It is time to walk, for we have eaten and she has slept and dinosaurs hunt at night. I didn’t dare sleep — not for fear of dinosaurs, or molten lava from the volcano. My fear was that Amy would wake and walk without me. And I would be left behind and stranded here. I have tried tying our wrists together with my scarf. But she just unpicks it.
Somehow I usually manage a little sleep with my arm around her, alert for the stirring of her warm, tiny body. If only I had prepared — with Mogadon or something. Perhaps the next place we arrive in will have something like that. And doctors to prescribe and pharmacists to dispense. Provided I can keep Amy still for long enough. It is always a struggle to make Amy do something against her will. Even then (given that I find doctors and nurses and pharmacists) there is the small matter of payment. I have no access to my money locked away in my ‘normal bank’ in ‘normal times’. And how would we register with a doctor of 1956 or 2035? How?
To survive in these worlds we walk through, we have to scavenge. Had I known about Amy’s wild talent, I would have prepared with supplies and useful tools. Of course you only find out things like that by doing them. And by then it is too late.
In her way, I think that Amy will miss the dinosaurs, especially the little ones that she was always trying to play with — despite their peevish snapping. They hurt her and she would cry out and run to me in anguish. But if I left her alone for one moment she would be back there again, gurgling happily as she tried to grab hold of one while it stood immobile and watched her with tiny, fearless eyes; its head on one side, and its jaws dripping saliva in anticipation. She never learns, you see. The consultant I took her to said she never would.
But what does he know?
Oddly enough, we haven’t seen any of the horrid, snapping things since yesterday when one bit her finger hard enough to make it bleed and she cried bewildered tears all day.
We still need to move on, though. There must be other dinosaurs that are just as curious about us. At least it’s quiet today. Wonder how long that will last?
In a way, Amy’s fascination for the dinosaurs is the preoccupation of a normal four year old. It would be fun to talk to her and laugh at their funny names and ponder why they disappeared. That would be too much to expect. The consultant was cruelly crystal-clear about that. “This is as much as she will ever do,” he said. I sought a second opinion, and a third. They had more to say about, ‘the spectrum’ and how she might surprise me with some ‘wild talent’. She did that. Only I don’t think by, ‘wild talent’ they meant, ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’. Or anything else outside twenty-first century England.
At least her wound’s not become infected. That’s another strange thing about Amy. She never gets ill. And cuts and bruises heal very fast.
As we walk, the mist clears and the primeval forest gives way to farmland.
That’s a more than welcome change. I wonder why the dinosaurs did die out?
This could be anywhere in Europe. And it’s impossible to tell whether it’s of our own time or of the past or future. Future or past, it’s all bleak — since I walked away from what, for me was normal life.
I let her run around in a field chasing butterflies, hoping that she will tire and rest again. She’s making snapping noises like the dinosaurs. She’s a gifted little mimic. When she runs she’s like a normal four year old girl. It gives me so much pleasure to see her run about. The consultants all agreed she’d never learn to walk and run. They were wrong there. She learned to walk all right.
Only when she walks, with that look of grim determination on her face, everything goes weird and scary. Scary for me, that is.
Amy doesn’t know fear. But I do. I fear for both of us. I’m terrified that we’ll be separated, and that she’ll be lost and come to harm.
But I’ve also got a more selfish fear — that I will one day be left behind, stranded a thousand miles and a million years from my own time with no prospect of return. Amy got us into this nightmare and only she can get us out of it.
And that is my third fear.
I fear this wandering will never end.
Mostly, though, I fear our life together will be cut short.
On a day by day basis, I fear hunger and thirst and the hurt that comes through ignorance. I’m not just talking about my own naïvety here — although that’s scary enough. I’m also terrified that when we finally walk into some place that has people, they’ll all be stupid and prejudiced — like our neighbours back home. Only without the protection the law provides in our era. In the place we just left, the dinosaurs were a very concrete fear, so was the volcano. When Amy walks, there are unknown dangers to be faced at every corner.
But it is the primitive in us all that scares me the most.
We must find food soon or leave this place. I can see though, that Amy’s not in the mood for walking. When the mood takes her, she will not stop. At first she was easier to control, and we mostly kept her indoors. People said we were over protective. They never understand what it is to have a special child. They say: “Look at that spoiled little girl. Some people aren’t fit to be parents.” When they said things like that, I didn’t know about the dangers of her walking, of course. I was just afraid of her wandering off. She was always trying to. Always climbing over the back of the sofa and up on to the bureau. As she got older, her wandering became a problem, and we had to lock the gate.
Some people seemed to understand. Then they asked the stupid question people often ask: “What is her special talent? Her gift? Hasn’t she got one?”
I explained as patiently as I could, that children like Amy didn’t always have some unusual gift — like playing the piano or drawing incredible pictures without a single lesson. I’d say: “That’s quite rare, you know. It’s not like on the telly, or in the papers.” After that, they’d lose interest and drift away, looking for something else to relieve the boredom that fills ordinary lives.
Then one day, I decided to take Amy shopping with me; braving the stares in the shopping mall and the usual tut-tutting and harsh comments on my piss-poor parenting skills. I stood back a little, and let her play in the bouncy castle. All she did was lick it and make the low moaning noise she makes when she’s contented. The other children tried to talk to her, but soon backed off and called her names. Horrible names. I rescued her before they started pinching and slapping her. They always do — so the consultants said.
And then she was staring straight ahead and walking. So I held her hand and walked with her. It was then I discovered her ‘gift’ as the mist formed around us for the first time, and we left the mall and our world behind.
I remember looking this way and that — dumbfounded. We were somewhere very warm with long grass everywhere. I couldn’t work out what’d happened. Had I fainted and been taken there? After stumbling around in a panic for a spell — while Amy watched without emotion — I thought about tornados. I clung to that explanation for hours. Eventually, Amy’s expression changed again. She gave me an old fashioned look, took me by the hand and led me out of the long grass and into something else — a long, white beach with rolling surf.
It took many walks like that for me to get used to the madness my life has become — not that I ever will be completely used to it.
So now, I have Amy to myself, and that is my whole world. I long to return, of course. But if in our travels, I find somewhere different — only with people among whom Amy can be safe — I’ll stay there with her.
One thing is certain. Even if we do find people, they won’t be able help us. Not really help us. How could I make anyone believe? In Earth’s history, there are periods of blind superstition where they would believe, but condemn. And doubtless, there will be futures of reason and intellect where they wouldn’t believe and still condemn us. One thing must never happen. They must never split us up. An infinite number of worlds await us (please God, all on the same planet!). Somewhere, there must be one that will welcome us.
Sometimes I sing to Amy and she listens. Sometimes she sings to herself. No words: just a tuneful crooning with an imitation of words; random consonants and vowels. It’s as if she’s singing in a private language of her own. She has a good memory for tunes, and when the mood takes her, she will sing for hours. Other times she’s silent for days and I grieve for her silence as a kind of death. Sometimes I am angry.
I pray that there is a town or city over the horizon, but if we walked that far we’d soon be, as it were, ‘somewhere else’. I wonder why we never arrive in the same place twice, even if the time is different. I know this field is not the place where the mall will be one day. For one thing, there aren’t enough hills. I believe we’ve been in many countries, but none I could recognise. And none that remained safe for long.
I’ve gathered together a few, basic tools. A heavy, iron bowl I found abandoned in a field serves both of us. Homemade chopsticks are more practical than knives and forks; effortless to clean and easier to store and carry. Flint sparks and gives us fire, but frightens Amy, so I have to conceal it from her, otherwise she’ll take it and hide it like she hid the gas lighter at home. We never did find it. Amy’s paradox is that she never learns that the sparks are harmless, but the pot can burn. I feed her with the chopsticks, while guiltily remembering that at home, she learned to use a fork.
I decide to carry her, that way we can get somewhere without ending up ‘somewhere else’. Also, walking keeps me awake. How long I can last without sleep is a constant worry. It’s ages since Amy slept in a proper room with a lockable door. I sleep uneasily for fear of lying across her and stopping her breathing. And Amy soon wriggles out. And always when she wakes, she wants to walk.
I pick her up and set off walking across a field, carrying her in my arms. She tries to get free, so I sing to her. She’s heavy, and it’s tempting to set her down and let her walk us into somewhere new. But there’s no telling where that will be. Reason tells me that most places on the earth (and certainly most times in its long history) are dangerous. And some are deadly. But this new place looks peaceful and familiar. The fields are neat and tidy with dry-stone walls. I can see that there is a road on the other side of one wall. It’s a modern road with tarmac. We’ve come home. It is many minutes before my heart and breathing quieten down.
Amy settles and we make good progress. I’ve often thought that if I could only get a buggy for her to ride in, things would be that bit easier. If a car comes by, I might flag it down and ask for a lift. Better think of a cover story in case one does.
But wait, I’ve not seen a car run along this road in all the time we’ve been walking. I’m sure I’d see the tops of cars peeping over the wall as they hurried by, if there were any about. That means we can’t possibly be home. We must be in a time when cars are unknown. Dismay floods me. Once more I feel the temptation to let Amy walk us out of here.
And yet even as I am about to set her down, I see the first signs of habitation. A town comes into view and I quicken my step.
A road sign tells me that I have not come home. I can’t make out the name. The sign is written in a strangely unfamiliar alphabet; Cyrillic or something. But I can see enough now to know that there’s nothing for us here. As we enter the town, I see that the streets are empty of people. And yet this is obviously a town or city of my own time. I’m shocked. Whatever happened here must have happened just after my own era. I think of the many ways we had of killing each other; chemical or biological attack? And yet, no bodies. A town deserted. An urban Mary Celeste.
There’s a mother and baby shop, with baby-clothes, cots, prams and buggies. Amy is asleep. I place her carefully on the floor and remove the big iron pot from my bag. It takes several attempts, but I manage to break the glass in the window. Amy stirs but settles back down to sleep. I lift her up and carry her inside.
I can take my pick. I choose a serviceable buggy rather than a luxurious one. I’ve no idea of prices, but my conscience blocks me from taking a really posh one. I strap Amy into the buggy and push her out into the street, savouring the relief.
I find a house for us to stay. The door is unlocked, which is odd. This town was abandoned in too much of a hurry. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no electricity, so I can’t get the television to work. There is a car in the garage, but I never learned to drive and lack the skills to make it work. Even if I could charge the battery how would I work the petrol pumps? How long ago was this place abandoned? It can’t have been dead for centuries because there are newspapers. It might have been abandoned yesterday. Whatever made them evacuate this place so suddenly and without a trace? Was it fear of a biological attack that never came, in which case why didn’t they return? The fragility of our world overwhelms me. If I could get a radio to work I would listen to hear if there were any survivors elsewhere.
But then how could I know for sure whether this is the same century, or even the same planet? Each time Amy walks I am really in the dark. I have to guess our location. Even the dinosaurs could be the product of a future genetic experiment; the only survivors of an earth cleansed of humans.
I’m ill equipped for this journey. I’m ill equipped in more ways than one.
But then how could it be otherwise?
Travel weary and for fear of something worse, I make the best of this world for us.
This house is not dissimilar to the one we left behind. The refrigerator is not working. I have no idea how fresh anything is. I break an egg and it looks fine, so I make an omelette and enjoy a few moments in the ecstasy of familiar tastes and textures. The eggs being fresh is another sign that this strange rapture must have happened very recently. Still, there’s a plentiful supply of tinned food. Luckily, I can tell what’s in the tin by the picture on the label. I find a tin opener, but I can’t work out how to use it. Gone cack-handed all of a sudden. Luckily, there’s a hacksaw in the tool-drawer and I’m able to open the tins with that.
There’s little I can do to make the house resemble our old place. Amy already shows her discomfort and frustration at being in a strange house. I sometimes think that this is the reason behind her walking. We moved once before — in spite of the consultant’s warnings. She made her disapproval obvious with screaming fits, lashing out with her tiny fists. So perhaps the walking is Amy’s attempt to get back to that first house. Any kind of difference distresses her. There is some food she will not eat and some clothes she will not wear. She needs the reassurance of familiarity. Our new, nomad existence troubles her greatly. We’ll stay here a while and see if she can get used to it. At least the tantrums seem to have stopped.
I find a portable radio and it works. But pressing the pre-set buttons only brings hissing static, or incomprehensible gobbledygook. When I was Amy’s age, radios were simple. You just twiddled the dials. I also find a torch that works too. Tomorrow. I must look for other useful things.
It’s night so I push the bed up to the door. I’ll lie with Amy until she’s asleep. Then I’ll try to get some sleep. One of the buttons on the radio is for a classical music station. At first, the gentle, choral music makes me cry. But it also gives me hope. Tomorrow I’ll find some way of going home.
But the mystery of this deserted town haunts me. I can think of only one reason for its emptiness. I remembered Chernobyl, and wonder if perhaps that is where I am? Even now, radiation might be destroying our bodies — cell by cell.
I must have slept. It’s morning and I’m awoken by Amy banging the headboard in an attempt to open the door. She’s worked the headboard loose and is swinging it like a huge door-knocker.
We breakfast on tinned fruit in syrup and condensed milk. It tastes foul and flat and stale. This world is a dead thing and so is everything in it. Already, Amy is running around pulling at the window catches and trying to get out. It seems pointless to keep her here any longer against her will. I don’t know how many miles I can walk, pushing the buggy with her in it. But I must try to get as far from here as possible, and make someone understand.
Amy is playing now. She runs about, mimicking the little dinosaurs. She holds her fingers out, curled like claws and snaps at me— accurately evoking the horror of those nasty beasts. I feel a real chill of fear. She is such a gifted mimic. After all, she does have a gift. ‘Little girl raptor’.
Her head is on one side. She’s listening. So am I.
It is a plane. Not an airliner, but one of those small, propeller-powered ones. It must be miles away. I pick up the unreadable newspaper and run out into the street.
Amy runs out after me. She’s clutching my scarf. She stares, enthralled, while I wave the newspaper over head and shout and cry. After a moment, she joins in; clumsily shaking the scarf in the air.
The plane is flying nearer. Maybe the pilot has seen us. I wave the newspaper more frantically. Tears run down my face.
Amy looks concerned. She drops the scarf, grabs my free hand and moans. I know that moan. I know that look in her eye.
The plane dips and flies straight down into the ground and explodes in a dull orange ball of flame.
An iciness flows through me.
In all the places we have been we’ve never seen a single human being.
I thought we were unlucky. Human beings have been on the earth for only a fraction of its past so it follows: most of the world we experience, as travellers through time and space, will be empty of souls. Everywhere, we have seen evidence of human habitation: like the bowl I came across, discarded in a field. We found an abandoned camp here, an empty cottage there. So I assumed, sooner or later we would find people. The empty town is strange. But its significance escaped me. Until now.
As we walk back into the house I happen to catch a glimpse of the newspaper in the hall mirror. I can clearly read the headline now — reversed.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
QUEEN’S CHINA VISIT CANCELED
We are home. Really home. We could be hours away from our old life. Yet we are trapped on the other side of the looking glass. And worse than that — we are poison to all that I hold dear.
I thought the empty town was abnormal. In reality it is typical — for our plight. We are the abnormal ones. We are the blight on this land.
Of course, an empty town in any country, any century will be investigated. The plane must have come because search parties had not got through by road. The plane came within a few miles of us and fell out of the sky — as the pilot blinked out of existence.
When Amy walks, I suppose she crosses a barrier of space and time. If she cannot break the laws of physics, perhaps she can bend them a little. Even then, equations must be balanced. So that is why, wherever we go, we are the only ones alive. No one can exist within a few miles of us. While ever we are among people, we take lives. All their lives. Perhaps that is the price of Amy’s gift? Her walking demands a sacrifice.
Or could it be a simpler thing?
Could it just be that she wants to be alone with me?
I think of her face, just before the plane crashed. The terror in her face was the same as when the children in the bouncy castle teased her. Could that be the explanation of her gift? Extreme withdrawal?
And if anyone threatens her isolation — what then?
We must give this town back. We have no right to it. We must go, whether back to the dinosaurs and the volcano or to some other place empty of humanity. We cannot stay here.
I can never risk being separated from Amy. I cannot let her loose on the world. I doubt that she could survive for long without me. But she could do terrible damage in just a short time. A moment and she could change history. An hour and she could destroy the world. If I were stronger, I would make sure she did no further harm. But a mother’s love is selfish by nature. I cannot override my genes or drown my hope. A bitter irony, that.
I must say goodbye to life for Amy’s sake. It’s all or nothing.
A short walk and this place will be handed back — and we will find our fate. With an infinity of times and places, the chances are we will find an age without people.
Then, Amy must never walk again.
I think about my old life. The memory seems more vivid than before. It hurts to think about the people close to me that I must never see again.
Amy and I walk hand in hand.
We take our last look at the bright, modern houses and shops. Already the purple mist is forming around us.
As we pass, the little mother and baby shop grows indistinct and a tear runs down my cheek.
We have crossed over.
Now we must accept our fate and I pray our death is not too far away.
Cold. It is dreadfully cold. I did not think of that. Always there is the thought that if the place is unsuitable we can move on. But this barren wilderness mocks us.
It is dark, not the dark of night. There are no stars and no moon. Snow should not be black like this. I reach into my bag and find the torch. Now there is some light. It is a glow without warmth. I can just make out Amy. Her eyes are sparkling in the precious little light of the torch.
There it is: the fear in her eyes again. I point the torch down and I can see a hint of white around us. My fingers lock and I know I can’t hold it up much longer. My face is hurting. I can just make out the glittering cloud of Amy’s breath.
The torch flickers a little. I cry out in desperation. I don’t want to lose sight of Amy. I need so much to see her face one last time.
We can’t walk far in this blizzard — not far enough to cross over to another place. This snow is too thick to walk in.
The torch blinks out, but my eyes are stinging anyway. I close them, but that hurts just as much.
I hold Amy close. She is wriggling and shivering in my arms. I hug her to me.
It’s up to my knees. Maybe that is for the best. I’m not brave, but in this cold, I don’t need courage to do what must be done.
“Mummy Mummy.” Her first words.
I would smile if I could. In your face, consultants!
Perhaps she will say more. Must keep her warm.
I wrap myself tight around her, sinking down in the snow, pulling her closer, closer as the snow covers me.
Her heart beats rapidly, seeming almost to beat inside me. “Mummy din’saurs all gone, Mummy.”
And I half talk, half breathe into her ear: “Yes, darling. Share my warmth, Amy. Share my warmth.”