by Pam Swanborough
By the time you read this anything might have happened. She might have fallen in love by the time you read this. By the time you read this she might be dead. For that’s just how it works. Don’t feel bad for reading. It’s just how things work.
All the old people had already died. Boomies. They had gone ‘boom’ as they hit the ground, or the car bonnet, something like that.
‘No,’ said Mother—before she died— ‘that’s not why the word.’
But it worked, so who cared. Fuck them. They died, some from shame and some from guilt and regret, and, eventually, some from being the last ones left. None of them had died from doing something when something was still possible, so who cared? Dead, done, over.
Only it didn’t stop at the old people. Forget the new diseases and toxic spills and weather-related deaths; bleakness went viral. Mother, friends, strangers, just died because they didn’t want to be alive anymore. Just, that’s how it works. Apparently.
‘And here we are,’ she thought, ‘the Few. Or was it Phew?’.
It was shit being the Few.
She lived behind a sign that said ‘Mad Old Cat Woman Lives Here’. She wasn’t mad, or old. And they weren’t exactly cats. Or words. And she didn’t live Here, but a bit further into the cul-de-sac. But it was a good sign, written in blood, and it kept the marketeers away from the garage door. Garages were the best place to live; the only solid remnants of those shit housing estates that covered the hills like lichen on rock, like street rubbish after rain—how many people were there, once? — the garages still standing while the dumb glossy houses they were attached to had slid into heaps of cheap rubble and sodden cardboard. And who had a car any more… and was there anywhere to go that was less shit that here?
She wasn’t beautiful but then she had all her arms and legs, which was a good start. She grew a bit of this ‘n that in the big windows of the rubbled houses, traded a bit of this ‘n that at the crossroads, in the dawn or dusk, like everyone did. She made string, and baskets to trade, and was better off than mere foragers. She had never been in love, but intended to be, one day. She surely wasn’t in love with the engineer.
She’d found the place time back; and then less time back, she’d found the engineer and they had worked together towards this one amazing day. A few safe people had joined them. She had made sure they were safe: she’d followed them to see where they lived.
Anyone who holed up in the old Market in the centre of town—a marketeer—wasn’t safe. She could usually tell because they smelt of what they ate: death. If a marketeer picked their rotten teeth, they might be dislodging a bit of your grandmother’s gristle, or your old pet dog’s skin. So it was always better to check.
This was too important.
The pool. It had been her favourite place as a kid, just before she learnt how shit everything was going to be. Just before she learnt that however awful she felt on any given day, she’d never feel that good again. That the story books were all fairy tale: the stories of having a home with electricity and birthday parties; the stories that said ‘If Tommy has five apples and he gives one to his sister, how many apples…’; stories called Mediterranean Cooking, Lonely Planet Travel Guide, Daisy Visits the Dentist, The Rights of Man… all fucking fairy tales. Apples didn’t grow any more, winters were too hot. Most things didn’t grow any more.
Fucking boomies. They died and so all the good stuff stopped. Or. All the good stuff stopped and so they died. Who cared.
Actually, she cared. She cared that there weren’t enough people left to look after things, or places, or each other. She cared that the only organisation was in the murderous gangs. Everyone else: everyone for themselves. She cared that she didn’t know what to tell the few little kids she met, how to help them feed themselves or stay safe, or even dry. Stuff that people had figured out like thousands of years ago. Stuff that dogs and… well… ‘cats’… could do with no trouble, people were just shit at now. Now they were sitting in the dark and looking at/eating/sleeping on/breathing in all the crap rubbish that generations had left behind. Hiding from the sky and the wind and the sun. Hiding from all the best bits of the fairy tales.
The pool. They’d worked like… She didn’t know what they’d worked like. Like someone in a story, probably. And here they were, these few, these skinny, scrofulous, rickety Few. In crumbling swimming clothes picked from the ruins of the shop. Laughing and scared and hugging each other just to feel the heat of scabby skin against scabby, lousy skin, this one uncertain, hopeful time.
The place was huge—how many people, once upon a time?!—. The glass roof was dense with vines and moss; some fallen panels left gapes that sagged inwards with creeping growths. Giant tubes wormed through the air above them, except where they drooped into the near-empty scummy pools. The windows were clouded by mould, the floor littered like a forest. From outside it had looked like a compost heap. Inside, it was like sitting in a leaf: dank, herbaceous. All that growth and nothing edible, it really annoyed her.
But the pool itself: amazing. The other bigger pools, reaching out from the cavernous shadows she ignored, and concentrated on this one: small and manageable. She’d scrubbed every filthy inch of it with old chemicals that made her dizzy, and the tiles gleamed clean and white. While she’d cleaned upstairs, the engineer had done engineering things downstairs: dragged in bits and wires and tins of stuff; mumbled and cursed and banged and yelped. The newcomers had helped her gather rainwater, fill the pool till it shifted and gleamed like… language escaped her again, was it like some wet ocean animal in the dimness? She had never even seen clean open water, for fuck’s sake, let alone an ocean; how could she describe this thing before her other than with only these rubbish words the dead had left behind. When things disappear, their words also go extinct. The water in the pool shifted like water. There; that’s the best she could do, and fuck you if you don’t like it.
This night, the engineer was doing something below ground, and she was holding the candles for light, and it was taking ages. She was jiggling with excitement. She was jiggling with impatience. She was jiggling with boredom and running out of candles when it happened: light and noise and vibration. Fire, storm, sun, none of these lights were any good thing anymore, but this: wow, this!
The rooms lit up. She saw how manky she was, and how beautiful the engineer’s smile. The floor was shaking and the friends upstairs were squealing. But not earthquake; machinery was doing something all around them. She ran upstairs behind the engineer, grinning at the bony arse in front of her.
Water was heating up, moving and bubbling in its tiled bowl. They all jumped in and it was unbelievable: hot and clean over these poor neglected bodies. For a moment everyone stood still, gazing at each other with confusion. Then the engineer did a thing with one hand, and a huge piece of water flew up, fell over her head, stole her breath. She, she…
She did the same thing, stabbing the pool with her hand a blade, and the water flew over the engineer’s head, stealing the engineer’s breath. For one breath’s beat.
Then everyone went crazy at once. Water everywhere, bodies in it and under it and through it, drinking it and scrubbing their heads and feet and each other, limbs and bums and bellies all in a heap, laughing and gasping and crying and laughing some more.
After a time the floating happened: they stretched out and lay back, all soft and clean like babies in mothers’ bellies. Some linked hands and smiled at each other, drifting.
She linked the fingers of her hand—the good one, with all the fingers—with the engineer’s clever hand, and smiled. Maybe at the engineer. It was hard to say with her eyes closed. They breathed, in and out, slowly in and out. They rolled their shoulders. They stretched their spines. They dropped their guard.
It might have been the light or the noise that drew them like a yell in the night: marketeers. Their necrotic stink murky on the clean air.
The fight was hopeless, one-sided: weaponised hunger against clean damp happiness.
A mechanical cough, a bitter burning smell over the sharp blood, and the lights failed. Black silence. And the marketeers were gone, taking swimmers with them. Dragging feet left bloody, muddy trails on the floor.
She wasn’t dead. It occurred to her that being alive or being dead was just how things are: random. But the engineer lay still, cooling in her arms, not floating any more. She remembered the fading smile as the engineer tried to shelter her, and felt something fall, collapse, break inside her. So, then, like everything, she had arrived at love when it was too late? And so then love too was going to be shit?
She was struggling to pull the wet body out of the pool, no idea other than she couldn’t leave it in the water to rot. A mechanical cough and the lights flashed on again; a human cough and the engineer was smiling weakly up at her. Raising her head with the effort of lifting the engineer towards her, her eyes caught a flash of light on the small red curve of something across the dark space.
In the moist glass-roofed shade, way off in a corner mess of rubbish bins and decades-old litter: a funny little group of funny little trees, their roots snaking across the floor to another small pool. With at least one red apple; maybe even five. The lights went out, but…
Whatever the fuck five was, she felt sure the engineer would teach her.
Further work from this author can be seen at https://pamswanborough.com/