The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 13

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

- Tennyson

Against all odds, I was finally driving down roads I had known long ago, and past familiar landmarks. Their shapes were still recognisable even through the destruction that had drained the life and colour out of everything, leaving the world as a fading photograph. Just like everywhere else, earthquakes and explosions had ravaged the surface here and awoken deep upheavals far beneath, and I had stopped the pickup several times when it had begun bouncing dangerously along the shaking road, and sat waiting for the earthquakes to finish. Huge cracks had appeared in the ground around and in front of me and, as I drove on, the split-open roads seemed to band together with fallen, uprooted trees to stop me. Vast floods from spilled lakes stretched over parched and burned land, and pillars of smoke lined the hilly horizon at strange intervals, sacrificial fires to hold up the sky. I wondered how much of the earth's surface had descended into the same chaotic violence, and how much longer it would support the fragile humans that still scurried to stay alive.

I watched more dark clouds roll past overhead, an army of their own rushing to the front lines of a battle I could not see, and the sun burst out from behind them with a painfully sudden brightness. I quickly lowered the sun-visor just above me to shield my eyes and saw far ahead that it shone almost as brightly from the ground. My stomach turned as I prayed that Lucy was safe from the flooding that must have engulfed such a huge part of the town.

As I drove on I had to squint against the glare as it came from all directions, hiding huge cracks in the road that only became visible as they trailed like veins toward me from out of the pale orange-gold haze. Earthquakes still shook the truck from time to time, and despite the sunlight I soon saw the scattering of rain bursting against the windscreen and heard the coarse drumming of its huge drops on the metal roof.

Still driving the truck hard toward the floods, I watched the clouds reform overhead and close ranks in a black and seamless formation, seething above me as if they were waiting. The scene around me darkened, and the rain exploded into an artillery storm, hammering the truck and turning the road into a slick flashflood of rushing water. Great shadows passed over me as the storm gathered to cover the daylight, and a thunderclap sounded so loud and so low that it vibrated the windows and rattled the panels of the truck. Its power was frightening, rivalling the noises the ground made when it shook.

As I entered the first quiet streets at Alvermere's south-eastern edge, the road I drove down was lined with houses, making it difficult to see the extent of the flooding until I finally reached the edge of the water. I saw how far ahead of me it stretched and how deep it ran, rising over the dipping road to cover miles of houses and shops, turning into deep-sunken riverbeds the streets where I had once run at night. I climbed from the truck and stepped down onto the rain-covered road, standing in the freezing downpour, and as I looked across the water's teeming surface I was suddenly and painfully reminded of a night when I had visited Kate, and it had rained with as much menace as it did now.

I grabbed the door for balance as the ground moved again, sending huge ripples through the expanse of water and turning them into lapping waves at its edge before me, and I leaped back inside and quickly turned the truck around.

At first I drove along the roads that were closest to the water's edge, hoping to find its end, but as I realised the sheer breadth of the flood I soon diverted.

The sun soon gave up on shining through the storm and began to sink in the west as I drove the truck along a muddy gravel lane walled by dead overgrowth, grateful for the thick tyres that easily swallowed up the harsh terrain. Soon I emerged into large field, its long, brown grass looking like broken and defeated wheat in the headlights.

With a soft, gliding skid I stopped the pickup and climbed back outside into the rain. There I stood in the bright beams of my headlights, my shadow projected vast across the remaining wall of the broken, collapsed barn, and just in that moment I was granted an infinitesimal glimpse by the burst of a lightning bolt. The imprint of vision that it left was of the shape of a boat, seared into my eyes. I left the idling pickup behind me and ran over, the ground soft and uneven underfoot and the grass long, half-dead, and matted like unruly hair by the rain. I tripped and slipped as I ran, my hands and feet sinking into the waterlogged ground. I was cold, soaked and muddy within seconds, my long coat becoming as heavy as chain mail.

Most of the barn's roof had gone, either blown away by the wind or shaken inward by the earthquakes, and as I neared its rusted ruins I could see its jagged silhouette against the navy-blue of sky behind it where the truck's headlights could not reach. The stubborn rear doors were still standing and still immovable, so I hurried around to the front. I found the small door but its padlock was now rusted solid.

Another lightning bolt lit the sky, and I heard the crash of it connecting with the ground nearby. A split-second later a deep peal of thunder sounded, close enough to fill the field around me, powerful enough to jar my bones. I grabbed the door handle and rattled it as hard as I could, but it would not move. I abandoned it and circled around the high edges of the barn, relieved to see through the cracks and gaps that the boat still looked upright and intact inside, but I kicked the solid walls in frustration that there was no way in. Climbing up its smooth, curved sides was impossible even when they were dry.

I passed by the huge oak tree that stood next to the barn, and I remembered standing in its shade with Kate one morning, when the field had been soaked in fresh dew. I paused for a moment, standing in the same spot, shivering with each of the giant spots of rain that filtered down through its now-dead branches. With the storm darkening the dusk and soaking up its air, and with everything in the field now dying, it looked like an alien land. I mentally tore away its connection to the place I once knew, and kept that memory of her pure.

I sighed and headed back to the truck, wondering if there may be something in there that could pull one of the barn's doors open. Its headlights were now backlit columns of pouring water, and then in a split second they were gone, drowned as the night lit up a blinding white. Already dazzled, I was then thrown off my feet by an almighty thud, the impact a shock of such power that I was no more than a plaything, and I landed hard on my front in the soft, cold mud.

I rolled onto my back and pressed my hands over my ears in agony as the thunder threatened to deafen me, but there was still a horrific cracking noise loud enough to be heard over it. I turned and saw, just outside the periphery of the headlights, the huge dark shape of the old oak tree, moving slowly, swaying, then tumbling ponderously over like a giant brought to its knees.

There was a tremendous groan amidst the chaos of noise as it landed so near the barn that pieces of it were flung into the air along with huge splinters of its own wood. I covered my face as such an amount of debris reigned down that it seemed like a bomb had been detonated, and I felt pieces of wood and metal bounce harshly off my body and arms. I thought back to my flat after Kate's remarriage, feeling another pang of pain that was deep beyond regret, and wondered why memories of her were so insistent on resurfacing now.

Unfurling tentatively, I sat, soaked in mud and battered by relentless rain, staring in wonder as the spotlights of the truck's headlamps shone over my head and illuminated the perfect shape of the boat, sitting unbelievably intact like an innocent dream amidst the devastation. I laughed and fell back into the mud, lying on my back, almost drowning in rainwater as my mouth opened wide with the deep, loud laughter that welled up like relief from within.

I slipped several times as I attempted to leap up, and finally I was able to run unsteadily across the wet ground toward the boat. The barn's wall had been shattered by the falling tree on one side, and this had weakened the other wall panels and brought most of them down, leaving only a few bent sheets remaining.

Stepping into what had once been the inside, the floor now completely covered by debris, I saw that the boat itself was still perched over the trailer which sat expectantly beneath it, its tyres now flat, and the wooden framework holding it in place was straining in its age. I searched around the rubble, throwing unrecognisable pieces of things away, grazing my hands against them and catching the still-painful cuts on my left hand, and eventually I found the metal foot-pump I had been looking for.

Connecting it up to the four flat tyres on the metal trailer, I pumped frantically, watching them with childish glee as they visibly inflated one by one, and despite the cracks in the outer rubber, they stayed inflated. After that I set my shoulder against the sodden, rotting wooden supports and heaved each one of them with great scraping crashes over and onto the floor. After the first three had gone down, the remaining supports were unable to hold the boat's weight and folded like paper, dropping its hulking shape neatly into the waiting cradle atop the trailer.

After more searching I found the rope and, working myself into a frenzy pulling all of its length from under the fallen debris as if someone lay trapped on the other end, I finally freed it and lashed it around the boat and the trailer, securing it tight in loops and knots that formed a lattice so intricate I had to search for a knife so that I would be able to free it when I finally reached the water.

Just then I noticed something that had subtly escaped my notice as I had been working, that the rain had stopped, and I paused and looked up as the sky began suddenly clearing. Wisps of clouds were vanishing as if vaporised by sunlight, their black curtains parting on a dark blue ink peppered with brilliant diamond-white stars. I felt more laugher well up and escape me as I realised that all of its thundering menace had only visited me to finally set the boat free, after all of these years waiting for me.

I ran across the rubble and soft grass and back into the truck, and excitedly I drove it toward the boat, turning it around and backing slowly up to the trailer as things crunched under the wheels, then I leaped back out and heaved and strained to hitch it onto the pickup's towbar. Then, retrieving all the loose tools I could find that had been buried, along with two heavy tool boxes made of metal, I threw them one by one with almighty clatters onto the back of the pickup. I knew I might never need them, and did not even recognise half of them, but while they were here I decided they were coming with me.

When I got back into the driver's seat, the boat's shadow loomed high against the sky in my rear-view mirror and obscured almost everything else, and I revved the engine hard and felt it reluctantly pull its great weight forward, the wheels bouncing and spinning atop the barn's wreckage until enough momentum had been built to navigate the soft grass without sinking.

Soon I was heading back down the driveway, along the muddy country lanes, and toward the floodwater's edge. Distant thunder sounded as I drove, a warning perhaps that it had not forgotten me, and as I neared the huge flood I drove through deep pools of water serenely levelling the roads, each one bigger than the last. Suddenly the main road into the town centre dipped downward and abruptly ended in an expanse of black floodwaters, glistening like oil in the starlight. It carried unidentifiable wreckage on its surface, heaving them slowly in the darkness like a restless carpet covering unnameable secrets, and I wondered how many of the people who had lived in the houses underneath those drowned miles were still trapped underneath, now floating in their rooms as peacefully as the lifeless debris above them.

I backed the truck up until the trailer was submerged in the water, and climbed out, feeling a warm and forceful wind whipping at me. Looking up, remnants of the storm were still scouting the skies, looking for their next point of attack, and I walked into the dark water and felt its sudden coldness soak into my already-wet clothes.

Ferrying between the boat and the back of the truck, I grabbed the tools and toolboxes, climbing the boat's rope ladder and impatiently dropping them onto the deck with loud crashes that damaged its wooden surface. I dropped some of them on the way up, hearing them land in the water with a splash before sinking away forever. Then, brandishing the knife, I waded all around the boat and hacked at the taut ropes. With a reluctant groan it began to slide from its cradle, wood scraping against metal, and made waves as it was finally freed from its knots and bobbed in the water, floating gently away from me.

At that moment the rain returned, riding on the wind and lashing suddenly and heavily into the water, into my skin and against the metal of the truck. I grabbed my bergen from the passenger seat and strapped it on, slamming the door shut. I left the headlights shining to be my lighthouse, a fixed reference on shore, then ran into the freezing water.

Pausing to look back at the muddy pickup, I gave it a last salute and thought of the poor old man back at his farm, buried in the trench that had no doubt by now been overcome by fire and become his pyre. Then I waded out, gasping against the breathless shock of cold until it was so deep I had to swim, shuddering as I felt things brush past my hands and my body below its dark surface.

Reaching the boat's rope ladder I grabbed it and pulled myself up out of the nightmarish water, fighting to escape now that it had infiltrated my clothes and tried to drag me back under. Resisting its gravity, I hauled myself onto the deck and gathered up all the things I had thrown on it, then took them all through the door and down into the cabin. There, I paused and smelled the damp wood, the scent of old darkness in my nostrils, and carefully walked inside, unable to see anything. My limbs were uncoordinated with numbness from the cold.

The light switch did nothing, as I had suspected, as the battery must have lost its charge many years ago. I stumbled across the damp and moulding cushions toward the fireplace, and found the cold shape of the gas bottle. I felt a mixture of relief and victory as I located and opened the valve and heard a satisfying hiss.

I took off my bergen and carefully but hurriedly emptied it out in the darkness, glad that it had resisted the water, until I found the flint lighter that I had found with the camping stove. The fire lit after just a few attempts, the escaped gas suddenly flaring up for a split second in front of me before settling into the warm, orange-blue light of flames.

As it soaked into my wet and freezing clothes I looked around me and felt the rush of memory, a giddying joy rushing with it, skipping years of regret to plant me immediately back into the days when Kate and I had spent our weekends here. The fabric of the rug and the cushions was faded, and somehow the musty smells seemed to have settled in so deeply that everything looked aged and abandoned, but still they carried the same soul that had been imprinted with the colours of things back then.

I turned the fire up to its maximum and shivered until the water in my clothes conducted the heat to my skin and almost scalded me. I was drying slowly, and the sound of the wind descending to buffet the creaking wood of the boat and hurl a millions raindrops against the roof drove me deeper into memory. With the fire's creeping light and heat came the warmth of those days, their distance closing until I felt I was crossing the gap of time by connecting so completely with the imprint of the past. I soon began to close my eyes and nod slowly on the vague peripheries of sleep and dreams.

Noises came and went, either above me from the weather-beaten sky or below me from whatever lay in the water, and I was suddenly awoken by a screeching, cracking thud that resounded like a drum. I leaped up, aware that my clothes were now much drier, and I ran out of the cabin and onto the deck.

The rain had stopped but the wind was blowing hard, now warmer still, as if it were rolling in fresh from the heights of a volcano. I looked around at the starlit water and saw things still bobbing and floating all around, and other things breaking the surface without moving. Squinting and leaning over the edge of the boat, I saw that here and there treetops and rooftops still reached above the water level, and that the wind had pushed me far into the water and up against the brick chimney stack of an old house that lurked as invisible and deadly as an iceberg under the dark sea.

I opened up the engine hatch and peered into the darkness of the hull's insides, but saw nothing. There was only the sound of trickling, and I realised with panic that the hull had been breached. I found the hefty emergency starter cord I had rigged up for use when the battery was dead or drowned, but despite straining with all my might it would not budge.

With no light and no time, I ran back inside and grabbed the tools and an old cushion, then I set the cushion alight in the fire and ran back to the engine. Hoping the wind would not dislodge it, I placed it down next to the hatch and it served as my light as I hurried to take pieces of the engine apart.

My hands and fingers were cold and clumsy at first, but in no time at all their muscles and tendons had recalled how intricately they had dismantled and repaired the mechanics of things before, and I pulled pieces out like old friends and cleaned them, until my hands were slick and jet-black and my scratches screamed. When everything was reassembled I pulled the cord, this time feeling it move as I laughed with satisfaction. I pulled again and again until my arms ached and the burning cushion was blown by the warm wind overboard and quenched by the water, and finally the boat’s fuel awoke and made its sluggish way into the engine's veins, and it stuttered and choked and then suddenly roared into life. With a cry of triumph I punched the air, and then straightened up and looked for the now-distant headlights that still cut powerful white slices through the night. Excitedly I ran back into the cabin for my maps.

The engine was limping and spitting in a low and oddly off-key guttural roar as I pushed it hard, and with the simple helm I had connected to a rudder over the propeller, I navigated the boat as well as I could around anything that threatened to gouge more holes in the wood. I was pleased at the speed I was able to pick up, and how smoothly I was able to travel when I'd never before had any idea how to pilot anything on the water. I quickly gained a feel for its soft and slow yet sure reactions to my every control, and the restful momentum of rocking on the peak of the boat’s own wake.

Every so often a piece of floating debris glanced off the edge of the hull and bounced and tumbled its way off into the darkness in offence, and once or twice I felt the a sudden lurch after a resounding scrape or crack, and I could feel the engine struggling more and more to push the slowly-filling boat through the water that was dragging it down.

Just as the horizon showed its first signs of waking, and the dawn's surface imposed on the stars, I saw the endless expanse of restless water finally give way to buildings and roads as they clambered up from its depth in the distance ahead. I felt the hope inside me reach out like an anchor to pull me to it, but the waterlogged boat was carrying me at a painfully slow pace.

Suddenly there came a deafening crunch that shook it and stopped it dead, and I was thrown forward as violently as a car crash, over the helm and hard into the cabin, hitting it with my back. I clambered back to my feet, winded, but found I could not stand as the boat dipped backwards at a dangerous angle. The engine below me slowly disappeared underwater and drowned almost immediately.

I heard the rush of water now pouring into the boat, the wood groaning and splintering, and I rushed into the cabin, now an uphill climb, and found the scattered cushions burning and setting each other alight. Everything listed at such an angle it took me a few seconds to get my bearings, but I managed to locate my bergen and shove everything back in. I heaved it onto my back and then tripped and slid back out onto the deck.

For a brief moment I paused and felt an overwhelming pain inside me, at the disintegrating shell of the boat and all of the energy and dreams and pain that could not hold it together, and along with everything else on this dying planet it was now just a fragment of the past that could never hope to survive.

I almost fell as the boat lurched again, and I climbed up to the bow and looked down. I saw that I had run it into the top of a huge tree that reached above the water. My momentum had snapped many of the branches but the boat was ultimately being held in its claws, as if they had been lying in jealous wait for anyone who dared to defy the flood that had defeated them.

With a leap I was weightless, and I smiled for just one second as I remembered floating in the air inside my car, aching for that space between the sun and the edge of the world, and then the cold water shocked me back into the present and I swam, frantically, clumsily, trying to keep my bergen above the surface.

Only when I reached the shore and crawled on all-fours upon the soaked and cracked tarmac did I turn and look behind me. I was breathless, dragging myself away from the water, dripping and cold, and the boat was now on fire. It was burning and leaning, perched uneasily in the relentless grip of the submerged tree, and it lit the night sky like a torch to herald the dawn behind me. A silent fireball exploded outward as the gas bottle ignited, throwing a hundred burning splinters outward in bright fiery trails, and then the sound of its distant crashing thud reached my ears, and slowly the whole thing sank burning beneath its own waves.

I felt numb, letting it go, watching it drag my memories beneath the surface, and for a while all I could do was sit and catch my breath in the darkness. After a few minutes I took off my bergen and lay back on it, looking up at the stars, such unimaginable distances away. Seeing their pure light reminded me of Lucy, and I smiled, remembering how small she had been on that flat roof, wondering how much she had grown.

The warm wind passed over me and began to dry out my dripping clothes, and it might have lulled me straight into sleep had I not felt the pain in my cuts. My knees and my hand were stinging hard, the filth of the water seeping into the already-infected wounds. I knew that if I didn't find some way to clean them soon, my blood would succumb and spread the infection around my body until I lay shivering and feverish under its attack.

I felt too tired to think, and I closed my eyes for a moment. Eventually, even above the pain, I felt sleep inevitably make its stealthy way toward me.

I snapped my eyes back open and sat up. I needed to battle its pull, so I turned and opened the bergen and began unloading it, finding what was still salvageable, what hadn't been smashed or soaked by the dark floodwater.

I found the camping stove still intact, along with the saucepan, one of the milk bottles, and much of the army food. I set the camping stove up, opened a tin of beef stew, and started it cooking while I went through the rest of my things. Amongst them I found the small battery radio that I had not used since being taken by the military, but I threw this and everything else aside until I found the most wrapped-up item of all, untouched by water or fire or anything else, transported like a miracle through all of the earth's destructive death rattles.

Unwrapping the book, I sat at the shore with the dawn light now rising strong at my back. The air was blissfully warm all around me, and memories lifted and floated past me like ghosts on their way up to the sky, let loose from the water by the boat's path. Something of the old world was left after all, living in the pages of one tiny book, and just for a moment it leaped out to smother all of the pain of this one.

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