Gehenna Rises

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PROLOGUE: SHOOTING "BEESTON"

ON LOCATION – DAY FIVE

MARCH 7TH 20--

“We’re legends now, I suppose. It seems the movies require me to have the stature of one.”

‘You really do look like him.’

I turned from the gravestone of the person I’d been hired to portray. For a while now I’d been gazing at the monument, giving in to the secret fear I’d been cradling like an anxious mother her new-born that I wouldn’t be able to do him justice. Sure, I’d been in other movies before; smaller projects with low budgets matching their target audiences’ as-low expectations; action-filled zeb-masher fests like SAS: O-Day, Z-Day Survivors and Oxford Undead, aiming high on effects and body counts, low on actual story or anything resembling character development. We were after all still basking in the warmth of our victory. The zeb scourge had been successfully routed; rooted out from Britain’s shores. Even now, a decade plus after VUK had been declared, nothing warmed the cockles of the surviving nation’s hearts on a Friday evening more than boozy accompaniments to what has fast become broadcasts and VODs of Humanity giving the Undead a royal rogering with an oh-so spiky morning star. Of those years, I’d spent the majority earning my heavily rationed crust playing various roles, working my way up the ladder, gaining experience, skill and something roughly akin to professionalism.

This gig though… Oh-ho, this one however was another order of magnitude entirely.

You’ll likely have seen the movie already by the time this book reaches your hands. Beeston, and the slight gradient which was that lowest slope of the hill upon which I stood that bitter-cold March morning, gazing at the monuments to the Fallen, was already legend in the annals of this, Humanity’s recent worldwide war against the indefatigable Undead. A week or so before my arrival on set, columnist Mark Frank had already quipped in his smart alec article for the Guardian’s Comment section about the production I’d joined that, as likely as it was that Beeston would one day become as legendary as Troy, then if anything would help cement that status – and sooner – it’d be this “homage” about to be cranked out by Hollywood’s myth-making machine. (Frank has likely backed up his opinion with a review of the film since. You may have even read it.) I knew what he was implying. I’d read the script (by then already leaked on the internet and causing controversy), and knew only too well just what in this famous and well-documented history we were re-enacting was factual canon, what had been embellished for the purposes of drama and entertainment while “keeping the essential truth”, and what was just straight out, steaming hot porky-pies.

My trembling like a lamb on a sacrificial altar that bitter morning was not for that reason – the lies part, I mean. I knew I may be an accessory-after-the-fact by my involvement, but that was peanuts as I saw it. Hell, the job had come in the nick of time for me. Work had effectively dried up (non-acting odd-jobs included) and I’d have been a fool to turn this gig down. For all the complaints and fears about how the Yanks’d change things about the Beeston narrative that we Brits still so jealousy guarded (and oh! Have there been complaints!), we couldn’t say no to all that lovely money the studio would be bringing over and injecting into our still recovering film industry, as well as the local and larger economies. So what if the British hero was played by an American movie star? Hollywood had arrived, hale and hearty, ready to have it large, and calling on Britannia’s children to come join the party. I’d been a lucky bugger too, no doubt about it. The studio had seen my profile in Spotlight among those much-thinned ranks of thesps counted in the elite category of “still breathing”, pointed its corporate finger at me, and I – suitably astonished and understandably awed – had tugged my lock compliantly and followed.

I’m not putting myself down for false humility’s sake, understand. I was under no illusions. Fact was I’d been picked, not only as I looked like my real life counterpart, but because it had been agreed by all interested parties I wasn’t a half bad actor either. Not great, please note. Not even good. Just “not half-bad”. But it’s still the Victory days, friends; the War had taken its toll. Living casting directors couldn’t be choosers. A look-alike, “not half-bad” Brit actor may as well be “Triple OscarTM winning” to them. Which was the cause for my tension as I saw it; I was the bronze medallist who’d ended up with the gold only because my betters had either been eaten or themselves become eaters.

So that’s the truth of it; I simply didn’t feel up to the task before me – certainly not that morning. I’d suddenly joined the big leagues. Sure, in one sense, all it meant was the contraband floating around on set was better (though to my dying day I’ll say American chocolate still tastes like recycled cardboard), everyone got paid more, and played with better and more expensive toys for longer. The other up-side with this gig was it would nigh on guarantee me more work to come for the next couple of years at least, ensuring I kept a roof over my head and a full belly. The downside was I knew I’d be playing opposite a better class of actor, many of whom had been able to afford, not just the training to become the best, but also the kind of close protection capable of keeping their well-trained arses from being bitten off when O-Day occurred, and survive the ensuing bloody mayhem. Genuine movie stars. Legends. Acting alongside little old me. The word “inadequate” barely covered how I felt.

That the man I was now looking at and knew to be a local acknowledged my resemblance, was no reassurance for me. The fact he was also one of the Beeston Heroes – about whom this film was being made – didn’t help me any either. If anything, my first thought was that, with his acknowledgment of my resemblance, would come an unreasonable expectation my performance would be similarly striking.

God, are you in for a big disappointment, I thought. He seemed to read my mind.

‘Scared eh? It’s fine to be scared. We were all scared here, back then. Every single day. He was too,’ the man added, motioned to the monument. It, and its other two-hundred odd siblings, were barely three years old; flat square photo-voltaic plates serving as bases for 3D-printed furls of transparent plastic that rose, folding into tapered points. At night, solar-charged projections within would light the plumes, creating flickering artificial flames of remembrance. A flame for each of Beeston’s Fallen. Very artistic, very moving. That my real-life counterpart hadn’t burned seemed to have escaped the monuments’ builders. Maybe they wanted consistency among the ranks, maybe it was simply down to cost and resources, the universal limiters of today’s world. Maybe they gave a damn only so much. Giving a damn has been spread mighty thin these days.

’Never admitted it, of course, but he was. Fear was always there, like living under an electricity pylon. The crackle and snap you’d hear of all that power running just metres above your head… you learn to tune it out. Doesn’t mean it isn’t still there. So accept the feeling and use it.

‘Add to that,’ he offered as an afterthought, ‘don’t give a fuck either. He didn’t.’

I blinked at this man, looking again at his wellingtons caked with mud, his greying hair, the well-worn, pre-Battle glasses, the bent, blunted blade of his broken nose, the starched, cloud-white square of his dog collar peeking between the regulation black of his Anglican shirt, the high lapels of his overcoat unfurled to the max against the chill, still failing to hide the long-healed sliver that remained of his left ear. In his hands was a bottle of water and a “Shammy” leather rag he worked over the curls and into the folds of a particular plastic flame to keep it pristine. Yes, he still was what I knew him to be, and yes, he did say what I’d just heard.

‘Treat it all as a joke. One sick joke. Do that, and you’ll be fine.’

Considering what I’d personally gone through during the Battle for Survival – what we’d all collectively gone through – projecting that viewpoint would be a piece of piss.

Seeing how the movie was going, I reflected, that’d help no end too.

#

The distant thrumming I’d been hearing the last few minutes became an urgent bass drumroll of heavy helicopter rotors. A Chinook rose from behind the trees. I knew its LZ was opposite the entrance to the castle’s outer bailey walls, toward the far side of the hill. Clinging to its twin halos of blurred rotors, it climbed skyward, beginning an orbit of this, the one-time Haven, cutting a swathe through the pall of smoke fed by the fire near the summit outside the Upper Ward, passing directly over me and the Hero, eclipsing the sun. Churning air tossed dust and stray blades of grass about us, making the ground beneath our feet tremble some seconds before the shadow lifted. We followed the aircraft’s progress and – for a moment – I felt a pang of concern, sure that the movie cameras would be following the ’copter’s departure too, and inadvertently capturing us standing there, in plain view, looking gormless. But of course that wasn’t the case. We were well out of sight of the film unit. We were certainly out of mind.

Four days in a row now I’d been called to set, and each day, due to last minute schedule changes, it had been decided my services weren’t required. Perhaps this, day five, would be different. I’d learned from the Man in previous snatched conversations with him that, while still engaged as official “advisor” for this production, His services were equally, even pointedly, not being sought. Setting my own depiction of Zombie War history temporarily aside was fine; I was an actor and production schedules changed on the fly all the time (it turned out the schedule would famously change a lot on this gig). Didn’t matter to me. Money was flowing into my account whether I was in front of the camera or not, so what the hell did I care? But treating the Man who stood nearby me, this expert, this… Hero the same way as I, it seemed, well, somehow akin to blasphemy.

The Man however didn’t seem to mind. As soon as distance had quashed the Chinook’s departing drumroll enough that he was audible again, Alec Mitchell (survivor # 2,486,269) said, still watching the shrinking ’copter, his gaze contemplative:

‘There I go…’ And so he was. One of the scenes slated to shoot today had been his abrupt departure from the Beeston Safe Haven. Looked like they’d actually kept to it.

Mitchell shook his head. ‘Feels weird. Being one of those left behind this time.’ He turned his attention back to me, gave my costume a cursory assessment, then continued his cleaning duties. ‘So…called in yet again today?’

‘Yup,’ I replied. Since our official introduction at the cast script read-through, I’d seen Mitchell around a few times now, and my acquaintance with him was well enough established I felt mostly comfortable with him. Only mostly though; enough that calling him by his first name no longer grated against my ingrained awe of him as an idol.

‘Think you’ll get used?’

I shrugged, mumbled. My call time had been seven a.m. I’d duly arrived at the location only to learn that, yet again, my scene had been shifted to later in the day. Maybe. So, with time to kill, and ensuring the Second Assistant Director knew where I was, I’d wandered up to the graves, reciting my character’s lines for the scene again and again, considering which responses felt best, his emotional entry point in the scene, his motivations as it would play out. I knew his face and as much about him as could be gleaned from surviving records. My research had even dug up a surviving relative – his cousin – who’d offered up the few childhood memories he still held. Nothing useful, at least as my fears told me. Paying respects to the man buried here had been an attempt at summoning, I suppose. Conjuring something of his sprit, crystallising him within me.

Hadn’t worked. Still I felt the nagging, gnawing fear. I decided to confess the sin I was about to commit. Considering Mitchell’s job, it seemed appropriate.

He only nodded. No trace of condemnation or ridicule or surprise.

‘Don’t worry. Having seen some of the performances round here the last few days, there are others committing the same crime. At worst, you’ll only be in good company.’ With a final, dashing sweep of the monument with his Shammy, he smiled and gave me a mischievous wink.

‘Tell you what, come back to the vicarage. We’ll have a cup of tea and I’ll share with you what I remember of him. How’s that?’ Mitchell again pointed at my monument. I nodded eagerly, expressed my thanks. I’d wondered about pumping him for just this kind of info, but had been too… hell, I dunno. Awed? Worried I’d be imposing? Perhaps he’d just read my mind again.

I texted the 2nd A.D. where I was headed, and we made our way back down to the main gates at a leisurely amble, accommodating Mitchell’s right leg, the limb betraying a trace of his trademark limp. ‘The cold always brings it out again,’ he explained, then changing the subject to the depiction of himself in the movie.

‘I mean… look at my guy. He’s a good actor and all, don’t get me wrong. That’s why he’s a star. But look at him. Square-jawed and not a trace of grey on him. And what’s with all that running and athletics? At my best I couldn’t manage anything like what they’re having him do down there.’ He sighed. ‘But what can we do? We’re legends now, I suppose. It seems the movies require me to have the stature of one.’ He grimaced, the thought of it obviously grating on him. ‘It’s not like I was Mo Farah or a bloody secret agent back in the day…’ He shook his head and quoted something then – I discovered later – from Lord of the Rings; ‘“History became legend. Legend became myth. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Bloody dream factory. It’ll lull us all back to sleep again…’

Again with the cussing. I decided then that Alec Mitchell was my kind of Reverend.

#

Beeston’s vicarage was a surprise, the first time I saw it. This being a village out in rural Cheshire, and having no Christian upbringing of my own to temper my expectations, I’d imagined some ancient, archetypal gothic pile slumped, grey and sulking, beside its more bloated twin, the village church, its stones veined by desiccated husks of dead vines. Perhaps an umbilical, roofed arcade would snake between them to shield the incumbent servant of God as he went to and from the practicing of his mysterious rites. Perhaps the place would also have a ghost or two – you know, for added local colour. Another Borley Rectory, maybe. Not so, as it turns out; the original building had been too expensive to run so (Mitchell explained), long prior to O-Day, it had been sold on by the C of E to someone with the cash to burn on it, and the land parcelled up. Upon the lesser plot, a more modest, modern and manageable house was built for the parish vicar, and placed next to the terrace of cottages standing at ease along the lane.

Mitchell led me through its front door and into its welcoming warmth. A pointing finger from him showed me the way to his study, while he shrugged off his coat and went to get us a brew. I dutifully obeyed, casting curious glances at the framed PhD and BSc certificates, the family photographs on the hall’s walls as I went.

The study, though large, had been squeezed some by deep shelves on every sides, all of them filled, floor to ceiling, with books fictional, philosophical and theological. But not only those you’d expect a man dedicated to the role of spiritual shepherd to keep for reference. One whole wall was devoted to the sciences, and of those a good portion to the fields of neurology, bio-chemistry and virology. Among them lurked other volumes, their spines declaring findings of various medical studies of the living dead. I also spotted Mitchell’s own book, Apocalypse Doubt, and before I knew what I was doing pulled it from the shelf and found myself reading The Spectator’s review on the inside front cover:

“Coming from a man who has seen first-hand the horror and suffering of this global catastrophe, this is an unflinchingly honest and robust treatise. Asking, “If He exists, where was God when the undead rose?” Mitchell uses his scientist’s background to systematically tease apart the answers and, with all the precision of a man who’s had to ask hard questions himself (and not happy – not by a long stretch – with the answers he got) explains why his own quest satisfied him enough to maintain his own faith, a quiet, persistent faith which is still evident.”

I put the book back, unable to stop myself wondering if it isn’t all wishful thinking on his part.

Upon the wall above a long writing desk hung a poster frame bearing the famous Warholesque screen print of the War Office’s quartet of Z Wartime propaganda posters; each carrying a different image of a snarling zombie with varying declarations. They’d been so ubiquitous during the Battle, with my eyes closed I can recall not only the slogans verbatim, but their typeface and arrangement:

“Know your enemy!”

“Kill or be killed!”

NOT your family! NOT your friend!”

“aim for the brain!”

Upon a long desk sat the usual stationery, in / out trays, and a time-worn computer long obsolete and overdue for replacement. Staring at it, I found myself, not for the first time, wondering if new iterations of tech would ever roll off production lines in my lifetime. There were also two framed photos; the first – a selfie I assumed – was of Mitchell with another of the Beeston Heroes. The pair looked out at me, their faces squished together within the frame, giving the lens genuine, care-free grins, an indicator the shot was from sometime after VUK Day. I recall it prompted me to smile; this evidence that national heroes were human after all, that, like the rest of us, the everyman potential to play the fool was within them too.

The other photo was of a small crowd in lab coats, celebrating… some occasion. No indicators of what. Amongst the throng, raising a toast, cheered my host. It was hard to tell whether this moment was from his pre- or post-Haven days. From his bio, I knew Mitchell had once been a research scientist for GlaxoSmithKline before he became a vicar, and again with the team he was called upon to join after what had happened here. In this photo however he was too far from the camera for me to judge from which era this moment had been stolen.

At the last, an A1 size painting that had been left, leaning, against one side of the desk, caught my attention. It depicted Mitchell and the same Hero I’d seen in their selfie, this time standing alone at the famous climactic moment that day years ago; aiming an assault rifle up the hill toward the castle’s summit… and the undead horrors advancing down upon them.

’It’s a gift from Dan1,’ Mitchell stated. He stood at the threshold of the study, having caught me in my moment of unashamed curiosity. He came over, handed me a steaming mug of tea. My hands and lips embraced its sweet warmth.

‘It’s great.’ I said after my first mouthful, using the mug to indicate the painting.

‘Yes. Certainly captures the moment. I need to think of a good place to hang it.’ I looked round, my gaze asking the unspoken question, Why not here? He only smiled wanly. ‘It was thoughtful of Dan, but… I think he looks on this as celebrating a moment of selfless heroism. I re-live that moment enough in nightmares, and I only recall it as one of fear. Shit-scared inadequacy, if I’m honest. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to say that to him.’

Mitchell’s admittance made me feel suddenly awkward – worse in fact; as if I’d trodden into some forbidden, sacred space, a wagon train settler interloping through a native burial ground. Taking in the painting again, the analogy seemed only too pertinent. Here we were after all; at Beeston village and its Castle on the hill. This place had been where Mitchell and hundreds of others survivors had holed up for those first few months after Outbreak Day, and which is now known across the globe for a new peril that first arose here, and was symptomatic of what was already coming worldwide in the War. The very name, “Beeston”, has itself become synonymous with the new terrors that strode across countries the world over, and indicated how much more dangerous the threat from our nemesis – the zombie – actually was. Many tacticians and historians have concurred that, had the bravery and swift judgement shown in the face of denial, greed and panic that day in early March by the Beeston survivors been ignored, had their urgent warning not been escalated and acted upon, the Beeston menace could have seriously altered the outcome of the War.

I know; I’d read a couple of their books as part of my research for Beeston. Looking back on the conversation I was about to have with Mitchell – the conversation I’m setting down here for you – I believe that opinion only too well, particularly in light of what he said, the secrets he declared, at the end.

I can’t be sure what it was that had made him open up to me that day. While his own account of what occurred is well documented (his debrief after the event – often referenced – was thorough2, and plenty of visitors have posted videos online of him recounting certain moments as he leads tourists up the hill to the Ward, which are consistent), outside his public duties for the church and as a volunteer guide for English Heritage at the castle, Mitchell remains a private man; as introverted as he’s claimed himself to be, slow to open up the extra defences we all found ourselves building in our minds to shield us from what the world had become, walls we’ve all found hard to bring down again. All the more surprising for me then when I found our chat swiftly turn from his brief reminiscences about the man I was to play, into as near complete a re-telling of the events that led up the First Emergence of what would come to be known as the “Beeston Phenomena” that I know – more, even. A confession – probably a prophecy.

Considering the research I’d conducted for my role on the movie, you may wonder at the staggering ignorance of some of my questions, seeing as I knew about as much as anyone could. The reason is that, as soon as I realised where the conversation was going, I played along, letting Mitchell tell his tale, and prompting him where necessary. I was told once that playing ignorant gets you closer to the truth. On this occasion, I was right to do so.

#

I’d set down my trusty old phone on the desk between us, its Dictaphone app duly recording for me (with Mitchell’s permission), to replay the conversation at my leisure later. It was quickly forgotten, and I remembered it again only it when it beeped memory shortage warnings through the day, and I had to delete portions of my music library to accommodate Mitchell’s ongoing narrative.

Apart from moments where I had to stop and restart the Dictaphone app, what follows is our conversation on the day, set down pretty much verbatim and (mostly) unedited. I decided to keep the story as it was delivered, so you can gain something of a sense of Alec Mitchell’s own voice, and the truth of events as they occurred and as he recalled them, and not as a movie studio – used to cookie-cutting stories just so and stretching the truth for profit – would have you see it.

Here then is the first-hand account of what happened, as told by an unwilling participant, to one small community of survivors caught in the eye of a new, entirely unanticipated, and utterly terrifying storm.

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