BY FRANCIS CROT
Faintly hilled farmland lay between Malton and the chums Chris, Joe, Brenda, Lisa and Lottie like a 50x100 grid numbered from the top left hand corner, I think it’s fair to say. The chums began at 25,1.
Chris informally led, rich with consultation. Deft enough to whittle a toy giraffe from a stick insect without even disturbing the critter’s ponder.
If we were to call one “turn” the time it took the chums to cross from one space to another, then – how to put it? Such a delicate matter. Despite their notorious feet-scuffing, the dead covered ground at the very same pace. Tenacity, don’t you know.
They saw birds, dogs, foxes, frogs and newts, insects and spiders, and one Muntjac deer. None seemed fucked. They went across a forecourt. Stiff peach children. Torn craws and blue prolapsed Lurpak. A rather nice neck, otherwise. Joe and Chris came out with carrier bags of fruit, bread, cheese and chocolate, their pockets full of lighters.
Generally the dead were still. Oh, their heads might roll back for a corrupted squint at the heavens: when’s it going to reign? My bon mot honours the dead’s little hobby. A few would reprise old habits, even shuffling a tractor over a patch. The “gas escaping” hypothesis must be unbelievably embarrassing by now. Old habits die hard. “Pvt. [Helen] Zemeckis! You & Mac secure the Ladies’ Room!” Their behaviour was more truthful than when they were alive – everything now done in long, fluid cringes.
Just fuck off. It was only when a chum stood in an adjacent space – or a space adjacent to one of those spaces – twenty four spaces in all – if you don’t count the one occupied by the zombie – and why would you count that? – that a zombie would cross into a new space. He would step invariably meatwards. No flanking, no retreating, your zombie on the move. You’ll find he prefers meaty latitudes to meaty longditudes. For example, in one little melodrama Lisa stood at 28,3 and dead don at 26,4. The don took himself to 27,3 – though rambling to 27,4 would have brought him just as near. It is a tradition in Cambridge that undergraduates may walk on the safeguarded grass if accompanying a don. Many undergraduates did so pursued by flesh-eating dons. This is the point isn’t it – flexible interpretation of our heritage. So, latitudes were preferred to longditudes, closer meat preferred to more distant meat, and in cases of equidistant meat, the meatier preferred. Thus a zombie would chase a space occupied by two chums before he would chase a space occupied by only one. He’d pursue Joe before he’d pursue Brenda, he’d pursue Brenda before he’d pursue Chris, he’d pursue Chris before he’d pursue Lisa. He would rather pursue poor old big-boned Lottie than any of them. She had a hell of a time of it (except hell goes on for a long time).
The first night they didn’t sleep. The second they fitted on a spongy bank, covered by trees whose boughs were full of cowslips and wildflowers, near some ancient-looking earthworks. When more experienced, they would join with the cowslips and wildflowers. More than once they awoke with visitors milling below. Lottie reckoned it was only sixty miles or so to Malton, but their route was an arabseque, circumstance its curling tongs. The ideal camp spot, as its notion evolved, was a small spinney affording five – then four, then three, and then two – high generous spots where the chums could roost without fear of rolling out, preferrably in a meadow, near a stream, surrounded by stiles to groan and bang as the dead bungled through. They attained this Eden only in fragments. They found anyway that, despite constant exertion, they needed less sleep. They made the most of the twilight and the dawnlight, and soon the starlight and moonlight too. When the world was distinctly lit they moved through it.
“I believe everything is matter. Yet I think there is a God,” said Joe embarrassed. “I don’t have any reasons but I believe it anyway.”
“That’s faith,” said Brenda.
“And that He’s some kind of creator. I don’t know how He relates to us. I don’t think it’s the way many of your evangelicals believe, that you pray hard, and you get what you want.”
“He got me my one thing,” said Brenda. “The only thing I ever asked for, He did. Don’t ask me what it is. He might stir-fry you, if you knew.”
“Could be dumb luck, Brenda. Either way we could use some more.”
They were being closed into a ravine. None of them liked it, and that’s why they fell silent. Overhead, the ribbon of afternoon sky was empty. Trees were starting out of the rocks on either side. When the ground began to climb a little, Brenda spoke again.
“Joe – Joe – Joe, the whole world changed so that I could have it – have my wish –”
Her voice dropped, “– my prayer – all this – all that – because of me. You explain that. And now my life belongs to Him.”
“For the love of God,” he said, but to these words he attached no meaning.
They saw greenery of that sort which is most set off by blood and sunshine. They saw gravel walks margined with flowers, and hedgerows, corn fields, and stone houses.
At first they made it their policy to set barriers in their wake, wedging shut the stiles, and dragging a heavy pipe, once used as a bridge, into the ditch it had lain over. But as Chris and Joe were trying to kick apart a rotted tree trunk fallen in a little stream, Lottie pointed out that they might simply be enclosing themselves in a more thickly-infested area. “It began in the chapel,” said Brenda, but, nonetheless, from then on they no longer bothered.
Joe and the others, except for Chris and Brenda, were all in their second year at Christ’s. Chris was a postgrad. Brenda was in Year 10 at a comprehensive in Impington, just north of Cambridge. Her GCSEs were to have been English Language and Literature, Maths, Double Science, ICT, Citizenship, RS, French, History, Art and Design, plus short courses in Italian and PE.
“Hey, I have a list to read to you,” Joe said during a brief firelit camp stop. “I think you’ll probably interpret it as the, you know, all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small thing. But I’d be interested to know how you feel. You ready?”
“OK,” said Brenda. Chris and Lisa slept. Lottie, upset, agitated the coals with a stick. Even if she could loot a Vision Express, how could she be sure it was the right prescription?
Lisa and Joe, thought Brenda. What a perfect match. Gown and gown. The argument from design.
“I saw one once where,” said Joe. “Wet vermilion injection of human penis. Cuttlefish mouthparts. Tibula and fibula with massive osteoma. Young crocodile viscera. Lion’s oesophagus. Honeycomb of first and second sheep tummies. Gravid uterus. Foetal armadillo ratusia. Seal colon. Wolverine rectum lymph nodes. Embryonic foal with membranes. Looks like a condom in soup. Sea mouse. Hen skeleton, without head. Partridge skeleton, intact. Rat spines. Encysted tumours. Thin-walled dermoid cyst. Sheep’s eyebrow. Lingual ribbon. Same seal colon from earlier, now inverted. Corrosion cast of stillborn’s arteries. The liver is a thick haze in that one. Six skulls of various rodents. Firm clot effused between ventricles, producing natural cast. Hydrocephalus skull salad bowl.”
He raised his hopeful head.
“No effect,” said Brenda. “I don’t get it.”
Joe was to have read Philosophy.
“Oh. Whenever I read it, I remember everything is just matter. Shall I go on?”
“That’s all right. I’d like to read to you from John.”
“All right,” he said, laying down.