has a tendency to sarcastic humour at times.
‘We didn’t have a lot of option,’ called another voice but I felt sorry for this woman. At least we should hear her out. She finally finished her speech which none of us remotely understood and sat down.
‘Any questions?’ asked Major Philips, tentatively.
‘What was she talking about?’ came back the answer.
‘It’s a fair question,’ whispered David and I had to agree.
The other man on the stage stood up hastily and introduced himself as Paul Ferris. He had an American accent and he explained he worked with Dr. Sullivan at Cambridge University. He tried again to explain the technology and this time it made a kind of sense.
It seemed to us he was describing a sort of microwave technology, although as far removed from our kitchen appliance as you could imagine. The idea was to have several devices positioned around the area which, in layman’s terms, would work as massive storage heaters. As I said, this is a simplified interpretation. The system would gradually but continuously heat the region and be controllable, so that we could experience virtual seasons to aid the natural cycles.
‘Fine if it works,’ murmured David, raising his eyebrows.
‘Think of the camp outside Glasgow,’ I muttered darkly and he subsided.
I felt his hand close over mine and I gripped it tightly.
Some of the people like Bob Carter were staying because they felt they should. Beth Cummings wanted to keep the school open. Others felt they were helping humanity by volunteering to be guinea pigs. David and I were there because we didn’t want to live in a camp outside Glasgow. This is in no way a reflection on that fine city. But it wasn’t our home and it wasn’t where we wanted to live or die. I make this point because there were so many noble people but I wasn’t one of them and I’m trying to be as honest as I can.
The days leading up to A Chance for Life, as it had ominously become known, were almost surreal. We felt as if we were living in an alternative universe, with soldiers and scientists in white suits milling around the village. It was horribly reminiscent of the Foot and Mouth crisis several years before, which had ravaged this countryside and its families. David and I had been personally affected by that and we shuddered as we remembered the horror of that time.
‘We never thought we’d get through that, love, but we did,’ said David, knowing my thoughts as we watched the scientists working behind our cottage.
‘Barely,’ I whispered and he put his arm round my shoulders.
Later that day I invited Becky and Paul into our kitchen for a hot drink and they told us they would be staying for the duration. Neither had family ties and they wanted to be here to monitor the effects and carry out any necessary modifications. I remember telling them how relieved I was to hear this. They had to think there was some chance of us surviving.
Becky laughed. ‘Thanks for the overwhelming vote of confidence,’ and I realised how insulting it must have sounded. We chatted and I learnt they’d worked together for five years. Although she didn’t actually say so, I picked up the idea the relationship was more than just a professional one. After the dreadful winter of 2006, the government had really become interested in the technology and they’d been working seven days a week to perfect it.
But it was a few days later that I realised things weren’t going just as smoothly as we’d been led to believe. I could hear raised voices from the kitchen and I realised it was the two of them having an argument. Becky said she needed more time but Paul turned away and carried on with his work. Becky touched his arm to get his attention and he turned again and grabbed her by the shoulders.
He was shouting at her now. ‘For Goodness sake, Becky, you know as well as I do the army won’t give us any longer. If we don’t do it now, they’ll just bring in Mulligan and you know his idea hasn’t got a hope in hell. We’ve got one chance to make this work and that chance is now.’ His voice softened. ‘I know you’re exhausted and so am I. But it’s only a few more days and then, for better or worse, it’s over.’
‘But all these people, Paul. They’re depending on us to get it right. Somehow, in the lab it was different and I never thought in terms of real lives. We could be killing almost a thousand people!’
‘Becky!’ Paul shook her hard. ‘We could also be saving millions of lives and we can’t deny them that hope. It’s probably the only one they’ve got.’
I didn’t know what to do. Paul wasn’t actually hurting Becky although I didn’t like the way he treated her. It wasn’t my concern although I was alarmed by the tone of the discussion. They didn’t sound as if hey were brimming with confidence. Later in the day, I made an excuse to talk to Becky alone and I told her what I’d overheard.
‘Sorry, Eleanor. That can’t have been very reassuring,’ she smiled.
I shrugged. ‘We all know nothing is guaranteed here. Major Philips made that perfectly clear from the start.’
Becky sighed. ‘I honestly do think it will work. Theoretically, it should. But our research wasn’t complete and I hate having to rush things like this.’
‘Paul seemed confident enough,’ I ventured. I wasn’t quite sure how to say this.
‘Becky, he seemed pretty rough with you earlier. Is he often like that?’
She shook her head but I saw the glimmer of pain in her eyes. Or was it embarrassment?
‘He’s just worn out, like me. It’s been difficult lately and I don’t think I’ve been exactly easy to live with.’
I nodded and let it pass. It was none of my business.
I began to wonder how these people were going to survive together in the coming days. Although there were several such groups within Cumbria, each one was supposed to remain autonomous. I considered Becky and Paul, Major Philips and James Sutcliffe. All had their own problems which had little to do with A Chance for Life.
As the evacuees left and August 10th approached, the groups prepared themselves, and the large county began to feel more like a country. It was a disturbing thought. In any country, there are those who want to lead and control the lives of others. What if that were to happen here? I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the climate or the experiment. It had more to do with man’s apparent inability to live together in harmony. I closed my eyes, as I recognised the real threat we might have to face in the next few years.
I can hardly believe it’s been so long since I looked at this diary. With so much happening, it just got forgotten until today when I found it, by accident, in the drawer of the dresser. I have to admit to mixed emotions as I read it. We seemed so naïve back then. You can probably imagine our fears on the day itself. Somehow, we expected something dramatic such as a great flash of light or an explosion. We’d been told we wouldn’t experience any effects but I don’t think we really believed it. It was almost an anti-climax when the appointed time came and went–and nothing significant appeared to have happened. Becky and Paul told us this was good and just as it should be. All we could do was wait while they took daily readings and tests and conducted a range of experiments.
At first, there was a feeling of adventure and perhaps, more than anything else, freedom. We were completely on our own and life was exactly what we made of it. No petty restrictions and no irritating politicians trying to tell us how to live. Or so we thought.
‘Being a politician isn’t so much a career as a personality failing,’ explained David, a couple of weeks after the experiment. ‘Or perhaps a cult of personality.’ I grinned as I thought of James Sutcliffe. He saw himself as a natural leader and had tried almost immediately to take over the running of the group.
‘You mean if a politician doesn’t exist, it’s necessary to invent one,’ I replied, laughing.
Neither of us realised just how seriously we should have taken that philosophy and acted upon it. In a situation like this, the most ambitious people always try to take control and we should have realised this and organised some sort of council instead. I know Major Philips was unhappy but none of us fully appreciated his fears at the time.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered so much if things had gone according to plan and there hadn’t been the fire.
It happened last year during the hot spell when the ice and snow had disappeared but Becky still couldn’t seem to regulate the temperature grid. After being acclimatised to the cold, it hit us hard and tempers frayed in the stifling atmosphere. It didn’t help that the two scientists were constantly arguing and I knew Paul was becoming increasingly violent. I’ve grown close to Becky now and I’ve seen the bruises.
The older children were becoming difficult and Sutcliffe decided to introduce a ‘disciplinary code’ to keep them–and us–in order. I don’t think many took him seriously or had the energy to object, and somehow we agreed to it. He even co-opted a few villagers to act as enforcers, a name which seemed to stick. We had no idea what it might mean until David saw the flames leaping into the sky above the warehouse, erected to store the food and medical supplies. I don’t know whether it was accidental or malicious but the end result was the same. We lost most of our provisions and the incident marked the beginning of what has become an austere and frightening regime.
Food rationing was introduced and Sutcliffe wanted to move into other areas to ‘request aid.’ Unfortunately he intended backing up his demands with enforcers and shotguns. For once, Major Philips and the moderates prevailed and our problems remain restricted to our own group for the time being. David and I continue much as always but we have come to question our decision to stay more and more as the months pass.
For the first time, I begin to wonder what kind of civilisation is going to survive to greet the rest of the world at the appointed time. Today, I even asked Becky what would happen if we tried to go beyond the borders into Lancashire or Northumberland. She said the army would have troops round the entire region and would shoot anyone caught trying to escape.
‘Do you realise you used the word escape then?’ asked David meaningfully.
Becky grimaced. ‘No, but it’s the way I feel.’
I wasn’t sure whether she was talking about our ruling council or her estranged lover.
‘I don’t understand. We’re not infectious and all the animals are perfectly healthy. How can we still pose a danger?’
Becky tried again to describe the kind of waves the device used and explained there was a theoretical if slight chance of our being contaminated–hence the five-year quarantine.
I never believed five years could seem such a long time. Since Major Philips died in the accident, if that’s what it was, the moderates have no influence over the council and the enforcers make sure we don’t argue. Paul is training the older children in unarmed combat and Sutcliffe is teaching them to shoot. We are very short of food now and they believe it is necessary to move away to other areas. If they do, they go without us. We opted to live or die here and we may very well do that. But we won’t kill anyone to survive. We are here to make a new life possible for the world–not to destroy it.
I have just remembered this diary and I must keep it safe. David says we must take very little with us but this is important. There are only seven of us left now and we have to cover the forty miles to the border as quickly as possible. It is now five years since the experiment and it is a lovely warm summer’s day here. We have no idea what has happened outside and no one has come to tell us. We never saw Sutcliffe and the rest after they left us that day and it is hard to say we cared very much.
So much has happened that we could not have dreamed of. Bob and Stella Carter are with us–and Beth Cummings and Becky. The food is almost gone now and we know we have to find help. If we could go back five years, would we still make the same decision? Absolutely. David and I are still together and now we are not alone. It has become even more vital that we find help.
The Professor of History finished reading the carefully protected document and looked up at his audience, smiling.
‘This may be the most important find related to A Chance for Life that has ever been made and it gives us a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people during one of the most difficult periods in our history. We realise what sacrifices those individuals made and how their courage made it possible for life to continue. Perhaps we owe our very existence to people like David and Eleanor. And did they survive?’
He stopped and smiled.
‘Yes, I am happy to tell you they did. And perhaps Carol, Robert, Beth and Rebecca Lawley would like to come to the front of the auditorium to take charge of this fascinating document. After all, it was written by their grandmother and I know how much she would have wanted them to have it.’
Heather Parker is a freelance writer and has won several competitions including the 2009 Benjamin Franklin House / Daily Telegraph Literary Prize and The People’s Friend Short Story Competition. Her stories and articles have appeared in many popular UK and US magazines, including The Weekly News, The People’s Friend, The New Writer and Space and Time. She has had a novel published by Drollerie Press, with the sequel due out shortly, and a novella published by Wild Child Publishing. Her stories regularly appear in anthologies including the Out of Line Peace and Justice Anthology, Absent Willow Review Anthology, Hoi Polloi 111 Literary Journal, Bridge House Publishing, Sunpenny Publishing, The Little Sisters Mystery Anthology, and 50 Stories for Pakistan.