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May 2023

As you might have noticed, I’m a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic. In my catalogue of unused writing ideas, I have a stack of variations of the way the world might end. Often, though, you need two things to tell a good apocalyptic yarn: the macro story (ie what’s happening to the whole of civilisation in the background) and the micro story (what’s happening to the individual characters the story is actually about). THE RECLAMATION is a collision of two such ideas – one an environmental catastrophe, and the other a snapshot of a small group’s fight for survival in a most inappropriate place.

Simon has always been one step ahead of the pack. He realised before most others that what was happening around the world might prove to be the beginning of the end of days. He saw the telltale signs and drew his conclusions at the first hint of trouble, didn’t wait to be told like most everyone else. He’s not a prepper or a survival expert, nothing like that, he just likes to apply common-sense. Doesn’t get bogged down by bullshit and spin.

It was a lot longer before the penny dropped for the masses. Millions of people sat and waited to be spoon-fed instructions by the media. It took most people until their friends and families and other folks within touching distance around them started dying for them to take things seriously. And once the TV and the Internet had been silenced, choked into extinction, everyone knew they were in trouble one hundred per cent. In the information drought that followed, no one had any hope of figuring out the root cause of what had happened, but by then it didn’t matter. What difference was an explanation ever going to make? The time for hypothesis and conjecture was already in the rear-view.

To be fair to those who buried their heads in the sand and ignored all the warnings, knowing wouldn’t have made much difference. The end of the human race came out of nowhere and happened with remarkable speed. Had there been anyone left to review events and write them up for the history books, and anyone left to read said books, they’d have been able to trace the beginning of the end back to the unfortunate synchronicity of two very separate events.

In Eastern Europe, despite all the warnings, a nuclear reactor was damaged in a battle. Reactions as powerful as the sun, that had previously been contained and carefully monitored under strict artificial conditions to prevent implosion or explosion, rapidly spiralled out of control. To their credit, some workers stayed and fought valiantly to maintain the status quo, but to others it was just a job, and the pittance paycheck they earned babysitting reactions didn’t justify any such sacrifice. Within hours, meltdown had occurred. Within days, toxic clouds had been spewed over vast swathes of land.

While that first event was the result of a relatively brief period of destabilisation, the second event had been brewing for years. Man-made or natural, preventable or not, it didn’t matter. Regardless of which side of the fence you were on, there was no disputing that the climate had changed. The prolonged, torrential rains that swept across radioactive Europe, and the brutal heatwave that followed, combined to change the face of the planet forever.

Long story short – the radiation caused the vegetation to mutate, and the sudden extremes of the global climate caused those mutations to grow at extraordinary rates. For the first time in generations, the question changed from how do we halt deforestation, to how do we prevent the relentless advance of the creeping plants.

In a matter of months, the world’s delicate ecosystem had, to put it mildly, become irreparably fucked. And faced with a sudden global crisis of an unprecedented scale, the international community did what it does best.


People bickered and fought about it. People protested while others continued to deny. Politicians sought to gain advantage from the chaos at the expense of their opponents. Businesses sought to profit.

There are always winners and losers, aren’t there?

The winners this time around were everything other than us. The animal kingdom thrived. Family pets were abandoned as people fought to ensure their own survival, leaving previously domesticated animals to rediscover their suppressed basic instincts or die like their owners. Industry collapsed, resulting in vast numbers of livestock being allowed to roam free and to procreate unchecked. Billions of animals perished, of course – from pampered pooches to battery-farmed hens and everything in between – but those that didn’t survive were still useful as food. Vermin, rodent, and insect populations exploded in number, profiting from the decline of everything else.

In a year from now, the human race will almost certainly be run. It’s the law of the jungle out there. Because, to be honest, the jungle is everywhere now. Some folks are calling it The Reclamation; Mother Nature taking back what’s hers. Simon doesn’t buy that, though. He says, ‘if there’s any reclaiming to be done, it’s us that’ll be doing it.’

As hysteria consumed the majority of the population, a handful of people like Simon began to make plans. Simon thinks there’s still hope. Simon believes that if people like him and the others can survive, then we still have a chance to remain masters of this (never more) green and (un)pleasant land. He refuses to admit defeat.

A brutal, wintery lull has presented Simon and the others with a chance to regroup and take stock. Just short of a hundred people have gathered here together on the coast, in a place that’s almost insultingly inappropriate. This is where they used to come for fun and enjoyment, for week-long, bucket-and-spade breaks from their normal routines. This holiday park, with its blocky chalets and rows of tin can caravans, was never designed for long-term survival.

Beggars can’t be choosers, though.

Simon led them to this place because it’s rural, a significant distance from any of the previous centres of population. The old heartlands pose disproportionately high risks and there are multiple reasons to stay away. The places where we used to live are no-go areas now. The teeming wildlife is dangerous enough – rivers of rats and packs of feral dogs complete for superiority – and yet it is the vegetation that poses the biggest danger. New species of invasive weeds have sprung up and they are everywhere in there. They probe our empty homes, shops, and offices with tendrils strong as steel wire. Capable of adding several metres of growth every single day, their hairbreadth tips drive slowly, insidiously, into whatever brick, metal, concrete, wood, or plastic lies in the way. There is no manmade structure that can withstand the weed.

There’s something about the soil here, though, Simon noticed. Here on the coast, where there’s salt in water and the air, the progress of the plants is markedly slower. The inhospitable landscape provides them with the briefest snatches of breathing space.

The last time Simon and his kids stopped in a caravan like this, it was the school holidays, year before last, and they were part of the annual late-July migration from the classroom to the beach. The memories of the lives they’ve left behind are still raw, and Simon appreciates that. He knows if they don’t turn the tide, it’ll only be a matter of time before they become indistinct, then fade to black completely. He’s not going to let that happen. Listening to him talk, you’d swear this was a temporary situation. He knows it’s going to take a long time to get their world back on track, but he’s confident they’ll do it.

‘We have intelligence,’ he says, ‘we have knowledge. We work together. We understand. We can plan and attack. We adapt and we survive. It’s what we’ve always done, and it’s what we’ll keep doing. Those fucking mangy animals out there . . . all they have is instinct and hunger driving them on. We, on the other hand, are the most intelligent form of life to have ever walked the surface of the Earth. We’re the apex predator, and nothing’s gonna change that.’

‘What, you’re an apex predator, Si?’ Joey jokes.

Simon just laughs. He’s had this crap all his life. He’s a five-foot-nothing strip of piss and wind, but his personality and strength of character more than compensate for his relative lack of physical strength.

‘Yes, Joe, even me,’ he says. He tells the eight people who live in this four-berth caravan with him the same thing every day to keep them motivated and keep them alive. ‘What’s happening now is temporary,’ he tells them. ‘Transient. It’ll pass.’ He says, ‘it’s just plants and animals.’

Dorian takes him to one side and asks him to stop, but she knows he won’t. He says he needs to keep everyone strong, and she agrees, to an extent, but she also thinks he needs to keep things in perspective, as uncomfortable as that might be. She’s older than him, more frightened too, truth be told, but she’s a realist, not a fantasist, and she tells it like it is.

‘This time last week there were lights on in more than twenty other caravans. Now we’re down to seventeen.’

‘Just plants and dumb animals . . .’ he says again.

Last night, though, they crowded at the windows of this van and watched helpless as other people died. No one knew why they’d left the caravan and gone outside, but the reasons aren’t important. Anyone who gets stuck out there is liable to go the same way. It’s usually dogs and foxes and the like that get to them first and chow down the bulk of their flesh, but there’s always enough left for those further down the food chain. Birds swoop in and rip at the remaining shreds of meat, tearing away strips of cold skin with their spiteful beaks. There’s more for insects, maggots, and worms to feast on later. And then, when there’s nothing left but the bones picked clean, the snaking vegetation overtakes everything. Before long, you wouldn’t know there’d ever been a corpse lying there.

‘It don’t matter one bit what’s going on in the other caravans,’ Simon tells them, ‘end of the day, it’s what happens in this one that counts.’

He’s rapidly coming to the conclusion that the rest of them are going to get themselves killed.

He remembers when he first arrived at this place. The entire area had been abandoned, devoid of human life. He remembers how they got caught out, how they came to reclaim the site but almost lost everything. They went in to clear the animals out with axes and bludgeons, and for a time it looked like they were set to cull the whole damn lot of them. But the creatures were learning, same way we’ve had to. They sent their weak and the young up front as fodder for the humans, and while Simon and his people were distracted wreaking their revenge on that miserable first wave, stronger packs arrived and tore the living shit out of them.

Simon gives his lot a daily pep talk, telling them they’re not going to fall victim to anything like that again. He tells them that every person left alive in this holiday park-cum-refugee centre has got more individual intelligence than all the animals and the birds and the insects and whatever else is waiting out there for them in the dark combined. ‘We’ve got the brains,’ he says. ‘Just don’t panic.’

But panic’s edging closer every single day.

The number of other occupied caravans has reduced, and as that’s happened, so the pressure in Simon’s caravan has increased. Day and night there are things moving towards them, creeping closer through the encroaching vegetation. Paws and claws and teeth and thorns and tendrils and Christ alone knows what else, all poised to strike and tear a chunk out of you.

They know that’s true, because a few days back, a handful of people from one of the other trailers managed to get over here when their shelter was attacked. Two women, one man, and a child were somehow able to cover the short distance from that door to this, and they were welcomed in with open arms. ‘If there’s one thing I know more than anything, it’s this,’ Simon says. ‘We’re going to have to look after each other. We’re going to need the numbers, once the time comes to fight back.’

One of the women who’d got across died of her injuries the night before last. There’s a tear-shaped bloody stain on the muddy carpets that reminds them all of Jenny every time they look at it. Her blood is the only reminder. They rolled her corpse down the steps last night, and by the morning the beasts had taken her.

Simon’s having to work overtime to keep everyone’s shit together. He tells them there will be other places around the world where people are still on top and where it’s the animals and plants that have been held back and forced into submission. There are deserts, the artic tundra, high mountain peaks, vast salt lakes . . . all manner of places where they’ll be able to live out their days once they’re able to get away from here. And winter’s coming too, he regularly reminds them. Some animals can’t survive the cold, others that can’t stand the heat. ‘They’re not like us,’ Simon tells the others. ‘We’re adaptable. They’re not.’

And he has a point. The plants have no intelligence at all, and as for the predatory beasts outside, they’re little better. Simon argues that they rely on instinct, not intellect. They’re driven by their individual hunger and their own simple, basic needs. There’s no plan, no design. ‘That we’re in this position is our bad luck and their good fortune. The odds will change soon enough, and they’ll shift back in our favour.’

 But the longer this goes on, the harder it is for people to find any positivity in Simon’s relentless positiveness. Everything he says makes sense, but what good’s that when the rest of the world as they knew it stopped making sense months ago? Tensions are high but, for now, the majority of people stuck inside this crowded tin-can cling onto what he tells them because his words are all they have. And he does have a point: cats, rats, dogs, sheep, mice, cows, horses, foxes, slugs, snails, frogs, newts, toads, birds, rabbits, pigs, guinea pigs, goats . . . they’re just dumb animals. Most of them relied on us to feed them. They might have the upper hand right now, but it won’t last long. When they get weak, the weeds will overcome them. And then, when the weather turns, the weeds themselves will shrink back into submission.

There’s been trouble in one of the neighbouring trailers within the last couple of hours. There’s hardly any room to move in Simon’s trailer, and it’s hard getting close to a window to try and see what’s happening to the folk next-door. Someone’s been spreading rumours about the weeds eating into the walls and coming up through the walls of the other caravans, but they’ve seen no sign of it themselves. Where the weeds have been able to sneak in through a gap or a vent, they’ve been spotted and dealt with quick enough before they’ve been able to get a hold.

No, what’s happening in the other caravan now is different.

Maybe someone just lost their nerve? Everyone feels like that from time to time, don’t they? It wouldn’t take much to push anyone over the edge. The toxic mix of claustrophobia, prolonged uncertainty, and gut-churning fear is increasingly hard to handle.

Whatever the reason, Simon and the others are on the lookout for survivors (though they don’t know how many more people are going to be able to fit into this one caravan). It’s still an hour before dawn, so it’s hard to make out any of what’s happening outside. And any movement inside makes their caravan rock from side to side like a ship in a storm. To be honest, though, these vans have never felt particularly stable. They shake and shudder in the wind. The floor bounces underfoot like it’s ready to give way at any moment. They’re under a constant battering.

‘Shh . . . did you hear that?’ one of the kids asks.

‘Hear what?’

The little boy is sitting on his knees on the grubby sofa at the front end of the caravan, face pressed against the window. It’s all quiet in here now, everyone waiting to hear whatever he thinks he’s heard. He points up at the roof directly above his head. ‘Think there’s someone up there.’

‘Could be anything,’ Simon says, and he moves the kid out of the way and tries to crane his neck to see. It’s impossible to see anything from this angle.

Everyone is silent and still. No one dares move or make a sound. They strain to hear the noise, terrified to hear it, whatever it might be, but equally scared not to.

Tap, tap, tap.

‘Could be anything,’ Dorian says.

Simon moves the kid completely, then stands on the sofa cushion, stretches up, and taps back.

They wait, praying for the wind and rain outside to die down.

Tap, tap, tap.

When Simon taps back again, so does whoever (whatever) is on the roof. He’s about to say something but stops. This close to the roof, he can hear what’s happening out there a little clearer. The kid’s right – there is someone up there. He can’t make out any of what the man’s saying, but he can hear him moaning, crying out for help. Faint, mumbled words accompany the tapping. Little more than a windwhisper, but loud enough. Could have been a name, could have been a sob. Could have been the last word that poor fucker stranded up there will ever say.

It’s too distinctive to be anything else, the tapping too rhythmic to be animalistic. ‘I don’t know how the hell they got up there,’ he tells the others, ‘but Bill’s right. Whoever it is, we need to help them down.’

There’s some dissent, some concern about opening the door, but what choice do they have? Dorian agrees with Simon. ‘He’s right. We have to help them. Imagine if it was one of us. How would you feel if it was you out there, and no one came to help?’

The guy on the roof sounds desperate. Simon hammers the ceiling. ‘We’re coming up for you, mate. Hang on in there.’

Tap, tap, tap comes in quick reply.

Their plan comes together fast. They’ve done things like this before, as Kerry, Bruce, and their kid who they helped get into this caravan most recently will attest. They’ll keep the children well out of the way as the adults split themselves into three groups. One team will guard the caravan, because the caravan is their world. The smallest team will climb up on each other’s shoulders and drag whoever it is down. The third group – everyone else – will keep the animals and the vegetation at bay. They have plenty of weapons to use. They’ve been stockpiling.

It’s time.

For all his strengths, Simon’s never been particularly physically strong. He’s the most obvious candidate to go up on Joey’s shoulders and help the stranded man down. No one wants to do this, but equally they all know they have no choice. The guy up on the roof sounds exhausted, delirious with fear.

Joey leans flat with his back against the wall of the caravan, fighting against his instinct to remain still, aware of the beginnings of animal movement in the vegetation all around them. Moz and Gilly push Simon up, an arm under each shoulder, and he starts to lever himself onto the roof. Down below, the rest of the group are fighting now, hacking with blades at everything non-human that comes anywhere near. They don’t scream or shout, they just work. Their relative silence reassures Simon. If he can’t hear them, they’re okay.

The man on the roof, on the other hand, is panicking. His voice is louder, his words even more indistinct, the banging on the roof almost constant. ‘Keep it down,’ Simon says as he tries to get up, his voice a stage whisper. ‘I’m coming.’

And he hauls himself up and stands upright on the caravan roof.


There’s enough morning light now for him to be able to see everything up there.

There’s no one up on the roof but him. No one human, anyway. Just a single magpie, tap-tap-tapping with its beak. And, in common with other members of the Corvid family, it’s an intelligent bird, a problem solver. Like some other species – parrots and minor birds, being the most obvious example – it can mimic sounds, though not to the same extent as those parrots that seem to be able to talk. No, this magpie can only caw in a way that sounds a bit like a word, but not quite. It sounds like someone lost in a storm, calling for help – loud enough to be heard, but muffled enough to remain indistinct.

Simon is dumbstruck, realising he’s been tricked by this cleverest of birds. He panics as he tries to get down off the roof. He tries to explain what’s happened and order the retreat and climb down all at once and he falls heavily on his back. Some of the others try to help him, and in that brief moment of distraction, a veritable army of foraging animals bursts forth from the dense undergrowth which now surrounds the caravan and attacks.

In the morning, the area around the trailer is littered with bloody bones. Mr Magpie rests after a long night of swooping and feasting. He regards the next caravan in line with his glossy black eyes. When the hunger returns and he’s certain that none of the faces at the windows are watching, he’ll make the short hop across to the next roof and start tapping.

Dumb animals.

Thanks for reading

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