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February 2023

When I was a kid, I got beat up. The incident had a profound effect on me that lasted far longer than the pain in my face and my bloodied nose. Until that point, I’d subscribed to the unwritten laws of the playground – if someone hits you, you need to try and hit them back harder. But sometimes, the physical differences are impossible to overcome, and there are some fights you’re never going to win. A different approach is required. My teenage hammering, coupled with a recent read of Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR, inspired this month’s story.

I’m not as old as some of them’ll tell you, but I’m old enough. Old enough to remember what things used to be like way back when, let’s leave it at that. Anyway, age is relative these days. Clocks and calendars are hard to come by. Time squeezes and stretches in ways it never used to.

Before everything went to hell, they always said it was the kind of thing that only ever happened elsewhere, never here. We’re better than that, they used to say. We have our differences, sure, but we resolve them sensibly and amicably, they said. This is a democracy, after all! We talk, we don’t fight, they said. We negotiate. We empathise and we understand. We don’t resort to savagery. That kind of thing might be common in far off places, but not here, surely? Not in our green and pleasant land.

Think again.

It didn’t take much to tip the balance in the end. It’s so long ago now that I can’t remember the precise details, and if I’m honest, it doesn’t matter. There’s no point working your way back to try and remember who fought for what, because in the madness of the moment, we all lost sight of our original motives and objectives. Everything became obscured by the fog of war.

The thing about divisions is that once they’re there, if you don’t manage to fully close them up, they’re only ever going to get bigger. That’s what happened to us. North or south, in or out, rich or poor, this religion or that . . . I don’t reckon we’ll ever work our way back and find out which was the split that turned from a crack to a fissure, and then became the chasm that divided our country in two. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. When the differences become as big as they did here, you end up stuck on one side or the other. Either that or you drop into the abyss. And Christ knows, far too many people ended up doing just that.

Over the last few seasons, an uneasy calm has settled across what’s left of us. The armies we started out fighting for have fragmented over and over, hundreds of thousands of soldiers reduced to a handful. I’m not even sure who I’m supposed to be supporting anymore, but as long as I show allegiance to someone, I guess it doesn’t matter. Truth is, we’re all on our own these days. And though we try and convince each other the war might be over, we know it never really ends. We’re always ready to fight whenever there’s a need. These days, if you don’t show strength and defend what’s yours, the next fucker that turns up will take it and destroy you. I try to live the best life I can, though it’s only ever going to be a shadow of what it might otherwise have been.

There are just ruins now where the cities used to be, no-go zones. You stay out of them if you’ve got any sense; they’re poisoned relics. People used to think we’d go back and rebuild. Not now, though. There’s no point. There’s only a fraction of the population left, no need for big settlements. I can remember the noise and the bustle and the constant speed of how the world used to be, but the memories are starting to fade. It’s age, I think. It scares me. My parents both lived until they were in their late seventies. I’m old bones at fifty.

There’s a kid in our settlement who’s tiled what’s left of the roof of his mother’s house with old mobile phones and tablets. Loads and loads of them, all layered up to keep the weather out, nails hammered through the screens. I think of that a lot. It shows just how much things have changed – high technology used for its casing, not its contents. It’s like we reached our furthest point as a species, then started coming back the other way. I always assumed the human race would keep progressing, keep developing, but it turns out we were on a piece of elastic all this time. It stretched as far as it could, now it’s shrinking again and we’re going backwards, stuck in reverse. I said that to a kid yesterday, and I had to explain to her what I meant. She knows what a car is, of course – there’s enough of them left lying around – but she’s never seen one moving under its own power, and she’s certainly never driven one. I was about to start telling her about gears and the clutch and the engine and brakes and the like, but I stopped. What’s the fucking point, I said to myself? She’ll never need to know.

There’s only one form of tech that tends to be actively maintained now, and that’s weaponry. The technicians are treated like wizards, the youngsters watching them with a mix of reverence and fear like they’re fucking magicians. I swear, we’re in danger of going full Middle ages.

That’s how it feels here in Stourbridge.

I moved here just before the fighting started, so it’s the only place left that feels anywhere like home. There are a couple of thousand of us, all living in the centre of the old town, the biggest settlement I know of. The ring road that surrounds us has been fortified. We’ve done a lot of rebuilding since the lull in the fighting. We used stone and rubble and the bricks from thousands of ruined houses on the outskirts to build a wall all the way around us.

It’s all down to Harrison.

He’s the boss man.

He’s the one who first saw the potential of this place. While other people were fighting for control of more important locations nearby, we stayed here. Under his guidance we worked together and fortified our town.

I don’t know much about what he did before all this, but he has a way with people. I don’t know how he does it, but he gets them onside real easy. He did it to me. I was ready to fade into the background and disappear, but he has other ideas. I’m one of a handful of folks he relies on most. ‘We’re useful,’ Duncan Thorpe tells me. Duncan is Harrison’s number two, a tough old soldier. I understand why he’s held in such high regard, but the reason for my usefulness is nowhere near as clear cut. I remember a lot of the old ways and I can help with a lot of different jobs. ‘In the past,’ Duncan says to me, ‘folks used to specialise. But since the war, lots of experts have found themselves high and dry, because if we can’t get somewhere on foot, for example, then chances are we can’t get there at all. So what use is your qualification in International Relations? We speak English (after a fashion), so why did you spend all that time learning Japanese? We need people like you who have common sense.’

He has a point.

He’s smart, is Duncan.

The only problem with a wall like the one Harrison had us build, is that lots of outsiders want to know what’s on the other side. And that’s the shitty situation we find ourselves in today. After several months of quiet, there’s an army just turned up on our doorstep, and they want in.

Our spotters have been out in force.

They reckon there’s around two hundred folks on the approach, holding position a mile or two back. As soon as Harrison heard their reports, he called for me. I knew what he wanted me for, because he’s asked before when we’ve been in similar situations. His logic is the potential invaders won’t see one old man as a threat, so I’m to go out and talk to them, to get an idea of what they’re planning and what they’ve got. Harrison thinks talking is always a good first step. He says it helps us to understand who it is we’re up against. And though I don’t want to do it, I’ll go because he’s right. ‘We don’t want to lose what we’ve got here,’ he says, ‘and whatever their intentions, they don’t want to risk losing it either. They’ve come here for a reason. They want to take what we have, not destroy it.’

There’s something else.

‘According to the spotters, it’s an old friend of mine who’s in charge out there,’ he tells me. ‘Goes by the name of Dale Hunnyck. We grew up together, but I’m afraid there’s no love lost between us.’

Does that make things better, or worse?

‘Bit of a coincidence, him turning up like this,’ I say, but Harrison shakes his head.

Duncan agrees. ‘You always said you thought he might show up eventually.’

‘That I did.’

I don’t know if any of this makes me feel better or worse.

I’m not convinced I’m the right person, but I agree to do what he asks. Ultimately, it’s for selfish reasons. I want to do what I can to keep my home and all the people who live here with me safe. We’ve worked hard for this. I don’t want to lose it. Being totally honest, I don’t have anything or anywhere or anyone else.

The city gates are a marvel of engineering. All credit to the boss for having the vision. They open like enormous swinging doors, both sides bolted to the front of flat-bed trucks that have seen better days. It’s been years since we’ve had any fuel and any engines have run, but the mechanics of these vehicles means they’re still useful. The wheels still move freely on their axles, and the brakes can still be applied to stop them moving when needs be. It makes them ideal for jobs like this. It takes a whole crowd of folks to pull them open and push them closed again, but there’s more than enough of us here to do that. More importantly, the gates send a message. When you see them, you know you’ve reached somewhere special. You know there’s got to be something worth having on the other side, but you also know you’re going to have your work cut out trying to get it. All the other routes that lead to the town have been blocked off or redirected. Over the months Harrison has re-routed everything so that any new arrivals have no choice but to come this way.

It’s funny, though, how your perspective of the gates changes according to where you’re standing, which side of them you’re on. When you’re inside the town, they make you feel safe and secure, protected from all the shit that’s happened everywhere else. On the rare occasions you have need to go out, though, when they shut behind you with that heavy thud that you feel in your feet and in your heart, it’s the worst thing in the world. You look back and you see that towering wall of wood and you’re the loneliest person there is.

The walk out to meet the advancing army feels longer than it is. I get more nervous with each step I take, but I’m not scared, not really. It doesn’t feel like it’s me that’s in the firing line today. I might get hurt, sure, and I’d be lying if I hadn’t imagined being sent back in pieces as a message to the people of Stourbridge, but what would that achieve? No, it’s far more likely that Harrison’s right about Dale Hunnyck and his people wanting to talk. They might not want to listen to anything I say, but I’m certain they’ll have a message they’ll be wanting me to take back.

If they had the strength to take the town by force, I think they’d have done it already.

All the time I’m out on the road, I’m thinking about what we’ve got in Stourbridge, as well as what we lack. We’re strong in numbers and well organised, that much is for sure, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had to face anything like this. Apart from my walking stick I’m unarmed, and I’ve never felt it as much.

They head me off before I get anywhere near their camp. I’m still looking out for them in the distance when the fuckers come at me from close-up. They’ve been hiding in the foliage and the wreckage on either side of the track, and I don’t see them coming until it’s too late and I’m surrounded. They come from the left and the right at once, and when I look around, there’s a gang of them behind me too, all too quick for my old bones.

I hold my hands up in surrender. ‘I don’t want any trouble,’ I tell them. ‘All I want is to talk.’

‘You’ve got some balls, I’ll give you that,’ Hunnyck says. He’s a similar age to Harrison, a little younger than me. He looks as scarred and world weary as the rest of us. It’s just me and him outside his tent now. It’s a cold night, but I don’t complain. I’ve been fed and watered and there’s a decent fire burning that keeps me warm. ‘Did your boss not fancy coming out to see me himself?’

‘You think that would be wise? I trust the chief. He says he knows you.’

Hunnyck nods and breaks into a wide grin. ‘He does indeed. Yes, me and Harrison go way, way back.’

‘And he said you didn’t get on.’

‘That’s about right.’

He looks lost in his thoughts for a moment too long.

The cold out here is making my joints hurt. ‘Let’s get down to it, shall we?’

‘You want to go home?’

I can’t tell him how much I do.

‘We’ve got a good thing going back there. I don’t want anything happening that’s going to put it at risk.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard. I’ve had a couple of my people in Stourbridge for a week or so now. But I guess when there are so many of you, you can’t keep tabs on everyone.’

He’s right. I’m disappointed how easily they’ve been able to infiltrate (if he’s telling the truth), but it’s a risk we’ve always known was there. Harrison says there’s a balance to be had between security and freedom. He says we can’t stay locked down all the time, that people need to be able to come and go as they please. And the problem with that, is that with the best will in the world, no one’s ever going to remember a thousand or more different faces. Short of issuing identity papers to everyone – and I’m not sure we have the ways or the means any longer – it’s a risk we’ve had to take. At the date of the last count there was one thousand seven hundred and eighteen of us. There’s been a handful of deaths since then, and a few births, so numbers are holding steady. That’s an awful lot of faces to keep track of.

‘I’ll get straight to the point,’ he tells me. ‘I like what I’ve seen of Stourbridge so far. I want it. All of it.’

He’s not backwards in coming forwards, I’ll give him that. I guess there’s no call for niceties when you’ve been living out in the wastelands, but it’s all I can do not to laugh out loud. ‘I reckon Harrison will have something to say to that.’

‘And I think you’re probably right.’

‘He told me to tell you he’s not for negotiating. You’ve got, what, a couple of hundred people here? You’re massively outnumbered. We don’t want another battle. We’re happy for you to come and join the community, but that’s all. Harrison’s leadership and the overall order of things are not up for discussion.’

‘Is that so?’

‘It is.’

‘I’d be careful about putting too much faith in your glorious leader. I don’t think you know him quite the same way I do.’

‘How so?’

‘We grew up together, me and him. We were close. Did he tell you?’

‘He mentioned it.’

‘We were like brothers once.’

I don’t get told that many stories any longer, but I can still tell when someone’s about to start one. ‘So, what happened? You fell out, I’m guessing that much.’

‘You could say that. I’m not surprised he didn’t tell you. See, I grew up in his shadow and I looked up to him. We were like brothers.’

He pauses.

‘And?’ I ask. There’s always an and.

‘And things went shit-shaped between us, that’s all you need to know. The whys and wherefores don’t matter. It was so long ago. Different world back then.’

‘So why are you telling me this?’

‘Because you need to know the outcome. A wedge came between us that neither of us could get over. We tried keeping away from each other, but our lives were so close tied that it was impossible. These things fester and eat at you . . . something that started out trivial became something that affected everything . . . everybody. It all came to a head.’

‘And he beat you?’

He laughs, but it’s a fair assumption to make. Why else would this chancer be so keen to try and take Stourbridge from Harrison?

‘No, I beat him. Things got so bad that they were affecting every part of our lives. We agreed we had to resolve it, and there was only one obvious way of doing that. We set the date and time for the fight, and I battered the shit out of him. Two punches – bang, bang – and he just went down, easy as anything.’

‘I’m confused . . . you make it sound like a bad thing. Isn’t that what you’d wanted?’

‘No! I thought it was, but I was wrong. We’d both invested so much in the relationship, had been so close for so long . . . I wanted him to fight back, to show me that it mattered. He couldn’t be bothered. He just let me batter him. It was a fucking humiliation for him. It was pathetic.’

There’s a lot I could say at this point, but I choose to say nothing. I mean, it all sounds a bit juvenile, but they were juvenile back then I guess. His story might not sound like much now, but it was enough to break the bond between them, and it reminds me of something my old dad used to say. He said if there are two ships in a harbour, and they both set off at the same time, but one captain sets their course a fraction of a degree different to the other, then they won’t notice straightaway. It’ll take a while before a gap between them opens up, and the longer they stay on their different paths, the bigger the gulf between them becomes. So what started as a minor falling-out, ended up growing out of all proportions. I guess with everything that’s happened to the world since we were all kids, there’s been ample time for Harrison and Hunnyck’s playground spat to become something altogether more serious.

‘Back to the matter at hand,’ he says, ominous. ‘I know Harrison better than most. I know what he is, and what he isn’t. I’ve heard things while I’ve been out on the road that have supported what I already knew. I know he’s got where he’s got by talking, not fighting. He’s been lucky so far, but his luck’s run out. I’m taking control of Stourbridge.’

Now I still feel relatively safe, because I know he’s going to want me to deliver his message to the boss. Like Harrison himself said earlier, he’s going to want to take Stourbridge peacefully and he’ll only fight if he has to. Given all that, I risk pointing out the obvious flaw in Hunnyck’s plan.

‘You’re massively outnumbered, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘You’ll struggle to get through the town wall. With a strong, permanent base like we’ve got in Stourbridge, we can defend ourselves from attack. That’s why we’ve done so well there. We’ve looked after ourselves before, and we’re ready to do it again if we have to.’

He’s unimpressed by my words, almost disinterested. He lets me say my piece but I know he’s holding back on me. There’s something he hasn’t yet revealed, I know there is.

And here it comes.

He leads me back out onto the road. There’s a trailer at the front of his convoy, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s so big and heavy it’ll take two horses or more to pull. It’s draped with tarpaulins that hide its shape, but even in the dark I can make out enough of its outline to know what it is.

Hunnyck pulls back the covers. I don’t know what the correct name for it is. The only word that I can come up with is cannon, although it’s far more modern than that would suggest. ‘It’s actually called a Light Gun,’ he says, as if he can read my mind. ‘The L118. It’s a one hundred and five millimetre howitzer, if that means anything to you.’

‘It doesn’t,’ I tell him, ‘but I don’t suppose it matters. I get the picture.’

‘We picked it up a few months back. Got a couple of folks who are trained up to use it.’

‘You got ammunition?’

‘Enough to get us through your town walls, mate, yes. And that’s the other part of the message I need for you to deliver to Harrison. He either lets us in, or we’re coming in anyway. It’s up to him how much damage we do and how many people get killed along the way.’

I shake my head and sigh. Can’t help myself. Maybe I was the wrong person to come out here and talk to Hunnyck. I should probably afford him a bit more respect, but I can’t find it in me. ‘Can’t we do better than this? For fuck’s sake, can’t we even try to get along?’

‘You think this is about me and him falling out as kids?’

‘I don’t know. Is it?’

Shit. I’ve said the wrong thing. He’s up in my face now, bad breath grossing me out. ‘You listen to me, and you make sure you take this back to your chief. In case you hadn’t noticed, the world’s changed. Our priorities are different than they used to be. I’m here because your town is the biggest settlement for hundreds of miles, and I know that’s true, because me and my lot have been searching the wastelands for months and we’ve not found anything better. Your town, crazy as this might sound, could be one of the most important places left in the whole frigging country.’

He gives me time to let that sink in, but I can’t say I’m surprised by his revelation. We lucked out here, and that realisation fills me with both pride and dread. Pride, because I survived the worst of the war and I helped build that place. Dread because if what he says is right, then Stourbridge will be fought over again and again and again for years to come until all the fighting’s finally done, if that day ever arrives. And given our recent track record, that doesn’t look likely.

But there’s something else that’s bothering me. What he’s told me about Harrison tonight, even if it turns out not to be true, has done enough to sow a seed of doubt in my mind. I look at the howitzer, and I think about Harrison getting smacked in the face and not putting up any kind of fight, and I can’t deny I’m starting to feel really fucking uncomfortable right now.

Hunnyck isn’t finished yet.

‘I’m not here because of Harrison. I couldn’t give a damn who is in charge. This is a coincidence, not a vendetta, but knowing he’s here just makes me more determined. I never held a grudge, I just realised early on that he wasn’t the man I thought he was. He’s weak in battle, and knowing how he’s going to react will be to my advantage. I know people can change, but I also know that your man has a reputation for being a pacifist. A coward. My spies tell me the reason there are so many people there, is that you’re all scared of fighting and have hid away together. Is that right?’

‘That’s a matter of perspective.’

‘That so? Doesn’t matter, because I know that when I turn up with my artillery, Harrison will only have two choices. He can capitulate and let us in, or we blast our way through your gates, and we get in anyway. The end result will be the same either way.’

It’s cold and dark out here these days. I head home at first light and dutifully report back to Harrison. He’s not surprised when I tell him what Hunnyck said, but I guess we had to try. Last thing Hunnyck told me before I left was that he was feeling generous. He’s given us a day to consider. He says his army will be at the town gates at first light tomorrow. What happens then is up to Harrison to decide.

The boss has us spending the day getting ready for the inevitable. Duncan’s working hard to get everyone in line and prepped for battle. These days I mostly stay away from the fighting when it comes to our door. It’s not my thing, never has been really. Maybe that’s why me and Harrison see eye to eye so much of the time?

With no great surprise, everything of value is moved underground. At the centre of the town there’s a building that used to be a supermarket with a car park buried underneath. We’ve all spent more than our fair share of time hunkered down there, because it’s the safest place in town. People, supplies, equipment, medicines . . . all the things we need to keep on living the way we live are stashed down there, out of sight and out of range of the ferocious looking weaponry that Hunnyck’s going to be dragging along the road to greet us first thing tomorrow. The underground car park has a hidden exit tunnel we can use to get out of the town in case everything goes tits up. I ask Harrison about it, if he sees us using it to get out and take to the road ourselves. He says we’re staying put. ‘We’re not going anywhere,’ he says.

And don’t get me wrong . . . I trust this man, I really do, but after what I’ve heard, I can’t help but question his unflinching confidence in himself.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just rattled by Hunnyck? Yes, that’s it . . . my faith in the boss has been tested. In this world, we have no option but to take people on face value and judge them by their actions, because the past only exists in memory – you can’t look it up in a library or search for details online. These days, the past is shaped by the things we’re told by the people who were there and the people who knew the people who were there. Is it what they tell us that causes the concern, or the fact nothing historic can be confirmed or denied? Makes my head spin sometimes. Makes me rely on gut instinct. And today, I can’t help believing what Hunnyck told.

Regardless of who did what, it’s my neck on the line as much as anyone’s. I feel duty bound to challenge the boss’s thinking. I ask Duncan if Harrison heard me right about the weaponry that’s going to be used against us tomorrow. Duncan said he did. He said it changes nothing. He said Harrison knows exactly what he’s doing.

The day disappears into the night, and the sleepless night passes far quicker than I’d like. It’s morning before it feels like it should be. According to the timekeepers, there’s only an hour until dawn. The youngs and the experienced get their weapons prepared, ready to fight.

Harrison calls his people together – both those of us that will stay aboveground and all those who won’t. He tells us the day ahead will be hard. He says there will be losses. He says we won’t all make it. He also says we’re not going to surrender Stourbridge, no matter what. I keep my mouth shut about the howitzer pulling up outside the gates because Harrison asked me to, and though I’m starting to think his grip on reality might be slipping, he’s always done me right so far and I still trust him all the same.

Harrison tells us that when you build a place as good and strong as this, there will always be people who want to take it from us. We always knew there would be times ahead when we’d be challenged, when we had to fight to hold on to everything that we hold dear.

This is that day, he says.

And I know it’s all true what he says, and I know that he means it, but I still can’t shake the memory of what Hunnyck told me about the fight. No, not a fight – a beating. His words echo around my head . . . the way he talked about the crushing two-punch attack that destroyed Harrison all those years ago, about how he didn’t fight back, didn’t even try.

I think the same thing might be about to happen again.

To think, years ago we used to watch films and TV programmes where this sort of thing happened, never dreamt we’d be here ourselves one day. Now it’s a long time since I’ve seen any moving pictures on a screen, but I remember enough to know being here feels very different from watching the made-up dramas of the old world. The tension is unbearable. I can’t hardly think straight for nerves. Can’t eat, can’t drink, can hardly breathe . . . everything is on the line.

Hunnyck and his army emerge out of the mist and march down the road towards the gate unchallenged. I’m closer than I’d like to be, watching through a slender gap in the wall. All of our defenders – of which there are a couple of hundred at least – are inside the walls with the rest of us, gathered in pockets, ready to fight.

When word gets around about the howitzer, the nerves that have been bubbling up inside people start to escape. Some are saying we should talk. Some even think we should surrender given the calibre of the weapon now pointing directly at the entrance to our town. Harrison resists all calls. He says he knows what he’s doing, though many of the people now trying to talk to him appear increasingly unsure.

There’s some who want him to open the gates. I reckon they’re runners, just looking for a way out.

In spite of everything, when Harrison talks, people still listen. He says we’re to hold our nerves. If we go too soon, he says, we’ll be slaughtered.

Hunnyck’s the opposite. He’s not here to talk. All he wants is to fight. I thought he might have had one last try at negotiating, but no. He’s seen the gates are closed, and he’s reacting just as he said he would.

It begins.

The first cannon shot echoes through the silent morning air and hits the gates. The wood splinters, but the barrier is well engineered, tough and strong. By now, even those people who hadn’t yet heard about the weaponry we’re facing have realised what we’re up against. The protests are starting, but Harrison’s holding firm. He says don’t be tricked into panicking. And even as more shells slam into the gates behind him, he says it will all be good. He says we will be fine.

And as the wood starts to splinter, all I can see is him being punched in the face and collapsing. No fight. No defence. No hope.

Another five or six shells, and one side of the gates starts to fall. Three more rounds and it’s destroyed completely.

Here comes the flood . . .

Except it doesn’t.

Both sides hold their positions. Hunnyck’s not done firing the howitzer yet.

Another shell is sent into the town. It whistles through the air and destroys the front of one of the trading hubs not far from where I’m standing. The next shot hits an empty building and the whole thing collapses into a mound of rubble.

We wait for the next shot, collective breath held.


‘That’s it,’ Harrison says. ‘He’s done. At arms!’

Hunnyck’s fighters begin swarming through the ugly hole they blasted in our gate. They’re restricted by the rubble and the narrowness of their forced entry point. I can see now that Harrison has had Duncan working on the entrance to the town, building up barriers and temporary walls, using old vehicle wrecks to control the flow and direct people where he wants them to go. At first I assumed it was to keep the people of Stourbridge safe but, from my vantage point, I can see now that it was to funnel the invaders into specific parts of the town without them realising.

It’s a fucking bloodbath.

The attackers steam forward, all fired-up, only for our army to block them off and take them out. Some of our soldiers are camouflaged, others are hiding in plain sight. They wait until all of Hunnyck’s people have breached the town, then seal the exit to prevent them getting out.

The fighting is intense, but it doesn’t last long.

Many are killed. Those who survive immediately surrender or defect.

When all’s said and done, the battle is over in less than an hour.

At the end of it all, Hunnyck is dragged in front of the boss, half-dead. ‘Didn’t think you had it in you,’ he spits at Harrison, blood bubbling from between his lips.

Harrison sits down next to him. ‘I know. I’m sorry it had to be this way, old friend.’

‘I thought this place was an easy target.’

‘We were. You couldn’t get a much easier target than an undefended wooden gate.’

‘You finally learnt your lesson from all those years ago then?’

‘You’re still clinging onto that?’

‘You were pathetic. You were weak, Harrison. You were embarrassing.’

‘I knew I couldn’t beat you.’

‘You didn’t even try.’

‘What was the point? I won today, didn’t I?’


‘You think? And you’re the one lecturing me about learning lessons? You just don’t get it, do you? I didn’t have a hope of winning that fight back then, so I didn’t try. But that beating is the reason you lost here today.’

Hunnyck is fading fast. With his last shreds of energy, in the final minutes of his life, he demands to know more. Harrison clears the room. Just me, Duncan, and the two of them left in here now. Harrison makes the dying man comfortable and gives him some water.

‘There’s more to battles than just explosions and noise you know,’ Harrison says. ‘After I got beat, I went away and thought hard about what had happened. Any loss stings, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t cursed myself for letting you do what you did. I wanted revenge, but I realised pretty soon that it was never going to make any difference. I mean, just look at me. What was it they used to say? Couldn’t box my way out of a paper bag . . .’

Hunnyck laughs, and it looks like it hurts. Blood dribbles from the corner of his mouth. Harrison checks he’s still with us, then continues.

‘I thought letting you win would be the end of it, that we’d both get on with our lives. I did, but I hadn’t realised how it had affected you. You disappeared.’

‘Couldn’t stay . . .’

‘Exactly. You won the fight, but you lost everything else. Sometimes, the big punches are all your opponent has. Same as when you smacked me, I knew your big gun was all you’d got today. I let you fire it again and again at the gates until you were all out of ammo. After that I knew you’d no longer be a threat. We had the numbers. Once you’d fired all your munitions, you gave away your advantage. You never learnt from our fight. We’ve lost a gate, my old friend, but you’ve lost everything.’

And though it’s a bitter pill for Hunnyck to swallow, I reckon he knows Harrison’s right.

‘It’s not how you punch that matters,’ Harrison says. ‘It’s how you react to being hit.’

There’s a beautiful calm in Stourbridge tonight. Our numbers are swollen, all of us on the same side now. There’s a crew already working hard to repair the town gates.

I stand and watch the place come back to life. There’s a gang clearing out some of the unused housing, ready to accommodate our new arrivals. Others work to rebuild where the mortars hit. We’re not anticipating any trouble. The inglorious fate of their all-powerful leader was enough of a deterrent. They know this community won’t stand for any trouble. They’ve been shown how we do things. And I guess that’s why, after all the battles that have been fought up and down this ruin of a country, we’re still here.

Thanks for reading

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