The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 16

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.

In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

- Rabindranath Tagore

What remained above the sea-like expanse of floodwater covering most of Alvermere was unrecognisable. Even the ground felt different, now rumbling and groaning beneath my steps as things turned over endlessly deep below. Like a restless sleeper it would lie still for a few moments before shifting again. Above me, the dawn sky looked like it had lost hope and begun to withdraw, its blue fading to a washed-out grey. A blanket of clouds was rushing in to darken it further, rolling overhead.

Crossing the floods had been like crossing into a new world, and I could feel as sure and deep inside me as the noise and vibration underground that it was all coming to an end.

It took me a while before I could get my bearings as I walked among all the cracked roads and half-demolished buildings. It reminded me of trying to identify elderly and age-worn people from only a faded photograph taken when they were young.

I realised that the coffee shop where I had met Kate now lay somewhere deep under the floods. All of those tables and chairs were now floating, the counter with its huge metal toaster lying squat on the bed of a new lake, drowned with memories.

I paused in the middle of a road that was filled with banks of rubble from the collapsed houses on either side. I felt the warm air against my skin and sweltered under its oppressive heat, the hot breath of a whole planet’s rage trapped inside its magma. Everything I remembered, had forgotten, had loved or hated, was all gone.

I thought of the man behind his desk in that old bookshop, and wondered where he was now. I thought of Steve working alongside me back when the sun shone closer and brighter through the coffee shop's front window, and how that flat expanse of glass was kept so perfect and clean it made the reality outside even sharper. I remembered more vividly than anything else how Kate had always sat framed by its light, how it streamed in and caught her, flawless in whatever she was doing, as if its only purpose had ever been to shine for her. Steve had barely been a man back then, and neither of us could ever have seen what was to come.

The memories of those days weighed in heavy contrast with the years that followed. I felt a darkness bubble through my veins, but worse than the pain that they held was being forced to realise how little it all meant now. The heat inside me boiled high enough to match the air around me, until I felt like a furnace.

Sweating and delirious with exhaustion, I slipped the bergen from my back and put it down, removing my coat and letting it fall to the ground. I knelt down on it, crying out in pain with the agony of my wounds, feeling their infection raising my body heat even further. I opened the bergen, digging out the small radio that was in there and still travelling with me faithfully, and I switched it on. There was nothing at first, and I was afraid that the water had got into it, but as I turned the volume up it suddenly burst into life and screamed harsh static. I retuned it to the emergency broadcast frequency and heard an unfamiliar voice. This one was not the measured and abrupt military voice that I heard before, but a resigned and disorganised young male voice punctuated by long pauses.

“The atmospheric phenomena are accelerating,” it said. “We now think they may have been triggered prematurely by the detonation of nuclear weapons across the globe.” A pause. “There's no stopping this one. They're joining and accelerating. Projected speeds now stand...” Another pause. “Eight hundred miles per hour average and still climbing.”

I frowned. What was spreading across the earth?

“It's the end,” the voice said calmly, as if in answer to my confusion. “It's sweeping over us. Everywhere's gone. It'll be here soon. It’s nearly here.”

The transmission disappeared back into static, and never came back. I switched the radio off and felt my light-headed haze shed yet more weight until I felt I was in a dream. The end was here, closing over the earth like the final curtain.

I took a deep breath, but the air's warmth felt devoid of oxygen, as if I were drowning. I scooped up the bergen and stood unsteadily. Before me lay a path barred by ruins and my own weakness, but I felt a determination now rising that even the world's end would not stop. I shouldered the bergen and began to run, all rational thought overrun by the memory of Lucy, and each time my vision began to fade I saw instead that one photograph of her, smiling, just in front of me.

I looked up as I ran, stumbling over the bricks and rubble, each footfall a jolt of agony, and as the clouds cleared across the lightening sky I squinted to find the stars that still shone up there somewhere. I thought of all the nights I had sat up with Lucy, pointing at them and thrilling her with their stories, but they were drowned by an abrupt burst of sunlight as it rose from behind the broken buildings and distant hills and shone out with a strong and unexpected golden colour.

The sudden light stoked a hope in my heart, and I ran on, my head now aching with the start of a fever. My mind swam with trying to calculate where I was in the ruined town. Road names began to return to my memory, missing landmarks filled themselves in, and everything slowly converged on the place where Rose had written so many of those letters to me as she had tried to free me. Estates filled with once-beautiful houses were now wastelands, gardens were filled with debris and their leftover stunted, dead growth, and cars were dented under the weight of fallen bricks and roof tiles.

I ran through them all, feeling pulled along. The further north I went and the closer I ran toward the house, the more energy coursed into my tired legs, and I ran faster and faster. Soon, without looking for house numbers or waiting for any hint of familiarity to prompt me, I stopped dead at the end of a small, straight street and saw one house stand out on the corner of a small side-road, and I knew that it had to be her. Amongst all the rubble and dust it was the only one still standing proud, one half collapsed and yet its other half completely untouched. I ran over to it, desperate to be there now, furiously willing the distance to close faster than my lumbering run could take me, and as I neared I saw that amongst the bricks and chunks of wall that lay across a dry and browning front garden, there also lay a small white figure.

Feeling my stomach tighten and my eyes fill with tears, I knew she was the girl from my dreams, and I ran on until I reached the garden, my eyes never once leaving her.

I almost collapsed to a halt, and stood with my vision faded and swirling by breathlessness, staring down at the unearthly and delicate young girl who lay on her back with her eyes closed, dressed in a white nightgown. She was pale, gaunt and thin, and she lay without moving as if she were dead. Her hair was still a luxurious dark colour and lay spread all around her head, shining in the bright sun like a halo on the dying grass.

I knelt slowly by her side, reverently on my torn and painful knees, as if this may only have been a vision, and I whispered her name.

“Lucy?” I called, laying a hand on her cool forehead, but there was no answer. Her body was giving up, wasting into nothing, but she was still beautiful, a creature too perfect to have been born here without being worn away.

I felt her neck for a pulse and found one faintly passing beneath my fingertips, then I scooped her carefully into my shaking arms. She was so much bigger now, but as forced myself into standing and lifted her, she was as light as a paper doll. I wondered how someone so small and so frail had survived and made her way outside, sleeping out here in the wasteland that the world now was, and I wondered how long she had been here. As I stared down at her, every tightened fist of anger inside me melted away, stripping years of my past with them. I saw my tears falling onto her plain white gown, now sullied by the dirt of the outside, and I carried her, stepping over the harsh heaps of rubble, into the house.

Everything downstairs seemed to lie in ruins, and was now lit up and frozen into bright stasis by great beams of sunlight that shone in through the gaps in the roof and remaining walls. I carried Lucy slowly up the stairs in solemn procession, passing through shafts of golden light like stained glass, feeling like a saint taking her up to heaven.

There was one opened door upstairs, framed and almost blinding with the streaming new light, and the room inside was flooded with it. I took her in and found a bed facing the window, filled with soft pillows and white sheets. With the cracked walls all covered in light blue wallpaper, her bed looked like a floating cloud in the sky.

I lowered her down on it, as gently as if we really were up in the sky, and sat her up against her pillows. With a joy only met by the moment she was born, I watched her slowly open her eyes, vivid green and beautiful.

“Just lie there,” I told her, brushing her long hair back from her face, their strands as soft and weightless as air, and she looked at me with a weak smile. “Just lie there. I'll fix you some warm milk. Remember how much you loved warm milk before bed?”

I smiled back at her and knelt down by the bedside and took off my bergen, emptying most of its contents noisily out upon the floor, quickly assembling the small stove and the saucepan, and pouring in the milk from one of the surviving bottles. I lit the gas with the flint lighter, and as its blue flame heated the milk inside the pan I opened the jar of honey and spooned some of it in, watching it melt slowly.

I looked back up at Lucy, her eyes now closed, and hurriedly poured the mixture into the enamel mug before getting up to sit on the bed next to her. I lifted the mug to her lips and she sipped, her eyelids fluttering briefly and opening in slivers like the new moon. A look of contentment settled on her drawn and tired face.

“Thank you daddy,” she whispered in a tiny, cracked whisper, as if to someone else, or perhaps to herself.

Her words made my hands shake. She remembered me after all. I set down the mug on the floor and stared at her for the longest time, feeling tears still snaking insistent paths down my scarred cheeks, and then I put my arms around her and simply held her close to me while the house vibrated and rattled around us.

“I'm sorry, Lucy,” I whispered to her. “I'm sorry.”

Her body was so small, and her skin was cool and stretched over the hard angles of her bones, but holding her after so many years felt like the depths brooding inside me had simply evaporated. I never wanted to let her go.

A distant roar sounded, and I finally loosed my hold on her and sat back. Her eyelids were still opened just a crack, but as I looked into their perfect depth they closed. Reaching down into the bottom of the bergen, I found the book I had brought with me all this way, and I unwrapped it, opened it, and began reading to her.

“Not in vain the distance beacons,” I read softly over the increasing noise. “Forward, forward let us range, let the great world spin for ever.”

As I read I watched her sink, slowly sink deeper into her pillows until the contentment in her features had settled into stillness, and I set the open book down on her lap. I looked at the little mug of milk, still gently steaming on the floor by her bedside, and I leaned over to kiss her forehead.

I stood and went to the window to look out at the dead trees at the end of the back garden, the scorched grass and the brittle leaves all around, all the seasons collapsed into one in confusion. Somehow I felt the deep and unshakeable belief that I was the last man alive, and now I was simply waiting. I knew Lucy was gone, and silently I thanked the world for saving me until last, showing me my beautiful daughter, and for sparing her the horror of its own death.

The deep rumble now grew to vibrate everything, throwing the book to the floor behind me. I went back and picked it up, and the pages fell open before me.

You must not shut the night inside you,
But endlessly in light the dark immerse.
A tiny lamp has gone out in my tent –
I bless the flame that warms the universe.

I smiled. The roar grew so loud I could feel it in my bones, vibrating the lungs within my ribs, carrying far more power than any earthquake or nuclear blast, and the sunlight increased in intensity from its bright gold to a pure blinding white. For a moment I felt a weightless rush in my stomach, my heart rising to beat so strong that my chest would burst, and I saw the figure of Kate standing next to the bed, as if she had been there all along and I had failed to notice. She was holding Lucy's hand and smiling, and without a word she was forgiving me everything, just like I used to hope in my hospital bed. When all was stripped back from between us, there would only ever be love.

I felt like the man who had written down all of those poems in Kate's book, the man in my dream and my story, and I wondered if he too had finally found the love he had thought lost, right at the end.

“The world is not bigger than my heart,” I said aloud with a sigh of pure relief, but all noise was lost in the roar.

The wind blew and the ground shuddered, shaking everything apart, then the window behind me exploded, and as the light grew brighter and brighter I had to close my eyes, feeling the impermanence of my surroundings as if they were already dissolving.

I felt the hand of my father on my shoulder, gentle, his strength silently supporting me, and my mother was there with him. She had always loved me, in every moment, as fierce as only a mother could. I stood firm with them, no longer able to breathe, standing guard over Lucy to the end and making them proud. I uttered a roar to counter the power of the end as all the things I had contained began to loosen.

The fire tore up the ground as it came, a blinding flash driven before it like the break of a great wave, and I was caught up in its light, floating just for an instant with all the fragments of the old house and all of the love in the world, before the earth's great eye closed and everything it had ever held winked out forever.

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