|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
Scenes From the End of the World, or The Last kid On Earth (But One)
The sky is dark and heavy with rain, as though weather is still somehow appropriate at this juncture. As though there are still people, with hands to hold up umbrellas, pulling against the wind, with nice coats to get splashed by malicious van-drivers going too fast through puddles. All of them are gone -- the coat-wearers, the drivers, the people who should be on their way to work this Monday morning. The work is gone, too.
The buildings are still there, though. And the vans and cars and lorries. All empty, the tube trains stuck in tunnels like rats that died sudden deaths while still underground. Nobody ever mourns a dead rat rotting in a tunnel. Nobody knows its there. Now, there is nobody left to know.
Just us couple of tossers, apparently, thinks Russell, and bites his lip as he stalls the car again.
I thought you said you could drive?
I said sort of, Noel. I never claimed to be Lewis fucking Hamilton, did I?
You have a go if you want. Its like driving a bloody pedal car, this thing. Its like its made out of tin-foil and balsa wood. Its shit! He kicks the inside of the door.
What, are you Jeremy Clarkson now?
Russell shoves the gear-stick back into neutral and turns the key into the ignition, yet again. Well, its hard, innit? he says, moving off cautiously. It's an obstacle course. You have to go round all the dead ones.
Dont call em that. Noel shudders.
Well, call a spade a bloody shovel, Noel. Look at em. Thems is dead cars.
I don't want to look at them.
You cant really avoid it, Noel. They're everywhere.
Noel sighs and raises his head. All right, Ill look at em. There, I looked. Now Im looking at me knees again.
Youll get car-sick, doing that. Oh, for fucks sake! They lurch to a stop again, Russell having found the gap between the overturned National Express coach and the Sainsbury's lorry slightly narrower than he expected it to be.
Ill get car-sick anyway," mutters Noel, "the way you drive.
Why have we got a fucking Ford Ka, anyway? We could have had anything! We could have had a 4x4. We could have had a tank and just gone over everything!
Where the fuck would we have got a tank? Noel asks.
"I saw one!"
"Trundling' across Hampstead Heath. Before the... before it happened. Right weird, it looked, an' all."
"Did you really?"
"Yeah, why not?"
"Fair enough," Noel says. He laughs, sudden and and sharp.
We're on the M25."
So... whats the difference? It's always looked like this.
Where the fuck are we? asks Russell, for what feels like the twentieth time.
I dunno, you drove here.
Yeah, but youve got the map.
They are driving along a country lane, treetops arching over them like the roof of a green tunnel, sunlight flickering through the branches, striping the road ahead. The rain has stopped, finally, and they havent run into a dead car for a good five minutes now.
I dunno, says Noel again, and looks down briefly at the road atlas they took from the shop in a dead petrol station. Wales?
Russell stops the car with a lurch. How did we get to bloody Wales? We just went past Chelmsford!
What? Chelmsford was ages ago. Oh, wait a minute. Sorry, I was looking at the wrong page. Yeah, we're not in Wales.
Well, where are we?
The quiet, bright day presses down on them like a heavy lid made of sunshine and birdsong. There are still birds. There is still sunshine. Russell groans in frustration and bangs the heels of his palms on the steering wheel.
"Give me that," he says and snatches the map out of Noel's grasp.
Noel turns to gaze out the window at nothing in particular. He nibbles at the skin around his fingernails.
Russell spreads out the map in front of him and studies it, frowning. Then he jabs a finger decisively into the middle of it, and turns to Noel.
"Let's go here," he says.
Noel peers reluctantly at the spot on the map under Russell's finger. He reaches over and moves the finger out of the way.
"What? Why do we wanna go there?"
Russell raises his eyebrows. "Why not?"
"I dunno," says Noel slowly, and looks out of the window again. "I dunno why not."
They go there.
As soon as they arrive at the Summer Sands Holiday Village, Russell realises he doesn't have a clue what he's doing or why. There are all these chalets here -- ugly little chalets all in rows, stretching on and on. It's enough to do your head in at the best of times.
"Which one?" he asks Noel, turning off the engine, but Noel only shrugs. He's been doing a lot of that since they left London, and Russell is starting to get tired of it.
"Don't care," says Noel. "This was your idea."
So Russell just picks one at random, dumps their random collection of belongings inside the front door, and leaves Noel wandering moodily from miniature room to miniature room while he goes to investigate. He supposes they should probably find something to eat. Or something.
There is a vending machine in the deserted reception area. It'll do. It's got stuff in it. On a cork notice board on the wall, posters and flyers announce upcoming events. Ray Silver and his Solid Gold Sixties Roadshow were due to play this Friday. Not any more.
The apocalypse isn't all bad, then.
Russell tries to smash the glass front of the vending machine with his boot, and then with a chair, but nothing happens except his foot hurts, and then so does his arm. Finally, in desperation and feeling idiotic, he puts a pound coin into the slot and punches in the number and letter combination. To his very great surprise, the machine comes to life and silently delivers him two packets of salt and vinegar crisps. After that, he manages to get a Snickers bar, two cans of Pepsi, a Dairy Milk and a packet of Rollos out of it before it stops responding. It makes him feel all sort of spooky, like he's been communing with a ghost.
He puts the Rollos in his pocket and decides Noel didn't have to know about them. They can be his payment for doing the driving, and talking to the machine.
When he gets back to the chalet, Noel is peering at himself in the mirror in the bedroom, running his fingers through his hair, tweaking and pulling. Russell sits down on the bed and watches his face: eyes wide, face stretched in concentration, lips slightly parted. It's the same look Noel gets when he's drawing: critical, detached. Somewhere else. It's the look Russell's mum used to get too, putting on mascara, some evenings. The look of long practice, of someone who knows what they're doing.
"Me roots are coming through," says Noel.
"Yeah, but it's all right... I quite like it."
"I got you some crisps," says Russell, standing up. "And a drink. And chocolate."
"Cheers." Noel smiles uncertainly and takes the food. "Where did you --"
"There's a machine."
"Oh. How --"
"Yeah..." Russell tweaks aside the little nylon net curtain at the bedroom window, peering out. He sighs and shakes his head like a plumber confronted with a particularly tricky boiler problem. "Had to break it, I'm afraid. Smashed the glass -- nothing else for it. Just kicked it in, straight in, like that. Good think I watched all them Karate Kid films, really."
"Twat," says Noel quietly. He raises the Pepsi can up to his cheek and holds it there against his cheek. Then he takes it away again and rubs the condensation from his face with the sleeve of his jumper. "What d'you think we should do, then?"
"Er," says Russell. He has no idea, really. He hates the way Noel is looking at him with his face all open and passive, like Russell should know stuff all of a sudden. He doesn't know anything. When has he ever known anything?
"Yeah," he says. "I might just go to bed. Get some rest. You should -- I think that's what we should do."
"Night then," says Russell, his hand on the door. It sounds foolish and wrong.
"Night," says Noel.
When, on impulse, Russell turns back and pokes his head round the door, Noel is still just standing there in front of the dressing table, looking at nothing.
"Um, I'm just next door," says Russell, which is a ridiculous thing to say, considering the size of the chalet, considering it's him and Noel, considering everything. "In the lounge bit. There's a sofabed. I mean, if you need anything, or..."
Noel looks at him. "Yeah, I think I can manage, thanks." His smile is weird.
"Right," says Russell, and goes to bed.
They can't live on vending machine crap forever. Actually, they can't live on it at all, because the machine won't work any more, and he still can't figure out how to get it open. It doesn't matter though. Russell has found the Happy Seagull Restaurant on the other side of the Holiday Village, and he thinks that it probably would make a seagull happy, if seagulls actually have emotions, if indeed they're able to grapple with abstract concepts such as 'happiness'. And who is he to say they're not? Anyway, the fact is that the restaurant kitchen is starting to smell like a rubbish tip. So is the little convenience store, with its plastic buckets and spades slowly bleaching to white in the window. Outside, newspaper and magazine pages from a tipped-over newsstand blow around in the dust. Russell is careful to avoid them. He fills carrier bags with all the food that still looks edible -- biscuits, pasta, things in tins -- and begins to haul them back to the chalet.
After he's done three journeys, he remembers the car. It's still sitting where they left it outside the reception building, looking like a toy, all shiny and red. When he tries to start the engine, though, there's something wrong. It makes a tired noise, coughs, and dies. Over and over again, he tries it. He tells it to come on, you fucking piece of shit. But nothing happens. The car has given up. He gets out of the driver's seat, kicks one of the tyres, and stomps back into the chalet.
He runs water into the washbasin in the bathroom. It comes out sputtery and slightly brown, but it still works, for the moment at least. He ties back his hair, then cups the water in his hands and pours it over his face. It drips down his chin, spreading in patches on his black t-shirt. His face looks strange in the mirror.
"Noel!" he shouts. The chalet is warm and close, silent as a tomb.
Noel is in bed with the curtains closed. The covers have fallen off him onto the floor. As Russell pushes open the door he turns over, sighing, and pushes his face into the pillow.
"Mate, honestly, I could do with a bit of help out here," says Russell. He's trying to make his voice sound like the voice of a reasonable person, not high and stupid, squeaky with panic.
"Fuck off," mumbles Noel into the pillow. "I'm on holiday."
Russell slams seven doors on his way back outside, which he thinks he ought to be congratulated on seeing as there are only five doors in the chalet, and one of them is attached to the oven. Nobody is there to notice though, so he congratulates himself.
They try to work out what's left.
"Flies," says Noel, and yawns. "Mould." He's in bed again. Or still. Russell thought he heard him the night before, banging about in the dark, but he doesn't bother to ask what he was doing.
"Birds," says Russell, leaning against the door-frame. "'Cos we can hear them. But no rabbits."
"How d'you know?"
"I ain't seen any."
"How many rabbits do you normally see?"
"Hundreds. Squirrels, then. Seen any of them?"
"Yes," says Noel seriously. "I'm married to one." He holds Russell in a steady, wide-eyed stare, unsmiling. "I can show you the wedding photos if you don't believe me. They was taken by a mole."
"Moles take bad pictures," says Russell.
"The camera had an automatic focus."
"That's good." Russell finds he can't look away. Noel's eyes are clear and grey, his gaze unexpected. He seems mostly to look at his nails, now. "Then you were lucky."
"Yeah." Noel turns his head, plucks at the duvet. His mouth turns up slightly at one side, as though he's about to smile, although no smile is forthcoming. "Fish," he says. "There's still fish. I saw one in a pet shop window. Goldfish in a bowl, swimming about. Before we left London -- when we went on that brilliant three-hour diversion through the backstreets of Winchmore Hill."
Fish... Russell grins and straightens up suddenly, leaping away from the doorframe. He snaps his fingers, feeling like someone in a film. "Fish! Noel, I think you might be a genius. Now, get the fuck out of bed."
"Oh, come on..."
"No. Leave me alone."
"Just for a bit? Do it for me."
"Not today. I'm havin' a lay-in today," says Noel, and pulls the duvet over his head. His voice makes its way out from underneath it, muffled and slurred. "Maybe tomorrow."
The thing is, is... he can kill a fish. Probably. Russell's pretty sure that, if he can only get hold of a fish, he'll be able to kill it. Definitely. Nearly definitely. He doesn't want to, but he can. It's the getting hold of it part that's proving difficult.
He follows a track out of the Holiday Village, armed with a brightly coloured children's fishing net and a selection of plastic buckets. One has a smiley face on it. Already, it's a better companion than Noel, here at the end of the world. More helpful and definitely a lot more fun.
The track leads him along the banks of a tidal creek (he knows that's what it is, the National Trust notice board says so) which begins to widen out as it nears the sea. He stops on a likely-looking bit of shingle (no sign whatsoever of those mythical bloody sands -- maybe they don't appear till summer), and puts down his pathetic equipment. He's not certain, really, how best to go about this. Above him the sky is wide and blank, as flat as the land, the colour of nothing in particular. He can hear some kind of bird calling -- a hollow, mournful sound -- and the reeds whispering together as they move in the wind. They stretch all around him, green and tall, rippling like waves in the sea. If he walked into them, Russell thinks, he might never come out again. Nobody would find him. Nobody would know. It might be a week before Noel even noticed he'd gone. That's if he ever got out of that fucking bed.
He stands there for two hours, getting his feet wet, waggling his net around ineffectually. His hands are so cold he can hardly feel them. He doesn't even know if there are any bloody fish in the creek -- he thought he saw one once but it turned out to be his own reflection. Eventually, he has to admit defeat. The frustration makes him want to cry.
Trudging tiredly back to the village, he sees a rabbit. It stands still as anything, staring at him, nose twitching -- then disappears with a flash of white down a hole in the sandy bank. Fucking typical. Russell sticks two fingers up at the place it recently vacated. He's in no mood to celebrate the Survival of the Bunnies. It's not like an apocalypse makes much difference to them, after all -- they just go on doing their own thing, the rabbits and squirrels, the birds and the fish. The mould. The flies. People or no people, they just carry on the same.
"You don't know how lucky you are, anyway," he mutters to the vanished rabbit. "Could have been Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley Fucking Whittingstall were the last two people left on earth. Instead you've got a couple of pathetic mincing wankers from Camden, one of which is a vegetarian, and the other one's taken to his bed indefinitely. God, yeah, you must be really scared..."
He stops speaking then, because his voice sounds wrong in the empty world. In a flash of temper, he chucks the net into a patch of prickly gorse, then worries about animals getting caught up in it and goes to get it back. That one might almost have made him laugh, but his teeth are chattering too much, and the gorse has left scratches all up his arms.
When he gets back, Noel is still in the damn bed. Russell marches into the bedroom, pulls off one of his boots, unleashing a torrent of saltwater as he does so, and throws it straight at Noel's head, which is all Russell can currently see of him.
"Ow! What the fuck?"
Noel, apparently, is awake.
"Get the fuck out of bed!" shouts Russell. He pulls off the other boot and advances on Noel, holding it above his head in a threatening manner.
Noel gets out of bed. He looks annoyed.
"Russell, what the hell are you doing? You just threw a fucking boot at my head!"
"What the hell -- what the hell am I doing? What the fuck are you doing? You have been in bed since we fucking got here! You can't just expect me to do every-bloody-thing! It's not fair!"
Noel runs a hand through his hair and rolls his eyes. "Oh, fuck off, Russell," he says, and yawns.
"Fine!" Russell is aware that his voice is in danger of becoming squeaky again. It's the anger. He's squeaking with anger. "Ok, yeah! Whatever! Fine!"
He leaves the chalet, slamming the door behind him. He walks, very fast, all around it, and around the reception building, and around the dead car. Then he walks back into the chalet and into the bedroom. Noel hasn't moved; he's still standing there next to the bed, looking as though he's trying to remember where he left his keys. Russell walks up to him and pushes him, hard, in the chest.
"Why don't you just fucking do something?" he shouts.
Noel does something. He punches Russell in the face.
"Argh!" Russell stumbles backwards, clutching at his nose, which feels as though it might be on fire. Half-blind with fury and pain, he lunges at Noel, twisting the fabric of his New York Dolls t-shirt in a tight grip and pushing him back against the wall.
"You fucking idiot!" says Russell. "Don't you get it? There is nobody else! No one's coming. No one will rescue you, no one will look after you. There's just me! There's just you and me."
Noel looks at him, wide-eyed. Russell looks back. "That's all," he says, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. These don't feel like his own words. He didn't mean to say them. "Just you and me."
Noel turns his head away, tries to wriggle out of Russell's grasp. "Get off of me."
But Russell won't let him go. Not this time. He shoves Noel back again, hard, pinning him against the wall with his weight. "Listen to me!" he insists.
He doesn't know why, really. He can't explain. There's no real reason anyone should listen to him, not any more. Against him, Noel feels thin and small. His breath is warm and smells like Diet Coke.
"It's just us," Russell says again. "That's all."
Noel shifts against him irritably, then suddenly stops. He blinks and narrows his eyes at Russell curiously, as though he's only just noticed him. He pushes a hand up between them and touches Russell's t-shirt hesitantly. "What--" He clears his throat. "What -- why are you all wet?" It almost sounds like he cares about the answer.
So Russell kisses him. It's the only thing he can think of to do, really. It feels like the only thing he's got left. Noel kisses him back, with his eyes closed and without any particular hesitation. It's as though this is just exactly what he always expected to be doing after punching someone in the face, at the end of the world. Russell can feel Noel's hand on his back, pushing up under his damp t-shirt. Noel's face juts against his like a piece in a weird, sexy jigsaw puzzle, forced into the wrong space just for a laugh. "Ha!" Russell says. He doesn't mean to. It's not because he's laughing. He has Noel's spit on his chin. They lick each other's teeth, suck air into each others' throats.
"Hang on," says Noel, and goes still. "Wait a minute."
"What?" Not that Russell is listening for the answer. He doesn't want to wait a minute, or any minutes. He presses himself into Noel, runs his hands down over Noel's hips. Russell doesn't really know what he's after, but he doesn't care much, either. Not just now.
"Your nose," says Noel, "is bleeding."
In the few days they've been here, they've taken to going to bed as soon as it gets dark, burrowing down in the musty bedclothes they scavenged out of the airing cupboard.
"D'you wanna come in here?" calls Noel, as Russell passes the bedroom doorway. He's sitting on the edge of the bed, his face giving nothing away in the wavering candlelight.
"Yeah," says Russell. He smiles, and then stops smiling. "Yeah, all right."
He feels oddly self-conscious as he turns the covers back and gets in. The bed smells of Noel, which he supposes it would do considering he's barely been out of it for five minutes together. He feels the mattress sink and move as Noel rolls in next to him, blowing the candle out as he does so. It's better than the sofabed, anyway. Outside in the night something lets out a long, floating cry, and Russell adds owls to his mental survival list.
"Are you asleep?" asks Noel in an exaggerated whisper.
"I just got in bed!"
"That's no excuse." Russell can hear him smile around the words.
"What d'you mean? That doesn't even makes sense."
"Don't care. I'm the last person on Earth. I don't have to make sense."
"Yeah? What about me?"
"You're second to last. I'm properly last. You're just last but one."
Russell pillows his head on his hands and stares into the darkness. It's kind of like camping, this. It feels a bit like being a kid again. The last kid on Earth (but one).
"I sort of keep wondering," he says, keeping his voice low, the way you do when you spill confessions into the dark. "I keep wondering what happened to Morrissey."
"Same as everyone else, I suppose. Whatever that is."
"No, I meant my cat."
"I went back," Russell goes on. "I called him for ages. Put food out. I had his favourite biscuits, kept on shaking the packet, but he never came. I just keep thinking... what if..."
He doesn't finish the sentence. Noel says nothing.
"Nah, never mind," Russell says eventually. It was a bit too close, that one. They don't talk about people. Morrissey is people.
He turns over to face the wall, and Noel shuffles up against his back, sighing, one arm thrown casually across him. As though they always did this. As though all of this is entirely normal.
"How's the nose?" he asks, the words floating across the skin of Russell's neck as he speaks, making Russell shiver.
"All right," says Russell. "How's yours?"
"Same as usual. Bit weird looking."
"I could hit it for you, if you want..." Russell's voice trails off into nothingness. His throat feels heavy. Fingers move lightly on the back of his neck -- snowflake, moth.
"Come here," Noel whispers.
He turns over. In the grey half-dark, this close, he is aware of Noel as a collection of fuzzy outlines. As warmth. The blurred mass of life that makes up another person. Closer still, and now it's too close to see at all.
There's a difference, this time, when Noel kisses him. Like it's a clumsy statement. Like Noel is announcing his intention to learn something complex and difficult -- a new language or a half-understood game. The sudden heat of human skin, when Noel tugs his t-shirt up and pulls it over his head, is oddly shocking to Russell.
"What are you doing?" he murmurs unnecessarily, as Noel pushes him down onto his back. Everything here is not quite right: the angles, the selection of body parts, the fact that he's fine with all of it.
"Something," Noel answers, and slides his hand under the waistband of Russell's pants. "Why, d'you want me to stop?"
"Ah..." says Russell involuntarily. "No. No, carry on."
This is just sex, of course, he thinks distractedly, pushing himself up against Noel, unable to help himself even if he wanted to. Just a carry-on. Just that thing I do. Noel's hair falls soft and tickling on his chest. He sucks air hard into his lungs and pushes it back again out of his throat, thick and charged. It's just sex, and it's just us. And there's nothing wrong with that.
After, Russell laughs and says, "Better than a punch in the face, I suppose."
He's not sure what to do with himself, after all. Whether he should go... or what. Or where he would go anyway, or whether he even wants to. This isn't his bed. He sits up, then lies down again. The mattress feels uncomfortable.
"Yeah," says Noel. He's smirking into the blankets, Russell can hear it. "Marginally."
"Fuck off!" Russell raises himself up onto an elbow. "I'm good, I am! People have told me. You ought to consider yourself lucky it's me that's the last person on Earth but one, and not -- well, someone who's not as good! You ought to be grateful!"
"God, you're such a cock," sighs Noel, and he pulls Russell down again, winding his arms around him, easily, casually -- so that eventually Russell is forced to do the same.
"Yeah," he insists through a yawn. "Well, so are you." Warmth is closing over him like the waves of the sea.
"I know," says Noel, as though from a great distance. "Sorry about that."
Eight: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Above the estuary the sky is high and wide and empty, offering no answers and no questions. No way in and no way out. But small fingers of sun are beginning to poke through the white clouds, tingeing their undersides with colour, painting gold onto the land and making the creek glitter like a silver ribbon among the reeds. Russell wonders if that means it's going to be a nice day. He doesn't know. Weather isn't really his thing.
"Wellies," says a voice behind him. Noel's voice. The only other voice there is.
"Boots. See? Found 'em in a little shop next to that restaurant. Little outdoorsy kind of shop. Got all sorts of stuff in there, you should check it out. Yours --" he gestures at Russell's nice boots, now encrusted with mud and slime and god-knew-what else -- "ain't really gonna cut it, I reckon."
Russell looks down at Noel's feet and says nothing.
"I wanted the pink ones with the sort of psychedelic flowers," says Noel. "But they didn't have them in my size."
"Yeah. How long have you been up, anyway?"
"A bit. Not that long." He meets Russell's eyes briefly, then looks away. "Thought, um, I should get some fresh air."
They stand and stare out over the water. A gentle breeze blows in, ruffling the reeds and Russell's hair.
"D'you think--" says Noel, and stops.
No, thinks Russell. No, I don't think. Thinking is fatal.
"What?" he says out loud.
"D'you think we should keep on looking? For -- 'cos I mean, you never know, do you?"
"No," says Russell. "No, you never know."
"Right." Noel steps forward to stand beside Russell, and rests his hand in the small of Russell's back. "Yeah, ok then."
Russell turns to watch him. The shadows under Noel's eyes are dark on his pale skin. He looks like a creature from the deepest ocean, swimming out from the dark caverns into the light. And his hair could probably do with a wash. So, for that matter, could Russell's.
Right couple of twats we are to be the last dregs of humanity, thinks Russell, slinging an arm across Noel's shoulders and leaning across to kiss him on the cheek. There's got to be someone else. Somewhere. It's just ridiculous otherwise.
As they watch, a flock of birds rises suddenly up out of the marsh, calling out in their strange, lonely voices. The early morning sun makes them glitter as they turn and wheel, like one single creature, back and round, shifting and changing like a shoal of silver fish.
"You know what we should do?" says Noel. He leans back against Russell's arm, and Russell finds the solid weight of him reassuring. It stops the bad words floating out of the back of his mind -- horrible words like 'disease' and 'winter' and 'how long'.
"What should we do?" he asks.
"We should try fishing in here."
Russell smiles a private smile at the sunrise. "All right," he says to Noel. "All right, yeah. That's what we'll do.