“Oh, that bloody shop,” Alice said, peering into the muesli packet. “Look at this!”
“What?” George poured water over the tea leaves and turned to look at his wife. She was glaring at the cereal quite furiously.
“There’s only a caterpillar in it.”
“A caterpillar? Really?” He leaned over her, one hand on her shoulder. “Aw, there is too.”
“Don’t ‘aw’ it. What am I supposed to have for breakfast now?”
“He won’t have eaten much.”
“Oh, ha. I’m not eating caterpillar leftovers.”
“Toast, then?” George suggested, and pulled the loaf out of the cupboard.
They drank their tea as they watched the caterpillar exploring the top of the muesli box, lifting himself up on his back legs to wave his fuzzy head around.
“I’m not shopping there again.”
“You say that every time,” George replied, passing her the jam.
“It keeps happening, though! I don’t know where they get their stock from. Weevils in the flour, a slug in the lettuce – I’m going to start going to Sainsbury’s.”
George made a face. “How boring. I like that little shop – it’s got all sorts of odd things.”
“Maybe it does, but we can’t keep throwing stuff away.” Alice stood and picked up the cereal box. “When I tried to take the lettuce back they said the slug must have been living in our fridge. The cheek!”
“What’re you doing with him?”
“It’s an it, George. I’m throwing it out.”
“Don’t do that. I’ll take him down the park.” He held his hand out, and she glared at him.
“It’s raining. You’re going to take him down there in the rain?”
“You can’t just put him in the bin. Poor wee guy.” George plucked the caterpillar off the cereal pack, and it immediately started exploring his hand. “I’ll just pop him in a jar with some leaves or something for now.”
Alice shook her head and dropped the cereal box in the rubbish. Whatever kept him happy.
The rain continued on and off for much of the week, that drizzly spring weather that always threatens to brighten into something lovely but never quite does. It was Friday before it was nice enough to go out for a walk, and a sharp little breeze played with the trees that lined the road, and tugged at Alice’s coat as they strolled arm in arm towards the park.
“We should go up to the gardens for lunch,” George said.
“It’ll be crowded.”
“True. D’you fancy an ice cream in the park, then?”
Alice looked up at the scrubbed sky, feeling the first hints of warmth in the sun, and smiled. “That’d be nice.”
They took their usual route through the park, treading carefully on the muddy paths that wound through the woods, nodding at joggers and dog walkers. There was spring growth everywhere, struggling up after the rain, and everything seemed breathlessly alive, from the birds flinging themselves across the sky to the spring flowers flooding across the ground.
Except for one small tree, close to the head of the path.
“Oh,” Alice said. “That looks rather poorly, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” George frowned at the tree. Every leaf had been torn from it, and its branches slumped forlornly towards the ground, dry and cracking under their own weight.
“Virus, d’you think?”
“Um,” George let go of Alice’s hand and went to inspect the tree a little more closely.
Alice watched him go, tucking her hands into her coat pockets. “That’s not the tree you put our little friend in, is it?”
George turned back, looking shifty. “Of course not.”
“I told you we should have put it in the bin.” She linked her arm through his again and they ambled on towards the ice cream shop.
The sunny weather held, and the next day they started down the road towards the park again, agreeing that this time they should have a coffee, because it didn’t do anyone any good to have ice cream every day, especially as it wasn’t even summer yet. As they approached the head of the path, they slowed, then stopped altogether, staring at the trees that usually formed a reaching green canopy over the footpath. All the leaves were gone. Not a single tree had been spared, and the trees themselves looked diminished and shrunken, their limbs twisting in ways Alice was certain they hadn’t the day before. As they watched, a branch detached itself with a brittle snap and crashed to the pavement ahead of them, shattering with the finality of a broken figurine. They looked at each other.
“Shall we go the other way?” Alice suggested.
“It might be wise,” George said, as another branch fell in a pained chorus of tearing and cracking.
The rest of the park seemed unaffected, and they drank their coffee watching children and their parents – well, mostly their parents – driving remote control boats around the pond, framed by lush dark foliage dripping with life. There were a lot of park workers around, and they saw some stringing yellow caution tape along the edge of the woodland area, much to the frustration of the dog walkers. Occasionally a crash could be heard over the sound of the coffee machine.
“I did put the caterpillar there,” George said.
Alice looked at him over the rim of her cup. “No shit, Sherlock.”
“Should I tell them?”
They both looked towards the taped-off woodland. A man with a poodle was arguing with a workman and waving his arms wildly. The poodle was peeing on one of the new sculptures the council had installed, and Alice rather thought she approved of his evaluation of it. “I don’t think so,” she said finally. “It was a caterpillar. Even if it was exceptionally hungry, it can’t kill trees.”
“I guess,” George said. He was fiddling with the sugar packets, and Alice sighed, then leaned over and squeezed his arm.
“If it’ll make you feel better. But I doubt they’ll even pay any attention.”
The workman with the warning tape paid no attention whatsoever. The woman driving the golf cart listened gravely, then patted George’s hand and thanked him, telling him she’d be sure to pass it along, before driving under the tape and up the hill towards the woods.
“She’s not going to pass it on, is she?” George asked once they were out of earshot.
“I did tell you,” Alice replied.
The next day they packed sandwiches and a thermos of tea, and drove out to the Dales to walk in some wilder spaces. Neither of them mentioned the caterpillar.
Monday was a little grey and fragile feeling, as if spring had worn itself out over the weekend and wasn’t sure just what to do now. Alice had books to take back to the library, so they bundled themselves against the cold and ventured out, their route taking them past the park, although it wasn’t a day for sitting out with coffee.
Not that they needed to worry, as the coffee shop was shut. The entire park was shut. The big iron gates at the main entrance were closed for the first time Alice could remember, and the smaller entrances were strung about liberally with more warning tape, and guarded by soldiers with tight faces. Beyond them, they could see nothing but grey and broken trees, stark against the green spring grass. They stopped in front of the main gates, and asked one of the soldiers what had happened. She examined them with a flat expression, and must have found them harmless, because she relaxed and said, “Biological event.”
“A biological event?” George said. “What’s that when it’s at home? A birthday party for amoebas?”
The soldier grinned, her cheeks dimpling. “No, sir. But that’s all the information I can give you. There’s no danger to people or animals. Just the trees.” A roar punctuated her words, the sound of a glacier calving, and they turned to watch as the great oak tree that had stood at the centre of the park folded in on itself like so much paper.
“Oh dear,” Alice said. “Now that’s a real shame.”
The soldier looked back at them, her smile fading. “I know. It must have been really pretty.”
“It was,” George said, and took Alice’s arm. “Well – good luck, then.”
“Thanks,” the soldier said, and watched them walk away along the rain-damp sidewalk, a small woman and a thin man, dusted grey around the edges with age.
“Alice,” George called from the little balcony that gave onto the street.
“What is it?”
“Come and have a look at this.”
Alice frowned at her crossword. Something strange (7). “Is it important?”
She sighed and put the paper on the side table, then padded over to the balcony. The rain had stopped, but the night still felt damp and chilly. “You’re letting the cold in.”
“Come see.” He put an arm around her as she tightened her cardigan, looking down the street towards the park. In the dark the dead grey trees were pale as old ashes, and there were searchlights punching through them, and silently rolling red and blue lights on the roads at the entrance.
“What’re they doing?”
“I can’t tell,” George said. “I think they’re looking for something.” As he spoke, a sudden rash of shouting broke out, accompanied by the crash of falling trees. More shouting, and then a sound that made them clutch each other in instinctive fright – it was the snap of guns, familiar from too many TV shows and movies to name, but never heard in earnest. It was flat and hard, both less impressive and more frightening than either had imagined. They stared out towards the park as the searchlights began to congregate by the gates. The shooting had stopped, but there was more shouting going on, and the thunder of falling trees was building to a crescendo.
“Do you think -” Alice started, and George hushed her.
The trees were falling in a clear-cut line, bearing down out of the woodland and towards the main gates, exploding in clouds of silver dust that spun the light back towards the watchers and obscured whatever was within it. The noise swelled as the tidal wave of falling vegetation roared across the park, drowning the shouts of the soldiers and police, who had withdrawn beyond the gates. Big searchlights mounted on the jeeps were still shining into the park, but the all-pervasive dust of the dead trees fractured it as surely as mist, and the closer the thing – because there had to be something, didn’t there, the trees weren’t falling like that just by chance – the less that could be seen. And the unseen thing was almost upon the gates.
George and Alice stood with their arms around each other, wide-eyed and astonished, on their neat little balcony at the front of their neat little terraced house, and watched the gates of the park blow open, and the police and soldiers scatter with a soundtrack of belching gunfire. The thing careened down the street, oblivious to the shots, moving with an ungainly speed that reminded Alice of a charging hippopotamus, bouncing off a few cars and setting the alarms shrieking before it steadied its course down the centre of the road. It had so many legs it barely humped up as it ran, and with the sound of collapsing trees gone George thought he could hear its sucker feet peeling eagerly off the pavement and planting back down. It was like hearing the world’s biggest velcro strap being opened and closed rapidly on the street below them. They leaned forward to watch it pass beneath the balcony, and as it did it seemed to tip its head towards them, level with their feet, and they could see themselves reflected in one round dark eye. Then it was gone, velcroing down the nighttime street, taking up so much of the road that a car coming the other way veered in panic and ploughed into a parked moped. A moment later the first of the jeeps roared after the creature, shouting soldiers hanging off it in all directions, followed by screaming police cars and more jeeps. Alice and George stayed where they were, their bodies still pressed together, trembling with the excitement of it all. Then the street was empty again, the car sirens still yowling, doors and windows opening and shutting anxiously.
Eventually, Alice looked up at George. “Cuppa?”
“Sure,” he said, and they retreated to the warmth of the living room, settling themselves in their chairs and looking about cautiously, as if expecting something to have changed.
Alice put the kettle on, and took a packet of biscuits from the cupboard. “Digestive?” she said, offering them to George.
He took one, then hesitated. “Where’re they from?”
“Sainsbury’s,” she said, putting the packet on the coffee table.
“Ah. Good.” George settled back into his chair and put his feet on the footstool. “I rather think you’re right about that other shop.”
“Of course I am,” Alice said. “And Sainsbury’s does some quite nice biscuits.” She picked up her crossword, read the clue again, and thought, Ah. Anomaly. That’s it.
Outside, the car alarms had finally stopped.
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