Inspired by Max Brooks’ World War Z
The field is barren, reminiscent of the wastelands that left their pock-marked prints on battlefields across Europe, once humanity had summoned the resilience to reclaim what had once been its own. The walking dead have left their presence. Parents rarely let their children play beyond earshot for fear of a stray remnant of the zombie horde finding its way through the heavily fortified perimeter fences of the coast. However, as the years begin to allow memories of loss and terror to fade, the people in this small pocket of what was the United Kingdom have tentatively allowed themselves the small luxury of resurrecting fondly remembered leisure pursuits.
Heath Rosigger is one such person. One of the founders of London Phoenix Football Club, he has now opened lines of communication with other Safe Zones and is in the process of forming the first post-war National League. He also coaches the team and it is here, in this dust-ridden corner of East London that he assembles the squad of veteran enthusiasts and youngsters who have no recollection of the game that dominated so much of the pre-war landscape. One member of the squad was once a much-derided icon of the ‘Premier League’.
Heath never lost his love for the game nor for his family who, rumour has it, were claimed by the Undead. This is his story…
It was a matchday like any other. Apart from the fact that it was to be my son’s first. We’d been building up to it for months; pre-booking on credit card hotlines and making sure there was enough money in our account for the huge outlay the entire day would cost. Tickets for football matches back then were as fiercely coveted as mink fur coats were during the winter months throughout the Pandemic Years. It’s ironic how the value of a possession can change according to the nature of circumstance. Morals are as fluid as water it would seem.
The Authorities had given the population certain assurances that any isolated incidents had been contained and quarantined. The borders had been closed and all aircraft had been grounded. Watching Chinese cities being decimated by zombies on the rolling news networks may have been distressing but we could just switch over and prepare for an era of isolationism. It was adjudged to be safe to ‘carry on consuming as normal’. And that we did, with relish.
As Shaun and I disembarked from the train that took us from leafy nowhere into the sprawling mass of the metropolis, he was immediately struck by the long, snaking lines of bodies lined up across the High Street. Wrapped up in replica shirts, buying tatty merchandise, hungry for processed meat and ready to purchase the mediocre, club-endorsed propaganda that was the club programme. Like everybody else, we joined the queue and stocked up with badly stitched pencil cases and polo shirts with the club crest branded so garishly on them. Our ears were left ringing with the bleeping of cash registers as we processed ourselves through the turnstiles, gorged ourselves with fizzy carbonated drinks and took our places in the numbered, catalogued seats ascribed to us.
It was very much business as usual. I may have grumbled about how the experience for Shaun was so far-removed from my own boyhood initiation but then I hadn’t been to a match for years. I had expected the swell of sound from the chants of opposition fans and the buzz of anticipation of the ninety minutes that lay before us. However, the ground I so fondly remembered was unusually subdued. I put it down to the prevalent mood of apprehension descending ominously upon the nation concerning the Global Situation. I hadn’t accounted for the fact that this was what football had become…
We watched the players warm-up, Shaun wide-eyed at being so close to his ‘heroes’. He immediately took out his cameraphone and tapped away on the screen, watching the world from the fixed frame of the window the telephone company and sponsors of the match provided him. I looked round and thousands more were doing the same. He excitedly tugged my elbow and showed me a picture he had captured of our Star Striker doubling up by the corner flag, the physio quick to rush to his aid. Shaun found this highly amusing and immediately uploaded it on to a social networking site (whose name now escapes me) so that his friends could manipulate and distort it using the trickery of their computer keyboards and software.
Just before The Authorities banned air travel, the England team had travelled to a far-flung corner of the continent for a qualifying match against supposed minnows of the international game. The win was guaranteed and duly delivered but the match would be best remembered for the uncharacteristic sending off of England’s and our club’s Star Striker for seemingly kicking out and striking one of his opponents. He was sent off without reservation but in post-match interviews, he had claimed to have only retaliated due to being bitten on the arm by the opposition defender. Worryingly, footage of the incident was unusually absent. I use the word ‘unusually’ because in the pre-war era, all public life was captured for posterity by all manner of voyeuristic devices and was closely scrutinised by The Authorities ‘for the common good’. Our country’s press cried conspiracy over the incident and further suspicions were raised when England’s opponents on that evening closed all communication and contact with the outside world. Suddenly, the little country from the East disappeared, quite literally, from the face of the earth.
Kick-off time rapidly approached. But still the atmosphere in the stadium was strangely muted. Passive faces looked on, some from glass boxes but all looking out for the lens of the television camera that beamed its gaze to millions passively watching in pubs and living rooms around the land. As the teams kicked off, our Star Striker having apparently recovered from his earlier ‘seizure’, looked unsteady on his feet. There had been salacious reports in the press that he had been battling an alcohol problem for some time now but this had never manifested itself on the football pitch. Groggily, he moved towards the first row of the West Stand, Lower. The cameras and phones moved their attentions from the pitch towards the commotion taking place in the far corner. And then it happened. Our Star Striker convulsed violently and then proceeded to plunge his mouth deeply into the jugular of one of the ball boys.
Unlike the zombie movies of my childhood, where the process of transformation occurred slowly, the mix of testosterone and physical prowess in the striker seemed to set off a rapid reaction and the ball boy almost immediately set about sinking his teeth into a blonde woman in an overly tight replica shirt filming the ghoulish scene on her phone. Before anybody could act, the entire West Stand was awash with blood and entrails. Sitting in the East Stand, we could only watch with horror. It had come. They were among us…
Match Of The Dead concludes tomorrow.