Around 45 miles east of the controllers at Waddington, Zoë also suffered — but not from a surfeit of alcohol the previous night. There was no money for such luxuries for her.
The twenty year old bent over to pick Brussels Sprouts from their stalks; shuffling her way up the row, her back aching as the biting wind off the North Sea penetrated her worn-
How she longed to be able to soak in a hot bath — or even enjoy a warming shower but all she could look forward to was cleaning off the dirt with a warm flannel. As she stood up to stretch her muscles for a moment she realised that tomorrow was her 21st birthday. With each tedious day merging into all of the others, it hadn’t registered.
Zoë would have been considered beautiful as, indeed, Martin, her boyfriend in Leicester in that other life, had told her many times. She would almost certainly have gone to university, studied hard and achieved a good degree, possibly even going on to complete a Masters and maybe even a Doctorate.
But these were not ideal times.
Zoë’s father, Danny, had been a Brexiteer and he had moved the family to the caravan they owned on the Lincolnshire coast near Skegness where they would, he hoped, be safe from attack by angry Remainers seeking retribution on those they blamed for the economy’s collapse. Their caravan was the last one still occupied on the small site and the owner no longer bothered trying to collect rent. A shower and toilet block provided running water, including cold showers, and a limited electricity supply. They knew that sooner or later these facilities would fail, but they made the most of them while they could.
The hedges surrounding the site and the trees between the pitches were now overgrown, giving them a degree of privacy ensuring that they could not be seen from the road. The nearest farm was about half a mile away and provided the family with employment and a few supplies such as the occasional egg or half pint of milk as part payment for their labour.
With little other work available in the area, Zoë and Pat, her mother, were forced to scramble for a living picking crops — soft fruit during the summer and potatoes and other vegetables in the freezing autumn and winter.
The harsh conditions had hardened Zoë’s soft hands and face. Her once shiny hair was stringy and tangled. The food shortages had stripped any excess fat off her bones — not that there had ever been that much but she was now scrawny. Her sunken eyes reflected despair where they had once sparkled. Her nails, carefully manicured and polished were now broken and jagged and there was no money for nail varnish.
At night, the family shivered — the gas was reserved for cooking. Danny had found a coke stove in a Nissan hut at a disused RAF base which he planned to install in the caravan so they could burn driftwood found on the nearby beaches. That would help to keep them warm. In the meantime they wore as many layers of clothes as possible and wrapped themselves in sleeping bags and blankets.
That night, as she tried to sleep, Zoë thought of the boyfriend she’d left, very reluctantly, in Leicester. What was Martin doing these days? Did he still remember her? Had he joined the air force as he had planned? They hadn’t been engaged or even spoken about marriage — though Zoë had dreamt of a future together. She’d been given no choice but to go with her parents when her father had decided to leave their home, her mother needed her support. Like most young people she had favoured staying in the EU and resented the fact that she hadn’t been old enough to vote when the outcome would affect her entire life.
Danny was also lying awake regretting having dragged his family away from Leicester. The official English parliament in London had no control over the designated zones which, in theory, governed themselves. In reality, the independent zones had little income to pay for law enforcement and gangs roamed at will. The mainstay, economically, of the Eastern Designated Zone — the EDZ in military parlance — was agriculture. It traded surplus produce with the Wessex through controlled crossing points. The poorly defended coastline offered other opportunities for organised crime syndicates which then smuggled drugs and other contraband across the borders.
At RAF Waddington, Flying Officer Martin Lewis showed his pass to the RAF Station Police corporal, known as Snowdrops from the white cover to their caps. The SP allowed him to enter and he took his seat in the briefing room with the other drone pilots. He suddenly remembered that tomorrow was Zoë’s birthday. He wondered where she was, whether she was even still alive — had the Shepherd family been affected by the killer epidemic that had ravaged the EDZ the previous year? Martin missed her cheery laugh — and her kisses. He’d been saddened when her father had dragged her off to Lincolnshire. If they’d been a few years older he would probably have asked her to stay — but he’d had to complete his education and fulfil his dream of joining the RAF. He was aware that she was only 50 miles away as an Artemis could fly — but it might as well be the other side of the world.
A shuffle of feet behind him announced the arrival of the Commanding Officer so he leapt smartly to his feet as the CO walked down the aisle between the two columns of chairs. He put thoughts of Zoë out of his mind and concentrated on the briefing.
“Sit down please ladies and gentlemen,” he announced as he took the podium and proceeded to brief the room on the priorities for the day. Named after Guy Gibson, the famous leader of the Dambusters, Group Captain Guy Dixon had flown Tornados in Iraq and other theatres and wore the full pilot’s brevet over two rows of medals above his left tunic pocket and four rings on his sleeves to show his rank. Having given his overview of the situation, the CO handed over to the Met Officer for the weather briefing then the Intelligence Officer.