I wrote this story for a recent exhibition, called DarkVisions, at Patchings Art Centre in Nottinghamshire, where I used to live. The show was a collaboration between myself and a photographer named Rob Knight, who used to be a colleague before I moved to Australia. Rob gave a set of photographs to myself and another writer, Steven Devonport, and asked us to come up with some words to complement the pictures, in the form of a short story.
These are mine!
He woke slowly, blinking his eyes against the emerging sunlight labouring through the gap in the faded curtains. Like most days he spent the first few minutes gathering his thoughts, trying to remember why he was bothering any more.
After a time he sat up, moving the worn bedclothes aside and starting the daily routine: pull on his slippers, open the curtains, wash his face, light the stove and put the kettle on. It was only recently that he’d got out of the habit of checking the doormat for post, he knew none would be there but it had still taken an effort of will to stop looking. He sat in the armchair, near the window in the sitting room, casting his gaze across the scene outside. Blankly staring at the almost serene view, which assaulted his senses.
He remembered the kettle with a start and moved as fast as he could drag his old bones, back to the small kitchen, lifting it off the heat and feeling less than apathetic about the tasteless concoction he made with it. Breakfast was porridge, again. He hadn’t been able to get hold of sugar so it was plain but, letting out a short discordant cackle, he’d always said that was how he liked his food. He broke his fast in silence, staring longingly at the old radio sitting on the mantelpiece, unplugged and probably no longer even serviceable.
After washing his face he dressed swiftly. Getting down to the beach wasn’t easy and he cursed under his breath as he remembered how he used to rise at five, to be standing in the surf before sunrise. The waders slowed his progress slightly but after fifty (or was it sixty?) years of pulling them on, not by much. Opening the front door of the apartment he stepped in to the caustic sea air. He had been pleased when they had found this place, a serviced block of apartments near enough the sea to walk. Of course they had lived on the top floor facing inland when they moved in, mostly due to finances but also because she had liked the idea that she could see to the horizon, and the impression of civilisation sprawling across the concrete landscape. He pulled the door closed, it protested and he thought he would have to try and find some kind of lubricant to help with its aching joints.
He walked through the fog past the playground, deserted of course. The early morning dew hung limply from the cold metalwork. Shrugging he headed for the small, decrepit wood which separated the ugly tower block from the cliffs, rocks and water beyond. As he proceeded the mist thickened. He opened the gate, closing it again behind himself. Once a country boy, always a country boy was the unbidden thought that brushed past the outer reaches of his mind as he pushed the latch back in to place.
The trees rose formidably out of the white air as he trampled across the dry grass. When he reached the edge of the wood he was surprised to find that there were still leaves lying on the ground, but then there was no reason for them to rot away, apathy appeared to have set in. Or should that be entropy? The moss on the rocks had become brittle and withered. The trees, which had once seemed sturdy were now gnarled and crumbling. The mist was slowly clearing. As he picked his way between the dead branches the tip of his rod weaved and bounced through the trunks and limbs, however there was little possibility of becoming entangled, the wizened timber was more likely to break than his rod.
Emerging from the gnarled undergrowth the sunlight was just starting to warm the air. The ground sloped sharply down to meet the banks of sand, silt and pebbles. The tattered remains of a breakwater stood out in the reflected light from the grey sky. As he walked past he carried out his customary salute to the solitary post, which looked like a soldier standing guard over the structure.
As he walked on the gravel turned to sand, the sounds of the calm sea ware replaced by the hissing of sand grains being worn slowly to nothingness by the patient ocean. He turned briefly to glance at the old castle, still standing proud on the outskirts of the tide line, and wondered how many thousands of years it would be before it, too, was hammered into its constituent atoms by the never-ending onslaught of the briny water.
The sandy walk was hard on his tired old muscles. He wondered absently if he would be able to continue with the rigmarole of dragging his ageing body out here much longer, concluding that he might not need to if he could just catch that single elusive fish he had been hunting, for what seemed like an eternity.
The stillness of the water was surprising, although when he thought about it the weather did seem to have been settling in to a new pattern recently. He assumed it was to do with what had happened, but the contemplation seemed futile and he gave up before he started. Walking further along the deserted beach he stared indifferently at the scenery he had passed so many times before, which became more constructed, less natural. Bringing back memories of when there were people here.
The artificial harbour loomed. The long disused beacons marking the entrance also had an anthropic feel, staring towards the distant horizon. He noticed the sun was still hidden beneath the waterline and quickened his faltering pace, to try and reach The Mark before the first visible fingers of burning hydrogen started to push through the heavy layer of cloud.
The angular, angry blocks of limestone marked the start of the same site he had been coming to, for years immemorial now. He remembered showing her the roughly hewn surface, the traces of fossilised organisms, some of which stared from the rock as if they were surprised to be there. He contemplated whether there would be any such traces of humanity in 10, 20 or 50 million years’ time. Unlikely, from the look of the place as it stood now.
Like a childhood vision of a space rocket, the tip of the old lighthouse pointed its ghostly finger into the murky gloom of the morning sky. He stood a while and stared at the small island it stood upon, coughing as he trawled his memory for the dream he once entertained of residing in such a place, living by himself, surrounded by water, separated from humanity by a psychological and a physical barrier. He looked back on the recollection with a mix of fondness and the recently acquired knowledge that it probably wouldn’t have been so much fun.
Of course, as had been the way with these things the lighthouse keepers had all been replaced decades ago, by automated management systems which themselves had now ground to a halt.
Another half a mile and he reached the spot known locally as “The Dark Mark”. The wet rocks protruding from the water were jagged and uncompromising, the slimy algae tipping you into the angry water if you tried to get a stable footing on the slanted surface. The name had started amongst the older members of the fishing community many moons ago. The area was famed for the mist, which remained even when the surrounding areas were bright and breezy. Without any prelude he cast his line out and held his breath, watching the coarse black fly, made from materials he had been able to salvage from castaway household items and clothing, rise up and down on the pitching surface of the water.
After so many attempts, from one end of this forsaken coast to the other, he had eventually decided this was the place. It seemed fitting and, even though the hope he had initially clung to had slowly ebbed to the nothingness which his life had become, he still felt the thrill of the chase as the fabricated insect bobbed up and down.
Suddenly the rod juddered in his hands. For a moment he was too stunned to realise what was happening, then instinct took over and his face contorted into a mask of concentration. He couldn’t believe it was finally happening, was this really it? But there was still the matter of landing the damned thing to contend with.
The tip of the rod trembled, as if it was suffering from delirium tremens. He waited, as patiently as the tide until he felt a definite tug on the line. He made the strike and was rewarded with a tremendous pull from the creature at the other end of the nylon. He tried to work out how the animal could be so strong with so little to eat, but then remembered he was hardly in prime condition himself. It would be interesting to see who won the battle, although it wouldn’t affect the outcome of the war.
After ten minutes of fighting his hands were red raw, but there was nothing to lose so he held fast, giving the handle a turn whenever the line sagged. Eventually he saw the fish leap out of the water in protest at the treatment it was receiving. He stared at the beautiful sight and renewed his attack, mobilising muscles which hadn’t felt action in years. The surf now washed over the tired beast, which was finally showing signs of exhaustion, still struggling but reaching the limits of its physical capabilities. Slowly but surely he hauled it from the water to rest, tail flailing, on the stony beach.
A smile spread slowly across his weathered face. There was no getting away from the finality of the situation. The pallid scales reflected the barely perceptible sunlight as he reached into his rucksack, pulling out the priest. Raising it, he dispatched the fish as humanely as he could, after all it deserved his full and devoted attention. There would never be another like it!
The creature stopped twitching. He reverently laid its bleeding form on a rock, far enough from the sea to be safe. Carefully he disassembled and folded his rod, end-over-end, placing it next to the fish. After a few minutes he gathered his thoughts, picked his rod up in one hand, hooked the fingers of his other through the gill covers of the animal then took one last look in to its lifeless eyes and walked on along the beach.
The area of the coast, which he had named “The Wasteland”, for the shards of industry and fishing which had been washed up and left by the tide, to evaporate on the smooth rock floor as the wind and waves did their work, was a little easier going on his elderly, lethargic feet. The breeze was picking up, as if it was hoping to play a part in the day’s events after remaining silent for so long, dragging the clouds into angry looking fists. He paid it little heed, marching past the twisted wreckage of some long disused machinery without a glance, just one more wreckage amongst a landscape of dead things.
He stopped at a bench, resting his bones from the pounding he had been repeatedly doling out to them for the past aeon. He sat at the right end, more through force of habit than due to any need to leave space for another human being. The fish lay beside him, the rod resting against his leg. He tried to remember the events that had led to his current existence. They came back in clumsy fragments, surrounded by despondency.
He had been ill just after they had moved in to the housing block. “Sea views” the brochure had stated, but only if you didn’t mind seeing the water through a haze of dust from the building site which was threatening to destroy the woodland nearby. The top floor was actually quite accessible, until he got sick! He still wasn’t sure what had been wrong with him, and would never find out now, but it had saved his existence.
He had missed the details, only catching hints from the news, which soldiered on for a couple of weeks, then on the slowly failing automated radio broadcasts. There had been some kind of storm, the remnants of the more resilient scientists thought it may have been something to do with a burst of unprecedented radiation from the sun; or a passing meteorite throwing out an unidentifiable hazardous material; or a geological catastrophe releasing something toxic which had been hidden deep under the ocean floor. From what he had heard it sounded like they didn’t really know themselves and were only theorising, fantasising or maybe just hallucinating. But by the time he was well enough to listen all the scientists were deteriorating and unable to offer any further conjectures. In fact everybody was suffering, apart from him! He guessed that whatever had happened must have been a low lying thing, maybe a virus, possibly some kind of heavy element radiation. He was no physicist, his knowledge of the physical sciences was reasonable, but a rocket scientist he was not.
By the time he had recovered enough to make it through the front door there were very few signs of life remaining. The sickness hadn’t acted fast enough to leave victims strewn across the land, people had felt unwell, gone to bed and stayed there. But there were multitudes of animals. Fields were littered with livestock. He stayed away from anywhere that might contain such sights but then discovered quite by accident, after straying too close to a farm while looking for supplies, that the bodies were decomposing without the usual unappetising side effects, they didn’t smell, there was just a kind of gradual melting away of the remains. It seemed like there were no biological forces acting upon them. Then it struck him, if there were no microbes it meant that whatever had happened had wiped out all life, maybe denaturing the organic chemicals which powered living things.
This was when he started looking for canned goods in preference. Thankfully there were many such things, but it didn’t take long to find out that, after opening, they lasted very little time before losing their taste, and a couple of experiments showed that after a day they were inedible. He wondered if the same processes would take his body, but two years later he was still soldiering on. He thought he was probably the last organism on the planet!
Then, one day, after a reconnaissance to an unexplored supermarket warehouse, two days trek away (the petrol had suffered the same fate as other organic materials), he stopped at the beach and tried to think happy thoughts about the times he had fished this very coast, when the ocean had teemed with life. Then, from the corner of his eye there had been a familiar shape in the waves, he had turned, blinking against the dim sunlight, to see a tail disappearing into the water. It was definitely a fish, his mind hadn’t forsaken him yet, but that couldn’t be! Everything was dead. Then he reminded himself that he was still breathing and clapped his hands together in excitement, resolving there and then to catch the lonely survivor.
From that day he had returned, again-and-again, to the same spot. Bringing all his gear with him, casting and waiting, until he had all but given up hope. But now it was done! The bulging eye stared lifelessly at him, there was no going back. He had won the battle, and probably the war too, now he came to think of it. His great plan wasn’t particularly clever or complex but it would make life much simpler.
He picked the fish up again, leaving the carbon fibre pole to its fate, wondering what the half-life of such a material might be as he walked towards the old pier, which was surviving well, having undergone no maintenance in at least three years. Walking along the seasoned boards he looked down towards the sea, beneath his feet. Asking himself how he would feel? If he would feel?
The pier wasn’t a particularly interesting one so he gazed out, hoping he might catch another flash of scales as he strolled, to give himself a reason to get up tomorrow, but there was only the calm rippling of the ocean waiting indifferently for the inevitable. When he reached the edge of the decking the finned corpse was given its last rights, or at least he bowed his head and shed a tear, as he wiped its mucous from his fingers with an old handkerchief. Looking at the poor thing he pondered one last time, what had the creature been eating? There must be something out there! But whatever it was it wasn’t a vertebrate, he would have seen if it was anything obvious, so his only thought was plankton or single celled life forms which hadn’t succumbed to the effects of the plague.
Taking off his hardhat he put it next to the fish. As he stripped off the cool breeze made his weary joints twinge, he continued anyway. When he was done the clothes were in a neat pile next to the body, he wiped the involuntary tear from his face with the back of his still slimy hand, before reaching out, for the small gate which allowed access to the lower parts of the structure he was standing on. The gate creaked open and he carefully stepped on to the topmost rung of the ladder. Nearing the swelling surface his foot slipped on the smooth wet metal. How ironic would it be to slip and fall into the water, knocking himself unconscious? This had to be a premeditated act. Based on a choice. Made by a human being.
As the waves lapped at his feet he almost pulled away, but his resolve was strong enough and the water was surprisingly warm, permanent summer seemed to have set in, albeit a shadowy version of what he would class as summer. When his shoulders were finally under he took one last breath then pushed himself towards the sea floor, through the clear water. He knew he had made the right decision as there wasn’t a single living thing anywhere within sight, even with the magnification offered by the beautifully translucent sea. The planet was dead and it was only right that he was joining it.
Reaching the bottom he found a loop of discarded metal embedded in cracked concrete and held on as if his life…or death, depended on it. Asphyxiating wasn’t as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be and as his strength dwindled so did the pain. Suddenly he was stricken by a wave of nausea, which seemed to wash memories through his diminishing synapses, greying images flashed in front of his closed eyes. The first mullet he ever caught, his first kiss with Evelyn, moving into their first house, getting married. The images moved faster and became more intense as they barrelled towards the present and the inevitable climax.
The blinding images stopped and were replaced by calm coherent thoughts again. Fishing had become a sport, but it had started as a means of surviving in a harsh world. It was primal, and it was fitting that this was how it would end.
And if the fish had found a food source then maybe there would be complex life again in another billion years’ time, but right now his vision was blurring as his body tried to take on oxygen which it couldn’t extract from the H2O surrounding him.
His final philosophical thought drifted, like the calm sea, through his head.
The last man, catching the last fish. Then descending in to the everlasting, emotionless, apathetic ocean, the original source and ultimate extinguisher of life.