Tuesday, 20 May 2008
It looked like thistledown. Manning thought of that immediately, but it was all over the garden. The Spring weather must have blown it into the garden was what he thought at first. He made the tea and took it up to Shirley. Only when he'd drawn back the bathroom curtains did he realise that there was such a lot of it. The 'thistledown' was all over the place. All along the back he saw, the gardens were thick with it. It was almost as if someone had forgotten to dust the gardens or dare he believe it, as if it had snowed. He washed, shaved and went back to Shirley.
"There's thistledown all over the back. The gardens are covered in the stuff," he told her.
Shirley sighed and turned over to face him, her face rosy, warm and sweet with sleep. He wanted to kiss her then, there seemed something so soft about her.
"There aren't any thistles around here," she said sleepily.
"There must be. I'm telling you Shirley it's everywhere. It's like a blizzard of thistledown out there," he insisted.
He was not quite sure why he had insisted on it being 'thistledown' particularly, but the stuff bothered him. He was not sure why it bothered him either. But when he'd walked out of the house that morning with Shirley he felt that the 'thistledown' was somehow malevolent. He could not have explained why.
His work in the city kept him busy and he thought no more about it until four of his 'team' did not return after lunch. Of Statham he could believe it, the man was always grumbling about work, but Grimwade, Jackie Sellers and Lindsey he did not expect it. He called Jackie on her mobile phone, but there was no answer at all.
Manning could be a little prissy and he knew it, so this time he just got on with the job. He made a mental note to talk to the four about it when they returned. They did not return all afternoon. He phoned Shirley and talked to her about it. She seemed puzzled by something at her end and was then cut off. He knew something was wrong when he went for coffee later and other people were talking. Apparently thirty-eight people had not returned from lunch and were not answering their phones. Suddenly Manning felt a thrill of terror. He went back to his desk and phoned Shirley again. There was no sound at all. The phone had been cut off. People in the office were speculating; was it a bomb? Had the 'thistledown' got into the electrics and fouled them up?
It was at that point Manning noticed the talk of the 'thistledown'. He drew the talk back to the subject of the 'thistledown'. It seemed that it had appeared everywhere overnight. Nobody was aware of any thistles, but the 'thistledown' was everywhere nonetheless.
Manning was owed some time by the company, now he decided to take it. He left early and went down into the street. The city had not been affected by the 'thistledown' yet, but when he got to the train station, the trains out to the suburbs were cancelled.
"What is it now, eh - leaves on the line?" a man asked the station staff joking.
"It's a lot worse than that sir," the man answered, "some kind of plant roots have torn up the line altogether."
Manning went back into the city and hired a car. It turned out that he was lucky, it was the last car available. He drove out of the city towards Shirley's work. His mobile phone rang and he pulled off the road to answer it. It was Shirley.
"If you're in the city, stay there. Go and buy an axe, lots of aerosols, cigarette lighters and matches. Get plenty of food and stay there. Don't come for me, I'm fine. Oh, and stay away from the countryside. You'll have to get a hotel in the city. The 'thistledown' has seeded and sprouted. Stay away from it. The roots tear up the ground and the stems throttle everything. It's like a vine, but very fast growing. We're controlling it just about with fire and axes," she told him.
Manning suddenly remembered the feeling that the 'thistledown' was malevolent. Now he was frightened. He turned the car around and went back to the city. People were getting ready to leave in his office. He begged them not to, told them about what Shirley had said. They smiled indulgently and left. Manning could have wept. He went back out and into the city. He bought an axe, some kitchen knives, food and a whole case of cigarette lighters as well as some aerosol cans. He also bought three camping gas canisters. Then he went back to the office dragging the lot with him. He stayed in the office through the night, using his coat as a blanket. Nobody returned the following day.
For six days he lived in the office -- alone. He ventured out to buy a duvet and some pillows, but the shops were empty of people. He took what he needed and paid for it, working the credit card machine himself. On the seventh day, he could see people smashing shop windows and looting what they needed. Two days later, through the binoculars he'd got hold of, he saw the greenery. He began to weep but pulled himself together and set up traps to kill the plants. Vibrations, faint at first thrummed through the ground beneath him. He hid himself in his office with the axe and the aerosols. He'd used the gas canisters as booby traps for the plants. Late that evening, he heard sounds on the stairs and in the offices and curled up tight. Then his name was called and he went out to have a look. Shirley was there with a group - a different Shirley from the one he'd thought he'd married. This was a strong, fierce woman - an amazon. With her, he felt safe as if Shirley would know what to do. He told her about the traps he'd set for the plants and she sent three of the group to 'defuse' the traps.
"There's a simpler solution," she told him, "Weed killer."
He flopped on a chair and smiled. He looked up at her and she grinned until she burst out into laughter.
"As simple as that?" he asked in disbelief.
"Simple as that, darling," she answered.