Nobody cared when the zombie apocalypse started, to be honest. The doctors and scientists were equal parts excited and terrified by what was happening, but the people working at the bar and their regulars were less interested in the fact that people in Australia had started eating each other’s brains. The only mention of it at first was a simple email from the manager telling his employees to be honest about any illnesses, which the staff knew to be code for “don’t skip work”. For a month or so, things continued on as normal, with little new information about the zombies Down Under, but news started coming in thick and fast after the New Year.
“D’you hear about that man who got his face ripped off in New York?” Khloe, one of the younger regulars at the Canalside Arcade Bar said to her barmaid best friend, Lucy.
“Yeah! I heard the man who did it was acting crazy, grabbing the coppers and all”.
“I heard that too. Wonder what made him do it? Sounds like he was on something”. Lucy nodded gravely as she idly wiped down a sticky part of the bar. She could’ve sworn she’d heard about something similar on the news some weeks back, but she mind was always hazy about things like that. Conversation shifted to talking about a night out in town the girls had shared, in particular a guy Khloe had taken home, and the subject of the face-ripper was lost.
Later that same day, during Lucy's final hour of her shift, her twin brother rushed in with the most confusing expression that spoke a thousand words.
“Gran's been put in quarantine, something about some rare condition” he gasped out as he steadied himself against a bar chair.
“Yeah, they think it's some virus that's going around Australia or something. Was it Australia or Austria?”
“Like I'd know that. What sort of virus are you on about?” Again, something about this made her think back to something she'd heard about weeks ago, but she couldn't remember the details.
“Grandad said she was all angry and tried to claw at him, like she had rabies or something.” Shaun paused to think back to the phone call. “I think they put her in quarantine before even doing a blood test, so I think it's serious”.
Lucy was tearing up; family emergencies did this to her every time. Her manager luckily took one look at her and told her she could go home with Shaun, obviously knowing it was serious enough to let her go early. He quickly grabbed the phone and called in Josh early, as he was the closest to the bar. Josh, the ever loyal employee he was, took an hour to get there, despite only living a ten minute walk away. His excuse? He’d been watching the news, and got interested in some story about a virus in New York that was getting bad. After the obvious lecturing his manager gave him, Josh finally decided to give his twopence’s worth of gossip.
“You’ve heard of what’s going on in America?” he muttered, low enough to not catch the attention of the ladies approaching the bar.
“Not really, but I think Lucy did. Her grandparents are over there and something’s got her all upset and such.”
“Oh god, don’t tell me they’re infected!” Josh groaned and covered his face briefly. “They’re putting anyone with this virus in quarantine straight away, no diagnosis or anything. This scientist who was on said they might block off a chunk of the city for just quarantine or something like that.”
“You’re kidding me, Josh,” the manager, Paul, looked unconvinced and exasperated, “they’d never do that. That’s some medieval stuff you’re suggesting.”
“It’s true though,” Josh responded, “they said it was like something that’s going on Down Under, but I’ve heard nothing about that. Think the media got shut down over there.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised. Their government is nothing but a mess-up” That brought out a chuckle from both men, and they went their separate ways.
The next day, more gossip came regarding the virus. The Pope was going to Washington to talk to the President, the government back in England was starting an aid programme and was wanting to send blood donations over to the USA, and everyone seemed to be getting more worked up over it all. The usual tabloids were talking about zombies, the news shows were calling it an infection, and the Christian channels were suddenly a lot more popular, to the amazement of everyone. The Canalside Arcade Bar became the centre of all this gossip, with almost every regular having something to say about it.
“Bloody americans,” one regular announced after his sixth pint of ale, “too inbred to care about decency! First they ban beer, now they’re eating each other!” Nobody wanted to remind him that prohibition ended back in the thirties.
Another regular, an old woman who lost both sons in Iraq, had other thoughts. “I feel sorry for the poor things,” she confided to Paul as he made her a latte, “they’ve gone through enough, and yet here we are, living through another disaster in the heart of America”. All Paul could do was nod solemnly at that, knowing that the woman was likely to tear up if the conversation continued. Luckily, she accepted her coffee and sat in her usual seat at the back of the bar, far away from the chatting of the conspiracy theorists sat all over the place. Said conspiracy theorists were usually called normal people, but the ‘outbreak’ in New York and the media silence in Australia was getting them all giddy. As the words “virus”, “zombies”, “infected”, and “New York” bounced around the bar, Jess could feel herself getting worn out. Her favourite thing to do during her floor shifts was to listen in on the chatter of the customers, but today everyone seemed to be saying the same things, and it annoyed her too much. After two hours of hearing the same key phrases from almost everyone, she stomped over to Paul and begged for a cig break.
“I can’t let you run off, Jess, you’ve seen how many people are in today”.
“I know that, but it’s killing me hearing about all the same crap from everyone! You have to let me have a quick smoke or I’ll go mental!” She was twitching the same way she did when she got upset, but her cheeks had flushed bright red, as if she’d eaten a spicy curry. Paul knew better than to let her go without her smoking break, so he shepherded her to the side and told her she had five minutes or he’d dock her wage. Jess, ever the pessimist, scowled and shuffled off. Thankfully, she was back not even four minutes later, stinking of cigs but generally looking better than she had before it. As a precaution, Paul had her swapped for Josh, who was snoozing at the bar as he usually did when he wasn’t having to serve anyone, and so he was forced into the embarrassing red apron and onto the floor. Less than ten minutes later, he was stood in the glass wash, having a drink of staff cola and checking his phone (which he shouldn’t have even had on him). Paul just rolled his eyes and told Josh to get back to work, not even caring about how he could technically fire the guy for using his phone during his shift. At this point, it was just a case of getting through the day and night, and getting to bed as soon as possible.
That night, it just got worse. Turns out the story Josh had heard yesterday, about having a section of New York quarantined, actually happened. Worse, Lucy rang in to announce that she needed that week off, after her gran had been declared dead at the hospital in the middle of the quarantine zone. Paul nearly cried just to hear it; his heart had truly left this job, and he found himself lugging his way through the final few hours with a distracted set of staff and a near-hysterical customer base. Zombies or not, Paul was done with this job and this world. He resolved to start looking into moving to the countryside as soon as he got home, where news was slow, gossip limited to the local, and the bar jobs a lot easier on the soul. However, there was one more surprise for the bar, in the shape of a simple announcement from the government.
“Did you hear about how they’ve stopped all flights to America?” one woman said to her boyfriend as they stood by the crowded bar.
“No way,” was the boyfriend’s reply, “as if they’d do that!”
“They did! No one goes in or out, apparently. Anyway, I want a tequila shot”. Paul rolled his eyes so far back he was mildly surprised they rolled forward again, and walked off to serve a more intoxicated group. As luck would have it (sort of), a fight broke out between the very group he began to serve, and he had the joy of kicking out the lot of them.
Soon after, screams were heard outside, then smashed glass, then police sirens. The group of lads Paul had booted from the bar had ended up causing a brawl on the street, with one of them getting stabbed with some broken glass. As the police came in to tell Paul to close up the bar and kick everyone out, a collective sigh of relief could be heard from the bar staff, let alone Paul himself, who had ended up with a film of sweat covering his face. As soon as the last customer was out and the doors locked behind them, he slumped into a booth seat sticky with lager, and closed his eyes. Just one more hour, he kept thinking to himself, and I’ll be home. The people on the bar that night worked hard to clean up the place just so that they could go home too, knowing that, after tonight, a long hard sleep was much needed.
Things could only get worse, though. Everyone woke up to the news of a curfew (which was bad enough for the bars) and a restriction on all travel. The daytime drinkers at the Canalside were buzzing with gossip, and there was shock and outrage everywhere.
“How am I going to get to Newcastle now? I got a business meeting on Tuesday!”
“I was going to see my mum in Dover, but now I can’t!”
“My hen do’s on Saturday and we were off London, dammit! Now we can’t even do it here!”
The policeman who had been posted in the bar after the previous night’s stabbing just sighed whenever someone came up to him and demanded to know why they couldn’t go out at night or even go to the next city over. Every now and again he would just mumble something about “government’s orders”, but he said little else. Joy, the day-shift barmaid, occasionally went over to him to give him a mug of watery tea with too much milk and no sugar, and he would silently sip it with a stony expression, but aside from that there was very little interaction between officer and bar staff that day. Paul had wisely taken the day off, joining a growing list of people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t work at the Canalside that day, including those now stuck in other parts of the country. Lucy was one of those people; her family had decided to fly to New York to arrange her gran’s funeral, but had first been stuck at Manchester Airport by the flight ban, and now stuck in the city of Manchester itself by the curfew and inter-city travel ban. Her parents had taken the news of both hard, but Lucy was now just plain defeated by it all. When she’d rang in to tell Sophie, another manager, about being stuck cities away, the latter had taken it wearily.
Business at the Canalside was also slow, with many customers seemingly too scared to even leave their homes. Apparently the zombie apocalypse was too much for some of the regulars, who decided they should start stocking up and/or fretting rather than drowning their sorrows like normal. Many of the regulars who did come where more passive and avoidant over it all, preferring to just talk about recent football matches or the lottery numbers from last night. That sort of talk was welcomed by the bar staff, who at this point felt it was becoming pointless even having the place open during a national emergency like this. It was no surprise then that they shut at three that afternoon, after all but three customers had left to go check the headlines at home. Joy and Sophie had barely just finished cleaning the bar when the policeman from earlier, who had left with most of the other people, returned to tell them to go home immediately.
“Why?” Sophie asked, “I mean, we were going to anyway, but what’s happened?”
“I can’t say for sure,” replied the officer, “but it’s relating to the curfews and travel restrictions. Call it a development”. The two barmaids nodded mutely to that, and set off. Once Joy got home, she immediately turned on the news. The breaking news said much more then the police ever would’ve told her; Images of a riot in London, hospitals preparing entire quarantine units, and scientists calling the virus spreading through America some fancy name that basically boiled down to “zombies, but we’re not calling them zombies”. The more that was said on the subject by the people on the news, the bleaker the outcome looked, and Joy knew that after only a few minutes of being sat glued to the screen. A quick search on the internet revealed even more, with social media showing videos of the infected attacking people trapped in the quarantine zone in New York, and messages from those in other cities saying that it had spread to there. Then, a single fact that Joy hadn’t seen anywhere else: there was a confirmed case here in Britain. All it said was that the case was in Liverpool, and that it was under control, but it explained a lot.
Not long after came a call from Sophie. She was home, and had returned to an email telling her to keep the bar shut until further notice.
“You’re kidding me,” was Joy’s simple response.
“I’m afraid not. All the bars and restaurants in the area got the same email. Whatever this virus is that’s got everyone spooked, it’s killing business”. After a few reassuring messages sent back and forth over the phone, Joy hung up feeling even more hopeless. No shifts meant no wages. No wages meant rent would have to be delayed and she’d been in trouble for that. Suddenly all the hysteria over the situation made a whole lot more sense, and that said something. What it said to Joy, she wasn’t sure; she supposed it was that she took her job for granted, but that seemed too easy a moral to come up with. She ignored it.
By nightfall, the streets were dead silent and every window had the glow of their TV visible through the blinds or curtains. In Manchester, Lucy sat by the hotel window and watched the city grow deader and deader. Paul was in bed at his home, dreaming of a countryside retreat where nothing really mattered, and Sophie sat in her flat idly pulling at the loose threads of the sofa. The rest of the country felt just as pessimistic over the future, with each day being greeted with less enthusiasm than the last. By the end of the week, many had stopped leaving the house, the supermarkets were empty, and even the smallest of pubs were considered no-go zones. It was no surprise, then, that little changed when the virus began spreading more across the country, eventually overcoming even military intervention. Josh disappeared, assumed either shut up in the local quarantine or living his life as a wannabe zombie-film hero, but the rest of the staff of the Canalside Arcade Bar just tried to survive long enough, not bothering to dwell on things like rent or gossip anymore.