It begins in June. A week after his birthday, in fact. A sickness falls upon the people of the earth. First accusations fly, then counter-accusations, then finally bombs. The apocalypse doubled. Wires fall silent as residual power fades. Only the odd transmission now, from who knows where and whom.
Reach for the dead
A couple are parted at the time of the apocalypse. In a week its work is complete and life as we know it is beyond hope of rescue. Everyone he knows and loves is dead, but for inexplicable reasons, some have survived, he among them, and he can’t help daring to hope that she may have been immune too. Away visiting in the hills of the north, perhaps she has been protected from the worst of the dual catastrophe.
For a few days, he remains at the far extent of the suburban fringes of his provincial city, keeping a low profile, sniffing out a sense of the scale of the disaster, and how he might navigate his way to her, for it doesn’t take him long to realise that survival depends on leaving for the rural isolation of the north. Enlarged, irradiated spiders climb the walls and drop into his hair, freaking him out almost more than the gruesome sights he encounters on the streets.
In a Jeep, and then on foot, he journeys to her. Dodges wrecks and barricades and attempted car-jackings. Goes off road when the main routes become impassable. Switches to walking when the petrol runs out. Sticks to the back ways, the lanes, a compass hanging around his neck, always aligned to the north. On the way he faces many dangers. Brigands wait at one end of a causeway across a marsh; with the press-gangers who have dogged his every step behind him, he cannot go back the way he came. He has no choice but to brave the cold, swampy soup of the marsh. On the far side, he comes across an orphaned child who has escaped from the brigands. He accepts his obvious duty to look after her. She has with her a dog, who will the very next day save them from a murderous psychopath, with a warning bark and then a savage attack.
He knows that his love will have remained where she was, looking after any of the frail about her to have survived and fearing the worst about him because of his proximity to one of the apocalypse’s many likely epicentres. But the mind is a powerful thing and half-wishing, half-deliberately she transmits to him that she is still alive, that she loves him, that she knows he is coming for her, and that just as she won’t give up on him, she knows he won’t on her, no matter what. He receives the messages in a feverish waking dream, the girl leading him by the hand. He burns hotter with the exultation of knowing that his love is still alive, that she waits for him. Neither knows how long it will take but both believe that one day, maybe sooner, maybe later, they will be reunited. He counts the days.
At one point he and the young girl are travelling down a long holloway during a violent storm. It ceases as suddenly as it started, and at that moment the ash clouds are parted and sun breaks through for the first time since the week of the apocalypse. The canopies of the holloway shield the sunlight except for slivers and chinks. Distraught with wonder, he thinks: how could we have let such beauty go to waste? And yet somehow there are still birds to sing at the sight of the sun, offering the travelling pair hope.
With fierce determination, man and girl learn together the arts of hiding, foraging, and hunting, in that order of necessity. The girl has a better grasp of the fruits of the forest than he, while – having previously been a vegetarian – he learns to skin an animal through trial, error, and a book borrowed on permanent loan from an abandoned library. At night they search the airwaves on a battery-powered radio, but the only patterns in the static are the ones they imagine themselves.
When sickness gets the better of him, it is the girl who finds them an isolated house in which he can recover. The cellar has two exits. There they lie low. She makes him nettle tea and salves his sores with a paste made from the same leaves. With the plasticity of youth, she is adapting to the new state of things, this post-apocalyptic landscape, far better than he.
They resume their journey, but this time it is the girl who gives way, falling prey to radiation sickness. And now in another hideout, he nurses her back to health, using a pharmacy’s formulary and drugs, all the while wondering whether or not human evolution will be able to outpace the anatomical effects of nuclear fall-out. This girl is a survivor, though, and soon they are able to press on, close now to their destination.
Meanwhile, racketeers are keeping his love against her will, but because this is a story, an artifice, somehow her dignity will have been spared her; or, at least, she will not speak of it to him once she has been rescued. Though perhaps it might be that the brigand’s leader genuinely has fallen for her, and has shown himself to be a patient if dangerous man.
Split your infinities
Through binoculars he studies their encampment, an old farmhouse whose dry stone walls have been topped with barbed wire. He stakes it out and watches the comings and goings, the girl waiting patiently at his side, and the faithful hound at hers. When his eyes tire, she takes her turn to watch and note. On the third day he catches sight of his love at the back door, pausing for air with what looks like a kitchen implement in hand. He risks standing, so that she can see him, and anyone else might – a chance he feels he has to take. After a time she turns in his direction, and visibly starts. With his arms crossed in front of his chest, he signals a kiss. But she is called back inside, and needs must go, not daring to look round.
With the girl bedded down in a house as safe as any in these times, he keeps vigil into the depth of that night, awaiting the moment when he will attempt the rescue. Through binoculars, in the fading light of the evening, his heart has jumped to see a window marked with an X in parcel tape. Now he knows where to go, and what he has to do.
Nothing is real
His heart pounding, armed with wire-cutters, rope, a gun, and climbing gloves, he runs across the open fields to the stone wall perimeter. He cuts through the barbed wire, and follows the shadows cast by the outbuildings until he comes to the drainpipe he hopes will bear his weight. Even with the gloves, it’s a struggle to climb, but somehow he manages to make it to the roof that will allow him to access her window, if he can keep his balance across its apex. After a pause to steady his nerves, he runs it, and makes the safety of the wall. Then she is there at the open window and with his mind outside of his body he tells her to secure the rope to one of the feet of her bed. She has a rucksack of things ready on her back. She knew he was coming for her. They only dare to embrace once safely beyond the barbed wire perimeter, and that’s when his mind and reality both come crashing back into him.
It is their first day together as a family of three. The woman and the girl are shy of each other, but he can see the first signs of friendship and what will become love. He is mortally tired after the night and the days spent watching and one in which they tried to put as much distance between themselves and the farmhouse as they could.
They find the perfect house, one built into the side of a hill, all but invisible from the passing road. A nearby clearing in a wood becomes their allotment. Whenever they venture out, danger and distrust go hand in hand, but gradually, through chance encounters, a network is built of people intent on surviving whatever the poisoned world throws at them. All for one, and one for all, they stockpile food, fight off threats to their security and raise their children.
Come to dust
Dust storms are a condition of the new life, but safe in their hillside home, the growing family – now supplemented by twin boys whose survival instinct is as strong as that of their parents – rides them out, and afterwards, sweeps up everything back to a state that they are beginning to dare to think of as normal.
In many ways the new life is an idyll that surpasses the old. But it’s impossible not to look back, and mourn what has gone, what has been lost from the world. Mourn the individuals, the millions, the billions who died. In any individual who survived the end of the world, the will to do so must have been strong, but both the man and the woman have a sense that this is fed by the determination of the species as a whole not only to endure, but to live free. The fate of the dead informs all of the living yet to be done.