We here at Drunk Monkeys are proud to present an exclusive excerpt from Tom Ward’s debut novel, the apocalyptic adventure, A Departure. The novel is the story of 18 year-old Michael’s journey across Britain, following a natural disaster that has decimated the population. On his journey to the continent, Michael learns about the darkest aspects of human desire as society breaks down around him. We have been lucky to publish several of Tom’s short works in the past. His novel is a now available through Crooked Cat Press.
The novel has been getting advance raves. British author Tony Parsons calls A Departure, “ a book that self-consciously elbows its way into the company of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Cormac McCathy’s The Road – and like those great books, it will stay with you for long after you have read the final page.”
* * *
The sun was proud that day, the sort of sun that you can feel stroking your face and prickling your back. They walked onwards, further along the same road they had driven down the previous night, flanked by trees that funneled them down the road and shielded them from view.
They passed through patches of brilliant light and deep shadow in the shape of branches with thick leaves. The road was empty and, after an hour, they had not seen another person or vehicle. Rabbits hopped lazily across the road ahead of them and a drowsy peacefulness filled the air, bringing with it the rich smell of earth and bark.
They stopped intermittently to take breaks when Judith complained, Michael wanting to make better progress, but glad for a chance to relieve himself of the heavy bags for a moment. The first few times, Judith could not be persuaded to sit down on the grass or lean against a tree trunk, complaining of the dirt, but by the third break, she collapsed next to Michael without a word and accepted the drink he had taken from the restaurant for her.
After they had rested, they walked onwards with Judith always on the opposite side of the road to Michael, seemingly lost again in her own thoughts. Michael’s own memories helped take his mind off the never ending heat and he thought first of the holidays with his family as a child, holidays in Yorkshire where his father would drive them to a deserted field that slipped down into woods and streams where Michael and his sister would explore in the cool water, walking along the smooth stones at the bottom as the water rushed through their toes whilst their parents lay in the sun with the sandwiches.
He thought of Her and the times they had spent together and, after remembering what had become of his family, the thought of Her was the only thing that made him keep walking. He smiled and brushed a hot tear from his cheek as he recalled an afternoon they had spent together in the woods near their homes, him trying to teach her how to climb trees, and her trying her best, not caring about the green bark marks on her new t-shirt. Her trying to push him into nettles in the shady grove of pine trees where the sunlight slanted down in knives, and him wrestling her back, and her smile as she told him how her friends raised their eyebrows when she told them about the things they did together.
Eventually, the woods sloped away on either side and they were walking along a ridge, looking down on wide expanses of corn fields on either side, interspersed here and there with vivid reds of poppies or the yellows of rape seed. They walked along here with Judith lagging behind and Michael setting the pace, waiting for her here and there, and spurring her on.
After another twenty minutes, a few trees began to litter the path again and the road became enclosed by hedgerows. They passed a few large houses, scattered along the road in their solitude. There were no cars standing outside and both Michael and Judith were reluctant to go into the properties to look for a garage, the memory of dead neighbors still fresh in Michael’s mind. They walked on and looked away as they passed a coach that seemed to be growing out of a splintered tree by the roadside, unmoving people sitting wide-eyed as birds flew in and out of the shattered windows.
They left the houses behind and after a while, came upon a T-junction where a lonesome sign pointed them in the right direction. They pressed on, meeting no one and nothing. There were no cars, and the only thing that moved was the breeze that rippled the grass, and the flowers that drooped under the heavy rays of the sun.
They were tiring now as the sun beat down on them; their sweat-saturated clothes making every step feel like five. A sign beside a clump of trees told them of a village. As they reached the trees, Judith collapsed onto the grass verge, her concerns of dirty clothes now long forgotten. Michael shrugged the holdall off his shoulder and rubbed the red strap mark it had pressed into his skin. He sat down next to Judith, his arms aching from the weight of the tins in the carrier bags.
For a while, they sat in the silence, trying to catch their breaths under the shade of branches. There was one can of drink left in their supplies. Michael licked his dry lips. “Hey, it looks like we’re down to our last drink. I don’t know why the hell we didn’t bring more.”
Judith wiped sweat from her forehead. “Yes I do not know either, and don’t say hell. This horrible weather, this is England, why on earth is it so warm?”
Michael smiled and passed the can to Judith. “Here, it’s going to be warm and horrible, but you can have the first drink.”
Judith reached out lazily for the drink, lacking the energy to move closer and take the can from Michael’s outstretched hand, forcing him to shift nearer to her to pass the drink across.
As Judith drank, Michael took stock of where they were. Across the road lay the edges of a thick and dense wood, and, behind them, more trees. They were on the outskirts of the village and a crumbling footpath began a few meters further down the road and led into the village, before disappearing out of sight around a bend in the road hidden by the trees. A house stood on the far corner, set back from the road like a guardian of the bend that led into the village. Michael squinted against the sun, looking for a car in the driveway, but all he saw was an un-kept front garden enclosed by an uneven wooden fence.
Judith handed the drink to Michael. He drank the few mouthfuls she had saved for him and then threw the can behind him into the trees. Judith said nothing.
“I think we should go look in that house across the road, there’s bound to be some food and drink in there. I can’t see a car, but you never know.”
Michael began to rise, but immediately sat back down again, dizzy with the heat.
“We’ll go in a minute though, after we’ve had a rest, I’m…”
“Shhh!” Judith cut in sharply, her eyebrows furrowed in a look of deep concern, a finger clasped to her mouth as though Michael were a child she was telling to be quiet.
Michael sat silently but could hear nothing. “What is it?” he whispered, his voice hoarse from his dry throat.
“Shhh.” Judith repeated. “Listen.”
Michael cocked his head and listened to the breeze as it crept through the leaves of the trees. “I can’t hear anything…”
Suddenly, the wind picked up and carried with it a man’s voice, shouting through the trees.
“It sounds like it’s coming from around the bend in the road there.”
Judith stood up and brushed herself down. “Well I don’t like it. I think we should go back where we came from,” she whispered.
Michael thought for a minute. “We can’t go back now; we’ve been walking for hours.”
He looked around, trying to assess their options. There was nowhere to go but back down the hot road, or onwards and around the corner. Whilst Michael deliberated, the shouting got louder, as though it were echoing from the trees themselves.
Michael stood up. “Right, I’ll go see what’s going on. Maybe someone is hurt, or it’s someone who can help us. You stay here and try and keep out of sight.”
Judith scratched at her neck. “Why do I have to stay here if it’s someone who needs our help? Where do you expect me to hide?”
Michael looked around again and was unable to spot any good hiding places. “I don’t know Judith, just stay here. Let me go look before we do anything else.”
Michael stepped into the shadow of the trees, leaving the bags behind with Judith. Thin streams of light spilt through the roof of glowing leaves and dark shadows cut across the earth. He could not help but remember the dead dog he had found in the copse, and the man with him who had ended his own life. He shuddered and was glad he had left the rifle behind with Judith, so that there was no chance he would have to use it. He had the knife for protection if he needed it, and he patted the waistband of his jeans, checking it was still safely tucked away there.
Jim’s singing began to play through his mind as his fingers felt the cool metal. ‘Run rabbit run, rabbit run run run’.
The words repeating over and over, getting louder and louder, until Michael thought they were a part of the shouting. It was becoming clearer as he made his way through the woods.
Michael ducked under a branch, a cobweb clinging to his face, and he halted for a moment, spluttering as he tried to wipe it away and out of his mouth. The soft earth tried to hold his shoes in its spongy grip and the dry twigs tried to warn of his approach as they snapped underfoot.
As he struggled, he kicked a stone by accident and it rattled away to ping against an empty and rusted beer can.
‘Run rabbit run.’
Michael crouched now, sweating with heat and pressure as he crept forward towards the noise that seemed to echo from the trees.
He crept onwards and after a few minutes, he could make out the road through the trees ahead. He had managed to cut across the bend and was about to come out on the other side. The shouting was clear now, and as he maneuvered to the left of a tree, the source of the noise entered his field of vision. A man with a backpack grasped in one hand, stood in front of a four by four, his back to the vehicle as he waved something away with his other hand. Michael was no more than twenty feet away now, and he dropped to his stomach and crawled as close as he dared through the soft earth.
A second man stood beside the car, holding on to a small girl with one hand, and a cricket bat with the other. The girl stood crying as the men argued. Neither one seemed to pay any attention to her as she wiped her tears over her mud stained dress.
Michael crawled forwards until he had a clear view of the whole scene. The first man pointed towards the girl. “What kind of example are you setting here? She’s going to think it is ok to wave cricket bats at people because she’s seen her daddy doing it!”
The second man took a step towards the first, dragging the girl along like a doll. “You shut the hell up about my daughter! What the fuck do you know about her, about us?”
Michael was close enough now to see the whites of this man’s eyes and the spittle that flew from his red mouth. The girl sniffed and wiped a trail of snot from her nose. The music in Michael’s head was drowned out now by the shouting.
The first man spoke again. “I’m not going to take you with me if you’re going to wave that bat around! For God’s sake. I mean, I don’t even know who you are!”
“Don’t know who I am? I don’t know you from Adam. I’m keeping this bat; if you’d seen what they did to her mother, you would understand why. It was lucky I had my bat with me then, I tell you!”
The first man backed up towards the car, noticing the red stains on the wooden bat at the same time as Michael did.
The second man was speaking again. “Just give me the fucking keys; I’ll drive us all somewhere safe. I’m just trying to protect my daughter, that’s all.”
The first man put down his backpack and took a slow step towards the other, both hands outstretched in front of him as a peace offering as he said quietly, “Look, I understand, but you cannot threaten people in order to protect others…If you would just put down the bat…”
An ant crawled across Michael’s nose. He did not dare breathe to blow it away, instead, he dug his hands into the earth to stop himself scratching his nose and giving himself away. Once the ant had climbed down from his nose and ran off across the ground, Michael turned his attention back to the two men and the little girl.
The first man advanced slowly, his arms still outstretched. “Please, just calm down…” He laid a hand on the bat and tried to lower it, keeping his eyes averted from the second man’s as he did so.
The second man let his bat be lowered slowly. He was unsure of what to do, until he saw the first man glance momentarily in the direction of his daughter. Then he brought the bat up suddenly, and with force, into the first man’s chin. A hollow crack sent a tooth spinning away into the trees. “Looking at my daughter? You bastard, what the hell is your game?”
The first man stumbled against the car, his hands feeling clumsily for a door handle to steady himself against. He spluttered, but was unable to speak through a mouthful of blood. He could only put his hand up for protection, but it was the wrong thing to do and the second man swung the bat against his head with a soft thlock sound, followed by a thud as the first man’s head bounced off the side of the vehicle and his body slid to the floor.
Michael was breathing like a race horse as he pressed his whole body against the soft ground. The second man stood over the body of the first. There was a gash along the side of the floored man’s forehead which did not look so bad until sudden blood seeped through the wound and through the man’s hair and down his cheek to flow over his skin into a sticky puddle on the floor which spread ever outwards from his head, slipping away with the man’s life.
The girl screamed. Her hand had come loose from her father’s and she turned and ran into the woods, thundering past just a few feet away from where Michael was lying. The second man peered down at the body, then raced off into the woods after his daughter. He dropped the bat.
“Holly, come back, Holly!” he called, as he ran after her, crashing into the undergrowth.
Michael pressed himself against the ground as hard as he could, until he thought he might suffocate there.
The sounds of the pursuit quickly receded into the distance and action took hold of Michael. He sprang to his feet and stumbled through the woods and out onto the road as if in a dream. He ran across to the injured man and crouched beside him.
Everything felt surreal as Michael pressed his hands against the wound on the side of the man’s head. He could feel nothing; his hands were numb, as was his mind. He caught the man’s blank stare and he gasped and fell backwards. Michael wiped his hands across his forehead, only just feeling the warm blood. He glanced at his hands and saw they were red with blood that ran down and along his wrists. He wiped them furiously on his trousers and turned his attention back to the injured man.
The man had not moved, and Michael did his best to feel for a pulse as his hands slipped over the man’s blood-slicked neck. Michael could not find a pulse, and retched at the touch of the dead man’s flesh, holding his hand to his mouth, and realizing too late that he had smeared blood across his lips. He spat and looked up suddenly, thinking he had heard a noise in the woods. The man with the cricket bat was returning.
Michael took quick stock of the situation, then thrust his hand into the dead man’s trouser pocket, where he found the car keys.
Judith was worried. There had been silence now for a few minutes and Michael had not returned. Now there was the sound of a car starting up from around the corner and then the sound of an engine growing louder, as though it was coming her way. She stood up and tried to get behind the nearest tree, but before she could, a four by four rounded the bend and skidded to a stop in the road beside her.
Michael shouted at her from the vehicle. “Judith, hurry up, quickly, get the bags!” Judith reached for a single bag and Michael jumped out of the vehicle to collect the others, causing Judith to shriek as she saw the blood on his clothes.
“Be quiet!” Michael hissed, as a cry echoed from where the dead man lay.
“Hurry up Judith, get in, for God’s sake!”
Judith did not argue as Michael took her by the arm and pushed her into the car. She sat in the passenger seat, almost used to being in a state of shock now. Michael’s handprint shone in blood on her arm and she watched the way the red bled into the pink of her skin, like oil into water, as the car moved away.
A Departure is available now from Amazon.com and Crooked Cat Publishing
Tom Ward: 22 year old aspiring writer. Film lover, traveller and musician in spare time. Just graduated from Newcastle University with a 2:1 in English Lit and Lang. Published in Alliterati, Friction, Inc Magazine, and of course, Drunk Monkeys. Professional shark puncher.