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Bagthorpes v. Zombies

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When the first representative of the swelling hordes of the living dead arrived at Unicorn House, it received an unsurprisingly inhospitable reception.

‘Nobody answer that!’ bellowed Mr Bagthorpe from the confines of his study, where he was hard at work, putting off putting the final touches on his latest script. He had been at this for a solid three hours without a single interruption from any of his family, in-laws or assorted household hangers-on and had very little to show for it, so any excuse to put this aside was a welcome one. He flung open his study door, jauntily festooned with its hand-lettered placard reading LITTLE CHILDREN WHO COME UNTO ME SUFFER, and set out to row with all comers.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mrs Bagthorpe, who was easily overwhelmed and not a very good partner for rowing with. “Who can be banging on our door like that? It sounds fearfully desperate.”

‘It is nothing of the kind, Laura,’ Mr Bagthorpe replied testily. ‘I imagine it is the jackbooted thugs from the Inland Revenue. I have been expecting them for some time.’

‘Oh dear,’ repeated Mrs Bagthorpe. ‘Is there something,’ she hesitated delicately here, ‘not quite right about our taxes?’

Her spouse’s grip on matters financial was notoriously infirm, such that a single misprinted bank statement had once sent him into a virulent bout of survivalism that had lasted months and cost them untold amounts of money in ongoing goat-related damages. Despite, or perhaps, because of this, Mr Bagthorpe never permitted a third party to so much as cast an eye over his taxes, which had, over the years, grown more and more impenetrable, with their forests of brackets and crossings-out, obscuring but not entirely concealing improbable deductions.

‘There is nothing right about our taxes other than the government that takes them,’ said Mr Bagthorpe, who was a Guardian reader. ‘Ha!’

He cut short this political digression, which would have inevitably revealed his ignorance of such matters as who his Member of Parliament was and to which party they belonged, when he caught sight of Mrs Fosdyke shuffling toward the front door. The sight of Mrs Fosdyke doing anything was often sufficient to send Mr Bagthorpe into fits, maintaining as he did that the very way she hedgehogged about the house in her furry slippers caused destructive vibrations to reverberate through its walls, and that these would one day drive him to the madhouse or the grave. Mrs Fosdyke had her own ideas about the source of any malign influences present in Unicorn House, and although she had never quite managed to successfully give her notice despite countless attempts, she flatly refused to ‘live in’ there.

‘And just what,’ Mr Bagthorpe demanded, ‘do you think you are doing?’

‘I would ‘ave got here sooner, only I ‘ad to keep an eye on me soufflé. Them things is delicate, you know.’ Mrs Fosdyke made a move to bypass Mr Bagthorpe, who was looming before the front door like a rather middle-aged colossus. He nimbly sidestepped to intercept her.

‘’Ow’m I meant to answer the door with ‘im getting under me feet?’ Mrs Fosdyke directed her appeal toward Mrs Bagthorpe, but it was her spouse who got in quickest with his response.

‘You will do nothing of the kind! I have declared that this door will not be answered and it shall not be answered, come hell or high water! Is not an Englishman’s home his castle?’

‘All that ‘orrible banging!’ Mrs Fosdyke went on. She felt vaguely at her head, which was wrapped in its usual brightly-printed scarf. ‘I think me teeth is starting to feel funny again.’

‘You can’t expect to make your problems go away simply by ignoring them, Henry,’ Mrs Bagthorpe put in briskly. She was something of an expert on Problems, as, in addition to the never-ending string of crises and calamities at Unicorn House, she received hundreds of them by post every month under her alter ego as Stella Bright, Agony Aunt. The difference was that the people who wrote in to her with their Problems occasionally took her advice, whereas her family never did.

‘I have already informed this plague of insatiable locusts that they are not to contact me except through my solicitor,’ said Mr Bagthorpe. ‘They think that they can intimidate me into direct contact with their infernal ceaseless hammering, but I’m having none of it! I know my rights!’

Mr Bagthorpe’s understanding of Law, much like his understanding of Finance, was hopelessly muddled. This served him well in his chosen profession, which was writing scripts for television, but rarely brought him anything but grief in his day to day affairs. Mrs Bagthorpe scarcely felt up to challenging her spouse on this or any other point of the law, especially as the irregular but forceful pounding on the front door was taking its toll on her nerves as well.

‘If you will not talk to them, Henry, then I shall,’ she resolved at last, bracing herself for argument which would have inevitably followed if they had not been interrupted at this juncture by the arrival of William, at sixteen the eldest of the four Bagthorpe children.

‘Nobody answer that!’ he shrieked, unconsciously echoing his father’s earlier words. In his present state, disheveled and wild-eyed, this was not the only point of comparison between the two of them. ‘Tell them I’m not here,’ he added, lest his first instruction should be ignored.

William’s presence, in his present state of mind, brought matters at the Bagthorpe front door to something of an impasse, with two parties in favor of answering the door (Mrs Bagthorpe and Mrs Fosdyke) and two opposed (Mr Bagthorpe and William). The pro-door-answering front was further weakened when Mrs Fosdyke elected to shuffle away, muttering ‘as ‘ow she ‘oped both of them would be took away and kept there’. Mrs Bagthorpe turned instead to the latest problem that had swum into her ken.

‘Whatever is the matter, William?’

‘It’s Anonymous from Grimsby.’ William sagged against the coatrack, stricken.

‘Oh my God,’ interjected Mr Bagthorpe, who, like the rest of his clan, was all too familiar with the continuous stream of oracular pronouncements of this paranoid radio ham, if not with his name, which William diligently concealed behind a Veil of Secrecy. ‘Why doesn’t someone track that lunatic down and shut him up already?’

‘They have done!’ William howled. ‘They dragged him away from his radio while he was still transmitting! You should have heard him scream,’ he added, with detached appreciation. He was, after all, a Bagthorpe.

‘Oh, how dreadful!’ Mrs Bagthorpe cried. She had encouraged William in his mania for electronics, as she encouraged all of her children to pursue the various Strings to their Bows (except Jack, who had none), and she hated to think that she had inadvertently precipitated this. ‘But surely you haven’t been doing anything illegal?’ she added, hopefully. There had been the time that William had threatened to stop all radio broadcasts from the BBC to prevent his cousin Luke from becoming Young Brain of Britain, which Mrs Bagthorpe believed him fully capable of doing, but she did not think that this had come to anything, since the programme in question had aired without incident and Luke was presently smugly glorying in his title.

‘There are things,’ William said darkly, ‘that the government would do anything to cover up.’

‘This is all rubbish,’ said Mr Bagthorpe, who felt that his son was usurping his rightful place as innocent victim of government persecution and wished to resume his central role in the drama. ‘That Anonymous fellow was probably pulling your leg. I doubt he’s even from Grimsby!’

‘Henry! Why do you not open this door at once, and put an end to this racket? Some of us would prefer a little peace and quiet.’

Nothing was more inimical to Grandma Bagthorpe’s being than peace and quiet, as her son knew full well. She thrived on chaos, and rarely lost a chance to lob in her own apple of Discord.

“I am beset on all sides!’ Mr Bagthorpe encompassed his antagonists with a melodramatic wave of his hand, thinking as he did it how he would have written it up as a direction to the actor in one of his scripts. ‘I expect this kind of persecution from the tax inspectors, but my own flesh and blood!’

‘What a coward you are, Henry!’ Grandma, delighted by the prospect of yet another chapter in her son’s ongoing battles with Authority in all its various guises, made for the door at once. She succeeded where Mrs Fosdyke and Mrs Bagthorpe had failed, being quicker than the former and more decisive than the latter, and had unbolted the locks before Mr Bagthorpe had had the opportunity to do more than sputter.

The shambling corpse of the village greengrocer had not been expecting this turn of events. His mental acuity having been reduced sharply by the experience of being brutally attacked by a member of the living dead and his own subsequent reanimation, he had settled on a course of action – namely, banging on the door of the first house he came to in order to gain entrance – and pursued it with the monomaniacal single-mindedness so rare in the living and so common in the undead. Having shambled quite some way into the country before reaching Unicorn House, and then pounded extensively on its door before eliciting any substantive response, the zombie was momentarily nonplussed when he found himself face to face with Grandma. For a moment, they evaluated each other: Grandma noting the spill of crusty, drying blood down his otherwise mostly-white apron, the undead grocer inhaling the unmistakable odor of her living flesh, combined with her toilet-water. This he apparently found satisfactory, or else he was simply very hungry, because he promptly lunged for the side of her neck, baring a set of very prominent and rabbity teeth.

‘You forget yourself, sir!’

Grandma, who had dispatched her share of over-bold suitors in her heyday, acted reflexively to evade his advances, taking a quick side-step and stiff-arming her aggressor to prevent him coming closer to her. When this did not abash the man, who simply turned his ravenous attention to the arm, she followed it up with the knee to the groin that had been her secret weapon some fifty-odd years ago, Grandma never having seen any purpose in fair play. The living had found it formidable; the undead, however, were evidently unfazed.

‘Unhand me at once!’ she shrieked. Had she been carrying it, she would have clocked him upside the head with her handbag, which was vast and and contained multitudes, but fending off a zombie empty-handed was not a naturally tenable position for an octogenarian, even one so formidable as Grandma. She flailed, ineffectually.

Fortunately for her, William had lately been contemplating what desperate acts of resistance he might essay rather than let himself be taken alive, as Anonymous from Grimsby had been. These plans being readily repurposed to the situation at hand, he seized the coatrack that he had been skulking up against and, bracing it like a pike, uttered a frenzied cry as he charged the snarling, grasping corpse.

Mr Bagthorpe would later aver that it was this cry which had cemented his belief, long reinforced by the wild and lengthy tattoos that William would hammer out on his drums, quite without regard for the sensibilities of the other inhabitants of Unicorn House, that his elder son was the reincarnation of some primitive tribesman.

‘No man of this century,’ he maintained, ‘ever produced such a barbaric yawp. I fully expected him to return with his body smeared from head to toe with woad, whatever that may be.’

The coatrack, being of stout cast-iron construction and possessed of a great many barbs, served William’s purpose admirably. The force of his charge propelled the thing well outside the Bagthorpe’s front door, as well as lodging the point of the crown several inches into its chest in such a way that would have done for any living creature, as well as many of the undead variety. As, however, they were dealing with a zombie, although he was significantly inconvenienced by a piercing by such a heavy and unwieldy object, he was by no means arrested. He continued to struggle toward the seductive scent of living flesh, fumbling ineffectually at his chest, where gouts of stale and clotted blood were oozing and making a mess of his apron.

William dropped the coatrack and backtracked hastily, where he found that the door had been closed and locked against him. ‘Open up!’ he howled, banging on the door with a frenzy that exceeded that of the zombie, not to mention a much stronger sense of rhythm.

Grandma and her son were now united against Mrs Bagthorpe in favor of keeping the door firmly shut and never mind William's desperate predicament. Self-preservation might have won out against maternal instinct had not the two door-lockers, not being naturally inclined towards cooperation, continually undone each other’s work in their panicked attempts to secure the bolts. William slammed through the door, sweaty and wild-eyed but otherwise evidently unhurt, and, acting as one, the four Bagthorpes rushed to shut the door again. It closed on a crawling, grasping, blood-smeared hand, which crunched sickeningly between the door and its jamb until Grandma managed to eject it with a firm kick from a single pointy shoe.

‘Good God,’ Mr Bagthorpe breathed, panting heavily with his unaccustomed exertions. ‘The dead are rising up to devour the living! It’s exactly what happened in those films!’

Mr Bagthorpe, who loved to make pronouncements and seized upon every available opportunity to do so, would come to regret making this one. As a writer, and, more importantly, as an incurable snob and perpetual crank, he frequently subjected his family to lengthy jeremiads regarding genres, subject matter, or entire media that he despised. He abominated all American cinema, for example, pronouncing it childish, callow, and – which, as Uncle Parker pointed out, hinted at a purely self-interested and mercenary motive – calling for its importation into Britain to be subjected to heavy tariffs.

Nor did he hold a favorable view of horror films. ‘A gifted writer,’ he opined, which in this context referred, primarily, to himself, ‘need not stoop to such cheap effects to elicit a thrill of horror in an audience. When did Milton write about vampires? Or Shakespeare?’ When Tess, the most literary-minded of the younger Bagthorpes (although presently she was preoccupied with reading Voltaire in the original, which she felt had greater cachet than anything written in English) pointed out that Shakespeare had written about ghosts and witches, Mr Bagthorpe, merely retorted that anyone who could write as well as Shakespeare was free to do likewise, and until this hypothetical author emerged he would continue to disparage the genre.

It would have taken more than a mere encroaching zombie apocalypse to distract the Bagthorpes from a vein of irony this rich. Even Jack, who, as the only one of the younger Bagthorpes who was capable of any great degree of empathy often felt sorrier for his father than he perhaps deserved, was tempted to get in a few digs of his own. He came in for quite a lot of Mr Bagthorpe’s literary snobbishness by dint of having perfectly ordinary taste for a boy his age, after all.

In the shorter term, however, the Bagthorpes came together, as nearly as one as could reasonably be expected of such a contentious clan. They had one bloodied yet unbowed undead corpse thrashing restlessly on their doorstep, Rosie had spotted two more suspicious figures shambling in the offing, and William, who was listening to multiple wireless sets simultaneously as well as trying to raise various hams on his own equipment in a sort of command center that he had hastily assembled, confirmed that even the official reports indicated they should expect nothing short of an onslaught of the living dead that would test their abilities and their nerve to the utmost.

Jack was set to work boarding up the windows, using the piles of old deck chairs and other garden furniture that he had broken up for one of his father’s abortive projects the last time the Bagthorpes had set out to Survive. He was not sure that these would be sufficient, for having begun it seemed that the walls of Unicorn House were pierced by a completely unnecessary number of windows, but he plugged away steadily, only hitting his fingers with the hammer four or five times.

Zero stuck by Jack’s side like a timorous and cowering shadow, ears pressed flat against his head, and tail so far between his legs that it nearly disappeared entirely. Thinking that he might be safer upstairs if the living dead did manage to penetrate the house despite all their efforts to secure it, Jack had tried to get him to guard the stash of comics in his bedroom, something he frequently asked Zero to do so that he could feel purposeful, but Zero had either seen through this subterfuge, or simply been too frightened to take in what Jack was saying. Whining low and pathetically, Zero refused to be parted from Jack even long enough to allow him to shut the door in order to trap him in the bedroom for his own good. Jack was deeply touched by this display of loyalty.

‘Anyway, it’s awfully brave of you, old chap,’ he praised Zero, between pounding in nails. ‘I mean, it wouldn’t be bravery if you weren’t frightened. Anyone can do things they’re not afraid of.’

Zero was incapable of wagging his tail in its current configuration, but Jack fancied it twitched in appreciation. He kept praising Zero’s loyalty and courage in hopes of bringing his ears up a few degrees.

Tess was busy ransacking the house for anything which could conceivably be used as a weapon. ‘I wish we had some guns in the house,’ she said, dumping a pile of old sports equipment in the dining room. Marksmanship was a String to nobody’s Bow, and the closest any of the Bagthorpes ever got to (non-metaphorical) blood sport was Grandpa’s fishing trips.

‘You know that Father could never be trusted anywhere near one,’ Rosie objected. ‘He’d probably have killed Daisy by now.’ Realising that she was probably the only Bagthorpe who had never contemplated the death of Daisy amidst the aftermath of one of her dangerously destructive Phases, Rosie added: ‘Any of us might have been caught in the crossfire. You know how Father is with things that have moving parts.’

‘Without guns, I don’t see how we can properly launch an offensive,’ Tess said. ‘It’s all very well to barricade ourselves in, but then what? Do we sit inside and listen to them and wait for them to come and get us? What kind of life is that?’

As if to illustrate her point, there came a thump and some wordless, inhuman moaning. All three of them were startled. Jack dropped his hammer by his feet, reducing Zero to near catatonia.

‘They’re here already!’ Rosie squealed. ‘Hurry up the windows, Jack, they’ll get in!’

‘I can’t do it all by myself,’ Jack protested. ‘One of you ought to be helping me. We’ve got miles of windows.’

‘I can’t reach, I’m too little!’ Rosie shrieked, fairly dancing with combined frustration and terror.

‘Here, give me that hammer,’ said Tess, disgustedly, swapping him for a battered cricket bat.

‘What am I meant to do with this?’ asked Jack, nervously, holding it out in front of him.

‘Hit zombies with it, idiot,’ Tess said. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll be able to bash their brains in with it, but at least you can try to keep one off of you long enough for someone else to take care of it.’

Jack privately doubted he would be any more successful at this than he was at using cricket bats for their intended purposes, but he maintained a grip on it lest worst should come to worst. Thus cast upon loose ends, he racked his brains for some kind of useful idea. Jack freely admitted that he was no genius like his siblings, but he thought that he ought to be able to come up with something. He had, after all, seen a number films on the subject.

‘Fire!’ he blurted. ‘Zombies can’t survive fire!’

‘Fire?’ echoed Mrs Fosdyke, if an echo were twice as loud as its original and transposed to a piercing register. ‘Where’s the fire?’

‘There isn’t one,’ Jack hastened to assure her. ‘I was just saying that we could use fire, to fight back against the – the – ’

Jack knew Mrs Fosdyke to be easily alarmed, and while the situation in which they found themselves was, truly, a profoundly alarming one, he did not believe that it would be improved if Mrs Fosdyke had a full-on psychotic break. He was trying to come up with some way to describe it that was not too upsetting and, not being a wizard with words, failing at it.

‘The living dead,’ put in Rosie, who thought Jack had just forgotten what he had been talking about or something.

‘I won’t ‘ave no more fires in this dining room,’ Mrs Fosdyke said, sticking closely to her original topic. ‘Not if I can ‘elp it.’

Both Bagthorpe fires had been harrowing occasions, and the subsequent reconstruction of the dining room scarcely less so. The uninhabitability of this room had forced the Bagthorpes to take all their meals in Mrs Fosdyke’s kitchen, an intrusion which she had heartily resented, but this alone was not sufficient to account for her feelings on the subject. She really had been as traumatized as if a tragedy had befallen her own house, and rather more so than if one had befallen her infant son (who, not being an infant any longer but rather a shifty adolescent ne’er-do-well, no longer held her maternal interest as he once had). In fact, as she took in the sight of Tess going at the front windows with the hammer and pieces of deckchair, it seemed to strike her as a knife to the heart.

‘What ‘ave you done to them windows?’ she howled. ‘Yer ma’ll go spare when she sees them nail holes! And them walls finally painted a color that don’t look like toads and put you off your food.’

‘Fozzy!’ Tess shrieked, as Mrs Fosdyke attacked her handiwork. She wasn’t finding that her widely-acknowledged genius in French, judo or the oboe made her any more skillful at this particular task than Jack had been, and it wasn’t going nearly as quickly as she would have liked. ‘Leave – off!’

The countless hours judo practice that had earned Tess her black belt were in evidence here, as with both maximum efficiency and minimal effort she lofted Mrs Fosdyke across the room, where she landed in a dazed huddle against the wall. Both her furry slippers had come off.

Jack rushed to check if she were still breathing. She was, heaving great choking breaths that did not require any first aid training to detect, which was just as well, as Jack was transfixed by the peculiar entity which she was wearing around her neck.

It transpired that Mrs Fosdyke, having imbibed a steady diet of Frankensteins and Draculas on the telly – solid domestic products, these, and ineligible for Mr Bagthorpe’s scorn on that account, at least – had naturally assumed that the undead that everyone was so worked up about must be vampires. As her sole genius, her lone String to her Bow, to use the Bagthorpian phrase, was cookery, she had equally naturally turned to prophylactic garlic to protect herself from this menace.

Unfortunately, Mrs Fosdyke was not in the habit of keeping quantities of garlic in her kitchen, as one of the few points in which she and Mr Bagthorpe were wholly in accord was the conviction that too much garlic rendered a dish inedibly ‘foreign’. She had found, to her great dismay, that she did not have so much as a single clove of the stuff in her kitchen. She had, however, seized upon a substantial bunch of shallots, which seemed to her a reasonable substitution, paranormally as well as culinarily.

‘An’ they got these lovely stems, see, so I wove ‘em into a necklace,’ Mrs Fosdyke explained, displaying her handiwork with considerable pride. Armed with this talisman, she seemed so unconcerned that Jack really thought it might have been better for all concerned if she had been paralyzed with fear, especially when she started in on the boarded-up front windows again.

It was not entirely fair, however, to hold her entirely responsible for the zombie incursion which followed closely thereafter, as Tess and Rosie did. It was true that she had hindered them in the performance of this task, but even if she had not done so, Jack did not see it as by any means certain that Tess would have finished boarding up all the front windows in time, nor that this would have necessarily stopped an undead corpse which, horribly, had battered its way through the window itself with hands reduced to bleeding, unrecognizable stumps.

Rosie screamed horribly as the thing propelled itself through the window frame, making up in brute force what it lacked in coordination or conscious thought that would have been required to climb through it properly, heedless of the ragged edges of glass that chewed up its torso in a way that would have stopped any living person quite dead. Jack let the cricket bat slouch from his nerveless fingers and flattened himself hopelessly against the wall, arms wound around Zero's furry neck, clutching tightly. If this is it, he thought cheerlessly, at least Zero and me will go together.

Tess swung into action with another well-drilled attack, but judo holds and throws proved to be optimised for the ordinary living rather than the undead. The zombie’s massive bulk refused to behave in the way that it was supposed to, and for all Tess’s efforts she was scarcely managing to hold the thing off. She moved too quickly for it to wound or maul her, but this was a stand-off that could not be maintained indefinitely, and already other zombies were being drawn to the open window and would surely, inexorably, follow on the first.

‘Stand aside!’ someone shouted, and Jack snapped his head back and beheld a vision that was as dumbfounding as anything he had seen all day, and this had been an unusual day, even for the Bagthorpes. Tess dove across the room just in time to avoid a concentrated stream of fire projected from halfway across the dining room. Grandpa Bagthorpe, a black steel air raid warden’s helmet planted atop his head, was attacking the zombie with a handheld flamethrower.

The Bagthorpes frequently forgot entirely about Grandpa, so quiet and undemanding was he. Even among a group of non-Bagthorpes, he would be remarkable for his great mildness of manner, and his hardness of hearing, in combination with an ingenious technique that his son-in-law, Uncle Parker, had dubbed Selective Deafness, served to insulate him from much of the unpleasantness that eddied through Unicorn House. He whiled away many of his hours watching television in the sitting room, which was where he had been when he had learned, when the emergency news broke into the nature programme he was watching, that the nation was under attack, not by foreign invaders but by its own dead.

The sole exception to Grandpa’s affability toward all which manifested itself on a regular basis was his profound antipathy for wasps. He had often remarked that he believed that a wasp sting would be the thing that would put him in his grave, and perhaps he did owe his great longevity in some part to the vigor with which he had routed his foes wherever he found them. The acquisition of a flamethrower was, perhaps overkill – indeed, the Firearms Act considered it a restricted weapon and quite illegal – but no one who saw him putting it to its present purpose could deny that it was impressive. Jack felt guilty for that he had never credited his grandfather with any particular courage.

After all, he did fight in one of the wars, thought Jack, whose dates were muddled. And he married Grandma.

Although Tess’s attacker, being engulfed in flames, was incapacitated by them, he was also, inconveniently, still in the Bagthorpe dining room.

‘Fire!’ Rosie shrieked, ‘fire, fire! The whole house will burn down!’

This brought the rest of the Bagthorpes running in a hurry (except Grandma, who was ensconced in her bedroom with Thomas the Second, her profoundly ill-tempered young ginger tom, to keep her company and, conceivably, as a last line of defense against the undead), being all too experienced with fire. This time, furthermore, they did not have the luxury of calling the fire department, who had been so helpful during previous fires, although the Bagthorpes had not appreciated the sarcastic remarks they had made after having put out the second one.

William, improvising, took up a heavy dining room chair and forced the thing back like a lion tamer in a particularly nightmarish sort of circus, and, with some rather desperate manoevering, managed to tip it back out the broken window, leaving behind only the odour of charred flesh and some opportunistic flames in the drapes, which Mrs Bagthorpe smothered with the tablecloth.

‘Quick,’ William urged Grandpa, ‘lay down some fire on the others before they can make it inside.’

‘Them drapes’ll ‘ave to be replaced,’ Mrs Fosdyke moaned, clutching her shallot necklace, ‘and that chair, I shouldn’t think, and the walls…. ’

She was left to pursue this subject alone, the rest of the Bagthorpes being rather preoccupied with the progress of the fire offensive.

‘That’s done for them, I’d say,’ William pronounced with satisfaction, surveying the smoldering remains. ‘Well done, Grandpa!’

Grandpa beamed as affably as ever. If he hadn’t still had the flamethrower strapped to his back, Jack would have believed that he had hallucinated the whole thing. ‘I thought this might come in useful,’ he said, brandishing the business end of the flamethrower. ‘For the wasps, you know. Nasty things, wasps.’

‘There’s our offensive weapon,’ said Tess, who was still shaken by how close she had come to achieving a very undesirable form of immortality. ‘At least, until we run out of whatever that thing runs on.’

‘Petrol, or some such,’ William said. ‘We could try to siphon some out of the car, maybe.’ Mr Bagthorpe was notorious for letting the car run short of petrol, claiming that no one of his artistic temperament could be expected to keep track of such things.

‘Surely that won’t be necessary!’ Mrs Bagthorpe cried. ‘Surely someone, somewhere is doing something! Surely we’ll be rescued soon?’

‘Don’t be daft, Laura!’ her husband snapped. ‘We can’t count on anyone coming to our rescue. How do we even know that we are not the last persons still alive and in possession of all our original faculties?’

‘There is the radio,’ began William.

‘The radio! Bah!’ said Mr Bagthorpe, who had forgotten all about the radio, caught up in the romantic horror of his bleak, post-apocalyptic vision.

‘It’s mostly bad news,’ William went on, with a sort of gloomy thrill. ‘Motorways shut down, death tolls impossible to calculate, widespread panic, all that sort of thing. I wouldn’t count on anyone coming to our rescue any time soon. It could be days, or weeks.’

The Bagthorpes and Mrs Fosdyke eyed each other bleakly. The prospect was too much for even Mrs Bagthorpe to think Positively about.

As if to belie the extreme gloominess of William’s prognostication, through the broken window the Bagthorpes heard the unmistakeable sound of gravel being thrown up in their driveway at high speed. In their present state of agitation, this sound badly startled everyone, although it was one that they all knew well, having heard hundreds of times before.

Mr Bagthorpe was, if not the first person to recognise it, the first one to speak.

‘No one,’ he gritted, ‘enters or exists this house. Do you understand me? No one!’

‘It’s Uncle Park,’ Jack said, unnecessarily. ‘He’s got Aunt Celia with him,’ he added, as his uncle tenderly pulled a willowy woman, swathed from head to toe in diaphanous veils, from the passenger seat of his flashy sports car.

‘And Daisy!’ added Rosie. As Grandma was still upstairs, she was the only one who did not regard the arrival of Daisy Parker with nearly as much trepidation as another wave of the living dead, and not without justification.

Daisy, at the tender age of four, had already wreaked enough havoc to make a whole tribe of Visigoths green with jealousy. She was, like her cousins, quite bright, and her doting mama encouraged her to follow her every whim and sought to insulate her from any harsh realities of an unpoetic world, while her husband’s ample chequebook (Uncle Parker did something unspecified with shares that took up very few hours of his day and left him plenty of time for drinking gin and tonics, selecting suits of unlikely colours and materials and thinking up ways to annoy his brother-in-law) frequently funded the clean-up after one disastrous Phase while providing the start-up capital for the next one.

‘I said “no one”!’ Mr Bagthorpe snapped. ‘Least of all that child-formed fiend!’

‘They are family, Henry,’ murmured Mrs Bagthorpe, tentatively.

‘Family, hell!’ said Mr Bagthorpe. ‘They’re potential carriers of the zombie plague, is what they are! We can’t afford to let them in.’

‘You're mean!’ shrieked Rosie, near tears.

‘I don't think a zombie would be able to drive like that,’ Jack added.

Uncle Parker had to realise that his position with regard to his brother-in-law was not the strongest one, but his easy smile as he shepherded his family toward the front door of Unicorn House, detouring briefly around the remains of the greengrocer and the weaponised coatrack, gave away nothing.

‘Been having a bit of a rough morning out here, eh Henry?’ he opened cheerily. ‘You and your family are all well, I hope? No unfortunate incidents?’

‘Never better!’ Mr Bagthorpe bellowed, poking his head out the window. If Uncle Parker had asserted that two and two were four, Mr Bagthorpe would have registered a contrary opinion. ‘There’s nothing to improve your day like an existential threat on your doorstep, I always say.’ Whether this was intended to cover the zombies, Daisy, or both was ambiguous. ‘Why do you not return to your own abode, where you can lounge about swilling gin as the rest of us do battle with the forces of darkness?’

‘We been fighting them!’ Daisy piped up. ‘We been fighting them all down the driveway. We runned them over with the car!’

‘I am unsurprised, Russell,’ said Mr Bagthorpe, ‘that your driving is a menace to the undead as well as the living. You are certain that they were undead before they encountered your car, I hope. The general idea is to destroy the living dead, not to create new ones.’

‘Then those nasty grooks caught my darling lickle Billy Goat Gruff and ate him all up!’ Daisy went on. ‘I cried and cried and now he’s ashes and dusters forever and ever!’

Daisy had become quite attached to this goat, which had originally been purchased by Mr Bagthorpe in his pursuit of Survival. Since her father had acquired him for her, the goat had frequently participated in a triumvirate of mischief-making composed of himself, Daisy, and Arry Awk, who, despite being imaginary, managed to cause an inordinate amount of trouble.

‘One can only hope!’ Mr Bagthorpe retorted. ‘God save us all from undead goats!’

He was rather enjoying himself now, but inevitably his enjoyment could only last so long as the Parkers were safely outside Unicorn House, which, for all its recent fortifications, still had many weak points. The largest of these (figuratively speaking) was Grandma, who was devoted to Daisy – together, the two of them were a formidable force that the other Bagthorpes had dubbed the Unholy Alliance – and had spotted her arrival at once from her vantage point on the first floor. There is no need to besiege a city when you can simply be welcomed through the side door.

‘Darling Daisy!’ she exclaimed, clutching the squirming to her bosom, much as she was wont to do with the equally-recalcitrant Thomas the Second. ‘I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of your beloved Billy Goat Gruff.’

She was, of course, nothing of the kind. Grandma deeply resented any competitors for Daisy’s affections, and would have cheerfully seen off the goat herself, had she been able to do so without her perfidy being revealed to Daisy. She had once attempted to see off Arry Awk by urging Daisy to hold his funeral at the height of her Mortality Phase, when she had been pronouncing ashes to ashes and dusters to dusters upwards of fifteen times a day, but this had backfired badly and Grandma, fearing a permanent rupture, had never made any serious attacks on the goat.

Mr Bagthorpe, faced with this fait accompli, knew himself to be beaten. He made a show of demanding that Daisy and Grandma remove themselves from his sight and not hinder any of the others at their important work. Grandma informed him in turn that Daisy, both as an innocent child and a genius, must of course be protected at all costs, as she represented the Hope of the Future. The ensuing argument, being conducted along lines that were largely familiar to all parties with the minor additional novelty of zombies, eventually lost its audience, who found the threat of being devoured by the undead of more pressing importance. Even Daisy had vanished, although both Grandma and Mr Bagthorpe were too preoccupied to notice this.

Jack, whose siblings had once again left him with nothing that they trusted him to do, sought out Uncle Parker, a shell-shocked Zero still close by his side. His uncle, being an outsider in the Bagthorpe clan himself, had always been Jack’s staunchest friend and ally, and Jack was concerned for him now. Beneath the carefree façade that had so readily fooled his father, Jack thought Uncle Parker looked haunted.

Jack’s difficulty was that he could never seem to get Uncle Parker alone. He was stuck as closely by Aunt Celia's side as Zero did Jack's, putting his arm round her shoulders comfortingly, murmuring things in her ear. Since they had entered the house, he had not left Celia alone for so much as a moment.

Jack knew that Uncle Parker was absolutely soppy for his aunt, for reasons that were, thus far, still somewhat beyond him. She was of a fragile disposition – indeed, one wondered how she had managed to reach adulthood in a house that contained both Henry Bagthorpe and his mother – and had no doubt seen things that day that would traumatise a heartier person, so it was unlikely that Uncle Parker would be willing to discuss anything disturbing within her earshot, but if it was impossible to separate the two of them, Jack didn’t see how he would have any other choice.

Aunt Celia was behaving strangely, even for her, which Jack couldn’t help noticing, as he was running into her at every turn. She generally spoke primarily in dreamy, poetic, trailing half-sentences which Jack himself did not purport to understand, but she hadn’t spoken at all since her arrival at Unicorn House, not even when they had all been talking openly about death and dismemberment before Daisy (whom Celia, quite in defiance of all available evidence, persisted in believing needed to be shielded from the harsh realities of an untempered world). She had always favored veils and similar garments, but Jack had never seen her put together an ensemble quite as outlandish as this one, or consisting of quite so many layers. Furthermore, where Aunt Celia had previous seemed to exist entirely on a diet of spring water and lettuce leaves that had been extensively toyed with before she finally ventured to nibble on them, she had not eaten or drunk anything at all.

‘There’s something wrong with Aunt Celia,’ Jack said bluntly, having come to the conclusion that any worries about his aunt being upset by anything that anyone might say were misplaced. Uncle Parker controlled his features quickly, but the look of guilt that had briefly appeared there told Jack all that he needed to know.

‘Hush,’ he said. ‘The last thing I need is for your father to find out.’

They were alone in the sitting room, aside from the veiled figure of Aunt Celia by Uncle Parker’s side.

‘How did it happen?’ Jack asked gently, stroking Zero’s head with one hand.

‘It was that damned goat,’ Uncle Parker admitted. ‘She believed it was sent to protect Daisy, you know. She didn’t want to leave it behind. And then – ’

Uncle Parker sounded dangerously close to weeping, and Jack cut him off hastily. ‘So she hadn’t tried to – you know – devour anybody, then?’

‘Celia never did have much of an appetite,’ Uncle Parker said, stroking his wife’s back. ‘I wouldn’t let her – well – devour anyone. I assure you. You won’t tell anyone, will you?’

Jack had grave doubts as to whether this was something that Uncle Parker could, honestly, promise, but then Aunt Celia had been harmless enough thus far, and he found it difficult to refuse his uncle.

‘Cross my heart,’ he said, sturdily.

Elsewhere in Unicorn House, William was hatching schemes with other amateur radio enthusiasts who wanted to take advantage of the state of emergency to overthrow the government, Mrs Fosdyke was stuffing eggs for Grandpa, Rosie was taking photographs which she hoped would be printed in the newspaper and find their way into textbooks some day, Mrs Bagthorpe was Breathing and thinking how fleeting all the Problems that had seemed so pressing when she had received the letters were in the face of the rise of the living dead, Mr Bagthorpe and Grandma were still shouting at each other, and Daisy, watching Tess test out her improvised weapons and modified judo moves, was germinating the seeds of a new Phase that would come to both encompass and surpass all others that had come before it – that of Daisy Parker, Zombie Hunter.

And so, in spite the ensuing zombie apocalypse, the Bagthorpe Saga continues.