Everything is tumbledown. Broken walls, broken houses. You kick some broken rubble. You feet are bare and dirty, the soles like leather. You've been kicking so long, your feet are so hard, broken glass does not break the skin, brings no blood, broken glass brings no tears to your eyes.
When had you last cried? By the lake. By the lake into which you had tossed sticks and dead leaves, watched them float away with the wind and current. Harmless amusement, aimless fun. You tossed stones at your tiny ships, tried to sink them. Then, you noticed something slowly drifting, bumping along the bank; something small, doll-like. The dead baby seemed to drift forever towards you. When it was close enough, you picked it dripping from the water. You laid it on the bank, studied it. No hair. No fingernails. Its grey body dried slowly in the sun. The head fell to one side, and for a moment a tiny stream of dirty water ran from a nostril. Then you saw the fat grey maggot wriggling out of its ear. A fat, grey maggot. And you cried.
How long ago had that been? Days. Now, you scrabbled among the ruins of another dead town, scavenging for food, trying to find somebody else alive and sane. You had found people before of course. Rut they had been dead, nearly dead, or insane. The insane ones just grinned, or ran away. The nearly dead you killed, because you could no longer listen to their moans, nor look at their broken, rotting limbs. You smashed in their heads, or twisted knotted cloths about their necks until, purple-faced, their kicking stopped.
Once, you'd killed from anger, rage. The man had been raping a woman, and she looked whole, well; it angered you to see the ugly lump of a man tearing into her, scarring her. So you ran toward them, but as you approached the man stood, zipped himself up, with an arrogance, a nonchalance, then pulled a long cruel knife from inside his coat. Laughing, he slashed at the girl's face and throat. You stood there, listened to her screams become a gurgling cry, and then nothing. He just stood and looked at you. You knew he now had no intention of letting you go. You slowly moved towards him, trusting to your reflexes, your youth. When you were close enough, he cut a glittering swathe in the air. But you were ready. You leaned back fractionally. As the knife cut its arc in front of you, you caught his knife arm, forced his elbow back against your left arm until the elbow cracked. The man screamed. You tugged hard on his broken arm, the knife fell, you pulled him forward and kneed him in the groin. You fell to the ground with him, picked up the knife and stabbed him. For a while you couldn't stop stabbing him. Then you threw the knife away. You walked over to where the woman lay haloed by blood. You felt for a pulse. A useless gesture.
For three days now you had picked your way around the town, eating food from tins, sleeping rough. And had seen no one whole. Just more dead bodies. A few more madmen. More twisted and broken limbs. More maggots and carrion crows than you cared to remember.
Quietly, you sat in the gutter, eating cold beans.
Thinking. Perhaps it was time to move on. Time to find another broken
town. To find ... other things. A black crow flapped lazily to the
road, strutted in front of you. You noticed movement through the
daggered glass of a shop across the road. You waited. A man walked out
and watched you. You watched him for a while. He sat down on the
pavement, opened a can and still watching, began to eat. Half an hour,
perhaps, passed. Eventually, you stood and moved across to him. As you
approached he neither grinned, nor moved away, but slowly stood up. He
was, you could see, tense, prepared for violence. His right hand rested
lightly inside his coat. It was a common enough stance these days. You
knew that if you made any sudden movement, the man would draw some sort
of weapon. But you didn't want violence. You wanted a friend. You
looked for some way to introduce yourself. Show you were safe,
friendly. Some words to break the tense silence. Then, desparately:
"Are you OK? I mean, can I trust you? I mean..." The man smiled. Said:
"Yes, here and there some weary wanderer/In that same city of
tremendous night/Will understand the speech and feel a stir/Of
fellowship in all disastrous fight;/I suffer mute and lonely, yet
another/Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother/Travels the same
wild paths though out of sight.'" You realised you were smiling,
"Poetry," you said.
"Yes," he said. "It seemed apt." He smiled, almost uncertainly, almost shyly. "Are you a dangerous lunatic?"
"We probably all are by now," you said, and he laughed.
"True enough," he said.
You saw his muscles relax. You swapped names, walked the streets together, talking, joking, kicking stones. Night fell. You lay on the pavement and slept together.
When you awoke, you found that Mike had already scavenged food. You rubbed your eyes with your knuckles, yawned. You drew your hands over your bearded face. A dirty face. Your beard was greasy, your hair long and lank. You looked at the food again. "Seems like a lot just for breakfast," you said. "No feast, I'm afraid," said Mike. "I think it's time we both moved on. Moved from this town." He looked vaguely around him. "Moved," he repeated. "So, you think it's time to move?" You said, repeating pointlessly, just wishing to prompt again the magic of another voice. He gave you an abstracted look: "Yep. Time to move on." You were not sure what to say next. "These pilchards are nice." Mike smiled. Last night you noticed that Mike often smiled at comments like that. He smiled as though he saw past the comment to the emptiness that forced it, saw that you were empty and afraid. Mike. Already a friend. You were doing things together. And already, he was making decisions. Not that you minded; you were otherwise an aimless wanderer.
Mike stood up, walked over to a car. Kicked the tyres, kicked the bodywork. Most of the cars had been here since the grey days had begun. The cars, their drivers dead or dying, had just rolled to a halt, stalled - others had crashed into shops, into each other, into pedestrians. Mike opened the door, perfunctorily glanced around the interior, and then dragged out the dead driver. He let the body fall to the road. You stood, walked over to the body, turned it over with your foot, looked at the rotting face. "The car seems alright," Mike said, "but it stinks a bit." He grimaced. "So all we need now is a battery and some petrol," you remarked. Mike said he knew where he could get them, and began walking away. "Hey, what about the food," you said. Mike turned and said, "Who's going to steal it? And what the fuck? There's tinned food everywhere." Mike smiled and turned. He was right. You smiled and followed.
You returned an hour later with the batteries and fuel.
Mike fitted one of the batteries while you filled the tank. When you
both finished, Mike sat behind the wheel, and you climbed into the
passenger seat. After grinding and coughing a few times, the motor
started. You travelled most of the afternoon. You didn't know where you
were going and most of the day, you didn't care. But then you suddenly
realised: you were travelling. You were going somewhere. "Mike...where
are we going?" Mike kept his eyes on the road. "London." Images:
bridges towers the river cathedrals. The hustle and bustle of eight
Suddenly you felt sad. Wanted to cry. "Mike? What is London now? Have you seen it? Been there?" Mike handed you a notebook. Opening it at random you read:
London. Empty houses steeped in the endless grey. Grey city, stinking: city streets silent since sunny days have ceased. The only sounds in the streets are of flesh rotting, of maggots worming through bodies littered left right resting rotting. The Thames runs softly through the city. Its waters are grey. Corpses float down the river. Sweet Thames run softly. Buildings still stand, lifeless now. The life that had once lived within lies in the streets or floats face down in the Thames. The wind blows through the streets, stinking of death, wraps around the cars, around the bodies. Packs of dogs pick through the bones. A madman in my skull chuckles.
You closed the notebook. "You wanted to know," Mike said. You did not think. What could you think? So you slept.
When you awoke the car was stationary. Mike was nowhere to be seen. You took a tin of meat and opened it, began eating. Time passed. No sign of Mike. You waited quietly. Still Mike did not return. You got out of the car and looked around. You shouted his name. A crow cried; the sound of the wind. You began to feel frightened. Alone again. Empty again. You ran into the trees beside you, wandered, waited a while. But there was no sign of Mike. You returned to the car. Waited again, Then walked off in the other direction. You could see him now. He sat on the grass, looking down the slope into the distance, saying quietly: "Sweet Thames run softly, 'til I end my song, sweet Thames run softly for I speak not loud or long. But at my back in a cold blast I hear the rattle of bones and chuckle spread from ear to ear."
You sat beside him. He did not notice. A cracked record,
he returned to the first line again, kept going round and round the
lines. He just sat and stared, his mouth working, his eyes distant, You
followed his gaze.
"Sweet Thames ..."
And there in the distance, barely visible, grey in grey, was a river.
"..for I speak not loud or long."
It was easy to guess the river's name. You passed you hand in front of Mike's eyes. He did not blink. "... and chuckle spread from ear to ear,.." He began to smile, How many times, in how many dead towns, had you seen that smile? You felt angry, deceived. You balled your fist, smashed it into his jaw. Hard. Very hard. You dragged him unconcious back to the car.
The sign flashed past. Only thirty miles to London. You were driving, and driving fast. The car had become a steel extension of mind, body and reflexes. Half an hour of driving at a hundred miles an hour. You sped along the hard shoulder of the M4. Cars sprawled across the three lanes of the motorway. Occasionly there would be a car in the hard shoulder, calling for swift action; occasionally there would be a dead body, which you might miss, you might not. More than once you'd heard the crunch of bones against the car, felt the sudden lurch of the steering wheel.
Mike groaned. You hoped that his madness was temporary.
A fit, perhaps; or, perhaps something had shocked him while you slept.
He smiled at you, scribbled something in his notepad. Then he fell
asleep again. Fifteen more minutes and you would be in London. Mike was
dreaming, mumbling incoherently in his sleep. You needed a piss. You
stopped the car, had a piss, stood and smoked a cigarette, resting for
a while. And wondered: why were you going to London? Why, if Mike's
description of the city was accurate? Why bother? You threw the
cigarette end away, climbed into the car and roused Mike. "Why are we
going to London?" Mike stared at you with dead eyes for a moment. "If
anybody else is still alive they will be heading for the centre by
now." You wondered how Mike was feeling.
"Alright. Except my head aches and my jaw hurts. What happened?"
You looked at him. "You don't remember?" Mike thought for a few moments.
"Fuck all after getting out of the car."
"You tripped. Knocked yourself cold."
"I don't remember."
He had forgotten. He had forgotten sitting on the grey grass, looking at the Thames. You were pleased. You started the car and hurried on towards London. You asked Mike what he had been dreaming. "Dreams? I don't remember any. Only ... only a grey river." You stared at the road. "But that's all. Why, what did I say?" he continued. "Nothing I could make out. You were just mumbling a lot."
The number of dead cars increased as you neared London. You slowed down a little, zigzagged between the cars, enjoying yourself, swaying from side to side, laughing as the tyres squealed. Mike smiled tautly, his knuckles white as he gripped the dashboard. You sped past the Post House, could see the hangers of Heathrow, could see the radar antenna still revolving, pointlessly. A shattered airliner lay among broken houses. You drove into inner London, along the pavements where necessary. Suddenly Mike sat up, thumped you on the arm. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing up the road. A yellow tent was set up on a small square of grass beside the road. You stopped beside it. A body lay half out of the opening. You and Mike got out of the car. Mike leaned against a lamp-post, looked blindly at the body. You knelt and felt the man's pulse. He moaned, but did not move. Saliva dribbled from his mouth to the pavement. Angrily, you pulled the man's head up by the hair. His face was covered in sores. Then, with an apologetic gentleness, you pulled his eyelids apart, looked into his eyes. You looked up at Mike. He stared at a house opposite, unseeing. You looked at the man, again felt for a pulse. It was feeble, if there at all. Blood started to mix with the saliva.
For a moment you were still. A crow wheeled overhead. Suddenly, you smashed the head into the pavement. Bone splintered. You dragged the head up, explosively crashed the deformed face into the pavement again. Then you were still. "He's dead," you said quietly. Mike stared vacantly. You pulled the tent flap aside. Inside, three bodies quietly decayed. Pale, rotten bodies. A woman. A boy in his teens. And a baby. You remembered the sunny day beside the lake.
You walked back to the car, opened the driver's door, then realised you had already been driving for over an hour. You turned to Mike, said "Your turn to drive." His empty eyes, wet with tears, looked back. "And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors, departed, have left no addresses." You did not understand. "What, Mike?" you asked. You looked at the tent. You looked at Mike. "What?" You walked over to him. "Mike? Mike!" He did not answer. He had already retreated into his inner world.
What world was in there? Was it better than this one? You didn't know; you didn't care. You were frightened of your own interior landscape. You couldn't face another's. You thumped him hard in the jaw. He sagged into your waiting arms. You dragged him back to the car. On the seat, you saw his notepad. You looked at the last entry he had made: "The nymphs are departed." You threw the notepad away.
You had driven through London's streets for an hour now, and seen nobody. Corpses, carrion crows, maggots. Now you'd seen enough. But you did not know what to do. Mike groaned. You looked at him. Nothing lived in those eyes, that face, now. You passed over London Bridge. Mike looked at the river flowing beneath. Then he said "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many." Would he ever return to normality? And if he did, would he crack again? How often would he fall apart, especially here, in the capital of death? You turned, looked at him sadly. How would you cope without Mike? You tried to imagine a future. It stretched away, grey in grey, day after day. You looked from alleyway to doorway, sideroad to mews entrance, hoping to see another person, alive and sane. Nothing moved. Only windblown paper and carrion crows. There was once again only you, lonely. The idiot beside you turned and grinned, said "The nymphs are departed, John." You slapped him around the face. He backed towards the door, curled up to protect himself. You sighed, and stopped the car. Thought.
After a while, you started the car again, toured the streets, stopped at a gun shop. Instinctively you returned to London Bridge. You got out of the car, and then dragged Mike out. He was rambling again: "., the river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf clutch and sink in the wet bank. The wind crosses ..." You held the scavenged gun to Mike's temple. Your hand shook. Was this right? Was this the right thing to do? A decision had to be made. And you had to make that decision. The gun still shook. "... the brown land unheard. The nymphs ... " Knowing what came next, you pulled the trigger. Mike's head exploded. Bone, brain and blood spattered the pavement and parapet of London Bridge. You threw the body into the whispering Thames. Too soon the white gulls squabbled about the body.
You watched Mike drift into the grey days ahead. You looked at the London around you, still bathed in the grey light. Roads littered with death. You lifted the gun to your temple. Closed your eyes. Trembled violently. Your finger muscles tightened fractionally. Face muscles taut.
You dropped the gun away from your head. Breathed heavily, began to perspire. You threw the gun into the Thames, sat on the parapet. Looked at the grey city, the grey sky, the grey days before you.
Crying, you climbed into the car and drove away from London Bridge.