Zara was going to make a life for herself as an artist; I was going to be something of a handyman and a librarian.
We based this mostly on what we found.
For Zara it was some cans of paint in a shed; for me it was a couple of shelves in a lounge in one of the dorms, a box full of printer paper, and a drawer in an office with a motley collection of pens. The shelf held about thirty books, and the box was nearly full, bar one ream of paper that had been opened, but was itself still quarter full. The printer, the computers, had gone, but the paper, and a collection of young-adults’ literature had remained behind to shroud themselves with dust, awaiting a happier time.
There were plenty more practical concerns: a water supply; maintaining an electricity supply; the prospect of a garden; the prospect of gum incursion: all worthy conundrums to wrestle with; but on that particular morning, four days into our stay, Zara was opening paint pots, taking a hard, paint-stained brush and dipping it in, painting a rough line onto a piece of gib-board and cataloguing the colours she had available to work with.
“Murals,” she said, “I think I’ve got enough colours.”
“Probably something abstract, I don’t know if I’ve got the materials to go realistic. Patterns and stuff. Something geometric maybe for the common room.”
“Why not? It’s our house now.”
“And all it took was the apocalypse for us to be homeowners.”
I mused, “it’s not like we’ll get to keep the place.”
“Are you sure?”
“Once things come back.”
“If they come back.”
“You bet against?”
“That doesn’t mean the world’ll come back as we know it. The new normal might be all medieval.”
I shook my old jeans a bit, “I’m not wearing tights.”
“No, in the sense of everything being further apart, less central government, less tech, less infrastructure, right back to the dark ages. And don’t tell that joke about so many knights, it’s not even accurate.”
“I don’t know that joke.”
“Everybody… okay, maybe you don’t. I’m just saying, maybe this is life now.”
“Then I’d better start writing the histories.”
“Now you’re fucking with me.”
“I’m not buying it. I’m not going to.”
“You just think you’re sexy when you’re obscure.”
I was fucking with her.
And: Why do they call it the dark ages?
Because there were so many knights.
Full confession: I know she likes me to think she’s smart. And I know she likes me to think she’s smarter than me. She is. She always was. So maybe I ham it up a little to make her feel good. Maybe I do it a little bit because it amuses me. Maybe I was planning to slip in some little fact or anecdote about Bede in a few hours’ time just to keep her on her toes.
Even when you are the only guy left in the world – or at least the immediate neighbourhood – you still have to put a bit of effort in to keep things interesting.
I worked out pretty quickly that the job of librarian was not going to be all that challenging. There were 57 books on two shelves, and three people in the camp to read them. I flicked through them anyway, reading the backs, reading a couple of pages. They might not be Netflix, but we were going to need to do something for entertainment.
Then I picked up a pen, and piece of blank paper, and I stared at it.
Camp Foggerty. Day Four.
I really didn’t know what to write. It felt pointless, I figured on the odds of anyone reading it to be next to zero. Zara, Tamsin, sure, but who else? The chances of posterity getting its hands on my perspective was slim.
“Well, it’s like the Dark Ages,” Zara insisted, “So much lost to history. Really limited evidence. And that’s good for you. With so few other historians about right now, your stuff’s going to really distort history. Consider yourself an influencer.”
I made a very unseemly gesture.
She laughed at me. A laugh like dropped diamonds over the background of an alpine waterfall. To my way of thinking at least.
We’ve been here four days now, and things have been quiet. Quiet is a good thing. After being run off the road, finding dead bodies in farmhouses, almost being killed a couple of times. Quiet is good. This place may have most of what we need. There’s electricity and hot running water, which feels like it’s huge, since nobody’s maintaining the wires or paying the power bill. I’ve no idea how long that will last. We probably need to make some fireplaces, loot some solar heating panels, that sort of thing.
And there’s evidence of a vegetable garden. And fruit trees. With three of us here, there might be a couple of months’ worth of food. Probably not long enough for the trees and veges to be ready, but we’ve bought ourselves some time to think, and feel safe.
Me. That’s Nate Anderson. And my girlfriend, Zara Taylor. And Tamsin Benson.
We don’t really know what’s going to happen to us, so I guess I’m leaving this account in case it can help anyone else. Right now, we have food in our bellies, heating, a roof over our heads. The gum incursion is still minor.
So far, so good.
And then I turned my attention to trying to fix a door. I’m no handyman. I didn’t know what I was doing at more than the most general, super-vague level. I started to make a list of the odd jobs that could usefully be done. I felt something close to content, not to mention vindicated: I felt as if things might actually work out.
But I slept poorly.
And it annoyed me. Convinced that I should be sleeping like a baby. But I found myself waking in the middle of the night. And when I did, I felt disorientated, the world around me was foggy, and I had to think to remember where I was. These interludes usually followed vivid dreams where I was wandering through a long tunnel, it was dark, but there was something there, a scratching, rustling presence. And when my hands touched the edges, they were gum-covered, sticky, webbed. When I tried to pull my hands away again they wouldn’t budge.
Zara sat up and rubbed my shoulders with her sharp, practiced fingers. Their jabbing tingled throughout my body; I could feel it on the soles of my feet. She said: “It’s not a surprise, what else would you have nightmares about?”
“It does seem like kind of the go-to.”
“I have them too sometimes. I think. Not like that, but the classic something-under-the-bed routine. Except there’s no hand grabbing me, just the bedroom floor all soft and gummy. I can hardly remember them, just snatches.”
“These are vivid. Memorable.”
“That’s your powerful imagination at work.”
“Yeah. Stupid imagination.”
My forearms were itchy, and I couldn’t quite feel my toes. So perhaps I should have known something was up; but stress and trauma seemed like such no-brainers to explain a few bad dreams and some psychosomatic sensations. Why start speculating further?
I wondered what Tamsin must dream.
I wondered if she was as okay as she claimed to be.
She tended to keep to herself, making herself useful with cooking and cleaning, sorting, cataloguing. But she didn’t say a lot. And she stared away into space sometimes as she was working on something. She’d picked up one of the books from the shelf and she sat with it in her lap, but she rarely turned the pages, and I wondered if she was just trying not to have to talk.
So, what do I do? I go talk to her.
“It’s okay,” she told me. We sat outside on one of the low walls, where she seemed to spend a lot of time in the evenings. “You don’t have to keep tabs on me.”
“No. It’s just… We all need to be family now. We have to look after each other.”
“Yeah. Just.” I was making a bit of a hash of all this. “Okay, I admit it, I feel responsible for you. Because you’re young. And I saw you hurt – and that has an effect on a guy. It might be stupid, but it does.”
“Is this meant to be chivalry?”
“Sort of. Maybe.”
“You’re with Zara. We can’t.”
“No… I don’t mean… Wait – are you winding me up, here?”
She conceded a tiny, rare smile. “Just a little.”
“Fair enough. But can we make a deal?” I heard myself, and how patronising I almost sounded, but I ploughed on: “If you’re flipping out, if something’s happening, if you’re messed up inside, can you tell me?”
“Okay.” My wrist was crazy itchy, but I wasn’t lying: I just wasn’t thinking enough of it at the time.
“Okay, then.” She fist-bumped the contract.
“It is different though. You have Zara. You’re a set.”
“You’re not the third wheel.”
“I don’t mean that. Just… it can’t be the same. Being family – pretend family. It can’t be the same as with you two.”
Tamsin shrugged. “Something like that.
It was her voice that woke me, an early evening, when the sunset had lulled me into something like a nap. My name. Tamsin’s voice. I wasn’t not sure if I’d dreamt it. I had a feeling like something had followed me from sleeping into waking, as if I’d heard her voice in my sleep and woven that into a dream and then woke to its mirror reality.
…. Tied up with white, powdery cables, drawn up against some kind of wall. Her arms just free enough to be reaching out to me, crying, fingers all splayed and waving. Nate! Nate!...
I shook that image, and concentrated on the reality of her voice. I stumbled out the main door to see her come running up the driveway. As I saw her, I heard the sound of engines. Engines.
Zara emerged from another door. We had one gun, which didn’t belong to us, which had three bullets left. Zara had that in the waistband of her jeans, and she had a kitchen knife on the other side.
Tamsin caught my arms as I ran over to her. “They’re coming! Someone coming!”
Zara swept up to my side. “Who? What do they look like?”
“A green car. That’s all I could see.”
“Laden? You know… sunk down on the road?”
“I don’t know. I saw them. The dust. I came back here. What are we going to do?”
More confident-sounding than I felt: “Say ‘hello’.”
We lined up like dominoes waiting for our visitors to arrive.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work