Midwinter: read chapter 1

The Survivalist watched the headlamps as the car came up from the town.

It turned onto the road that ran like a belt round the hillside, passed the old barn and accelerated on its way towards the moor, its tail lights glowing UFO-like for a moment before disappearing over the crest. The throb of the engine died away. The quiet of a cold, late-autumn night descended on the hillside again.

He pulled his army-surplus jacket more tightly around him and sank back into the old armchair. From where he sat, on the porch in front of his tumbledown home, the view opened out eastwards across a wide swathe of country. The land fell away towards the town, which crouched in the distance, butted up against the cold enormity of the North Sea.

His house was the last dwelling remaining from a terrace built for quarry workers more than a century ago. The old quarry sat to the rear, beyond a stretch of scrubland that ran for a short distance before rising to a ridge. The Survivalist had chosen this location because of its isolation. The only practical access was a gravelly track that cut diagonally up the hillside from the road, in the lee of a strip of Scots pine. No one could come up the track without him knowing. Nothing would catch him unawares. He imagined himself a kestrel hovering in an updraft, attentive to any sudden movement below. He didn’t like surprises and he didn’t like most people. Experience had taught him that surprises and the people he liked least usually came as a package.

On the road below, the lights of another vehicle sliced through the darkness. A van on its way down from the moor. Somewhere in the woods to the right, a fox screeched.

The Survivalist took out his tobacco tin and started to roll a cigarette, his long fingers quickly forming paper and loose tobacco into a perfect cylinder. He dug into his pocket for matches and cupped his hands to light the roll-up. At his feet, embers glowed in a brazier made from an old butane gas canister cut in half. Above his head, rain pattered on the corrugated plastic sheets that formed the roof.

He blew smoke into the black sky and smiled to himself, thinking of the day’s developments. A deal involving a chain of different parties had fallen into place. Everything had gone smoothly. One result from the transaction was tucked into his jacket, nestling against his side. He couldn’t resist taking it out and admiring it for the twentieth time that evening. A sleek 9mm matt-black Beretta pistol. It had only a few minor scratches on the grip and marks where the serial number had been filed off. He practised releasing the magazine and sliding it back in. The heavy click it made was deeply satisfying. In the morning, he decided, he would go up onto the moor to let off a few rounds. He placed the weapon on the arm of the chair where he could look at it.

His preparations were advancing, and not too soon. The Great Collapse was coming closer. He could feel it.

It was in the dying ecosystems and warming oceans and how the seasons were no longer predictable: either blazing hot or raining in torrents in summer, whereas in winter the farms and towns were flooded and huge waves battered the coast. It was signalled by the charlatans people elected nowadays. Politicians who promised easy answers but were really only concerned with what they could grab for themselves. It was in the willingness of people to believe such con men, and usually they were men. All people really wanted was to be seduced one last time and then put out of their misery. The Survivalist snorted contemptuously. Society was breaking down, though most people remained oblivious. Sooner or later the pressures would build up to the point where they could no longer be contained. Disintegration would be sudden and dramatic. The Survivalist grinned. He was ready. He was even looking forward to it. He would enjoy watching the flames take hold and the smoke rising from the town.

The rain started to fall harder. More headlights appeared below. Another car coming up from the town. The Survivalist watched disinterestedly. He fed some offcuts into the brazier. Then he sat up straight. The car had slowed down. Whoever was behind the wheel was looking for the half-concealed gap in the hedge. Sure enough, the driver spotted it and pulled into the bottom of the track. The engine cut out and the headlights were extinguished.

The Survivalist reached for his military night-vision binoculars. He flicked away the roll-up and stood to get a better view.

In the luminous green spectrum he saw the figure of a man get out of the car and fiddle with something at crotch level. A beam of light from a torch shot sideways and then downwards.

The Survivalist pulled the hood of his jacket over his head. He dropped an old metal dustbin lid on the brazier to kill the light from the fire, picked up the gun from the armchair and slipped it into his jacket.

He looked again through the binoculars. The man’s white heat-shape reached into the car, pulling out something bulky.

For a moment the figure stood still, as if pondering what to do. Then with the torch fixed on the ground in front of him, he started to move.

He was coming up to the house.

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