“Dawn of the Dead meets Benefits Street”
— Nathan Robinson (author of Starers)
Nobody knows where they have come from. The police are powerless to stop them. Everyone trapped inside the Meadowside shopping centre is on their own, with no hope of rescue. With the whole of Yorkshire under attack, they are the lucky ones.
Kylie and her friends from the council estate are shoplifting in Sportswear Direct when Meadowside is invaded by thousands of crazed killers with a taste for human flesh. Fighting to survive, she must choose who is most likely to be able to save her — an off duty policewoman, an aging skinhead in his sixties, or a psychotic football hooligan with a chainsaw.
Marcus Blakeston takes his usual mix of characters from the underclass and stirs them into a near-future post-apocalyptic setting. Not for the faint hearted or easily offended, Meadowside contains graphic violence and swearing throughout.
Wilson Duppoint pulled the key from the ignition and stepped out of his silver BMW into the torrential rain. Silently cursing his luck at having to park so far away from the shopping centre entrance, he hurried across the car park. Stinging rain thudded against his back, plastering his thin white shirt against his skin like a cold, clammy sponge. It poured down his bald head and dripped from his nose. He licked his lips. The rainwater had an odd chemical taste he couldn’t quite place, a bit like licking a battery but without the mild electric shock.
The constant hammering of cold water droplets against his head brought on a dull, throbbing pain between his temples. He could feel it getting worse with each step he took. The chemist would need to be his first port of call, he decided. Some Nurofen would soon sort him out, then he could hit the rest of the shops pain-free and concentrate on finding the perfect anniversary gift for his wife.
A blinding flash of white light filled his vision. A pain more intense than anything he had ever felt before lanced through his skull. He had a sudden urge to look up at the sky, and did so. He didn’t blink. Not even when huge drops of water pounded into his eyes. He stood immobile, letting the rain wash over his face. The pain melted away.
Then he heard the sound. Awful, harsh. Like the squeal of a thousand dying rats fed through an echo chamber on a continuous loop. He knew he had to find whatever was causing that sound and silence it. He growled low in his throat as he looked around for its source. He sniffed the air. There were others nearby, he could sense them. They shuffled together, slow and methodical, making for a glass-fronted building close by.
Wilson Duppoint staggered forward to join them, his legs stiff and unresponsive as if he had forgotten how to walk. As he approached the building he could see things moving around inside. The things that were making that awful noise. A swarm of them, mocking him with their incessant screeches. He bared his teeth and hissed at them to stop. Others nearby joined in his call. Together they would silence them. Tear them apart. Destroy them.
There was another urge too. It was just the faint glimmer of an idea at first, but soon became an all-encompassing primal yearning. He wanted to know what they tasted like.
Kylie knew she had to have those yellow Nike trainers as soon as she saw them on the shelf in Sportswear Direct. They were the best trainers she had ever seen, Trisha and her gang of skanks on the council estate would go mental when they saw her wearing them. They’d be jealous as fuck, and so would everyone else.
Kylie plucked the trainers from the shelf and turned them around in her hands, admiring them from all angles. She ran her finger over the raised logo and smiled to herself. There was no doubt about it, she would look the fucking bomb wearing those. She sat down on a nearby padded bench and kicked off her skanky no-brand trainers, wishing it could be for the last time ever. Wishing she could toss them into a burning skip, never to see them again.
The amount of ribbing Kylie got from the other kids on the council estate over those horrible trainers was unbelievable. Like it was Kylie’s fault her mother would rather spend the child allowance on booze and ciggies. She’d begged for months and months for a proper pair of trainers, then got yelled at for not being grateful when her mother came home with those awful things instead.
Pumps, she called them. “There’s nothing wrong with pumps from the market, they’re just as good as the ones you want. You should be fucking grateful, I didn’t have to buy them, you know, and I never got nothing like this when I was your age.”
Yeah well, she wasn’t the one who had to wear them out in public. But Kylie was going to put that right soon enough. She glanced at Tom and Mike, who were running around the shop dribbling a basketball to each other, attracting the overweight security guard’s attention. That just left the cameras to worry about.
The security guard told Tom and Mike to pack it in and get out of his shop. Tom laughed and told the man to piss off. The security guard made a grab for the basketball, but Tom and Mike ran rings around him, passing the ball back and forth between them and laughing at the fat man’s clumsy ineptitude.
Kylie smiled. It was definitely worth blowing out her dad for his weekly Saturday afternoon access time to go to Meadowside with Tom and the others. She was getting a bit too old for visits to the local zoo anyway. Who wants to go and look at miserable-looking smelly animals with some old geezer when you can have fun like this with your mates instead? Dad would just have to get used to the idea Kylie wasn’t a little kid any more.
Kylie dropped the new trainers and slid her feet into them. They were a perfect fit, just like she knew they would be. She stared down at them, rotating her ankles to get a better look. They were the fucking bomb all right. She bent down and tied the laces, then straightened up to see what the trainers were like for walking. It was like walking on air.
Kylie made her way through Sportswear Direct, past displays of tennis racquets, golf clubs and hockey sticks, into the clothing area. Britney was there with her Spongebob Squarepants backpack, looking a lot fatter than she had when they first entered the shop together. Britney winked when she saw Kylie walking toward her. Kylie nodded back and made for a full-length mirror. She turned around and craned her neck over her shoulder, trying to see what the new trainers looked like from the rear.
“Nice shoes,” Britney said. Kylie turned and smiled. She looked at Britney’s over-stuffed pink tracksuit and wondered what goodies it contained. “They look like they’d be good for running, yeah?”
Kylie shrugged and looked down at the yellow trainers, suddenly afraid of the consequences if she got caught stealing them. She remembered the last time she had been caught shoplifting. That look of fear on her mother’s face at the sight of a police officer on the doorstep. The mixture of relief, fury and disappointment when she realised they weren’t there for her. And then the beating Kylie got for bringing police to the house. She didn’t want to go through all that again. But at the same time she knew she would never hear the last of it from Britney if she bottled out now.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said with a frown.
Britney winked. “Well come on then, let’s test them out, yeah?”
Britney turned and strode away. She waved to Tom and Mike, who were still dodging around the security guard with the basketball. Mike nodded, then they both lured the security guard further into the shop while Britney made for the exit.
Kylie looked up at a security camera and sighed. Her heart hammered in her chest at the thought of being caught again, but she was determined not to let her fear show. She closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing until she could get her racing heart under control. She jumped at a loud clatter and looked around. Tom or Mike had thrown the basketball at a display of golf clubs and knocked them off the shelf. The security guard shouted at them, red-faced, while he picked the golf clubs up. Tom and Mike ran for the exit together.
An alarm sounded when Britney passed through the shop’s security barrier. Its shrill, piercing siren made Kylie jump again. She ran for the exit herself, her arms pumping by her sides.
“Oi, you lot,” the security guard shouted. Kylie could hear the man’s laboured breath behind her as he gave chase.
Kylie ran like she’d never run before. Even on that cross-country run a few months ago when her sadistic PE teacher had been right behind her shouting abuse like some world war two army drill instructor she hadn’t run this fast. Her lungs felt like they were on fire, and a pain in her side felt like someone had stabbed her with a red-hot poker, but she didn’t dare stop running. She darted around bemused shoppers, following Tom and the others as they veered left onto another concourse, then barged past people on the escalator down to ground level. She ran past the bronze war memorial statue and the wishing fountain where people with more money than sense tossed their unwanted pound coins, then into the big department store near the train station exit.
Britney, Tom and Mike were laughing when she caught them up. They had slowed to a casual saunter past rows of clothing designed for old women. Frumpy purple dresses nobody in their right mind would want to be seen dead in. Silly hats like the ones the posh people wore when they went for a day at the horse racing. Awful green cardigans for grannies too senile to know any better.
Britney pulled a green and yellow hat with a floral design from a shelf and placed it on her head at an angle. “Look at me,” she said, spinning before Tom and Mike, “I’m a fucking lady.”
Tom laughed and shook his head. “Girl, you’re no fucking lady.”
“Piss off,” Britney said, pouting. “I am too a fucking lady.” She took off the hat and tossed it away.
Kylie panted, desperate to get her breath back. She bent over and clutched her aching sides.
“Check it out, I’m a fucking lady too,” Tom said in a high-pitched voice.
Kylie looked up and couldn’t help smiling. Tom had a big floppy pink hat on his head, with a matching pink fluffy scarf draped over his shoulders. He pinched the chest of his Adidas T-shirt in both hands and stretched it out, forming pointy breasts.
“We should … we should get … going for the train,” Kylie said. “Before … we get caught by … that security guard.”
“Nah,” Britney said. “He’ll have given up long ago, the fat ones always do. Besides, if he chased us for too long everyone else in the shop would run off with loads of stuff so it wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Even so …”
“Fucking intense, weren’t it, Kylie?” Tom said. “And them new trainers of yours look fucking smart.”
Kylie looked down at her new trainers and smiled. They’d got a bit scuffed from the run and had lost a bit of their new-shop shine, but they still looked good. She lifted them in turn and polished them on the back of her tracksuit bottoms. Then she remembered her old trainers were still in the shop. She looked up at Tom, her eyes wide.
“We need to take them back, say it was a mistake or something.”
“What? Don’t be daft, what would be the point of that?”
“But I left my old ones behind, they’ll know they’re mine.”
Tom snorted. “What, like in fucking Cinderella or something? What are they going to do, take them round the council estate and see who they fit?”
“They might have DNA in them, or fingerprints? Footprints, even.”
“So what? They still wouldn’t have anything to match it with, would they?” Tom took off the pink hat and placed it on Kylie’s head. It was way too big for her, and flopped down over her eyes. “There you go Kylie,” he said, “you’re a proper fucking lady now, too. So stop worrying.”
Kylie lifted the brim of the hat over her eyes and smiled at Tom. That was the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her, and she wanted to reach out and grab him, plant a massive kiss on those lips of his.
But Tom turned away before she could do it. “Come on then Lady Kylie, let’s get fucked off out of here,” he said, walking toward the exit. Mike and Britney followed him, hand in hand. Kylie took off the hat and put it back on the shelf when a woman at a nearby till glared at her. She smiled at the woman and shrugged, then hurried to catch Tom up.
It was raining outside, a heavy downpour that bounced off the pavement. Black clouds filled the sky.
“I ain’t going out in that, it’s fucking pissing it down,” Britney said, pulling off her Spongebob Squarepants backpack. “We’ll get fucking soaked if we go out there.”
“Yeah, fuck that,” Mike said, shaking his head. “We’ll wait until it stops.”
Hidden behind Tom and Mike, Britney pulled out the clothes she had stuffed inside her pink tracksuit and transferred them to her backpack. She had gone for top designer brands, and Kylie sighed when she saw their labels. Britney was sure to be the envy of the entire council estate when she wore those, and Kylie’s new trainers would barely get a second glance next to them.
“Look at that daft bastard,” Mike said, pointing.
A bedraggled-looking man stood outside, looking up at the sky. Rain bounced off his face, but he didn’t seem to care.
Tom laughed. “Oi mate, you’re getting wet,” he shouted through the door. If the man heard Tom from outside, he didn’t acknowledge it. Tom shook his head, grinning, then turned to Kylie. “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m with Mike and Britney. No way am I going out in that. We’ll wait and see if it eases off first.”
“So what are we going to do then?” Kylie asked.
Tom smiled and took her hand. “Let’s go and see what’s on at the cinema. I’ve got a mate who works there, he’ll get us in for free.”
Amy Saunders couldn’t believe her luck. For over five years her and Ryan had been trying for a baby, with nothing but monthly heartbreak to show for it. Something wrong with her fallopian tubes, the doctor explained, but Amy was too busy sobbing into her hands to listen to the details. It was Ryan, stoic as ever, who asked what their options were.
The doctor suggested IVF, and Amy looked up with renewed hope, wiping the tears from her eyes. But that hope was soon dashed when the doctor said she was too old to qualify for NHS treatment. He was, however, more than happy for her to proceed as a private patient, and rubbed his hands with glee when Ryan said money wasn’t an issue.
The treatment failed, and Amy wept into Ryan’s arms when they were told none of the embryos produced were viable enough to be implanted. Most had simply stopped growing in the lab’s incubator, something Amy was told was common. Those that survived all had chromosomal abnormalities, and had been destroyed.
Undeterred, Ryan took on a second job, working a combined total of fifteen hours per day, seven days per week. With Amy’s own job, working in the offices of a meat processing plant, they hardly saw each other. They scrimped and saved, and sold anything they could do without, so they could pay for another round of IVF six months later.
The second treatment also failed, so they took out a secured loan to pay for a third, putting their home up as security. This time, miraculously, it was a success, and Ryan had fussed over Amy non-stop ever since. If Ryan had his way Amy would have been confined to bed for the entire pregnancy, with doctors and nurses on hand twenty-four hours a day.
But Amy knew better. She had read all the information in the New Mother’s Welcome Pack she picked up at the chemist, and knew she could carry on working for at least another seven months, maybe even longer. Which was just as well, considering the amount of debt they were in, and all the new things they would need to buy for the forthcoming baby.
And now here Amy was, in Mothercare, looking at baby-grows, buying last minute items in preparation for the big day. Just two more weeks and the round lump Ryan had christened Bumpy would be cradled in her arms wearing one of these outfits. The nursery was all prepared, decked out with the best equipment they could afford. They hadn’t wanted to know Bumpy’s sex, they wanted it to be a surprise, so the nursery had been decorated with neutral colours, the cot mobile chosen because of its genderless dangling farm animals.
A baby-grow with green scales caught Amy’s eye and she picked it up, smiling at how cute the gurgling baby on the packaging looked wearing the outfit. The baby looked like a tiny smiling dinosaur, with built-in scratch-mitts designed to look like claws, and a hooded crown-cap with large buggy eyes printed on the sides. There was even a small tail growing out of the back of it, with a bright yellow triangle of soft material at its tip. Ryan would love this one, Amy decided. He was like a big kid himself as far as dinosaurs were concerned.
“You’ll love it too, won’t you Bumpy?” Amy said, rubbing her hand over her distended stomach. As if in reply, the baby wriggled inside her. Amy smiled. “That’s good enough for me.”
She hummed a tune to herself as she took the baby-grow to the pay desk. Then a movement outside the shop caught her eye. She turned to look. A small group of people ran by. Amy shrugged and turned back to the counter. She placed the dinosaur baby-grow down in front of the young woman who stood there.
“Oh, that’s so cute,” the shop assistant said, scanning a barcode on the packaging. “How long have you got now?”
“A couple of weeks,” Amy said, smiling. “I’ve already started having Braxton Hicks, and I can’t wait.”
The woman smiled back as she placed the baby-grow in a carrier bag. Amy took out her purse and paid for it, then took the bag and turned to leave.
“Bye then,” the shop assistant said, “have a nice day.”
“You too,” Amy said, still smiling to herself.
A woman ran by outside the shop, casting furtive glances over her shoulder as she ran. She looked terrified of something. Amy stopped and watched the woman through Mothercare’s shop-front window until she was out of sight. More people ran past, shouting and screaming. Amy glanced quizzically at the shop assistant, who just shrugged in reply.
Amy turned back to the window. A middle-aged bald man in a blood-specked white shirt stared in at her. His hands were bloody, his face too. His eyes were wild and staring, as if he were in shock.
“Are you okay?” Amy asked, raising her voice.
The man lunged at the shop window with a snarl. Amy startled, then stepped back in horror as he hit the glass face first with a dull thud. His head bounced off the glass and he staggered back a few steps before launching himself forward again. His nose shattered against the glass. He reared back for another charge and left behind a dripping red smear.
Amy screamed. She backed away, unable to take her eyes off the man as he repeatedly launched himself at the window, impervious to the pain he must be causing himself. She dropped the shopping bag and raised a hand to her mouth.
Blood poured down the man’s face as he continued battering his head against the window. Then he stopped and pounded on it with his bloody fists instead. The window shuddered in its frame with each blow. He bared his teeth and snarled like a dog. He stared in at Amy with malevolent, bloodshot eyes, then resumed banging his head against the glass.
Amy didn’t know how much more of this punishment the window would take. She didn’t understand why the man hadn’t already rendered himself senseless from the repeated blows to his head. And why didn’t he just walk through the door instead?
An ice-cold shock of fear ran down Amy’s spine. She spun to face the shop assistant in panic.
“The door!” Amy shouted, her eyes wide. “You need to lock the door!”
The assistant stared past her, open-mouthed, at the man pounding on the window. Amy walked up to her and shook her by the shoulders.
“You need to lock the door before he gets in!”
The assistant shuddered, then blinked several times. She shook her head slowly. “What?” she asked, her voice barely audible over the noise the man outside was making.
“The door,” Amy yelled. “Where are the keys?”
“The … keys …?”
“Yes, the keys. Where are they?”
“I … they’re in my pocket.”
Amy released the woman’s shoulders and reached into her uniform’s left hip pocket while she stood immobile, staring past her, her face deathly white. Amy pulled out a bunch of keys and looked at them. They were labelled main door, alarm, store room and staff toilets. She shuffled the main door key to the fore, and turned back to the shop front.
The window shattered inwards. The man stumbled and fell into the shop. He writhed around on the carpeted floor, glass shards tearing through his clothes and slicing into his flesh. Amy and the shop assistant both screamed simultaneously. The man snarled through blood-stained teeth and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Glass sliced through his wrists and sent red arterial blood spurting. He crawled toward Amy and the girl, leaving a thick trail of blood behind him.
Amy backed away, brandishing the keys at the man as if they somehow held the power to stop his advance. She sensed, rather than saw, a movement behind her. The shop assistant ran past, heading for the entrance door. She wrenched it open and ran out—
—straight into the grasping hands of another man lurking there.
She cried out and beat at the man’s head with her fists, raked her fingernails down his face. The man snarled and lashed out at her, knocking her sideways into the window frame. A jagged shard of glass still clinging to the frame pierced her neck and her screams turned into a choking gurgle as she coughed blood. The man grabbed her shoulders and pulled her down. The glass shard tore up through her neck, then came loose from the window frame and fell with her.
The man dropped down to his knees and pulled out the large sliver of glass, slicing through his own fingers as he did so. He threw the glass to one side and lowered his mouth to the gaping wound in the girl’s neck. He slurped and smacked, drinking the life-force pumping from her veins with relish.
Amy watched it all from inside the shop. She trembled in fear, frozen in place, unable to tear her eyes away from the horror outside. Her legs turned to jelly. She reached out for the counter to steady herself. Something warm and wet ran down her legs and soaked into the carpet. Amy didn’t have time to worry what that meant. A snarl came from close behind her, to her right. The man in the suit crawled toward her, a look of determination on his battered and bloody face.
“Help me,” Amy yelled when she saw someone running by outside the shop. But the running figure didn’t even look in her direction.
The man in the doorway looked up and hissed. The shop assistant’s blood dripped from his chin as he locked eyes with Amy. He stumbled to his feet and stepped through the broken window, his arms swinging by his sides.
Amy backed further into the shop, unable to look away. Something dug into her back. She cried out and spun around, fearing the worst, expecting to come face to face with another psycho lurking within the shop. Expecting her life to end at any moment in a savage attack she would be powerless to defend herself from. But it was just a clothes rail, filled with coat-hangers displaying brightly-coloured maternity dresses.
Amy reached out and grabbed the clothes rail to steady herself. She felt it move on tiny wheels as she leaned against it. The man lumbered toward her. As he got closer he reached out with both hands, his fingers grasping. Amy backed away, edging herself around the clothes rail. When she reached its far side she pushed it as hard as she could in the man’s direction. The man hissed in anger when the clothes rail collided with him. His hands flailed at the maternity dresses, pulling them from their hangers. One wrapped around his face and he roared as he thrashed around, trying to free himself from it.
Amy ran to the back of the shop, where she saw a solid wooden door bearing the sign Staff Only. She pressed down on the door’s handle frantically. Then cried out in frustration and banged her fist on the door when it refused to open. Angry snarls came from behind, the sound of coat-hangers clashing together, garments ripping.
Amy remembered the keys she had taken from the shop assistant, and uncurled her fingers from them. Her hands shook as she located the store room key and inserted it in the lock. The key turned impossibly slowly, as if time were coming to a standstill. Amy wrenched down the handle and stumbled through into the store room, almost losing her footing. She tried to pull the key from the lock but it was stuck.
The man was close. Very close. Amy was sure she could feel his breath on the back of her neck as he hissed and snarled at her. She screamed and tugged at the key. She glanced over her shoulder. The man was even closer than she thought, only a few feet away. Wide-eyed and hysterical, Amy wrenched the key from the lock and slammed the door behind her just as the man lunged at the doorway.
But the door wouldn’t close. The man’s fingers curled around its edge, trapped in the doorway, flexing and unflexing. Amy pulled the door open a couple of inches and slammed it back. Bones crunched and the fingers stopped moving, but the door still wouldn’t close fully. The man hissed again. Amy heard scratching sounds, as if he were trying to claw his way through the wood. She leaned her shoulder against the door and pushed with all her might, barging it into place. A severed finger slithered down the door and dropped by her feet. The others hung down from flaps of skin holding them in place. The man pounded on the door, his guttural snarl turning into a wail of anger.
Amy put the key in the lock and twisted it. She leaned back against the door and slumped down to her knees, sobbing with her head in her hands while the man’s pounding vibrated through her back.
Then her stomach tightened, like the worst menstrual cramps she had ever felt. She cried out and clutched herself. Tears ran down her face as she panted through the pain, knowing there was a lot worse to come.