My dad often spoke of a man who saved my life, and how we became refugees living in Scotland.
On the morning of 14th May 2014 most of Europe and North Africa was consumed by a massive fireball that killed countless millions and changed humanity forever. What didn’t burn was cursed by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that destroyed all electrical and electronic devices. In an instant mankind was rendered helpless. For those who survived the conflagration, food became scarce and starvation beckoned. At first many thought that the UK had been devastated by a massive, pre-emptive nuclear attack, but weeks later and survivors started to report seeing large “Unidentified Flying Objects” (UFOs) over Southern Scotland and Northern England.
I was too young to remember any of this, but my life was saved by the kindness of John Smith, a stranger who found me crying over the body of my dead mother, somewhere in Cumbria or Northumberland. He looked after me until we were picked up by an army patrol. Thereafter, I was reunited with my dad, before moving to Scotland. But what happened to the man who saved my life?
Eighteen months ago my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before it was too late, he wanted to trace this man, not only to thank him again for saving my life, but also to help pinpoint the location where his wife (my mum) was buried.
Nonetheless, beyond the pseudonym (?) not much is known of John Smith. True, his first name was John and he was a survivor, having come from Cumbria, but we may never know his true origins or family background. His life post-apocalypse was one of survival, sacrifice, imprisonment and finally salvation. He saved many lives and yet he became a prisoner held under the convenience of quarantine.
His story and his lost diaries have done more than most to explain the events of 14th May 2014. Yet beyond his rediscovered writing he largely remains an enigma. Some say that was by design and of his own choosing, with friends respecting his wishes to remain just another refugee, trying to survive in Scotland.
But none of this was known to us as we began our research and journey of discovery. What little we knew was told by John Smith to my dad the night before we set off for Scotland in the summer of 2014. We survived, but did John Smith?
There is always a feeling of apprehension as winter turns to spring. The lucky ones survive another winter and another year, but many don’t make it. They are hidden behind closed curtains or perish in isolation. They perish this winter and the last and every one since 2014. It’s not only the lack of food that kills, but the cold and the dark and the despair also take their toll. And surviving 20 years of deprivation is no guarantee that you will survive tomorrow. So on that first day of spring we mourn the countless thousands who perished, but things are improving, albeit slowly.
I grew up in a country that survived the firestorm, only to slowly succumb to the cold and the hunger of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Our neighbours of England and Wales and Northern Ireland perished and we try not to follow them.
It’s been more than 20 years since we arrived in Scotland, and each Spring we gather ourselves together, to count the dead and to continue the fight, simply because we must. Yet the apprehension is palpable as we start afresh. Life before May 2014 is for me a distant memory now. Perhaps a few fragments of life before Scotland remain. I grew up in a Scotland darkened and starved by events not of her making. But I survived because of my Dad. He lost me once and wasn’t going to loose me again.
We arrived in Scotland and after medical checks and a hot meal, we set off for Glasgow - travelling some of the way by horse and cart. Our relatives, who were surprised to see us, helped as much as they could. That evening I had my first hot bath in months. The water was heated over an open fire in the garden. Afterwards, and while I slept, my dad and my aunt and uncle talked of life in Scotland.
They had a spare bedroom which me and dad shared. There was no gas or electricity or running water. The TV had already been consigned to the garden shed, along with most things electrical.
The day after our arrival we visited local council offices to be registered as official refugees and to receive our ration cards. These entitled us to one hot meal each evening. Our local Emergency Feeding Centre was located in a nearby school. Each day they provided around 800 meals to local residents and refugees, but there were days when the food kitchen was closed due to a lack of supplies. Then the army would be brought in to maintain order.
Sometimes they distributed packets of biscuits or bags of crisps or anything they had in reserve. And if there were insufficient supplies then orderly queues would quickly be replaced by mob rule. And my dad would always be there up front and fighting for our survival. He pushed and grabbed and kicked and punched, so that I would have something to eat while sometimes he himself would go without. If my dad was successful then others would starve, but he would provide for me. But there were days when the walk home was unbearable for him, when he would return empty handed and I would go without.
And when things improved he was there up front again, this time to give a helping hand - not only to provide for us, but also as penance for keeping me alive while others suffered. He eventually secured voluntary work in another feeding centre, which were quickly renamed Scottish Restaurants. Then in 2017 we moved to a farm near Aberdeen, working with other refugees.
But that was then and today in 2034 my dad is poorly and I’m about to leave university. Things did improve for us, more of which later, but my dad wanted to know what happened to John Smith.
In the spring I mentioned him to my tutor and friend, Helen Simmons and her partner Kris Appleby. They were both keen to help. Kris had worked as a volunteer for the British Red Cross. He helped establish and maintain the local information exchange pertaining to refugees and casualties. Throughout Scotland a database of those affected was maintained and circulated, while requests for information were also distributed. This network exists to this day. Sadly there are no records of any John Smith (English - Refugee) or John Smith (English - Deceased) held by the British Red Cross.
We even searched sub-categories pertaining to survivors from Wales, Northern Ireland and even Scotland, but found nothing. Then again, not many made it to the Scottish border following the firestorm. We even appealed directly to the public through the network of notice boards - those maintained by the British Red Cross, local councils and reading clubs. All we could do is wait.
Then a breakthrough of sorts. Dad again mentioned his time living under canvas. He had been picked up by the British Army while searching for me and my mum. We had been separated after an argument between the two of them. The army agreed to allow him to work in the field kitchen, while those on patrol were asked to look out for us. As we were last seen alive months after the firestorm, there was a high probability that we were still alive.
During this time my dad became friends with one of the NCOs, and perhaps he might be able to help. We were discovered somewhere in Cumbria after spending six weeks living in a tent, which was hidden inside a small building or outbuilding. We scavenged for food from abandoned vehicles and empty houses. And that’s all we knew. Perhaps this NCO might know the soldiers who discovered me and John Smith. Accordingly that might lead us to where me and John Smith called home, and where mum was buried.
The problem is that my dad doesn’t know or can’t remember the name of this NCO, nor any of the soldiers who were asked to keep a look out of me and my mum. So we filled in more postcards and sent them off, thereafter we waited and waited.
Then another breakthrough and we received a letter from a former soldier. Let’s called him Arthur Wilson. He was an NCO and during the months following the firestorm he was stationed at a refugee centre near the Scottish border. On 16th August 2034 both me and Helen travelled down from Aberdeen to meet him. The journey was eventful. The journey started with me being arrested for head butting a ticket collector on the 11.38 train to Edinburgh. He wouldn’t let us on the train with our bikes, even though the guard van was empty. He was a prick and a jobs-worth. Okay maybe flooring him was a bit harsh, but I’ve met his kind before.
My dad instilled in me the charms of “Please” and “Thank You”. He also taught me how to fight my corner, and not to take crap from anyone. I was both respectful to my elders and also knew how to defend myself.
I worked hard, both at school and on the farm. We all worked hard. We had to eat and that mean working for our daily bread. But dad also made sure that I enjoyed myself. That was the key to survival. Food kept you alive, but being able to enjoy life kept you going. I learned to play the clarinet and the guitar. School was hard work but fun. I passed all my exams and made friends. I excelled in English, and while the other kids entered handwriting competitions, I learnt shorthand and typing.
But that was then, and now I was being held for a public disorder offence. Justice is swift in post-apocalyptic Scotland. I received a ticking off and a rather nice cup of tea! It was our word against his, and he had been drinking heavily on the job. We were to travel by steam train south and then bike the last few miles. The following day, we decided or rather had no choice other than bike all the way, but we were fit and young. Also, I was now banned from travelling on public transport, while the ticket collector was now looking for a new job.
The journey was uneventful apart from a puncture. We stayed in a number of hostels before arriving at our final destination. Arthur was over the moon to meet us. He had spent eight months rounding up survivors and burying those who didn’t make it. My salvation lifted the spirits of those who had seen so much suffering. I spent less than twelve hours in a tented encampment in the middle of nowhere, but I made a difference. My arrival in the transit camp reduced grown men to tears. So, yes he did remember me, but could he help?
No was the simple answer, but he knew a couple of former soldiers who might! That meant another journey, but no! After a twenty minute walk we arrived at the home of Joe Walker and his wife. Soon we were joined by Jack Jones. These pseudonyms were suggested by my dad. We spent the evening talking about the events of 2014. The maps came out and after a lengthy discussion, Jack and Joe pinpointed roughly where me and John Smith were picked up. Being former soldiers they were experts at map reading and accordingly they offered up eight locations which might prove fruitful.
The next step was to plan an expedition. This meant securing permission to enter England. We would also require provisions and more than just the two of us riding mountain bikes. So we would return to Aberdeen in the morning and start planning. But Arthur had another idea. Why don’t we just throw caution to the wind and slip over the border? We had our bikes and the route planned out. Piece of Cake! What about supplies? He smiled and we end up in his garage, which resembled an army store room. Tents, sleeping bags, rucksacks and plenty of food. I guess once a soldier - always a soldier. The decision is made - England or Bust - and both Jack and Joe would act as our protectors and guides.
Just before we departed Arthur handed me an old 35mm manual camera and showed me how to focus and set the exposure. Finally he loaded it with a old roll of black and white film, and told me not to open the back. The film was 20 years passed being fresh and I had just 24 exposures. His parting words were “make every shot count!”
So we set off on our adventure. The night before we planned the route. Each day we would bike 60 miles, and our overnight stops were positioned near streams or rivers that offered fresh water. We avoided all roads that crossed the border, and although that added a day to our journey we would avoid the Scottish authorities. The journey was both measured and uneventful. If anything it was like a biking holiday. I only wish I was able to bring my guitar.
The first area we checked out was instantly ruled out. The following morning we moved to another site and we spent the day exploring anything that looked like an outbuilding. The problem is that we didn’t really know what my dad meant by an outbuilding. We had enough supplies to last six days before we had to return to Scotland, and this was day two. We examined the map and decided on three potential sites that were positioned close together. Three sites in one day. Nothing. Three down and four to go.
On the fourth day we cycled through some wonderful countryside, but this was no holiday. Time was running out and although we couldn’t rule out another trip, we would have to wait another year, and that was something my dad probably didn’t have. It started to rain.
It was Helen who picked up on the three houses we just passed. My dad mentioned that he had spent weeks living in one of three houses located in the middle of nowhere. And this was the middle of nowhere. My dad had also mentioned to Helen that a couple had killed themselves in one of the bedrooms. We stopped and turned round. In the second house Joe found the remains of two people in one of the bedrooms. This must be it! According to dad both me and John Smith must have lived less than five miles from these three houses. We consulted the map. Nothing. Then again, both Jack and Joe could only pinpoint where we were picked up. We examined the map again. The good news is that the tent was probably within five or six miles from our current position, but which direction?
Dad and John Smith spent hours talking about their experiences, but that was 20 years ago. We decided to make camp nearby. We were running out of time. What else had my dad remembered? Mum was killed by a lightning strike. Meteor strike! Meteor storm! Molly! My best friend! Dad mentioned that John Smith gave me Molly, a rag doll just before the meteors started to hit. He found Molly in a car and soon afterwards we ran for our lives - away from the meteors, as they slammed into the ground. We ran away from them and towards the tent. Molly was found in an abandoned car on a road. We again consulted the map. We roughly knew the direction in which the meteors landed. Jack was able to discount the north of our position and the north-east. If the tent is five or six miles from our current position, and if we add another five or six miles from the tent to the abandoned car. Jack pinpointed just three locations where the tent could be.
The decision was mine. Tomorrow would be our last day, but it was feasible that we could visit all three locations. Early to bed. Thoughts drift towards home and dad. I asked if we could perhaps stretch our expedition and add another day in which to search the locale, but Joe isn’t that keen. We still have to make it back to Scotland. Then again, he argued, we could just shoot across the border. The police are tasked with stopping people from crossing the border into England but not coming the other way. Yes, we can spend another day looking for the tent.
The following morning and it takes just an hour to reach the first potential site and within minutes we find the tent - hidden inside an outbuilding at the foot of a hill. We are all gobsmacked. I took a few photographs and then enter the tent. Everything is mouldy, but we find candles and packets of crisps and tins of food and bottled water, all well preserved. It’s eerie and nothing rings a bell. I notice a small plastic food container in the corner of the tent and Helen volunteers to retrieve it. Inside are a few pens and loads of paper. A diary! Hand written and the first page is dated 22/23 June 2014. I sit down on a nearby rock and start reading:
Click on the links to find out what happened next!