The author has given permission as the copyright holder for the following extract to be distributed via the Internet and down-loaded free of charge.
An eyewitness account of the collapse of society in the British Isles in the Post-millennial period.
by courtesy of
The Telecom India Chair of Western Anthropology
Department of Millennial Studies
University of New NewDelhi
This text is reproduced in its entirety, unedited and in its original
English. As such it is a controlled document under the terms of the
Dangerous Information Act 2095 and is only available to authorized
scholars for research purposes. A translation into Interhindi is currently
underway and should be available
within ten years.
Managing Editor: Professor John H.I. Chandrasekhar (Netlet: email@example.com)
His mark: …………………………………………………………May 2143
(Controlled Copy Number: 01/001)
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A Note from the Editor
The original manuscript of this work was discovered five years ago in the ruins of an ancient church in the Great Windsor Forest, immediately west of the London Desert. The church stood in the middle of what appears to have been a ring barrier. Though it was unclear at the time what the original construction of the ring might have been, it consists now of no more than low banks of reddish brown earth overgrown with brambles and wildflowers. A river defines the western edge of what is little more than a faint clearing. If the ring’s original purpose was to form a defensive stockade, as the manuscript suggests, then we can assume that originally it must have stood much higher than it does now.
While the ruined buildings within the circular earthworks are a mixture of pre-millennial architectures, the stockade itself, and the community which lived within it, appears to date from the immediate post-millennial period. This contention is supported by analysis of artifacts brought back by Captain Andrew I. F. Balasubramanian, who commanded the third British Isles Exploratory Expedition in 2137. As Captain of the naval research vessel H.M.M.S. David V.K. Ghandi, Captain Balasubramanian led an exploratory team of biologists, anthropologists and geographers overland, from their beachhead near the tiny native village of Port Smaff, to within ten miles of the Great London Desert, the closest approach yet attempted. Extracts from his log are appended.
The manuscript itself, though badly yellowed and faded, remains legible; preserved by the dry air in the metal container into which it had been sealed. The text consists of exactly five hundred lined pages of closely spaced text, all clearly in the same handwriting, though executed using a variety of different writing implements. We have reproduced as faithfully as possible the original text, titles, quotes and spelling, in the same five block format as the original, but we have significantly decompressed the text for greater legibility and ease of analysis.
The manuscript purports to date from the year 2020. If the document is genuine, as most analysts now believe, then this is the earliest known written account of the collapse of the Old West, and provides a fascinating, though inevitably incomplete, and idiosyncratic, view of the causes and effects of what the unnamed author calls The End. This is the only text so far discovered which gives us a first hand account of the events surrounding the failure of Western civilisation in January 2000.
As we now know, it was the West’s over-reliance on computer based technologies that at last brought an end to their thousand-year dominion. Though we suffered greatly during the post-millennial period, and during the plague years which followed, we probably lost no more than 50% of our total population. Even the years of war, as we fought to re-established the rule of law in our ancient territories, did not cause the same degree of devastation and collapse as we have now seen in Europe. Captain Balasubramanian has estimated that the total population of the British Isles is now less than one million, at least a 98% loss rate.
Our other missionaries and explorers are only now returning with accounts of how widespread and complete the collapse has been. While we have managed to rebuild our industrial and technical capabilities almost to pre-millennial levels, and one day soon will once again be a nuclear power, the West remains silent. In Europe, as in Korea and Japan, the once proud and disdainful cities stand burned and shattered and empty, their populations reduced to a few scattered farming and fishing communities. China too is silent. We can expect more of the same when we finally mount the long planned expedition to the land of the Great Satan, from which no insult has come since December 31st 1999.
This book is dedicated to those brave explorers who are rediscovering the old New World.
Professor John H.I. Chandrasekhar (BA. PhD. FRIIMS) (Managing Editor)
PAD1 The End
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
Catalyst A: Burn the Bibles
Catalyst B: There’s a Songbird Who Sings
Life is a Cabaret
That Still, Small Voice
The Tale of the Dying Consultant
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
The guitarist turned out to be quite good, so we decided not to eat him. He sauntered up the track-way leading to our compound one day, about ten months ago as I write, whistling down the warm summer breeze; cool as a cucumber and twice as tasty. He was lucky, he arrived in summer, when we had enough food and were fighting the storage problem rather than the hunger problem. But then I guess maybe he knew that. Maybe!
I always felt it was important to have a dynamic opening, and so I open with the guitarist. Because he is important. He was one of the catalysts of this……… opus?
Let me say straight away that I am somewhat at a loss as to how to describe what it is I am doing. Or why I am doing it. Before ‘The End’ I used to think of myself as a writer, a potential novelist even, when feeling particularly optimistic. But what I am doing here is, I suppose, more of a memoir than anything else. It could perhaps be described as a work of social history – but that would be somewhat grandiose, not to say downright misleading.
I must begin however with some apologies. I am afraid that, like Anne Frank, of who’s diary I have a copy around here somewhere, I am not writing this account under the best of circumstances. I too am going to have to write in secret or I will be punished, terminally I fear, for the misuse of unreported resources. This means that I will have to be extremely careful about when I write, and it will be very variable how much I can write at any one time. I will be able to work only when there is sufficient natural light for example, which means early in the morning when hopefully most people are in the fields or in the kitchen; or late in the evening, if everyone goes to bed early because we have plenty of food again and everyone is too preoccupied to work until the sun goes down. This isn’t happening so much recently because, though we must now travel further to track down game, or any food from outside our own resources, and we are still working hard to make sure our fields and animals and birds provide us with what we need; by and large we are finding enough, and more than enough, to keep ourselves going. We only eat Stew once a week, mostly ceremonially. Except when it needs to be eaten up of course.
I say ‘we’ when talking about all this labour going on, but the one literary advantage I have is that, because of my ankles, or lack thereof, I can’t go out and till the soil and pull the weeds and spread the manure, and all the things that everyone else toils over. So at least I have the possibility of privacy and I don’t fall down at the end of the day through exhaustion and despair; though I do fall down a lot in general, as moving around with largely disconnected feet is, to say the least, awkward. My lack of mobility and general unproductiveness has always left me terrified that, whenever the snows are hard and food is scarce, I might end up as the main guest at dinner. However, obviously, this has not yet happened. Indeed I seem to have developed a protective aura, a mystique if you like; or at least I am treated with a level of social indifference which, so far, has left me un-nibbled. I am after all The Librarian of Warfield, and even the Farmer talks to me as an almost equal and sometimes listens to my advice and ideas. Gates alone knows why.
One of my little private nightmares is that, one hungry Christmas, someone in the kitchen will decide that as my feet aren’t any good then my legs are ultimately quite useless too and would provide a tasty morsel for the High table. Or the Low. They would of course be quite right, but I have grown rather attached to my legs over the years, and I am afraid that I lack the degree of selflessness necessary to donate them to famine relief. Also, I suspect that the Vet’s skills in amputation are not such as to deliver a particularly encouraging chance of surviving the experience. I suspect both the High and Low tables would, in the end, be satisfied. Still, I always like to look on the bright side. At least if they hacked me apart below the waist to provide for a Christmas buffet, I’d have the comfort of being absolutely legless for the New Year. But enough of this light-headed, light-hearted, lightweight frivolity, I was in the middle of making my apologies.
As I was saying, I am afraid that I will be writing in fits and starts, in sections of variable length and quality, with the constant threat of interruption. Now although interruption might be an irritation for any writer - certainly I always found it so - in this case, if I am discovered, it will almost inevitably mean a permanent end to the narrative, as the usage of undeclared resources is now the number one crime in our little society, and would certainly be met with capital punishment. And a little light garnish. I am afraid that my privileged position and the fact that I am probably the only adult, with perhaps one or two exceptions, who can even remember how to write, would be no excuse or protection. My ass would be on the line and the rest of me in the stew-pot.
Although I am in the fortunate position of being able to lock the Church door to guarantee my privacy, that of course is what I cannot do, at least not very often. Otherwise serious suspicions might be aroused. So, the staccato nature of my writing timetable and the fact that I haven’t the resources to make notes or do any degree of editing will mean, I’m afraid, that this account will be at the very least episodic. In all likelihood it will be stilted, repetitive and incoherent. But then, my writing was like that at the best of times. It is also likely to be of very uneven tone.
I try to keep my chin up, my upper lip stiff, my ear to the ground, and my shoulder to the wheel. I also have to keep my nose to the grindstone when my back is against the wall. However, aside from a few new and interesting things I can do with my feet, I am neither a contortionist nor an escapologist. I cannot, for example, escape from this hell on Earth. This bitterest, shittiest Hell-on-Earth in which we few are doomed to live. So I will try to write only when I am in a pretty good mood and only when times are reasonably OK. I realise of course that this will give an unreal and unrealistic account of what life has been like in these heres-and-nows, but if I write when I am in a black mood then I will write the whole, horrendous truth, and you will not want to read it and I will be physically sick. If you want to know how bad things really are then feel free to read between the lines and use your imagination. I don’t have to.
Come to think of it, if anyone does ever read this account then you will have lived through your own version of The End and the Dante-esque nightmares that have followed. I salute your survival, but this is my story, if you don’t like it, go write your own.
OK, I am still in the process of making my introductory apologies, and I had better get on with them sharpish or I’ll run out of paper, patience and time and abort this whole thing. I have two further things to apologise for.
The first of these is that I have done absolutely no research or planning or ‘story-line development’ or used any of the other tools and techniques which writers are supposed to use. All I have done is lived through the last twenty years: which is more than can be said for, at a guess, 99% of the civilised world. Also, I have no diaries to refer to, no historical records, no news-reports, no in-depth analysis, no Internet. I can’t switch on CNN or even buy a copy of the Times. I have no encyclopedia, no thesaurus, one very small dictionary, a highly questionable and fallible memory, and little or no talent.
What you are going to get therefore is purely my viewpoint, my experiences, my understanding, my grief, my despair and my sense of humour. This is likely to lead to this book being different from, perhaps opposed to, your own experiences and understanding of The End and its aftermath. For example, it may be that for you Bill, The Dark Destroyer, is a myth; or a saint; or a footnote. Perhaps for you The End never came. But I don’t really think that can be true because you never came to help us, or rescue us, or put us out of our misery.
The last apology I wish to make is for the lack of a word processor. Of all the things I miss; like electricity, hot water, penicillin, toothpaste, shoes; the thing I miss most right now is a word-processor. Or, in reality I suppose, everything that that would entail. Anyway I haven’t got one, which is our hard luck, yours and mine. What it means is that, as I have already hinted, this account is going to be the roughest piece of unedited scripting you, dear reader, have ever read.
Also I am afraid you will have to contend with my handwriting and spelling, and I’m afraid that my fist is, at its very best, abysmal. I will be using an ill-assorted assortment of writing implements, in indifferent light, on this fresh but old, slightly smelly and already yellowing lined paper. Today, I am writing with a ballpoint pen which, amazingly, still works after more than twenty-years. A new experience for me. I could never actually keep a pen for more than a week or two, to find out how long one might last.
(AHH! Those seasons of blithe and casual wastefulness. Bring them back. Bring them back.)
I am currently giving my full concentration to legibility, sitting in some nice summer sunshine. My children are out on a Rat hunt, the women are cooking squirrels in the kitchen and all the men are out trying to catch a wild dog or wolf or some-such over at Legoland, so I am not in immediate danger of being interrupted. I’m afraid, therefore, that this opening section is likely to be as good as it gets. Indeed, looking over the last few pages I see that I have managed to maintain a fair degree of legibility, and I can’t spot any major spelling errors. But then it is my handwriting and my spelling, and I have no way of correcting either anyway. I’m afraid that as this account continues and the weather, light, implements and my concentration worsens, I cannot guarantee continued legibility or even intelligibility.
Maybe someday, if the world gets started again, this manuscript will be tidied up and published. This will save you, my potential reader, much effort and eyestrain, but will of course put you at the mercy of that ubiquitous, iniquitous and nefarious animal, the editor. To him I say - Editor do your best, for I have done my worst. And, while Winston spins merrily on, I will end these idle fantasies, get down to my druthers and tell you the how and the why of these post-mortem ramblings.
Catalyst A: Burn the Bibles
I have already told you that the Guitarist, who turned up one day, walking up our lane as cool as you please, with a guitar case over one shoulder and a rucksack over the other, was in fact a catalyst. And so he was. But the more important piece of the puzzle was the subsequent discovery of my little treasures. Let me tell you first how that happened.
As I mentioned, I am the Librarian of Warfield. That will mean nothing to you and indeed should probably mean little or nothing to anyone at all, except that, because of a series of odd events, silly coincidences, and some good fortune on my part, it has come to mean a little something to a few people. It’s amazing what can happen when you take up residence in a church.
Partly at least because I live where I do, I have come to be regarded as some kind of wise man, or preacher or whatever.
No! Preacher is definitely the wrong word, as neither I, nor anyone else in our little community here, have got even the slightest taint of religiosity about us, as you will see. I don’t do anything holy or God-oriented or whatever, other than to perform the role of caretaker, book-minder and sole resident of this church. In any case, we have no bibles.
My most important role seems to be as some kind of "keeper of the faith". Not faith in the ancient sense, but in the sense that I have become the guardian of what was: a historian if you like, and a teacher and a scholar and an inventor (or re-inventor). I keep the past and the memory of the past alive, and also try to keep alive some kind of promise for the future. A promise that eventually, some day, times will be better than they are now and the good days will come again.
This is a promise in which I usually have little, often zero, faith; but the fact that we welcomed the Guitarist in, listened to his songs and his ramblings, fed him and let him get on his way, if not unmolested then entirely untasted, proves that we are getting somewhere along the road back to……..what? The word ‘civilisation’ sticks in my craw. Let me instead say that we are getting to the point where individual survival can be reasonably and, at least temporarily, expected. Our maladjusted medieval micro-community can now see medium-term survival as a likelihood, rather than as a hope and a desperate plea. But we also know that winter must come again.
My children and I are the only unproductive members of our society, but I have convinced the Farmer that for the community to have any future at all, and for us to have any prospect of improvement in our lives, we must seek to improve and develop and learn. So I look after and teach my children, try to reinvent lost technologies, and run the library.
It has always been my desire to list the books, videos and CDs that we have, by title and author or artist; just like a proper library; and when I found my little stash of treasure that was my first thought. But not my second. I will do it, if I have enough paper left after I have finished this little history of my own, but I have instead decided to write about what has happened, and how and why we have done what we have done. Not really to excuse our wretched treason, nor even, really, as a personal catharsis. (I’m too detached for that and have been for too long.) This is just a record of The End and its aftermath: of how we have survived and continue to survive.
My library consists of four-hundred and ninety-three books, two-hundred and eleven videos and six-hundred and fifty-one CD’s. There used to be one vinyl LP which was found stashed in a cupboard in the Farmhouse, but it got used. We lost four to that particular experiment, two of whom we eventually had to kill, because they were in a terrible state but couldn’t quite die.
The Library is in the Church where I live. There used to be a great many more books here; in the way of bibles, hymn books, song-books and all sorts of other paraphernalia of an ecclesiastical bent. For a while I hung on to them, and counted them as part of my library, though three hundred copies of the same book seemed excessive, even to me; especially as they embodied a faith and spirit which no-one recognised any more. However I kept them because they were there, until suddenly, in the middle of that first terrible winter, I made a serious mistake, though it turned out in the end to be one of those silly serendipitous coincidences which shaped my position here.
That winter was bad. Really bad! We had five weeks of snow on the ground, and sub-zero temperatures for months at a time. It occurs to me now how lucky we were the year before, in the months immediately after The End, when it was wet and not too cold virtually the whole time. Of the many who died that first season, few died from winter’s bite. On the other hand, meat lasts longer in the cold so maybe it would have balanced out.
I remember after the Great TESCO Food Fight, lying with my head on a loud-hailer, on the tarmac in the car park, with two smashed ankles, thinking, "Well, at least it isn’t snowing!" It’s funny the things that go through your mind when you think you’re about to die. I am also amazed that I can remember that feeling, those thoughts, so clearly; when most other things from that time are thankfully forgotten. Selective Amnesia – a handy phrase and a great way to hide yourself from yourself. And from others. I must try to watch out for it.
That first real winter, twelve months after the Bug bit, we didn’t stockpile enough firewood like we do now. By Christmasish we were freezing and starving to death. We had already burned the pews from the church and most of the other furniture around the compound, hoping that we might be able to go out in the spring and liberate more to replace it. But it wasn’t enough.
One burning cold night, as the ice crackled in the silvered trees, we sat swaddled together in the Farmhouse, all trying to get close to the single fire that the Farmer had decreed was all we could afford. They had come and carried me over to the Farmhouse, which was nice of them, as by the next morning I would have been stiff and dead in that chilled and cheerless chancel. There were eighty-six of us then, and the Farmhouse could hold us all uncomfortably. We could all just about keep warm enough.
People were packed into all the main rooms for warmth, and circulated osmotically into and out of the Great Hall, where the fire was. That night however we didn’t have enough fuel to keep the fire going to the morning. Not that we would have frozen to death because of that, the house was if anything too warm, full of CO2 and methane - no window would be opened of course, so we suffered in our own reek. The next morning however we would have had a real problem, and the next night a frigid nightmare. At this point I opened my mouth and inserted one of my useless feet.
I was sitting there, unengaged in the Brownian pavanne by virtue of my enforced immobility. I was thinking about the Library, in order to avoid thinking about other, darker things. A long time since, all the books had been rounded up and brought, under executive order, to the Church. So I had all of Tom Clancy’s stuff, all but two of Dick Francis’s novels, a whole bunch of classics, poetry books, philosophy and linguistics works, a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland with a dedication inside it to an indecipherable name ‘For perfect attendance, August 1908’, The Diary of Anne Frank, four different editions of the complete works of William Shakespeare; and of course, nine copies of The Lord of the Rings. At least the peaks of English literature will not vanish. All these books came from a variety of sources, but the core of the Library, by volume at least, is the science-fiction collection. This came from the previous inhabitants of the Cottage who clearly had read SF almost exclusively.
Science-fiction is a genre which I was never keen on, but with so many of my books being from the SF collection I have now at least got used to it. The only SF-ish book that I could think of that I had read before The End was ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I think this was by Ray Bradbury, but it is not in the collection so I can’t be sure. I was huddling as close to the fire as I could without charring, trying to recall what it was about. I could remember only that it involved the burning of books. I then also recalled the three hundred odd copies of Good News for Modern Man which I had cursed earlier as a burden and a space-wasteful nuisance. With a finely calculated degree of idiocy I said, "We could burn one or two books to get us through the night. I have a few spare ones we could throw on the fire."
I can only blame the fugginess of the room, my enfeebled state, the ongoing pain in my wretched ankles, and of course my own vast and inexhaustible blessing of native stupidity.
Clearly not one person in that room had previously
considered a book as combustible material. They cottoned on however with
alarming alacrity, and half a dozen men jumped up and made straight for
the door, with the clear intention of burning whatever they could lay their
hands on in the way of valuable literary resource. "Wait! Wait!"
I squealed, rendered almost speechless by the sudden realisation of my
own insanity. Too late, they were gone out the door. In panic, I crawled
on my hands and knees to the Farmers feet. In panic you understand, not
in supplication …Well yes, it was in supplication, but at that time it
was also my only way to get about indoors, unless people carried me, so
that’s the way I
went. I pleaded with the Farmer to stop them, to save the books, to protect our glorious heritage, to save our treasures for our children, for our future generations. I told him that we did have some books to burn but I had to say which ones; the extra ones, the copies.
Of course all of this was partly true, and I now believe that we did achieve a wonderful thing, and that my children are now the benefactors of the Farmers good-will that night. Not that in the end he had any choice, as burning the Bibles became a kind of cause incelebre. At the time however I wasn’t really trying to save the books. Not really. I was trying to save my own skin. Burn one book; burn them all. No books; no library. And what is a Librarian without a library? He’s a crippled liability who can’t pull the plough, or hunt game or kill raiders. He’s lunch.
In the middle of my appalled appeal, the six men appeared back from the Church, with arms-full of books. They made straight towards the fire, evil intent gleaming in their eyes. Actually their eyes were probably just streaming from the cold night air, but you have to grant me some poetic license here, in this moment of career-threatening crisis. Sure enough they had just grabbed the first books off the shelves, a random assortment, as I had not quite got around to sorting them all out since Nursey, my one-time assistant and emotional fixation had crucified herself six months or so before. The Hands dumped them in a pile beside the hearth and one picked up a big paperback, ready to rip it apart and feed it to the hungry flames – it was Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. (American Edition)
"Not that one!" I screamed. "Not those ones. Let me show you. Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!" The man hesitated, and the Farmer held up his hand and commanded him with his eyebrows to hold on. I turned to the Farmer again and pleaded with him. "Please, we need these books. Or we will need them. Don’t burn those ones. Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!"
As I fell into a panicked, pleading, paranoic silence, the Farmer stared at me, and at the pile of books beside the fire. Before he could speak however, there came a murmur from around the room. Where before there had been a watchful silence now their seemed to be a vibrant tension; an excitement; eagerness. Everyone was looking at the fire. Their eyes were shining (really this time) and their faces were shining too. Slowly everyone in the room stood up and faced the Farmer and me. Everyone that is except the four children who were left to us. They kept their backs to the walls and their eyes pealed for tricks and treason. And except myself of course, a pathetic huddled wreck on the floor in front of the Farmer.
It started from the back of the room, a cheerless, charmless chilling chant. It grew in intensity if not in passion, and they clapped their hands to the rhythm.
Now, I have seen some strange and horrible things since The End, and participated in many of them. But of them all this is the strangest. The Farmer standing beside the fire, me cringing at his feet and the whole room staring at us, clapping, and chanting. "Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!"
And so we did.
They carried me back to the church, carrying the good books back with us. I showed them where the burnable books were, the hymn-books, the bibles, the Good News for Modern Men (Which burns extremely brightly by the way. Must be something to do with the paper or the ink or whatever.) And they took them away.
Not being a sociologist or a psychologist or a pseudo-religious psychopath, I have no explanation for what happened that night. It is true that before and since no-one, in my hearing, has even mentioned religion other then in the more usual profanities. Nobody seems to miss it or want it or even remember it. When the Farmer says grace it is not to God or Gates, it is not religious at all, it is merely to say thank you to the benefactor who has provided that day’s feast. But there is one other strange thing about that day and those events. A few weeks later the cold weather broke, the snow and ice melted and the first signs of spring started to appear. It must have got ten degrees warmer in the space of two days. Mother Nature unlocked her treasure chest and we could go out and forage again and find new wood. And we had found the superchickens, and the last of the children were crushed and gone. But every night, in the main fire in the Farmhouse, we burned the bibles and the hymnbooks and the psalters and the rest, until they were all gone. All of them. Every one.
I didn’t say a word, which perhaps I should have after crying over my single copy of Debt of Honor. We burned every religious text we had and I didn’t say a word to stop it. And when all the bibles were gone, the nightly ritual stopped and we never burned a book again.
From those times come our worst memories and our darkest forgets and nobody mentions or remembers when we burned the bibles. In fact most people seem never to have thought about it again, leaving a blissful blank in the myopic mind of our community.
Remember what I said about selective amnesia?
I know that the Farmer remembers that night, and I guess everyone else could too, really, but they don’t. We never discuss it and it is never mentioned. But I remember. I run the only library in town, it’s in a church, and we don’t have a single copy of the Bible.
Strange days indeed.
I still worry about the winters. There are many fewer of us now, and we always make sure we have plenty of firewood to see us through, but if something was to go wrong, or the winter is too hard and over long, then someone may remember the time when we burned the books. And this time I might not win, for I have nothing left to offer.
I’m sorry, I have once again digressed from the narrative. I was supposed to be telling you about how I came across the little treasure I have found and somehow got side-tracked. The two tales are not unrelated, however. Because of the events I have just described, everyone seems to have assumed that, as the Church had been cleared of all its bibles, it had also been cleared in the more traditional sense. That is to say, searched thoroughly, ransacked, anything of worth stripped out and stored in our store-rooms, for regulated retention and rational rationing. Everything identified and categorised and enshrined in the Statement of Net Worth, the list of all of the resources available within our community. It turns out that in fact this is not the case.
Because of my crippled condition, I have never been able to get about much. Indeed I spend days and days here in the church on my own, except when my children come; or when they bring my food, when we are not gathered around the central fire, for a communal meal of Forever Stew or whatever. I explored the little church when I first moved in, but I was even less ambulant then than I am now, and I never investigated the way the Searchers would have if they’d ever been let loose. To be honest there is very little to be searched.
Let me describe the Church briefly. It is a typical, ancient, stone-built, small parish church, with stone-flag floors, interspersed with the usual ancient flat tombstones. All are now indecipherable other than the occasional seemingly random string of Roman numerals. On one of them are the words "Hic" and "Fecit" which always remind me of the drunken priest in ‘Father Ted’, a comedy series from the mid-Nineties. No one else seems to remember it at all, which perhaps is not surprising, but I might bring it up again, the next time we try a televisual Remember Remember, and see if I can’t stir something out of those fading memories we still cherish, but which we lose so easily. Not that it really matters, not that any of it really matters
The church used to have a single rank of eight or nine pews, now burned; a wooden lectern, burned; a wooden altar, burned; a stone font, which is still there and which I have used once or twice over the years as a receptacle for things other than Holy Water. That’s about it really, apart from the monsterous murderous cross, and my books, which run along virtually all of the stone ledges, shelves and window casements. Some are, of necessity, stacked on the floor, with the CDs and videos. This is not as bad as it might sound because, of the five inhabitable buildings that make up the compound, this is definitely the coldest and driest. It is cool in the summer, as tradition and the thermodynamics of ecclesiastical architecture dictate, and it is bloody freezing in the winter.
The cold I have learned to put up with. If it gets really frosty we all tend to huddle round the single fire again, but anything less than beard-frosting I have found I can now put up with, spending entire days here, swathed in warm if pungent sheepskins. As I am allowed no fire in the Church, not that there is a chimney, there is no dust or soot or wood lice to attack the books. Also, there is no sign of damp, and so long as I am careful with them and move them fairly often, they don’t get too dusty or fusty.
I am also fortunate that either the floor is higher than it used to be, or the shelves and windows are unusually low for this kind of building, for I have found that, on my knees, I can reach almost every ledge and niche and planchant finial, whatever they might be. All except one that is, which is the window ledge of the high arched window, about ten feet above the raised stone plinth where the altar used to be.
One day, early this last summer (Or late in the spring perhaps, take your pick.) after a stormy night in which the lords of thunder and the gods of lightning strove to hurl each other from their cloudy thrones, and the wind howled like a thousand banshees caught in a British Rail London to Edinburgh express with no Buffet car, and the………. Screw it! I can’t be doing with all this literary, imagery stuff. I occasionally lapse into it because all I really do is read books. And teach of course, but those are pretty much the same thing. In any case I seem to remember that British Rail was defunct and had been split up and sold to people like Virgin, and Stagecoach.
Right! Enough! It had been a stormy night, I hadn’t slept well, my ankles were aching as usual and, worst of all, I was woken up by the soft and gentle cooing of a pigeon, or a dove or a wood pigeon, or some-such. A gentle cooing, accompanied by a gentle splat. Disaster! Let me say that again, louder.
I flailed about trying to wipe my eyes, clear my head, and release myself from the smothering, fetid and slightly tacky embrace of the old and grubby animal skins I share with several thousand small but inquisitive bed-mates. Sure enough, there above my head was a bird wearing a self-satisfied smirk, considering me with its avian thoughts and staring at me with its avian eyes. (These were almost certainly beady, but I can’t truly say whether they were or not. I was too busy worrying about what it was aiming for next, how I could prevent it, and where the bloody thing had come from.) But I knew why it was smirking. Sure enough, directly below it, all over the shiny soft back cover of the 1972 edition of Emile Durkheim’s Les Formes Elementaires de la Vie Religeuse; birdshit. OK! So maybe the bird was a critic, maybe he disagreed with Durkheim’s Franco-Victorian ethos, presentation, mind-set and beard, but I couldn’t have him shitting all over the greatest literary collection in the world. (Well it might be, I have no evidence to the contrary, and it is certainly vitally important to me, as I have already explained.)
So, first things first. I grabbed an old mole-skin I use for similar purposes, crawled purposefully halfway to the soiled book, thought of something else, whirled around, fell over, squirmed back to my pit and grabbed the roughest of the skins, dragged it back with me, picked up the soiled book, covered the rest of the books in that area with the skin, carefully wiped Durkheim’s magnum opus with my moleskin wiper, replaced it under cover, glared furiously up at the bird daring it to try the same thing again, and wondered what I was going to do next. My next thought was "Where did the brute come from?" and my second next was "Lunch!"
The first of these was easily answered, because by talking a couple of hobble-hops backward I could see that one of the little triangular panes in the bottom of the high window was gone, no doubt blown in (Or sucked out, as it transpired.) by the previous night’s storm.
Clearly I had to stop the pigeon from performing more of its particular brand of air-born literary criticism, preferably by having it for lunch. If I could catch it. Also I had to fix the window so that the bird, and (horror of horrors) its friends, couldn’t revisit the scene of the crime.
Problem. That window ledge is ten feet up, and I, in my stockinged knees, can reach perhaps six feet, at a stretch. Fortunately, that day was a Thursday (Oh Yeah? Yeah!….! I’ll explain that later.) and the children were coming in for their "reeling and writhing and fainting in coils." (A Heinlein quote, from ‘Space Family Stone’.) So, for that day only, lessons were held with my children scattered around the nave, scraps of material and pieces of skin in their hands, with their eyes on the bird, while I read to them about Castor and Pollux, and worried about the window and the books.
At the end of the class I asked two of the kids to go to the Farmhouse and see if they could get the Farmer to send over a couple of Hands to get the bird and fix the window. I sent them off with exhortations about how important it was to protect the library and look after the fabric of the Church. I briefly mentioned the fact that we couldn’t very well stick a big thermometer up outside and ask for donations, but I could see that this was just causing confusion, so I backed away from it and just told them to get someone to come if they could. They scurried off. I knelt in the middle of the little hall, watching the bird, daring it to make any move or movement, but it simply continued to coo and preen, albeit with a Hitchcockian look in its eyes. Eyes which I could definitely say were beady now that I could get a good look.
Actually it was quite a bad look. I used to wear contact lenses, but ran out about five years ago and now use a pair of glasses allocated to me out of our store of miscellany. They are better than nothing, but I use them as little as possible. Not for reading for example, though definitely for inspecting diabolically-inspired feathery book despoilers.
Fortunately my eyesight doesn’t seem to be deteriorating any further, because when it does my goose will be cooked. Maybe I should start learning books by heart, become a Booklegger (As in Fahrenheit 451 - I think?) so that I can still read to the children even if I can’t see the actual words. Time yet. I guess I’m unlikely to last long enough for my eyes to be the bits of me that give out.
Several of the children came back in briefly, with some shards of glass found on a gravestone below the window. I told them to be very careful, helped wrap the splinters in a rag to protect their fingers, and said to take them to the stores, so that they could be booked in under :Objects, small, sharp, miscellaneous. Like me, the Inventory Clerk was an ex-Army man, and for some reason the Army habit of writing everything backwards has continued. I guess it was originally to create a mystique, and to protect the job at the same time, as no-one else can make sense of his records. However he was also in the position which would have been most interested in my little treasures; both because he kept the records of what we have, and because he kept the records of what we have. This issue will become clear later, right now however I sent in the bits of glass simply because we are obliged to hand in anything that might be useful, even shards. I reminded the kid to bring the rag back, as that was in my inventory, and I was responsible for it. He dutifully brought it back the next day, but it had been used. Bastard!
A few minutes later the two kids I had sent to the Farmer came back, and with them they brought no helpful Hands. But they had brought the ladder. Our only and irreplaceable ladder. Irreplaceable? You try making a ladder out of lengths of rough-hewn pine with no nails and no real glue. Perhaps you have, in which case I hope you were more successful than us. Our best attempts look more like they have been stuck together by some giant toddler with a Stik-a-Brik fetish, and are about as useful. I felt almost honoured to be allowed the use of such a vital component of our infrastructure. The kids were definitely feeling honoured at being allowed to carry it. I asked them to prop it against the wall beneath the window and then told them to go and join the others at their evening chores. They of course wanted to hang around and help me: A, to get out of the chores and B, they were hoping I would get the bird and they could have the wings for a snack. I shooed them out because A, I’d have been in trouble if I kept them from their chores and B, it was me against the bird; face to face, eye to eye, two birdbrains locked in mortal combat. Actually, my rationale was that the forthcoming events were likely to be highly embarassing. I was dead right.
So! Sixty-Four Dollar question. Have you ever tried to get up a step-ladder on your knees? No? I didn’t think so. It is bloody difficult, as you have to lean back every-time you go up a step, with the increasing likelihood each step that it will topple over either backwards or sideways, as you have to swing your weight around a lot to get your legs to cooperate. Also, your dangling feet tend to get in the way and get caught up in different bits of the ladder. Well your’s probably don’t, but mine do. Still, "Knees must when the Devil drives" as they say. After addressing the Eight Ps, I set about it.
With much huffing and puffing, grunting and groaning, heaving and hoiking, and with hardly more than a half-dozen instances of perilous teetering, I could raise my head and shoulders above the high window sill. (Aahh! Head and Shoulders. Another thing I miss. My hair is lustrelessly long, uncomfortably unkempt, distressingly dirty and itchily infested…Oh! For a bottle of medicated shampoo, as seen on TV circa 20 years ago. Bugger, Bugger, Bugger, Bugger, as Hugh Grant once most appropriately said.)
There, on the window sill, undiscovered for Gates knows how long, lay….a dried leaf, three or four mummified spiders, and a small puddle of pigeon-pooh. No treasure, and no sign of the bird. I glanced around the room trying to spot the nasty creature, but the action of twisting around atop the ladder had such an undesirable effect on my balance that I had to whirl back and grab the ledge tightly to prevent myself from going arse-over-tit down to the chapel floor.
Equilibrium recovered, I assessed the damage. Apart from a slightly acrid smell from the bird-dung (Ammoniacal is perhaps the word to use, though demoniacal feels better.) the only problem was the missing pane of ancient glass. A small half-diamond, perhaps five inches by three. And I had the very thing to fix it, and from my own resources too.
Proper Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance; the Eight Ps, as the Inventory Clerk liked often to remind us. With good and proper organisation, I had taken a selection of useful items up with me in the pockets of my outer-jacket, my boiler-suit pockets being rather too decrepit, and holy, to be useful. These items included two CDs, or rather, two empty CD cases. The library contains quite a few CD cases with no actual CDs in them and these were two of those. One purported to be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, of which I had a further nine copies anyway, and the second was a German CD, apparently of Baroque chamber music. Either way, neither would be missed. My plan had been to make sure the bird was outside or, by preference, dead; and then to block the offending aperture with the CD cases. But, as I was in no position to look for the flying pooper, never mind chase it, I simply had to get on with the job at hand.
I tied a bit of thread, carefully teased out of an old bit of sacramental curtain or somesuch, looped it round the first CD a couple of times, pushed the CD case through the diamond shape hole, and turned it flat and upright. A tricky maneuver using only the finger tips of two hands which would really have liked to be holding onto something firm for balance. I pulled the CD case back, using the thread, to hold it flush with the outside of the window. It covered the hole completely, and I congratulated myself for coming up with such a brilliant idea.
To complete the job, I got out the other CD case, and from another pocket, a handful of sticky mud from the Church garden. Now keeping mud in the pocket of my jacket may not seem to be a particularly brilliant part of this plan, but it was all I could think of to use for the purpose as I had no readily accessible and acceptable receptacle into which the mud could be glooped. In any case all I had to do was turn the jacket and pockets outside out and wait for a rainy day to hang it on the washing line, where it would be duly washed by wind and rain. If I left it out long enough it would eventually either dry or fall apart. In the latter case it would mean a long cold season.
Holding the outer CD in place with the thread, I sealed the joint between the lead of the window and the plastic of the CD case with the mud, and stuck a large blob of it in the middle of the case. Still holding the thread, I made sure the mud-seal was intact and holding, and then stuck the second CD case to the first, muddily sealed the join between that CD case and the window, and leaned back to admire my handiwork. Bad Idea! Just at that moment the bird, which had probably been planning a dive-bombing raid on the Enid Blyton collection, decided to make a bid for freedom and flew down across the window in front of me. Foolishly I made a grab at it and the rest of the sequence was inevitable.
You know it is often said that in times of peril things seem to slow down, until it is almost as if you are caught up in an action replay of England v India at Edgebaston. In this particular instance things actually did happen slowly. The step-ladder was broad based and still quite strong and it balanced for a long moment at the point of no return. I flung my weight the other way, managed to get the ladder to rock back the way it had come, and I grabbed at the sill with my one available hand as I swung past. By some ill-conceived miracle my other hand held the bird, and unfortunately I didn’t possess a sufficient degree of self-preservation to let it go. My flailing fingers flapped feebly at the ledge, slid through the little pile of avian manure and flicked off the edge of the sill.
My swing-back swung on. I grabbed the ladder-frame as we; the steps, the bird and me, pitched right over and fell. Fortunately we were at such an angle that the ladder fell against the wall and, quite slowly, scraped down it. I single-handedly clung on for dear life, wondering briefly if that was really such a good idea after all, and that maybe I’d do better to make a knee-propelled leap for it. At that moment however the ladder hit the junction of the stone wall of the church and the wooden wall of the little anti-porch which sticks out into the body of the chapel, and steadfastly stopped. I unfortunately did not. My momentum carried me on, ripping away my tenuous one-handed grip on the frame of the ladder. Fortunately by that time I only had about four feet left to tumble, and I managed to lessen the bump by rolling with my direction of fall.
This feat of artistic acrobatics brought me to a halt, more or less upside down, with my arse against the wooden wall of the vestibule. (It probably has some classical name from the history of religious architecture, all I know is that it helps to keep the drafts out. I call it the anti-porch because it sticks into, rather than out-of, the body of the church.)
I remember lying there looking at my feet dangling loosely above me, winded but otherwise undamaged (me that is, not the feet) and thinking "That was lucky" and "Stupid bloody bird" and "I didn’t know there was a briefcase up there". Now, at last, we are getting to it. As the ladder toppled and I slid gracelessly into the woodwork, I caught sight, for the first time, of the dusty flat roof of the little anti-porch. There, though covered in dust and pretty much the same shade as the roof itself, I had clearly made out, as I toppled past, the outline of a briefcase. Or in fact an old-fashioned leather satchel, for such it turned out to be. I hauled myself to my knees, strangled the bird and put it aside for plucking and roasting, dusted myself off ineffectually, and thought "I wonder what’s in that briefcase?"
I crawled to the mercifully undamaged ladder, dragged it over to the side-wall of the anti-porch and climbed once again, but this time not so high. I grabbed the satchel from the roof top, tried to climb back down with it, decided that this was a bad idea encumbered as I was, regretfully dropped the satchel first and then slowly followed it down, one rung at a time. Safer and less worrying if less narrationally interesting than my earlier descent. I immediately went to open the satchel, thought better of it and went to lock the main door of the church. While unusual, this was not unknown. Nobody has ever asked why I occasionally lock the door of the Church, which is just as well, because otherwise I might have felt like a complete wanker. This time I locked the door for the sake of security.
It was almost as if I had made up my mind not to report the discovery of the bag even before I climbed up to get it. Maybe I just wanted to protect the sanctity of the Church, or the Library, which, I only realised then, had never actually been properly Searched. Or maybe it was a rebellious streak bubbling up from beneath my carefully cultivated public persona - the lonely, obsessed, old cripple persona I present to the world outside, all 28 of them. In fact it was probably just a mixture of stupidity and greed. Whatever the cause, it cannot now be undone. My treasure is my private treasure now, for good or ill. Let me tell you what was in the bag.
First, and least useful of all, was a pair of sneakers, the right size for my feet and looking as if they had been brand new when, twenty years before, they were put away in the bag along with the socks the shorts and the T-shirt. Clearly it was an excercise day for whomever had put the school-bag out of sight in the first place. Why were the trainers useless? After all, although my feet themselves are useless they still very much feel the cold as well as almost continual pain, and I have to take more care of them now then ever before, as they cannot avoid danger and injury for themselves, so to speak. Unfortunately the trainers were useless to me because, after twenty years of not being able to pop down to the local shops every time one might need a new can of crystal polish for one’s chandelier, it is pretty hard to get away with sauntering through the compound, trailing a new pair of Nikes behind one, wrapped around one’s feet. This is likely to raise comment and to ensure a brief and terminal punishment. I racked my brain for a way in which I could keep them, because they are infinitely better than anything else left amongst us. I thought I might secrete them somewhere so that I could find them again later and claim a new discovery, or perhaps arrange for them to be found by someone-else, so that no suspicion would fall on me for having hoarded them.
My problem however, was three-fold. I couldn’t just use them; way too conspicuous. If I claimed to have found them without owning up to the rest of my find, which already I desperately didn’t want to do, they might then come to make a full Search of the Church, which would surely find my undeclared bounty anyway. I couldn’t even hide them somewhere else to let someone else find them. Firstly because everywhere else has been well Searched before, so that any new find would be extremely suspicious and might start a complete new Search of the whole compound. And secondly, it would be highly suspicious of me to crawl around outside with a bundle of trainers under my arm, looking for a place to stash ‘em. Anyway someone else would get them in that case, and I wasn’t having that. The best I was able to do was to put the trainers back in the satchel and hide the whole lot in a deep recess behind the font. I intend to leave the bag there so that if anyone ever finds it, I can disclaim all knowledge and herald it as a wholly new find and hope to super-hide my treasures before a proper Search can find them.
The rest of the gear I reckon I can get away with. The socks I only ever wear under another pair, so they will never be seen until they are as old and tatty and discoloured as the other two pairs I have. The shorts I wear as a third pair of underpants, so there’s no danger of anyone ever seeing them, and the T-shirt I wear as a vest. This is more dangerous and I had to pull some holes in it, rub some wear into the collar, and use it to wipe the floor and other things until it was discoloured enough to pass muster. But, for one glorious afternoon, I kitted myself out in clean knickers, vest and socks, and crawled joyously around the church (door still locked) feeling clean and almost human again for the first time in two decades. It was orgasmic. Literally.
It was immediately after this experience that I had my only pang of guilt. To face up to the truth of course, I am stealing from my neighbours, and my children. Depriving them of the shared benefits of what should be communal assets. Why should I have three pairs of socks when two is the maximum allowance. I am depriving the community of a brand new pair of trainers, when almost everyone is now wearing the hand-stitched, evil-smelling, rabbit-skin moccasins which laughingly pass as footwear amongst us - great for the snows in winter, if you want frost-bite. So I felt this pang, ignored it completely, and carried on with my evil deception, because it was necessary in order to be able to create this memoir.
There were of course three other things in the satchel. These were:-
A copy of the Autocar magazine from November 1999, with over three thousand five hundred new and used cars for sale, an article extolling the virtues of the forthcoming Jaguar X400, and a preview of the new VW Silver Sentinel, due out in the second half of 2002. (Didn’t happen.)
A Jill Dando Memorial pencil case containing: a ruler (short), a sharpener (Pencil), pencils (Five-off), Pens (Ball-point, Assorted, Four-off) and a HandyDandy pocket calculator. (NF)
A block of lined A4 note-pads in original plastic covering containing five-off blocks of fifty sheets (A total of five hundred-off bloody fantastic bloody pages.) of pristine, high-quality, beautiful smelling, unmarked, unpreviously used, untampered with bloody writing paper.
Of course what I had found was a senior schoolboy’s going-back-to-school-for-the-new-term school-bag. What it was doing in the Church I have no idea. I suspect that either he decided to bunk-off school, arranged to meet his mates (Or a bit of totty perhaps.) and dumped his satchel meaning to reclaim it later, and never did. Or, perhaps more likely, it was stolen as a prank, hidden up there and never returned. None of the schools ever did reopen of course, so the satchel may have been forgotten about because it was never actually needed. I don’t know and frankly I don’t give a shi……lling. (Must try to keep this account cleaner than I have been doing so far.) For me, the bag represented manna from heaven.
When I first saw the satchel I was excited. Upside down and flying through the air, but still excited. When I first opened it and saw the clothes and the trainers I was ecstatic; worried and ecstatic, but ecstatic. But when I saw the five pads of paper……quite literally I almost fainted. I sat and hugged them to my chest. Cuddling them, crooning to them, making love to them (There! Clean you see.) Having Oral Sex with them. Having Nasal Sex with them. (What’s Nasal Sex? Fuck Nose! Sorry, that one just slipped out. Blame the Vet.) And when I found the pens and pencils and things, I had to lie down to still my beating heart and defibrillate my fluttering breast.
This was treasure beyond the dreams of avarice. Not, I felt sure, beyond the, nasty grasping, rapacious, dreams of avarice that lurked menacingly in the black and evil cess-pit of a mind of that black and evil, thrice-cursed swamp of malevolent ooze, the Inventory Clerk. I thought of him; getting his hands on my new-found but already precious little treasures, putting them in his lists and using MY paper to make those self-same lists, and using my pens to write them out. I felt suddenly like Bilbo Baggins, asked by Gandalf to pass his ring on to Frodo. Already this treasure was "MY PRECIOUS!" I would not, could not give it up to the evil Clerk. I wanted it. I needed it. It had come to me. It should be mine. It is mine. It is mine.
Sorry, a little bit of parody there, but not all that far from my actual state of mind that afternoon in the church. The car magazine I put in the pile of Country Lifes, Elles, Vogues and GQs which no-body bothers to read anymore. The calculator actually worked when I tabbed it on, almost giving me another heart-attack. Unfortunately it quickly decided that 2 x 3 was 888888888 and that the square-root of 16 was E or perhaps 0.8EEE84. Then the poor thing died. We kept a few solar power calculators going until about ten years ago, but this was the first time since that I had seen the magic of an LCD. I suspect it will be the last. I put it back in the satchel with the Nikes.
The pens and pencils and paper I hid in the bottom of the small metal box that lies at the side of my bed, in which I keep my dry underwear, any scraps of food I might find, and my car keys. Not a desperately safe or secure hiding place, but still the best I have thought of, so that is where I will keep this journal too. At least there it is safe from damp and mould and insects and Clerks, so long at least as it remains secret. The paper unfortunately started to go yellow almost as soon as I unwrapped it, some process of oxidisation I suppose, after twenty years in plastic. So I wrapped it up again as much as possible and only take it out as I need to use it.
And that is the tale of how I found my little treasures and why I decided to keep them. I had not previously planned or consciously even thought of creating a record like this. As I said earlier, I have long wanted to make a list of all the books and the videos and the CDs. And when I am finished with this I will try to do so, though that too will have to remain private, probably until I am dead. Looking back though, I can now see that my fingers have been itching for a long time. Since even before the Guitarist. Itching to give expression to what was inside, an urge to escape from the dreadful drudgery and desperate desolation of our daily existence.
My first thought was to write a novel; a fantasy, a romance, something that would lift me out and away from this slime-pit. But then I thought that that would be purely selfish, doubling the guilt of my crime. I also thought that if I wasn’t any good at it before, then I wasn’t likely to be any good at it this time, though at least there’d be less competition. I abandoned this idea out of lack of conviction and, truth to tell, lack of talent. I decided instead to create this record of our existence now, and how we came to it. I do not pretend to myself that this in any way is sufficient as a justification of my crime, but it is at least, I hope, not something wholly selfish. I hope to capture for posterity our life and times – such as they are.
Sorry! I just re-read that last paragraph and it is complete and utter crap. Reader! Ignore it. Editor! Strike it out. I cannot edit it and I don’t want to despoil these stolen resources by putting a pen through it. But I must make it clear, I am doing this because I want to. I am putting down my thoughts and experiences and attitudes. I cannot justify it, I am just doing it. It is pure and simple self-gratification and a little bit of personal therapy. It’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, but, in the words of the all too mortal Magnus Magnusson, "I’ve started, so I’ll finish."
Anyway, what’s life without a little excitement?
Catalyst B: There’s a Songbird Who Sings
Now where was I? Oh Yes! "The guitarist turned out to be quite good, so we decided not to eat him."
He was the second catalyst of these scribblings, so I guess I’d better explain a little about how all that came to pass. Strictly speaking of course, in a purely temporal sense, he was the first catalyst, but as this is not a sequential account you’ll just have to put up with these occasional oddities. He created the desire, finding my treasure created the opportunity.
He sauntered up the track-way leading to our compound one day, about ten months ago as I write, whistling down the warm summer breeze, cool as a cucumber and twice as tasty. Now he was our first outsider for nearly five years, so not surprisingly he came as a bit of a shock. Some of the younger children, who have never seen any other people than the ones who live here in Warfield, didn’t believe that anyone else existed or ever had existed. I think they think that the tales we tell of cities and motorways and hot baths, are the same kind of fairy tale as the ones I read to them from Heinlein and Harrison.
I was up in the Church at the time, reading my children a short story from Larry Niven’s Neutron Star collection, which has become a favourite of mine. I heard a kerfuffle going on in the main yard and sent one of the older kids out to find out what was going on. He came back in a few seconds later, round-eyed and round-mouthed and said "We’ve got a…a…a…………visitor!?" He struggled with the word. Not because it was an unusual word; I read to them everyday and get them to read to me, but because it was an alien concept, and a unique experience. I struggled to the doorway, the kids streaming past either side of me, and I got to the threshold just in time to see a skinny form with a strange shaped pack on his back, being hustled under armed guard, through the jostling throng, into the Farmhouse for his interview with the Farmer. He disappeared inside, but the crowd of eleven people, including all my children, decided to hang around and see what would happen. About two minutes later the Farmer stuck his head out and told everyone to get back to work, told the children to get back to school, told the Awake-guard to come into the Farmhouse and told the Asleep-guard to get back on guard and stay awake. He shot me a meaningful glance, the meaning of which completely escaped me, pulled his head back in and closed the door. Later on that evening, I managed to grab the Hand who’d been the Awake-guard, and got him to tell me about the Guitarist’s arrival. Sifting between the boasts and distortions and outright lies, this is what took place.
The two Hands who were notionally standing guard at the gate to the compound were, as usual, on top of the wrinkle-arsed old ice-Cream van which we trundle back and forward across the top of the lane, à la Mad Max. As usual, one was asleep. The other was trying to hit birds with stones hurled from a make-shift sling made from the wiring harness of a V-reg Porsche which makes up part of our boundary wall. We used to have catapults until we ran out of elastic, and we also have bows, but the arrows are very expensive these days because straight ones take so long to make. Nobody fires them other than when they are out hunting game. If they fire one and miss they have to go find it, or make a new one….all very time consuming. So he was using a sling and hurling stones, with which we are well supplied, at flying potential breakfasts. I think we’ve hit three in the last year, but it’s good practice.
You may ask why, if we had seen not one stranger for five years, we keep a guard at all, and why two men, when one would surely suffice for such a fruitless and boring task. The answer to the second is easy: one man will always fall asleep on the job. With two men the idea is that one will stay awake, and wake the other one up when his eyes start to close. In practice one sleeps and one stays awake and they take turns about. Sloppy, but it works. Believe me we tried one guard. Useless! An Army could walk in before he had wiped the sleep from his eyes. And in fact, one day one did.
In the early days, when we were still setting up and there were still things like diesel and ammunition and food, we posted only one guard as we were all busy trying to make things work and tie a viable community together. We needed all available man-power so we only posted one guard. Hah! Some joke! Sixty-six of our people died that evening, shot or sliced or burned. We eventually drove the raiders off, and killed a slew of them, mostly because there were more of us and we were better equipped and less hungry than they were. But, with no warning, they butchered ten people before the alarm was even raised, and many more before our Hands and FAFFFs were able to organise and drive them off. After the fight was done, and another fifty-odd were dead, we found the guard curled up under a blanket, head on a make shift pillow, throat cut before he could wake up. Saved us a job I suppose, but that also answers the first question about the guards.
I’ll tell you more about that battle sometime, but we still post a guard because even after five years of silence, we don’t know what’s out there and we can’t trust to luck. And we can’t trust one Hand, so two it is. There were nearly two hundred here before that raid. Now there are twenty-one adults, seven new kids, and a cripple. We’ve learned. And we’ve forgotten.
Of course they also have two rifles up there, and five each of our remaining cartridges. They are however warned never to fire them unless it is really, REALLY, necessary. We have 63 rounds left, according to the new Inventory Clerk – not enough for a decent skirmish. In any case, after more than twenty years I am not sure how many of them are still likely to work.
So, the awake-guard was up on the roof of the ice-cream van, rifle at his feet, with a selection of pebbles in his hand, optimistically aiming at the magpies; half a field away and watching his efforts critically. He probably hadn’t even got a stone into the right tree yet, so I doubt they were too perturbed. Suddenly his concentration was disturbed by a piercing whistle and a yell from the lane below.
"Oi! You nearly hit me with that one!"
Stunned into his wits, he dropped to the roof of the van, grabbed his rifle, covered the stranger who by this time was less than ten feet away, and said "Halt! Or I’ll shoot." The tall, skinny, bright-haired man already had his hands in the air, in classic western pose. Rather incongruously however he then said "I come in peace. Take me to your leader." This threw the guard completely. "How many of you are there?" he asked. The Guitarist gave a kind of elevated shrug and replied "I am alone, and unarmed." The Awake-guard turned to his fellow, who by this time had woken up and cottoned onto the fact that something unusual was happening, and said "Cover him. I’m going to take a look around."
Now we often sit around in the evening and get a video out. Inevitably some of the favourites are the classics in the collection. Films like Beverly Hills Cop II and Men In Black and True Grit and The Full Monty. We sit in a semi-circle and Remember Remember the plot and the dialogue. We dissect favourite scenes, we argue about what we believe were the intentions of the actors, writers, and producers and, sometimes, we discuss the merits or otherwise of Best Boys, Chief Grips and Animatronic Wranglers.
Before the Guitarist came along I thought this was just a form of entertainment to while away the long and painful hours. Based on the series of clichés in the conversation related above, I began to worry that perhaps it is more than pure escapism. It’s almost like we believe we are living in some kind of post-holocaustic screenplay which will eventually end, the credits will roll and we’ll all go down the Indian for a Biryani-and-chips and a pint of lager. I have no other explanation for the extended cliché surrounding the stranger’s arrival. But I swear that was the way it was reported to me.
I asked the Awake-guard what went on after the Farmer told him to come into the Farmhouse, but all I got was that he had told the Farmer the story, inaccurately I suspect, and then been told to get out. "And stay alert!" the Farmer shouted after him. The guard didn’t mention this, but I heard the yell while I was sitting in the Church, so it must have been one of the Farmers special ‘Watch-out-or-I’ll-make-mincemeat-out-of-you-sonny.’ sort of roars.
Fortunately, about an hour after his arrival, after I had sent the kids down for their weekly wash in the river, the Farmer sent two of the Hands over to fetch me back to the Farmhouse. As usual, decisions had already been made, but I was invited along to hear the story and to put in my two-shillings worth, so the rest of the narrative is first-hand.
The tall, skinny, bright-haired man had bright hair because his originally blond mop was so greasy and matted that it looked almost metallic. It spread out at the back across his boney shoulders, resembling nothing more than a Samurai war-helmet from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the prequel of course to The Magnificent Seven, one of our perennial favourites. In later conversation I learned that he had not washed his hair almost since The End, and that in the condition it was in, it was better at keeping out the rain and the bugs. It had also apparently stopped growing, so after he’d hacked it into its current shape, that’s how it stayed. It didn’t even itch anymore, so I guess his scalp was dead too.
His pitch was a simple one; he was a guitarist and a singer, he was on a quest and should not be detained, but he would entertain us for one night, or possibly more, in exchange for a bed, some food, and some stores for his onward journey. Or we could chuck him out, or we could eat him. Our call. He actually initially appeared quite sane. Amazing!
The Farmer had already made the decision that he could sing for his supper that night. If we liked him he could stay, if not, well, we’d decide that later. I pointed out that not only could he sing for us, he could perhaps teach us some new songs, perhaps come up with some accompaniment for our videos, theme tunes perhaps. And perhaps he could tell us his story: where he had been, what he had seen, how he had come to us. This last of course was the most important to me, though I seemed to be the only one with any degree of curiosity left.
After the Farmer had satisfied himself that the Guitarist represented no threat, that he was truly alone and wherever he had come from didn’t know anything about us, he seemed content to leave the Guitarist to his fate. We weren’t short of food at the time as I mentioned earlier. The early season last year was good to us, with good crops coming up and good game in the Racecourse and the Park, so even if he had been only quite good we would probably have given him a bed and some scraps and kicked him out the next day. It turned out however that he was very good and in the end he stayed with us for nearly a week.
When I say he was very good, I must point out that everything is relative. His guitar was decrepit and came up with an unintentional accompaniment of shakes, rattles and rolls. The thing that amazed me was that he had a full complement of strings, shiny and new by their look, and a slack handful of replacements for them. I thought he must have found an un-raided music shop, but the truth was much more surreal than that. He had a huge repertoire of songs, mostly old favourites, some which seemed original, though he denied writing them. He could play for hours without rest, and was very glad to teach us his lyrics.
I unashamedly begged some paper from the Inventory Clerk to write down the words. The Clerk said no, but the Farmer said yes, so I got my three sheets. It was that exercise which, I think, made my fingers itchy to write again, though I didn’t know it until I found my treasures.
That first night we all gathered in the Farmhouse, windows open to the warmish night air so that the two guards could hear as well. The Guitarist sat in front of us, confidence oozing from every pore, At least I think that was what was oozing, I didn’t investigate too closely. He explained that he was here to sing to us and asked if there were any requests. There was a stunned silence, which was quickly followed by a second stunned silence as everyone suddenly realised they had forgotten the entire concept of entertainment from outside. Why, this was like having MTV again. Unfortunately, it appeared that no-one could actually remember the name of a song, so the Guitarist said, "Maybe I’ll play a few, and see if we get into the swing of things." He strummed the guitar experimentally a few times, braced his shoulders, gazed out at the unsettled audience, and started to play. His first few chords drifted through the room, heart-achingly remembered, heart-achingly forgotten. He played Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, but he sang the Princess Di version, and when he got to the line "Farewell England’s Rose" the entire room burst into tears. The evening became a requiem for all that had been lost. He finished the song and looked around at our red faces and swollen eyes. "Anyone?" he asked.
To my surprise The Farmer raised his hand and, when the Guitarist nodded in his direction he cleared his throat and asked for ‘Streets of London’. For the first time in twenty years Ralph lead us through those dismal streets and showed us the things that made us change our minds. Again we cried.
We cried for our memories of London, twenty miles away, twenty years away, twenty-million rotten corpses away. We remembered the busy streets, the busy shops, the busy offices. We remembered the Christmas lights, and Trooping the Colour, and Japanese tourists. We remembered Kensington and Soho and Nottinghill Gate and Highgate and Tooting. And we remembered the ravening hordes who came storming out of the city when the power failed and the food failed and all that makes a city live, died. We cried and remembered and remembered and cried, and even the happy songs were sad.
That first night was too much for us all. After a few more songs and a lot more tears he stopped and we sat in silence for a while until the smells of the food that had been prepared broke the spell and dragged us out to the feast. A couple of helping Hands dragged me out to the feast too. The guitarists plate was piled high, so that was the end of that debate, and after a while we started to talk again, about the good things we remembered. About remembered summers and forgotten friends, and trips to the sea and Bank-holiday traffic. About pubs and restaurants and cinemas and clubs, and planes and trains and automobiles. A major Remember Remember. A game without rules or aims or winners or losers; ill-defined but well-understood.
We sat and talked at random about the memories that had been stirred in us by the Guitarist’s music. He sat alone, a little apart, and spoke to no-one except to ask for more food. He was given all that he asked for, and more besides. When the sun went down and we went to our beds, I saw him being led away by one of the women to the shed behind the Cottage, which is used for such purposes as are not deemed seemly in the communal accommodation provided by the main buildings. He stayed with us for five nights, and if he ever slept alone, I was not aware of it. (Jealous? Me? Get out of here! Why, I had a shag only fifteen years ago, and a very good one it was too.) Certainly he was never seen until lunch-time and many of the women were moving with a skip and a hop and perhaps a slightly uncomfortable wiggle. "What an unlucky bastard", I thought to myself, "Having to perform all night and then perform all night. Still, it will be good for the gene pool."
The Vet and I have privately been worrying about our dwindling genetic resources for many years. All of my children are normal enough physically. Mentally is perhaps more debatable, but the norm against which they might be compared is pretty rough too. They can walk and talk, and read a bit, and catch rats, and shit in the right place at roughly the right time. Good enough for me.
After the Guitarist left us, the Vet and I waited with our eyes and ears open, fretting like expectant fathers. By November however, when we commemorate the Farmer’s birthday and the passing of the world, it was clear that there were to be no results from his sexploits. Either his seed fell on stony ground, or the seed itself was barren, or maybe the bastard had the world’s last selection of past-their-sell-by-date, glow-in-the-dark, ribbed-for-greater-sensation, chocolate flavoured condoms. I wouldn’t put it past him.
After the meal was cleared up, I was hoping and hopping for a word with the Guitarist, but I saw him and the woman heading round the back, so I cadged a lift from some Hands going in my direction, was dropped unceremoniously at the threshold of the Church, and crawled inside. I lay in my pit gazing at the moonlight through the high window, a mixture of contentment and frustration in my soul, and a mixture of corn bread and pork in my belly. Real pork, not long pork… it made a nice change.
I felt that the Guitarist had done something that evening which I had been trying to achieve for many years. He had made us all look beyond our closed existence. To look out. To think of something beyond ourselves. It was still only looking back, but at least it wasn’t looking in, as we had done through all the years since the first period of violent struggle for existence ended and the long, grinding struggle for survival began. I wanted desperately to talk with him, to find out how he had lived and how he had come and where he was going, and why. Fortunately I did get to spend ample time with him. We spent several afternoons together. Ostensibly I was writing down the lyrics to some of our favourite songs. In reality I spent most of my time questioning him about his life and his music and his journey. I eventually managed to piece together a scrambled outline of his story, I think. I will tell you his story but I will also tell you this first, he was weird.
Truly, truly weird.
Every evening he would sing for us, playing our brain-racked requests, bringing back memories twenty-years lost. Every night he would retire to the shagging-shack. He would reappear for lunch and then spend the afternoon with me, transcribing lyrics and lying about his life. Except that lying is not the right word, because I am sure that he believed every word that he said. Now I am no psychologist, nor am I American, so the concept of "denial" is just so much phlogiston to me. Everyone in the compound has had to come to terms with the past and the changes and the facts of our new ways of life and of death. Each has done it in their own way, mostly by focussing on the necessities of survival. For many years a few held out hope of rescue, believed in an incoming aid expedition; from America perhaps, or Jupiter. These beliefs have gradually died as the years grind past, and no-one now mentions the possibility of help from outside.
The Guitarist I think raised peoples hopes again, briefly. His arrival, his exotic appearance, his songs, and the stories he told of his journey, all made people think again of what might be out there. But, after even a short time in his company, it was clear to all just how far he lived off-the-beaten track. In the end, even the women decided that he was too far out there, and he left with our blessings, some food, and a greater sense of relief than regret.
The many hours I spent in his company were fascinating and mesmerising and horrific. As I said, I am no psychologist, but if I ever met someone who was in denial, the Guitarist was he. In some ways his was a much happier life than ours, because for him The End never happened, at least not on his planet. He recognised that the world had changed from his childhood, but his explanation for that was that he was on a pilgrimage through a strange and foreign land, seeking enlightenment, peace and a great and magical talisman, which he called The Grammy. When he had found all that he was seeking then he could return to his father, the ruler of a great kingdom who lived in a palace far to the north. His father had sent him out on this mission, to find and bring back The Grammy, and when that was accomplished his father, who was waiting for him in the form of a great and magnificent stone statue, would come back to life and the Empire would be restored. This was his firm conviction, and he never wavered from it, but by asking oblique questions about his music, and life in has father’s kingdom, and his journey, I pieced together an outline view of the reality of his life.
He was coming up on thirty-eight years old. He himself had no idea, but his last clear memory of life on Earth, was of his seventeenth birthday, which he remembered as being on the 31st of October 1999 because that was Hallow’een and he always had a fancy dress party. (Hallow’een, All Hallow’s Evening, now there was a lost memory which I tucked away for a Remember Remember sometime.) On that birthday he got a BMW, a new jet-ski (in October?) and he got himself laid. His father was a rock-star of the seventies and eighties who’s true identity I never sorted out but who had undoubtedly been famous and successful and owned a very large estate in Oxfordshire.
The estate included an enormous, apparently Victorian pile; a farm, a stud, a well-stocked lake and a separate trout farm, a private recording studio, and a not-insignificant percentage of the total drugs market in the UK at that time.
His memories of the time around The End were, to say the least, hazy. He seems to have lived on the estate since the time of the food riots, and the mass-slaughter which followed them. I couldn’t believe that such a place had come through this time entirely untouched, so I pressed him for tales of his father’s glorious battles. He came up with several accounts of forays into the local towns for food, and guns and champagne; but he also told some tales of battles fought on his father’s land. These tales seemed to be a mixture of the English Civil War and the Wild West, but I am certain that there were indeed bloody battles for the resources of the estate. It would be impossible to defend such a large area, as we had found out to our cost.
I am also certain that his father was a powerful man, with a powerful personality - his son, I think, lived in fear and awe of him - and he seems to have held the estate together more-or-less single-handedly, bossing and driving and controlling and cajoling and killing to defend his house and his less-gifted son. The Guitarist’s favourite memories were all about his father and the time they spent together, consuming the stash and jammin’ in the underground recording studio, with his fathers friends and lieutenants and staff. Even when their generators ran out, they just went "unplugged" and carried on. The son never turned a hand to honest toil. His father seems to have been protecting and supporting a less-powerful, less-able, entirely spoiled son. He tried I am sure, to ensure the continuance of the dynasty, but with his passing his power passed too, and more able leaders took over the riches of that estate.
They weren’t unkind. They could have killed the kid. (Thirty-seven years old, but still a kid.) They didn’t, but equally they had no use for him, so they packed him a bag of food and strings, gave him his old guitar and a case to carry it in, and told him to get lost and take has father’s memories with him. This last is largely conjecture. I don’t know how he eventually went "on the road", the term they apparently used for expulsion from their community, but that’s what happened. The Guitarist remembers a triumphal crowd waving him farewell, singing and cheering him on his way, with the stone-cold, stone-white, stone statue of his father looking out across the triumphal avenue of trees, leading down to the mysterious land where his father’s long sought Grammy might be found.
I am sure that these are his final memories of his father, an old man, psychologically and chemically burned out, stiff and white and quite, quite dead. This could only have been a matter of weeks before he came to us, for we were the first real people he had encountered on his trip. He told lurid tales of his encounters and adventures since leaving his father’s kingdom, but I could find no hint of reality in any of them. His store of food had gone, he had no clear idea of where he was, where he had been or where he was going.
He was heading roughly South, but when I showed him a map he could not point out where he had lived for so long, and seemed perplexed when I went over with him the area of southern England into which he was apparently headed. He kept on insisting that his path would be revealed to him on his quest to find Grammy and restore the Empire. I finally came to understand that the Empire was a theatre, and that The Grammy was a showbiz award that, presumably, his father had never received.
The Guitarist didn’t know any of this, but I pieced it together from his ramblings. I don’t think that either he or his father ever really emerged from the drug induced haze into which they retreated in the early years of the Ooze, and before. I felt nothing but sympathy for him. Well actually I felt sympathy and amazement and revulsion and despair and embarrassment and disillusionment and wonder and a degree of panic. Why panic? I thought for a while that he might want to stay and that the Farmer might want to keep him for his entertainment value, and I feared the impact of his illusions on our stable if backward community. I needn’t have worried. The Farmer was even more concerned than I about the potential influence of his fantasies, and eventually it became clear that everyone felt that we had seen enough of him. By the fifth night of his entertainment his star was waning. He still had a full house but their attention was wavering and their applause half-hearted. In the end though he amazed me once again. As the conclusion to his final set he stood up and addressed the still attentive audience.
"Thank You, Warfield!" he called, and paused for the applause which surged responsively out for him. "It’s been great playing here in a new venue and you’ve been a great audience!" Pause. Scattered silence. "Seriously though, I have really enjoyed playing for you at this series of gigs, and I would like to come back and entertain you again sometime. But the show must go on and I must go with it. So tomorrow I depart. I go to find Grammy and restore the Empire – and I must go alone. But let me leave you now with one of my own favourites. Thank you." He picked up his guitar and played a gentle and haunting and hauntingly unfamiliar tune. After a while he began to sing.
"There’s a Lady who’s sure,
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a Stairway to Heaven.
When she gets there, she knows
If the Stars are all closed,
With a word she can get what she came for.
It seemed to me that this song captured him and his life exactly and for the first time I felt for him.
A big-hearted, talented loony.
Totally, totally lost.
The whole audience sat, enraptured, as he sang and played, and played and sang, and delivered that complex guitar break with never a bum-note. In the end his music sank until it could hardly be heard, and he delivered the last line in a hushed and reverent whisper… "And He’s buying a Stairway to Heaven."
I think I am the only one who noticed that he changed the gender in the last line, and I knew he was thinking of his father, or the cold, white statue.
As the last harmonics of the last chord faded away, the audience let out a long, collective sigh and burst into loud applause and cheers and whistles. Once again he was triumphantly ushered from the room and led round the back, and, no doubt, grooved to the music all night long.
Next morning, at the crack of lunch, the Farmer, and the two guards and most of the women, gathered at the gate. They gave him a full bag of bread and good meat and some sweet, if wrinkly, apples. I knelt and watched his departure from the Church door. The Farmer turned and shooed the women away, telling them to get back to work. The Guitarist bowed a faint bow to them as they departed, looking back. The Farmer thanked him rather formally and stiffly, and told the Awake-guard to open the gate. The Guitarist shook his outstretched hand, bent and picked up his bundle of food and small gifts, and slung it over his shoulder. He stooped again and picked up his guitar. As he stood up he looked briefly across to me, nodded once more, and strode vacantly though the gate and back into his world of adventure. His memory and his legacy lingers on, in his songs and in this memoir. But that’s the last I ever saw of him, an unwitting catalyst to my crime of passion.
A few loose ends. I was fascinated by the Guitarist’s hair. Why had he never washed it, though he lived for a long time in a safe and relatively comfortable environment? In all our conversations I had to filter grains of truth from entire wheat-fields of nonsense but on this one, I think, he gave me a straight answer. "We ran out of shampoo."
He hadn’t washed his hair for almost twenty years because they had no more JoJoba and Tea-Tree WigWash, or whatever he used. I imagine it starting as the pique of a spoiled teenager, and ending in a minor battle of wills with his dominant parent. Perhaps the only taste of defiance and self-expression he was ever-allowed.
Also, why did his arrival move me to break one of the core rules of my community, to steal the paper and the pens and write this history? I mentioned that writing down his songs made my fingers itch, and that is true, but not the whole truth. The arrival of the Guitarist and his time amongst us reminded me very strongly of a book I have in the SF collection.
The Postman, by David Brin, tells of a wanderer in the US after some equivalent of The End. He earns a meagre living travelling from forlorn outpost to outpost plying his trade as an actor and storyteller. He finds a postal service uniform, pretends he’s a postman and accidentally starts a movement which might (or might not) restart civilisation. The book doesn’t deliver on its early promise and the ending is pretty dreadful, as is the film that was made from it, with Richard Gere or Kevin Costner or someone like that. Both the book and the film sank without trace. But I remember it. The book is in the Library and, after the Guitarist left, I reread it.
I felt a thrill of familiarity between some of the events in the book and our own recent experiences. I’d read it several times before of course, in search of potential survival tips rather than literary entertainment, and I had thought then that it would be good to know more about the communities the Postman visited. To be able to compare them with ourselves. When I read it again I felt vaguely that I would be good to write our own story. I didn’t expect to have that opportunity, but as soon as I opened the case and saw the paper, that desire crystallised. I would no more have given up that paper than the Guitarist would give up his guitar or the Postman his toothbrush.
Last thing though on the Guitarist. Winter wasn’t too bad this last year and we survived it; uncomfortably, but with no losses. A few months ago, in early March, we started sending out the usual foraging and exploration parties. Most of the groups went a bit further than usual, encouraged by a new found level of optimism we had felt since the Guitarist had come and gone. They went out beyond the Race-course, out even to the far reaches of the Park. One of the groups however came back with grim faces and grim news. They had found a fast-decaying corpse on the heath-land out towards the M3. They found it only because of the smell, and it looked like it had probably been there since early winter, half preserved by the frost and snow. He had been tall and skinny and his hair was like a helmet. His throat was cut. There was no guitar.
I was surprised. Not that he was dead, that had always seemed the most likely end to his brain-fogged dreams. I was surprised that we had ever found out about his death. He obviously didn’t get far before finding people less understanding or more desperate than us. He was half eaten, but by bugs and dogs, not by the people who killed him. They obviously killed not for food but for other reasons; for protection, for fun, for guitars. In any case they were a new and unexpected threat, and we quickly pulled our horns back in and we haven’t gone down that way again.
Fortunately no-one has come to us.
That is the story of how I found my little treasure and why and how I have embarked on this attempt at capturing on paper a few impressions about our lives and times since the world ended. Looking back over the previous pages I realise that there is a lot I have taken for granted and a lot which I have omitted all together. I will try to repair these faults and omissions as I carry on, but it was important, at least to me, to tell you how I came to have this opportunity. I have so far focussed almost entirely on myself: on my thoughts, my desires, my feelings, my experiences. Now, while to me this is a splendidly rational and understandable approach, to some degree inevitable in a memoir of this nature, I find that I have not given you any account or description of our community and its people. Let me, briefly, correct that omission now.
Warfield was a small village about twenty miles west of London, a once pretty place blighted by the desperate pursuit of residential development which plagued the whole of the South of England during the last twenty years of the twentieth century. One corner of the old village remained secluded and alone however. The old church and rectory was about a mile and a half from the main centre of the village. I have speculated that this unusual set-up might date from the years of the plague. It seems possible that the original village was based around the church, but was abandoned or entirely decimated by the plagues of the 15th and 16th centuries, and was re-established in cleaner air on a site a few miles away, at a cross roads on the main road between the ancient towns of Guildford and Oxford. Whether this theory is true or not, it means that there was a small group of houses and farm buildings around the old church, hidden away in a shallow valley, surrounded by the fields of the local farms and largely hidden from the main areas of habitation by trees and ancient hedgerows.
It is this degree of isolation which enabled Warfield, at least our part of it, to survive the murderous ravages of the desperate years immediately after The End. The land was not really defensible, but the trees and the river provided some degree of protection and a natural boundary upon which to base our defenses. Other factors in our survival through that time were that the little sub-community here was unsignposted, and approached by a narrow, single-track, high-hedged lane. Most importantly perhaps, we were surrounded by much more obvious, richer, easier targets. Most of the raiders who came our way did so accidentally and at random, usually ill-prepared, ill-trained, ill-equipped and just plain ill. We fought back. We were well equipped and, after a while, we became better trained and better prepared. Once we learned that you can’t defend open fields; that crops must be left to the vagaries of hostile forces, who may destroy, but won’t harvest; that animals and people must be protected within a defensible boundary, we became a harder nut to crack than the possible rewards merited. We managed to escape most of the worst of that time, but still we clung to survival by the narrowest and bleakest of margins.
Early in that black first year, after the food riots but before the human locusts pored over the land, killing and destroying for food and shelter and to escape the waking nightmare of the cities, we had set up our protective compound.
Within a few weeks of the start of the new holocaust, it became clear to the leaders of the small community which had lived around the nucleus of the Church, that doom was descending. It also seemed likely that with no power and no communications and no discernible government, we were on our own.
At that time the only thing more valuable than food was fuel. With no operating distribution mechanism and with no power to pump out the underground caches, liquid fuel all but vanished in a few months. Abandoned cars littered the highways and by-roads, blocking routes and causing chaos. This unholy nuisance, through a leap of imagination and improvisation, became the core of our defense. Sending out ill-assorted teams to likely local locations, we recovered two-hundred or more cars, brought them back, scavanged them, and built them into a wall. Using human muscle power and the last few gallons of diesel in a hi-jacked digger, we (Well they, I watched.) built the compound. A stockade of saloons, and coupe’s, and 4x4’s, and SUVs. (Sports Utility Vehicles, apparently.) A barricade of BMW’s, and Mercs and Fords and Alfa’s. And Porsches and Honda’s and Vauxhalls; and a Bentley, and an old black Beetle, and one little Mazda, and one ice-cream van.
Within the stockade we have five main buildings; the Farmhouse, the Church, the Rectory, the Cottage and the Bungalow. We also have numerous outbuildings (including the Shagging-Shed), pens for the animals and birds, and storage for our crops and equipment. We learned early that we couldn’t defend the fields, but we also learned to defend ourselves by defending the compound, using the piled up cars as a defensive barricade and as an elevated firing platform. It worked, and continues to work, and we continue to defend it, though the threats are now mostly dead and rotten. The Guitarist proved however that they are not all gone.
I have mentioned some of the people who are the key players in our little Rorke’s Drift. Most of them were here from the very beginning, original members of the local community who got together to defend their land and their lives. I and just a few of the Hands came from elsewhere, but the core of our community comes from the original residents of the Warfield enclave. These are the people who have enabled us to survive and who have forced us to survive by planning and enforcing, making the hard, hard decisions and making them stick. These are the true wealth of our community, the key to its existence and survival.
So let me count my treasures. Sure I have this paper and these pens; stolen, and all the sweeter for that. I have my books and CDs and videos, and the Guitarist’s songs. I have the Church and the privacy it gives me. I am foot-loose and fancy-free. (I have loose feet, and no-one fancies me.) And I have my children, for whom I am responsible, even though I am responsible for none of them.
But my greatest treasure, our greatest treasures, are the people who kept us alive and got us organised and still manage all of our affairs. These are our real treasures.
We have The Farmer; the boss, the planner, the overseer, the decider.
We have The Vet, who keeps us alive and tends our wounds and attends our births and selects our food. For all of us, human or animal. And inflicts misery with his terrible doctoring and terrible puns.
And we have the man who measures our lives and our times, who counts our assets and liabilities, decides what we can spend and what we must save, decides who can live and who must die. His lieutenant, the Inventory Clerk, was a pain and a nuisance and a pedantic prig, though his work was vital and demanding. The Clerk’s boss though is the key to our continued survival. It is he who maintains the checks and balances of our lives and makes sure our pendulum continues to swing.
He is perhaps our greatest treasure of all.
Life is a Cabaret
You know, I used to blame the Koreans, but now I just blame Liza Minelli.
I remember one drunken afternoon in a wine bar in the City. An even more stereotyped than usual trader was drinking Chablis, looking down the front of the barmaid’s Sydney Harbour T-shirt, trying to finagle someone else into paying the already ridiculous bill, and philosophising. I think he thought that I looked like a chip-in chump, but as I had almost no money, which he didn’t know, I wasn’t unduly worried. The bar-maid was vainly co-operating with him, in the hope of getting bigger tips, and I was jollying him along, trying to dig up some useful material. Traders loved to philosophise. I use the past tense here because I suspect very few of that particular sub-species will have survived. This one came up with some usefully insightful gibberish however, which I will now relate.
"You know," he said, "the economy is like religion. They both require absolute faith. Unquestioning belief. We must believe, always, that the system exists, has existed, must exist and will always continue to exist. Always and forever! We must accept that it is absolute! Quintessential! Ineffable! Well of course in fact it’s bloody ‘effable. ‘Cept I’m not allowed to say that, am I, because we must all keep the faith, eh? Faith in the continuity of the system is the only thing that enables the continuity of the system to er…. continue. And that’s why it’s like religion. Where would religion be without belief, eh? Where would religion be without faith, eh? Eh? Well I’ll tell you. It wouldn’t be bloody anywhere, because it just wouldn’t be. At all! End of story! Full stop!" He gazed indeterminately at the barmaid’s full stops, refocused and continued.
"Its like that old French guy said, you know, the guy who invented electricity. Whatsissname? You know …… Voltage,…. No!.. Voltaire. That’s it, Voltaire. Well, he said if God didn’t exist we would have needed to invent him. And we did, you know, we bloody did. And it’s the same with money. And stocks and shares and bonds and gilts and futures and all that stuff. We invented it because it had to exist. But….! But….!" He tapped his nose, more or less. "It only exists because we believe in it and we have faith in it and we worship it every day. Every bloody day. But I’ll tell you something else too. Now listen. Listen!"
He hugged me to his bosom like a bosom-buddy he’d never met before, and whispered raucously in my ear. "Religion has got God, see, and we’ve got Gold. See? See that, God… Gold, Gold… God. See? There’s only an L of a difference. ‘Ell of a difference, see. Well I’ve always thought that was interesting you know, because there is no difference really. Not really. Now!…. you may say that there is a lot of difference, because God is an airy-fairy hard to define mental concept and gold is a pretty-solid hard to lift metal concept. And you’d be right! But you’d be wrong as well. Because, you know…. there’s gold right? And there is. But if you think there’s enough gold to go around you must be a bloomin’ nutter mate. The problem is this, see? If everyone out there decided, ‘Hey! I’ve had enough of all this paper and electronic crap, I want real money. I want gold.’ Phht! it’s gone man. All of it. Over night. Just gone. Like, if everyone went to the bank tomorrow morning and said "I’d like all my money out in cash please, now, thank you very much." Well, the banks would be closed by ten, the City would be closed by eleven, Britain would be gone by lunch-time and the whole world would be shut down by tiffin, and we take tiffin pretty ‘durn early around here, partner. And that’s the problem. The whole system exists and works because we have faith in it and if we lose faith….Poof! it’s gone.
Say did you here that Faust was dyslexic? He actually sold his soul to Santa! Oh, You’ve heard it. Well never mind, another bottle of that Chablis, dear, but a cold one this time!"
That was the gist of it at least. At this distance in time and emotion I can’t quote him verbatim. But the sad bastard was nonetheless right. Things didn’t fall apart overnight, but they went bloody quick, and when the money was gone, all the little things that went wrong, stayed wrong, and got worse. We lost our faith and we lost our world and I can see no light at the end of the tunnel, mostly because the tunnel walls have collapsed and the ceiling has caved in. As Liza once sang, "Money makes the world go a-round." And so it did. And when the money stopped, the world just didn’t go a-round any more. Personally, I had little or no interest in the world of big business and high-finance. I got burned on the article I was thinking of writing when I had the conversation with the trader, and I didn’t look into it again for more than a decade. What I didn’t realise until I did look at it again in early ’99, was how important computers had got; in business and, from there, in everyone’s lives.
And I mean everyone. If you :
|Had a bank account:||
||Computers in the bank.|
|Used a Magic-money machine card:||Computers in the wall.|
|Had a Driving License:||Computers in Swansea.|
|Had a Phone:||Computers in Martlesham Heath.|
|Paid Tax:||Computers in East Kilbride
(Or Paris, or Dallas, or Ulan Bator.)
|Had a Job:||Computers in Social Security.|
|Didn’t have a job:||Computers in Social Security.|
|Had a criminal record:||Computers in London.|
|Didn’t have a criminal record:||Computers in London.|
|Were Born:||Computers, Computers, Computers.|
Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the little rascals. I miss them every-day. Especially now when I get a sore back and sore fingers and sore eyes from huddling in the draught below the high window, scribbling this sceptical scrawl; worrying about keeping it undepressing, undiscoverable and understandable. It’s just that I had no idea that computers had become so imbedded in every aspect of our existence. Here is an instance with which I have had hands on experience. Hands on, feet off, you might say, but still. Let’s talk about TESCO.
You walk into a pleasant and shiny superstore to do your shopping. You fill your trolley from their magnificent displays and walk up to the till, where the pleasant smiling lady helps you in every way possible, as she passes each of your purchases over, past or through a pretty, scintillating, and pretty scintillating, little laser scanning beam. (Listen, these are my rose-tinted Remember Rememberings. If yours aren’t as good, don’t blame me.)
Now what did that little cherry-beam do? Well it did only one thing, it read the code on the side of the product you bought. This simple action of course, enabled lots of other things. First of all it flashed the price up for you and added it to your bill and your receipt. In most places it even came up with friendly little messages like ‘Box-Jaffa Cks-400g’ or ‘Eggs-F/range-1/2 Doz’.
Ever wonder how it did that? Simple really. The bar-code on the packaging linked to information on the price, the product, the batch, the sell-by date and anything else the supermarkets wanted to put in there. This enabled the supermarket to know exactly what it had sold, down to the individual orange, can of Coke, or bottle of bleach. If you used your credit card or loyalty card, they even knew to whom they had sold what, so that they could say "Aah! Mrs. Jenkins at 52B is buying extra sausages and bog-roll again this week. Must have that no-good brother of hers around to stay again. Honestly that man can’t keep a job for two weeks at a time." Except of course they weren’t interested in Mrs. Jenkins and her brother, but in all the Mrs. Jenkins’s up and down the country. And all their brothers. Their age, their income, their spending patterns, their preferences, how much extra money they could be got to spend if the store changed their aisle decoration from blue to a subtle pinky-mauve, or changed the muzak, or made their special-offer labels bigger, or brighter, or orangier, and so on, and on, and on. And that was just the start.
Every till was a little computer all on its own. It could identify the product, determine the price, add it to the bill, flash it up on a screen, add everything up in the end, print out your bill, check your credit-card worthiness and the cleanliness of your underwear, and allow you out of the shop in the smug knowledge that it knew exactly what you had bought, and why.
(Actually this is extreme anthropomorphism. The computer knew nothing about you at all, it merely had some basic data that it could pass on to other, more sophisticated machines, which it duly did. Also, I lied about your underwear. But then, wouldn’t you?)
Each little computer’s most important task was to pass its data to another machine in the back of the shop. This somewhat more sophisticated machine would collate all the data into nice neat piles, and then contact its even bigger friend at head office. It could then hand the information up the line to this much grander machine, which would take all of these little piles of data and redistribute them out amongst its own friends for analysis and storage. The central, grand machine had the single most important job though. It handled stock and inventory control for all of that chain’s supermarkets. It contained all the information about what was in the warehouses; what was on the trucks and trains and ships and planes; what was in transit and what was expected from the suppliers, and when. It also knew about when things had actually come in, what their shelf-life was, what the spoilage rate was; and the pilferage rate, and the spillage rate. It knew about government regulations for the storage and distribution of meat products, and milk products, and fruit and veg. It knew about perishables and non-perishables, pharmaceuticals and batteries and panty liners and cream-cakes and condoms.
It also knew what all the Mrs. Jenkins’s had bought that day and that week, and could automatically decide what should be loaded on what lorry at what time so that it would arrive in time to keep the shelves full and the staff busy and Mrs. Jenkins happy. It knew which lorry driver should pick up which load, and what route he should take, and how much fuel he should use and when he should get back, and how much ketchup he could have on his bacon roll in that little transport café just outside Nottingham. It really did know an awful lot. And it could make decisions.
A store manager in Pontefract could easily find himself right out of Eccles cakes, but with a surfeit of Bath buns on special promotion. The Customer Services Manager in Newcastle could find himself having to explain that he had no Barbeque coal because the weather forecast predicted a warm weekend on the south coast and it had all gone there. The supermarkets in west London could suddenly find themselves with fifty extra cases of Tartan Special, because the Calcutta Cup was being played at Twickers, and the Grand Slam was on. All of these things, and many more, were under the purview of just a few very large and very sophisticated computers. And for the most part things ran smoothly.
There were always a few glitches and short-falls and over-stocks. The drivers would blame the loaders, and the stackers blame the palletisers, and the managers blame the regional managers, and the workers blame the computers, and the computer people blame the workers, and everyone would blame the suppliers. And the suppliers, of course, blamed the weather. And so it went on, quite unhappily, for many years. And the bad old days, when most of this stuff had to be done manually, and managers actually had to decide what they wanted and when, were long forgotten, lost in the mists of time and in the long-term files-and-records storage depot in Swanage. The systems got bigger and bigger and more and more complex, as efficiency and competitivity ruled and the price-wars continued.
They were still busy implementing ever-cleverer systems, tying all the electronic spaghetti together and mixing the software sauce, when we got to Zero-hour. D-day. The Witching hour. That’s right, 14:35, Thursday 9th December 1999. The day they briefly called Really, Really Black Thursday. The day that the Footsie lost over a thousand points before they could close it down. The day Wall Street didn’t merely crash but collapsed entirely.
The day they closed the banks.
Now DC will talk about some of the causes behind Really, Really Black Thursday a bit later, but for right now, lets stick to the point, shopping. Here we are, two weeks before Christmas, three weeks before the biggest Friday-night ever, and access to cash is restricted by government emergency controls. The holes-in-the-walls are closed. The banks are issuing cash only in very special circumstances. Inflation is suddenly running at 5% and rising, and everyone is living on credit they don’t necessarily happen to have. And the supermarkets love it. For two weeks everybody, in blind panic, stockpiles and hoards; and buys, buys, buys; spends spends, spends; charges, charges, charges. The biggest ever example of the Just-in-Case syndrome, and the last. Everyone has already got their own little pile of cash; under the mattress, or in the teapot, or in that funny little hole in the wall behind the grandfather clock. But they don’t want to spend it, just-in-case. So the plastic melts, and the credit mountain grows, and the tills ring. (Actually they hum a happy little electronic hum, but how could that ever replace the magical ‘Chachunga!’ of real money).
And the customers trundle home with more food and drink than they can fit in their fridges and deep-freezes and cupboards. And garages and sheds and lofts and landings and spare bedrooms and wardrobes and granny annexes and pretty little cottages in the country for when we can get away for a few days. And anywhere and everywhere else. Everyone getting in a little extra for the New Year, just-in-case. By seven o’clock, on that last ever functional Friday, the shoppers are exhausted and the check-out girls are exhausted, and the stackers are exhausted, and the managers are happy and exhausted. And it’s all just as well, because supplies are exhausted too. The shelves are mostly empty. The unloading bays are mostly empty. The trucks are parked. The ships are docked. The warehouses are mostly empty too, but that’s no problem.
"We don’t open again until Tuesday. Plenty of time."
And they did have plenty of time, because they didn’t open again Tuesday.
That Still, Small Voice
I heard somewhere that no society is more than three meals from rebellion. I can’t remember who said it originally, and it’s not in the books in my Library, but it’s wrong anyway. I am sure that almost everyone who was there for the Great TESCO Food Fight still had many more than three meals secreted away in their multifarious larders. They were there under the pretext of urgently needing Alka-Seltzer or Brillo Pads, or more Cranberry Sauce, or Dijon Mustard, or stain-remover. In fact they were really there to express their God-given right to shop. And to stand up and fight for that right if necessary. But that all happened on Friday, TESCO Food Fight Friday, TFF Friday. We need to go back to Tuesday. Tuesday 4th of January 2000.
A few hardy souls ventured forth on that wet and windy day, but most of us stayed in and watched Men in Black and The Horse Whisperer. We noted perhaps, that all the programs were recorded, that there had been a lot of timetable changes, and that the news was short and sweet and low on content and somewhat strained, but we didn’t care. The Government had declared a week of national holiday ‘To celebrate the Millennium properly’, and most people were too hung-over to notice or worry. Those few who ventured out to their local superstore met only closed doors, and a little hand-written sign saying "Closed for Stocktaking". Peering through the windows they saw no sign of life and lots of mostly empty shelves. I suspect they shrugged irately, mumbled drunkenly about drunken supermarket staff, and wandered down to their nearest corner shop for their fags and figs and furniture polish. There were no newspapers, which seemed strange.
I went down on Wednesday. Same sign, but the lights were on, there were people moving about, and there were three security men hanging about outside. I approached one to ask when the shop would be opening. "Don’t know, Guv." was the uninspiring if unsurprising response. I and several dozen other people, drifted around for a while, but nothing transpired so we drifted off, as others drifted in. I went along the next day too, Thursday. This time there were perhaps a hundred people hanging around outside the shop and a dozen or more security people. At least they were wearing security badges, but I was pretty sure I recognised some of them as people who normally worked in the shop itself. After all, where would you find an extra dozen security people when the world’s on holiday and more than 5,000 other stores are trying to do the same thing. They seemed nervous. I approached one, a young pimply student-type who had, I was almost sure, helped me fill my boxes a week or so earlier. (Hoarding on credit? Me? How could you think such a thing!)
"So when are you going to open then?" I asked politely, not quite squeezing his nuts, but perhaps looking as if it had crossed my mind. He gave me his best "I-only-work-here" kind of simpering shrug, and turned away. (If you don’t know what a simpering shrug is, I can only suggest that you practice shrugging and trying to be elsewhere at the same time. Only please do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.) Not to be so easily simperingly-shrugged off, I pursued him, only to be confronted with two rather largish men who clearly were much closer to being real security guards. One raised his eyebrow quizzically, and the other raised his truncheon quizzically. "Harrumph!" I said, or some such Tolkienesque snort, and backed briskly off in a hurried, but somehow heroic way.
I stood around, muttering and privately fomenting dissension, until I realised I was cold and wet and bored and worried. I decided to go and buy my carrots, currents, croutons, caramel creams and other essential items beginning with the letter C, from my local corner shop. This happened to be a petrol-station which was having trouble with its till and had taken up not being self-service, so you had to wait for someone to come and serve you at the pumps. But they would still sell you stuff, cash deals only, though their stocks were pretty low. "The van hasn’t been since last Thursday." they explained, selling me a week old cucumber, and a crusty cream cake. There were still no newspapers.
On my way home I called into my local for a post-millennial swifty. Some of the guys were there, shooting pool. One of them, a sales manager type from one of the little local database companies, was merrily suckering suckers into money games. Conning them into believing that this short, fat, stupid looking, scar-faced, ham-fisted loser was just that. The guy was a real pain, and not just because he regularly beat me at pool. He had churningly charmless charisma, a millimetric social varnish over an ugly personality, and he would cheat at solitaire. But I put my marker down, told myself again never to play for money, and went to the bar. The barman nodded and pulled as I approached.
"I hear the supermarket will be open in the morning." he said conversationally.
As I had been up there not ten minutes before and been confronted with a deafening and threatening silence on the subject of the opening of the self-same supermarket, I was naturally somewhat sceptical.
"Straight up!" he said, "They put a notice up about it."
This finally proved two things to me that really I had known perfectly well all along: that Einstein was wrong and Hawkings was right, information does travel faster then light. And secondly, that my natural and innate sense of timing means that, like everyone else, I will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or vice-versa.
Glad of an excuse to repocket my 50p marker, I swiftly swallowed my swifty, waved a random farewell, and high-tailed it back up to the supermarket, just to see for myself.
I must break off for a moment here to shed a quiet tear of bitter regret as, after twenty years of crawling around in the mud like an Earth-worm with worms, I re-remember suddenly the blasé way we used to dash about; jumping in our cars to go down the local, or driving to the supermarket for a box of matches.
Go anywhere – be anywhere.
Go now - go again.
Come back - stay away.
Travel light - pack your bags.
It was all so easy, so available, we didn’t even think about it, it just was. And then, in a matter of months, of weeks really, it was all gone.
All of it.
Our horizons shrunk from universal to microscopic, from world affairs to eating dogs, from Cider with Rosie to Lord of the Flies.
Of course my horizons shrank more than most; it’s amazing how big things look when you can’t get off your knees. But I guess the whole world is on its knees right now, and all our problems look big.
Hey! I’m a living metaphor and I never knew it.
This is the notice that they had stuck on the superstore door. I remember it pretty much word-for-word, because I grew very attached to that supermarket, for a time.
Dear Valued Customers,
We regret any inconvenience that may have been caused by the extended stock-taking exercise at this shop over the last few days. This was necessitated by an unforseen but minor technical difficulty. We are attempting to resolve this very minor technical issue as quickly as possible, but regret that we are presently unable to offer you the high levels of service and supply to which you have rightly become accustomed. Fortunately, due to the efforts of our dedicated and highly trained staff, we are glad to be able to announce, that this store will be open from:
Friday 7th January, 2000.
To enable us to work most effectively to overcome the very minor technical issues which we are facing, we have regretfully decided to temporarily restrict our opening hours. The temporary opening hours for this shop shall be:
Friday 7th January 10:00 – 12:00 14:00 – 15:00
Saturday 8th January Closed
Sunday 9th January Closed
Monday 10th January Closed
Tuesday 11th January 10:00 – 12:00 14:00 – 15:00
Wednesday 12th January Closed
Thursday 13th January 10:00 – 12:00 14:00 – 15:00
Friday 14th January 10:00 – 12:00 14:00 – 15:00
Customers may find that some of our normal product lines may be unavailable at certain times. We regret any inconvenience this may cause. We will keep you informed at all times about when we expect to be able to return to our normal level of service. Customers should also please note that, for the duration of this temporary and very minor technical problem, this store will not be able to process credit card or cheque transactions. All items must therefore be paid for in cash. A hand written receipt will be issued so that you may claim your Bonuscard points when we have resolved these minor technical issues,
Sam Bernardin o
Someone, presumably Sam, had scribbled a hasty signature under the text. It was sellotaped to the inside of the door. I stood, open mouthed, part of a soggy quartet that had grouped around the main entrance, and re-read the letter.
"Sure uses "minor" a lot. That means they’re well and truly buggered" said one of my companions, with the knowing whine of an IT man.
"Yeah! And by the looks of this timetable they’re not going to have it fixed any time soon. If they haven’t debugged it by now they’ll probably have to rewrite the whole thing. Daft Bastards!" said his mate, and they wandered off.
The third man sniffed, cursed under his breath, and turned away. I saw him the next day with a sheet of glass sticking out of his head, so he didn’t last long, but it was through him that I eventually woke up to what was happening. "Bloody Bug" he muttered, as he turned away, and a dim and crepuscular light slowly dawned. I drove over to the other TESCO, about a mile and a half away, to check there. Don’t ask me why there were two giant superstores belonging to the same company only a mile or so apart. Like little girls and butterflies and county council planning officers, the ways of FMCG Marketeers brooked no understanding. Just take my word for it, within two miles of where I am sitting now are the rusty remains of two equally large, equally burned-out TESCOs. At the second, in confirmation of my guess, there was an identical notice containing identical information. The only difference was that this one was signed by Peter Burra. The signature was equally scribbled.
On a hunch I drove up to the nearest Sainsbury’s. Just as I arrived a small group at the door there started to shout at someone inside the building. I hurried up in time to see someone, perhaps the manager himself, finish sticking a familiar looking notice to the door. He hurried away. I pushed my way to the door and read the notice. It was actually a bit different, obviously written by someone else, though the information it imparted was the same. Sinisterly identical in fact. The opening hours were exactly the same as the other two stores. Clearly someone, somewhere, had been working very hard indeed. I went home for a ponder.
There’s another old saying. Other, that is, than that old saying about society never being more than three meals from rebellion, which I don’t think was ever really a saying as such, old or otherwise, but sounds like it should have been. This other old saying, which really is an old saying, said, "No news is good news." I’ve often thought that was pretty daft. Over the last two decades, no news has generally meant, ‘He’s dead’. In this particular instance however I decided it was more meaningful to reword it to "No news is no news." I had never really thought about it before, but it suddenly occurred to me that news is what we are told, it is not usually what we know. That’s why it’s news. The notices in the two TESCOs were clearly phrased to suggest that there was a problem at that store, a local technical problem which they were working to fix, locally. But this could hardly be true of two identical stores, side by side. It could certainly not be true of another store from a different company, which was, equally clearly, facing the same problem. So, I mused, what if in fact the same is true, for every single supermarket, all over the country. I laughed out loud. "That’s ridiculous", I thought, "they couldn’t keep that out of the news! Anyway, they’ve all got different systems, so the same bug can’t have got to them all."
A still, small voice said, "Yep, but they’ve all got similar systems doing the same things and probably written by the same people. They could have similar problems, from similar bugs. Someone is coordinating getting the supermarkets open again, making sure that they all reopen, at the same time, for the same hours. Smells like government to me, so it must be serious."
"Well OK, but they still couldn’t keep it out of the news."
I paused. Good question. No newspapers. Pretty thin news on the box. Mostly about Blair at the Millennium Dome, Thatcher at the Millennium Dome, Richard at the Millennium Dome (Sir Cliff that is, not Branson). Even Pierce Brosnan at the Millennium Dome, in his 007 persona, upholding that most venerable of British film traditions, the Bond movies, and supporting the government in the greatest piece of product-placement since the Titanic went down. Almost everyone, it appeared, was at the Millennium Dome, other than paying customers of course, and good old Gordy Brown, who was manfully sticking to his post, piloting his leaky economic tanker through the treacherous waters of political and economic tides, currency currents, fiscal floes, monetary monsoons and Sorosian corsairs. The fact that he was rapidly going down with his ship was somehow omitted, but he clearly could not find the time to visit the Millennium Dome, jolly fine though it well may be.
"But even if it’s not in the news, everyone still knows that their shop isn’t open, and they’ll very quickly find out that none of them are open. And soon everyone will know."
"So what? If it’s not on the news, it’s not news. It might be mutterings in the pub, it might be grumbles in the street, it might be gossip over the garden-fence, but it is not news."
"But why would they even try to keep a thing like that quiet?"
"To avoid panic."
"Look. The supermarkets have been closed for a week now. People are starting to run out of things, and all the little shops are too, and very few new supplies are coming in. That’s OK around here where most of us bought heaps of stuff before the New Year, just-in-case. Well, this is the case that we bought it just-in for. The shops aren’t open, there is no food. In other places perhaps, they didn’t buy so much. Maybe people are starting to get hungry. Maybe they’re already rioting and looting, trying to get food for their hungry children."
"Don’t be ridiculous. We’re no where near that kind of problem."
"Oh Yeah! How do you know that?
"It would have been on the n…….?"
"News? Right? It’s not on the news so it isn’t happening. Bullshit. The closed supermarkets aren’t on the news either. So?"
"Well, they’ll be open tomorrow, and it might be a bit of a problem for a week or so because of the restricted hours, but they’ll sort it out, and we’ll be OK again."
"You believe that?"
"You really believe that?"
As you will have gathered, as this internal discussion proceeded, the still, small voice graduated into a highly-mobile, cast-a-shadow-in-your-face kind of voice. I was worried. Not very worried, just a bit worried. Just worried enough. I tried again to phone an old friend of mine who worked on the Times, to see what he had heard and to find out when the papers were coming out again. I had tried him at home and in his office several times over several days and never managed to get him. His office said they were closed for the holiday period and his home phone was on voice-mail. I had left messages, but to no avail. I decided to try him again on his home number, figuring he’d be there rather than in town. I picked up the phone to call him. This time there was no dial tone.
"S’funny" I thought. "It was working yesterday!"
And so it had been. Now admittedly, yesterday I hadn’t actually got through to anyone, but I did get a message saying "This is a New Year message from British Telecom. Due to the very high level of demand at this time of year, we are temporarily unable to complete your connection as dialled. Please try again later. You have not been charged for this call. Happy New Year and welcome to the new Millennium." I had tried again a bit later, and got the same message, and I was going to try again, very late on, after Return of the Jedi (The Special Edition) but realised that everyone would be in bed and that I was drunk, so I didn’t bother. And now my phone seemed to have died.
I also tried him from my mobile, but kept on getting "The subscriber you have dialled may be switched off, Please try again later." I didn’t work-out until later, that this was a bit odd, seeing that I was dialing a land-line. A few hours later I picked it up to try again, but this time it said "No Service" and only beeped at me annoyingly. "Hmm!" I mused, and quiescently switched it off.
Everyone had been worried a little bit about the Millennium Bug. Or maybe a little bit more than a little bit. Hence the hoarding and the cash problems. But, when the world woke up that Saturday afternoon, 1/1/00, and everything seemed normal, and there was no news of catastrophes, and the kettles were boiling and the water was heating, and the telly was working; and the phones were working so well and were so busy that you just couldn’t get through, well everything seemed to have passed off OK. People said, "I told you that Bug thing was a pile of nonsense, Let’s have another beer."
Some of the smart ones started worrying about the size of their credit card bills that month, which they had kind of half hoped might get eaten by the Bug in some computer somewhere. The really smart ones, or at least the semi-sober ones, were worried about the social and economic aftermath of the huge cash and credit boom that had gone before. "Maybe everyone will put all their cash back into the banks now, and the problem will go away?" they conjectured, hopefully and hopelessly.
And the really, really smart ones said nothing, but sat back and waited. The signs were there, but most of us were too eager to see normality. We were admiring our new Millennium, and we couldn’t see the abyss that had opened at our feet. We saw it a few days later though, when we all fell in.
Before I tell you about the events of that first Friday in the New Year, about the Great TESCO Food Fight. I would like to fill you in on the background of those days and tell you what had happened: to the shops, the papers, the news, the phones, the power, the water. And the petrol stations, and the banks and everything. And, amazingly enough, I am in a position to do exactly that.
"How!" I hear you clamour, "How can a hack writer from a hick town, who didn’t even realise that the Bug was to blame for the supermarket problems and the phone problems, and all the bloody problems, how can he tell us all about what went wrong when the Bug ate the world?"
Well, if you’ll shut up and stop clamouring for a while, I’ll tell you.
As you will discover, when I finally get around to it, I did not fare well at "TFF Friday" as we old contemptibles who were there liked to call it. Farewell, indeed, was closer to the mark. Over three hundred people died that afternoon, at that store, and many more died "as a result of their injuries" within the next week or so. They would mostly have died anyway, so it’s no big deal, and the fact that I am probably the sole survivor from amongst those who were injured that day, is no big deal either. I still find it remarkable that I survived at all, and sometimes I regret it. Bitterly. But at least it has given me the opportunity to write this account and to tell you the tale of The Dying Consultant.
The Tale of the Dying Consultant
The Saturday after TFF Friday, there I lay, not ten feet from where I am now, on the cold, cold floor of this old Warfield church; one of the impromptu evacuation centres, set up by a process of random selection the previous evening. Of course people had tried to phone for ambulances, but there were no phones, so others had driven to the hospital for help, but there was no help to be had. The hospital was full, the ambulances were out, ferrying the dying and the dead, but with no where to take them and no medicine to give them and no doctors to attend to them. It was like the worst Friday night in casualty there ever was, and it was never ending. The beds were full, the wards were full, the corridors were full, even the staff quarters and the gardener’s cottage was full. Sorry, go away.
So I was driven around for three hours to five different hospitals, using up suddenly precious fuel. But the story was always the same. Eventually we came back to the old neighborhood. I was too far-gone to even appear to make sense. I should have said, "Take me home and put me in my own bed. At least I can die in peace in my own room. Not in the back of a Volvo Estate, in a pool of liquid detergent and milk and someone else’s blood." But I didn’t say that. I was at best semi-conscious, and my throat was as swollen as my ankles, from screaming and crying and cursing. I could hardly breathe between my sobs and I could hardly see between my tears.
We hit a minor traffic jam on the way into the village and eventually came to a harassed policeman trying to direct the traffic. At the time he seemed like a big, perhaps slightly tubby, dark-blue beacon of hope. In retrospect he was a small black crab playing King Cnut against the high tides of winter, waiting to be washed away and dashed on the rocks of disaster as that long killer season took him and his kind away. He was the last policeman I ever saw.
He directed my exhausted but unscathed driver to the old stone church. There was still room at this particular inn, so between them the Engineer, who was driving, and the Policeman, who was misdirecting, moved me and my two companions out of the back of the Volvo and into the church. This proved the last straw for me. There being no stretchers, they carried me, feet dangling, from the car to the church. It hurt.
I remember only three other things about that evening. I remember screaming "My legs! My legs!", as they hauled me through the little graveyard beside the church. I remember thinking "Oh God, please don’t let me die here!" and at almost the same time thinking, "Oh God, please let me die here!" I remember them laying me out on a now long gone pew. Unable to help myself, I slid off onto the floor below, jolting even more agony into my ankles. I thought it was impossible to feel more pain, and then I did. They tried to lift me back on to the pew again, but I screamed hoarsely for them to stop, to leave me alone, to get the fucking Jesus Christ out of this bastarding church and leave me to die in fucking peace.
Eventually they got the message. They left me to lie on the cold hard floor, instead of the cold hard bench. The chill eventually numbed my legs and my arse and my back and my neck and my head. And my ankles. The chill lessened the pain, and I kind of believe now that the cold saved me in the end. Otherwise the pain would have left me insane. OK, so maybe it did leave me insane, but you’re reading this thing, not me. If you want to read the ramblings of a man twenty years mad, that’s your look-out.
They put my two travelling companions on the pews above me and went off to get help, or find some more injured, or have a fry-up. To be honest I don’t know where they went, but they never came back. Of my two companions from the Volvo, one was already quite dead. He moaned about it a lot throughout the night.
I’d never been close to a dead person before. I had no idea that they creaked and groaned and sighed and smelled so much. As they stiffen and decay, all sorts of internal gases and fluids find there way out. This already-dead guy had a bad chest wound that kept gurgling away to itself, and his neck wound emitted some strange whistles, creaks and rattles. Where the rest of the strange corporeal noises, smells and oozes came from I refuse to speculate. I talked to him for several hours, trying to keep his already stiff pecker up. My frozen one had all but vanished but I was gamely trying to keep it up too. It wasn’t until after he emitted one extra long, extra deep, extra smelly, sigh that I stirred myself to reach up and comfort him. I found he was already as cold as the stone floor I lay on, and just as stiff. I’d been talking to a bloody corpse for three hours. That just about made my day.
Strange! I said I remembered only three things about that evening, but I find I have given you three whole paragraphs on what I felt and what I did and what I saw. I clearly remember much more than I remember remembering. Writing things down must be a form of catharsis. But then, ‘shit a scar’ is also a form of catharsis. I just thought I’d point that out.
The other guy, on the pew directly above me, made never a sound, and I thought he might be gone too. I checked and he wasn’t, though he was on his way. He had a silver spear in his chest, and he kept dripping on my chest, so that was the only bit of me that stayed warm. Unfortunately, what with his blood dripping on me and the mess from the back of the Volvo, by the next morning I must have looked like a spear-carrier from Reservoir Dogs.
When, late in the day, the first medical person arrived, she took one look at me, swallowed her spew, and wrote me off as a corpse. She turned to the dead dude beside me, and, rather inanely I thought, felt for a pulse in what resembled nothing more than a stiff, white, leg of lamb from the freezers at Iceland.
"He’s croaked", I croaked.
She whirled around, scared and bewildered. She was very young, and had just completed her first year at medical college. She knew how to take a temperature and a pulse, put on a Band-aid, and dissect a brain. She was very nice, and very pretty, and worse than nothing, and died on my cross five months later, from hunger and despair and a broken spirit and a broken heart. I still miss her.
Her eyes settled on the Dying Consultant. "What did you say?" she said, to the man with the silver spear in his chest, who really was a spear-carrier.
"He didn’t say anything. I said ‘He’s croaked’, and he has." I said.
"You’re still alive." says she.
"Obviously!" says I.
"And you’re able to speak?" she says, unbelievingly.
"Yes", say I, patiently.
"But…but….you’re not moving your lips." Confusedly.
"I think you’ll find that I am." Vehemently.
She knelt down and put her ear to the Dying Consultants face.
"Please talk to me again!" Plaintively.
"He can’t talk, he’s unconscious!" I said, exasperatedly.
"Who said that?" Alarmedly.
"Who said that?" Repetitively.
"I did!" Unbelievingly.
It was like being caught in one of Harold’s plays, where no one knows who’s saying what to who, or why. At this point she went extremely pale, even though she was already extremely pale, and her eye-lids began to flutter in an ‘I’m-about-to-faint’ sort of way.
"Don’t faint." I said, compassionately.
"Who said that?" Awe-struckfully
"Listen! Let’s not go round that roundabout again. The guy who’s chest you are leaning on, the one with the silver spear in it, is, not surprisingly, unconscious. The guy who’s pulse you just took is stone dead. He has passed away. He is an ex-parrot. I on the other hand, though temporarily unable to move, am quite able to speak, and am more or less alive." Assertively.
Having, at long last, caught on to the fact that it was the bloody and motionless corpse under the pews that was talking to her, she knelt down and looked at me, for the first time. She really was very pretty, and I thought "Aha! Here comes the love interest." But alas it wasn’t to be.
"I thought you were dead!" Plaintively.
"So did I." Amicably.
"But you’re all……you’re all…….red!" Wrenchingly.
"Better red than dead." Light-heartedly.
"But you’ve lost so much blood." Concernedly.
"Listen you’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re obviously delirious, so the first thing we need to do is…eh….What we need to do is….eh?" Semi-professionally.
"Listen princess." I said, finding that helping her was helping me. "I am really not too badly hurt. A shelf fell on me and bust up my ankles. I can’t move my feet. I can’t feel them either, but that is probably because I can’t feel a goddamn thing, because I am frozen stiff. But I am quite happy with that, because otherwise I think I would be in bloody agony. If I appear lucid and normal, believe me it is only because I can’t feel anything, I can’t move anything, and I am coming down from an adrenaline high. Now of my two buddies here, the one with the frozen meat complexion is dead, and has been dead all night. I would suggest getting rid of him, except it’s probably colder here than anywhere outside a proper morgue, so we might as well leave him be until we have to. The other guy is still alive, or was until very recently. But he’s been dripping on me all night. That’s why I look in a bad way, while he actually is in a bad way. All I need right now is some water and some warmth. He needs blood, and someone to remove that silver spear."
I carefully refrained from observing that by leaning on his chest to listen to him talking, which he wasn’t, she had squeezed out just a little more of his remaining blood, and could well have squeezed out just a little more of his remaining life. I was trying to instill in her a confidence and an optimism which I absolutely didn’t share, but I needed someone to help me, and I hoped that if I helped her, then that would help her to help me, in a John Lennon/Paul McCartney kind of way. She wasn’t much help. But, she kept us both alive. For a while.
I woke up again early that evening, with fire in my eyes and fire in my ankles and fire in my belly. The Dying Consultant was also awake, and moaning, resting on an old mattress borrowed from a local house, under some blankets from the same place. He was cleaned and bandaged, and watered and comforted, and the spear still stuck out from between his ribs because no-one was brave enough or deft enough or daft enough to pull it out. I was sitting in a well-sprung, wooden-framed, slightly old-fashioned arm-chair, wrapped in a brightly coloured duvet, with my heavily wrapped ankles supported on a small pouffe which was itself resting on several small stacks of hymn books to raise it to the right height. The pouffe was made from cream and scarlet leather, my ankles were bound by a pair of peach and gold curtains, my duvet cover was a bright floral pattern of greens and yellows and browns. The chair itself was a deep and meaty chintz. Gates, it must have been a disgusting sight, but it was warm and comfortable and only medium agony.
My eyes were full of fire because I’d been crying for four hours before I went to sleep and I still had my lenses in. Judging from the duvet, I had continued crying in my sleep. My eyes were red raw and the duvet soggy and salty to the taste, as I discovered when I bit it to stop from screaming again. The problem was that, as I thawed, I was pounced upon by more pain then I had until recently imagined imagining. It was disgusting. New bits of me would slowly wake up to a mind-expanding new pain experience, in Technicolour and Surround-sound. A whole new IMAX experience of vomit-inducing pain, and terror and despair.
My ankles were full of fire, and they were swollen to three times their normal size. It felt like every single bone in my ankles had been smashed to pieces, but this was only because, as I discovered later, every single bone in my ankles had been smashed to pieces.
My belly was full of fire, but for two completely different reasons. The first of these was the curry I had at lunch time. It was a TESCO, special-offer, low-calorie, ready in twenty minutes Vindaloo, with poppadom and sweet-spicy pickle. Now I am not and never was a great curry fiend. At any other time and place this would have been way too hot and spicy for me. But I was starving and that was all I was offered. It came from the house next door, The Rectory, though the Rector didn’t live there anymore, and I presumed that it had been liberated from TESCO the previous day, thawed overnight, (Unlike me.) and someone thought they’d better cook it up before it went too far off.
By this time their were six of us in the church, including the corpse, and some old wife, whom I was to come to know well, brought round a tray of piping-hot TV dinners, straight out of the microwave. They were all Vindaloo, but then the looters’ choice had been somewhat restricted. Having no choice at all, and having not eaten for a day and a half, and because no-one else was fit to eat anything, I wolfed them all down voraciously.
Not a good idea. They burned my mouth and my throat on the way down. My lips were numb and my eyes were streaming once again. At least it kept my mind off my ankles. Then the trouble really began. I burped ferociously, farted fiercely and sighed flatulently. If the curry had burned on the way in, it burned even more as it attempted to blast its way out through my intestines and colon and all those other disgusting purply bits that I’d seen scattered around the car-park the day before. I hadn’t seen my own disgusting purply bits scattered around the car park, you understand. They’d belonged, to other people, though it now felt that mine were trying to go join them.
Also, the other reason for the fire in my belly, I desperately needed to go. And I mean desPerately, with a capital P. I hadn’t been for more than 24-hours, which I wouldn’t have believed possible until I tried it. But my bladder and my bowels had by now had quite enough, thank you very much. It was time to go. DEFINITELY, time to go.
I couldn’t move, but I was damn sure I wasn’t going to go where I was. Not in my nice clean duvet and my nice chintzy armchair. I called out to attract someone’s attention but there was no one mobile around. The Pretty Medical Student was off somewhere, looking like Florence Nightingale and acting like Florence from the Magic Roundabout. I think she was looking for someone to do a lobotomy on. She knew about the brain.
The only one who stirred in the still and still cold church, was the Dying Consultant. I didn’t know at the time of course, that he was a dying consultant, I only knew that he was dying. The fact that he was a consultant came as a bit of a shock when he told me later, but I tried not to hold it against him, as he let me know his view of what had happened to civilisation. And how. And why. And why and how it was all his fault. Which in fact it clearly absolutely bloody-well was.
He eyed me with blood shot eyes, as I squirmed about gently, trying to loosen the bonds of my well-wrapped duvet while not loosening my not quite so well tied down bowels. It seemed likely to me that he had more blood in his eyes then everywhere else in his body, but, as most of the rest had dripped out over me, I refrained from making any comment in that direction.
"Way rahrr yoog own" he slurred drunkenly. Well, he wasn’t drunk, but he sounded like it. Lack of blood, and therefore oxygen, to the brain has that effect apparently. Having slowly filtered out the meaning of his interrogative, I told him that I needed a pee and whatever else, and I was going to find the toilet.
"Our side. Bah kov wreck tree wall."
Sifting backwards from the word ‘wall’ I worked out two things. There was no inside toilet, it was outside, against the Rectory wall. I also gathered that he knew the church and its surroundings, and that he was therefore probably a local. He was. While I lived in the main village, about two miles away, he lived right next door to the church, in the Bungalow. He became the unwitting donor of many of my books, though not the SF collection, and many of the CDs. He was well-known locally, or so they thought: he was the last one we bothered to bury. (Sorry, they bothered to bury. I was knee deep in knackered ankles.) I said thanks, but I thought "Shit!" I didn’t think I could travel very far, and I didn’t think I would enjoy it if I did. I was right.
I discovered that the only way I could move, was backwards, on my arse, trailing my broken feet behind me. I could lean back on my arms, elbows bent, then straighten them out and pull myself level with my hands. I would then pause to let the wave of nauseating pain pass up my legs, through my knotted bowels and bloated bladder, giving them an unpleasant and dignity-threatening tweak, up through my Vindaloo-ravaged trachea, until it more or less came to a burping blockage behind my gritted teeth. Average progress - about ten feet a minute. Also I had to keep on craning my neck around to see where I was going, which hurt my left foot if I looked over my right shoulder and vice versa. By vice versa I do not mean that it hurt my right shoulder if I looked over my left foot, I mean……Oh! Work it out for yourself.
Eventually I got to the main door from the church hall, which fortunately opened inwards to the little anti-porch. All I had to do was lean against it and it swung gently open. I was beginning to get hopeful, but the outer door proved to be a real bugger: big, heavy, oaken, studded, wrought iron-hinged, and inward swinging.
"Bloody Bastarding Bastard Bastard." I swore at it, vehemently and with feeling, if not with a great deal of creativity. I was beginning to leak, and I knew I was running out of time and sphincter control. After a few hapless, hopeless, helpless minutes of trying to get the door open from the ground, I managed to push myself upright, onto my knees. Praying position. I reached the door handle, prayed that they hadn’t locked us in, and pulled. The door swung open. I thanked Gates as I fell through it, splaying out across the threshold, shrieking out the new wave of pain, and leaking just a little bit more. After a time I raised my head and looked around. On the other side of the graveyard, against the rectory wall, roughly 500 miles away, was the outhouse.
It might just as well have been in Edinburgh. Fifty yards or so, I guessed. That would have taken me about quarter of an hour, by which time I would probably have been unconscious from the pain, and would mostly have leaked away anyway. I despaired, until I saw, not ten feet away, along the wall of the church, a drain hole into which several down-pipes ran from the gutters around the eaves of the church. I made a slow dash for it, inched to within a few feet, loosened my trousers and Ys, slid backwards out of them, positioned myself over the grating of the drain, and relaxed.
Bliss! Perfection! Heaven on Earth! If You’re Happy and you Know it Clap your Hands! I reached Nirvana, and Nirvana reached me. After a full five minutes of released tension, enjoying the savage yet satisfying rectal burn that only a deep-frozen Vindaloo can bring, I prepared to sort myself out. No paper! NO paper? NO PAPER!!!
I couldn’t believe it. How stupid could one man be? How could I have been so idiotic? OK, I had been on my way to a bona-fide bog, but as soon as I had decided to divert to the drain a little alarm should have gone off. "You have no paper!" it should have said, "You have no paper!" Fortunately, now that I had loosened up a little and got my brain back in gear, I saw that an answer was to hand. Not literally of course.
Leaving my clothes around my knees I maneuvered away from the drain, oriented myself, pushed myself backwards for just a few feet, and sat on the lovely, fresh, cold, ticklish grass. I squirmed luxuriously, inched forwards and backwards a few times until I was satisfied the job was complete, and set about doing myself up. I don’t know if you have ever tried this technique, but it is simple and effective. It is also soothing after a spicy meal. Not that we have spices anymore, but I remember the sweet coolness of curried ass on grass. Great!
I still use that drain every day, because the latrines are too far away. It must go down to a deep soak-away, because it never gets clogged and rarely smells, except if we have a long dry spell in the summer. When I use it now, I always make sure I take my wiper with me, but I still sometimes use the grass, if there’s no one around to see. It feels slightly kinky and naughtily perverted. You should try it some time.
Much relieved I hoiked myself backwards into the church again. Wrestled with the doors again. Endured the pain again, though it seemed lessened now. I almost whistled as I dragged myself backwards towards my chair. I was just puzzling about how I was going to reposition myself and wrap myself up as warm and comfortable as I had been, when I heard a wheezing behind me. I half turned. It was the Dying Consultant, still with the silver spear in his side. He was looking at me sideways, his breathing laboured and harsh. Feebly, he raised his hand and beckoned me towards him. I hesitated, asking myself how much good could I be to him in my crippled condition. Still, he had tried to do me a favour, telling me about the out-house. Even though I hadn’t made it, I was beholden to him, and he was a dying man. You can’t argue with a dying man.
I turned around and made my way over to him as he lay on the mattress beside the cold gray wall. I lay down on my back beside him, so I could turn my face and look into his eyes. He seemed to have grown weaker and shorter of breath, his face was stained and lined and off-white, like an old trainer. I looked down at the spear sticking out of his side. The wound had been carefully bound, but packed, curiously enough, with packets of deep-frozen oven-ready chips, now mostly thawed. He whispered something which I couldn’t hear. I squirmed closer and put my ears towards his lips. Three times he whispered to me.
"Eye knee tog O2!" "Eye knee tog O2!!" "Eye knee tog O2!!!"
Eventually I pieced it together. I sat up, all too abruptly for my poor abused ankles, and looked down at him in pity and dread. What could I do for him? How could I help him? I didn’t know what, but I knew I had to do something. I knew his pain. I shared his misery. He needed to go too.
Later that same evening real relief arrived. Proper medical relief that is, in the shape of the Pretty Medical Student and a real life doctor. Or so I thought. As they entered, they wrinkled their noses at the somewhat fetid and fecund fecal festival of noisome nastiness. To wit, a pewter christening bowl and an ancient stone font, mostly full of shit, piss, vomit and pus. I had been a busy boy since sorting myself out at the drain.
Feeling altogether friskier, I had dragged myself with gay abandon about the church, seeking alternatives. Having more or less exhausted those alternatives to be found at floor level, I turned my thoughts somewhat higher and, on investigating the font, found the necessary materiel; namely the font itself and the shallow bowl which normally filled its stone basin. Taking the one from the other, I succeeded in positioning the salver more or less accurately under the Dying Consultant, and then transferring the unsavoury contents to the font itself. I considered trying to take the mess outside, but the idea of getting it through the doorways seemed both unappealing and unlikely. The font was a lot nearer.
Moving him about to get the bowl in position, had worried me, and it clearly worried him. In the end though we managed it without too much pain, and when I had settled him back I noticed the silver spear had actually eased out by nearly two inches. I could tell from the smear of black blood and greenish slime that damply coated it. It wasn’t actually a spear of course, it was a length of chrome shelf-trim from a refrigeration unit in TESCO. It still had a little sticker on it saying "Shop at TESCO – Every Little Helps." It didn’t look very helpful to me, but I didn’t want to say anything about it. The Dying Consultant (I’ll just call him DC I think. We were getting pretty chummy by this time, as you do.) caught my glance however, so I said, "How long have you had that in there then?"
"Too bloody long" said he, with unwonted vigour and apparent sobriety.
"You sound a lot better now though."
"When you levered me up to put me on the pot, I felt something sort of give and sort of slide, and immediately I could breathe a lot better. I’ve been lying here with my bowels and my bladder emptying and my lungs filling for the first time in forever. Thank you. Thank You!"
"De nada, Compadre" I said, in my best Clint Eastwood, "How much more do you think is still in there?" Meaning the spear.
"I have no idea, I can’t feel where it ends." He looked at me, looking deep into my eyes. I looked at him, looking shallow into his. We looked at each other and I looked away first, mostly because I’d spilt some shit on the curtains. (Round my ankles, remember.)
"Er? Would you like me to try and take it out for you perhaps?" I inquired, doubtfully. "Or should we wait for the Doctor to arrive?" I said, sounding cheerful and positive and looking as if I expected the doctor any minute now.
"What bloody doctor? Any sensible doctor will be holed up somewhere safe and secure by now, and demanding his fees in food and petrol. We won’t get any bloody doctor here, unless someone manages to kidnap one quickly." He was rattling away ten to the dozen now that he had got his breathing system back on line. I started asking him what he meant about the doctors and kidnapping, but he interrupted me and said "Never mind that now, we can talk about it later. I want you to pull the rest of this bloody pig-sticker out of my side."
I hesitated, moved, hesitated again, sidled, paused for another bit of hesitation, and……… "Bloody well come on", he roared, softly. He obviously wasn’t up to his normal full throated roar, and this attempt made him cough and the coughing made him wince, and the wincing made him breathe more slowly. "Listen," he said, much more softly, "I can feel this thing sawing away at something inside me. I don’t know if I’ll live with it out, but I sure as hell am not going to live with it in. I can’t reach it myself without twisting my ribs and cutting some more, so you’ll have to take it out. I’ll relax and you pull. And have a bandage ready."
So I pulled it out, and cleaned out the hole as best I could and covered it with some nice clean shit-free curtains and bound his chest with some material ripped from his blanket, got rid of the unfrozen chips, and I laid him down to rest. He was silent throughout the procedure, so I knew it hurt a lot. But he seemed easier when the last of it came out, the last five inches, from deep in his chest. Silently too, he lay back down when I had bound him, and he seemed to pass away very quickly. Then he started to snore. A low, bass, snarling rumble, with a slight gurgle at the end. Gates! He was a noisy bastard. I went around, on my arse, to offer my services to the other inmates of the church. One of them took up the offer of my port-a-loo service, and thanked me in a low whisper. He had a bad gash on his stomach, and it hurt him to move. But he did move, and he did move, and there was blood in the bowl when he finished. I didn’t tell him or show him but I think he knew from my silence. The third guy was still unconscious; gray and still, but still breathing. He never woke up. The fourth, a middle-aged woman, was already dead, I couldn’t tell how or why.
So there we were; two corpses, the gray man, the bleeding man, DC and myself, when the doctor arrived a few hours later. He checked us out, replacing some bandages, giving some instructions, tutting and tsking and sounding professional. The Pretty Medical Student and a couple of others cleaned the place up, and opened the window, and took the shit out, and the corpses, and plumped our pillows and fed us again; bread and fish fingers this time, loaves and fishes. The doctor tutted and tsked extra loudly over DC, examined the spear, looked over at me, shook his head, took off the bandages, shook his head some more, swabbed the wound with whisky, poured some powder on it and re-wrapped it. He talked to DC quietly and earnestly for a few minutes, patted his shoulder in a friendly manner, and came over to me.
"Shouldn’t I have pulled it out then Doc?" I said, nodding at the metal spike he carried.
"Someone had to. I don’t reckon it’ll matter much." was all he would say. He unwrapped my ankles and examined them gingerly. They were swollen and grazed and almost black, with interesting shades of yellow, blue and violet just beginning to appear. He mumbled to himself as he poked about, obviously trying not to hurt me, but managing to nonetheless. I gritted my teeth and said nothing. The only word I could make out was ‘smithereens’, which didn’t sound particularly encouraging. He got some cold water from outside and put wet cloths on my ankles, wrapping them firmly and telling me that I should do the same, at least twice a day.
"So what’s the verdict, Doc.’’ I asked in a jaunty, carefree, Ironside-ish manner.
His reply was rather less jolly.
"If you spend six months in a major hospital with the best surgeons and bone-men and physios, you might just walk on these feet again. Barring that, I’m afraid your feet are permanently disconnected from your legs. The muscles are mostly intact, but what they’re attached to is mostly loose. I’m afraid you will never dance again. Also, without major reconstructive surgery, you won’t be able to walk on them even if they do stiffen up and set. The geometry will be all wrong. Son, if you were a horse I’d have to shoot you."
I couldn’t recall off-hand which movie that line came from, but I was gladdened by the fact that he was entering into the spirit of things. I was also trying to avoid thinking about the sentence he had just passed on me.
"So, which hospital would you recommend?" I ventured. He stood up and looked around at the walls and the ceiling and the arched windows. He shrugged, raised his hands in frustration and said, "Take your pick son, take your pick." He walked out.
"What did he mean by that?" I asked the Dying Consultant.
"I think he meant that this is it. If you want something else you’ll have to go find it yourself."
I leaned back and sighed a heavy sigh. "But what has happened to it all. All the Hospitals and all the doctors and nurses. We only had that one big problem out at TESCO. Why am I not in a hospital right now? And you too!"
"I’m too tired to explain it to you right now, but tomorrow, I hope, I will tell you what I think has happened. Also we can try to find out how bad it’s got already. At least we’ve still got power."
"The electricity? Why should we have problems with the electricity?"
He laughed gently. "I’m afraid it won’t last long, but let’s talk about it tomorrow, in the cold light of day. I really am tired, and my chest hurts."
I lay back and relaxed. I was tired and my whole body ached from my exertions. My ankles throbbed dully, but no worse than before. Just as I began to doze, I thought of something which almost raised a smile.
"Well, you were wrong about one thing anyway." Grunt from DC. "You were wrong about us not getting a doctor. Only a few hours later one turns up, large as life and twice as ugly, to check us out and give us succour, to mop our fevered brows and to make us feel better, even if we don’t. He seems OK. Interesting bed-side manner."
There was a funny strangled sound from the other side of the room. I thought he was choking or dying or being sick or something, but it gradually burgeoned into a long and wheezy laugh. Between gasps he choked out, "Succour! Succour! You’re the only sucker around here. That’s no bloody doctor, that’s our bloody Vet. He really does shoot horses!" and he chuckled himself gently to sleep. I on the other hand sat staring at the roof beams of the ancient church, thinking of angels and angles and Anglo-Saxons. Trying desperately not to think about useless legs and no hospitals. But, again, I cried myself to sleep.
In the morning, the Pretty Medical Student came back and tended to our various needs. We are getting to know her pretty well by now, but I feel that to call her PMS would be overly familiar and somewhat unkind, so I’ll just call her Nursey, after the character from Blackadder, whom she didn’t even slightly resemble. She fed, watered and tidied us up, but when I mentioned the requirement for toilet facilities she blanched and blushed at the same time, which looked as peculiar as it sounds, and fled. Fortunately she had gone to get the Vet and he helped us all out. He looked grim at the outpourings from the man with the stomach wound, and pulled Nursey to one side. I don’t know what they said, but it didn’t much matter, because he died that evening, without saying a word.
"So tell me what you think has been happening." I said to DC, when they had all gone off to fight their other battles.
So he did.
We sat and talked for most of that day and most of the next, and off-and-on for several days after that. At first his voice was strong and he could sit up and even move a little bit, but as the days went past he slowly worsened again until, in the end, he looked gray and gaunt and his voice was barely a whisper. He had a blackish foam at the sides of his mouth, and his breath rattled in his chest.
I obviously can’t remember now everything he said, but here is the gist of it. Some of his words still haunt me, and I have used them. Some of the words are my own interpretations and reflect my understanding of what he said and what he meant and what he didn’t say and what he didn’t mean. Virtually all of what he said was speculation, because he couldn’t KNOW what had actually happened. But he was very confident and very assured and very vehement. I believed him.
Most of the light-hearted interjections are mine, he was deadly serious.
Copyright © Jock Howson 1999
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