A short story by Gerard McKeever
There was no contingency plan for any of this. It was as unexpected as it was inevitable. It happened in a way that no one had foreseen; certainly no one that mattered. In fact in a way it didn’t happen at all. There was no climactic moment, no critical juncture with sirens in the sky, explosions deafening and illuminating, no tidal wave. In our arrogance we had assumed that there would be a moment of apocalyptic release. But everything was working along a much more irresistible arc, a steady and unyielding descent from one point of no return to another, each stage adapted to and made habitual. We crept away, diminishing until we became what we are now. We slipped from grace silently and without a fight, receding into the distance like a confused old grandfather, unaware he is on the road to death, in the hands of the final days.
There was a smell in the early years that everyone was laughing about. We stopped laughing when peoples’ noses started to hurt. After a while we couldn’t smell that smell anymore, but we knew it hadn’t gone away. We agreed not to talk about it. Then the colours grew more vivid in the evenings, a painful florescence that was almost too beautiful. The sunsets burned like the Northern Lights, dappled with shimmering pockets of light. It looked like pictures of distant nebulae, only planted here in the sky above home. People were afraid for a while when this flaming appeared, some called it a harbinger. Others said it was just a natural abnormality. They had a convoluted name for it, solar-something. Then a few weeks later we stopped noticing it. It went the same way as the smell, was folded in to our lives, dealt with and finally not even discerned. Adaptability, our greatest strength, was also our fatal flaw. Our ability to tolerate almost anything – guilt, discomfort and inequality – helped us to fade quietly away.
The glowing in the sky and the smell were only the most dramatic of the things that were happening in those early days. Smaller, sometimes almost invisible changes trickled through the cities, only rendered ominous in reflection. Shops started closing down earlier and nightclubs thinned out. It was as if no one had much energy. The working day shrank accordingly. We stopped partying and you saw little groups huddled around in the squares, talking in quiet voices and playing complicated card games. Women began wearing headscarves again, modesty suddenly the zeitgeist. Men changed their dress too, growing more distinctly vain, or vain in a different way. Cleanliness was the over-riding focus for both genders and people spent hours every day checking their clothes for the slightest sign of dirt. The dry-cleaning shops did well, particularly once the white snow that wasn’t cold seemed to be everywhere. It was as if it had been gathering for years unobserved. It littered the pavements in the cities, turning a dirty-white colour like smudged newspaper. It might have been smudged newspaper. People walked around with scalps gleaming red-raw from the scrubbing, close-cropped hair and clinical fabrics. Little white plastic cloths appeared from nowhere and took over our lives. Cleaning products were stuffed in our pockets. Cleaning became a violent ritual.
And then the children disappeared, or changed – it was hard to tell. Had everyone become so much more infantile that children blended in better, or did new babies stop being born? It was hazy and who would want to know? There was a general look in the eyes of strangers. The look was complex, but after a while you could sort out what you saw – confusion, envy, often a slightly crazed joy. Friends had plans about moving to remote locations and starting experimental communities. Some actually did, returning a month or two later wanting not to speak about it, somehow heartbroken by the countryside. As things progressed a general miasma gathered, heading towards a collective amnesia that clouds the journey towards today. All we can give is analysis of the early days and speculation about how then and now cohere. We were too successful at deleting the uncomfortable truths. We are left with imagination and guesswork to explain how we got here; and where exactly here might be. We can try to piece together fragments but we have to accept that our narrative will be functional.
The televisions littered the streets after the signal stopped. Some of us were delighted. The radio kept going for a while and there was a sense of travelling back in time. Groups of people in obligatory overcoats huddled around radios listening to talent contests and historical sporting triumphs. Conversation became more diffuse, memory-ridden and rhythmical. More of a game than an exchange of information, a dance of words, repeated phrases and images. The world shrunk down to community size. No one discussed international or even national affairs. We had no idea what was going on in Edinburgh, no interest. The streets were isolated little islands; networks of power constricted to walking distance. The trees weakened and every so often there would be a panic about fuel, but in the long run our needs just lessened. Maybe there were less of us. Certainly we did less. Hours were spent sitting wrapped-up, staring out into the quiet, white-blanketed streets. The distant sound of dogs barking and the odd passing bicycle were the only punctuation to creeping days. People became automatic, statuesque, dealing silently with the worsening conditions. Occasional jet planes roared by overhead but this didn’t seem important, just a part of the scenery, like the failing green and the pot-holed, empty roads.
One night the Botanic Gardens were on fire. Huge flames leaped through the dried grass and flaking leaves. From a distance we could hear panes in the glasshouses shattering with the heat. The fire was beautiful and a few of us watched on while it burned itself out. Later, people took souvenirs – mostly shards of melted glass containing fragments of charred plant-life, little coffins for fossilised-looking sticks. People sat them on windowsills and looked at them for long periods. The glass was driven through with streaks of gaudy colour, patches of blue and green. Around the city eventually some streets had only one resident. One set of lonely eyes peering out of a window looking for a community long-faded. Ghost streets fell to ruin around these odd stragglers, remaining on, stubborn and resilient, the whiteness of the city stretching out of view. It’s not easy to be the end of a generation, with no one to talk to. Passers-by would see our faces outlined by rotten window frames, strangely passive, asserting a tribal refusal to abandon home. Phone lines hung limply down, humbly redundant. There was nothing to say, no need to contact even the next street, the next enclave of stone. And there were no new books. It made the ones you had so much more valuable. Books were like currency. They had a religious status as the textual record of a passing world. Some people preferred not to read.
Occasional friendships clung on in the midst of calamity. Our hands shook, with darkness round the edges in and out of sight. Trouser legs too short and shoe soles that would never be replaced: an elderly city, creaking to bed. There weren’t any working cars after a while. There weren’t any roads that would be safe enough to drive along. It was remarkable how the roads degraded, like the workings of a skin disease. Potholes became craters, cracks became impassable. The city was a series of islands, an archipelago of self-contained absences. There was very little violence. Once or twice we heard screams out on the street but mostly everyone was too tired. Once, a funeral cortège passed the window where I stood alone, three or four shabby-looking men carrying a coffin made of perfect and beautiful white wood. The men’s faces were solemn and resigned. They had to zigzag along the broken road trying to navigate a safe path. Behind them two or three women in matching clothes walked quickly, periodically offering to help and being silently denied. Further down the street the closed shop fronts offered back the fading light, reflecting twisting colours from the horizon. Across the street another set of eyes watched the funeral pass, rigidly fixed in the window, compelled to look on. It was the last funeral to come up the street, the last that was remembered.
The rain had a greasy feel like syrup and someone out of sight was shouting in a desperate voice, ‘Call that a punch!?’ They kept saying that, getting more and more worked up. Life was slower, mornings seemed to last forever. Waking up early was easier when there was nothing to do at night. The radio transmissions had finally stopped, going out with a bang one evening after all three stations simultaneously screamed out La Marseillaise. We thought it was funny. You were still there with me then. We watched the clocks stop and went out less. We watched helpless as the roof on the opposite tenement began to leak, knowing nothing about masonry and having no real reason to fix it. ‘Call that a punch,’ you joked when the roof finally caved in, stone slamming against stone with a strangely liquid tone, a fleshy quality.
Soon the inevitable journeys could not be avoided. Most everyone had already gone, one way or another. It was not a decision that needed to be made; it rose in front of your eyes and had to be obeyed. You left without saying goodbye and it broke my heart. It made me want to go sooner myself, to leave the crumbling city for the green outside that I had not thought about for years. Somehow I assumed it was still there, preserved against all logic waiting for me. There was no lock on the door anymore. I thought about what direction you might have travelled in and hoped to follow you, caring more about being with you than where we might be. I pictured us together in the flitting glow of earlier years, saw us running through fields giggling and I smiled, convinced for a moment. Far away over the settling ruins, the warping rays of the sun glanced off the evening brick. The sunset was still beautiful.
Gerard McKeever is an author and academic based in Dumfries & Galloway. Recent short stories by Gerard appear in 2015 issues of 'From Glasgow to Saturn', 'Storgy' and 'The Flexible Persona'. He is developing a screenplay in collaboration with filmmaker Mark Lyken and producer April Chamberlain. Gerard holds a postdoctoral position at the University of Glasgow, where he completed a PhD in 2014. For more, see gerardmckeever.co.uk