Honfleur, Normandy, France
Interview with: Sylvain Le Blanc
Le Blanc sits in a pretty little café on the harbour front at Honfleur. He rises from his seat to greet me, a glass of red wine on the table in front of him despite the early hour. The ashtray on the table is already full of cigarette butts, and as I sit down with him he lights another one, his nicotine-stained fingers trembling with palsy. As the waitress brings me a coffee and a croissant – Sylvain declines food – I study my interviewee and our surroundings, waiting for him to talk.
Tall, well kept and colourful houses surround this picture-perfect little port, once a favourite of tourists and locals alike; once upon a time famed for its food, particularly the galettes and crepes. Although a shadow of its former self, the sense of history and beauty still carry through the air with the mournful cries of the gulls. Unfortunately, much of this seems lost on my companion.
Sylvain is a tall, thin, pale man, with a mop of unruly dark hair; his features are twisted into a permanent, sardonic sneer by the waxy sheen of a burn scar on one side of his face, which carries glassily onto his left hand. Dark shadows ring his eyes, and his gaze darts nervously around the cobbled street that we look out upon. A perfunctory drag on his stinking, poorly rolled cigarette precludes an abrupt start to a rapid stream of one-way conversation.
“They left me to die.
“At least that’s what I thought at the time. I was a recently enlisted soldier in the French Army, serving out my year’s mandatory service with the forces. By then, we knew what was happening, and the local army base had cleared a lot of the area around Vierville-Sur-Mer. Back in World War Two, it was more commonly known as Omaha Beach, where thousands of American troops were killed trying to establish a beachhead. We knew that swarms were becoming more common, and we knew that there was one working its way down the coast from the cliff areas. Lookouts could see them moving through the shallows, seemingly looking for a place to come on shore.
“Another English import we didn’t want. To be fair, the interim UK government hiding on the Isle of Wight warned us when they saw the swarm. Unfortunately, even though we had the warning, we had little time until they were seen from the cliffs.
“Much of the WW2 infrastructure was still in place, and it took very little work to get the line of old concrete bunkers ready for use again. I was installed, along with another new recruit, in an old WW2 bunker on the coast. I found out later that it was the infamous bunker where a young German soldier had been left on the day of the D-Day landings. Nothing but him and twelve thousand rounds of ammunition, but he reputedly killed over three-thousand American troops. It was ironic given our later situation.
“We took it in turns to look out of the narrow slit in the concrete every now and again, maintaining regular radio contact with the main base to the south. We were bored, had only a few cigarettes, and little food. An hour later, the boredom seemed like a wonderful thing.
“Alain, my fellow conscript in boredom finished a cigarette, and stood to look out of the bunker, it was his turn. Suddenly, he started swearing and fumbling at one of the machine guns that we had mounted in readiness. As I stood to join him, I could see why. Sixty years after the original landings, a beachhead was being established again, but there were no uniforms this time: no soldiers, no grenades, and no landing craft. There was utter silence until Alain let off a short burst of machine gun fire.
“Then the moaning started.
“They reacted to the sound of the gun and came shambling towards us. Somehow, that was more terrifying than anything I had thought possible. They were implacable, almost indestructible. I watched as Alain virtually cut one in half with a stream of bullets; watched as the top half of the zombie pulled itself expressionlessly towards us, leaving a trail of innards and its legs behind it. As the entrails extended to their full length, the legs grudgingly followed on behind the steadily moving upper half, dragging an obscene furrow in the golden sands.
“They felt no pain.
“Transfixed by the spectacle, I came back to myself only when Alain paused his shooting just long enough to slap me, bringing me out of my horror-induced stupor. As he resumed his firing, I ran to the radio and dashed off a message to HQ. Then, I joined Alain at the front of the bunker and began firing the other machine gun.
“We fired on the Zombies in a more or less continuous stream of bullets, soon learning to aim for the heads: they didn’t get back up then. A non-stop sweep of arching fire swept back and forth across our field of vision, a conical-shaped killing zone from which none escaped. We had tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, so much so, that hours later we were still firing, too terrified to stop as the moaning horde of the undead continued to come at us. It was the moaning I remember, the constant drone of it rising and falling like a demented impression of an air raid siren, drilling into your head even over the noise of the guns. Every time we stopped to quickly re-load another string of ammunition, it seemed to intensify a thousand-fold.
“But the Zeds weren’t just men and women. Small children came towards us, their eyes blank and staring, their expressions empty and their mouths open, ready to feed. There were old men and women there, bent and warped by whatever illness they’d had in life but far more able to move in death, due to the cessation of pain. Some had lost limbs, some crawled, some walked, and some dragged themselves with stumps of arms. Whatever method they used to move, they were all coming at directly at us; lured by noise, and the promise of lunch. An implacable and unstoppable tide of moaning, gnashing, horror, that promised only death as its reward for our patience.
“After four hours of firing, both guns ran out of ammo with a dull click.
“We were dead men.
“Exhausted, dehydrated, and terrified, we stood in the sudden silence, knee deep in spent shells, and barely able to breathe in the confined and poisonous atmosphere of the bunker. We looked out through the narrow slit in the concrete at the endless tide of the undead wading slowly out of the surf. We had taken out tens of thousands of Zombies and built a barrier of the now finally dead, undead. Our killing zone had been tightly focused in an area where we knew we could accurately take them out, but as we watched, the mound of bodies was slowly overtopped by a new wave of incoming, shambling Infected, and we stood in our bunker watching in mute horror as the moaning tide came in once more.
“As the Zeds started approaching the hideout, we suddenly reacted. There were heavy metal shields outside of the bunker which we could close. Survival was now our only hope.
“We exited through the small hatch in the wall and moved the bolts that secured the shutters, hoping desperately the infected wouldn’t be able to open them. Apart from the moans of the undead, there was utter silence. All of the other bunkers had ceased firing. As we ran back to our shelter, a lone zombie beat us to it, having somehow outflanked the bunker. Alain yelled in terror and ran at it, his handgun springing into his hand. He unloaded the entire clip into it, sending it staggering backward, but for some reason forgot to aim at the head. As he tried to run past it, it grabbed him and held on, biting maniacally at him. A small group of Zeds appeared behind us and alerted by the struggle approached at a shambling run, the moaning rising to a crescendo as they came towards us.
“‘Go!’ He said, ‘Run!’
“So I did.
“As I ran back to the bunker, I looked back once. I wish that I hadn’t. A group of them were pulling him apart; his screams of agony soaring over the dunes in a horrific echo of history.
“Something else caught my attention then, there was a growing droning sound; a massive angry bee noise that drowned out even the moaning of the thousands of approaching Zeds on the beach. Looking up, I saw planes and recognised the RAF insignia. As I watched, small black dots detached from the planes, and fell steadily towards the earth; I ran as fast as I could to the bunker. Bombs! They were bombing the beach.
“I almost made it. As I slammed the door shut, a dead hand slipped into the gap stopping it from closing properly. At the same time as I opened it to try and shoot the thing, the bombs hit. It destroyed many of the Zeds, including the one in front of me, but part of the blast caught me too.”
At this point Sylvain pulls back his sleeve to expose more burns on his arm.
“I somehow managed to get the door closed with my one good hand, and then bolted it behind me. In terrible pain from whatever the Brits had thrown at the Zeds, I shrank back into the deepest corner of the bunker, my gun in my hands, and cowered, shivering against the wall. I was in agony from my burns, but fear and adrenalin kept me conscious. The bombing had stopped, and all I could hear were the undead. I listened to the moaning outside, expecting them to break in at any moment. They moved around out there for hours, as I sat in the darkness of my own personal tomb, shaking, cold, hungry, and terrified. Eventually, it stopped.
“When everything had gone quiet, I stood quietly and looked out of the small peep-hole in the door.
“A blank white eye was looking right back at me from a hands breadth away and the moaning started again, the Zed outside banging on the door as I scrambled back into the corner, crying, and shaking in pain and terror.
“I was a rat in a trap: a trap that stank of death and gunpowder, but above all, the stinking fear of a human being in a hopeless situation.
“That damn zombie carried on battering the door for two days. When the army finally came back to the area a few days after the swarm had passed, they only found me because the Zed was still banging numbly away at the steel door with shattered flailing stumps of arms. I was delirious, burnt, and terrified beyond what I would call sanity.
“I was the only survivor.
“If you can call it that.”