‘A dog is an impossibility. It will slow us down.’
‘Dogs have been around for ten thousand years. They were the first domesticated animal. They lived around the campfires of prehistoric man.’
‘A dog will need feeding, there won’t be enough food to go around.’
‘What if I gave the dog some of my food?’
‘It won’t work.’
‘Would you give me your food? Would you share your ration?’
‘Of course. I would give you my last bite.’
She stares at her husband’s thin red lips. His big square teeth. Too many for his mouth. ‘Would you eat me? If it came to it, would you eat me?’
‘Of course not… A dog is a frivolous thing, how can you even think about it in the days ahead?’
‘That may be ahead,’ she reminds him.
‘We have to keep ourselves free, so we can leave at a moment’s notice, at the drop of a hat.’
Yesterday she watched a dog running to and fro, back and forth, to its master.
A golden Labrador, who had wriggled its way out through the car window when an old woman had parked. The woman had thrown a stick and the dog had leapt into the river. No thought of the cold, of being sodden afterwards.
‘He’s brave,’ she’d told her.
‘He’s mad,’ the old woman said, while the dog jumped and cavorted for the stick.
They will never own a house, they will not own bricks and mortar. Nothing you cannot leave, nothing you cannot carry with you. She slept on a camp stretcher for three months until she spit the dummy. They had a stretcher each, he would crawl to her in the night. She made him get a double mattress. He would not buy a bedframe. No bed legs, no bedframe. Nothing so big we cannot carry. We must live like travellers, he tells her.
She stares at the long cord around his neck, at his photograph dangling on the security swipe. She tries to imagine the door he swipes but never gets past the glass. It would be glass, they are always glass.
She doesn’t actually know what he does. He wears a suit and tie and works from 8am until 5pm in the city. Of course she knows what his job is, but she doesn’t know what he does. He’s gone through a series of jobs that are all the same and not interesting to her. She knows he does something all day and that’s enough, and in the beginning when he joins a new firm he seems to like it.
She grows most of their food on an allotment by the river while he works.
‘Working for money doesn’t mean anything,’ he tells her. ‘Having skills. Being able to do things we will need, like hydroponics and smoking fish, trapping animals, being able to kill animals you can eat, that’s what’s important.’
She has tried to get a job, but there are no jobs. No one is hiring.
She knows he has a desk, and each day she asks him what he had for lunch. He tells her things that are ongoing with one person or another. She remembers some of their names, although they are abstract figures he has fleshed out, but not too much, he doesn’t describe people unless she asks and then he doesn’t do a good job of it, not like she would.
She would know all the gossip. She would know the way they breathed.
‘Did you put my photo on your desk?’ she asks him.
‘You have to do these things slowly, show people a little bit about yourself at a time. You have to keep yourself safe.’
She imagines the plastic frog she bought him, and her photo in the silver frame. All the paraphernalia, the cards; each card she made and he made for her, crowding his desk, crowding out everything.
The man who sits at the desk next to him, his wife handed him a baby in the middle of the night, umbilical cord attached and everything, which she thought only happened in books.
‘His wife woke him and said: Here take this, and she handed him a baby. She didn’t even know she was pregnant… He tells it like it’s funny, an amusing anecdote… He’s from Norway,’ he tells her.
She imagines salted fish; jangling reindeer bells; his ruddy raw-boned face.
‘What does he look like?’
‘Short. Dark… Average.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘He’s an okay guy.’
‘What does he have for lunch?’
‘Burger King. Every day, a double quarter-pounder with cheese.’
‘He eats boiled sweets.’
‘Oddfellows mints. There’s always a packet open on his desk.’
‘Does he offer them around?’
The last place where her husband worked, he came home from his leaving do and said:
‘The biggest surprises were the ones who were larger than life. It was a bizarre thing… arms around these people, and they were so small, their clothes crumpling-in on these tiny frames. Collapsing like balloons.’
She starts writing Dog on notes around the house, under his pillow, inside the bathroom cabinet. When he picks up his coffee cup he sees Dog. Folded inside the butter conditioner he reads Dog. Stuck to the bathroom mirror with Blu-Tack: Dog, Dog, Dog!
She imagines finding notes pinned to her make-up bag, poked into the pockets of her jeans, slotted beneath the tongues of her trainers: stick figures with their hair on fire, flames roaring out of their mouths.
‘It was fine until they passed that ridiculous law,’ he tells her. ‘Now you have to carry a plastic bag, wrap it around your wrist or tie it around its collar. Imagine going out and tying a bag to your neck, always reminding yourself about shit, like you’ve got shit on the brain, that this is the reason for going out, for having a jog, for breathing ozone, this little plastic bag waiting to be filled, then everything can go back to normal, then you can relax. All those rubbish bins filled with tiny plastic bags then bulldozed at the dump. Imagine archaeologists or aliens excavating a thousand years from now, there will be layers and layers of squashed plastic with one dog turd, a little twisted-up thing with the most foul-smelling shit, dogs have the most evil-smelling shit, except for maybe the Tasmanian Devil, which I have never smelt, but I’m sure it’s the worst – worse than a dog. Carnivores have terrible smelling shit. What will they think about the layers of shit-filled bags? They might think it is ours, made by neurotics. All these neurotics squeezing their turds into plastic bags. They will come to the conclusion there were no toilets in the twenty first century…’
She watches his eyes, his quivering beard. The tight, anxious puckering around his mouth.
She takes his face in her hands, rubs the back of her hand along his cheek.
‘It’s okay,’ she tells him.
If they excavate us in a thousand years they’ll find all these rooms filled with bottled water and tinned food, she thinks. Cartons of matches and toilet rolls pushed under the bed, stacked in wardrobes. As if people were living in a siege.
They stockpile in the event they have to barricade. They keep everything light in case they have to walk. They have a handcart – a supermarket trolley he dragged from the river. They think about the creeping cold, the baking heat, ice floes, they think about ice breaking off the Arctic shelf, they think about weather far too much.
If nothing happens, she doesn’t know what will happen to them. She does not think that far ahead. She cannot allow herself to think that far ahead. For him it is out of the question, such is his resolve, such is his certainty that something is going to happen.
They watch a documentary about the soldiers who work in the nuclear silos.
The men speak of their longing to launch the missiles. They want to see what the bombs can do. What they are capable of.
She can understand it. All that time waiting and wondering, then you finally get to see.
The brilliant cascade.
America seems like a dream anyway. She remembers the Polish man who murdered his wife and child in America. He said, from the moment he got off the plane, driving through America never seemed real, he’d seen it so much on TV, it seemed like a dream. He said he felt like he had never actually arrived there, he was in the dream America in his head – so none of his actions had felt real. She could imagine that, landing there and feeling you hadn’t really travelled, you hadn’t got off the plane. Travelling on a plane seems so unreal anyway, you sit there for a few hours and you are supposed to be in China, or Dubai, or Fiji.
The children of the men in the silos are eating hotdogs. The American children. At some kind of celebration with banners welcoming a son home. A prodigal son who has walked out of sunlight. A car door opens, and he steps out. He’s wearing a uniform with Hazeltine on his name tag. The uniform they wear in the desert. Older wars had different colours, having to blend in with the green of grass and the solemn bark of trees. He takes off his hat, runs his tanned hand over his hair, cut so close it is barely there. Cut with such precision.
If they had a war now in snow, she thinks, the uniforms would be white.
‘We won’t survive. The people with guns will kill us,’ she tells him.
‘We’ll take their guns. We will have to take their guns.’
There could be a nuclear power plant melting right now as we speak.
Bottled water stacked in every corner of the house.
Having children is out of the question. For him it has nothing to do with the apocalypse, nothing to do with the days ahead. It has everything to do with the past, and a certainty that he did not want to repeat what had happened to him as a child. Neither did he feel the need to manufacture a perfect childhood for someone else.
Sometimes she thinks it would have been nice, if things had been good, to have people around who she had helped grow. The flesh of her flesh, people she felt strongly toward, people she could have fun with, or bring fun to their lives, or news, news and fun, but she recognises it as an ideal situation, the news could be bad, the fun could turn sour, there could be such loss.
‘How will we know?’ she asks him.
‘There will be a sound.’
‘I don’t know, a big roar, a sound you can’t imagine. An unimaginable sound. There will just be a roar and everything will be on.’
She thinks there will be silence. A complete engulfing silence where everything feels stopped, wound down, where there is no communication. The paths are all blocked. Everything is jammed.
In a disaster, she thinks, you stare into each other’s eyes.
A wave comes to her in her dreams – giant, black, all-encompassing. She turns from the sun and there it is. A vast golden beach with a skyscraper shunted on its side, like a fallen tower, an archetypal tower, a tower from a tarot card.
She walks along it, so huge, monolithic.
People are still going about their business, not totally convinced that the landscape has suddenly become surreal, having watched too many disaster movies. It could be a stage set, scenery that has been moved in.
A girl follows a line of pretty, snapped fingernails along the sand, dropping them in her pocket like seashells.
The road is moving up and down like a wave. Things are on fire and it is snowing.
She opens her mouth and green gas flows. She speaks in green gas and blancmange, jelly floods from her mouth.
There’s a man selling ice creams. He smiles a big fat-faced smile, a last smile, a smile you see in old sepia photographs.
She begins eating the apocalypse food out of the can with a spoon or fork, depending on her mood.
She eats the stockpiled tins because it’s not on the menu, because it’s so white-trash, fatty, mundane, so terrible it’s exotic. Spam, spaghetti hoops, ravioli, chocolate rice pudding. Shovelling it into her mouth like a kind of possession.
The textures are all the same, only the colours are different. Old people’s food. Baby food.
‘There should be more spam,’ he shouts one night when he gets home. Checking the cans for rust, shifting them from one side of the bedroom to the other.
‘I heard they’ve stockpiled a whole palette of creamed corn in the basement of the library.’
His eyes flicker with approval.
‘And tinned mince,’ she tells him.
Her mouth starts watering.
She watches couples talking to other couples in the supermarket. They talk about ice-cream flavours; holidays in Fiji; house prices.
‘We’ve sold it but we haven’t found anything.’
‘We’re still looking. You know how it is.’
They seem like exotic birds in the rainforest displaying their strangeness. She feels grey; homespun beside them.
Her hands move over the shelves, they come to rest on a pregnancy kit. She slips the cardboard pack in her coat pocket like a tube of toothpaste. Somehow it feels better not having paid for it.
‘Everything is so hard now,’ she tells him when they are lying in the bed with no legs.
‘I know,’ he says.
She wants to feel a dog settling in the gap between them. Its warm body attuned to any disturbance. Looking up for reassurance, searching out her eyes in the dark.
She thinks about the photograph he will put on his desk, the one she had framed for him.
The photo was taken ten years ago when she had long hair and did not think about the icecaps melting or ice floes or icebergs of any kind, or fire or volcanoes, or men with guns with eyes not like their own suddenly bursting in and roaring.
The photo was taken inside the crater of an extinct volcano, where she was sitting on the grass that had long taken over, the breeze running through it and through her hair. Her face slightly tilted to the right because she’d known that was her good side, how she would look, half-knowing and not knowing, and he had not taken it, another man had taken it. Someone else she was in love with.