I’m beyond excited to say that if you check out today’s episode of The Other Stories, you’ll hear The Wolf Is Loose, by yours truly! It’s featured in their Déjà vu theme for the month, and it’s the tale of a young man who hears a story that tugs at the edge of his memory, but he can’t remember why.Read More
I’ve had a blog for a very long time. Over 15 years. Recently I've been bringing back some of the better old posts, once a week. I'm starting with a series that I first did back in 2009, and then again in 2011. This time I asked for seven one-word blog topics from people on Twitter and got some of my best blog material as a result. This is the second in that series, and one of the few times I’ve strayed into the realms of Flash Fiction. It’s a flawed attempt, but an attempt nonetheless. This suggestion came from the excellent @gregeden.
So, Cheesecake eh? That’s some delicious dairy based desert goodness right there. This is the point where I start to curse the folly of asking for random one-word topics. Usually, the trick with this sort of thing is to take the word and rake your memory for any occasions which have involved the subject that can be strung out into a mildly entertaining yarn, but cheesecake? I mean they’re delicious and lovely, but I cannot think of a single event which has been made drastically more interesting by the involvement of a cheesecake. So instead, let’s have a short story, eh? After all, nothing says overwrought kitchen sink drama like cheesecake.
The cracked linoleum took the brunt of her stare, which felt so possessed of hate and malice that she was surprised that it didn’t burst into flames at her feet. The silence of the kitchen filled with the rush of the blood in her ears, and she could not bring herself to look up at him, scared she would not be able to restrain herself should she meet his eyes.
Desperate to do something to occupy herself she moved across the kitchen, her back to him at all times, and pulled a knife from the drawer. She took it over to the defrosting cheesecake on the side, not a cheap strawberry one but a posh M&S one that had remained in the freezer for months, waiting for the right time. The thought of wasting it now brought the fire back to her. She chanced a look at him.
His face was one of a terrified boy. An image flashed in her mind of him as a child, wearing shorts and standing awkward, but rather than provoke any warmth the image brought only more anger. How dare he stand there in mute fear, having dropped such a bombshell?
The detritus of their valentine’s day meal was stacked on the side, the remnants of the mushroom risotto turning to grey wallpaper paste. The broken wine glass she’d hurled across the room — responsible for the blank look on her fiancée’s face — dripped the last vestiges of its contents on the kitchen top.
Absently she started to jab the cheesecake with the knife, too much anger in the movement. It was still frozen at the centre, but she needed to do something. It wasn’t working though The rage starting to subside gave way to an empty hollow feeling. Her eyes swelled against her will with water that threatened to tumble down her cheeks. She wanted to remain angry, didn’t want to feel weak. She had felt enough weakness to last a lifetime.
‘Honey?’ He was the first to try and break the tension, but the sound of his voice fell flat, like all the air in between them had suddenly disappeared.
He inched toward her. ‘Honey?’ he asked again, the sound stronger in his voice now. ‘Honey, look at me.’
She shook her head, unwilling to give him the opportunity to try and talk his way out of this mess.
‘I have nothing to say to you,’ she said, the voice so small in her throat that she cursed herself for its emptiness.
‘Honey, please? It’s our wedding, he has every right to,’
‘He has no right!’
The rage flooded back through her in an instant. She barely recognised the primal scream coming from her, and the look on his face showed that he didn’t either as she whirled in his direction, raising her hand in accusation.
‘You have no idea what that man did to me,’ she started.
‘You never tell me, that’s why!’ he shouted, his voice no match for hers, its note of defiance showing he was determined to prove he’d done a good thing.
‘That man is dead to me, that’s why,’ she answered, the rush of blood in her ears again. ‘Twenty years! Twenty years I have done everything I can to avoid thinking of my father. I cut my own mother out of my life to get away from him, and you arrogantly presume to invite him right back in?’ The walls seemed to reverberate with her voice and she jabbed him indignantly in the chest. ‘You may want to project your own idyllic family onto mine but not every family fits into a box, Rob. I will die before I let that man anywhere near my wedding. And the fact that you would do this without even thinking to run it past me tells me that maybe I am marrying the wrong man.’
His eyes were filled with panic now. She was pleased to have had such an impact, hoping that she had made her point now. But then there was something else in his eyes that went beyond fear. The colour drained from his face, his mouth open in a soundless ‘o’.
She looked down and saw the knife, its tip buried in his shirt, surrounded by several other tiny holes, each silently oozing a black stream of blood. She pulled out the knife slowly, the world going slow now like it had when she had broken her leg as a little girl, and she stared at the cheesecake crumbs clinging to the blade, mingling with his blood. The knife fell from her hand. She looked up, their eyes linking in mutual panic for an instant before he fell to the floor at her feet, his shirt slowly changing colour.
‘Rob?’ she said, but all she got back in response was a gurgle. She dropped to her knees and cradled his head, dimly aware of the water pouring down her cheeks. He flashed her one last look of panic, and she mouthed a feeble apology to him, which she hope got through to him in that moment as his eyes went distant.
She sat there, cradling his head until the sun had gone down and come back up again, unable to do anything but cry. Cry, and think of the Father she had disowned so long ago.
Twenty years ago he had killed a part of her, and that killing had begotten this death.
Eventually, she stood and absently packed away the remains of the cheesecake, putting it back in the box and returning it to the fridge, before heading back through to the lounge to phone the police.
Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list.
Earlier this morning, as I perused the perpetual misery engine that is Twitter, I saw a message from a man wanting book recommendations, specifically from authors. Tell me, he asked, five reasons why I should read your book.
Obviously, my immediate reaction was to mourn for the poor man’s mentions, lost to the void of endlessly self-promoting authors desperate for a slather of free promotion. Then, of course, my author brain kicked in, and I screamed at my screen that I HAVE A NEW BOOK ON SALE.
- It's a rip-roaring apocalyptic adventure of murder and stale sandwiches.
- The world ends, but not in a way you've seen before.
- There's a serial killer on the loose, which is bad timing for all involved.
- The characters are pretty damn cool, and some of them can be quite funny when they’re not fleeing for their lives.
- My mum said it's really good.
By now I imagine you’re saying to yourself that that’s all well and good, but what do other people think? Well, how about the bestselling author of 99 Red Balloons, Elisabeth Carpenter, who said the following: "I loved the Blood on the Motorway series! Set largely in the north of England, we follow a wonderful cast of characters as they try to survive an apocalyptic event that destroys most of the population. It has everything you could want in an end-of-the-world story. Perfect for fans of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and ITV's Survivors."
Not bad, eh?
Now, for the first time, the full Blood on the Motorway trilogy is now available as a single box set on Amazon and all the other bookstores, and for the staggeringly low price of £6.99/$8.99. That’s cheaper than buying the first two books and getting the third for free! Not only are you getting three excellent books, but you’re getting them for roughly the same price as a bottle of wine.
As for the guy who wrote the original tweet, well, he deleted that pretty quickly. Either that or the universe took pity on him and deleted it for him before his twitter folded in on itself.
It's Halloween, and that means just one thing. That's a lie, actually, Halloween means lots of things. Pumpkin carving, sexism in fancy dress costumes, kids at their cutest, sugar overloads, and the best Buffy episodes. But for the sake of this announcement, it means one thing: A Final Storm, the final book in the Blood on the Motorway trilogy, is on sale now! You can buy your copy at any of these fine retailers, at the click of a button.
So, what's it about, you may ask? Well, six months have passed since the storm laid waste to humanity, and life is approaching something like normality once more.
In Birmingham, Burnett's new Government is trying to stand on its own feet, while Lydia tries to find some peace. In London, Max is trying to keep his new family together and away from the psychotic gang leader making a play for the ruined city. Out on the road, Tom and Mira are grieving, just trying to stay alive, when bandits come to tear them apart.
But the sky is full of lights once more, and they'll need more than dumb luck to get them through this storm.
Who will survive, and who will thrive, in this heart-pounding finale to the Blood on the Motorway saga?
Find out for yourself, by picking up your copy of A Final Storm, today!
In a turn of events I would term ‘a bit of a surprise’, I looked at my diary this morning and realised that Blood on the Motorway, my first novel, came out one year ago. Time sure flies when you’re shouting at strangers to buy your book every day.
It’s been a hell of a year. I mean, obviously, but I’m thinking about my book here. It’s been read by hundreds of people, all willing to take a punt on a new writer, something that makes me eternally grateful every day. There have been a few dozen reviews, too, scattered across the various buying platforms. It’s all been rather splendid. Once again, if you’ve been one of the people to take the time or the chance to read the book, or its sequel Sleepwalk City, thank you.
There’s nothing that means more to a writer than to know someone’s out there reading your book. It’s like heroin, which is the only real explanation for any of us writing more books, to be honest. Oh, and if you read it and then took the time to leave a review, you are a sainted and wonderful person and may all of the good things come your way.
Anyway, for the first anniversary, I have news. Blood on the Motorway has a brand new cover! Look!
I love the original cover of Blood on the Motorway, designed by the incredible Dominic Sohor, but with the cover for Sleepwalk City and the final book in the series, A Final Storm, being so different, I wanted to bring it in line with the rest of the trilogy. So, I’ve retained the artwork of Dom’s original, but tweaked it to reflect the rest of the series.
Of course, this means that if you bought the original version in print, you now have an incredibly rare collectible first edition, so congrats to the three people who did that. I have two at home, so maybe I’ll save them for when I’m rich and famous and I’ll sell them to make myself even more rich, and even more famous.
To celebrate this relaunch, of sorts, I’m offering those of you who haven’t had a chance to read Blood on the motorway yet the chance to get their hands on the ebook, completely free! So, if you like apocalyptic horror stories with serious shades of dark humour, why not pick it up today? Just click on the box below, and tell me where to send it.
Following on from last week's peek at the first chapter of Blood on the Motorway, I thought I’d give you a taste of the sequel, Sleepwalk City, so here’s the first chapter. In it, we meet a brand new character, Lydia, and find out her tale of the storm. Both Sleepwalk City and its predecessor, Blood on the Motorway, are on sale until the end of March, only 99p/99c each for the ebooks, available from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and more. The print version of Sleepwalk City is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $15.99 from Amazon.com.
Given to the Rising
Lydia arched her back and tried to find a comfortable position. The hard plastic chair of Dublin Airport’s unglamorous food court resisted her efforts. A half-eaten Burger King super-sized meal lay on the equally hard plastic table in front of her, losing its appeal with every passing second, the cheese congealing on the cold chips.
She slipped off her shoe and worked her thumb over the sole of her foot.
This had been her reward for making it through the day, a plastic dinner in an airport fast-food outlet. Lonely, tired and missing her kids, she figured it was the least her company owed her for sending her all the way to Ireland for a meeting she hadn’t really needed to be at.
She bit into the burger, savouring both the taste and its accompanying guilt. The diet had stayed well and truly back in England. She’d enjoyed falling off the wagon for this trip, if nothing else. Nice dinners, cooked breakfasts, a hefty lunch, and now a burger. The full gamut of bad food behaviour.
Regretfully swallowing the last mouthful, she slipped her shoes back on and checked the board. Her flight listing had a gate number next to it, so she wheeled her little suitcase round, picked up the laptop bag she’d failed to open once in the last forty-eight hours and headed off to the endless run of travellators which separated her from her flight, and, finally, home.
The plane was going to be full. People were already herding themselves into an orderly queue, despite nobody staffing the gate to let them on-board, and yet the waiting room seats were full, too. She wished she could sneak out for a cheeky puff on her e-cig. At least two others were chuffing on their own. She chanced it. Nobody official looked fussed by this brazen flaunting of The Rules.
The seats by the gate were filled with businessmen staring at their laptops. Occasionally they looked up and around to check the world hadn’t moved on radically without them.
There were a few non-business types scattered about, including a Muslim family who had probably had a much harder time getting through customs. Even Lydia, with her Mediterranean tone and dark hair, often got more glances at her passport. She could only imagine what it was like trying to get through with a headscarf.
The children of the Muslim couple were careening in and out of the seats, while both parents stared at the boarding gate screen – willing time to move quicker, Lydia supposed. It was a look she recognised. She smiled at the kids as they tore past, and secretly hoped that when they got on board they weren’t sat anywhere near her.
She parked up her suitcase, dropping her laptop bag on top and pulling out her phone. She punched Dev’s name and waited for it ring.
‘Hey, love,’ her harassed-sounding husband answered.
In the background, the bedlam of wild children echoed in her ear, including one high-pitched scream that would have chilled the blood of anyone who didn’t have their own little noise generators.
‘Hey,’ Lydia replied. ‘I’m just at my gate, how’s it going?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Dev chuckled. ‘You need me to come pick you up at the airport?’
‘Doesn’t Cassie have karate tonight?’
‘Balls, yes. You okay to taxi it?’
‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘Company can pay for it.’
‘Good point. Okay, well, got to go; I’m cooking tea. Have a safe flight, honey.’
‘See you soon,’ she said. Dev had moved the phone away and started shouting at the children before the line cut out.
She shook her head and clicked the Facebook app to check out what she’d missed in the last forty-eight hours. Before she found anything interesting, the herd started moving through the gate. She pocketed the phone and picked up her bags.
Twenty minutes of tedious onward progress later, a disinterested steward pointed Lydia towards her seat. She hated flying, especially on the piece-of-crap budget airline which was all her company was willing to fork out for. She lived in constant fear she’d get stuck by the window, struggling not to lose her shit altogether on take-off and landing.
At least I’m on the aisle.
A rotund, profusely sweating businessman had commandeered both the armrest and half of her leg room, displaying his crown jewels to the world. She settled into her seat and tried to nudge him out of her space, but all she got in return was a greasy smile. Did he think she was flirting with him?
She gave up the tussle. At least the flight was only forty-five minutes.
She toyed with the idea of opening her laptop and trying to clear some emails to take her mind off her creeping dread. But all the emails in the world couldn’t change the fact she was about to entrust her life to a company more famed for their budgetary creativity than their safety record, in an aircraft which predated her parents’ stereo system. She opted to fish out her phone and stick on a podcast, closing her eyes to try to block out the rest of the world.
Her heart skipped a beat as the plane started to taxi, and when the pilot applied the throttle she had to swallow a cry of terror. The roar of the engines drowned out the sound of wittering coming from her headphones.
‘Not a fan of flying?’ the businessman asked, jovially, as she removed them.
She flashed him a terse grimace that she hoped adequately conveyed the message of ‘Please kindly fuck off because you’re not making this any easier,’ which a mix of civility and terror were unable to let her vocalise.
Eventually the plane levelled out. Lydia had been gripping the one armrest she had access to so tightly it hurt to let go. She looked at the businessman, whose attention had moved away from her. He now invaded the space of a timid-looking boy in the window seat so he could look outside. The boy had the same approach to civility she had. His expression said he was going to completely ignore the invasion of his personal space in the hope it might magically go away. Lydia tried to relax.
‘We’re back over England,’ the businessman said to nobody in particular.
She closed her eyes again and tried to distract herself with work thoughts, running through the meeting that morning, trying to compose a narrative she could take back to her boss tomorrow without sounding like a complete idiot. It worked for a while, until a hushed ‘woah’ brought her back to her surroundings.
The businessman still craned to see out the window, but so too did the boy next to him. All around, people's faces pressed up against the windows, blocking the view so effectively she had no clue what they were staring at.
A strange light danced through the cabin and across the faces peering through the windows. Blue and green hues danced over the ceiling, whilst the cabin staff tried to hustle about without looking worried.
The fasten seatbelt sign came back on, which some people took to mean the opposite, exiting their seats to try and get a better look.
‘What’s going on?’ Lydia asked the sweaty, broad back of the businessman.
‘Sorry, love,’ he said, moving aside to let her look.
Outside was the strangest sight she’d ever seen. They were above the clouds, which had turned from their trademark fluffy whiteness into a dense, solid mass, throbbing with what looked like shifting veins of electrical energy. A cavalcade of colours came from the aurora, rising from the cloud like steam, blue and green and pink mists enveloped the plane. It was quite breath-taking.
‘What is it?’ Lydia asked.
The businessman shrugged. The kid stared out of the window, the colour draining from his face.
A bolt of lightning arced up from the cloud, and there was a brief ‘ooh’ from some of her fellow passengers, until it arched in the air and slammed into the wing.
The wing splintered and burst into flame.
‘The ooh’s turned into screams and the plane lurched to the left. Inquisitive interest turned to panic around her before the lightning bolt had even faded from her retinas.
Another bolt hit, and the lights went out.
Lydia sat back in her seat, trying to wedge herself into safety. She put on her seatbelt as fast as her trembling hands would allow.
The businessman tried to push past her to the aisle, before thinking better of it.
She couldn’t bring herself to look out the window again, but the lights outside were becoming more and more intense. The plane started to lurch downward and sideways.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. She chanced a look outside, which did nothing to calm her. They were falling through the storm, electricity dancing around them. She looked down at her hands, gripping the armrest. Tiny arcs of light danced between her fingers.
The spin became more pronounced, the G-force starting to take hold. Lydia fought to hold down the contents of her stomach. Dampness spread between her legs.
The last bolt to hit blew a hole in the right side of the plane. The cabin depressurised. Screams of terror mingled with the whooshing air. Two people flew, screaming, out of the hole and into the night, plucked out by some unseen hand.
I am going to die.
The businessman had passed out, an ugly smear of red running from his nose. The boy also had the same, and Lydia’s hand rose to her own face.
Her head pounded, and everything started to go dark.
At least I won’t live to see what happens when we hit the ground.
Everything went black.
* * * * *
She sat bolt upright, struggling to breathe, clawing at her clothes and unsure of her surroundings, until it all came flooding back. She wasn’t at the crash site any more. That was, what, three months ago?
Three months since she’d woken, still strapped to a single aeroplane seat in the middle of a decimated forest. The sole survivor of flight 272 from Dublin to Leeds Bradford, which had come down in thick woodland not twenty miles from its intended destination.
Getting out of bed, she rubbed her mittened hands together. It was still bloody cold. She stretched, and threw off the thick blankets. Not a hideously uncomfortable bed as these things went, but she wished she’d managed to find a cottage which retained the heat from the previous night’s fire a little better. She’d not dared to have it lit for long, worried that light in the windows, and smoke from the chimney, would pique the interests of whatever unsavoury elements might be lurking in these parts. She was pretty deep into farmland here, but you never could tell.
If the last three months had taught her anything, it was that.
She went to the window and looked out at the frost-bitten dawn scene, the nightmare she’d lived through still at the front of her mind. When she’d woken that first morning, somehow unscathed amongst the death and wreckage, she’d had no idea that the carnage extended beyond the hundred or so of her fellow passengers. Their scattered corpses had been torn apart by the savage storm and the impact. To this day, she had no idea how she’d survived. None of the other bodies even resembled people, and yet there she had been, the only damage a deep but non-life-threatening cut along her arm, which had already stopped bleeding by the time she came to.
The smoke had still been rising from the wreckage when she woke, the air thick with the smell of fuel, so much so that she’d choked on it as she scrabbled out of her seat.
But her wonder at her own survival was nothing compared to her horror at what lay beyond. She’d waited for hours, sure that sirens and help wouldn’t be far away, that she shouldn’t leave the scene. She’d tried her phone, but it was dead. All the phones she could find were blank, useless boxes. She pictured Dev glued to the news, wondering what he was going to tell the children.
It was the thought of her children that had stirred her into action – that and the realisation in the fading light that nobody was coming to help her. She’d left the crash site and walked until she found a main road. She had followed the signs for Leeds through the night, in total and terrifying darkness, trying to block out the sounds of wildlife in the shadows.
When she’d come across the first car wreck, in the pre-dawn light, the corpses had had the same smear of red from their noses as her travelling companions, and she’d realised her crash had been only a small part of the puzzle. Her pace quickened until she finally found her way home.
Coming back to herself in the present, she pushed the thought down. One scab was enough to pick at. She walked downstairs and headed into the tiny kitchen. This must have been a holiday cottage once upon a time. It was well decorated and clean, but save for half a jar of coffee in the cupboard there were no signs anyone had lived here since the storm. She pulled her backpack up onto the counter, fished out a tin of children’s spaghetti hoops, and set it on the side.
She stared at it. The image of Cassie, her daughter, slurping at a bowl full of spaghetti hoops, stole into her mind.
So this is a morning for picking scabs?
When she’d finally made it home she’d not seen another living soul, so she’d known the odds of finding her family waiting with outstretched arms were slim, but none of her fears on that long walk could have prepared her for the sight of her husband’s corpse on the sofa, the bodies of both their children in his arms. The curtains were closed. Had little Nico been scared by the storm and got his dad to close the curtains, or had it been Cassie?
It had taken her a long time to leave the house. When she had, she was not the same Lydia who had entered.
And now she was the Lydia staring at a tin of spaghetti hoops with a mix of anger and remorse. She wiped the tears from her eyes and opened the tin. She pulled out a fork from a drawer; tried the taps, but there was no water. The hob didn’t work.
The old systems are finally collapsing.
Plunging the fork into the cold can, she began emptying her pack out onto the counter to check her belongings. A raincoat, sleeping bag, one thick jumper, and five pairs of woollen socks, as well as some knickers. She was down to five tins, which was a worry. Toiletries bag, a hairbrush, a kid’s book on wilderness survival she’d stolen from Nico’s room, some cigarettes, candles, and a tin opener. She examined the cottage’s own tin opener and found it to be superior to her own in its robustness, so she swapped them.
Lastly, she examined her weapons. She checked the magazine of the small pistol and her bow and arrow. She still had a pretty decent quiver of arrows, but there were only five bullets in the pistol’s magazine. She couldn’t shoot the bow worth a shit, so never seemed to lose her arrows to anything. She was getting better though.
She repacked the bag and slung it over her shoulder, put the gun in her waistband and pulled her jumper over it, and hung the bow and quiver from the strap of the bag. She caught sight of herself in the ornamental mirror by the front door and chuckled.
Outside the cottage the last of the snow still clung on, supplemented by the morning frost. At least she’d be able to see any footprints not her own, but the chill in the air went straight through her thick jumper.
Whatever had caused that storm, and she’d heard her share of rumours over the months, had it also broken the whole world? Were they set for some kind of eternal winter, as the Earth tried to rid itself of its human infestation?
She hoped not.
Leaving the cottage, she hiked the bag up and appraised her options. Where to go today? She looked one way down the path, and the other, and decided to take the road not yet travelled.
* * * * *
If you've enjoyed this sample chapter, Sleepwalk City is on sale throughout March for only 99p/99c in ebook available from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and more. The print version of Sleepwalk City is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $15.99 from Amazon.com.
Here is the opening chapter of my debut novel Blood on the Motorway, currently on sale for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com. If you like what you read, please feel free to treat yourself.
The Beginning and the End
Tom ran his fingers over a cracked wine glass, staring out of the kitchen window, his hands frozen from the bowl of icy water. Had he known the world was about to end he might not have bothered with the washing up.
While Leon sat outside oblivious to the cold, Tom had resorted to putting on every available article of clothing he had. Three pairs of socks and he still couldn't feel his toes. Leon, on the other hand, sat out on the crumbling patio with nothing more than jeans, a T-shirt and a bottle of supermarket own-brand bourbon to fend off the arctic conditions. It made for a ridiculous spectacle, but Tom still half-admired him for it.
Four of them had come to the seaside city of Sunderland some seven years previous, all fresh-faced and innocently prepared for three years of hard work. The plan was to toil earnestly in their mid-level academic institution, then beat a quick exit to the working world. The best part of a decade later, all they had to show for it were perpetual hangovers, short-term memory loss, decimated credit ratings, and piss-poor degrees in irrelevant subjects. Now they were stuck, eternally trying to live the student life on ever decreasing means.
The city itself had proved to have a limitless supply of two things: cheap alcohol and a North Sea breeze that could flatten a man. All you could do once winter came was stock up on the former, crank up the heat and stay indoors.
Unfortunately for Tom and the other residents of the house on Riversdale Terrace, it had been five days since the gas, along with all the other amenities, had been cut off. The house now creaked constantly as it adjusted to the lack of heat, and Tom was concerned the next major event in his life would be dealing with a burst water pipe. There had been portentous rumblings from deep within the walls.
Earlier, Tom had heard Danny banging about against those walls, presumably in an attempt to keep warm. The noise had stopped as abruptly as it had started; Tom guessed his housemate had either given up or knocked himself out.
Their final housemate was a housemate no more. That morning, Adam had collapsed in a sobbing heap after phoning his parents to come and rescue him, then sat on the stairs in silence until they arrived. His father had been so shocked at the conditions his son had been living in, as though he'd walked into some BBC Four documentary on Northern drug dens. They’d left most of Adam's belongings behind in their haste to escape. Tom had taken to housework to combat the cold, the boredom, and the embarrassment he'd felt when he’d seen the look on Adam's father's face. He'd tidied the communal areas as best he could, then turned his attention to the tower of washing up, a task made near impossible by the lack of hot water.
Throughout all this he’d kept thinking. He needed to get out of this house. This house was where all dreams came to die.
Thinking about how much his life sucked made his head hurt, and the cold water made his hands ache, so he abandoned both tasks.
Since he had arrived in Sunderland he had become a distant echo of his earlier, hungrier self, and nothing at all like the man he’d once thought he would be. All ambition had drained away, eroded by endless nights of excess and days of tedium and daytime television.
He caught sight of Leon again, looking serene on his mouldy plastic sun lounger, dressed in baggy jeans and a faded T-shirt with an ironic vintage computer game logo, just as always. Not that Tom could claim to be any more sartorially developed; his own wardrobe was full of black T-shirts covered with indecipherable heavy metal band names and rude words.
Tom slid open the French doors and entered the terrace.
'Thomas,' Leon replied, somewhat slurred.
'I thought black guys did better in the heat. Aren't you cold?'
'Well come inside then, you berk,' Tom said. 'You'll end up a fucking icicle out here.'
'No, I like it. It's refreshing, and it doesn't smell like feet out here.'
Tom shook his head and turned to go back into the house.
'Have some generic supermarket own-brand bourbon, it helps immensely,' Leon called to him. He offered the half bottle to Tom. Tom turned back, took it and swigged, enjoying the sting as it hit the back of his throat, then the creeping warmth that flowed through him.
He pulled up the chair of crates they had fashioned as a second seat and considered the crumbling exterior of the house. Moss attacked the pipes, and vines had penetrated the brickwork to the extent that the wall now sagged. A month or so ago, they had confronted their landlord over the matter, but he had raised the topic of rent unpaid, and they had beaten a hasty retreat.
'Adam's gone,' Tom said, remembering Leon had missed the action. 'I think he had a bit of a breakdown actually. His dad looked at the house like he'd just walked into Gomorrah before bundling Adam into his Range Rover.'
Leon laughed. 'I don't blame him. Anyway, we don't need his TV now we don't have any electricity.'
'That's true,' Tom replied, taking another deep swig.
Distant storm clouds darkened the night sky, bruising swathes of it a deep purple. They watched them in silence. The buzz from the bourbon diffused the anxiety that had sat in the pit of Tom's stomach all day.
'I think it's time I left too,' he said.
'Maybe you're right,' Leon replied. 'It's stopped being fun, hasn't it?' He motioned for Tom to return the bottle. Overhead an angry rumble issued from the sky.
'It has,' Tom replied.
'Hey, maybe we should do something together.'
'Well I've spent the day putting together a very vague plan.'
'And here's me thinking you were just getting drunk.' He laughed.
'The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know.'
'So what was the plan?'
Tom waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.
'Road trip?' Tom asked. 'What, around England? That'd be a pretty fucking short trip. Devon and back. We'd be home again in a week.' He took the bottle.
'Beats sitting around in this shithole though, doesn't it?'
He had a point. For the past few weeks, Tom's main source of personal achievement had come from a crossword puzzle which had taken him over a day to complete.
'What do we do on this road trip?' Tom asked.
Leon shrugged. 'I thought I'd leave that part of the plan to you, since you're the brains of the operation.'
'Okay. Why not? Road trip. Makes perfect sense.' He stood, and shivered. 'You coming in for a smoke?'
'Nah,' Leon replied.
Tom went back in. A road trip had merits, he supposed. He could write, get the inspiration for a novel, pick up some freelance work here and there. He sure as shit wasn't doing any writing here. It would make sense for Leon, too. Tom's best friend, since their first day of University, had always struggled with being one of the few black faces in a predominately white northern town, and he'd spoken more than once about wanting to escape. He was an artist, or at least he had been. The painting of Buffy on the wall of Tom's bedroom that had been a Christmas present some years back was probably the last thing his friend had actually painted, but being an art student still served as an admirable chat up line in the pubs and clubs of Sunderland.
He was a good friend though, despite his flaws. Or maybe Leon's flaws just complemented his own. If he was going to leave, he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather do it with.
Tom went back to the lounge and pulled out a little baggie of weed, some skins and tobacco, from a drawer, and set about rolling a joint. He felt the old familiar pang of guilt at not being able to pay the electricity bills, but somehow always managing to find money for weed, then buried it where he normally did.
He lit it, took a deep drag, watched the acrid smoke fill the cold room and thought about leaving. There was nothing tying him here; no work, no family, and few remaining friends. Countless acquaintances maybe, but what good were they? Since the house had fallen into its current state, there wasn't much to separate him from being de facto homeless.
Sinking into the broken sofa, his eyes fell on the dead television, the collection of games consoles, and the towers of DVDs gathering dust. Even his beloved smart phone was now an uncharged brick of useless technology. Maybe the landlord would find all this junk and accept it as rent owed.
A low rumble issued from the sky, barely perceptible at first, but then back it grew louder. Tom took a deep drag of the spliff and walked to the back door. Lights were flickering against the windows so he went back onto the terrace.
Something was wrong. The hairs on his arms stood in rapt attention. Outside, the volume trebled, thunder rolling on and on.
Leon stood up, staring at the storm clouds, mouth agape. Tom looked up. Heavy black clouds covered the sky, spidery arcs of light dancing through them.
'It's warm,' Leon said.
He was right. Tom's permanent goose bumps were gone.
Tom handed Leon the spliff. 'It's not raining either.' Despite the constant rumble and the thick black clouds there was no moisture in the air.
His ears popped. The volume grew again: loud cracking sounds and the sounds of metal expanding and contracting, like old pipes called into action. Tom heard a whistling sound too; although he couldn't tell if it was just in his head. The light show intensified, veins of electricity dancing through the cloud, growing thicker and changing colour.
'Can you hear that?' Leon shouted, but Tom could barely hear him over the din.
As if someone had turned up a dial, pressure filled the air; dropping like a brick on Tom's chest. His legs buckled, everything went dark, and he fell to the ground.
* * * * *
His eyes opened to daylight. A stab of pain rocketed up his left side to greet the day. The rough edges of a dream played at the edge of his memory, something about a weird storm, but then realised he was lying not on his hard bed but on the cold concrete of the terrace. He tried to move, but it hurt. His cheek was wet, his hand too. With a rising panic he brought it up to his eye line, expecting blood.
Drool. That was one less panic, then. His tongue felt like a hard, dry sock, and his ears were ringing. With all the energy he could summon, he dragged himself up, his joints protesting at every small exertion.
Leon slept next to him on the concrete, his chest rising and falling. Tom saw the half-smoked spliff on the floor and picked it up, his hands groping for a lighter, glad it hadn’t burnt itself out. He wondered if this was the right response to waking up like this, but his head was a fog of noise and confusion and his nerves were shot to hell.
He lit up, breathing deep and greeting the warm wave of intoxication. The clouds had gone and taken the warmth of the storm with them. The air felt crisp and clean. Purified.
The ground was bone dry. There had been no rain. The only moisture was his own puddle of saliva. He listened for sounds, but aside from birdsong there was nothing.
Leon started to wake, then shot bolt upright, his face full of confusion and fear. 'What the fuck?' he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse.
'Don't look at me,' Tom said, his own voice husky and cracked. 'I've only just woken up. Spliff?'
Leon stood and took the nearly-dead joint.
'Fucking hell,' was all he could muster. He looked up at the house. 'We should go and see if Danny saw the storm.'
Tom hadn't even thought about their third housemate. Danny barely registered when he stood in front of him. He surfaced from his room only occasionally, generally to plunder the fridge. Since the power died, sightings had become rarer still. Tom had wondered how he was even passing the time now he couldn't play World of Warcraft for eighteen hours a day.
Back in the house, Tom pulled on another jumper, then he and Leon headed up the stairs. They passed Leon's room. Tom glimpsed inside and saw it was immaculate as ever. For one of the laziest people Tom had ever known, Leon was fastidious when it came to his own space. It was the communal areas he didn't give a shit about.
Danny's door was covered in stickers from countless nights out, remnants of a time before he'd discovered massively-multiplayer online games and became a warlock, or whatever the fuck it was.
Tom knocked. No answer. He tried again. He looked at Leon, who shrugged and started pounding on the door with his fists.
'Danny,' he bellowed, 'let us in, you miserable fucker!'
Still no response.
Tom tried the handle. Locked. Danny was the only one in the house who had a lock, the result of smoke-induced paranoia.
'Maybe we should kick it in?' Tom asked.
'Danny, we're going to break down the door!' Leon shouted. They gave it ten seconds or so, then Leon shrugged.
Tom threw his weight against the door. It gave at the first attempt, swinging inward. Before Leon could congratulate him, they saw Danny's body. He lay on the bedroom floor, eyes open in a terrified stare, blood smeared across his face, mouth open in a silent scream.
Leon stepped back. 'Holy fuck!'
They both stared through the doorway for a moment, then entered the room slowly, unable to take their eyes off the contorted corpse. Neither said a word. Danny lay in an awkward position. One leg rested up on the bed, the other tucked behind itself. The blood appeared to have come from his mouth and nose, but other than that Tom could see no visible reason for him to be lying dead on the floor.
'Danny?' Leon asked.
Tom's mind ran through every police procedural show he'd ever seen and wondered how this would look to a homicide detective. The house one step removed from a crack den. The broken door. The dead housemate. His stomach dipped in fear. 'We should call the police.'
Tom left the room, careful to give the body a wide berth. He looked back at Leon, who was fumbling for a cigarette.
He ran downstairs, his mind racing. Hands shaking, he picked up the house phone and punched in nine-nine-nine, but there was no dial tone. His eyes drifted to the collection of burned-out candles on the mantelpiece. It was a miracle the whole place hadn't burned down in the night.
His mobile phone hadn't worked in days. He tried turning it on to see if it would give him enough juice for one call, but it refused to give him so much as a flicker. Tom flung it against the wall. It didn't even have the good grace to shatter in a satisfying manner, instead falling to the floor with a thud. He remembered the pay phone across the street. He could call the Police from there, if it wasn't already kicked into oblivion by the feral youth of Sunderland. He pulled on his coat and headed for the door.
Halfway down the steps, he stopped.
The smell, burning meat mingled with the heavy stench of petrol, caught at the back of his throat before his eyes could register the devastation before him. Max's Newsagent – good old Max's – was gone, burnt to the ground as though a large fiery thumb had come from the sky and stubbed it out. Corpses lay all over the street. Some were burnt, their limbs curled into themselves from the heat. Some were crushed, entangled in one of several car wrecks that dotted the road. Limbs, torsos and heads were strewn haphazardly in their wake. Some were just dead, lying there oblivious to the carnage that surrounded them.
Dozens of corpses. Old corpses. Young corpses. Bodies, and dead, and bodies again, to the end of the street and beyond. It was more than he could process. Tom stopped, sank onto the step with a thud, and wept.
* * * * *
If you've enjoyed this sample chapter, Blood on the Motorway is on sale throughout March for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com.
“Unfortunately for Tom and the other residents of the house on Riversdale Terrace, it had been five days since the gas, along with all the other amenities, had been cut off. The house now creaked constantly as it adjusted to the lack of heat, and Tom was concerned the next major event in his life would be dealing with a burst water pipe. There had been portentous rumblings from deep within the walls.”
This, from the first pages of Blood on the Motorway, is something that I’d imagine speaks very directly to a specific group of people — namely those poor souls who shared the house on Riversdale Terrace with me, in the fair city of Sunderland, around the turn of the century. It really was quite the dive. Living up to every cliche of student living you could imagine, the house had seven bedrooms, a layer of grime that had turned the net curtains an ashen grey, and a revolving door of occupants of which I was the last to enter.
I have such good memories of that house, where I spent my immediate post-university life in a haze of music, drink, and cigarette smoke with a group of housemates who ranged from dealers to bassists to vinyl obsessives. While there I entertained long term careers as both Superstar Rock DJ and Rock Star, neither of which was to be, in the end. My prized possessions were my stacks of CDs, the veritable wall of VHS videos, and the faded, torn posters I’d lugged from house to house for the previous decade.
The lounge, with its mould-ridden sofas and single cathode-ray television, was the communal hub of the house, its walls thick with tar. It was while hoovering the burnt and pitted carpet that I watched the horror of 9/11 unfold. It was on those sofas that I watched Arsenal best Liverpool in the FA Cup Final sat next to a Liverpool fan, still my favourite game of football ever. It was in that house that I entertained my only ever stint on the dole, setting my alarm at 1.45pm each day in order to wake up to watch Neighbours on BBC1.
When it came to write a novel set at the end of the world, I thought it would be interesting to start the story there, in that house, because quite honestly, if the world had ended during my years there, I probably wouldn’t have noticed for half a day at least. Location is so key as a writer, and for my debut novel there’s only a handful of places in the book that aren’t torn right from the pages of my own life. ‘Write what you know,’ the old adage goes, and while I don’t know much about killer storms and serial killers beyond what I’ve seen on a screen, I do know the places, the world from which my characters are so violently ripped.
Of course, there’s only so many places I’ve been in my life, and if I want to keep writing books, I can’t keep setting them in my dingy, post-university accommodation. Sleepwalk City, the sequel to Blood on the Motorway, ventures to Birmingham, Scarborough, and Dalby Forest, places I’ve been, but to which I can’t claim a huge personal connection to. This is where Google Street View and Wikipedia become invaluable tools.
Now, I’m writing a Sci-Fi horror, set upon a spaceship I have definitely not set foot on personally, and an ice moon that I’ve only seen pictures of, for obvious reasons. I’m moving further and further away from the comforting embrace of the world I know. Hopefully I can still take my readers there as well as I can put them in that living room, with its pitted carpet, and its mould-ridden sofas.
Blood on the Motorway – An apocalyptic tale of murder and stale sandwiches, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more besides. The sequel, Sleepwalk City, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and many more.