The Old Man at the End of the World; Preview

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Chapter 1

Gerald Stockwell-Poulter has a bad day


Gerald Stockwell-Poulter couldn’t help but feel that it was extraordinary just how quickly his life had changed. One moment he was earthing up leeks and the next he was rooted to the spot as Rodney Timmins from the end allotment ambled towards him, arms outstretched, blood pouring from a hole in his neck and a look in his eye which suggested that he was less after help and more after a helping of Gerald.
What an incredible thing to happen, thought Gerald, as he watched Mr Timmins stagger through his new potatoes, weaving left and right like a drunkard, mouth agape. This looks like something I ought to be scared of. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the midday sun and get a better view of the events unfolding before him.
It was certainly odd but, in 87 years, Gerald has never seen something like this before. Angry people; yes, of course. Crazy people; a few. Cannibals; no, not really, not unless he counted that incident with Elizabeth in New Guinea in 1961, but that was a bit out of the ordinary. Cannibals had been notable by their absence in the depths of West Sussex.
Until now, it seemed.
Gerald’s pale blue eyes dropped to the loose wedding band on his calloused left hand. What would Elizabeth have made of all this. She had warned him that society was going down the gurgler, and perhaps she had been right after all.
As Gerald began stiffly pushing himself to his feet, Mr Timmins fell to his knees, entangled in the lose chicken wire surrounding Jenny Greg’s soft fruit patch. He fell forward, reaching for Gerald, finding him, grasping his leg in an iron-like grip and hungrily pulling Gerald’s Hush Puppy towards his gaping mouth.
Well, thought Gerald as he tugged on this leg and felt around him for his trowel, this is probably it. Elizabeth, here I come. He turned his face to the sun. He was ready. Nothing could save him now.
‘Aye, Gerry…’.
Gerald groaned inwardly, despite himself. Hamilton Montgomery.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gerald saw a flash of movement and heard a whoop, followed by a thud. Rodney Timmins let go of Gerald’s loafer and lay still, Ham standing over him, spade slung over his shoulder, feet planted wide and a grin plastered right across his wide face.
‘Ham to the rescue again, hey Gerry?’
This day is going from bad to worse, thought Gerald, as he patted the last leek and finally pushed himself up on his creaking knees.

Prior to Mr Timmins’ incredible behaviour and Ham’s timely, if aggressive, intervention, it had been another normal sunny Tuesday morning in July for Gerald Stockwell-Poulter. West Sussex was alive with bird song and people were about their everyday lives.
Or was it? And were they?
Now that Gerald thought about it, perhaps he couldn’t remember being woken by summer birdsong this morning. And, if he thought back to his trip to the supermarket a few hours before, didn’t it seem a little busier than usual. Yes, actually it had been hectic in there. Some sort of sale. Typical modern behaviour; everyone always out for a bargain, because they’re worth it.
Still, today he’d had a plan. And a good one at that. He had come to the allotment early with a carload of leeks; big, delicious, white and green specimens, with not a hint of woodiness to their delicately layered flesh. He’d bought them from Waitrose an hour before, imported of course, and he was going to stick them right there in the ground to replace his miserable-looking crop. They’d be quite a shock for Mrs Middleton, when she returned today from her annual pilgrimage to the Canary Islands, and stuck her nose over the fence to compare the allotment fare to her own backyard produce. The hue of the sprightly foliage would match the colour of her face when she saw Gerald’s patch.
But, it seemed, instead of the pleasure of staring into Mrs Middleton’s jealous face he was once again tête-à-tête with an idiotic, grinning Hamilton Montgomery.
‘What are you doing here, old man?’ asked Ham, as he held out a bear-like hand to steady Gerald as he stepped out of the leek patch.
‘Tending my leeks,’ said Gerald, brushing off his knee pads.
Ham looked down at the trampled bed suspiciously. ‘They’ve grown quickly,’ he ventured, ‘larger than normal.’ He looked around him at the pile of wilted produce Gerald had pulled from ground and raised his eyebrows.
‘Yes, yes, well,’ hushed Gerald, peering over his shoulder to the tall, larch fence which separated Mrs Middleton’s backyard from the allotment. ‘We have more important things going on here…’ he gestured to Mr Timmins prone body, his fingers outstretched and wriggling, a low moan muffled by the dirt.
‘He’s having a bad day,’ Gerald ventured.
‘A bad day?’ Ham bent down slightly and peered into Gerald’s eyes, squinting.
‘Now, Gerry…’
‘As you well know, Hamilton, it’s Gerald.’
‘…I have to ask you something important.’
‘Go ahead, Hamilton.’
‘I prefer Ham.’
‘Go ahead,’ Gerald paused, ‘Hamilton,’ he said under his breath.
‘OK,’ said Ham, ‘I know you’re old’, Gerald looked steadily at him and waited for the next bit, ‘and a bit doddery’, there it was, ‘but why the bloody hell are you earthing up leeks at the End of the World?’
Gerald thought about this. Did he have an answer for Ham’s question? He reached within himself, no, no he didn’t. He’d never been asked something like that before.
‘I’ve never been asked something like that before,’ said Gerald, ‘but it is a funny turn of phrase.’ He looked sharply at Ham. ‘Is that some sort of Scottish euphemism, perchance?’
Ham stepped around Gerald’s espaliered jonagold and approached the old man, leaving Mr Timmin’s fingers to trail in his direction.
‘It’s just that…I sometimes wonder if…you know…’ he started. He made a slight coughing noise in the back of his throat that made Gerald think of phlegm.
Gerald squinted,‘no, I don’t know.’
‘If you keep tabs on what’s going on…’ phlegm noise again, ‘in the world?’ Ham gestured weakly at the man on the ground, a mask of compassion barely obscuring the incredulity that oozed from his pores.
Smug bugger, thought Gerald, although he had to to admit that Ham had a point. Mr Timmins had tried to eat him. He was genuinely surprised that a quiet, middle-aged man who gardened in his socks and sandals while playing Tchaikovsky to his courgettes had come at him with a manic determination so completely uncharacteristic as to beggar belief. That was to say nothing of the gaping hole in his neck. However, if Gerald admitted that he did not, in fact, know why the calm and reclusive Rodney Timmins had tried to attack him on a normal Tuesday morning while he was tending his leeks in the sunshine, then all Ham’s suspicions would be confirmed; that Gerald was an old man loosing his marbles.
‘Hmm,’ muttered Gerald, ‘well, it’s clear that Mr Timmins is unwell…and a bit hungry?’
‘And that the world’s gone a little mad…’
‘And a man can no longer have a moment’s peace without being bothere-’
Ham huffed, grabbed Gerald and tossed him over his shoulder as though he was a light and not very precious sack of loot.
I shouldn’t have got out of bed today, thought Gerald.
‘Put me down, Hamilton,’ huffed Gerald, the wind knocked out of his chest as Ham’s shoulder dug into his diaphragm, ‘put me down…’
‘Gerry, the zombie apocalypse has begun,’ Ham yelled over his shoulder as he turned away from Mr Timmins, ‘and you seem to be the only one who doesn’t know about it.’
Gerald laughed, an action made very uncomfortable by hanging upside down from his waist. ‘Zombies schmombies,’ he wheezed, looking down at Mr Timmins’ red socks twitching inside his Crocs. He paused, ‘everyone can have a bad day.’
‘A bad bloody day…a bad bloody day, he says,’ scoffed Ham. ‘Nope, you’re coming with me before you get yourself killed,’ he paused, ‘or worse, get me killed.’
‘You young scally…’ Gerald trailed off as he twisted his head to the right. Four people, in a similar state of disarray to Mr Timmins, stumbled through the allotment gate, bleeding and moaning. They paused for a fraction of a second as their eyes, simultaneously, locked onto to the moving feast of the supersize, ginger brute of a man with a small snack tossed over his shoulder and started lumbering in slow motion toward their quarry.
‘What are you waiting for,’ Gerald puffed, ‘let’s get out of here.’

Gerald’s slight weight did nothing to slow Ham down. He strode across Finnbar Phipps’ overgrown plot which, Gerald observed, perpetually grew borage under the auspices of green manure, and headed to the side gate, easily outpacing the shambling undead that followed.
‘This…’ each stride took the breath out of Gerald, ‘is…a…very…unexpected…turn…of…events…’ he looked back at their pursuers, ‘is…that…Mrs…Middleton?’
‘Damn it.’
Ham had reached the back footpath entrance to the allotment. Two more zombies shuffled towards them along the path, both dressed in an identical uniform of black trousers, black ties and white shirts stained with blood. Ham whipped around quickly, disorientating Gerald, who kicked his legs, knocking Ham off balance. The big man stumbled once, twice, tripped over a half buried pitchfork and fell headfirst into Mrs Dougherty’s compost heap, narrowly avoiding squashing Gerald in the process.
Ham rolled off the fragrant pile of turnip tops and potato peelings and picked up his spade, pushing Gerald gently down behind him.
‘Stay down, Gerry.’
Ham stood protectively in front of the old man, and then started to advance towards the original four zombies as they closed the last 100 feet. He sidestepped to the right, drawing them towards the far end of the allotment and they shambled in his direction with Mrs Middleton at the forefront, Gerald noted, tanned after her trip away and striding out rather more quickly than her three shuffling companions.
Ham stepped forward, spade raised over his head.
‘Sorry, Mrs Middleton,’ he heaved the spade over and down, as though he was chopping a log for the fire, and cleaved her head in two.
The thumping of Mr Timmins had been one thing, and Gerald was admittedly shocked by it. Ham, the smug giant, certainly needed a stern talking to. But this was another thing altogether. Mrs Middleton’s body dropped like a hot potato, blood spewing across newly tilled earth. Gerald put a hand to his mouth and felt nausea rise within him but Ham didn’t hesitate for a moment. He swung three more times, beating in the heads of the remaining group, all of them meeting their brief and messy end by means of a Fiskars spade in the hands of a bellowing ginger Scotsman.
A low moan from the other side of the allotment caused Ham to spin on his heels and strike purposefully towards the side gate as two sets of black trousers come into view, their owners clawing and hissing at each other to be the first to push through the squeaky swing gate. They were only 80 feet from Gerald, who still sat with his mouth hanging open and his hands clasped in front of him in the compost heap.
After the violence he’d just witnessed, Gerald didn’t feel quite so ready to die as he had ten minutes ago and he tried to wriggle backwards over the compost heap, tumbling head-over-heels in a manoeuvre he hadn’t completed for at least half a century. He scrambled forward, as only a man whose creaking bones bellowed at him could scramble, and poked his head over the heap. The Trouser Twins were clearly tantalised by this feat of acrobatics and they made for him, side-by-side, their black ties swinging across their red-stained shirts, name tags askew and their once shiny shoes sinking into the weedless beds of the end allotment.
Were they Jehovah’s Witnesses? Gerald wondered, as he ducked down and tried to pretend he wasn’t there, something he’d often done when similar lads had knocked on his door.
He risked another look. Yes, they were, and they had definitely clocked him.
But they hadn’t seen Ham. He loomed up behind them, silently, and when they were only a dozen or so stuttering steps away from Gerald, he hefted the spade over his head once again head in a great arc.
Ham’s spade hit left and lodged deep into Trouser One’s clavicle. He swore under his breath and shook the garden tool back and forth, trying to dislodge it while the zombie’s upper body wobbled back and forth, spittle flying across the compost heap. Trouser Two had stopped and swayed, absorbing the scene for a moment, before slowly turning to face the delicious smorgasbord of Ham’s broad back. This new, larger, dinner menu seemed preferable to the small, bony starter hiding behind the compost heap and he reached his hands out and grasped Ham’s seesawing shoulders, pulling himself forwards.
Before Ham could react, Trouser Two fell, skewered through the side by a pitchfork-wielding Gerald.
‘For goodness sake,’ he muttered as he tried to free the fork as Trouser Two rolled on the ground, seemingly oblivious to the garden implement sticking out of his torso. The zombie’s arms flailed back and forth, reaching for the living legs that stood just out of reach as Ham toppled Trouser One to the ground.
Both men stepped back to look as the zombies moaned and writhed, assorted tools protruding from their bodies.
‘Well, this is one for the memoirs,’ said Gerald, feeling in his pocket for the little yellow notebook he kept for just such moments.
The allotment was a mess; four bodies were scattered at the northern edge with their brains oozing over David Cheng’s bok choi patch, Rodney Timmins laid with his moaning face in the mud and his fingers twitching, and the wooden handles of the pitchfork and spade waved like a pair of metronomes as the Trouser Twins made slow and slithering progress towards the living.
17th July 2017, wrote Gerald, Zombies come to West Sussex, he surveyed the scene with his pen in his mouth, and ruin my leeks.


 The full ebook of The Old Man at the End of the World can soon be purchased at Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo. Even better, we writers (and also our protagonists) live and die by the reviews that our readers leave. Please, if you enjoyed the book, let everyone know!

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