by Mark Engineer, UK
Summer came late that year, but when it arrived it was a wonder. The garden grew like a jungle. The house martins came in great numbers, turning their tricks through the tumbled air at dawn and at dusk.
We walked through nearby fields and sat beneath an old oak tree, where she read me poetry. Everything, the trees, the wheat, the sound of the birds and insects, seemed to thrust upwards in a kind of worshipful ecstasy. High summer, literally, the sky vaulting to contain these things.
Later that day, she stood by the window. I couldn’t see her face. There was a stillness to her. To her shoulders, her hand, which is raised, as if to brush away a lock of hair, but frozen, caught in the act.
There are goldfinches nesting in the wisteria next door, she says.
I’m not sure what I say, or if I say anything at all. And she turns. There are no tears on her face, but it’s clear she has been crying.
Everything looks all right, she says. But it isn’t. Is it?
Panic rises in me. Miriam isn’t one to cry. It has to be something bad, very bad.
She knows, I think, meaning the affair from a couple of years ago, the only time I ever strayed. A brief, miserable thing, bitterly regretted ever since.
She’s ill, I think. She’s been to the doctor about a lump. Or something else. Chest pains. Blood in the toilet bowl.
But it’s something else. And as she explains, I feel the sweet cooling of relief, even though what she is talking about is much, much worse.
High summer. Not so very long ago, in fact. But it feels like something that happened in another age, to someone else.
Later that year, or perhaps the next or the next, the eels swam to the Sargasso and instead of spawning, they ate each other. There was footage. Faked, some said, although I couldn’t see why anyone would want to do that. It certainly looked real enough. One eel, large, with the head of a smaller one jammed down its throat, as if attempting to swallow it whole. Groups of eels fighting, locked together, looking like a single creature, some multi-tentacled monster of the deep. An eel with half its head bitten away, the one remaining eye blinking sadly. Although eels are fish and fish do not have eyelids, so that can’t be right. In my mind, one eye blinks sadly, because that’s how I think a mortally wounded eel should look. Mute and appealing, like some refugee on the news. What fools we are.
Perhaps it was faked. What’s certain is that there are no eels any more. Although maybe there are some who dispute that, I don’t know.
Today this place, this big room, feels different, because today he is gracing us with his presence. Word reached us late morning, and preparations have been underway ever since. The wellbeing supporters are as quietly respectful as ever, but there’s a definite hum of excitement as they move among us. Equipment and chairs are surreptitiously straightened. Windows are opened, although care is taken with blinds, as bright light can upset us. Fresh wildflowers are brought from the garden. The cameras are switched off. EJL doesn’t like to be filmed.
My own supporter is almost manically upbeat. Leaves is her name. She assures me it’s the real one and I’ve no reason to doubt her. Such are the circles I now move in, where someone can be named after a plural noun without it seeming weird. She’s young. They almost all are. She has short brown hair in tight curls and brown eyes and cheeks that are lightly patterned with tiny veins. She’s neither pretty nor plain. I’ve known her a very short time but I like her very much. How are you Dan, she says in her soft Irish accent. Oh, fine, thanks, I reply. Even in the situation we find ourselves in we can’t shrug off these polite nothings.
She’s pregnant. I’m no expert but I’d say about halfway along. She doesn’t speak of the father. Perhaps EJL or one of the central council has been exercising droit de seigneur.
She speaks of other things. Do you have kids Dan? she asked me the other day. And when I said no, she said I envy you that I think. Everyone talks like this now, about the guilt and terror of bringing new life into the world. Every child is born under a sign of fear. And yet they still do it. Birth rates have dropped, but not by that much. Hope, that cruellest of things, breeding blooms from the dead land like Eliot’s April. Crueller, because Eliot knew when May and June followed they would be kinder, nurturing. We no longer trade in such certainties. And yet we stagger on, hope a dead letter treaty with ourselves which we cannot fully repeal.
I chose to give up hope a long time ago. It allows me to do what I’m doing. But empowerment doesn’t equal wisdom, the sureness that I’m right. I think in spite of it all I’d rather be Leaves, with her muddle-headed hope. I think.
A rushing, rising sound, like a collective in-drawing of breath. Faces turn towards the corridor. He’s coming, they whisper. He’s coming.
It wasn’t him. It was another member of the central council. An important figure, but not the star of the show, and the sense of disappointment was palpable, a crowd expecting Jesus and getting John. Leaves’ expression was comical, like a sulky child.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was a distraction. Hunger strike is really the wrong phrase for what we’re doing. Strike suggests action and this is just the opposite. And after the first few days, what we think of as hunger is gone, and so is the desire for food. What’s left is dead time, time that food used to take up, not only the eating of it but the thinking about it, planning it, deciding what to eat next. The other things you take pleasure in all start to pale. Life becomes incredibly boring. There is nothing to gather your time around anymore. And so this minion’s visit, like any break from the routine, is welcome. I’m like a patient in a palliative care ward who looks forward to the doctor’s rounds, knowing there will be no good news, no reprieve, no miracle, but at least it will be a break from the boredom of dying.
He left around suppertime. It’s absurdly impossible to stop thinking of time in these terms measuring it by the yardsticks of meals. Now the night is drawing in, and Leaves is reading me poetry. A volume of Larkin. She reads An Arundel Tomb and I wonder at the mystery at its ending, that one line, so different to everything else that man ever wrote. What did he mean by it? She reads the next poem, and the next, for what I think are hours, with no sign of impatience or boredom. Her words are a soothing stream and I listen until they no longer have any meaning but the comfort they bring.
Lights all out. The dark brings things. There’s a rat who visits us. He only comes at night, and only I seem able to hear him, scratching and scuttling and snuffling about in the roof space. He sounds like a big one.
There are moans and cries from those still able to feel hunger. The man in the bed to the left calls out again and again to God. I can’t stop my feeling of irritation, my urge to tell him to shut up, that some of us are trying to sleep. I should be more sympathetic. He’s still quite new. I should remember what the pangs are like in the early days. Pang. Too small a word for it, pang, like a high, soft note plucked on a stringed instrument. Reflective, even pleasurable in its way, like an old sadness or a memory of pain. Not fit to describe the pain of real hunger. I can think of no word to adequately describe it. It gnaws its way up through your stomach and into the liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs, heart. It hollows you out like a dead tree.
There’s a soft shuffle as one of the night support, those shadowy, kindly figures, goes to him. There’s a low murmur, then a reply, whispered but harsh and urgent. Perhaps he’s confessing. The supporters must hear a lot of that.
Miriam once asked me how she’d be judged. It was so surprising coming from her, this person who had never been religious or cared much what others thought.
Not harshly, I said. Think of all the good that you’ve done.
We’re all of us far worse than the best thing we’ve done, she said. What did she mean by that?
3.34 a.m. Perhaps I’ve slept. I am unsure. It sounds like everyone else is asleep. The rising and falling of breath, some easy, some laboured, a ragged chorus line. Peace, of a kind, hangs over the place. Also a sweet smell, like pears.
I can’t sleep. My arms and legs are filled with a bitter and dirty energy. To keep them still is unbearable. I clench my left hand, right hand, right foot, left foot. Then back the other way. Then back again. I feel that if I do it wrong, if I change the sequence, it will bring terrible disaster. Left-right, right-left. Left-right, right-left. My joints crackle and pop like seeds in a hot pan. I can feel each pop, the bursting of each tiny synovial bubble. Left-right, right-left. Left-right, right left.
The rat is back. But not inside the roof cavity. Inside the cavity of my head. He’s eaten my brain and his claws are scrabbling at the empty bowl of my skull, trying to scrape up the last, tasty soupcons of grey matter. He’s eaten my eyes and he’s looking out through the empty sockets. I get a rat’s eye view of the ceiling, the beds, the empty chairs, the soft, flickering green lights of the monitoring machines, a night supporter drifting by like a ghost.
The rat shakes his ratty head like a dog sheeting off water and asks, in his straightforward, ratty way, what the hell we think we’re doing.
I can’t answer him. So he devours my tongue and then settles down in my mouth, full and contented, for a sleep.
Time’s passed, and in the coming of the dawn, the gradual greying of things, the slow, rustling waking of pigeons in the trees outside, she comes, bringing memories of times past, when each morning felt like a joyous reunion after the parting of sleep. A hand, hers or mine, reaches out and rests on a hip, a shoulder, a thigh. Our bodies move together into an embrace, her head settling onto my shoulder and my arms pulling her closer. I lose myself in the springy softness of her hair, the scent of the lemon oil she uses on it. We doze, and we wake, and doze and wake. Her eyes are large and brown and filled with love, trust, peace. There are no words, for none are needed. We make love, and our movements are slow and languorous. For we have all the time in the world, do we not?
Afterwards we talk. It’s a Saturday and we’re deciding what to do. We decide on nothing special. Everyday stuff. We’ll do the food shopping and then take a drive out into the country. Stop off at that place we both like for lunch. The choices of two people blessed to live, for a while, in uninteresting times.
We lie on our sides and stare at one another, holding hands as if we’re about to have an arm wrestle. Our arms making a W across the space in between us. She absently presses the tips of her fingers into the back of my hand, rolling the bones.
It didn’t always happen like that, of course. There were times when we were too tired, or too preoccupied, or too late for work, or we’d had a row the night before. Perhaps there were only a handful of mornings like that. Perhaps there was only one. But it happened. Of that I’m certain. And I want nothing except to be left alone with the memory of it, of these unremarkable, remarkable things that happened to me, once upon a time. But the other memories come, crowding around, with their sharpened points, thrusting through the skein of my happiness, bursting the bubble.
She hasn’t slept again. I can feel it in her presence, raw and unrested. The space between us is the same. The space between us is a gulf I can’t reach across. Her eyes are tight and bunched, like an unfurled leaf. I look into them and see not love but resentment. How dare I sleep like that? How could I, even? Don’t I know what’s going on out there?
I know, alright. How can I not? It has become the centre of everything. That sharp mind of hers has become obsessed with it, memorizing untold facts and figures from countless articles, books, films. She’s become an expert in how many parts of carbon per million, how many trillions in fossil fuel subsidies, the effects of per degree rises, something called the hockey stick curve. And she’s right, and although I know she’s right, I can’t stop my sense of resentment at how it’s taken over. And so it’s a Saturday but we can’t go for a drive because of emissions. We can’t go food shopping without worrying about air miles. We can’t stop out for lunch and eat whatever we fancy anymore. I long for a return to simpler times, before everything – the boiling of an egg, the turning on of a light – had to be weighed on the scales of what she has come to simply call the Emergency.
But in a sense I didn’t really know. Not yet. In the shadow play of our life together, which lived inside my head, I liked to cast myself as the rationalist and her as the romantic. Pragmatist and dreamer, scientist and poet. But I think it was that very rationalism that made the things she was talking about seem impossible. So grotesque, so extreme, and so vast that they couldn’t really be true. We couldn’t really be doing that to ourselves. It made no sense. Someone would realise it, and do something about it. We’d all come to our senses soon.
Denial, as she took to saying, wasn’t a river in Egypt.
It’s common, she said. She sounded like a dowager, looking down on a shabby commoner from the high bluffs of understanding. A common stage of the process.
What stage are you at, then? I’d shoot back. Her answer depended on her mood.
Grief, Dan, what I’m feeling is a kind of grief.
Ah, guilt. We’ve all discovered so much about guilt. Why didn’t we act while we could? Whatever we do now, whatever she is doing wherever she is, whatever it is I’m doing here, is tainted by the knowledge that it can’t possibly be enough.
Did she, does she, wherever she is, feel any guilt for me? Does she even think of me?
It’s raining again.
The supporters are gathered in a circle, holding hands, singing a song to the dawn. Singing quietly, ever alert to the possibility of distressing us. I don’t have much of an ear for music. But they sound good to me.
A few beds down, someone struggles for breath. The noise is deep and reverberant, as if the lungs have inflated, and yet laboured, as if all the air in the world could never be enough. It’s called Kussmaul breathing and it’s common in the late stages of starvation, when the blood is turning to acid. One of the supporters breaks from the circle and goes over the bed. She – they are almost all women – talks in low, soothing tones. I look across. He – we are mostly men – is so thin I can barely see the shape of his body under the blankets. It looks like he’s just a head, lying on the pillow. Like some alien helmet with cavernous eyes and mouth, the expression on it withdrawn, bitter, hunkered. She strokes his brow, brushing damp hair away from his eyes. I feel sickened. If there was anything in my belly I’d bring it up. How can she bear to touch that? She speaks to him and he nods. The head teeters. I see it rolling forward, onto the bed, falling to the floor, rolling and bumping to her feet. I blink and it’s back on the pillow. She smiles. He somehow finds it in himself to smile back.
I look back at the singers. They seem caught in some collective trance, each gazing into the eyes of the one opposite. They too are drawing strength from one another, the strength to carry on. I never knew, until I joined the movement, what power and fortitude people find in extremis. I never understood the tragedy of what we could have been.
The weak light of morning brings a greenish cast to the faces of the singers. The notes rise and coalesce, and spin, tiny jewels, in the pale air over their heads. Leaves looks like she never poured a glass of milk or opened a spreadsheet or cried over a boy or girl that left her. She looks like some heavenly creature, put on this earth to do nothing but sing. The notes gather in the air into crystal castles, floating icebergs. Hang from the ceiling in stalactites.
The song is over. The supporters stand for a moment before quietly dispersing. Breakfast time, I suppose, for them. Not for me. I’ll never break this fast. Memories are what I have in place of food. And so I remember.
It was I who suggested to Miriam that we join the movement, which had started making waves in the media. I was desperate to do something, anything. I could see this thing devouring her, and us along with it.
She said she couldn’t see the point. I got angry, then. She’d taken to saying that she wished she’d never had money, a house, so she wouldn’t feel the need for these things. That she could live in a caravan, or on a boat, or on a smallholding or kibbutz. So she wouldn’t have skin in the game, wouldn’t be trapped by the system, and could do something to change it. It always felt like these alternative lives would be lived without me. Perhaps alone, perhaps with another, more worthy person.
Well, here’s something you can do, I said. Right now, with this life, the one you already have. She didn’t get angry in return. She shrugged, as if anger was also pointless, and agreed.
I wasn’t expecting a lot. Most desperate moves end in failure. And what the movement was doing seemed foolish and counterproductive. We went to a local meeting, or gathering, as they liked to call it, in a stifling room above a pub in town that I never liked. Everyone sat in a ring of chairs and talked about ecocide and deep adaptation, Bill McKibben, Polly Higgins, Erica Chenoweth, Frances Fox Piven, sostalgia and species loneliness. And someone they called simply Greta, as one might say Boris or Elvis or Jesus. I was irritated by all the earnestness, the fact I didn’t really know what they were on about, but most of all by the way they treated her. Like she was a trophy. Talking to her with exaggerated care. Seeking her opinion on everything. And what do you think, Miriam? I’d like to hear from our new member…I was also a new member, but no one seemed bothered about what I thought.
She laughed when I brought this up later. She was fond of saying that if she got angry at all the foibles of white folk, she’d never have energy for anything else.
They’re good people, Dan, she said. It’s not their fault they don’t know how to deal with me.
Positive discrimination is still discrimination, I said, stubborn.
Ah, there’s a middle class white man’s observation! When you experience negative discrimination, you can tell me all about it.
I didn’t mind her words. There was the old fire in them. I’d not heard it in a while.
We went to a demonstration on a clear autumn day where brightly coloured flags on long, supple poles, stamped with the now-infamous symbol, fluttered and snapped in the brisk wind. Men, women and children danced in the road and shouted slogans. Songs were sung, often badly, never without gusto. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, except me. I ate a falafel and secretly wished it was a burger. I joined in with the chants of the crowd, feeling dreadfully embarrassed, as if I’d been caught tap-dancing or overheard singing in the shower. She roared the words at the sky and didn’t seem the least self conscious. But she wasn’t someone who worried if people heard her singing.
Devices aren’t allowed here. It still seems weird to look across a room full of people and see no one with their eyes fixed on their phone. People are reading books, talking, laughing. It’s like watching a period piece on television.
And so every day I read the paper. There are still such things, just about. Leaves would be happy to read it to me but I prefer to do it myself. It seems important, somehow, to keep reading. We’re not in the paper today. Sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t. When we do, we’re no longer on the front page. Everything eventually drops down the news agenda. We’re assured plans are in place for escalation, that soon we’ll be on the front pages again. We don’t know what those plans are.
Not long ago, the news was full of suicides, of the elderly and middle aged, unable to bear the guilt of what they’ve created, or the young, unable to bear the reality of what they’ve been bequeathed. Also stories of children who have disowned their parents, divorced them, sometimes murdered them. These things rarely get a mention anymore. Perhaps, as with us, the novelty is wearing off. Perhaps it’s actually happening less, as people are just getting used to the idea of what’s happening, and getting on with what there is, finding meaning or compensation in whatever way they can. People are infinitely adaptable. I’ve read accounts from Belsen Jews who said they got used to life in the camp.
There’s some stuff about a group in the US called Terra Rising, who have carried out a number of shootings of high profile figures. They use the Second Amendment as a defence, saying they have a right to bear arms to defend themselves against those who are destroying society. It’s amusing to see Republican senators tie themselves in knots over this. Apart from that, and some stuff on Israel, the news is mostly about the weather, the rain that I can hear pattering softly on the canopy of the trees outside, the unseasonable, unrelenting wetness. Last year, almost half of our wheat rotted in the fields because of the rain, and Europe fared little better. Nobody starves in England yet, except through choice. We may not have this luxury for very much longer.
Other people are already starving because of the Emergency, of course, have been for years. But it seems these are not worthy of our attention, even in this supposedly worthy newspaper.
My mouth tastes foul, of acid and copper. When did I last clean my teeth? I don’t remember. I get up to go to the bathroom. I make sure I stand up slowly, but still I’m hit by dizziness and need to hold on to the bedside chair for a while.
In the bathroom I scrub fiercely for a bit, spit, rinse, run my tongue over my teeth. I no longer recognise the landscape of my own mouth. The teeth seem brittle, and covered with something hard and scaly. This, along with the acid taste, I cannot shift, no matter how hard I scrub. The tongue itself seems different, thinner, restless, questing, rather than the plump, lolloping, indolent and contented thing it once was. The gums it pokes and prods are thickened, swollen and tender.
My face, on the other hand, I do recognise. It belongs to my past. Starvation has restored to me the face of my youth, the hawkish nose, the defined cheekbones. I am a not unhandsome man. Does Leaves see me like this, see in me the nobility of suffering, rather than just viewing me as a wretch, a creature to be pitied and cared for? I imagine her coming to my bedside in the night, when everyone else is asleep, and silently taking off her clothes. Her breasts are high and pointed and they gleam in the moonlight. The swell of her belly is smooth and perfect as an egg. She slips under the covers.
I feel something pressing against the sink and look down. I’ve been starving long enough that my body will have shut down all nonessential systems. And yet somehow it thinks this is energy well spent.
I shake my head. Pick up the toothbrush again, squeeze on fresh paste. Scrub. Fight my body’s urge to swallow, to take something, anything inside it that might help stave off the destruction that I am inflicting on it. Some of the strikers take salt, vitamins. Because they want to prolong it, to make the maximum possible impact. Not me. I want to die as quickly as possible.
The urge to swallow is too strong. I spit. The paste spatters into the basin.
When I look down, I see something moving in the basin. A tiny, red worm, such as a charlatan dentist of old might have contrived to pull with a flourish from the tooth of a suffering patient. I watch it crawl its slow, sad way through the foam, unsure whether to rescue it or to turn on the taps and flush it away.
Someone has made up my bed. Not only that, but the bedside table is empty. My books, my watch, my old alarm clock, my hairbrush, all gone. Someone has cleared them away. The realisation swoops upon me that I’m dead, and this is part of some final delusion. I must have died in the bathroom! Perhaps my body is still in there. Or perhaps I collapsed getting out of bed. Perhaps I died in bed and the whole day has been a dream. It doesn’t matter. I’ve done it!
I feel a moment of utter jubilation, before I realise that it’s not my bed at all. I’m looking at the bed next to mine. My bed is just as I left it, in a tangled mess of sheets, and my things are just as I left them. Caught between relief and despair, heart hammering, I sink down onto my mattress.
So my neighbour has gone. He won’t be dead. He’d only been here a few days. He’ll have gone home, unable to bear the hunger pangs, or the loss of whatever he’d left behind, or the fear of what was to come. He’ll have slipped away without saying anything. His departure will be announced, quietly, later. We’ll be told that he wishes us luck. How he’s sorry, that he feels he’s let us all down.
There’s no shame in not being able to go through with it. We’re told this, we tell it to ourselves. We all understand it. And yet how could we not feel shame? I remember his cries last night. His face, the strain on it, as he whispered to his supporter. Was he telling her that he had to go?
I knew nothing of him but his name, and I’ve already forgotten that. There seemed no point getting to know him. Now I wish I’d asked him who the two girls in the picture by his bedside were. What he once did for a job. What he liked to do at weekends. But I didn’t, and he’s just another empty space where a friend could have been. You’ll always find excuses not to get to know people,Miriam said to me more than once.
I sit and stare at the bed and it stares back, smart and impersonal as a bed in some chain hotel, all signs of occupancy gone, blankets smoothed, pillow plumped.
She made her bed up. Before she left. Her bed, you’ll notice, not ours. She’d moved into the guest room a few weeks before. It was the first thing I noticed when I got home from work. She didn’t leave a note, and she didn’t take much with her, no more than could be packed into one bag.
I’d never known her make up a bed before, and I’ve no idea why she felt the need to do it then. To plump the pillows, to smooth out the duvet and lay it carefully over the top. Before walking out of my life.
It’s late afternoon. The rain has stopped. For the first time in days, I go outside.
At the back of the house, a terrace looks out over swathes of fields to the horizon, the pale grey of sky meeting the darker grey of low hills. Wind tugs at my clothes and hair. Stripped of the comfort of fat, I shiver. Wonder why I came out here.
I hear footsteps on the flags and a dark figure drifts into the corner of my vision. I turn to see EJL, smoking a cigarette. Silently, he offers me one; silently I accept. It must be twenty years since I last smoked. The smoke claws at my throat and lungs and I feel dizzy. EJL smokes and gazes at the view with a sort of effortless, squinting inscrutability. He looks like a French poet.
It’s Dan, isn’t it, he says at last.
Yes, I reply.
How are you Dan, he says.
Oh, I’m fine, thanks.
He looks at me directly for the first time. His eyes are the colour of gunmetal. He’s no longer just a slightly overweight young man.
Are you though, Dan, he says softly.
I puff, and cough, and think. I don’t know, I say eventually. Is anyone?
He takes a deep drag and exhales. Right you are, Dan, he says. You know they say we’re a death cult? They’re the ones that cleave to a system that’s killing everything. And yet somehow we’re the death cult. And I’m the leader of a death cult. That’s when they’re being polite. Other times I’m a psychopath or a murderer. I’m Charles Manson. I’m Jim Jones. And that’s OK, Dan. Do you know why? Because I think I’m doing what I was meant to do.
The wind sweeps the fields. Rooks cry a grievance to it as they rise from clotted earth. A line of birch trees thresh.
And you, Dan. They say you’re a sheep. A puppet. A fool. A poor stooge. But you mustn’t let that worry you. The noise of now is not our final reckoning.
I remember this line from one of his speeches. It was during the Reshaping, when for weeks his words were lighting up community halls and pubs and online forums. He followed it up with And if that reckoning is no more than an epitaph for humanity, at least we will have tried.
I think he still believes we might save ourselves yet. That he might be the one to do it. I wouldn’t disabuse him of the notion, even if I could. We should all be allowed our self-deceptions. God knows, I’ve found mine. And I intend to keep them.
The eyes are on me again and his hand is on my forehead, as if to confer a blessing. Thank you for all you are doing, he says and is gone.
I lean forward, my arms resting on the terrace balcony. I’m so thin now that there seems to be only a couple of layers of clothing between stone and bone. I am very tired of life. I wish nothing more than to be turned to stone, to stay here forever in calcified peace. But my body has other ideas. A million chemical reactions and electrical impulses click and whirl in the face of all common sense, keep lungs sucking, heart pumping, blood whirring. Eyes, pricked to water by the wind, keep looking out on bleak, blurred fields.
I look for some sign of it, the Emergency, but I see none. Miriam said she could sense it. Sometimes as a skein over the top of things, sometimes as a shadow lurking beneath. Sometimes as a noise, a high keening, as if the Earth was shrieking out about what was being done to it. But I’ve never been able to sense it.
Except perhaps that one time, in the woods.
It was a few weeks after she left. I went to a meeting. It was just before the rise of EJL and his central council, which the papers called a coup and they called the Reshaping. The movement was in trouble. The latest wave of actions had gone badly and everyone seemed to be turning against us. We were old news, and had found no trick of looking new.
Numbers at the meeting were low, no more than a dozen or so, and the atmosphere was fraught. No one asked where Miriam was, which made me wonder if they knew. We talked vaguely about what we might do next. Nothing was decided. Then someone suggested we take things outside.
We left the pub and crossed the road and entered a small, wooded area that sloped down. It was autumn, and leaf fall coddled our footsteps. At the bottom of the dip was a river, swollen with recent rains.
We stopped and formed a listening circle. Everyone held hands and Ganesh asked if anyone had something they wished to share. His real name was Graeme and he was a forestry worker by trade. He’d been involved in reintroducing the pine marten to Wales, and he was always asking Miriam her opinions on neocolonialism. One day she said Look, Graeme, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m Dudley born and bred. So were my parents.She spoke with an exasperated affection, rather than contempt. She was fond of Graeme, called him Man of the woods in private. He was a bear of a man, tall and broad shouldered and bearded. He’d have been imposing but for his eyes, which were almond shaped and filled with kindness.
Someone said that they believed that it was already too late, and that everything we had done was for nothing. Someone else said that they were terrified that their children would grow up to hate them. Margot, who was a depressive, said she felt she could no longer have a pure memory. That everything had become tainted. Travelling. My wedding day. Holidays abroad with my kids, she said. I feel guilty about it all.
Bill spoke next. He was a retired computer scientist and he talked about AI. How a lot of people were frightened about machines taking over, but he welcomed it. They would almost certainly be better stewards of the Earth than us; they might be indifferent to nature but they would be unlikely to be daft enough to make war on it. If they saw us as a threat, made war on us…well, perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Perhaps there might be a little more hope for the planet.
And yet, he said, what hope can there be without us? What is hope but a human construct? Like money and….love? He paused, looking embarrassed. Said sorry. Was he apologising for his cod-philosophy, or being relaxed about the destruction of the human race? I didn’t have to wonder long. Phenomenology isn’t really my thing, he explained.
There was a moment of silence following Bill’s odd statement. Then Janet blurted out that she hated nature and always had, with its bugs and its smells and its rot and filth. As far as I care, she said, we could cut down every damned tree on the planet, as long as we could get out of this. But I know we can’t. I know we don’t live in a vacuum.More silence. Janet’s eyes filled with tears and she said that perhaps she’d better go.
Do stay, said Ganesh/Graeme gently. That was a brave thing to say, very brave, and important. Thank you. His thanks were echoed by others, if not everyone, and Janet stayed.
Then Graeme said to me, You’re looking very thoughtful Dan. Is there anything you’d like to share?It was unusual for anyone to be singled out in this way, and again I wondered if he knew, if they all knew.
I looked over to where the river chugged brownly by. I looked back at Graeme, with his compassionate eyes. I shook my head.
Did anyone else want to say anything? Nobody did. Graeme looked about him and exhaled deeply. OK, thanks all. Let’s just take a moment to reflect. I’m so grateful we were able to share our feelings in such a beautiful space. Although I appreciate not everyone will feel the same.
He meant Janet, but at that moment he might also have meant me. I could feel something emanating from the trees around us. The nearest, a beech, seemed suffused with it, like blood in a clenched fist. To call it anger or hatred or even a feeling at all would be to make it understandable. It was flat and alien and very old, and belonged to rooted things. But it was not friendly. Not friendly at all. In that moment, I wished every tree gone. I longed for the reassurance of open sky, indifferent perhaps, but at least not hostile. I held on tight to the hands of other people, feeling the roughness of calluses, the faint breath of blood. Things I understood. Gradually the feeling receded, the trees becoming again the things I felt I knew them to be.
The clouds have cleared a little. The sun throws itself through with the ecstasy of the reprieved. A sunken field, flooded, shimmers like an inland sea.
Everything looks fine. But it isn’t. Is it?
The voice in my ear, so familiar, filled with the warm tones of the Black Country. A part of me knew she’d be back, even as a part of me knew she was gone for good. When I turn she’ll be there, broad and beautiful, eyes filled with…what? But it’s Leaves I see, in her cotton shirt and baggy trousers, garlands around her neck. The wind ruffles her tight curls.
You must be freezing, I say.
I’m OK, she says. I just needed to get away. EJL’s giving one of his speeches to the troops. I didn’t want to hear it.
I wonder, again, about the father of her child. Wonder what will happen to that child, and to her, when it’s born. I feel suddenly and terribly protective. She’s here to look after me, the baby, after all of us. Who will look after her?
I put my arm around her and she rests her head on my shoulder. The birch trees sylvan the sky with the grace of angels.
It’s late in the evening. I’m back in bed and Leaves is in the bedside chair. Her hand rests on the swell of her belly, gently rising and falling with her breath. I feel closer to her than I’ve ever felt to anyone. She is my muse, my daughter, my mother, my lover. She is none of these things, of course. She is a child, betrayed, and inside her is another, and inside the potential of another. She is a Matryoshka doll of the damned.
She’s reading John Clare. I’m trying to read something, but I’ve forgotten the name of it, forgotten what it’s even about. The words, and the world, mean nothing. Only the spaces in between seem to convey meaning, like something almost being said.
She once read to me a poem called Sad Leaves. She. I mean Miriam. I never bothered much with poetry until I met her. She used to say that her year nine students had a better ear for it than me. But she was a good teacher. Patient. Still is, for all I know. She taught me things. To appreciate, if not to fully understand.
The poem was about a tree losing its leaves. It was clearly a metaphor for the emergency, as so much was in those days, when it was becoming clear what was really happening. I thought at the time that it was beautiful, and perhaps it was. But the image, now, seems all wrong. I don’t blame the poet. Back then, we all thought we might still be able to do something. To begin afresh. No chance of that any more.
The night is in. My friend the rat is back again, scrabbling about in the roof. In fact there seems to be more than one.
In the pale halflight, I can see that Leaves is crying. Silently, but copiously, her face shining bright with tears. I don’t ask her why. The sensible question is not Why are you crying? but rather Why am I not? The kind of world we’ve created.
We won’t fall like leaves, gracefully, one by one, and be replaced. We are a hollow and dead thing. The rats, cunning survivors, will outlive us and feast on our corpses. What will survive us is that which we call vermin. We deserve nothing else.
I am hollow, and nearly dead. And then?
Feet in the roof. Rippling, rattling, scuttling feet. Dozens of them. They are coming.