A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
I am old now and it is dusk in the cherry orchard. It is spring though, not winter and this seems oddly opposed to the nostalgia that engulfs me like a tornado breaking through the bric-a-brac of my day; the pricking out of tomato seedlings, the creaky bend to pick the note up from the dusty door-mat, the endless procession of chipped mugs of tea.
The note is from Jans. Notes are not allowed. Paper is like gold. Well, like gold once was. I tap the scrap of paper in my pocket, soft and folded, inscribed with my notes to him, his to me from before. A conversation that’s been going on for years. I can’t remember where the paper first came from. Perhaps it was once a bill, for a mobile phone perhaps. Or a receipt for something bought from a shop, a round of drinks in a bar, or a meal in a restaurant.
The day draws down and I look out, beyond the screen of the biodome, back home, where earth still spins on its axis, the bright blue water darkening as it turns away from the sun, seeping steadily across the surface. I’ve watched its continual creep for nearly forty years.
There is no green anymore. When we first arrived, I could make out specks, small pockets, tiny forests and jungles of hope. All the land that’s left is now brown, lifeless. They report that nothing is there any more. Everything extinguished. I know now that I will never know if it will start again, how they will bring it back. If they could. I don’t think I have much time left, and I have failed. Jans and I failed. A long, long time ago. We’re all too old now. Or gone.
Just before it happened, everything seemed so important. How I was going to afford the new shoes for my date with Jans, whether my mother was cross with me for what I had said to her that afternoon about the cake she had baked like some sort of housewife from yesteryear. I was cross about not being able to find a job, start a career, despite my fine education. Nobody expected the recession to go on for decades. Nobody thought the population would continue to boom the way it did until there were too many mouths to feed, too many pollutants in the air, the earth, the water. Too few resources and far too many people.
And now, here we are. Far too few people. I pull Jans’ note from my pocket and unfold it with tenderness. The paper is flimsy, rubbed and rewritten. My hands tremble slightly and I try to ignore how the backs of them are marked with spots on the creped skin.
‘We’re the only ones left.’
His letters are tiny and the point of his sharpened pencil has pierced the paper where he put the full stop. I pull myself to my feet as the darkness seeps into the silence and wonder if they will make it rain tonight. Try to remember birdsong. My hip is stiff and I rub it as I hobble towards my hut, the communications tablet silent and neglected on the table inside. Watching the internet die had been painful, but mercifully quick as the grid on earth closed down. For a while, occasionally, I’d search for some sort of life out there, some evidence that someone was keeping a server running, a router up, a generator burning diesel, or harnessing solar.
I drink a glass of water from the tap. They claim it’s the cleanest you can get, drawn from deep craters that never see the sun at one side of the lunar poles. Any other water we use, for washing, irrigation, is this drinking water excreted by our bodies and treated, filtered. We’re not far from the pole on the light side. Much further away and our nights would be almost two weeks long. That’s one of the few things that Jans and I still agree on – that here is better than home in that one respect, more sun all year round.
I pull the door to behind me and hear the latch lock. Pointless, I think. Nothing to steal, nobody to commit thievery. I pull a twig of pale pink blossom from a branch as I pass, the petals cool and silky under my fingertips. Unscented.
He’s where I always find him. Staring into the fishless pond. His bottle is beside him. For a while they tried to stop him making his moonshine, as he loves to call it. Ever ironic, my Jans. They meted out punishments. Tried to ration his food, deny him so-called treats. But, unlike the animals, flora has always flourished here. There’s always been plenty to eat. That’s never been the problem. I’ve never seen Jans as sad as when the last of his fish, silvery with years, lost his fight with time. That was decades ago now.
‘You know,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I still really want a cigarette.’
I crossed my legs and lowered myself gingerly to the springy grass beside him.
‘A deeply unfashionable habit,’ I answer, having always been a rabid anti-smoker myself.
‘Thank you,’ he says, smiling as I pass him the twig. He holds it to his nose and cannot hide the disappointment when it fails to be fragranced. ‘You got my note then.’
‘I haven’t seen you in a few days.’
‘I’ve always noticed, Liezel.’
‘It’s hard to miss here I guess. I wonder if you would if we had still been…’
‘I would always have noticed.’ He swigs from his bottle. It’s difficult to tell from his eyes, peering at him, whether he’s been drinking, or crying for days. Perhaps both. A flash of him, the day I met him, bright eyed and flushed with the excitement of cash in his pocket, money in the bank, a plan underway, the cogs turning for his future, thumps me in the solar plexus.
‘What did your note mean?’
He takes my hand. ‘I went to see them.’
‘Them… It’s funny, isn’t it, how we’ve never been able to call them anything else.’
‘Once, I thought they were our saviours,’ he says and I remember the horror of the news stories, the disbelief on my mother’s face when they said the virus had been launched. Its swift mutation, the counterattacks, the infertility in humans turning into, well, they never really found out what, a killer of the life force in everything. An oxidiser of the soul. Bodies decomposing to dust. Its indiscriminate sweep across the planet, across the species, the useless, terrified clamour of the politicians. The cities and plains of bodies. Fields full of the dead.
Then the plan.
It was sort of like being in an ark, Jans had said, as he strapped me in, as they were announcing lift off. His eyes were full of love for me. I look at them now and maybe I can see a remnant of it there, hidden behind the shrouds of bearing witness, like a tiny scrap of coloured rag caught on a tree in a blistering monochromatic winter.
‘I know what you mean,’ I say. ‘For a while I thought they were God.’
‘And they turned out to be just as human as us.’
‘Mortal,’ I add for emphasis.
‘Yes,’ he says, taking my hand and stroking the lines of my palm with the tip of his middle finger, just like he did, by candlelight, by the lake at the end of our very first date. ‘Liezel, they… they all decided to go.’
‘Go? What do you mean “go”? Go where?’ I look around me.
‘Well, in some respects they are still there, their bodies I mean.’
‘They gave up.’
‘About time really.’
‘How many were left?’
‘So it really is just us.’
‘Yes. Do you remember when we first arrived?’
‘I thought it was Eden.’ I laugh and it makes me cough and my eyes water.
‘And you remember the others.’
‘Dana was my favourite.’
‘I know. It’s hard to believe that any of us… none of us…’ He grips my hand tighter.
‘When I first saw you, it was the only thing I wanted. There was a part of me, when we arrived here, that despite everything, was happy that we were here to do that, the most basic, simple thing, that’s all anyone required from us.’
‘And we couldn’t manage it. None of us could. Why?’
He drops my hand. ‘We’ve been over this, so many times. Maybe we weren’t immune after all, maybe it was something to do with the atmosphere up here, the pressure, the water, the stress.’
‘Now we’ll never know.’
‘It hasn’t mattered in a long time.’
‘We did well to stay so long.’
‘I stayed because of you.’
‘And I you.’ He wipes a tear away from the corner of my eye.
‘There’s nothing I wanted more, you know,’ I say as another escapes, fat and wet and I see myself, on my way home, the day it started, the day it ended, clutching my hand to my belly, dropping to my knees on the damp pavement, the fallen petals from the blossom trees sticking to my palms, losing Jans’ baby.