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After Tomorrow – Gillian Cross

November 10, 2016

atWhat if you woke up tomorrow and everything had changed? Money is worthless following the complete crash of all the banks. Your friends are gone. Armed robbers roam the streets.  No one is safe.

For Matt and his little brother, Taco, that nightmare is a reality. Their only hope of survival is to escape through the Channel Tunnel. But danger waits on the other side. Stay or go. What would you do?

After seeing scenes of distressed refugees at the Calais ‘jungle’ it is interesting to see the tables turned as English folk try to escape hardship by trying to get into France. The journey is slow and difficult but Matt manages to hang on to his precious bicycle. In France, they are sent to a refugee camp at Lemon Dough (Les Mandeaux) where life is not much safer than it was at home. They live in a tent and struggle to survive on a very basic unappetising diet of swede, rice, beans and bread. Matt is desperate to protect his brother and shows great resourcefulness in finding a way to earn a living. He makes friends with Paige and finds out who he can trust and who he can’t.

The bike is almost a metaphor for different stages of Matt’s life – back at home it represents safety, order and family, in France it represents a family that has been dented and damaged and still survives, and in the end it proves to be just an object, worth a lot but still less than a family.

I didn’t realise, until a lot later, that the same author had written ‘The Demon Headmaster’.

The author: Ideas can come from very unexpected places.  The story takes place in England and France, but it started with a picture of boys  Africa. I was doing some work with a charity called CORD, putting together an information pack about the lives of Sudanese refugees in Chad.  One of the pictures we used was a photo of boys kicking a football – made out of plastic bags.

I thought a lot about those boys – and about their parents, who taught in the camp schools or started up small businesses to provide services to other refugees.   Would I be able to cope as well as they did?

Then, one day, I suddenly thought: Suppose it was English boys kicking that ball around.  Suppose we had to be refugees . . . 

And that was when Matt and Taco jumped into my head.  They were squashed into the back of a forty foot truck with a crowd of strangers.  Making a mad dash to get through the Channel Tunnel – before it was too late.  I could see them clearly – and I knew I was going to write their story.

But what was their story?  What made them run away from their home when they had nowhere else to go?  It had to be because life in the UK was breaking down.  Why?  The reason had to be something simple and devastating – and very easy to explain.

Like the collapse of the pound.

That seemed a far-fetched idea (surely no major currency would ever collapse again?) but it was exactly what I needed.  I plunged into the book, inventing the phrase ‘Armageddon Monday’ for the day when the crisis took hold.    That was in early 2010.  Within months, the news was full of the euro crisis and ‘Armageddon’ suddenly became the latest buzz word.

That felt creepy.   My book seemed to be getting more serious every day.  I shuddered – but I kept writing, trying to imagine what it would be like if the pound did collapse.  Riots, I thought.  There would be riots all over the country.   A bit melodramatic, maybe, but I wrote them into the story.

Six months later, in August 2011, riots exploded across the UK.

That was very creepy.  But there was even more to come.  I’d written about the French President closing his country’s borders to British refugees from the UK.  I worried about doing that, in case people thought it was ridiculously implausible.  Everyone knows, after all, that citizens of EU countries have a right to live anywhere in the EU.  But I needed the closure, to make Matt and Taco’s escape as difficult and dramatic as possible.  So I put it in anyway.

In July 2012, when the book was finished, I went to an OUP sales conference to talk about it, with a proof copy in my hand.  Just before I started speaking, someone stood up to report the latest news.  David Cameron had just announced that, if necessary he would flout EU law and close the UK’s borders to Greek economic migrants.  I almost burst into tears.

Am I clairvoyant?  Of course not.  But the whole experience confirmed what I’ve always known.  Fiction isn’t just an amusement.  It’s a powerful tool for exploring the reality around us.   Writing stories – and reading them – stretches our minds and opens us up to new ideas.

It even taught me how to make a football out of plastic bags.

The ending reminds me of Jeremiah 29:4-7: ” to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce… to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

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